War had been declared and within months arrangements were being made for all London and Outer London children to be evacuated to the country where they would be safe from the bombing which was expected to start at any time. There were three children in the Lewis family – two boys and one girl, and as I was the girl it was my job to help mother to stitch name tags to our clothes (which were mainly new for the event) and to pack three back packs which were khaki with a rubber lining that left a rubber smell on your clothes as I remember.
Monday morning we were taken to our school hall and mum stayed with us as we lined up for the walk to the local station. We were each given a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a stick of barley sugar for the journey. I can remember the walk and all the mothers at their children’s side until we got to the top of the station hill where we had to say our goodbyes. I can’t remember any tears but I can remember as the doors of the train shut I raided my haversack for the sweets and consumed them long before we arrived at Paddington, the main line station where the journey to Devon would begin – today it would be excused as comfort food but it was sheer greed in my case. Red Cross nurses were waiting at Paddington and gave all evacuees beakers of milk and a bun before they set off on the long trip.
Norma and her Cousin Frances
We arrived at Tiverton Station where a school bus stood waiting to take us to Uplowman Village. As I remember there were about twenty children and a London school teacher, whose name was Miss Paighton, who played a big part in our welfare for the future months. We arrived in Uplowman as it was getting dusk and then to the village school where we were told to sit at the desks while local people congregated to choose who they would like to give a home to. I can remember being pointed at by a lady who had been standing with her daughter of about 15yrs old.
This same lady also pointed to my cousin Frances who was the same age as me. It all seemed to take ages and by then was quite dark. The reason we weren’t allowed to go to our new homes was that my youngest brother hadn’t been chosen to be taken by any of the villagers. This had become a problem to the organisers. Out of sheer kindness, Miss Cleeve, the schoolteacher who had chosen my eldest brother, said he could go along with her. He was only 5 yrs old and needed to be with his brother, so that worked out fine. We left the school with our bags back on our backs and walked down a long, dark, narrow lane, which seemed miles and miles long. We got to a gate leading into a big field where you could see the light of a farmhouse in the distance. On arriving we met the husband and the son, Mr Harris and Gordon, who was about 8yrs old, and who was to become a most bitter enemy to both of us. I expect we ate, but as I remember the kitchen seemed enormous with a huge fireplace. We were shown our bedroom, which we were to share, but didn’t know that the 15yr old daughter Vera was also to share the bed.
Norma and Frances her cousin
We were to find out later that the authorities hadn’t been told that since his daughter had applied for evacuees the blind grandfather had been taken in – hence the granddaughter having to forgo her bedroom. The scary part of this was that granddad had to walk through our bedroom to get to his room. I used to hear him fumbling around during the night to use his chamber pot – poor man shot himself sitting on the garden seat sometime after we left the house for other accommodation. We were very unhappy and ill treated in every way. They wanted the allowance but didn’t want us in the house. Gordon would have a packed lunch box and we were given, five days a week, every week three slices of bread and meat paste, never anything other than that. We would watch Gordon munching his apple every day.
Although we were only 7yrs old we realised it was unfair. On Saturdays we were given the job of scrubbing the kitchen floor and the lobby from the front door which was tiled. On the occasion I’m remembering we had scrubbed the kitchen – with one bucket, we worked either side of the bucket – and had done half of the lobby when Gordon came in with muddy wellington boots and deliberately stomped right through to the kitchen and because we shouted at him Mrs Harris came out with a shovel in one hand and a poker in the other and hit us one after the other while we were still on our knees. We got up and ran away from her and hid in an empty chicken hut – covered in red mites. We stayed there until the baker called and told him we were frightened. I don’t know if he ever said anything but I do know we didn’t get any dinner so we pulled lettuces out of the ground and ate them, beetles and all.
We were made to write a letter home to let our parents know we were happy and the people were kind to us etc. On this occasion an aeroplane was flying over farmhouse, as this was such a rare sound everyone left the kitchen to race outside to see it. I stayed and quickly wrote, “come and get me, they hit us”. I sealed the envelope ready to write the address when they all came back in. When Mrs Harris saw my letter sealed down she made me open it so that she could read it. I received a good hiding for that and start writing again
We had happy days at school. Miss Yoeman was headmistress, and Miss Cleeve and Miss Paighton were the teachers. Miss Yoeman lived in the bungalow next to the school. Her back garden was a small orchard, during apple picking season she would choose two children to pick apples for the pupils. We thought it was a wonderful treat to be given an apple by the headmistress. As my cousin and I were company for each other we didn’t make too many friends apart from those we already knew from home. There were other children from different parts of London but they were mostly older than we were.
One Saturday Vera was given permission to take us to Tiverton. She painted her face and put lipstick on us. We must have looked ridiculous but she wouldn’t let us take it off. While walking down the lane, we saw Billy Norman working on the top field. Vera made it plain to us that she loved him and that we would go and talk to him. We stood in the lane and he leaned over the hedge and looking down he chatted to Vera. I kept my back to him because I felt silly with this thick red lipstick on. Looking back I used to think he was really nice, we would always call out ‘hello’ if we saw him. Vera was the harlot of the village; his family would not have liked him to have dealings with her.
After putting up with our miserable accommodation for some months we decided to speak to Miss Paighton after school, and tell her all about it. I remember her being really concerned and called Miss Yoeman in so that we could tell her about it. I remember feeling really worried in case Gordon had seen us talking to the teachers and would tell his mother. I can’t remember how long it was but it seemed only a short while when we arrived home from school to find five men in suits in the farmyard. They had our haversacks packed ready to take us to a new home.
One of the men in a suit was Mr Thomas, a gentleman farmer who lived a couple of miles from Uplowman. He put us in the back of his car (which was called a dickie seat and off he took us to this lovely big white house in the middle of his land. Mrs Thomas was a timid ailing lady who had two sons and two daughters. Percy who was to become a vicar, Arthur who helped on the farm, Phyllis who cooked and kept house and Margaret who was also ailing – I believe she had a TB hip.
We had a good healthy, happy 18months with them. A cooked meal waiting for us when we got home from school, a cup of hot milk and a biscuit before we went to bed. We were taught to hit the chickens when they were strung up, pull their necks and while they were still warm take them to the floor above, which was a storehouse, and then pluck them. It had small windows in this room which had fluffy little feathers stuck to them. We spent many Saturdays plucking chickens. We also had the job of sorting potatoes, separating those with eyes for planting and those for eating. One day I heard Mr Thomas say they were having the ministry men down to watch him slaughter a pig (the law being that the farmer could only keep an amount of meat for himself and the rest went to the ministry. So I feigned a toothache to watch this procedure, it was something I always regretted doing, the sound was horrendous as they slit its throat (they had strung it up in the yard). It was a scene that took me ages to recover from, no one ever knew that I’d witnessed it.
Frances and I had our fights but all in all got on very well. We spent Christmas at the Thomas’s and I remember it being a lovely day. We had collected our parcels from home at Uplowman post office. They were nice big parcels, wrapped in brown paper. Mine had a small tear in it, by the time we got back to the farm I had made the tear bigger and could see what the main present was. It was a dressmaking set with rolls of material and all the accessories. I spoilt Christmas morning by doing that, but I had other bits and pieces. When we woke we went in to Joyce and Phyllis and watched the open their presents – Eau de Cologne, it’s reminded me of them ever since. They had a big bottle each, it was the first time I’d ever smelt it, I thought it was the best smell in the world.
After 18 months we had to leave because there was TB in the house, I don’t know if it was Mrs Thomas or Joyce. We hated leaving, we were taken to Whitnage to a Mr and Mrs Kerslake. She was a nervy lady with facial twitches but kindness itself. Mr Kerslake loved Frances and me putting plasters on his cuts and blisters, which were caused by the work, he did on the farm. He used to read us stories.They had a little cottage, two up, two down. We shared a bedroom that had a low slanted ceiling and a latched door. Frances wasn’t well one night and so Mrs Kerslake took my place in bed and sent me in hers. When Mr Kerslake came up he knelt at the side of the bed, I thought he was saying his prayers but he was doing a wee in the chamber pot.. We used to have mincemeat without onion and mashed potatoes. The smell of plain mincemeat always takes me back to those days.
Mum and Aunt Nin (Fran’s mum) decided we had had enough moves and arranged for us to come home. We were put on a train at Tiverton and were met at Paddington by our mothers. It was my first time in a taxi, we took one all the way home. Although I had come home to stay – or so I thought, it wasn’t long before I was journeying back, but this time with my mother.