My Evacuee Days (1943 or 1944)

Jean Charlotte Ball

I was born in 1932, so when war broke out in 1939 I was just 7 years old. I lived with my parents and three older brothers, George, Ronnie and Antonio. I was the only girl, and I was never left alone. If I went out with my brothers I can still hear my mother saying ‘Don’t let go of her hand’. And they didn’t.

My schooldays up until then consisted of painting, plasticine and fun. We were all put to bed on canvas beds for most of the afternoon to sleep. We were educated in a small village called Hammerfield in Hemel Hempstead.

I really didn’t understand what all the upheaval was about. I was told I was going on holiday with my three brothers. George, the eldest, was just six years older than me. I can’t remember the journey to Hammerfield, I just remember being helped onto the train. There were masses of children at the station, with mums and dads there too. I remember lots of mums crying. But I was not afraid, I had my brothers with me. The crowd at the station seemed like one mass of arms and legs to me as I was quite a small child. I could not understand why my mum was crying. I was only going on holiday, wasn’t I?

I was soon to find out the truth, and did my own share of crying.

Everyone had boxes tied around their necks with a length of string. The boxes held our gas masks. We had all been well practised beforehand in putting them on and taking them off, and instructed on how to keep the little window in the mask clean in order to see clearly. We all thought it a bit of a laugh. Once you were wearing the mask, you looked like a monster pig, and we would playfully butt into each other. I did not really understand the fact that we may be gassed. I did not understand what that meant! The masks had a thick round disc added to the breathing area. It had holes in it like a sieve and it was painted green. If it changed colour when we were attacked, then you knew gas was in the air. Thankfully, it never was.

These masks had to be airtight and were tested by placing a card on the holes. You were told to breathe in and out. If the card stayed in place, all was well. In my brothers’ and my box, my dad had put a small bag of nuts and raisins, and we had strict instructions not to eat them unless we were in a shelter for a long time. I thought this was funny, but then of course I did not have the foresight that my father had. I have to tell you now that the temptation got the better of me and I ate them on the train!

So there we were on the train, and eventually we arrived at our destination. We were all herded (and herded is the right word!) into a big building with a big hall, probably the town hall. There were lots of adults pushing and pulling us in all directions, until we were in queues of sizes, sex and age. We all had labels pinned on us with our name and new address. I clung to my brothers, terrified. I had never seen so many people. What’s more, they talked funny! They didn’t talk ‘like what I did’. I had only ever heard the London cockney accent!

Suddenly, the inevitable happened! I was separated from my brothers and whisked off in a car to my new home without them!

I was put to bed each night in a little room, alone. I had never been alone before. I had always shared my bedroom with my younger brother, who was three years older than me. So I cried, like any youngster would, and I kept this up for two weeks, crying every night. I didn’t know these two strangers that had taken me in, but I must have worried them, because ‘they got rid of me’.

My luck was about to change. Just a street away, my three brothers had been taken in together. They were in a big house, as it seemed to me. It had two flights of stairs, leading up to an attic where my three brothers slept. They had one big bed with brass knobs on the bedposts.

The couple that had taken my brothers in were called Mr and Mrs Tucker. She was tall and slim with grey hair which was plaited and wound around her head. She was very genteel. He was thickset, with rough, dirty hands, but kindly, and I would like a pound for every time I heard him say ‘ooh arrr’ and ‘ooh aye’, for he didn’t say much, except for ‘Nay then’ if he heard me and my brothers arguing. Mr and Mrs Tucker were real old-fashioned country folk.

So, as my eldest brother George was almost 14, he would be leaving school to start working, as 14 was the school leaving age then. This made room for me to live with them. What joy in finding I was back with my brothers once more!

So Tony and Ronnie continued to sleep in the attic, and I slept on a chaise longue at the foot of Mrs Tucker’s bed. I did not know it was called a chaise longue then. To me it was just a couch. She had hung a curtain of sorts over the brass bed so we couldn’t see each other at night, and to keep them private. So I settled there, and I loved it at night, when she would bend over me to kiss my forehead and say ‘Nighty night’. She would have undone her plaits, and her hair smelt lovely. No conditioner or lacquer; she believed in rainwater.

Time was going by, and my own parents would visit us every two weeks, on a Sunday, and I would be given a little bag of threepenny bits, the brass-coloured type. These were meant to last until the next visit. They often did, as there was little to spend them on in the one shop that was there. Sweets were on ration and comics were hard to come by. You could always buy a used one for a penny, or do a swap with someone else.

I always cried when my parents had to leave me and return to London, and Nanny Tucker, as I now called her, would sit and cuddle me until I calmed down. And as the weeks and months and years went by, I no longer cried. I was happy with Nanny and Grandad Tucker. I loved her like a mum!

My next oldest brother, who was four years older than me, had also gone home to start work. This left Antonio and myself, and I now too slept up in the attic.

Antonio was able to go to the village school; perhaps boys were more important than girls! I was in a group of others who were housed in a hall at the back of a post office. (You noticed I said ‘housed’ and not ‘educated’!) I called it a hall because I don’t know what else to call it. It was far too big to call it a room. There was an open fire at each end. To enter this hall, we had to stand on a box and go in a door far higher than normal; adults also had to climb in this way. Looking back, as I often have, I think it was for loading parcels straight into the back of an open post van.

And so my ‘schooling’ started. Every morning we did two sums each of adding up and taking away, long and short division (which I cannot remember how to do now!) until lunch. In the afternoon us girls knitted with khaki wool. Socks, gloves, scarves, etc. So we knew who they were for. I only knitted long scarves, because I didn’t know how to turn a heel, like the older girls did. Fortunately, I could knit. My mother had taught me to do plain, which we both knitted into squares for our five beds.

We were supervised by two very old ladies. Big and blousy, and lots of beads! I say ‘supervised’ as we were not being taught in a progressive way at all. The room was divided into two by way of a screen of some sort. The ‘teachers” names were Miss Blenkin and Miss McDonald. I realised later in life why they were so old. All younger people had been called for the forces or factories for munitions. What the boys did while we knitted I really can’t remember.

Now this Miss McDonald was a spiteful old cat! She wouldn’t miss a chance to hit you. Any old excuse, a dropped stitch, talking, and to catch you with a rubber was a definite sin. Over she would march, all her beads bouncing on her equally bouncing bosoms. She would grab your hands and whack your knuckles until they almost bled with the sharp side of a ruler.

I remember one little boy must have had a weak bladder. He would hold his hand up, ‘Please, Miss!’, but she would not let him go until he eventually wet himself. Over she would come, beads rattling, and took great delight in punishing him. None of us dare look. She knew we hadn’t our mums to go home and complain to! No human rights then! I wonder what sort of a woman she turned out to be!

The place was cold in winter, and it was winter in those days. A crate of milk would be left outside for us and had to be lifted in through the high door. By then the milk had frozen, so all the bottles would be lined up in front of the open coal fire. No central heating! This milk would rise an inch or so out of the tops of the bottles like a milk ice lolly.

We were allowed to go to the loo, which was down some old wooden steps, just before we went home for lunch. It was quite a way (home). We must have had two hours for lunch, not one. We would never have made it back in time. No one met us in cars (no, or little, petrol, as it was on ration). Winter was best, as we had lots of snow, and deep drifts, and we had wonderful times throwing snowballs and diving into the drifts. A quick lunch, then return to school to knit.

Sometimes the snow was too deep for carts on the road. The poor old horse would slide and slither, and we would watch to see how far his hoofs would slide and make sparks from his horseshoes on the road.

Each night we would climb the flights of stairs to reach the attic, lit by candlelight. No electric, no inside toilet! We had a big ‘po’, and we were told it was a chamber pot. You had to say this quietly. This pot sat inside a little cupboard with a stand over it. On the stand sat a huge bowl. I could have bathed in it. Inside the bowl was a huge jug, both made of china, with flowers on them. Each morning up would come Nanny Tucker with hot water for us to wash. She called Tony ‘Wonie’, and I was ‘Jinny’, for all the time we were there. Grandad Tucker was ‘Will’ and he called her ‘Woo’.

In winter, I’m ashamed to say, we cheated. A quick flick of the flannel and we were done. We preferred to make eye-holes in the frost inside our window to peep out, and make funny faces. Quite a ritual first thing.

The water for washing was scooped from a rain butt and heated for us. And all this water had to be carried down again, along with the contents of the chamber pot. As were all the hand-made rugs, heavy things they were, to be hung over the line to be beaten. I enjoyed whacking those. There were no vacuum cleaners of course.

Nanny Tucker had the same toilet routine for herself in her room, but Grandad Tucker washed in the scullery with a big bar of red soap – Lifebuoy, I think – and I think of him whenever I smell that now, but it’s not quite the same, not so ‘homely’.

The only heating I can recall was the old black range in the room where we ate and played. This was lit by gas mantles and you had to be careful not to touch them, they were so fragile.

Nanny Tucker was such a kind lady, and if I was alone she would allow me to go into the parlour, as it was called. It was used only for visitors, which was very rare. In the parlour was an organ; it had another new smell. I would try to play it, but you had to pedal as you touched the keys, and I was still too small to reach with my feet and play at the same time. There were lots of knobs that had to be pushed in or pulled out, so I gave up, but much later I did manage it.

Now, next door was living a Mrs Casey. We had strict instructions, we were not to look at her if she was in her garden, because she had no nose! When she hung out her washing, and I was about, I had to go indoors. Well, eventually this got to me. So the next time I was told to go indoors, I ran up the stairs and peeped from a window. And there she was, this mystery lady I was not supposed to look at. She was wearing glasses with a tin nose attached, like the joke ones you can buy. But the nose had gone yellow with age, and the paint was wearing off, and bits of silver tin showed through. After that, curiosity satisfied, I no longer thought about it. She was a recluse. How different it would have been for her today.

Friday night was bath night. I was always first, Tony later. Nit comb first, nails cut, syrup of figs. The bath would be brought in from the garden and placed in front of the range. These fires had a drop-down small iron door, you could toast or see the fire, and above it was a smaller one that opened outwards. Latches, no knobs. Tony bent down to pick something up and caught one side of his bottom. I had never seen him cry like that before! Nanny Tucker had her own remedies for everything. Probably goose fat, and although he found it uncomfortable to sit, he didn’t seem too bad.

The following week we were playing hide and seek indoors. He hid in the cupboard under the stairs. Nanny comes along, sees the cupboard door open, and closes it. There was a loud yell from inside, because where he had been crouching too close to the door, she had accidentally pinched the other cheek of his bottom! Now he really couldn’t sit down, and she would tend to it each evening. But he wouldn’t bend over until I left the room, so out I would have to go and feed the ginger cat called Noobs. This I would do as quickly as I could, then creep back and peep through the crack of the door. I never owned up I had seen his bruise and his blister, not even when we were adults!

Now, also living in this house was Auntie Lizzie. She was really ancient, her skin was transparent, I could see all her veins. She was Nanny Tucker’s aunt.  She was your average Victorian lady. Her hair had been made to go into a bun on top of her head, but it was too thin, and one of my jobs was to collect all the pins that fell out of her hair during the day. I was rewarded with a sweetie each evening, as I handed them back. Her clothes were like our own old Queen Mary’s. Long down to her boots and high up to the neck, with a little bit of lace around the neck, detachable, to be washed and replaced by another. And buttons, so many buttons down the front of her dress, so far up her arm, and the dreaded boots. This was my first introduction to a button hook. Each morning I would have to kneel down and do up the buttons right up past her shin.

She was not amused by two young children in the house. She would bend over me and tell me ‘All children should be seen and not heard’. She was a real Victorian spinster, and behind her back we would call her ‘Skinny Lizzie’. She had her own room on the first floor. She always sat very erect and we had to do the same at the table while she said grace. She didn’t like us idle, issuing little orders, do this, do that, or go and tidy your room. Why she said this I don’t know; she never saw our room. She never would have made two flights of stairs. Funny thing is, I have no recollection of her dying.

I learned more new smells. Lavender on hankies and moth balls that clung as they do to very old people. She sat next to the range, where a pot would be kept boiling constantly with potato and veg peelings and scraps, nothing was wasted. This pot again had a smell of its own, and it would taint anything drying on the fire guard. (No spin dryers! Just a copper and a wash board.) It would all be mixed with a bran chicken meal for feeding the chickens in the garden. This concoction would go out to the birds and it would be put on the floor of their coop. The birds would have to wipe their beaks back and forth on the ground to get the goo off!

While they did this, I would crawl into the nesting area to collect their eggs. We were not allowed to keep all of the eggs. Each week a man from the Ministry came and took so many. I’ve no idea where they went, maybe to make powdered egg. And the phrase ‘the man from the Ministry’ was always whispered. I watched my first chick tap its way out of its shell, and I learned to candle them.

Nothing was ever thrown away. Bits of string, newspapers to be collected as salvage, you name it, all went to the war effort. Scraps of soap were melted to make soap bars.

Nanny Tucker was a good cook, in spite of rationing. We never went hungry, and I knew others who were not so lucky as I was. She made biscuits from porridge oats. They melted in your mouth. I have since tried to make them, but they were nothing like hers. She made jams, chutney and pickled anything that wouldn’t keep. There was no fridge. She also made elderberry wine, or cordial as she called it. On Saturday mornings and holidays we would be given one of these biscuits and a glass of cordial.

One day she was busy, and she told us to help ourselves. So we did. What we didn’t know was you had to dilute it with water, and we drank it as it was. By the time she was with us we were quite tipsy and slept for ages. That was my first introduction to alcohol and home-made wine.

The first week in our new home we were hit by an incendiary bomb, so we hurried out of our house in blankets. We were not harmed, and the ARP men soon had the fire out. It had just caught the wall at the front and scorched it. You could see the burn marks for ages and I would proudly tell all who would listen, ‘We were bombed by the Germans!’. After that, every house and shop had to keep a bucket of sand and one of water. They were never used as I remember.

Although I had no schooling for five years, I did go to Sunday School. Our days would be spent in the fields around us picking wild flowers, and in winter we used the same fields to toboggan down. Sometimes we would venture further afield. There was no question at all of our being in danger or of being accosted. We never heard the word ‘paedophile’. We would go to the moors, called Box Moor, and find dried cow pats with dung beetle holes in them, and then stamp right in the middle to watch these beetles appear. Woe betide anyone who was too near! And so we amused ourselves: no telephone, TV, iPods, mobile phones, just our own natural interest.

We had a radio. This was run on something called an accumulator. These would be taken to the shop to be recharged and replaced with another two. Sometimes they leaked a bit, and if it got on your clothes, you had holes appear. Mending them was Tony’s job, and Nanny Tucker’s, over something she called a mushroom.

You couldn’t buy clothes without coupons and when they ran out, you waited for the next issue. Nanny Tucker was a member of the WVS.

The loo was outside. Always spiders! You took a candle with you at night. Another job of mine was to cut squares of newspaper and thread them on a string to hang in the loo, or privy. The print would not come off in those days! There was a proper loo roll kept for visitors, San Izal, I think. Another smell to remember! We used it for tracing paper. It wasn’t much good for anything else.

Milk was delivered by pony and cart. You took a jug and had it filled from the churn. We kept it in a pail of water with a cloth over it.

Everyone in the house gave their old clothes to be cut into strips to make the rugs. We all took a turn because it made your fingers sore. They were then backed. These rugs were everywhere, not an Axminster to be seen anywhere.

Many years later we bought Nanny Tucker a second-hand vacuum cleaner (now on electricity!). After we gave it to her, at a later time, I realised you couldn’t use a vacuum cleaner on rag rugs. Bless her, she never ever said anything, but she loved the basket on wheels we gave her.

Once, coming home from school, an aeroplane flew over. There was a lot of popping from it, and someone shouted ‘Hide, we are being machine-gunned’. We were not hurt, and afterwards we were told it was attacking Bovingdon airfield, and that bullets would not be wasted on children.

We would go scrumping and hide little stores of apples in the long grass to eat later. Then, you would find your store had been raided by the local children. So it was us evacuees versus the locals, and we set about finding their stores. We would take a bite from each apple or pear, put it back, cover it up, and leave the insects to do the rest. For some time, the locals didn’t like ‘them there Lundon kids’.

I would get bullied on the way home from school. Not putting the boot in, or knives, just poked and prodded. One time, it was winter, and I was wearing a lovely blue and white pixie hood my own mum had made me. They started to tug at it, and something inside me snapped. I shut my eyes and kicked and punched, probably not hitting anyone. When I opened my eyes, they were running up the road. I didn’t get bullied again! There’s a moral there somewhere.

Another story about the pixie hood. My brother, playing around, pretended to post it in the letterbox in the wall, but he let it go, and I was very upset. Unknown to me, he got up very early the next morning to wait for the postman to open the letterbox, and he returned it to me. I loved him for that.

Once, we got chased by a bull. We saved ourselves by running into the farmhouse on the farm it came from.

There was a POW camp nearby, housing Italians and looked after by the Americans. The prisoners had a big square patch on their backs so they could be recognised if out of bounds. We would hang around the camp and say, ‘Got any gum, chum?’. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we were told to clear off.

And so my days as an evacuee were coming to an end. My own parents had moved from the blitz in Islington to Ealing, so I came home after almost five years of freedom. I was to be educated at last. I became a pupil, a real one. Off I went to another world of different smells. I was put in a classroom and called to the front. There, the teacher spun a lovely coloured ball. She told me to stop it and put my finger on a country. A geography lesson. My God! What was geography? So many words I had never heard. It was of course a globe. I had never seen one before or heard of the countries. This was the scenario as I went into each class. I could only answer ‘Don’t know, Miss’. Eventually I was classed as retarded, and I spent the next 18 months or so in a corner of the hall with a group of others in the same boat as me. I hated it, and was very self-conscious as classes passed from room to room. I became ill, couldn’t walk, and was 14 by the time I got better. I never went back to school.

I kept in touch with Nanny Tucker and was able to visit her by train until I got married. She came to my wedding and she came to my first son’s christening. We were living in Ruislip, and finally in Harefield. Then, one day I got a message that she was in Watford hospital. We visited her, but she died of a stroke.

They were happy carefree days. We never heard of muggings or of paedophiles. To this day, I never knew how old she was, or why she didn’t have children of her own. I went back many years later. The house was gone. In its place is a block of flats.

 

 

 

 

This page was added on 11/05/2022.

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