A few years ago my mum, now just a few days away from her 90th birthday, decided to write up her memories of her wartime evacuation. I’ve recently found my copy, and have been tearful as I read through thinking of that time of her family being separated and not knowing what was going on.
I know there are many such stories on record, and I can see that Mum was probably really lucky to have generally had a positive experience compared to many, but thought her story should be shared. It’s a lot of text, so when I can I’ll try to find some of the photographs she mentions in the second section to illustrate it.
Over to my mum…
THE SCHOOL OUTING – SEPTEMBER 1939
Written by Lilian Coultart
I come from a family of nine children and when I was ten years old two of my brothers, two of my sisters and I went to school for a ‘special outing’. We thought we were going on a coach trip for a couple of days.
All the children gathered at the school with their bags and carrying a most important box which was about eight inches square, with a string attached to it which enabled us to carry the box across our shoulders. This contained our gas mask; everyone in the country had been issued with one. War had been declared on Britain and at least our gas masks would have saved us from suffering the effects of gas attacks (we hoped) we were never to go anywhere without them. Putting on our gas masks became a regular exercise and not a very pleasant one for they were made of rubber and very tight. It was difficult to talk to each other when we had them on. We soon learned that all of us children were being evacuated to safer places than the towns in which we lived.
As children we did not realise the significance of the ‘outing’ which was to last for about three years for some us. Many parents were at the school seeing their children off amid tears and hugs, but our parents were not among them, for our dad had, as far as I recall, gone away to fight in the war along with many other dads and our mum had recently give birth to a new baby brother so was unable to wave us goodbye at the school.
We boarded the coaches. There seemed to be hundreds of children. Then the journey began: we travelled along quite excited, never having been on such an outing before. We arrived at a railway station where we had to board a special evacuation train which took us to our destination. Hours later, tired, tearful and very weary, we arrived at a place of ‘safety’. As you can imagine accommodating all these children must have been a nightmare for the billeting officers, whose responsibility it was to see that the children were comfortable. Two of my sisters, one brother and I were accommodated with other children in a large house there were 13 children along with some adults to look after us. The house which was called Fort Cottage; it was right on the sea front. Our eldest brother Leslie went to live with the local greengrocer. The seaside town we had come to was called Aldeburgh and was on the east coast.
We settled down to life in this new environment. Many tears and joys were experienced by us, much of which I cannot recall, others quite vividly. I remember seeing on the horizon the ships going to fight the war. That’s what we were told. Aldeburgh had a lifeboat and this was called out many times while we were there to pick up sailors whose ships had been torpedoed. The sound of the call to man the lifeboat is a vivid memory and we would watch from the beach as the lifeboat men rushed to answer the call for help, got the lifeboat out to sea and dashed to save lives. We saw ships going down on the horizon, but of course as children we did not realise the awfulness of such disasters. We watched the lifeboat return, much to the relief of the local people whose loved ones had manned the lifeboat. Sometimes it was laden with sailors who had been swimming in the sea after their ship had sunk. They were often covered in oil and were so thankful to have been rescued and to be back on land. Many of these sailors were apparently Italian who couldn’t speak English; how the authorities coped with all the various happenings it was difficult to imagine.
After a while we had to change our accommodation, my younger sister Vera and I went to live in a tiny cottage with the coxswain of the lifeboat and his wife. My sister Doris moved elsewhere and our youngest brother Alan went to live with his older brother Leslie at the greengrocers. Such was life at Aldeburgh. But soon we were to be uprooted again, for incredibly the government realised that they had made a big mistake by evacuating hundreds of children right along the east coast, where the Germans could possibly have landed by boats.
So re-evacuation began, many parents back home heard rumours that the children were going abroad to Canada, Australia or America. Panic ensued with parents wanting reassurance that this was not to be. Our mum arrived to see what was happening to her children and I believe was prepared to take us back home despite the bombing, rather than lose us abroad. However, it turned out that our re-evacuation was to be to the midlands, so mum went back home reassured that we were not going abroad, though many children did. Sadly one of the ships carrying them went down at sea and lives were lost, some of the children who were evacuated abroad did not return for various reasons and many of them were away for four or five years and found it very difficult to re-adjust to life back home. Such things happened during and after the wartime, but for us we were once again venturing on yet another journey, this time to the Midlands (wherever that was).
I was now 11 years old for I’d had a birthday during our nine months stay at Aldeburgh, which is where I also took the 11-plus exam. Once again we children boarded coaches and duly arrived at our new destination, which was to a village called Lapworth in the Midlands.
We were herded into the village hall where we were to be allocated homes to go to. The villagers were saying such things as “I can take a boy,” “I can take a small girl,” “We’ll take two children,” “I’ll take a brother and sister,” and so it went on, until all the children eventually had someone to take them in. My eldest sister Doris and youngest brother Alan, who was only five, were the last to be accommodated, for my sister refused to be parted from him as Mum had told her to take care of him, but eventually they were allocated a home to go to.
I don’t suppose may of us understood what was happening to us, so we had to go along with whoever chose us. We were of course, tired, tearful, perplexed and frightened, my younger sister Vera and I were taken to a large house and tucked up into bed. On awaking in the morning we found ourselves in an enormous bedroom and on looking out of the window we could see nothing but fields, trees and animals. (How were we to know that they were cows?) For coming from the towns such things simply did not exist to us, when we looked out of our windows at home we saw nothing but houses, houses and more houses, yet here there was not another house in sight!
We discovered that the house we were in belonged to a dear elderly lady aged 72 years, she was very, thin, upright, fragile and seemed awesome to us, but we soon found out that she was a real gentle, caring and kind lady, her name was Mrs Geake and the house was called ‘Church Meadow’ and stood in its own beautiful grounds. Mrs Geake had two maids to look after her and her home, they were called Elsie and Rene, Elsie was motherly and we liked her, but we were a little frightened of Rene, though she was nice too. There was also Mr Cox the gardener who came daily to tend the lovely gardens and we would sometimes visit him in his potting shed on rainy days, then there was Mr Savage the chauffeur who was a very friendly man. Such was the household of church Meadow.
On our first day Mrs Geake made a point of finding out where our brothers and sister Doris were accommodated, our youngest brother Alan was with our sister Doris on a farm. But later moved into another large house elsewhere in the village, our brother Leslie was accommodated in yet another part of the village.
At first the evacuees went to school in a hall, but as far as I can remember some of us eventually went to the village school which must have been so overcrowded by now. Gradually we settled into country life while London and the big towns in Britain were being bombed we children were safe. There was so much destruction throughout the country that as children we were blissfully unaware of, but there was one incident that was disruptive in the village and it was during the terrible blitz bombing of the city of Coventry during which the city was devastated.
One night during those raids, apparently a German bomber was trying to escape the British gunfire and return back to Germany as it flew over the village of Lapworth it dropped its bombs, three of which fell on Lapworth, one in a field opposite the house we were in, another on the village post office and a third elsewhere in another field, I will always remember these loud bangs, it was night time and Vera and I were tucked up in bed when suddenly the two maids rushed in saying to us “It’s alright children it is only thunder” but of course they knew it wasn’t and were trying to reassure us. Vera and I were so frightened we thought that we were going to die, so we cuddled closely to each other and said goodbye, for we really did believe that we would not survive. Such was our fear as children
However morning came and calmness ensued, everyone came out to see the damage which happened to the farm and to the post office, but before long everything got back to normal. As you can imagine there was much to talk about for a while, but at least everyone in the village was safe and continued to remain so. Coventry was flattened during those raids and many people were killed, but like other cities in Britain it was rebuilt after the war.
Another occurrence that was to affect me was the fact that I had passed the 11-plus school exam which I had taken while at Aldeburgh and it meant hat I could now go to a Grammar School which was a great privilege. But from my childish point of view I saw things differently: my mother arrived one Sunday with an empty suitcase to pack my clothes in and I was to return home with her and then be re-evacuated once again, this time to go the Grammar School. I was distraught: we had all been moved about so much in our lives and now that we seemed settled I was to be taken away from my sister Vera and the rest of my brothers and sister Doris, to go elsewhere on my own! I cried and cried, I pretended that toothache was the cause of my tears, but I think that it was heartache, for I didn’t want to be separated from my family. My tears won the day and I stayed with my family at Lapworth. Mum returned home without me, but I’m sure she must have understood my tears.
Life continued and we enjoyed our time with Mrs Geake at Church Meadow. We always went to church with her every Sunday and were really well looked after, we stayed with her for about two years when sadly, we had to move elsewhere as her relatives were coming to stay with her. Vera and I were moved to a much smaller home with totally different people, they looked after us very well but I cannot recall much of our time with them apart from being grumbled at many times.
The war continued but as the bombing had lessened at home it was decided we should all return home. What a shock that was; after such a long time away everything seemed so small and crowded after the big houses we had been living in. However we adapted back home eventually. I was now 14 years and had started work, but my sister Vera along with our younger brothers had to be evacuated again, as a new wave of bombing had started on the cities. This time they were evacuated to Stoke-on-Trent, where I understand they all had most unhappy experiences, we were later to discover that this was the case with quite a many evacuees.
Eventually war came to an end and everyone returned to their homes. I’m quite sure every child would have a different story to tell, some really terrible, some heartbreaking and many lovely. Despite the ups and downs of evacuation, my personal experience was on the whole very good, particularly the time Vera and I stayed with Mrs Geake at Church Meadow in Lapworth.
As I now many years later reflect on that period of my life I have nothing but respect for all the adults who experienced having to send their children away for safety, and for the adults who took them in as evacuees.
And I have much admiration for my Mother who struggled through all that time, which must have been so painful for her.
Though long passed away I say “Mum I salute you”
Wow, what a thing to live through. And then 36 years later I went with her when she took the opportunity to revisit.
Over to Mum again…
36 YEARS LATER OCTOBER 1976
I was now married and had four sons. On our 16th wedding anniversary my husband Ron and I decided to spend a day at Stratford-on-Avon so, knowing that we would be close to the village of Lapworth, I thought it would be rather interesting to pass through and maybe relive a little of my childhood memories once again. I particularly wanted to see Mrs Geake’s home Church Meadow, where my sister Vera and I stayed for some time during the war years.
Well, I thought, how could I do that? First I wrote to the vicar of Lapworth asking him for the names of the current owners of Church Meadow, He wrote back and told me the names were Mr and Mrs Woodgate.I then wrote to them asking if I could look at the house and gardens to revive my childhood memories. After all, I thought, no harm in asking and of course they could refuse if they chose to or ignore my request, in which case I would be content to look at the house from the roadside.
However, I received and extremely pleasant letter back saying they would be pleased to show us around. I felt so thrilled and longed for the particular Saturday to come along. Two of our sons Gary (9) and Trevor (7) came with us; our other two older boys chose to stay at home. Saturday 7th October duly arrived, the sun shone beautifully and off we went to spend a day in Stratford-on-Avon via Lapworth.
Our journey was very good and gradually we approached the familiar names of places around Lapworth. I felt a wave of excitement and soon before us loomed The LAPWORTH sign we were there. Would I remember it? Where were we? Oh there’s the lock on the canal! It was all coming back. We passed St Chad’s Hall: how I remember the playing fields! Surely that was Mrs Leverick’s house where I believe my sister Doris and brother Alan stayed a while. We passed along the road, there was Boot Hill, how many times had we as children walk up that hill? We drove on. I was aware of the cottages where Mrs Geake’s gardener Mr Cox lived and also Mr Savage the chauffeur lived across the way… Everything was passing too quick. Ron said “are you sure this is the way to the house?” to which I replied “oh yes”. How could I possibly forget? Now excitement filled my being and I said “just keep on, we are going the right way.”
Then suddenly we were right up to the road Church Lane in which the house was, we went over the canal bridge at the start of the lane, the bridge was called Hudson’s Bridge named after Mrs Geake’s father Mr Hudson who, we were told, lived for many years in the house by Hudson’s Bridge. We passed this very familiar place and then there it was: Church Meadow.
At last. Church Meadow. And how beautiful she looked to me. I was filled with emotion, it was wonderful Ron said “shall I drive?” which of course he did, along the drive to the front door.
I got out of the car and rang the bell, Mrs Woodgate opened the door and welcomed us in, We went into Mrs Geake’s lounge. We had only ever been in that room at Christmas while we were children.
Mr Woodgate greeted us and gave the children biscuits and a drink but I was so overwhelmed that I had to recover my emotions before I too could join in. Mr and Mrs Woodgate were so interested to hear from me and I felt that they too were enjoying our visit as much as I was.
It was they who had bought the house from Mrs Geake and had lived there since around 1952 with their two sons, both now grown up one of whom we met.
We went all over the house and I was able to remember so very much, Ron took a photograph of me in the bedroom that Vera and I shared, we went into the other rooms upstairs and I remember so well Mrs Geake’s own bedroom, though I had only been in that once or twice as a child, yet I remembered it so vividly.
We went on our way over the rooms which filled me with delight, it was lovely downstairs once again we went in the part of the house which was not for us as children, that was the hall and the dining room. We only went in there at special times such as Christmas. We continued on past the china and glass kitchen, which I remember as a small room in which there was a sink where I recall Mrs Geake preparing or rather testing the cooked meat for her constant companion Tim the dog.
Now we came to the very familiar part of the house in which we mostly lived which was the maids Rene and Elsie’s living room. This was where we spent most of our time and also had our meals. The kitchen close by was so familiar, where as children we were allowed as a treat to chop the parsley in a small wooden bowl with a rounded chopper.
We went into the garden and I remembered every corner, it was pure delight to me, we walked along with me saying “yes, Mr Cox had his putting shed round the corner” and being told “it is still there”. The vegetable plot, which now had a large greenhouse added along with some additional outbuildings close by, was still in the same place. All these were at the side of the house, then we were at the back of the house looking at the flower beds and large lawn which had a sunken fence at the edge dividing the garden from the fields, how puzzled we were about that when we first went to Mrs Geake’s as children, for we had of course never seen such a thing before, we soon discovered that this was called a Ha-Ha fence.
Mr and Mrs Woodgate had only made a few changes, one being that they had added an extension to the veranda making a sun house which was used as a playroom for their children when they were small. On we went thoroughly loving our beautiful day with our two sons enjoying running around, At the side of the house at an extreme edge of the garden there used to be a stile into the fields, I was told that it still remained.
I remembered an apple tree close by which at that time was small enough to reach and having two apples on it only one remained when Vera and I passed by, when we got found out we were told “no jam on your bread for tea” (which was a luxury in those days). The tree had grown much since then and I wondered if it remembered me!
We wandered along a path by the outer edge of the garden where I remembered a small almost hidden gate which had steps outside one the road and yes, it was still there, I was in my element as I retraced my childhood at Church Meadow.
As we wandered around Mr and Mrs Woodgate’s youngest son Michael joined us as we chatted away recalling many things, I expect that I did most of the talking, but then, who could blame me under such circumstances? Looking at the house now from the front garden it really was a pleasure; the charming trees, shrubs, flowers and lawns with the sweeping drive so breathtakingly beautiful to me and I wondered if anyone could feel as I did at that moment.
I am sure that Mrs Geake would have been so pleased to see that her lovely home and gardens were still being kept so beautiful these many years after her death. Ron was busy with his camera as we went around so that in between talking he was taking pictures which we have kept in our albums I am so blessed to have had the pleasure of this return visit. It was so very kind of Mr and Mrs Woodgate to allow us the privilege of visiting, they were such charming people and I cannot find the words enough to thank them but I am sure they could somehow feel my thanks.
We finished our visit and happily continued on our way. As we drove away from Church Meadow waving I was also saying a silent ‘Thank you’.
We drove along to the church where we spent many Sundays, the vicarage, and just round the corner was Green Acres which was another large house where one of our friends had stayed. So much more was coming back to me as were leaving. Surely our teacher stayed at the house opposite Church Meadow? Was it with a Mrs Proctor or Mrs North? The Harrisons, the Taylors, Colonel Mellor’s farm where I believe our sister Doris and brother also stayed for a while. Our brother Leslie had to call at Mrs North’s to pump water for her from the well. Such were my childhood memories of Lapworth.
We continued on our way and visited Stratford-on-Avon, rode on the river, visited Shakespeare birthplace, had a picnic, after we returned home having a really pleasant a memorable day
I give thanks to all the people especially Mr and Mrs Woodgate who helped to make our days out so lovely.
God Bless you all and Thank you.