MEMORIES AS AN EVACUEE
began in September 1939. I was almost three years old and living in
Plumstead, Southeast London. I lived in a ground floor flat with my mother
Florence who was twenty-eight years old, my sister Florrie aged seven,
Sylvia aged six and Edith aged one. Dad was called Willie and was in the
army somewhere up North - he was thirty-four years old.
quite hard for mum and us, the flat was furnished in mostly old furniture
and we didn’t have many clothes. The only colours I can recall were dark
colours, mainly browns and blacks. Our main entertainment was a small
radio or trips round the local park with mum.
neighbours were very friendly and used to sit out the front on the brick
wall, talking and laughing until it got dark.
We kids of
course were made to go to bed by seven each night, but my sister Edith was
allowed to stay out late in the pram. With four children to look after it
was quite a handful for mum and I think I was a bit of a handful too. I
remember one time I climbed onto the back of the settee in the kitchen to
reach a shelf. There was a jar on the shelf that looked like brown
smarties. I ate some much to mums horror – they were iron tablets, and
according to the lady in the flat above, wouldn’t do me any harm.
favourite saying was "Just you wait ‘till your father gets home, he
will pay you", which meant you’ll get a smack. I didn’t know how
often dad came home but I always knew that mum wouldn’t forget to tell
him what I had done.
pretty basic for all us kids, whatever food was on the table, we soon
learned to eat what we were given and not to refuse anything. Most of the
time we were confined to the back garden and amused ourselves with
whatever we had, as toys were very rare. The upstairs flat had a cast iron
stairway which came down into the shared back garden. We had a swing hung
from under the stairs and spent many hours on that.
had come to an end but all the women were still sitting out late on the
wall. The mood of all mums friends was quite serious and they all spoke of
something called war. Dad eventually came home and put his bags in the
hall, we were all pleased to see him and eagerly gathered round to see
what, if anything, he had brought home. It was usually something in the
food line, or a treat of some kind. Mum and dad hugged and mum had tears
in her eyes as she asked dad what was going to happen soon, as the news on
the radio was full of the troubles of war.
After all the
excitement had died down with dad coming home, mum poured out all her
troubles. It was usually about money and not being able to buy enough
food. Then she told dad about what a little sod I had been, and how I had
climbed up on the settee and ate some of her tablets. This was the moment
I had dreaded, I thought mum would have forgotten the incident. Well, dad
being the strict disciplinarian that he was, I got what I expected – the
strap across the backside and sent to my room. As I walked along the hall
to my room I tripped on dads bags. I muttered something like "These
ruddy kit bags". Mum and dad thought I had said "You bloody shit
bag", so yes you guessed it, up he came with belt in hand and gave me
another couple of strokes on the backside. I cried myself to sleep and
woke up the next morning very hungry as I had missed out on the last meal
of the day.
Dad was home
for a few days, during which time mum and dad discussed what to do with us
kids. Dad said we should get away from this area as we were only a few
hundred yards away from the Woolwich Arsenal. This meant that we would be
a prime target for any German bombing raids. It was decided that Florrie
and Sylvia would be sent away with the school evacuees. They went by train
to Devon and ended up in separate homes in Newton Abbott. Dad took me back
with him by train to where he was stationed. That left mum at home with
one year old Edith. I didn’t know at that time how long I would be away
from mum and my family. Mum went away to Kent for a while, but came home
to be near her friends. Dad and me went by train from Plumstead to London
and got the underground to Kings Cross station. I’d walk a little way
then dad would carry me, as the whole place was crowded with soldiers,
sailors and people all running in different directions. We eventually got
onto a very crowded train and dad found a seat for us near the window.
This was my first experience of trains and Kings Cross station was
massive. Trains hissing steam and puffing out smoke would be a lasting
our train slowly moved out of the station with packed compartments and
corridors. Our journey north seemed to take all day, stopping at stations
en route. I spent my time looking out of the window, watching fields fly
by, and being excited about seeing cows and sheep. Eventually we arrived
at Doncaster and made our way to catch a blue bus. Dad had to carry me
most of the way as the journey by train made me feel sick. The bus journey
took us through lots of villages to our destination Knottingley. We got
off at the Town Hall and made our way down St Botolphs Road into Aire
Street where dad was staying.
road from where dad was staying (at hotel) was a greengrocer’s shop ‘Joe
Rays’. He walked in carrying me on his shoulders and asked if anyone
would like to look after me. A lady stepped forward and said "yes I’ll
It was Mrs
Shay, a lady who was to become my Aunt Annie for years to come. We walked
back home with her, over the crossing into England Lane, to Northfield
Avenue, no. 13. This whole experience so far was bewildering. Dad stayed
for a while, then he had to go. I cried when he left, leaving me in
strange surroundings with strange people. Annie picked me up and cuddled
me. "Daddy won’t be long, he’s gone to get you some spice and a
comic." I didn’t know what spice were but I soon settled down with
a loving family.
were Mr Ted Shay, Mrs Annie Shay, and their children Joe, Ted, Edna, Tilly
and Harry. The Shay family soon became my family and the memories of my
own family gradually faded away. I’m not sure how long dad stayed in
Knottingley but I do know his visits to see me stopped. Mrs Shay had a
letter from my mum to say I had a little brother "John" born in
As time went
by I adopted the local accent, but I was still known locally as the little
was a lot of fun at no. 13. If I was cheeky the girls would chase me round
the table, and when caught it was usually a cuddle rather than a smack, so
you can guess I got well and truly spoilt. Harry used to tease me a lot,
especially at bedtime. With no electric in the house it was candlelight
which led me upstairs to bed. Harry would creep up behind me and blow the
candle out. When I got to bed I used to lay and read a comic for a while
until I dozed off. Often I woke up during the night to the drone of
bombers from the airfields in the area.
Harry taking me for a ride on his bike to Pollington Airfield. I sat on
the crossbar holding on to the handlebars. We saw some parachutists in the
distance, descending on fields. They looked like toys and I shouted out to
Harry to get me one. I couldn’t understand why he laughed so much.
Growing up I
remember having the usual kids ailments. Earache was one I remember. My
Auntie Annie would put some sort of oil in my ear, then cotton wool, and
finish me off with a black headscarf tied under my chin. I got nits a few
times. I used to sit on the floor between Auntie Annie’s legs whilst she
combed my hair with a nit comb and crack them with her thumbnail when she
school at St. Botolph’s and remember being frightened on my first day. I
stood against the wall watching all the other kids running around the
playground. It was a few days before I got settled in. I remember one day
on the way to school I hid behind a big gate just down from the Town Hall
(Jackson’s Gate). I stayed there until I saw the children coming out of
school, then found them on the way back home. That’s the first time I
ever played truant.
the time it was coming up for Christmas. Having already looked in a
catalogue book and chosen what I wanted, I had to get one of the family to
write out my list. Then I had to throw the list in an open fire and watch
it burn and float up the chimney. Of course I cried at this, but Harry
assured me it was floating up to Santa. Whilst he stood there with his
hand on the high mantle shelf he said call up and ask Santa if he’s got
any money. This I did and a cascade of pennies came down and bounced off
the hearth all over the fireside rug. I couldn’t pick these up quick
enough. The laughter in the room from all the family was deafening. Then I
was told to shout up the chimney to ask Santa if he had any more. Sure
enough he did and the laughter continued. It was years before I learned
that Harry was the culprit. I did get my own back on him in later years
when I rolled him a cigarette and put some of my gun caps in with the
tobacco. Half way through his smoke it exploded, leaving a bit of shredded
paper and tobacco strands hanging from his mouth. Christmas came and I was
spoilt - that I realise now. An Indian and Cowboy set and garden tools.
They kept me busy for months to come.
describe 13 Northfield Avenue to this day, as each room is a photo in my
mind. I remember the gramophone player in the corner, and the record that
stands out in my mind is ‘The Angels Way Up Yonder’. The radio had an
accumulator which had to be charged up. I remember one time the settee
near the front window collapsed through the floor and the boys propped up
the floor with sandbags and bricks.
washday and I liked to get out of the way for this. It was a gas boiler,
tubs and peggy stick and dolly blue, and the kitchen table scrubbed white
with years of washing. All the shirt collars and cuffs were starched. The
whole day was taken up by this.
One day I
loved was baking day, with bread being baked for the week. I used to like
the flat rounds of bread straight from the oven with butter on. The bread
was stored in an ali-baba pot with a bread board for a lid. In the early
days I could get into this pot and hide.
On wet days
when I couldn’t play out, I used to amuse myself playing with all the
old shoes on the corner cupboard next to the fire. My favourite pair were
rubber galoshes which one of the girls wore over high heeled shoes. When
there was a break in the rain Jackie Emmerson would call round. "Is
tha laking" he’d call. It didn’t take me long to get my wellies
on and be off like a shot. My Aunt Annie would yell out "Don’t you
get up to anything, now think on." We usually headed for our castle
in England’s Lane.
Swan was only partially built and had all the cellars and walls up to
ceiling height. We usually met all the gang there, Percy Shay, Goo
Tunningley, Micky Hogman, David Penistone, Geoff Meadows, Dennis Curtain
and Peter Bowers. Then of course all the girls, Janet Vause, Wendy
Tunningley, Mary Hughes, Mary Bowers, Brenda Adams, Mary Hogman, Christine
Hargreaves and Mary Curtain. We amused ourselves for hours on that
building. One game was follow the leader, climbing up the walls and
walking along the tops. There was an iron girder spanning two walls, which
in those days looked like 15ft long. Jackie Emmerson walked across it to
reach a chimney. He sat with his legs dangling in the chimney and within a
flash he slipped halfway down. We had to call the fire brigade who had to
chisel the bricks away to get him out.
In front of
the pub there were heaps of red clay which came out of the foundations. On
wet days the clay was just right for modelling and we made all kinds of
creatures. In one of the cellar rooms we created our own museum of animals
which we displayed on clay shelves stuck to the walls. One of our gang was
especially good at making alligators, not sure who that was now. When we
got bored that’s when the mischief element took over. With a small ball
of sticky clay stuck on the end of a thin stick, we could fire them right
across the road and land a few good shots on the windows of the houses
opposite. It was run and hide in the cellar time then. In the main room of
the cellar there was a hole in the wall which we got into. On our hands
and knees we would crawl to the end and sit and write our names on the
ceiling with candle flames. I wonder if they are still there?
growing up we had crazes in all kinds of home made toys. We had kites,
miniature cricket bats and stumps, whip and top, stilts, wheel bowling,
bows and arrows, balls made from bike inner tubes, elastic band guns,
marbles and catapults. The first bike I ever rode was a full size mans
bike. The tyres were stuffed with old newspapers and I had to ride it with
one leg through under the crossbar. Janet Vause had a hand in teaching me
We played a
lot of street games, cricket, pavement drawing, with one lad, Geoff
Meadows being our pavement artist. Mischief night was always a favourite.
Looking back now I wouldn’t condone it. We had a game on dark nights
called "Holla." There were two teams and as one went off to hide
the others chased. The chant was "If you don’t shout holla, we shan’t
follow". The end of the night usually finished up under the lamplight
at the top of the street, singing all the old songs.
Growing up I
remember going to Weeland Road School where my teacher was Mrs
Hollingsworth and the headmaster Mr. Treadgold. He was very strict and
kept control with his two inch leather belt. I was in a play called
"There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe". On the day that it
was to be staged I remember playing sick so I didn’t have to go to
school. I went to Ropewalk School for a very short time and remember a Mrs
Jessop being one of my teachers. One lasting memory of school dinners was
having rice with stewed apple, which is still a favourite of mine now.
in 1943 I woke up to the sound of a baby crying. I went downstairs to find
my Aunt Annie holding a baby girl "Ann". A woman in a blue
uniform looked at me and said "Hello Michael". I asked Aunt
Annie where the baby had come from. "This missus has just brought her
in an aeroplane" she said. I ran outside only to find that it must
have taken off.
It was about
this time that my Aunt Annie asked mum and dad if she could keep me. This
I found out from my mother in later years, as mum and dad objected to
this. So arrangements were made for me to return to London. Edna and a
friend took me back as dad was still away in France. This was about 1944.
I can remember walking with them down this strange street and knocking on
mum’s front door. By then mum had moved across the road into a bigger
So I was
introduced to a mum I didn’t know, along with a brother John, and
sisters Florrie, Sylvia, Edith, Edna and Brenda. I can remember standing
in the kitchen and crying to go back home. My mother said "you’re
staying with us now, I’m your mother so you’ll have to get used to
it". I must have been coming on for eight years old and had a family
I didn’t know. It took me a long time to settle in to their ways.
Needless to say I was always getting into trouble. The houses in the
street where I now lived had taken some bombing damage, but the next two
streets must have taken direct hits. These derelict buildings became our
playgrounds until they were cleared and rebuilt after the war.
My Aunt Annie
kept in regular touch and sent me parcels for birthdays and Christmas. The
best present of all though was a letter each year with a postal order for
my train fare to Knottingley. My father would take me to Kings Cross and
put me in with the guard and off I would go for the whole of the school
summer holidays. Annie would meet me at Doncaster. This went on every year
until I left school so I never lost touch with all my Knottingley friends;
each year friendships were rekindled and the adventures continued. I was
often sent on errands and these are a few that I can recall:
I was sent to
Mowbray’s shop to get a half-pound of smarties. Marrion said "Are
you sure Michael?" I said "yes." On the way home I ate a
handful, only to get told off because I should have got half a pound of
"tomaties." Mr. Shay sent me to get some cigarettes from ‘Valenti’s,’
a shop down past the Town Hall. As I left the back door to get my bike, he
shouted "Don’t bring Pasha’s." I came back with five
Woodbines in a sweet packet.
I had to go
to a friend of Aunt Annie’s to take something. She had a big Alsatian
dog. It had a large basket by the fire with a large boulder in it. She
said it was kept in the oven during the day to heat up. It was whilst I
was there that a man knocked on the door for her son. As he wasn’t in I
was asked to help him do a job. In a church down Ropewalk he had to tune
the organ. It was freezing cold so I wore a borrowed army overcoat and sat
at the organ. He wrote the letters on the keys and from the back of the
organ he would call out for me to press them.
I often went
to Pettit’s the butcher. All I had to say was "Have you got a bit
of summat for Mr. Shay’s tea?" The shop was empty of any meat, and
the window and shelves were just draped with papers. The butcher would
disappear into the back and return with something wrapped. I often went to
Millar’s farm behind St. Botolph’s Church. I would take something in a
bag and in return would take home a chicken. There was a lot of wheeling
and dealing in those days and I can remember people swapping coupons from
their ration books.
It was always
an exciting time when the feast came to Knottingley and set up on the
flatts in Aire Street. It was the first time I ever went on the waltzer.
It was Doreen Lawrence who made me go on by paying for me. Was I sick and
bad! - it spoilt the rest of my evening and I have never been on it again
to this day.
remember crossing the ferry with my Aunt Annie. We sat in a small rowing
boat and the ferryman pulled us across the river with a rope line.
We also went
to the picture’s which we called the "bug hutch." We queued up
at the back door and paid a penny to go in and sit in the front row seats
which were wooden. We used to get a stiff neck from having to look up at
remember spending a lot of time looking in the window of the Habro
toyshop, at things I couldn’t afford. I suppose that’s where we got
the inspiration in those days to go home and make a toy.
I used to
spend a lot of time on the allotment with Mr. Shay. He had a pigeon loft
there. It was good fun shaking a tin of corn to call them in. I also
shared his excitement when he clocked in his pigeons on race days. The
allotments were where the school playing field is now in England Lane. My
friend Ronny (Bruno) Brown’s mother kept goats on the same allotments
and one day whilst milking one, she sprayed Ron and me with milk, all over
our clothes and face.
played in the depot near the level crossing. We used to play "Cock of
the North" on a bank near the coal loading bays. Somehow we used to
get tar on our hands and this we removed with grease that we got from the
axle boxes on the wagons. We often went pea pulling and used to catch a
farm lorry near the Town Hall. I can remember pulling eight bags and
earning one pound from 8am to about 3pm. Some farmers used to give out
tickets which you cashed in at the end of picking. We used to take snap
and a bottle of cold tea, and one of our ideas was to fill your jam
sandwich with fresh peas.
Sunday is a
day I always remember, when peas were on the menu. We always had a cup of
peas with vinegar during the morning. Mr. Shay used to go to his club and
be back in time for dinner. I remember one time a tramp called
"Bulla" used to hang around the front gate and my Aunt Annie
would give him a dinner and a pint mug of tea. Mr. Shay would come in and
get on to Annie "you’ve bloody gi’n Bulla my mug again."
We always had
something to do, unlike kids of today. During wet days we still played out
and one lad used to build a camp. We built them out of any old tin, wood
and sacks which we found in the back squares. We even had indoor fires
with chimneystack’s. One lad dropped something down the chimney of Percy’s
camp, which caused Percy to exit quick with a sooty black face.
had coach trips to places like Harrogate, Knaresborough, Bridlington,
Scarborough, Whitby and Cleethorpes. I can still recall a familiar call to
the driver: "Stop at a pee field." We never had motorway service
areas then. For those who remained on the bus, watching people flicking up
their dress and bobbing down, laughter was spontaneous. I do remember one
time at Cleethorpes when I stood outside the house of fun too scared to go
in on my own. A young woman offered to escort me in and halfway round
someone grabbed her leg and she screamed. I spotted this was by a man in a
small door down at floor level. When he tried it on me I promptly kicked
him and the door shut pretty smart.
We used to
spend a lot of time on the bridge over the level crossing. We would stand
in all the steam and smoke. Sometimes we were moved on by the crossing
keeper, Mrs Warby. One time we were all on the bridge when a horse box
came over the crossing. We all ran after it down to Metcalf’s farm. It
was the first time I’d seen a stallion do its stuff.
lamps around were all lit by gas. We had a local lamp lighter called
Albert Bagley. He had a stiff leg so his bike had one pedal and a fixed
rest. He used to drive round with a pole and turn all the lamps on.
adventures went on summer after summer, perhaps too numerous to mention. I
have only scratched the surface of all those Yorkshire memories, spent
with a great bunch of lads and lasses. One of the highlights and a great
personal achievement of mine was to cycle from London to Knottingley when
I was about seventeen years old. I left my home in Southeast London about
five thirty in the morning with every intention of camping en route. By
one in the afternoon I was at Stamford so I kept going. I stopped at
Grantham and had tea, cakes, bread and butter and two boiled eggs, all for
2/6d at the Bell Hotel. Arriving in Knottingley at around 9.30pm there
wasn’t a soul in sight. Everyone had gone with the club on a train
excursion to Blackpool. Fortunately for me, Harry’s lady-friend, Lillian
Draper was in and she soon fixed me up with home cooked fish and chips.
To this day,
me and my family make regular trips to Knottingley to visit old friends
and family and rekindle those happy days growing up with a family that
loved me as their own, and friends that are still around to tell the tale.
So until we meet again, I will be thinking of you all. Maybe some of you
can fill in the gaps with your own tales. I look forward to any replies
featured in the monthly magazine.