Recorded in 2006…
My name is Les Hayward. I am now retired and live in Ledbury, Herefordshire with my wife Grace and here I detail my life at Brandon as a Dr Barnardo boy living at Wangford Hall during the war. Are there any other ex-Wangford Hall Barnardo Boys out there who might wish to get in contact with me? Please contact this website and ask for my email address.
En route to Brandon
My mother died when she was only 29 and left four children aged 3, 5, 7 (me) and 8. My brother and I entered a Dr Barnardo home at Cardiff during October 1939 and this was a small family home. Usually in peacetime when it became full the boys were sent to the Boy’s Garden City at Woodford Bridge in Essex and the girls went to a girls home at Barkingside. However because of the war these two homes were evacuated to various places around the country although my brother and I did spend a few day sat Woodford Bridge. My memory of London as we travelled through it was of the enormous number of barrage balloons filling the skyline. Soon we were put onto a train and me and my brother were now totally unaware of our destination and we finally alighted at a little place just outside of Thetford in Norfolk and I recall it being a very hot day. We then had to walk to Wretham Hall and to meet us at the Hall was a very stern lady named Mrs. Allan. She then proceeded to warn us that she knew how to deal with any misbehaviour and I believe that this created an attitude in the children, who were up to that point reasonably well behaved, a mistrust of those in authority and a desire to flout the iron discipline imposed upon them merely because they had no parents. This may well explain some of the boy’s behaviour at school in Brandon.
Barnardos were allocated the top floor of what I believe was a three-storied Georgian hall and the walls were lined with various pieces of armour and shooting trophies which were a little scary when going to the bathroom in the dark night. I remember that the local village was named West Wretham and the village school was very small which meant that the village hall which was just a tin building was then used for the older children. I can also recall going for a ramble with some of the other lads and coming across a group of Czechoslovakian airmen and I have often wondered what they were doing there. Perhaps there an airfield nearby? We were at West Wretham only a few months before the Army requisitioned the Hall and, as I later learned, took over the whole area for use as a training battleground. We were then relocated to Wangford Hall and I remember travelling there on the back of an open lorry.
Life at Wangford Hall
It was shortly after our arrival at Wangford that contractors began constructing what is now the airfield at Lakenheath. It was very exciting to see the Wellington bombers and four-engine Short Stirling bombers arrive. We used to watch the bombers take off on their bombing raids in the early evenings and then we would lie awake waiting for their return and there were times when the sky lit up because a plane returning and on fire would crash into Elveden forest and explode. On one occasion a plane crashed into Wangford churchyard and as soon as we were able to we would run to the crash site to get window Perspex from which we would carve rings, etc. I remember a coloured lad being invited into a lady’s home and his surname was Morrison, but known to his friends as ‘Darkie’ Morrison, and he was the most popular lad at Wangford.
Christmas at Wangford Hall
Like most other people during the war we made the best of what we had and we had very little, and there was very little room for individuality at Wangford Hall. Few of the boys had any contact with their relatives, so there was very few presents to be given out at Christmas and the only correspondence I had was with my maternal grandmother. Now the only present I remember receiving at Wangford was a pair of football boots and those boots were to give me an enormous pleasure in the days ahead. Another pleasure we had at Christmas was going into Brandon in the evening to go carol singing, although I also remember one year when we received chocolate bars from the USA. There was one year we received an invitation to spend Christmas at an American airbase but there was tremendous disappointment among the boys when the invite was rejected by Mrs. Allan on the grounds of, would you believe it … patriotism! To be honest when you realise that Christmas is meant to be a time of love and joy it was a bit of a farce in the Dr Barnardos home at that time. Its only since my wife and I have had children and grandchildren that the true meaning of Jesus Christ coming into the world becomes a reality. A very sad incident occurred one Christmas when the Women’s Land Army, based at Lakenheath, invited us to a tea party. When we arrived we found a group of sad and tearful young ladies and it appeared that many of their boyfriends had just been killed during a raid on Germany. Needless to say it was quite a dismal party.
My memories of Brandon school are a little hazy but speaking personally I have no recollection of a bad reception to us by the pupils or staff at the school. Obviously there were individual skirmishes between the lads and sometimes even among the Barnardo boys themselves. However on one occasion I do remember a fight being arranged between us and the town boys. This mass battle was to take place on a Saturday afternoon at the Sandpits on Wangford Warren. We made great preparations for the fight, arming ourselves with fencing staves, etc, however it was a bit of an anti-climax when the Brandon boys didn’t turn up, but upon reflection it was probably just as well for all of us. We used to travel to the Brandon school by bus and sometimes we went via Santon Downham where we could see the piles of ammunition stacked high on the roadsides.
Among the teachers I remember are Mr. Lumsden, the headmaster, Mr. Baldock, who came with us from Wretham and who I suspect was a strong Socialist because his pet subject was the Trade Union movement and there was also a rather elderly teacher named Mr. Jackson who taught us maths. I suspect he may have been the same Mr. Jackson who lost his son during the war. The lessons I remember most with greatest affection were the singing lessons taken by a lady teacher whose name I have forgotten. She must have made a good impact because I still remember the songs she taught us. The school dinners were fairly wholesome and there was plenty of sago, tapioca and chocolate pudding. Perhaps my happiest memories of Brandon school were the dinner breaks when we were free to go into the town and it was an opportunity to go into a world of comparative normality and not be surrounded by hoardes of other boys. It was during one of those dinner breaks when I was just leaving the school that I heard a tremendously loud noise overhead and looking up I was amazed to see this large plane with Luftwaffe markings on it which was low enough for me to see one of the crew looking at me. Although I didn’t realise it at the time this must have been the same plane that strafed the school.
In the summer we would go swimming in the river and on one occasion my younger brother Gerald had gone on ahead of me when someone came dashing over to tell me that he had fallen in. To my great relief by the time I got there someone had fished him out and I am glad to say that Gerry is now happily married and living on the Isle of Wight. Maybe one of your contributors remember him, because being younger than me he was at Brandon longer than I was.