July 7, 2019

Gage, Margaret

Margaret was a child evacuee to Brandon.  She write of her experience and published it on Facebook in October 2017.  This is Margaret’s account, reproduced here with her kind permission…

“In the dictionary the word ‘Evacuee’ means to move a person to a safer place during wartime.  In 1939 I don’t suppose the Government of the day had much choice but to order all the schools to arrange mass evacuation of all the children whose parents were willing to let them go.  What agony of mind and heartache must have been suffered by the families having to let their much loved children go to complete strangers to live.  How were they to know if that family were going to give their children the loving care and understanding that only a Mother can really give.

Of course there were probably the exceptions, it may have been the salvation of some unfortunate child who did not come from a loving home and was lucky enough to be billeted with a caring family.

In my family’s case the Government of the day had a lot to answer for.  In those days there was no such thing as social workers or some such person to check and see if the homes and the families were suitable to have charge of small children in their most formative years. From what I have gathered over the years a team of Evacuee Officers had to find out who had room in their homes for one or more children and regardless of whether they wanted them or not they had to have them and for a pittance. So right from the beginning the child was in danger of being placed in a home with people who really were not capable of dealing with children who, until they settled in, would probably be emotionally upset and terribly homesick and missing their Mums and Dads.  In lots of cases Brothers and Sisters were cruelly separated.  It’s all very well putting children in a place of safety from the bombs of war, but what about the damage that was done to the mental, physical and moral welfare of lots of the children who were deprived of the love and affection of their own families for years.

For example, let me tell you of some of the experiences of my own family.  I was about 11 years of age, my sister was about 10 years and my brothers Paul and Peter.  Peter comes into the story later as he was only about 3 or 4 years so stayed with out mother.  Paul was about 7 years.  I remember vaguely us all standing on the platform of a railway station in London, probably Liverpool Street, as we were going to East Anglia, of course we did not know of our destination.  We stood there with our gas masks and a carrier bag that we had all been allocated for the journey which, if I can recall, had a bag of sugar, tin of milk, tin of corned beef and probably some other items which I can’t remember, but I do remember there were lots of tears from the adults.  A lot of the children didn’t really understand what it was all about.  I remember feeling quite excited at the thought of going on the train with all our teachers and school pals, it was just as if we were going on a trip to the seaside.  Even though I was 11 years of age and the eldest, I still did not realise what was ahead of us all.

My sister and brothers and I were all together on the journey. The train seemed to be packed and to me it seemed a very long journey but it probably only took about two hours. I remember the excitement at the green fields and the cows as we got nearer our destination, some of us had never seen a cow and thought milk only came in bottles. Anyway it was a very hot day I remember, about August or September 1939, as the trees in the orchards were full of apples and plums. Another thing we had never seen, only in a greengrocer’s shop.

It must have been sometime in the afternoon when we arrived and were taken to the village hall and what a tired and bedraggled lot we must have looked. I can see my brother Paul with his freckled face and large blue eyes standing there with his school cap askew and looking like Just William, and very apprehensive. My sister Jean also looked as if she was ready to burst into tears. It was an awful ordeal for any child. There we were all of us on display and our teachers with us. All the local evacuee helpers were there to sort out these poor kids and get them settled in their new homes and introduce them to their new Aunts and Uncles as most of them liked to be called.

The hall was packed and most of the prospective foster parents just picked out the children they liked the look of one by one. I saw what I termed the posh kids going off with what looked the better dressed and more prosperous looking adults. I know I was only eleven but I was absorbing all the goings on and knew I would not be picked out very quickly, and, feeling very protective towards my little sister and brother, very much on the defensive. In my innocence I thought someone would take the three of us together. So you can imagine how horrified I was when this quite nice and amiable couple picked out Jean and Paul. They only wanted a pair so I was left on my own.

I remember feeling very upset and miserable and I must have looked it. The hall was emptying very fast and I was still there and felt very rejected which of course was a feeling I was going to have for a few more years to come. I remember the evacuation office saying “Well Margaret, what shall we do with you?” He eventually took me to this little house where this woman had already got a girl from a well to do family, in fact her Father had a shop in Tottenham, and as far as I was concerned they were rich. She had beautiful clothes, a lovely dressing gown which I’d never owned in my life. So once again I was feeling very inferior and out of my class.

This woman had a very clean and smart house and it was quite nice but I soon learnt that I was only there for the night as she had her quota and didn’t really want to keep me. The next morning the Evacuee officer came for me. He was a man of great standing in the village and owned a big factory. Most of the locals worked for him in his rabbit skin factory which was about the only industry in Brandon apart from wood machine factories. He was very kind and said “I have found a family for you to live with,” and he took me to a house. As we walked up the path I could see all these faces peering at me from the windows. This was the four daughters of my adopted Aunt for the next few years. I hated having to call her Aunt as it seemed to stick in my throat.

I settled in after a while and got on better than I thought I would with the daughters except the eldest one. But, from the day I walked in that house I could not remember any affection or even any interest in me. I was pretty miserable most of the time and very rebellious at times. I not only had to try and adjust to a completely different way of life I also felt I was unloved and disliked and, having four daughters of her own, she had no time to worry about whether I was happy or not. So I just accepted my life for what it was, hoping that it would be for a short while and we would all soon be back together again.

Meanwhile my sister and brother had also been split up because the people who had them could not keep them through illness. So Paul went to a local second hand furniture dealer who had only one daughter and wanted a little boy so Paul became their much wanted son. They thought the world of him and he stayed happily with them for years.

Not so lucky for my sister Jean, she was with a family I can only call strict chapel goers. There also was no love in this house. They had two daughters and their Mother was just like one of Dickens’ characters in the workhouse. The house was like a new pin and I remember they had one of those fire grates that had to be polished with black lead every day. Jean was only about ten or eleven by now and she had to look after their two daughters and was a skivvy in their house. I was very worried about her. I was having a better life than her, and I was trying to make the best of what I couldn’t change. I complained a lot about Jean living with that terrible family but it went on deaf ears, no one was interested. Gradually a lot of evacuees were going back to London with their parents and I hoped we would be able to return also. Sadly it was not to be. Our Mum came one Sunday to see us but she was given quite a false impression of our foster parents. They put on a show whilst she was here and went off quite happy that we were being cared for OK.

Then, one day, I was walking home when I saw Jean crying over the other side of the road. I asked her what was wrong and she replied “Did you know Mum was dead?” I could not believe it. When I got home one of the daughters asked her Mum if she had heard about my Mother and she said “Yes, it was true,” and dismissed the subject and told me to lay the table for tea. I have never forgotten or forgiven her for being so insensitive. It just did not bother her and I just despaired at going home now.

My little Brother, Peter, was brought down to be with the same woman that Jean was with. He was only about five or six and I think the next few years were the worst of his life. At school the evacuees were treated as if they were lousy, thieves and dirty. They were blamed for every misdemeanour. I had more fights at school than Henry Cooper, fighting to protect the only bit of family we had left.

I always could stand physical cruelty but it was the mental cruelty that was the hardest to bear. Just little instances like making my Brother go to bed knowing he was terrified of the dark. He would sit for hours on the stairs in the dark and dare not move or go to bed, until I came. Making us go to school with out hair cut with a basin, shoes that didn’t fit and all sorts of indignities too numerous to mention.

We all survived those traumatic years but it left its mark on all of us. I’ll never forget the hurt and painful memories of it all. It took me years to get a stable relationship and it all boiled down to my rejection and insecurities of my childhood.

In this day of nuclear weapons I don’t think there will ever be a mass exodus of children again but if there ever was and I had the choice for my children I’d rather they risk the bombs and have a happy loving family, than be subjected to what we all suffered. We were only one of the thousand families that were evacuated. Some were lucky but they were the minority.

It must NEVER HAPPEN again.