Yvonne Rundle came to Brandon as a child evacuee from London in 1939. The following are extracts from a diary that Yvonne created as an adult. The diary formed part of an English ‘A’ level that Yvonne was taking as a mature student. As such, the diary is drawn upon memories created about fifty years previously. Yvonne re-visited Brandon in 2014. When war broke out, Yvonne was aged six-and-a-half years old and living with her aunt and uncle and their two children – Audrey (10) and Leslie (6). Within a few days she found herself evacuated away from London and living with Mrs Kent at Norman Villas, Manor Road, in Brandon. Here is just part of her story …
Auntie Lucy and Uncle George took us all to the seaside bungalow at the beginning of the school holidays but now I am back home with Mum for a while. Yesterday Mum and Dad were listening to a man on the wireless and then they talked a lot about what to do. Dad said I must be evacuated and he will make the arrangements tomorrow. Dad and I go to a place where there is a huge model ship in a glass case and he says it’s like the ship I will go on when I get evacuated to America. Mum does not want me to go to America, so instead I will be going to Auntie’s again.
There is definitely going to be a war! They are putting up barrage balloons in the sky and Mum and Auntie are making blackout curtains. We all have to get gasmasks in case the Germans drop bombs with poison gas in them like they did to the soldiers in the last war … I don’t like them they smell!
Friday September 1st 1939
We’re going to be evacuated with the school. We go to Liverpool Street station, it’s very big with a high glass roof and the engines have lots of shiny brass parts and keep making a loud hissing noise when they let off steam. There are lots of us at the station, some teachers and some parents but mostly children from lots of different schools. Auntie Lucy wanted to come too but there’s not enough room for all the grown-ups so they had to write their names on a piece of paper and fold it up and put it into a box. Auntie Lucy’s name didn’t get picked and so she can only come to see us off.
We each have a case with some clean clothes, pyjamas, a packed lunch and our gas masks and Auntie Lucy gave me and my sisters a packet of our favourite breakfast cereal as well. I had Rice Crispies. Auntie Lucy asked where we were going but the man wouldn’t tell her and he just said they would write and let her know. We have to wait our turn for a train and then it’s our turn to go on the platform. Some of the grown-ups leaving the platform are crying and we say goodbye to Auntie Lucy. She tells us, “Remember, Audrey is in charge. Whatever happens, you must all stay together!”
It’s a long journey and soon we pass lots of fields, some have sheep and cows in them. We play ‘I-spy’ and sing songs and finally get off at a place called Brandon. The station is much smaller than the one where we got on and then we leave the station and all walk across a bridge over the river and get into a bus that takes us to a big hall. People in the street look at us. In the hall some people come and choose which children are to go and live with them. Some people choose us but none of them can take all three of us together, but Audrey holds our hands tight and says, “No, we have to stay together.” At the end, when all the other children have gone, the two ladies in charge say they will take us in a car to see if they can find somewhere for us to all stay together and so we drive around for a long time. There is a farm that can take Audrey and me, but Leslie will have to stay next door. He starts to cry and Audrey says “No!” I feel sad because I think it would be nice to live on a farm.
One of the ladies says, “This is ridiculous. Its half past nine and these children have been up since the crack of dawn. They’re exhausted. I’ll take them home with me. I don’t have any beds for them, but they’re so tired they can sleep on the floor.”
We go to her house where she spreads a blanket on the floor of a lovely big room and gives us a pillow each and another blanket to go over us. We all have a wash and some cocoa and lie down and go to sleep. In the morning we have some of the cereal we brought with us and a boiled egg for breakfast. After breakfast the other lady comes and we all go out in the car again, away from the town to a big house – well, it’s actually two houses joined together – with fields all round. The two houses are called ‘Norman Villas’.
The ladies explain to Audrey that she and Leslie can stay in one half of the house and I can stay in the other half with one of our teachers. They tell her that they’ll write to Auntie Lucy and explain. Audrey tells me she thinks it’s all right because I will be with a teacher. I go through the gate where a lovely little dog comes up to me wagging his tail and we make friends. His name is Patch and he’s white with a black patch on his back and over one eye. The lady who lives in the house is called Mrs Kent she says I can call her Auntie. She has a grownup daughter called Pat. We all sit down to have lunch and Mrs Kent gives me some jelly. I say, “May I have a spoon please?’ Pat says, “Use your fingers, it’s probably what you’re used to” in a nasty voice. Mrs Kent tells her to go into the other room and she gives me a spoon, then she goes into the other room to talk to Pat. Mrs Kent shows me my bedroom. It’s very nice. This is a lovely house with a great big garden, but there’s no bathroom and the lavatory is outside just across the yard. Next door to that is the laundry room with a tap, and next door to that is a building they call ‘the dairy’ which is dark and doesn’t have any windows. The house isn’t made of bricks like Auntie Lucy’s but of big funny shaped flints. The lavatory isn’t like those at home and you don’t have a chain to pull or a seat that lifts up. It’s like a big box that goes right across from one wall to the other with a hole where you sit and a lid that you must shut when you have finished. It has some special stuff in it that kills all the germs and a cart comes round each week to empty it. There’s also a pond in the field behind the house and sometimes there’s a baby bull in that field but we’re not allowed to play there when he is in the field. A little way along the road is the village called ‘Tip’
Sunday September 3rd 1939
The war started today. Audrey and I were playing in the field when the air raid warning sounded and a man told us we should go home. Mrs Kent and the teachers are talking, and they say it should be all over by Christmas. The coal man has been and he spilt some coal and Audrey picked up a little piece of it and said, “This is a very important day. I’m going to keep this piece of coal forever to remind me of it!”
On Sunday mornings Mrs. Kent takes us all to the Church so that we can go to Sunday school. Mrs Kent’s friend Madam de Lotbiniere came to visit and she lives in the big house called Brandon Hall with her husband,a retired Brigadier General de Lotbiniere. She said, “You must come to tea.” Mrs Kent told her about Audrey and Leslie, and she said, “Oh they must come too, we must make arrangements.”
11th September 1939
We have started school today. It’s my turn to go to see the headmaster. His name is Mr. Lumsden and he asked me lots of questions about home and where I used to go to school. He asked me if I knew how old Mummy and Daddy were. I said “Mummy ’s twenty-one and a bit and Daddy’s very old”. Mr. Lumsden smiled. He is nice. We go to tea at the Brandon Hall. There is a great big room – as big as the school hall – with two grand pianos and a long table with lots of places and lots of sandwiches and cake. It’s not just me and Audrey and Leslie, but all the other evacuees from our school as well and we have our tea when a man comes in – I think it’s the General. He says, “Come on children, I’ll show you the garden.” So we all go out through the big French doors, over the lawn to the duck pond and then into some woods. He shows us some chestnut trees and then we walk round some more gardens and then he says, “Go indoors now – there’s a little surprise for you.” We go in and are met by the sight of all our mums waiting for us, although my mum wasn’t there, but my Auntie Lucy was. Auntie Lucy told Audrey she had done very well and it was alright for me to stay with Mrs. Kent on my own.
It’s Christmas soon, Auntie Kent has locked the front room door because the Christmas tree is in there with all the presents and we can’t go in until Christmas morning. I tried to peep through the key hole but I couldn’t see much. Patch wagged his tail ever so hard when I did that so I think he knows it’s Christmas. On Christmas day the church bells rang and after breakfast we go into the front room and open our presents. In the afternoon Auntie Kent lights the candles on the tree and it is very pretty. There’s lots of holly and some lovely flowers but no paper chains and I’m glad there are no paper chains because they frighten me. I remember how Uncle George was talking about a family who were killed when the paper chains fell down on to the Christmas tree candles and the whole house caught fire.
It’s going to be my seventh birthday tomorrow and Mum has sent me a birthday cake which Auntie Kent hid it under the stairs so it could be a surprise, but Patch found it and he has eaten half the icing! Auntie Kent is very upset but I said it doesn’t matter and she mustn’t be cross with him because he doesn’t understand, and I don’t mind, really. It’s very cold outside and has been snowing and windy all night. This morning a snowdrift had covered the back door and the windows right up to the roof. Auntie Kent had to go out of the front door and round the back to dig it all away so we could get out to the lavatory.
I have a ‘siren suit’ (An all-in-one garment, a bit like a boiler suit, made out of warm
material and designed to be put on quickly when the air raid warning sounded, so the person could be fully dressed in an instant) and Mum made it out of fur fabric and I wear it to go out to play. The pond in the field at the back is frozen hard and we all went sliding on it but there was a hole in the ice that I didn’t see and I slid right in, under the ice. The farmer pulled me out and took off my siren suit and put his coat round me. Everybody brought me home and I had to have a hot mustard bath in front of the fire. Auntie Kent says I am lucky I didn’t drown. (Clad from head to toe in wet fur fabric I must have weighed a ton.)
Yesterday Daddy came to see Auntie Kent they went in the front room and talked a lot then we all had some tea and Daddy had to go home again. Auntie Kent’s son Reg came over today and he told me I must never touch anything strange that I see on the ground because it could hurt me. He showed me his glass eye and told me how when he was little, during the last war, he found an unexploded shell but he didn’t know what it was and tried to chop it up with a chopper. It exploded and he lost his eye. He said he was lucky he hadn’t been made totally blind.
It’s a mile from the school to home and the first part is down the avenue. It is summer time and the avenue is a lovely green tunnel of trees with a fence on one size and a cornfield with lots of poppies in it on the other. It goes right up to the gate of the churchyard and we walk through the church yard, past all the graves, to the gate at the other end. It’s quite scary in the winter when it gets dark early and there are some big oblong graves like tables. One of the boys says that if you put a half crown on each corner and dance round it at midnight, the ghost of the person buried there will come up, but I don’t really believe it. However we always run through when it’s getting a bit dark.
London – I have come home to Shepherds Bush for a short holiday. Mum will be on holiday from work next week and for this first week I have to stay with a neighbour during the day because she is doing war work in a factory. She makes radios to go in aeroplanes; she used to work in a munitions factory but the noise made her ill and when they found out she already knew about soldering radios, she was sent to this job.
Only women with children under five were exempt from being directed to war work, my mother was a highly-skilled ‘wire woman’ but it took a while for her to get transferred to a factory where she could put her talents to good use.
We’re not at the flat where we used to live before but in a house with a garden. It’s quite a big house and quite old. There are lots of sandbags piled up by the door – there are sandbags everywhere you look in London – and a stirrup pump just inside the hall. The lavatory is a bit like the one in Brandon (the seat is like a box with a hole in it) but it’s indoors and you pull a chain to flush it. Next to the big one is a little one for very small children. Its sweet! There was not a bathroom when Mum and Dad moved here but Dad has made one in the basement, in what used to be a laundry room. He saw a scrap iron man with a bath on his cart and said he would give him 10 shillings for it (worth about £40 -£50 today) providing he would help him to carry it indoors. There is an Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden, a pear tree and a chicken run with a shed for the chickens to sleep in. The windows all have a sort of thick net stuck all over them to stop them splintering if there is a bomb; the windows on the buses and trains have the same stuff.
I am now travelling back to Brandon. When I went home to London, I travelled in the guard’s van and the guard had to look after me because I’m not old enough to go on the train on my own. On the way back to Brandon there is a goat in the van too, and we both looked out of the window and I cuddled him all the way. I think he was a bit scared until I talked to him.
I am back in Brandon now and the weather is a lot better now and so we go out a lot. Near Brandon there is a big forest called Thetford Forest and we often go there on Sundays. We collect pine cones and see lovely little red squirrels with huge bushy tails – they look just like the ones in the Beatrice Potter story books. On the way home we pick up twigs for kindling to help light the fire in the winter. Sometimes we go to the heath where there are hundreds of rabbits and rabbit holes everywhere. It’s called Thetford Warren and the rabbits are caught and their skins sent to the felt factory to make felt for hats. The meat is made into rabbit pie and Auntie makes a lovely rabbit pie and pigeon pie … pigeon pie is my favourite. There are lots of different sorts of birds in Brandon. Some have built a nest just under the roof right out side my bedroom window. They’re called ‘swifts’. There are blue tits and skylarks, and sparrows of course, but not pigeons like in London but they must be here somewhere because we have pigeon pie. There is another bird that I have never seen but we hear it every evening – we call it the ‘peewit’ because of the sound it makes – “peeeee-wit”; but really it’s called a Lapwing.
In the field at the back there is a big hollow tree where sometimes my friend Phyllis and I go and sit in like a little house. The tree is very tall and quite dead and Auntie said it was struck by lightning a long time ago. In the evening lots of crows come and sit outside and they make a dreadful noise until it gets dark and then they go to sleep. Phyllis said one of her granddad’s cows has had a new calf and we’re going to see it. We go to the barn where the cow and calf are, but Phylliss’ granddad won’t let us go in; he does let us look in at the calf from the door, but we mustn’t stroke it.
Sometimes there isn’t any toilet paper in the shop so we have to cut up newspaper into squares and make a hole in the corner to thread string through to hang it up and use that instead.
There have been quite a few air raids lately and the men have put an Anderson shelter in the corner of Auntie’s garden. One night she wakes me up and tells me we must all go down there and we stay until the all clear sounds and then we go back to bed. Mummy has come to stay in Brandon for a holiday she looks different somehow. She was gaunt and grey, suffering from a nervous breakdown in the wake of the blitz – 57 days and nights of continuous bombardment.
There are a lot more evacuees in town now, mostly mothers and babies who have been bombed out, and the other day one of the village women complained about them buying up all the wool from the wool shop. Mummy was very cross and said, “Don’t you realise? Winter’s coming and these poor people have nothing except the clothes they stand up in.” The other lady didn’t answer, but I think she was ashamed. Afterwards Mummy said to me, “Imagine what it must be like if there is an air raid when you are at school or out shopping and when you try to go home, your whole street isn’t there any more.”
It’s spring, and I like to go and lay by the pond and watch the tadpoles and frogs. Sometimes I go down to the river where there are lovely bull rushes and flowers to pick. I don’t try to pick the bull rushes because it’s dangerous to go to the edge of the river except were it’s very shallow and you can see the pebbles. In the warm weather Auntie gives Patch a bath out in the garden, he doesn’t like it and Joyce and Pat have to hold him while Auntie washes him. When they let go he runs away straight across the field to the river bank and rolls in the mud.
There is an army barracks somewhere nearby, I’m not sure where, but we see lots of army lorries going through the town and there are some soldiers billeted in the town. One of them is called Corporal Mason and he walks with me and Auntie to Church and Sunday school every Sunday morning.
There was a fire in the haystack in the field beside the church and everybody was pulling it to pieces they said it was because it had got damp inside from the rain. I don’t understand. I thought the wet of the rain would put out the fire!
We all go out and pick lots of rose hips from the hedges to give to the W.I. who send them to be made into rose hip syrup. Rose hip syrup is ever so sweet and nice but if you try to eat the rose hips they taste horrible.
It’s now Autumn, and there are lots of birds sitting on the telephone wires. Every day there are a few more Auntie says they’re swallows and that soon they’ll all fly away south for the winter and come back again next year. I helped Auntie wind the wool after she undid two jumpers, she is going to knit a new one and a hat and scarf for me because clothes are rationed too now and we have to make old things into new ones.
Today it was very hot and Miss let us all take our books outside and sit on the grass under the oak tree in the field. It was a history lesson and we usually only go outside for nature study. Miss has put out six blackboards laid flat on the tops of some desks and we got some clay and made a big model of what we think it was like in the Stone Age with caves and Neolithic cave men. Miss says that lots of them used to live round here and they all used flint tools because there is lots of flint here. Norman Villas is made of flint. Lots of the Brandon children have brought in Stone Age flint tools, arrowheads and axes they’ve found in the fields when they’re working. Lots of children did work in the fields, in fact school holidays were arranged to coincide with the tasks such as thinning of sugar beet and harvesting in order that they didn’t interfere with schoolwork. I was once allowed to join the other children harvesting blackcurrants on the de Lotbiniere estate but did not go.
We’re learning to knit at school and I am making a scarf for Corporal Mason. Miss said I can take it out at play time so that I can finish it because he has gone on leave and when he comes back he will be going away to the war. Some of the other girls do a few rows to help me when my hands get tired and the scarf developed a rather curvy shape due to the various degrees of tension used by different knitters.
Corporal Mason came to say goodbye today and I gave him the scarf. I said I was sorry it was not bigger but I didn’t have time to knit any more. He said it was just right because it would fit under his jacket and it would keep him really nice and warm but wouldn’t get in the way like a big scarf would. Then he put it on, and gave me a big kiss and a hug.
Pat got married to a soldier today. I couldn’t have a proper bridesmaid’s dress because clothes are rationed but I wore my best dress and had some flowers to hold. It was a lovely wedding in the end, but at first, everybody was really worried because although we all went to the church this morning the soldier didn’t come and so we had to go home. Pat went to her room. Then the telegraph boy came. This was what made everybody scared – we were all afraid it meant something awful had happened to him. Auntie opened the telegram, and then she smiled. She told the telegraph boy to go and give a note to the vicar and then told Pat that everything was all right and the wedding would happen this afternoon. It seems an air raid had damaged a railway line which in turn had delayed his arrival. Pat finally stopped crying.
Back to London
I am to go home but I do not know quite why and can only assume it is due to Auntie Kent’s failing health. She can’t even take me to the station because she is too unwell, so I go up to her bedroom to say good-bye. Then I am gone.