Evacuee’s affections for wartime home
PUBLISHED: 16:39 02 July 2015 | UPDATED: 16:39 02 July 2015
Bureaucracy has burgeoned into a bloated bane of our lives, time-consuming, infuriating and inflicted upon us by seemingly faceless people with a penchant for form-filling and summoning meetings that seldom reach a positive conclusion.
It was probably a similar pen-pushing mindset three-quarters of a century ago, a time when most ordinary folk were in awe of administrators and wary of challenging their powers.
But to their credit, they shed that perceived prevarication instantly and, against the fast-ticking clock, devised and implemented a massive logistical plan when Great Yarmouth was deemed to be in the front line if Nazi Germany launched attacks on Britain by air or sea. For in the space of a few hours, the authorities arranged for the mass evacuation of the majority of our schoolchildren to a safer area of England.
This was early summer 1940. On the Tuesday an official letter was received by all parents urging them to let their schoolchildren be evacuated. They had to make the decision overnight as to whether or not their youngsters would leave their homes for Nottinghamshire because their replies had to be returned the next morning.
Four days later, on Sunday, June 2, the exodus to safety took place, 3700 local pupils boarding four of the 97 special trains carrying a total of 47,000 children from 18 east coast towns to Midlands destinations.
Seventy-five years later, the percentage of those once evacuated to the Retford area is small and diminishes steadily, but one of the local pupils to leave her home town on that 1940 Sunday was Cynthia Edwards, a Priory School pupil whose parents ran a small general shop in St George’s Road in Yarmouth and lived on the premises.
Miss Edwards, now 83 and resident in Second Avenue, Caister, has been recalling that fateful departure day and her wartime years in Retford not only to me but also to the Retford Times. Some of her fellow evacuees stayed in Retford when most returned to the seaside; Cynthia did come back to Yarmouth, but has maintained a life-long affection for her wartime home, has friends there, and has paid many visits to the place in the intervening seven decades.
In her younger days back at the seaside, she bravely cycled to Retford and back a couple of times. It took her 13½ hours to cover the 135 miles each way to Retford and back; although traffic was lighter then, nonetheless it was no mean feat at a time long before every city, town and village en route was bypassed as they are today.
Also, years ago, she made the trip on her BSA Bantam motor-cycle – and frequently has driven up in her car.
As for that life-changing Sunday morning at Yarmouth Vauxhall railway station, Cynthia tells me: “It was all bewildering. I can’t remember a great deal about the actual journey to Retford, but we were quite crammed into carriages.
“I had never been farther than Pakefield because we lived at the seaside so we didn’t go away on holidays!
“When we got off the train at Retford, I can remember sitting in a school hall with a little bottle of milk they gave us, and people were coming round and choosing who they thought they’d like to take in. A lady and her daughter of my age took me.
“The first night there, I cried. But when I woke up in the morning, I was in bed with my new mum and dad and they held me. I was one of the family! I spent four and a-half years there. It was so different, but people were so kind.”
Also, she enjoyed the freedoms of living so close to the countryside.
Her evacuee mother was a superb cook, she says, and despite rationing, nobody in the household ever went hungry, a situation helped by the fact that her evacuee father had an allotment.
While in Retford young Cynthia passed her 11-plus examination (called the scholarship in those days) and attended the evacuated Yarmouth Girls’ High School until they all returned to Yarmouth to continue their education in their home town. She is convinced being evacuated helped her to grow up and to learn to do things for herself - “Retford taught me to be independent. When I got back home to Yarmouth I could darn my own socks and stand on my own two feet.”
During her numerous returns to Retford, Cynthia has stayed in various types of accommodation. One hotel where she often stayed inadvertently overbooked on one occasion but succeeded in finding her room in a guest house. That led to her always staying there, at Peter Dixon and his family’s establishment, and they have become firm friends.
Evacuation to Retford was the first time Cynthia’s had left her home town, but it sowed the seeds of a desire to travel in adulthood. She has journeyed far and wide, including sailing on the Amazon and seeing the Ganges. Despite being an octogenarian, she continues to enjoy being a traveller rather than a holidaymaker.
There was a time when her visits to picturesque Retford had to be fitted into her annual holiday entitlement as a working woman.
One of her early jobs in Yarmouth was at Erie Resistor, in the postwar era one of the borough’s biggest employers but long gone.
Later she moved into local government, being on the staff at both Norwich City Hall and Yarmouth Town Hall.
How did I come to hear about Cynthia’s wartime evacuation from Yarmouth to Retford? Well, an interview with her was published this spring in the Retford Times in a nostalgia-type column similar to this Great Yarmouth Mercury one.
It was read by Mrs Peggotty’s sister, a Sheffield resident who spends happy days in Retford where she and her husband have a static caravan on a complex of freshwater angling lakes. Spotting the Yarmouth connection, she forwarded the Retford newspaper to me.
Today’s feature is the result.