Evacuee tells of nights shedding silent tears

CLASS OF '26: the girls of class IV at the Church Road School in Gorleston. Picture: DENNIS DURRANT

CLASS OF '26: the girls of class IV at the Church Road School in Gorleston. Picture: DENNIS DURRANT COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Recollections of wartime evacuation and films of the Forties are twin topics this week in response to reader reaction to recent columns. It was all a long time ago, admittedly, but still vivid in the memories of those “of an age.”

My jottings on Mercury’s brilliant coverage of the hasty mass evacuation of thousands of Great Yarmouth schoolchildren in June 1940,and our follow-up when their first letters were delivered to anxious parents – relieved that all were up-beat and betrayed no desperate yearning to return home – prompted a posting on our website by reader John L Cooper, of Burnt Lane, Gorleston, plus a letter from regular correspondent John Brooks, an octogenarian ex-Gorlestonian resident in Kent.

Mr Cooper’s rhyming contribution was more poignant than those recorded in those first letters home, and there have been others in on-line forums recalling deep sadness at being bustled away from friends and family.

On our website John said: “Frightened, hurt, feeling unwanted, thinking that we were being neglected. One of a group of a hundred or more. We both wondered what there was in store. Standing on the platform, with the WI. Mum had gone, leaving us there, wondering why.

“The bag we were given contained food for the trip. Attached to my collar was a hand-written chit. Hours spent travelling. Are we there yet, Mary? So far from my Mum and feeling so weary.

“We eventually got to a place far from home. Though like so many others we felt so alone. We walked up the hill to a house on the right, and the fear that I felt was at its height.

“There before us was a face that was so severe - not gentle and kind as the one I revere. Too young to realise it was for my good. Where’s Mum? Would she come? Perhaps she would.

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“I learnt to cope, I bottled my fears. Just at night I shed those silent tears.”

John, 76, known for his port welfare and scrutiny activities, tells me he and sister Mary were sent to Huntingdonshire, billeted near a bomber base often targeted in air raids. They were forced upon a spinster whose spare room had been commandeered for evacuees by the authorities.

The siblings were very unhappy (“it was a traumatic time for us”), but their mother eventually joined them. He wrote the poem years later, seeking to make his family understand how he and Mary had felt at the time.

Retired deputy headmaster John Brooks recalls: “The war broke out on my sixth birthday (I have a lot to answer for!) when my mother and I were on holiday with relations in a sleepy village in Huntingdonshire. I can remember everyone clustered around a radio whilst I was sent outside to play.

“During the day my father sent a telegram telling my mother to come back immediately as he was afraid the trains might be commandeered for troop movements. When we returned, I can recall being frightened by searchlights.”

Because his Church Road School was closed for some reason, pupils were transferred to Stradbroke Road School, and he thinks a bus was provided for them. Eventually John was sent to stay with relatives and then family friends in what was deemed a safer part of the country.

Children in his Northamptonshire school were encouraged to collect as much waste paper as possible to help with the war effort, and each youngster had to choose which armed service he or she wanted to be in; John opted for the Royal Air Force, and promotion depended on the weight of paper he brought in (“I started as an Aircraftsman and eventually became a Pilot Officer. My ambition was to be the Marshal of the RAF but the neighbourhood soon ran out of paper!”)

Badges were awarded showing ranks.

John wonders if it was a local scheme in Northamptonshire or a national one. I can assure him we did it hereabouts too, and I avidly pestered relatives and neighbours for their waste paper, rising to the dizzy rank of Lieutenant Colonel at Stradbroke Road!

When peace returned, John came home to Gorleston, disappointed to find barbed wire still along the beach and the danger of unexploded mines. “Our house had been bomb-damaged and looted – human nature doesn’t change – and we ended up in digs.”

He went to Yarmouth Grammar School where there was frequent talk about “the mysterious Retford” from which some evacuated pupils had returned.

John Brooks remains a lover of British films of the Forties and we have shared our reminiscences, sparked by my recent admission of a guilty secret from 66 years ago – my favourite star, Patricia Roc, taking a nude swim in the cold waters off the Scottish Isle of Skye in The Brothers, daring for that era but tastefully done, the camera being far away.

But Mercury reader Vera Traynier, of Priory Gardens in Yarmouth, has scuppered another of my memories that1947 black-and-white drama, pointing out that my recollection of the plot was befuddled.

I wrote that another memorable scene, for a different reason, was when leading man Maxwell Reed was given a death sentence by being cast adrift in the sea, wrists bound and a fish tied to his head as bait for a diving seabirds to inflict mortal injury.

But Mrs Traynier, aged 80, who loved the picture on its original release and has it on a VHS tape (“I bought it in Regent Road years ago”), writes: “The role of ‘the informer’ was played by actor Patrick Boxhill, it said in the credits. Maxwell Reed lived on till the end of the film which was adapted from a book by L A G Strong and produced by husband-and-wife Sidney and Betty Box.”

Vera adds, wistfully: “If only there was a group of film buffs who would like to talk over films seen and remembered from our youth. I’d love to join.”

On my computer I Googled The Brothers, now available on DVD, and immediately found the “death by seabird” scene on YouTube, confirming that Vera is correct and it was not Maxwell Reed who met a grisly, fishy end.

Sadly, the clip did not show Patricia Roc enjoying her skinny-dip. Perhaps my boyhood memory of that scene was equally erroneous...