A Holiday of a Lifetime
(This was written in response to a request
by our local Museum on holidays)
Born at the end of September 1935, the sixth child of a family of, at that time, seven children, holidays were not a part of our lifestyle. My parents had been rehoused from Stepney Green to the sprawling Becontree Council Estate in Dagenham just before the birth of their second child in 1927. At first living in a two bedroomed house in Britton Road at the Merry Fiddlers, and with my arrival being moved into a three bedroomed house in Downing Road. With the outbreak of war imminent my father volunteered for the army leaving mum with seven children all under 14 years. Most of the Boroughs had been practising for the ‘Evacuation’ for many months, but Dagenham had been either forgotten or deemed a safe place, despite being on the river and with much industry; so unlike most London kids we had not undergone weeks of ‘training’. Preceding the announcement that we were at war to be broadcast by Chamberlain on the 3rd September, mum was to be found with her gaggle of children on the jetty at Fords for the great Exodus leaving Dagenham on 1st September 1939. Mum was evacuated with us because she had a toddler and a child under school age. What a wonderful spectacle she must have presented surrounded by all of us! Like most working class mums of the time she was short and dumpy, no make-
Aboard the ‘Daffodil’ we set off for Lowestoft, and the well-
For a short while we were all together then my older siblings were sent off to a variety of homes in Wales, Sussex and Suffolk. For a few weeks I was with mum and baby Teddy but she soon returned home to Dagenham. I apparently then surfaced in Somerset, no one seems to know how or why; I guess I was just an intrepid four year old traveller. Paddington Bear had nothing on me!
There in the soft green fields and gentle hills of Somerset began my ‘holiday of a lifetime’, a time which has stayed in my memories always, and which must have shaped me for life. Although war raged across the World, homes, people and countries completely devastated and destroyed, sheltered in those sleepy, quite lanes I learnt to love and appreciate this beautiful country of ours.
I did not start well for me. My first billet was at the local school house, with the school marm, her mother and daughter. Does it speak volumes that I cannot even remember their names or faces. The daughter well enough into her teens to go a-
One lovely sunny day I was collected by a lady dressed in green – this was my Auntie Ada who took me home to meet my Uncle George in their large beautiful home in Axbridge – ‘Fairfield’ which had originally been an Inn. They also had two adopted sons, their nephews, John in the air force and George in the army.
Now followed days of sunshine, walking green and shady lanes, glorious hours spent in nearby woods with countless friends, all local children. I never met with any other evacuees except my sister Dorothy, two years my senior, who stayed at Cross, a village just a short walk away. Later she was to billet with me at ‘Fairfield’, along with the Stokes family from Bristol. I attended the school, Infants and Juniors all in one large room, which was the village hall. Dolly, along with David Stokes, soon outgrew the Village School and took the bus into Cheddar. I remember resting after lunch lying on top of our desks, lots of drawing and also singing rousing songs like ‘Hearts of Oak’.
We spent whole days walking the Mendip Hills, reached from the bottom of ‘my garden’. We knocked at isolated cottages for drinks of water, always greeted by these gentle folk with smiles and generosity. We picked immeasurable buckets of blackberries and rose-
I remember blissful days, warm and sunny, did it never rain? My special friend Jessica Latimer lived in the small garden next to ‘Fairfield’, one of a large family where I was always felt at home. Our favourite place was the local quarry. I knew nothing of stones, their names, their uses. Only that the quarry men had formed caves with their digging, caves where the walls glittered and glinted like precious diamonds in the bright sunshine, A magical place for two little girls to make believe. Uncle George worked here and he also drove a steamroller, rolling slowly down the roads, smoothing down the tarmac, the smell of the hot tar permeating the air – if I am lucky enough to smell that now I am back there in Somerset. His special treat, only for me, was to ride up there with him, while the other children swarmed around. And always, each evening from his lunch-
I don’t remember rain, but snow, deep white glistening snow. Snow that covered the lanes and fields so that hedgerows and landmarks disappeared. Snow that topped over our wellies as we struggled to school, until the snow-
In that other world occupied by adults the war raged on, but slowly the allies were bringing it to a longed for finish. Children began to drift back home to their parents. Most were thrilled to be returning home but quite a few shed tears on leaving Auntie and Uncle and country friends. Mr Stokes was demobbed from the Air Force so the family returned to bomb-
Unknown to me Auntie Ada and Uncle George had asked my parents if they could adopt me. Auntie had apparently visited them when she was in London and she really didn’t want ‘her’ little girl returning to Dagenham, after all they had looked after me for longer than my birth mother and father. This must have gone on for some time because it wasn’t until 1946 that I came back to Dagenham. I can remember telling Auntie that I wouldn’t go and I would run away and return to them. Only later did I realise how painful it must have been for them also.
I remember returning to the house in Dagenham, a dark and frightening place after the elegant beauty of ‘Fairfield’. Dagenham, teeming with people, house on house, no fields, no hills, no familiar faces or places. By then mum had three more children, eleven people all crowded into one small house – by then my eldest sister was married. Mum had five boys and five girls. I did wonder why she couldn’t have spared one for that loving family in Somerset.
I remember – an evacuee
I remember none of the evacuation from Dagenham, or the time spent with my family in Suffolk. Except one memory of a lovely garden with flowers and grass, it was very warm and sunny, I was running around with a small dog, and then I was sick! I do have very clear mind pictures of my early time in Somerset, this would be when I was four. My first billet was with a family which consists of a grandmother, the mother who is also the school teacher, and her daughter; there is no father – perhaps he is in the forces. I am sitting strapped in a push-
I remember when I first arrived at ‘Fairfield’ – this is the name of the house where I am now to live. The kitchen is huge, there is an enormous table, I am too small to see over the top of it. High up around the walls are giant golden plates and along one wall a long, long dresser with so many plates and dishes. Sitting in a large armchair beside a big black stove is this smiling rosy faced man, my Uncle George who pulls me onto his lap and hugs me. I sleep with Auntie on a bed made up under the stairs; I am frightened of being upstairs at night. Later I sleep with Auntie in her big, big bed upstairs while Uncle sleeps in a small bed across the room. When Mrs Stokes comes to live with us I sleep in a small bed at the foot of her big bed.
It is my 5 th birthday, the big table in the kitchen is laden with wonderful food, and a birthday cake just for me! We are sitting around the table, the Doctor has been invited, but Auntie is very shocked because he starts to eat before we have said grace!
I attend school in Cross, it is the Village Hall, just one large room and we are in groups, infants and juniors. We sing songs like ‘Hearts of Oak have our ships, jolly Tars are our men. We always are ready, steady boys steady.’ The seniors are taken by bus into Cheddar. Soon my sister Dolly is evacuated in the cottages at the other side of Cross so I see her when she comes to my school. One sunny day we all go to the fields, perhaps it is nature study, we all sit down to have a picnic lunch. Dolly sits in a cow-
We have a very big garden; there are lots of fruit trees and of course vegetables, with yellow and orange nasturtiums growing along the wall. In summer I sit under the trees reading while my hair dries. At the bottom of our garden I discover a small brick hut so, with the help of friends who live in the cottages next door we clean it out. This is our house, we have a table and stools, it is very nice, and we have flowers on the table. At the side of the house there is a big gate which leads into the garden and the back of the house. This is the way we all come in; only visitors use the front door in the country. There is also by the garage a walled ‘secret garden’. It is very peaceful and quiet and I often go in there to read my books. Alongside the hose is a wall, it is painted white and seems very high to me, and a lilac tree. I often get home first and sit on the wall and keep watch down the lane for one of my family to come home.
Through the high hedge at the bottom of the garden, across a field and there are the Mendip Hills. We go for long walks in the sunshine, my sister and Josie Stokes with me, across the hills stopping at hillside cottages for a cool drink. Off to the woods, carpeted with bluebells, primroses, celandines, blue and white violets; we climb trees, paddle in the streams. I remember a big tree in the woods, the older boys pull down one of the big branches, we would all hold it down, then at a signal we smaller kids let go while the bigger ones would all hang on and shoot up in the air. One time my frock became caught on the branch and up I went! My frock tore and down I fell – I go home bruised and tearful and the big-
With Jessie Latimer I play in the nearby quarries, in the caves made by the workmen, caves that sparkle with ‘precious’ jewels. Sometimes I am allowed to ride on Uncle’s steam-
Sundays – Morning Service at Cross; Sunday School with an Indian Gentleman who showed us 3D slides of Jerusalem; a walk later if it was fine; high tea then Evensong at Axbridge. I remember the church at Axbridge – lots of steps for little legs to climb leading up to the big church at the top. I remember the Nativity scene and the big Christmas Tree. Singing carols on cold, frosty evenings around the village. Sunday dinners all sitting around that big table – we are always well fed but these are extra delicious – more so to a poor London kid. There seems no shortage of food, but you mustn’t waste it. Roast meats, vegetables, batter puddings, thick gravy, followed by hot apple pie and custard. All cooked on the big black range by the glowing fire.
Cold winter afternoons after school toasting bread or crumpets by the fire, oozing real butter. Gazing into the fire at the magic pictures and caves which suddenly collapse and new pictures appear. Visiting Auntie Ada in the big kitchen in Axbridge where she works, she always seems to be in her green WVS uniform. The steam trains puffing into Axbridge Station. The lady in one of the cottages who makes pretty dresses for me and always makes a matching dress for my doll. Whist Drives, Beetle Drives and Socials in the Village Hall to raise money for the troops. Knitting socks and gloves to send out to the troops, we knit these on four needles. Some of the young ladies place messages and their addresses in the parcels but I’m too young to do that. Trips to Bristol with Dolly and Mrs Stokes to check on how things are at her hairdressers shop, Bristol milling with American servicemen, always ready to make a fuss of us kids, bars of chocolate, chewing gum’ dozing on Auntie Stroke’s shoulder on the long bus ride home, way, way past our bedtime. Picking blackberries and rose-
The war is over. Mr Stokes is demobbed and they return to Bristol. Dolly was officially billeted with the Stokes but she returned home long ago. My life continues as normal, I am just one of the Village kids. I cannot recall being told I am to be sent to Dagenham, I have neither seen nor heard anything from there for years. I don’t even remember a place called Dagenham. I remember on the day saying I will run away and come back home. I have my small brown case in which I keep my ‘special treasures’ – if I hide it in the cupboard under the settle they will have to let me come back. (I wonder what they did when they found it?) I kneel on the settle in front of the window, it is sunny and warm, the white lace curtains move in the breeze …. Nothing more, the parting, the journey, nothing. How I travelled to Somerset is a mystery – my journey back is the same.
A house – the bricks are painted white but it appears so small, so dark. A house in a long row of similar houses, across the road more houses, row on row for ever. No golden fields across the lane, no green hills to explore on summer days, no shady lanes to wander, no lilac tree, no friends, no Uncle George, no Auntie Ada. Stark sunlight outlines two small children peering in through the back door, grubby, untidy blond hair, thumbs in mouth, staring wide-
Why didn’t I keep in contact with my Auntie and Uncle? Back in Dagenham that time was never mentioned again. Things were very hard for families like ours after the war; keeping in contact with people miles away was pretty low on the priority list. My family had made no contact with Mr and Mrs Hardridge while I was with them so why would they bother now. Sometimes Dolly and I would talk about Somerset but it all became as a dream, something that happened to someone else. Later when I learnt of the hard time my other siblings had experienced I realised why they just wanted to forget it all. We settled back into our dysfunctional family, grew up, started work, married, and only when people started to ask questions did we look back, remember and wonder about that other world.
Postscript – August 1970, on holiday with my family in Somerset I ask my husband to take me to Axbridge. We find ‘Fairfield’ and I ask him and my children to leave me there and call back in a couple of hours, I need to do this on my own. The high wall not so high now, but the lilac tree is still there. I make my way around to the back door; I have never used the front entrance. It all seems the same, the trees, the vegetables, the old shed, the hills – all still there. Even the horseshoe over the back door. I knock gently and when the door opens an old man peers out – not so tall, not so muscular, but it is my Uncle George. I explain who I am. I recognize him, but the little girl is now a grown woman, mother of two children …. He invites me into the big kitchen which once I knew as home. There are the big brass plates shining down from the wall – my Saturday morning job. The large kitchen table, the dresser, the settle under the window. We sit and talk over a cup of tea. He tells me Auntie died a few years back. He is proud of how he still works his garden, but he no longer farms, his brother has also died. He does the paper round each morning on his bike for his and two nearby villages. So quickly and it is time to leave, he doesn’t ask how I came or how I am to go – perhaps like me he finds it all unreal. I notice the cornfields across the lane have made way for a large estate of bungalows. We exchange a couple of letters, and then in November a letter arrives from John – it says that Uncle George has died. On a frosty, misty November we drive down to attend his funeral in the old church at Cross. No one recognizes me though I remember many of them – I feel alone, a stranger – I don’t feel able to speak to them. Later I wrote to John to let him know I had been at the funeral but he never replied.
How I nearly became famous!
Early 2012, after giving a talk to the Barking Historicals, re my family’s evacuation during the war, John Blake KINDLY put it in print in the Association’s News. That is when I nearly appeared on ‘The One Show' and became famous.
Some weeks later I received a phone call from a young woman asking me about our evacuation on the boats from Ford’s Jetty. I explained that I was only three at the time and could not remember the exodus; I also had other things on my mind! I had escaped the clutches (or should I say care) of my older siblings and was chatting up the sailors.
Their original idea had been to get all seven of us ‘kids’ together and do the show around that, photos of us embarking with mum, etc. Few problems here – we didn’t have any photos, not many families had cameras then; my family is scattered across the World, New Zealand, America, Germany, and mum and one sister have died.
I did have older friends whom I could put them in touch with. They explained they had first to put the idea before the BBC and would get back to me, and that this could take some time. Many weeks later I received a call to say ‘the programme had been commissioned and they had the go-
Weeks later another call, could I let them have my friends details and they ‘liked the bit about me and the sailors’ could they use that!
I had already spoken to two friends who at that time were happy to take part, so I mentioned their names. I also mentioned the ERA, English Heritage, and of course Mark and Valence House. They liked the idea of filming at Valence House and the Dig for Victory Garden.
Another call from Jake of Icon Films, could I put him in touch with Ella and Rosie. We had a chat and I said I would get permission to let him their phone numbers, this I duly did and phoned him back. He then had long talks with Ella, who sent him a copy of her book; and also Rosie. I had asked Rosie to speak to Tom and get him on board also. Tom was thrilled to be involved.
This is when it all became confusing – Valence House were approached re filming there; Ella told Jake she didn’t want to appear on the programme; and I fell off the radar! Lost again, at least in 1939 I didn’t fall off the boat!
I learnt some days later that they had interviewed Tom at his old school, Eastbrook. They had been to Valence and filmed the ‘40’s room’ and the ‘Dig for Victory Garden’.
I have seen some pictures – not for release yet; it looks good. I will let you know when it is to be shown – if of course someone lets me know!
If you are interested in the ‘Exodus of the Owen family’ you will find it on:-
The Evacuation 1940 and 2013
The Evacuation 1940
‘Come on, then Lady,’ let’s see what it’s all about, then.’ Silly really, I’m feeling quite nervous. I expect they are all very frightened, and missing their mums already. Strange old world we live in. Old Jones has been fussing around these past weeks.
‘Whoa there, Lady! here we are.’ Sounds as if the train is just pulling in. Well bless us, some are just babes. Look at them all, with their little gas-
Councillor Jones is heading my way; let’s see what he has to say! ‘Hello Mrs Cooper, you did say you would take boys, didn’t you. Not many want young boys, older ones perhaps, to help around the place, but not the younger ones.
‘Of course, Councillor, boys, girls, what’s the difference; they’re all children.’
‘There are three boys here, brothers; they seem quiet and well behaved.’
‘I’m sure they’ll all be happy running around our farm. Hello boys, how would you like to come and stay on our farm for a little while?’
My sons have just joined up, Peter in the Air Force, and John in the Paratroopers. They could have been exempted but they wanted to go and do their bit; so we have two Land Girls instead. We’ve had a few laughs at times but they soon learnt our country ways; and they appreciated our country food and why we wear sturdy shoes and wellingtons!
‘Well boys, let’s introduce you to Lady, and then we’ll be on our way.’
‘Mrs Cooper! Mrs Cooper!’
Oh no, Councillor Jones again, and with his little secretary and her little note book; funny little thing she is. Now what do they want.
‘Mrs Cooper! This little family, no one wants four children. I don’t suppose .... just for a few days .... until...?’
‘Well, that’s seven! Five boys and two girls, there’s a thing! Whatever will father say!’
Hey up! Lady, let’s get home. I’m certainly in for a busy time!
The Evacuation 2013
The coach picks us up from Chadwell Heath and soon we are on our way to play ‘host’ in a re-
Like all good plans – they go awry – especially if it involves transport and children! Our train appears on the track, smoke and steam belching from the engine – remember that smell! Out come all our cameras and then we settle in our First Class carriages; now there’s luxury. Soon we hear the children arriving – but then we wait and we wait! Apparently one of the buses headed off to Stratford by mistake. Eventually they arrive and then with a ‘huff and a puff’ we are away. I don’t know how excited the children are, but I am certainly thrilled as we clackety-
Arriving at Ongar we are told there is a change of plan. The children have already started on their lunch-
After lunch we line up ready for the introductions to our ‘families’. However, if a group of children hear the word ‘toilet’, suddenly they all want to go! We have the best part of 100 children; in the ladies there are 2 toilets, I have no idea what the situation is in the men’s! Sometime later....! we start to pick our families and take them off to the ‘picnic area’. My first choice is three likely lads, nudging and giggling – they tell me they are from Dagenham and their dad is in the army; then change their minds and he is a Spitfire Pilot. They live near London and there are lots of bombs being dropped. One of them then drops his head down on the table and gives a good imitation of ‘breaking his little heart’, ‘I am so upset because I had to say goodbye to my mum and she was crying, and she might be bombed ....’. He really should consider taking up acting! I assure them it will all be over soon and their mums will be able to come and visit them. I ask them if they would like to stay on our farm and we discuss how they can help with the milking, and how we need to plough up the pasture to grow wheat because we can nolonger bring it here by ship from other countries; and soon they can help with the hay making. Then I tell them about going to the farm by horse and cart, and I suggest we go to meet Lady. Just then another ‘family’ joins our group, 2 girls and 2 boys, so it looks as if I am to take 7 children home to the farm! We talk a little longer about living in the country when the call goes out for us all to get back on the train. This is when another of the children asks if they can see Lady first, so I needed to tactfully explain that it was all ‘make-
The children are summoned into their school groups by their teachers and we are asked to get back onto the train first. Soon we are all settled in and the train begins its return journey to North Weald. Here we watch the children clamber on to their buses and everyone, quite sadly, waves them off as they disappear down the country road. It has been such an interesting and enjoyable day for us all. Though for a few of us it also brought back poignant memories of our own childhood when we made that journey into the unknown.
Now we just have to wait for our coach to arrive. And we wait! And we wait! Eventually with a cheer we welcome our coach and driver. Apparently our coach was delayed because of an accident and our Driver who was on his way somewhere else, was asked to pick us up first. Lucky for us he came to the rescue or we may have been looking for someone to take us in for the night!
Katie has kindly supplied some images of the Evacuation event at Ongar