Evacuees in Eversholt

The story of the evacuees who came to Eversholt is not well remembered or documented. Please, if you know anything more, do get in touch. There’s a form at the bottom of this page or you can contact privately here.

Tim Downie collected and edited these memories from his Mum, Jean, in 2021. They’ve very kindly allowed us to publish them here. Thanks very much, Tim and Jean! This a priceless first-hand story of evacuation and Eversholt. It may be the only one we ever see.

WW2 Evacuation memories of Jean Downie nee Jean Paine

At the time I was fourteen years old and in secondary school, just an ordinary Central
School [1], not a private one. Gas masks had been issued the year before at the time of
the Munich crisis and at that time too, we had been instructed to carry suitcases containing
our clothes in preparation for possible evacuation. Now, one year later it was happening
again. Each morning as we left home we or our parents did not know if we would return.
The day before the 2nd World War began in 1939 we were sent en-masse, by train to an
unknown destination.

When we were actually evacuated we were issued with a small brown paper bag, carrying
sandwiches and a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate (one remembers these things!) carrying our suitcases, the square cardboard box of our gas masks strung across our shoulders, and
finally a label pinned to the lapels of school uniform coats. I remember little of the journey,
apart from its all day length. The train was interminably slow, stopping at every small
village for long periods of time. All stations had their names covered so we did not know
where we were. I do remember being on the train with some classmates, but lost sight of
them when, at one of the stops, I was told to leave the carriage with a few other girls, none
of whom were my friends. I believe that eventually after that long tedious day, we were
not much more than 30-40 miles away from London.

At our station we were met outside the station by a group of WRVS (I think they were, or it
may have been the WI, but I seem to remember a uniform) and a small collection of
anxious villagers. Another girl and I seemed to be last to meet our new foster parents. It
felt as though we were chosen although I cannot believe that we were looked over and
selected. I do know that the lady who ‘chose’ us was vastly relieved that we were older
girls and not rough cockney boys.

I was billeted with another girl about two years older than me and a stranger. We shared a
bedroom where each morning I watched her spitting on her hair to make kiss curls either
side of her face which was almost as fascinating as looking at my grandmother’s empty
eye socket. She was 16, a natural blonde, very mature, pretty and vain. As I heard later
she eventually married one of the village boys, this evacuation was an exciting opportunity
for her. But not for me despite the relative comfort at our billet. We arrived on September
2 nd and on the 3 rd of September war was declared, just a day later.

We were standing outside the small village school and heard Churchill’s voice announcing
Hitler’s lack of co-operation. Therefore we were now at war with Germany. During the
past year, there had been changes of premiers, Churchill being more forceful-and had
already been involved in past conflicts. That broadcast had been repeated many times
since but in my head, I can still hear it that first time. How did I feel? Numb I think. Some
children cried, although it already felt that for us the worst had already happened.
None of us expected to see our parents again. We did not care about our education but
education did go on, after a fashion. There were one or two of our teachers accompanying
our small group, maybe 15 or 20, although I cannot be sure. Eventually the routine settled
down to either morning or afternoon teaching, the village children being taught during the
other half of the day. During my time in the village I don’t remember friendships with the
village children, or any real education taking place, but as I had successfully avoided it in
the years before there was little change.

Away from home, I now found that moral education was now in my own hands. There was
no familiar red brick Methodist Church available to attend, but a grey stone Church of
England church, surrounded by an ancient grave yard which in my loneliness I found
comforting. I had the quandary as to whether or not I should attend, as there was no one
in the village to say whether I should or should not. In the end, I went every Sunday on
my own, to the unfamiliar service where they said the Apostles Creed which said we
should believe in the raising of the dead. I did not believe this so didn’t say that bit, and
they knelt on hassocks for the prayers. At these times I felt more lonely than ever. I got to
know that graveyard very well as I walked through it on my way to school which is how I
developed a lifelong fondness for gravestones.

I was fortunate in my billet. They were a young couple, possibly still in their 20s. Our
foster parents were very kind. Each night a carefully wrapped hot brick was placed on our
beds, having been heated in the range oven. We were surprised to learn they had a little
girl whom we never saw. I now know that the income from two evacuees was tempting
enough to send their child away to relatives for the duration of the war. I suspect she was
still in the village with grandparents. I did not know this at the time. I was only slightly
mystified by her absence. It was a very small cottage with three rooms I think, no
electricity, the house lit downstairs by an oil lamp and upstairs with candles, water from a
pump in the garden, and an outside toilet. I should mention the outside toilet was a tin
bucket that periodically needed emptying into a septic tank, a little distance away from the
cottage and we were warned not to tread on the galvanised cover. Somehow none of this
surprised me. I think I enjoyed it. Had it been a home like, yet not like my own I would
have hated it.

Despite the unfamiliarity of life in the country, way from home etc. I cannot say, in
retrospect that I was unhappy. I was fortunate in my foster parents and fascinated by the
life they led. My co-evacuee was a bit more of a problem. I have no doubt that I was a
nuisance to her. There were occasional parties in the village and I would try to tag along
with her to get back to the cottage in the dark. She was into boys and I suspect I cramped
her style, but not too much apparently as she eventually married a village lad.

We were extremely well fed. The man of the house worked as a gamekeeper at a nearby
estate and frequently poached game, throwing it over the estate wall to pick up on his way
home. The kitchen range nearly always contained something very good, usually rabbit,
partridge or pheasant. I found food rationing much more of a problem in London on
returning home. My parents could neither afford or would buy on the black market.
There was also the bonus of a small poultry farm. In order to improve their income my
foster parents sold eggs. I really loved those hens and the caring of them greatly helped
me during those months, despite the bitter weather of that winter. I knew a lot of the hens
by name, which hen was laying by its colour and the shape of its egg, and I also knew a
little of the genealogy of the hens, what colour egg re its parentage etc. Those hens did a
lot of mitigation of the problem of an unknown future.

Only one of my old school friends was in the village, but as she came with her mother and
young pre-school brother they arrived separately from the rest of the school. All our other
friends were at different villages and we were not to see them until we gradually returned
to our old London school. Some of them never did return though, those whose parents
were brave enough to send them to Canada, some to relatives in the country and so on.
Our past lives and friendships were disrupted and were re-established later after may of us returned, but this friend and her family were billeted in the one big farmhouse in the village
and I occasionally visited them there. I loved that farm kitchen with its big wood burning
stove, the occasional orphaned lamb warming inside, the kittens, dogs, the big deal table,
just everything about it.

Can I go back to that small brown paper bag containing sandwiches and the bar of
Cadbury’s chocolate? I had never had so much chocolate given to me in my lifetime. I
think it might have been a whole ½ lb, bright blue wrapping and silver tinfoil. All quite
wonderful and wondered at the fact that I did not eat it on the train but saved it for LATER.
When later came, the other girl and I took our chocolate into a field to sit on the grass to
savour it. We had not noticed the horse on the far side that came rapidly galloping across
the field. I had never been so scared or so agile at climbing over a wall. So the horse had
our chocolate. I have regretted it ever since!

During the first few months of the war our homes were not bombed, life was continuing as
usual apart from rationing, blackout, etc. It was the time since known as the “phoney war”
when it had been expected that bombing would begin immediately. My parents visited
once during my 3 months in village. They had no car, so travelled on their tandem bicycle,
probably about 40 miles. I have thought many times since, just how hard it must have
been for our parents, who would say goodbye each morning as we left the house with our
suitcases, not actually knowing if and when we would actually leave. As at that time, no
one knew if London was to be destroyed or bombed, and if so when, whether they would
ever see me again, and so on. Perhaps it was a little easier for us, in a group, not totally
understanding the political situation.

I returned home only to spend a sad Christmas with my parents and brother. My
Grandfather at 75, had responded to the call for retired men to return to work, and who
had been working at the shoe factory with my father. When leaving the factory one dark
night, he walked into the path of a bus . He was killed outright. All streets were dimly lit,
headlights on buses and cars were minimal, covered with paper with a small circular hole
cut in the middle, dangerous for all and especially for slower moving older people. I
suppose we all got used to it but sadly my grandfather did not have the time. It was a
bitterly sad homecoming. I was supposed to be home to comfort my father, perhaps the
family being together again was some kind of comfort. Until this time, no bombs had
fallen on Britain. That was to start later.

[1] Note from Tim Downie. I believe this might have been the William McGuffie secondary modern school in Walthamstow. This was known as the North West Central school by 1922.

Becs Fleckney kindly provided this photo from her Gran. It’s understood to be the evacuees who came to Eversholt from Walthamstow on September 2 1939 – the day before war was declared. They were here for some months. The school history states that there were 14 evacuees and 42 locals, but neither of those numbers matches the image, so that’s a bit of a mystery.

And we know who one of them is! This one is Jean Paine, whose story is told above. The middle one in the middle row.

Jean Paine, Evacuee
Tim and Jean in 2021, with their kind permission. This image is copyright Tim.

Maurice Kachuk wrote to Eversholt2 to say that his mum, Winifred Bunker, was born in Eversholt. He wrote:

 You have no mention on your site of the evacuees who came to Eversholt during the war. One of these taught my mum to tap dance outside her house in the road. They used to do little shows I think in the reading room?  Then when I came along, a long time later, not only did I learn the cossack dancing, mum taught me to tap dance.  The rest as they say is history, I’ve danced all my life, clocking up 30 years as a professional dancer/singer/actor. I have a dance studio in Ampthill where I teach too.  She cant remember the name of the evacuee who taught her. That’s always been a shame  I think. Have a lot to thank her for!

Does anyone know anything about evacuees in Eversholt? Leave a comment!

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