Evacuated from Norwood
I was evacuated to Brighton on September 4th 1939.
I left Norwood – destination as yet unknown – carrying a gas mask in an uncomfortably square box on a string across my shoulder like a school purse. I also had my school purse with 1/- pocket money donated by parents on my departure, and a heavy rucksack full of clothes. There was also a carrier bag, donated by an official, containing among other things a 4oz bar of chocolate (an unheard of amount at one time in our family), an orange and some hard, square biscuits which we decided were outsize dog biscuits. I don’t think the chocolate survived the journey.
I remember being assembled in a Church Hall and a lady called a billeting officer collecting us in small groups. I was put with a girl called Grace Bashford; we had never been very close friends but were destined to become very intimately acquainted for the first six months of the War. Our billeting officer was a large cheerful lady of the standard W.V.S. variety who took us in her car (a rare treat for a child like me) to a terraced Edwardian bay-fronted, red-bricked house in Ditchling Road.
“TWO of them?”
A rather mean sour faced woman opened the door. “This is Mrs. B.”, announced the billeting officer, “You are to stay with her”. “TWO of them?” said Mrs. B. sourly, “I only wanted ONE”. “Sorry dear” said the billeting officer, “but you do have a double bed and we are a bit pushed”. I had never shared a bed before – it was in a downstairs room and had a pink satin bedspread and a big plump pink eiderdown. “What a lovely room” cooed the billeting officer, “you are lucky little girls”.
There was a dog called Blackie, a cheerful longhaired mongrel. Mrs. B. looked slightly less sour and said “You can take him for a walk if you like”. She told us where the park was and we went cheerfully away with the boisterous Blackie. We posted our postcard home with our address on it, as instructed, but when we returned some time later the pink bedspread and the eiderdown had gone, so had most of the refinements in the bedroom. Our clothes had been unpacked and all the remains of the food and other things in our carrier bags had disappeared!
I think we survived in Ditchling Road until half-term when Grace’s mother arrived to visit and found out that we were turned out of the house each morning at 9am with a penny for a cake, and not allowed back until 5 pm. She took issue with the powers that be and after a frosty week we were removed to another billet.
We were moved to a house in Beaconsfield Villas near Preston Park. This was a very strange household – a double-fronted villa with rooms stuffed with antique furniture, musical instruments and books. Living took place in a small room at the back on the first floor – and cooking was done in an annexe. This was a glazed conservatory type erection which led out of the living room. It was built out over the garden on stilts, with a fire escape leading down from it to the basement.
The family kept pigeons and I wonder now whether they were racing pigeons. Freda, the daughter, who was in her mid twenties, was a trained teacher but she stayed at home to look after mum. She also looked after us and was very good at frying chips. I think we lived on egg, bacon, sausage, chips and just chips! There was a son, Leon, who was in the sixth form at school. Grace and I shared a bedroom with Freda. We slept in a large double feather bed and Freda slept in a single bed. There was a huge geyser in the bathroom that heated water for the weekly bath and made terrifying noises, belched steam and terrified me. In spite of the haphazard way in which we lived in this house we knew that we were loved and cared for and we were certainly fed well, and kept warm.
First weeks like a holiday
The first weeks were really like a holiday. We spent money on the pier trying out all the machines and we went on Volk’s railway, played on the beach, climbed on the groyne, and wandered down through the Lanes and through the Market. We explored Preston Park and the grounds of Preston Manor, went to the Church Hall, played charades and did ballroom dancing and community singing.
Then school started
Then ‘school’ started at Whitehawk. I think it was mornings one week, and afternoons the next. We went on buses along the seafront, and I loved seeing the sea every day. Two memories stand out: the first was being taught to wash and iron a shirt by a terrifying martinet of a Domestic Science teacher. I have never been able to iron and fold a shirt any other way during all my years of married life. She certainly knew how to instill obedience! The second is of acute embarrassment, when during an English lesson I was given one line of ‘Julius Caesar’ to read which was……’Beware the Ides of March’. Being young and unversed and wishing to make a good impression, I delivered my one line with gusto, “Beware the Ideas of March”. The teacher and the class fell about laughing and I wished the ground to open up and swallow me.
Home for Christmas
I went home for Christmas and I think my parents thought I looked neglected, or that I was getting ‘out of hand’. By half term I had been bought home to Croydon and when the new school opened in Clifton Road, I went there and met up with many first year friends I hadn’t seen for six months and started a new life. It didn’t last of course. By the summer we were off again, this time to Winkfield.
Brighton remains a very special place for me and returning there is like ‘coming home’ in some ways. I guess I began to grow up there and realize there was a life outside the confines of my family and new horizons to explore. I have always been a restless person, since those days, I still am. Maybe it’s all to do with the magic of Brighton.