Evacuees share stories of life away from home ahead of new exhibition in Finchingfield
PUBLISHED: 09:04 01 November 2019
Eric Miller was only five when he was evacuated at the beginning of the Second World War, leaving behind his family's terrace house in Dagenham, but he remembers waiting with hundreds of children at a school in Framlingham to be allocated a resident.
Now 85, Eric will open an exhibition in Finchingfield in November, which will display art by local primary school children, who have explored the experience of evacuees. He will be joined by Maureen Gouldsmith, who, like Eric, lives in Finchingfield and was evacuated as a child.
Before the exhibition, the pair spoke to the Broadcast about the many different homes, from grand halls to labourers' cottages, which moulded their early childhoods.
Maureen, 85, grew up in East Ham near the gas works and docks before she was evacuated, aged five, with her brother, Alan, to Chedder, a village in Somerset. She remembers nothing about the evacuation apart from sitting sitting on a coach "one dark morning".
Initially, the siblings stayed with an elderly couple who owned a small holding. "They had anemones and we used to sit there and tie them up for the farmer's market. I have never like anemones since," she recalls.
Maureen says she feels "lucky" to have spent her "formative years" in the countryside, but there were less happy times too. About three years after she was evacuted to Chedder, Maureen was sent, without Alan, to live with distant relations in Herfordshire.
"Hertfordshire was the worst. The grandma and youngest child was allowed the butter and we had to have the margerine. My mother sent packages of sweets and I would only get one or two."
"I used to cry when I was made to write a letter home and hope she would see my tears," she said.
After moving to Salisbury, where she once walked through a crowed of prisoners ferried by an Tommy and tanks rolled up the street, she returned to her family.
"I found when I came home they called me posh because I was in Herfordshire. Loads of kids who went to the north or the midlands came back with strange accents," she says.
Like Maureen, Eric was also evacuated in 1939. Crossing the park one morning, he walked with his mother to school and from their the pupils were sheparded "en masse" to Ilford station, where they boarded a train to Ipswitch.
"I remember the number of people, we had our satchels and our gas masks," he said. The pupils were then taken to a school in Framlingham.
"I have a photographic memory of the school and hundreds of children, we were then allocated a resident. The school is imprited in my memory."
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A couple called the Thompsons, who lived at a farm, took Eric and his brother, also called Alan, in for about a month.
"I remember the Thompsons had a son in the military and there was a walnut tree and we were told not to touch the walnuts and not to eat them. It was the only walnut tree in the orchard," he said.
Next came Brandiston Hall, in Norfolk, then owned by the Montgue family. Along with other evacuees, Eric was looked after by the servants, and lived above the garage.
"We lived with the servants but we saw the big cars at Brandiston Hall, for a Dagenham boy it was all rather grand," he said.
After spending about 9 months at Brandiston, he returned home. "It must have been deemed safe. The second time we were evacuated my mother took us to Northampton. It was a farm labourer cottage and it was cold, I had severe chilblains. Coming from the city, one wasn't aware of the farming ways. They used to start their weekend meals with a sort of yorkshire pudding baked in the village bakery and they made bread in the village. We got involved with the harvesting, it was great fun."
He attended school in Northampton, which had one or two rooms. "I went to so many schools, every time you went somewhere you went to a different school," Maureen says, adding: "I used to have to practise putting my gas mark on in the class and I couldn't bear being stuck in the mask."
The bombarding sounds and sights of wartime London which they encountered upon their return have not been forgotten. The doodle bugs which sounded like lawnmowers, searchlights which lit up the sky and, according to Eric, looked "spectacular", the chains of a barrage balloon scraping against Maureen's roof, which she says she will never forget.
A bomb fell in Eric's street while he was in the air raid shelter. Eric's father however stayed in the house and the impact of the bomb knocked him over.
"He came back without his glasses and we found them the next day, they were not even broken," Eric says.
Were they ever scared during the war? "I think I had nightmare afterwards, I used to imagine Germans coming through the wall and the sound of a barrage balloon," Maureen said.
"I was never scared. When you are that young you are immortal. I was never under the impression that we would actually lose," Eric said. "For a young boy it was a very exciting time. We were the children, for the adults, it must have been horrible."
And how do they look back at their childhood, growing up during the war and its aftermath? "It was an experience, it probably made us the people we are. It made us a lot stronger, everbody just got on with it," Maureen said.
Listening to Maureen, Eric adds: "They were our salad days. You take it as it comes."
The art exhibition, opened by Maureen and Eric, will take place at Finchingfield Village Hall on November 9 and 10, from 10.30am-4pm both days. Entry is free.