Authors: Mary Nichols
Dedicated to all the brave Polish men and women who came to Britain in 1940 to fight, many of them to die, in the cause of freedom. And to those in Poland, who struggled on alone
1st September 1939
It was pandemonium in the playground. Some of the children were using up their excess energy chasing each other, laughing and shouting; others were subdued, standing about looking bewildered. Heaped up against the school wall were their abandoned cases and bags. The summer holidays had ended a few days earlier than usual and though they had rehearsed this exodus several times in the previous term, Louise doubted they really understood what was to happen. How could they, when she hardly knew herself? The authorities must be very sure there was going to be a war and the cities would be bombed to have organised such a mass evacuation of the capital’s children.
Miss Hereward, the deputy head, had the school bell in her hand and rang it vigorously, as five charabancs pulled up at the kerb outside the school gates. The children subsided into silence. ‘Find your cases, children, and get into your class lines,’ she called out. ‘You should know the drill by now.’
Louise grabbed two of her class by their coat collars. ‘Lead the way, Frederick Jones, and you, too, Margaret Gordon. The rest of you fall in behind.’
The other teachers were doing the same and slowly order came out of chaos and eventually five double lines of children faced the school gates, ready to move off. Their cases had already been opened and examined to make sure they had everything on the list which had been sent home to the mothers. The boys were supposed to have spare pants, socks and a clean shirt, the girls knickers, socks and a second gingham dress or a skirt and blouse. Both should have pyjamas, a hairbrush, flannel, toothbrush and toothpaste. In spite of the heat of the day, they were dressed in an assortment of coats which were easier to wear than to pack. Each child had a packet of sandwiches and an apple to be consumed on the journey and a tin of corned beef and another of sliced peaches to be given to their foster mothers. Labels were pinned to their clothes inscribed with their names, addresses and the name of the school from which they had come. Similar labels were attached to their baggage. They also had small cardboard boxes containing their gas masks hung round their necks with their names on those too. It was easy to write lists, Louise thought, but although Edgware was by no means a deprived area, it was not so easy for some mothers to comply. And had anyone thought how heavy that lot would be for small children?
She called the register of her class of eight-year-olds and found two were missing.
‘They ain’t coming,’ Freddie Jones told her. ‘Their mum changed her mind. She said to tell you if they’re going to die, they’ll die together.’
‘The Bright twins haven’t come,’ she told Miss Hereward, who was ushering her own class into the first of the charabancs.
‘They’re not the only ones. We’ll have to go without them.’
Louise turned back to her crocodile of children and realised
that Tommy Carter had firm hold of a very small child with every intention of boarding the bus with her.
‘Thomas, who is this?’
‘My little sister. Mum says I’m to take ’er wiv me and look after ’er.’
‘But you can’t do that. There’s no provision …’
‘But I gotta.’
Louise looked about her, wondering what to do. On the opposite side of the road, lined up along the kerb, were a crowd of mothers and a few fathers waiting to see their children off. Some were in tears, some stoically smiling, some stood in dumb misery. ‘Is your mother over there?’
‘No, she’s gone to work. That’s why I’ve gotta take Beattie wiv me. Me Auntie Gladys always looks after her when Mum’s at work, but she’s took her kids to the country and there’s no one to see to Beattie. She ain’t really me auntie,’ he added as an afterthought.
‘What about your father?’
‘He’s in the merchant navy, miss.’
The bus containing Miss Hereward and the top class had already moved off; Louise could not ask her advice. She looked down at the little girl who was sucking her thumb. ‘How old is Beatrice?’ she asked.
‘It’s Beattie, miss, and she’s four. She’s a good girl. She won’t be no trouble, honest. I’ll look after ’er.’
Louise could not see how he could be expected to do that. There was no telling what faced them at the end of the journey, but she could not possibly abandon the child. ‘In that case you had better get on the bus,’ she said. ‘And mind you do look after her.’ Perhaps, when they arrived at their destination, she could ask Miss Evans, who taught the five-year-olds, if she would have the little one in her class. And she would write to the child’s mother.
The children had all been given stamped addressed postcards to send to their parents to tell them they had arrived safely and to pass on their addresses, but she ought to write to them herself to reassure them.
Theirs was the last bus to leave, the others were already out of sight. Louise climbed in behind the children and told the driver they were ready to go. They moved off with the children pressed against the windows waving to the watchers on the other side of the road. Looking back, Louise could see some of the parents had run into the middle of the road and were waving their handkerchiefs. She subsided into her seat beside Tommy and his sister. What lay ahead, no one knew. What lay behind her was her own parting with her parents.
Her father had been furious at her insistence on accompanying the children when the subject was first brought up earlier that summer. ‘There is no need whatsoever for you to go with them,’ he had said. ‘There will be teachers where they are going. Your mother needs you here. You know she is not strong …’
‘I’m all right,’ her mother had put in feebly. She was so browbeaten by her domineering husband that she rarely ventured an opinion about anything without consulting him first. ‘If Louise feels—’
‘No, you are not all right,’ he had snapped. ‘And Louise will do as she’s told.’
‘I have been instructed to report with my class,’ Louise said, being assertive for once in her life, though she worried about her mother. ‘It’s my job. It’s what I’m paid to do.’
‘You are paid to teach at Stag Lane Primary School, nowhere else. Goodness, I pulled enough strings with the local education authority to get you a post near home on account of your mother’s ill health and I won’t have that thrown in my face.’
‘But I think the school is going to be shut down. I wouldn’t have a job if I stayed behind.’
‘Then you can stay at home and help your mother. She is finding the duties of a vicar’s wife too onerous.’
‘I’m sorry, Father, but I have duties too.’
‘It is your duty to obey your father and mother. It is one of the ten commandments.’
‘Honour, not obey,’ Louise put in with a half smile. Her father was a stickler for exactitude and it gave her a tiny sense of triumph to correct him. She would not have dared to do it if she wasn’t going away.
‘Same thing,’ he said. ‘We won’t split hairs. You will tell the school you cannot go.’
As far as he was concerned that was his last word, but for once in her life she had disobeyed him. She was twenty-three years old and the only time she had ever spent away from home was her three years at Homerton qualifying to be a teacher, and even then she returned home for every vacation and most weekends. But college had been her first taste of freedom. She had been nervous of going and it took her a long time to become used to the free and easy way the students behaved, the way they drank and smoked and talked about boys. It had given her an insight to a world outside the repressive atmosphere of the vicarage. Now she had been given the opportunity to cut the apron strings and she meant to take it.
The scene at the vicarage two hours before when she had said goodbye had been one of anger on her father’s part, fear on her mother’s and determination on hers. Father had shouted until he was red in the face, Mother had wept and so had she, but she would not change her mind. ‘I am an adult,’ she had said. ‘I make my own decisions.’
‘Adult, pah!’ her father had said. ‘If you go and find yourself
in trouble, don’t come whining back to me. I wash my hands of you.’ With that he had stomped off into his study and slammed the door.
‘What does he mean, find myself in trouble?’ she asked her mother.
‘I think he meant – you know – young men.’
‘That’s ridiculous. As if I would. I am a grown woman and I do know how to behave. It’s been drummed into me enough.’
‘I know, dear, I know.’
Louise hugged her mother. ‘You do understand why I have to go, don’t you?’
‘Oh yes, I understand.’ She had kissed her daughter’s cheek. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be all right. Your father will calm down after you’ve gone. Let us have your address as soon as you know it.’
Louise looked round at the bus-load of children, wondering what their goodbyes had been like. It must have been heart-rending for their mothers to let them go. She wondered if she could have sent a child of hers to live with strangers, not even knowing where they were going to end up. It must have been a terrible decision to make, to weigh up the pros and cons of sending them to safety or keeping them at home to face whatever was to come. And how had Mrs Carter felt about giving little Beattie into the care of a eight-year-old boy? Louise looked down at the child still sucking her thumb, but apparently content, and could almost feel the pain of it herself.
‘How long has your father been in the merchant navy?’ she asked Tommy.
‘Always,’ he said. ‘He’s a stoker.’
‘You said your mother had gone to work. What does she do?’
‘She works at the Oaklands laundry.’
‘Perhaps she will come and see you when you’re settled.’
‘Perhaps,’ he said, but he didn’t sound as if he believed it.
‘When is Beattie due to start school?’
‘When she’s five.’
‘When will that be?’
‘Oh, so there’s a whole school year to go.’
‘S’pose so.’ He fetched a grubby handkerchief from his pocket and held it to Beattie’s nose. ‘Blow,’ he commanded.
She obeyed and he wiped her nose and returned the handkerchief to his pocket.
‘Do you often have to look after your sister?’ Louise asked.
‘Yes, after school and on Saturday mornings.’
‘Do you mind?
‘No, miss, she ain’t no trouble. And Dad said I was to be the man of the house when he’s away.’
‘I’m sure you do it very well but you must wish sometimes you could go out and play with your friends.’
‘I can do that when the jobs are done, but then Beattie comes too.’
Louise smiled, realising how restricting that must be, but apparently Tommy accepted his lot as something that couldn’t be helped. The poor boy had had to grow up too fast. And now he was being given even more responsibility. If she could ease his burden a little, then she would do so.
The bus drew up outside Liverpool Street station and the children tumbled out to be organised into their crocodile again. When they had rehearsed it, they had simply reboarded the bus and been taken back to school. But today was different, today was the real thing. Louise marched them onto the station.
If it had been pandemonium at the school, the scene on the station was much more so. An engine with steam up and
a string of carriages stood at every platform and hundreds, no thousands, of children were being herded into them by teachers, officials and station staff. And milling about in the concourse were hundreds of mothers, deterred from actually going onto the platforms to see the children off. It was bordering on panic as more and more children arrived and trains full to bursting were sent on their way. Louise supposed the scene was being duplicated at every main-line station in London. It had taken monumental organisation.
Louise halted her line of children and went to ask a man with a clipboard where the rest of the Stag Lane infants were. He consulted his list. ‘They’ve gone. Went a few minutes ago. I suggest you get your children onto that one.’ He indicated a train with the pencil he had in his hand. ‘You’ll catch up with them I expect.’
Louise returned to her group and ushered them into three adjacent rear carriages. Many of them had begun to realise that this adventure was not what they had expected. They didn’t like the noise and the crowds and the absence of their mums. Some were crying, others, though dry-eyed, were feeling the tension that was all around them, even among the adults. A few were laughing or squabbling loudly about what they thought was going to happen. She settled them all into seats and stowed their small cases in the racks above their heads, then taking Beattie by the hand, found a seat for herself. The carriage doors were slammed shut by the guard, he blew his whistle and waved his green flag then hopped aboard as they began to move.
The station, the sidings, the dilapidated buildings beside the line were left behind as the train carried the children northwards away from the city and into the countryside. Where they were going, only the driver knew.
‘They’re late,’ Mrs Wayne remarked to Mr Helliwell, the billeting officer. ‘You don’t suppose they’re not coming, do you? We might as well send all these people home, they are getting decidedly restless.’ Edith Wayne was the wife of the most prominent farmer in the village and a founder member of the local Women’s Voluntary Service whose task it was to coordinate the homing of the evacuees. The village hall was the venue for prospective foster parents to meet the children they had agreed to take, some willingly, some reluctantly, but though the village women had turned up there was no sign of the London children.
‘Wait a bit longer,’ he said. ‘It took heaven knows what to persuade some of them to come; if I send them away, I’ll never get them back again. I’ll ask Mrs Johns to make some more tea.’
They had already drunk two lots of tea and eaten all the biscuits and were grumbling. ‘I ought to go home and get my old man’s tea,’ Mrs Sadler said. ‘He’ll have done the milking and cleaned up ages ago.’
‘And mine has to go to a meeting of the Farmer’s Union,’ Mrs Barker said, accepting a cup of tea from Mrs Johns. ‘If they don’t turn up in the next ten minutes, I’m off.’
But ten minutes stretched to twenty and then forty and Mr Helliwell was on the point of telling them to go home when they heard a bus draw up in the school playground. A few minutes later the door opened and a bedraggled, filthy, smelly collection of urchins trooped into the room, blinking like owls in the light, for it was pitch-dark outside. They were followed by an adult carrying a small, sleeping girl.