Beatrice Smith, Ada Peters, Russell Smith
I enclose my experiences of my time in Haddenham as an evacuee in the l940s. I hope you find when reading it that it is suitable material for the archive.
I doubt very much that there is anybody still living in Haddenham that would remember me, but certainly people will remember the Peters family,
I have, despite the tears writing it, enjoyed the experience. Haddenham is a special place to me, and when I think of it, it is as it was, a very different place to what it is now.
Saved by a shed
A sad tale of an evacuee
It all started on 7th September 1940, I was 4 years old and my Dad had taken me into a sweet shop in East Ham in East London for an ice cream, whilst we were in the shop we heard a distant drone which got increasingly louder and many people in the street outside were looking up. The drone had now changed into a roar, when we emerged from the shop we looked up and the sky was full of Luftwaffe bombers, small black dots started appearing from beneath the planes, it was at this point that panic set in as people realised what was happening. My Dad gathered me in his arms and raced down the road towards home and the relative safety of our Anderson shelter.
By the time we had reached our home the bombs were exploding, as the crow flies we were only about 2 miles from the London Docks and Beckton Gas Works, the largest gas works in Europe, these of course were prime targets for bombing. At this point the Luftwaffe only bombed civilian targets at night, they were trying to demoralise the civilian population and break our spirit. Night after night for 57 consecutive nights they pounded the East End of London, our lives seemed only to exist in the shelters. I of course was very young, although I have vivid memories of the time.
My Dad was from Wilburton, his father was a professional soldier, a Regimental Sargent Major in the Suffolk Regiment, the family lived in ‘The Manse’ in Wilburton and my dad was one of 9. My Grandfather spent a lot of his Service in India and several of his children were born there, although my father was born in Ely. My Dad trained as a Carpenter and Joiner in Ely, he was born in1896 and joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI and was in the Calvary Regiment, I have a photo of him on his horse with Ely Cathedral in the background. My Dad, like millions of others, had a bad time in the trenches during the First World War, I have a copy of a telegram sent to his mother in Wilburton from the War Office inviting her to go to France at public expense to visit him in a military hospital because he was not expected to survive, this was as a result of becoming ill due long periods in water in the trenches. He obviously survived and was sent to fight the Turks in Salonica. After the war, and on completion of his apprenticeship, he moved away from the Fens to the East End of London where the work was, and became a foreman and eventually a building inspector on East Ham District Council.
I was born in 1936 and I was an only child, as already mentioned my story starts on 7th September 1940. When war was declared in 1939, the government expected the bombing of civilians to start straight away, this did not happen for about a year, however the government had already made plans for the evacuation of nearly 3 million children, in fact I went with my Mum and stayed in a house in Wilburton somewhere on the main road. Whole schools were evacuated from the East End and other urban areas that were considered at risk from bombing. The Luftwaffe concentrated on bombing RAF airfields in the first year, and this did not have much impact on the civilian population, this period became known as the phoney war. Many of the children that were evacuated gradually drifted back to their homes, none of their homes had been bombed so it was thought that it was safe to return. My Mum and myself returned to our home in East Ham, my Dad never really recovered from his wartime experiences, he was a sick man and my Mum really didn’t like leaving him.
On the 7th September 1940 Hitler changed tactics, he failed to gain superiority over the RAF in the Battle of Britain and so ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb civilian and industrial targets in London and other cities, this became known as the London Blitz (lighting war).
Anybody who lived through those times will never forget them, night after night the East End of London was bombed. Being an only child and very young, my parents didn’t want me to be evacuated, evacuation was never compulsory but it was very much encouraged, perhaps if my Dad had been fitter my Mum might have been prepared to go with me to a safe place. One night during a heavy raid their minds were made up for them. We were down the Anderson at the bottom of our garden when a parachute bomb exploded about 300 yards from our house, now all bombs are evil, but a parachute bomb is a particularly nasty beast, they were like huge elongated dustbins dropped on a parachute and designed to explode just above the ground, this resulted in huge damage 360 degrees this bomb completely destroyed 14 houses and dozens were badly damaged including ours. When the shock wave hit our shelter my Mum & Dad instinctually protected me, this was the decider, they must get me to a place of safety. I have no knowledge of what arrangements were made in
Haddenham about my evacuation, but my Dad was an apprentice with Bob Peters who lived in Liverpool House at the Aldreth end of the Main Street, arrangements had been made that Mr and Mrs Peters would be my guardians, they had one child, Betty, who was 11. Generally children that were evacuated were with their siblings or Mum or even their whole school. But for me, not yet 5 years old, evacuation was going to be a traumatic experience. I do not remember travelling to Haddenham on the train, my first memory is staying in the ‘Bell’ pub halfway down the main street, my parents had booked an upstairs room with a double and single bed in it. At the time, the publican was Henry Taylor, he also had his farm and a herd of cows behind the pub, this whole plot was demolished years ago and I believe the school and library were built there. I remember going to bed, with my Mum & Dad in the double bed next to me. When I woke in the morning they had gone, I cannot begin to explain the fear and upset I felt as I realised my Mum & Dad had left me there, I remember vividly finding my way downstairs to find Henry and his wife, complete strangers to me, I am not yet 5 yrs old. I can’t remember being fed, the next thing I remember is Henry taking me by the hand and taking me into the farmyard where his herd of brown cows was waiting by the gate next to the high street. Henry rented a field on the Aldreth Rd, every morning the cows would walk down the High Street to the field, I remember holding his hand as we walked behind the cows, their huge bottoms swaying from side to side as we walked. When we got to Liverpool House, Henry stopped, bent down and said to me “Russell you go into that house and the lady will look after you”.
Mr & Mrs Peters and their only child Betty were a lovely family, many evacuees had a bad time with some families, but Ada Peters loved me as she would her own. My small bedroom was at the back of the house overlooking a vast flat landscape. If I recall, Betty and I shared this small room, I remember the wallpaper with it’s small red rosebud design. At this time there was no electricity, piped water or sewage system in Haddenham, oil lamps were the main lighting source, there was a well outside the back door with a cast iron pump with a large handle, but the worse part was the toilet, this was just a small wooden hut down the garden with a board with a hole in it, underneath was a galvanised bucket, at the side was a pole with a round weight on the end, I cannot recall what wiping method was used, the bucket was used until it was nearly full, the pole with the weight on the end was used to compress the waste down, every so often Mr Peters would take the bucket into the orchard at the end of the garden and bury it. I was so unhappy and sad, I could not understand why my Mum and Dad had abandoned me, how could I begin to understand at 5, I was with complete strangers, however much love they tried to give me I could not accept it.
Every evening Betty and me would go up to bed by the wooden staircase at the back of the house with the way lit by a candle. I seemed to be crying most of the time and when I think of that time today I can still feel the sickness in my stomach and the sadness in my heart. The small window in my bedroom did not open outwards or inwards, it slid sideways in the frame, one evening I looked out of the window and about 100 yards away towards Aldreth I noticed a low flat roofed shed, the shed seemed identical to the shed that my Dad had built for my Mum to keep her mangle in, I was convinced that this was indeed that shed, I wanted to go to this shed to be with my Mum& Dad, this shed over the next 2 years or so would become my great comfort, every night, summer and winter before I got into bed, I would open the window and talk to my Mum& Dad, after all they were only down the road, this shed eased my pain.
I started school at the village school halfway down the High St, I believe it is now a private house, I believe at this time Haddenham was a very insular place, it was a rural agricultural and quite isolated village by today’s standard, outsiders and especially evacuees were not particularly welcome, as far as I can recall I had no friends, I can only remember one other evacuee, who was older than me, and he seemed to be picked on all the time by other kids, this drew me further into my shell, keep a low profile and keep away from other kids. Betty who was about 11, went to the grammar school I think in Ely, she caught the bus every morning that stopped outside Liverpool House, she was my only mate, she was the sister I never had, I loved her and she loved me, she was a lovely natured girl.
My Mum & Dad never came to see me, I was beginning to forget what they looked like although the pain of separation was still there. I found out much later that they did see me, they would travel down from the East End of London every month or so, and book a room at the ‘Bell’ pub, it was arranged that Betty would take me to Sunday school and we would walk up the High St to the church at the crossroad, as we passed the ‘Bell’ pub they would watch me go past. I realise now that the pain of separation was as bad for them as it was for me, they may have been able to cope with it better, they had one another, I was alone. What they did to me at such a young age could be considered cruel, but on reflection what choice did they have, my Dad, because of his health problems needed my Mum, his work was in London, he was playing an important part in the war effort as a Heavy Rescue expert in the ARP, and they needed me to be in a safe place.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain and heartbreak they must have felt as they left me in that upstairs bedroom at the ‘Bell’ to return to London and the bombing, not knowing if they would ever see me again, their only child that they obviously loved very much, probably they dare not kiss me goodbye lest they wake me, to turn and leave that room must have been heartbreaking.
I do not know the precise period of time I was evacuated to Haddenham, but I estimate that I was there with the Peters family for at least 2 years. No matter how much love they bestowed on me, I could not get over the separation.
We lived in the kitchen come sitting room at Liverpool House, this was a cosy area, a huge cast iron range where the cooking was done and hot water generated, the area was lit by oil lamps and there was a radio powered by an accumulator. One of the problems Mrs Peters had with me is I would not eat much, she was a lovely patient woman who would spend long periods trying to get food down me. How lucky I was to have been put into the care of such a lovely family, Liverpool House had been in the Peters family for a long time, the shop, which was on the Aldreth end of the house was never used as a shop when I was there, the counters and old fashioned shelving was still there but apart from that I remember it was just full of junk.
Years later when I was in my 60s, I went to Betty’s funeral in Haddenham, Mr & Mrs Peters had died years before but for all those years since I had left Haddenham as a child I had kept in contact with the family and visited them on a regular basis. At Betty’s funeral I, by chance, met a lady that had purchased Liverpool House from Mrs Peters after Mr Peters died, she had moved to Linden Close into a bungalow. I got talking to the lady that now owned Liverpool House relating my story to her of my time as an evacuee in the house, she kindly asked me if l would like, after the funeral, to visit the house to see it as it was now, although there was still a lot of work to be carried out on it.
Later in the afternoon my wife and I went to Liverpool House, many parts of it had been transformed into a modern beautiful house, but the part that I really wanted to see was untouched, my old bedroom, we went up the old dark staircase that was the same as I remember it and into my old bedroom, the wall paper with the small red rosebud design was still on the walls, faded and torn now, I could feel that feeling of sadness starting again and I had a job to hold back the tears, I had to look out the window to see if my shed was still there, my shed that had brought me so much comfort all those years ago, the shed that I spoke to every night, but of course it was gone. I will treasure this moment that the present owner had given me to relive for a fraction of time, the unhappiest time of my life, strange really considering the heart breaking feelings I had had in that room.
My evacuation ended in a bizarre way really, unbeknown to me, my parents not only watched me from the bedroom window in the ‘Bell’ on my way to Sunday school with Betty, but in the evening they went to Liverpool House and watched my reflection in the kitchen from a mirror in the front room, the front room was in darkness but there was a large mirror on the wall that reflected the next door kitchen. On this particular evening, I was sitting at the kitchen table where I had been placed in the right position so’s they could see me, when I looked up and saw their reflection looking at me, I was scared stiff, they looked like ghosts in the darkness. The only thing I remember after this is that I went home, I don’t think it was then because I was only with my Mum when I went home, I only remember getting off the train at Manor Park station in East London.
When I got home the war was still on, I got home just in time to experience the VI, or to us, the doodle bug, I saw quite a few of these nasty bombs, we watched them going overhead with that distinctive engine sound, willing them to keep going because when the engine cut out they dive and explode.
In May 1945 the war ended, what a day that was, us kids were running up and down the road cheering, then came the street parties etc.
Did my early unhappy years have a long lasting effect? Other people think it did, my daughter thinks it did, we had 2 children, a boy Andrew, who sadly died 6 years ago aged 48, and Alison who is now 56. Alison tells me I was over protective with them when they were young. A number of people say they like me because I am different, others may not like me for the same reason, I know I am different, people apart from close family cannot get close to me, I do not make friends easily, I have only had one close friend who I have known since I was 4. I have made life choices that other people may not have made, they were choices that could have led to a bad life, however these choices have allowed me and my family to have a good worthwhile life. All I know is my evacuation to Haddenham at such a young age, accompanied by long separation from my parents, must have influenced the type of person I am today, thousands of children were mentally damaged by evacuation and probably more were not affected.
This is my story, I have cried writing it, and family members have cried reading it. I am now nearly 81, I hope people will enjoy reading about my early experience, this is just a record of one small child’s recollection of a period in our countries history that hopefully is never repeated. However, as I write this I am aware that probably millions of young children today in far off lands, are suffering the same trauma.
These are the most popular keywords used on the site.
View all the keywords used in this catalogue.