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Bob Owen

Articles > Barking & Dagenham > Evacuees

Memories of an evacuee
Robert ‘Bob’ Owen

I was about eleven and a half when I was evacuated. To me it felt like a great adventure as the train left Dagenham to pick up the Royal Daffodil Paddle steamer from London Docks.   The boat usually took day trippers from London Bridge to Lowestoft via all the seaside destinations, but today it was taking us to Great Yarmouth, me and my younger brother Ronnie. (In fact we all walked down to Fords’ Jetty where we embarked   on the Royal Daffodil, mum and seven kids, to Lowestoft. You will find more detail of this journey in memories of the other siblings.)

Our first billet was with Mr and Mrs. Long, a poor elderly couple, who lived in the village of Bradwell. Although I can’t remember anything but their kindness, the billet lady took us away after about two weeks as we were both sleeping on the floor   with only one blanket between us.

We were sent instead to stay with another old couple, Mr and Mrs Paine of the Nook, Hill Lane, Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – an address I can remember even to this day. I recall their unusual home – made out of two railway carriages   arranged to form the letter ‘T’. With the compartments gutted, rooms and bedrooms had been made. As was usual the toilet was outside. Monday was baking day. Mrs Paine would prepare the same cakes every week and the familiar smells became   welcoming and homely. Mr Paine tended his small holding. He had been a soldier in WW1; shell shocked and suffering terrible fits since the poison gas attacks in France, he was unable to work. So the 10 shillings and 6 pence [52.5p] they received per  child  from the government certainly helped, as did the 4s and 6d [22.5p] they received from their lodger. Despite working 7 days a week from 5 am to 8pm, feeding and cleaning out bullocks at the local farm, the lodger only got 8 shillings [40p], and  even managed  to pay me 6d [2.5p] for helping him slice roots for winter feed.

We joined the local children in their village school – the 60 or 70 of us evacuees doubling its original number. Although Mr Evans, our teacher from Dagenham joined us, both he and the school’s resources were over-stretched and unable to   provide anything but paper for drawing and a book to read. We were never really taught anything.

Now, this had become home for over a year when, in 1940, Germany took France. The East-coast of England, once a safe haven for children, became too dangerous and we were all  sent to the safety of Wales or the Midlands. I don’t know why Ronnie didn't come with me, but he ended up in Wales and I was sent to Harbury, near Leamington Spa, Coventry.

Standing in the village hall, the ladies and gentlemen sorted through us evacuees as they would cattle. Strength was the greatest asset and having been used to hard graft, I was quickly picked. I went to Marlow’s – a large farmhouse just   on the outskirts of Harbury. All the other houses in the village were arranged in a row. There was a pub, a church and the Co-op that supplied almost everything to Harbury and the other villages. I remember, from the roadside, looking onto the large  farmhouse  standing proudly on the right of an even larger yard, rows of barns were to the left. Within the garden on the left of a wide gate stood an enormous walnut tree, spreading its branches to shade our lawn in the summer months and providing us  with an abundance  of walnuts in the autumn. It stretched right across the road.

Within the house, many rooms were off limits, but I had my bedroom which I can’t remember much about. I do remember the kitchen with large hams hanging from hooks and thick slices being cut. Fresh vegetables were grown or traded with other farmers.   Occasionally, we killed a pig; this was illegal as the Ministry said that all were to go to market. My job was to set light to straw and singe off the hairs before the pig was cut up. Butter and cheese came from our dairy. There was no shortage of food,   I ate well; but I was a worker – not a guest. I was never allowed in the lounge. I know there was a piano in there as I sometimes heard it played by their son when he was on leave – tunes that when I hear them today take me, for a few seconds,   right back to Harbury. Neither was I allowed in the dairy, even though every day I brought milk to its door.

As our neighbour was the local head-master, Mr Marlow had easily got permission to keep me at home rather than add to the swelling numbers of children in his school. I would be more use working on the farm! And looking back, work I did. Whatever the weather   or time of year, the cows needed milking. At 6am I would cycle two miles through lanes and fields to collect them, always it seemed, from the farthest field, and led them back to the sheds. They would need minimal persuasion as food was waiting. Here   on my own small three-legged milking stool, I was joined by Mr Marlow and between us it took about two hours to milk the herd. It was essential to hold their tails down with your head whilst milking; otherwise they’d pass yesterday’s food   and swish it right in your face. The cows were kept in calf so their milk didn’t dry up and it certainly never seemed to. Every day I would cycle with two churns, each carrying three gallons, one on each handlebar, down the steep hill back to  the  farmhouse dairy. I was glad it was downhill, but it took acquired skill to avoid spillage. Whilst I ate my breakfast of cornflakes and cold meat, Mr Marlow would set to work with the heavy stuff. Loading two hundred-weight sacks of barley, wheat  or oats  high in the barn. I was amazed by his strength; I never saw him eat.

The farm machinery was powered by horses. I enjoyed sitting behind them raking the hay in bundles. The iron shafts of the plough would knock against my legs as I walked behind the horses and I often had enormous bruises. The ploughed furrows were alternately   filled with two things we collected from the villages. The first was ash from their fires and stoves; the second was human waste collected from their outside privies. The ash could be collected during the daylight hours, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday   evenings after 9pm was set aside to collect the human waste. This was my worst job. Beneath each toilet sat a bucket – always full to the brim – just waiting to be moved; just waiting to splosh out over the edge and run down your leg into   your boot. You can imagine the smell!! I always tipped some out before I moved it and I tried to carry a bucket in each hand to make it more stable. The shit cart was pulled by Dick, an old carthorse, who didn’t need leading as he knew his way   around the village. Made of metal the cart measured about 6ft by 4ft and was chest high. It was a very heavy job lifting the buckets whilst trying not to spill the contents. One day Dick trod on my big toe! To this day I have to cut the nail with pliers   and the sight of it could scare the horses! I’d be home about 11pm, but I can’t remember washing! And so the furrows were constantly being filled. We grew the loveliest tomatoes and cucumbers ever, and the corn grew twice the height of  any  ‘untreated’ corn.

I remember being sickened by the open-traps they used for rabbiting and when Dick was shot because he had dropsy. Funny times, watching Mr Marlow trying to break in two wild horses used to replace Dick. After securing the plough and standing between the   horses, Mr Marlow moved them on. The sound of the rusty cart startled them and they shot through the 6ft wide front gate even though they measured 8ft across. Up and down the field they ran, exhausting themselves and probably nigh on killing Mr Marlow;   but after breaking into a more healthy sweat they were broken. What a laugh when the same wild horses were scared whilst pulling the shit cart – you can imagine the sight! I had a full cart-load and was trundling along the lane when a plane flew   low overhead and the horse bolted. There was I hanging onto the reins trying desperately to get him under control, leaving a stinking trail behind as we belted along the lanes. Suddenly after great effort by me I got him to stop, the contents of the  cart  flew up right over me and the horse, we were in right old mess.

I can’t really remember having breaks or holidays, only walking alongside Mr Marlow and neighbouring farmers on Sunday shoots. I thought them very skilful, killing all those foxes and rabbits; but looking back they must have used thousands of cartridges;   I was never invited to shoot. The only time I ever took the horse and trap (old mare Dolly with bad feet) into Leamington was to go to the cinema; when I got back I was told off for being so long. I was paid 4 shillings [20p] a week for working a seventeen   hour day. Mr Marlow was a hardworking, mean old b****** who would try to get away with not paying me if he could – I hated having to ask him for my money.

When I was fourteen I had to leave; I had been there for eighteen months. I can’t remember leaving, or how I felt at the prospect of returning to Dagenham. I knew what to expect at home, and I wasn’t too keen on the job my mum had arranged   for me. She, like many others, used the local  pawn shop and had arranged a job there for me; near the church in Old Dagenham Village. At the beginning of the week my mum would bring in a small parcel and hopefully collect it at the end of the week.  Usually  it contained the Old man’s suit and he would want it for when he visited the pub. I worked there for just two or three weeks before joining the Co-op in Five Elms.

Lowestoft today has changed beyond all recognition. Fishing boats no longer come in, and all the sheds have long gone – mind you it’s been 60 years! I can still cast my mind back to our walks to Gorleston-on-sea; me and my young friend Penny.   Over 5 miles it was to get to this busy fishing port, where ladies gutted the fish and pushed sticks through their gills and give us a few to take home for tea. They never took a penny for them; this was the only time we tasted fish during the war.

When I joined the army I did my training at Norwich. Imagine how proud I felt all dressed in my uniform, boarding a train to make a surprise visit on Mr & Mrs Paine. They made me so welcome and when it was time to go back to Yarmouth Station Mr Paine   took me all the way there on his horse and buggy.

Once on my way back from holiday in Wales I stopped off in Harbury. The past 50 years seemed to have taken their toll on the village I remembered. Although the barns were still there, the farmhouse was gone. Maybe it was a fire, I don’t know, but   a new house stood in its place. In the field opposite, across the way from the old farmhouse I once called home, new properties had been built. The land, where once stood the walnut tree was bare. It was sad seeing the changes, certainly not all for  the  good, but it didn’t spoil the memories I have of that special place. That special place that took me from a brutal life in Dagenham – showed me a different world for too short a time. It gave me experiences I would never have had if  I had  stayed at home, and a real love of the countryside. On reflection, despite all the hard work, being evacuated was to me like being on a marvellous holiday. In fact it was by far the best part of my childhood.

A few years later I was called up into the army and was off to India – but that is another story.

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