A Family at War
Grace Exley (nee Owen)
Friday September 1st. Mum with seven children, the youngest only fifteen months, left Downing Road to walk to Ford’s Jetty, in company with many other families: the great evacuation from Dagenham had started. Mum was not allowed to take the pram so Teddy needed to be carried, by her and us older siblings, the rest just had to keep up. At Ford's we were all herded into a long queue, no one really knowing what was happening, or even where we were going. Dagenham families had only been notified a couple of weeks before. Babies and young children became fractious, the older ones helping mums to watch them. Thankfully it was a warm and sunny day. Many children were being evacuated with their schools under the care of teachers but because we had babies under five we accompanied mum on this first stage of the journey. It was all a great adventure, we had never travelled any great distance before, Nanny Goats Common or the River was our playground. Families like ours didn’t have seaside or country holidays, and we had never heard of foreign holidays. We finally reached the jetty and clambered aboard the Royal Daffodil, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, our first time ever on a boat, we had only watched them sailing along the river. I remember this as a wonderful pandemonium of excited children. One of ours got lost! My youngest sister, we found her in the engine room with the sailors.
We arrived safely at Lowestoft to find rows of black taxis waiting for us. That first night we stayed at a school. It was very posh compared with Dagenham schools, but we had to sleep on straw. They gave us cheese sandwiches and an apple when we arrived and the same for breakfast. We stayed there until Sunday 3rd, the day war was declared, then still very tired and disorientated, we were farmed out. Mum with baby Teddy and Kathy went to Belton, in Suffolk. With them went a neighbour, Mrs Squires, she had 14 children altogether, though only the youngest three were with her. Her daughter Dorothy was my best friend in Dagenham. I used to help her deliver papers for her Dad around the estate. On the wall of their living room they had a large poster of a man with a moustache; she said he was her Uncle Joe. Billeted in the same house, mum and Mrs Squires went around together and one day they made their way to the beach. Mum told us that after a while a large black car parked on the road above the beach and two men dressed in long black coats and trilbies, climbed out. One came down and took Mrs Squires aside, she then gathered up her children, said good-
I was sent to Bradwell, with my sisters Ivy 10 years, and Dolly 5 years. We were first billeted at Star Farm Cottages, with Mrs Woods, she was only 26 and her little boy Norman who was two. Her husband was a trawler man, and on the minesweepers at this time, he was later killed at sea. Mrs Littlemore, a neighbour from Downing Road was also billeted with Mrs Woods, with Joyce (another of my friends), Doris, Raymond and Reggie. The cottage only had two bedrooms, one for Mrs Woods and Norman, one for Mrs Littlemore and her four children. My sisters and I slept in a bed on the landing between the bedrooms. Mrs Littlemore and her family didn’t stay there long and then another evacuee came, Peggy Johnson, a friend of my sister Ivy. I was already 14 and I became a sort of servant in the house. Mrs Woods didn’t like my sister Dolly, perhaps because she was only little and couldn’t look after herself, but she was quite fond of Ivy and Peggy. She didn’t like us in the house during the day so we would go for long walks; one day we tried to find where mum was staying and I can remember walking along Long Lane towards Beccles, but we couldn’t find her so we had to return to Mrs Woods. We used to look up through the landing fanlight and watch the ‘dogfights’ in the sky. We attended school, all us evacuees to the Village Hall, we never mixed with any local children. There were two teachers, a man Mr Evans, and a lady. We didn’t do much; singing, drawing, just keeping us quiet. That winter I can remember deep, deep snow, the lanes, hedges and fields all levelled off by the drifting snow. Christmas we all went to Mrs Woods’ mother in Yarmouth, staying until Boxing Day then because the snow was so deep we had to walk all the way home, it took us hours. The billeting officer came and said I would have to start work, in Yarmouth; I would have to walk most of the way there and back each day. By then I had had enough of Mrs Woods, especially the way she treated Dolly: I decided I might as well go to work in Dagenham so I wrote home for the fare money. On February 6th (I remember the date because it was Dolly’s 6th birthday) Dolly and I made our way home to Dagenham. In August because of the heavy bombing along the East coast my sister Ivy, and Peggy were sent to Leamington Spa.
Meanwhile Bobby and Ronnie were living with an elderly couple in a converted train carriage in Jews Lane; from there they were sent to South Wales. The husband was the sewage collector, and he soon put Bobbie, now 13 years, to work. Each day, alone, Bobby toured the area with a horse and cart collecting the buckets of human sewage from people’s cesspits, delivered it back to the sewage farm to be converted into manure. In 1942 he was 14 years old and he returned home to do war work; my 5 year old brother Teddy was sent in his place. Mum said when the three boys returned home from Wales they looked like the children from Belsen; with Teddy also still recovering from Whooping cough.
While this was all taking place Kathy had been sent alone to Axbridge, Somerset in 1940, she in fact was the only one to have a good education. Her first billeting was quite bad and frightening for a little girl, but when the school house was bombed she was billeted with a WVS lady, Auntie Ada and Uncle George Hardidge. Dolly was also sent to Somerset, to the next village, again she was badly treated, only 6 years old she was used as a skivvy. Later she returned home for a short time and then joined Kathy in Axbridge where they were both extremely well cared for and happy.
Back in Dagenham, 1940, the bombing was now very bad all across London. We had a new baby sister, Maureen, so off we went again, Mum, the baby, Teddy 2 years and I. I was 15 by now but could not be left alone in Dagenham so I was allowed to go with Mum and the new baby. Dad was in the army, so I think it gave us priority. This time we went to Berkshire where we were billeted in a large Mansion House called Brimpton Cottage. My Auntie Elsie (mum’s sister) and Cousin Harry were there with us. Her eldest son Cyril was in the Navy; he never recovered from his war experiences and later committed suicide. The families at the mansion were from Coventry having been bombed out in the blitz on that city, they were very helpful and friendly towards us, really lovely people. The mansion was the home of Lord and Lady Moiry (not sure of the spelling here) and there was an elderly lady in charge. The evacuees were on the ground floor, the upstairs being used as a hospital for the wounded military, many of these were French. One day I took Teddy along the lane to the village shop to buy sweets, as we waited to cross the road an Army convoy came along and the Sergeant in charge brought it to a halt – it was my father. He asked me where my mum was and leaving the convoy parked along the road and went off to see her. That night I think he must have come back because us kids were sent off to sleep in Auntie Elsie’s room.
We were there a few weeks then we were taken to a private house with an elderly couple and their daughter. We had to sleep all in one bed and Maureen had whooping cough. After three weeks we were picked up by a Black Cab, taken to a big house and put into a large room with lots of small tables and armchairs. A man came in, sat with us and kept asking questions about our dad, did we know where he was, what was his regiment … I didn’t know anything and mum being uneducated knew even less and we were taken by taxi to Lasswade House. Auntie Elsie and Harry were there also, but the rest of the families were from Custom House. These families didn’t make us welcome or want us there, they would make remarks about me not being at work, and go out leaving all the clearing up for us to do. After only one week Auntie Elsie said she’d had enough and went home to Dagenham, things really got bad for us then. One day mum managed to get an old pram, she put the kids and our few belongings in it and we walked to Reading Station, I think about ten miles, and made our way back to Dagenham. We arrived home in the middle of a big bombing raid but we just climbed into our beds and slept right through it. When we were in Reading we could see this bright red sky on the horizon, "red sky at night, shepherd’s delight" – we didn’t realise it was the Blitz on London.
When we were evacuated to Berkshire we arrived at Reading Station to find our suitcase was missing, we had no clothes or babies nappies. The station was milling with military, French and British, so our case didn’t get priority! Twice we had to go by bus to the WVS in Newbury and I had to explain what had happened and sign lots of forms for mum. I remember there was a bakers shop and the baker used to stand in the window making these apple pies, and then put the cooked ones on display, I can still smell them, but we couldn’t afford to buy them. Anyway they gave us some few clothes and more important, clothes and nappies for the babies. Some while after returning home to Dagenham mum received a letter to say she owed all this money for these clothes and must pay 1/6d [7.5p] a week to clear it up, which was a lot to find in those days. Each week I would take the money and a card to the Central Hall, Heathway; this left us very short because we only had dad's army pay at the time. Mum told me to ask how much more we owed and I mentioned that my dad was in the army. Suddenly there was a lot of talking and the lady said mum didn’t have to pay anymore. Near the end of the war mum received a letter from the Railways, they had a a case belonging to her, collect it from the Heathway Station. The label on the outside had been torn off during transit but I had put our name and address on a card inside, someone had decided to open the case and so it was returned to us – Maureen was long out of nappies – though by then we had Brian and Alec. I spent the rest of the war in Dagenham, working at Brigg’s, through the doodle bugs , V1’s & V2's, war time rationing and the jitterbug.
During one time when we were at home in Dagenham I can remember dad turning up unexpected, just after Maureen was born – I think perhaps it was after Dunkirk. He had just his uniform trousers and jacket on, no shirt; his boots with no laces, no socks on; he was unshaven, dirty – his clothes muddy; he had his rifle with him, I think it was a Bren gun, he stood this against the wall in the passage and said to us – ‘Don’t touch it … it's loaded’ went upstairs and fell on the bed, asleep, just as he was. He was discharged from the army with a perforated ear drum receiving for a while a small pension. Then he was called to London for a medical – one ear was fine so he was able to hear when the doctor spoke to him – so they stopped his pension!
Where are we now? Me, Grace I’m still in Dagenham; Bobby in Dunmow; Ivy in Brentwood; Ronnie in America; Dolly in New Zealand; Kathy in Dagenham; Teddy in Germany; Maureen in Bedfordshire; Brian in Leigh-