Evacuees in Bideford
In 1939 and 1940 the Second World War Blitz,(heavy aerial bombing), and the threat of invasion by Nazi Germany led to over 3.5million people being evacuated from the major cities, ports and industrial areas and moved to safer rural towns and villages.
Bideford had made many plans to receive the Evacuees. Committees were formed, billeting officers appointed, the area had been divided into 5 sub areas with each area allocated a number of expected evacuees:
|Bideford Borough||2,800 evacuees|
|Bideford Rural||1,600 evacuees|
|Northam Urban District||600 evacuees|
|Gt Torrington Borough||600 evacuees|
|Torrington Rural||1,800 evacuees|
A total of 7,400 had been planned for, approximately half were anticipated as being mostly children without their parents, many from London and the South East of England, including a whole school from Croydon, Selhurst Boys Grammar School. The plans were made to meet the evacuees that were arriving in their hundreds at Bideford Railway Station by the billeting officers,church workers, local volunteers, boy scout groups, and many local school children. They were helped across the Longbridge to the various reception centres which had been arranged in the local schools, church halls, Bridge Street Methodist Church Hall was one that an evacuee clearly recalls. The children were medically examined for any infectious diseases, fed and handed over to their waiting hosts.
The majority of the children were housed with local families who were often only able to take-in one or two children and many evacuees were separated from their brothers or sisters. Being uprooted from home, brought to an unfamiliar place far from home, living with strangers and in many cases separated from their family had a big impact on the evacuees. Likewise the sudden arrival of a large number of unaccompanied “townie kids”, some from the poorest areas and owning nothing but what they stood up in impacted on the town.
Both the town and the evacuees worked hard throughout the war to integrate and in spite of the various reported culture clashes they, by and large, succeeded. The evacuees attended Bideford’s schools, Selhurst Grammar School shared Bideford Grammar School’s classrooms and facilities. Many children took part in local sports, concerts, and events and the townsfolk did all they could to give them a normal life.
Many evacuees returned to their homes much sooner, as many parents believed that the ‘severe threat’ was no longer and had their children sent home as soon as they could. At the end of the war most remaining evacuees were happy to be going home but some were reluctant to leave and later in life returned to settle down and make Bideford their home.
Recollections of former evacuees to Bideford
Recollections sent to us from Karen Mansell, of her Mother and Aunty, Audrey and Twin Sister, Joan Shekyls, as Evacuees to Bideford.
I have the following information about my mum and her sister.
My mum Audrey Shekyls and her twin sister Joan were evacuated to Bideford from Peckham about 1940. They stayed with Mr and Mrs Parr (Fred and Winnie) at No.9 Twinaway Terrace, Clovelly Road. Mum had very happy memories of staying with the Parr’s and she attended Bideford Girls school although sadly in June 1941 her twin sister died in the hospital, in Bideford, of heart problems aged 11 and is buried in East the Water Cemetery.
My mum died last year aged 84 but whenever she and my dad were on holiday in Devon, (which was very frequently) she always made a point of visiting her evacuee parents right up until the time that they died during the 1980’s. Mr and Mrs Parr were married in 1934, but didn’t go on to have any children of their own.
When Mum and Joan were being taken to their prospective ‘foster parents’ the man in charge knocked on the door of Mr and Mrs Parr and said – “I have two lovely little maids for you here” – coming from Peckham, mum had never heard this saying before!
I didn’t like to mention to my mother too often about Bideford too much as obviously after her sister died it must have been so sad for her, she said she wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral, but saw the hearse pull away from the house whilst she watched from the bedroom window. She also remembered when they walked to school, Joan kept lagging behind (all those steep roads), and mum would tell her to hurry up, of course oblivious to the fact that Joan’s heart was failing and no-body knew. I suppose nowadays it would be a simple operation that could be done for her.
Another time, mum had an argument with Mr Parr and in the front room there was a photo frame with his picture in and mum turned the photo the other way round so she didn’t have to look at him! I’ve always wondered what his reaction was. I think mum said Mr Parr was an ARP during the war. I’m not sure how long after Joan’s death, but mum asked if she could go back home to London, so Mr Parr’s brother took her back to be with her mum and dad. But it was lovely that she came back to visit them whenever they were on holiday in the area, as I believe many evacuees kept in touch with their foster families in Bideford.
Recollections from Mr Leslie Scrase
My council school from Croydon was evacuated to Brighton at the same time as Selhust was evacuated to Hove – but we joined them from our summer holidays in Felpham, near Bognor. Then, when the second evacuation was on the way, I took an entrance exam for Selhurst aged 9 and was accepted. So, when Selhurst came to Bideford: one of my elder brothers, Aubrey came with Selhurst. So did I. My mother and sister also came and my sister Brenda was sent to Edgehill aged 7.
The evacuation arrangements were excellent and very efficient.
We were taken to Bridge Street Methodist Church Hall and from there we were taken to homes by taxi. (There was none of the standing on a station platform waiting to be selected by curious locals – which happened to my wife in Cornwall). All the arrangements had been made in advance.
My brother went to one address. I don’t know what happened to my mother and sister, but they went together somewhere and at some stage ended up with a family called Tithecott who were very kind. Margaret Hill (nee Tithecott) still lives in Bideford and remembers those days.
I went to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sharley on Chudleigh Avenue and was there for about a year. Mr. Sharley was a railwayman and later became mayor of Bideford. They had a married daughter who lived just down the road, Mrs. Parkinson and a baby grandaughter Valerie who now lives in Appledore.
At school I was with boys older than myself. I expected to keep their hours, grew a bit wild and so ended up being transferred to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Langford. He was the headmaster of Bideford Grammar School.
Oddly enough, the Sharleys didn’t want to lose me! I resented the move and got off to a bad start with the Langfords. Our relationship never really recovered. There was another evacuee there, Paul Nutt, who was perfectly happy with the Langfords. I ended up in disgrace – caned by two headmasters in one day, banned from the scouts and moving from one evacuation home to another in quick succession before ending up with Miss Branch on Bideford High Street in a tiny cottage. She and I hit it off at once and my family kept in touch with her until her death in Lancing (by which time I had a family of my own). I also kept in touch with the Sharleys. Her family owned a hardware (?) shop fairly close to the old cattle market and I used to help in the shop on a Saturday morning. I stayed with Miss Branch until Selhurst went back to Croydon in 1942.
While we were in Bideford my mother took a hut at Westward Ho!, so our holiday \lives were spent in paradise there, swimming in the old rock pool and prawning amongst the rocks. However, my time in Bideford and then at Shebbear gave me a love for the west country; for the countryside and for the natural world, which have been dominant features of my life ever since. I owe an irreparable debt to many, many west country people. In Bideford, my debt was supremely to Mr. and Mrs. Sharley and to Miss Branch. Miss Branch was a devout Methodist (High St. Methodist Church which we also attended). Strictly teetotal she made very explosive herb beer and elder flower wine. Quaint in so many ways, she took a somewhat wild, rebellious little boy who felt that all the world was against him and loved him to bits. I gave her no trouble at all and was very happy in her home.
Leslie Scarse has written a ‘children’s fiction’ book based upon some of his own experiences, the book is called An Evacuee.
Aubrey Scrase – aged 86, 26 June 2012 Evacuee memories
It may take a few weeks but the truth is I came to love Bideford and am happy to talk about nothing else. My name is Aubrey G. Scrase. I am now 86. You have already heard from my kid brother. So to continue.
My first billet was with an elderly couple. They treated me as a guest. I had my meals on my own in the dining room, while they ate in the kitchen. I think they thought I was a bit posh just because I went to the Grammar School. I did not complain; indeed I had nothing to complain about but I didn’t stay for long but was moved. I don’t know why but I am fairly sure that the borough did not just allocate us to out billets but sent people round to check how things were going.
My second billet was with a Mr and Mrs White. Also East-the-water. Mr White I remember well. Their address was Overton, Old Barum Road.He was retired, gruff and hearty and a bit overwhelming. They already had two evacuees, younger than I, and not from Selhurst. I stayed there a few months and again was moved. Again I don’t know why. I now went to stay with Miss Benney, West-the-water, her address was ‘Rocklea’, Westcombe. She was already looking after her niece, a Yorkshire terrier called Bill, and four cats. I was supremely happy and, provided I took out Bill for his walk each day, I was let off all chores.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was August 1943 and we were on holiday. However, the school did not wash its hands of us. I can’t say I remember too clearly, but I think we met up at the Grammar School most days and were kept busy somehow. I don’t know how and certainly a month’s holiday is a long time. Walks to Westward Ho and swimming, and there were dozens of board games provided for wet days.
Eventually holidays ended and school began. We shared the building with Bideford Grammar or perhaps it would be more tactful to say they shared it with us. The head of BGS as Langford, ours Turner. They had VERY different personalities but there seemed to be very little friction between the schools. You would have thought there would have been fights, but I don’t remember any at all.
My friends and I disagree about how the building was shared but MY recollection is that we had mornings for a month and then switched to the afternoons for the following month. The school playing fields were adjacent to the school, now built upon I see. I think we must have had more than our fair share of the use of these.
When I got into the Fifth form, the pavilion was used as our form room. I don’t remember how we managed to change in a room full of desks when we played games.
I played Rugby for the school and so enjoyed coach trips to Shebbeare, Kelly College, and West Buckland.
Does anyone feel sorry for an evacuee? Well, not for me! Bideford! Always something going on at the quay or along the river and take a ball into Kingsley Park. Two cinemas – Tickets one shilling and two pence. And when we first arrived ice-creams smothered in thick Devon cream. Such extravagance soon became against the law. And of course, girls! What a strange and fascinating accent! I just loved listening to them talking. Eventually, my Dad brought me down my cycle and I went exploring. Croyde Bay, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin, Lynton and Lynmouth are all within easy reach.
I left school after O levels in 1942 and cycled home to Croydon. The London air raids had come to an end, Hitler having got himself too involved with Russia, and so the school came back as well and Bideford could heave a sigh of relief.
So I had two years of sheer bliss in Bideford and so did many others. I wish somehow it was recognised – a George Medal perhaps?
Rain! That’s one of the things we used to think about Bideford. It rained. Butas a consequence was warmer.
Home Guard. I joined but can’t remember whether it was compulsory. I believe it became compulsory but whether for my age I don’t know. I was born in Oct 1925. We had to do fire watch duty at the Grammar School and had to sleep at the school from time to time. We didn’t take it at all seriously. I took part in a defence against invasion exercise but, by then, invasion seemed very unlikely. The school went back to Croydon in July ’42.
I remember there being an air raid at Northam. Crowds streamed from Bideford to look at the damage but I couldn’t be bothered. At the time it was assumed that the bombers had been forced back from Exeter and just released their bombs before returning home. I should be saying bomber, as I think there was only one. Presumably all this is in the local papers of the time and I would have thought it would be worth exploring the Barnstaple local papers also.
One of the joys of being in Bideford was cream If you bought an ice-cream it was smothered in cream and strawberry jam. But a few weeks after we arrived in Aug ’40, the making of cream became illegal. Our main leisure at week-ends was playing rugby for the school. We seemed to find coaches and petrol without difficulty and played against Barnstaple Grammar, West Buckland, Shebbeare. And we’d often walk to Abbotsham and then on to Westward Ho for a swim.
We would also often walk along the river to Appledore. What a wonderful place for a boy of fourteen to explore, while bombs were falling on London constantly. How can we ever say thank you enough to the people who took us in!
Dr A F Bissell, Abergavenny Gwent. Recollections of Bideford June 1940 December 1941
When war broke out on September 3rd 1939 my school (Selhurst Grammar School for Boys in Croydon) had already arranged for evacuation, so on that very day we found ourselves at Hove, sharing the Brighton and Hove School buildings. We used them in the mornings from 9 to 1, the local boys took over 1 – 5. In late May/early June of 1940, with the fall of France imminent and an air raid on Brighton/Hove, it was apparent that the move had not been a good idea, so a further evacuation (to an unknown destination) was organised.
My younger brother, who attended a junior school, had been evacuated to adjacent Brighton., and our mother somehow arranged for him to travel with my school, and to attend whatever junior school was available in the place we arrived at. At the time I was 13 and he was 10. Our journey took us along the coast to Southampton, then to Salisbury and on to Exeter. Speculation was rife as we continued through mid-Devon and Barnstaple, arriving in late afternoon at Bideford. We were shepherded across the bridge (built, we were told, by local subscriptions, accounting for the varying sizes of the arches) to the church hall.
Here the ladies of the W.VS. (they were not yet ‘Royal1) sorted us and took us to our new homes. My brother and I were escorted up the hill to Victoria Gardens, and I clearly recall our introduction to Mrs Isaac, a plump lady probably then in her mid 30’s.
WVS lady : “Hello Mrs. Isaac, I’ve brought your ‘vacuees.”
Mrs. Isaac : “Hello, ‘ow be knackin’ vore, perdy viddy?”
Once I got used to the local dialect (which I can revert to at will) I gathered that meant ‘how are you getting on (knocking forward), pretty lively?’
Mrs. Isaac’s first name was Lena, her husband’s Horace. They had a quite new modern (for that time) house, and no children of their own. Although there was a flush toilet and a bath, water had to be hand pumped to an upstairs cistern to supply the taps, and W.C.
In a nearby street lived Mrs. Isaac’s father, Mr. Thompson (known as Grandpa Toddy) and his nephew Billy Vodden. Billy had severe curvature of the spine and was thus exempt from military service. Mr. Thompson was partly retired but had been a gamekeeper on Sir Hugh Stucley’s estate, and was allowed to still shoot rabbits, which obviously supplemented the meat ration. He also kept a pig, so bacon was not in short supply. In fact, I got so fed up with bacon and egg flan that I still avoid quiche, to give it its modern name.
We shared the local grammar school, having normal school, hours. Presumably the local boys were in part of the building but I cannot remember any interaction, with them. Many of our own teachers were still with us, though some of the boys, with a number of staff, had gone back to Croydon and endured The Battle of Britain and the subsequent ‘Blitz.’
I recall visits to Weare Giffard, a 3 – k mile walk each way, where one of Mr. Isaac’s relatives lived. In spare time from school I took to exploring the area on foot and walked to Instow (there was a rather nice farmer’s daughter there, and I was beginning to appreciate the charms of the opposite sex!). Also I walked to Appledore, Westward Ho! (barbed wire and concrete tank traps), Abbotsham,, Ford and Buckland Brewer. This gave me a love of the countryside, so that later I did not settle in the London/Croydon area, but have always been near rivers and hills.
In the late summer of 1941 we were taken some miles by coach to a hillside where we harvested potatoes. Children received sixpence a day, plus a bowl of soup and hunk of bread at lunchtime – our reward for gathering the potatoes into baskets after the tractor had thrown them out of the ridges.
At that time, what is now the Tarka Trail was still a railway, and we occasionally visited Barnstaple or Torrington. Some other memories include the following events
A form outing to Clovelly, where we walked down the woodland walk and back, up the cobbled street (a bit more briskly that Ronnie Barker in the ‘Hovis Sketch!)
An orchestral concert (orchestra unknown) at which our music master ‘Freddie’ Holmes played one of the Mendelssohn piano A school performance of ‘The Revenge’, chunks of which I can still quote or sing (At Flores, in the Azores, Sir Richard Granville lay, when a pinnace like a fluttered. bird, came flying from far away …… etc)
The school had an annual Lwdum Literarii (equivalent of a Welsh Eisteddfod) and our house Gamma (the houses took the first four letters of the Greek alphabet) won: our prize was a day at Hartland. Everard (that really was his name!)drank too much cider and was sick over the cliff edge!
Playing cricket in the park; I was fielding at silly mid- on but so close in that it was ‘stupid mid-on!’ As a result, I was hit by the bat receiving a split lip and chipped tooth. The scar on the lip after 70 more years is hardly visible but there is still a dent in the tooth.
There was a Warship Week in 1941, when Bideford raised the quarter of a million pounds to pay for a destroyer – now it would probably be hundreds of millions. On such occasions, there were parades of local organisations such as Scouts, R.A.F (from Braunton), the Home Guard (Mr Isaac was in the Bideford detachment) and others.
The Rector of the Parish Church, Rev. W. Maning ( he often walked through the town with gown flying in the breeze) was appointed a Prebendary, too much celebration – though I had no idea what it meant at the time.
My brother (who died 12 years ago) was a mischievous lad, which did not go down well with; Mrs Isaac Matters reached a pitch where he, along with another boy, tried to ‘escape.’ They somehow got to Barnstaple where they asked a lorry driver for a lift. When they said they wanted to get to London he suspected what they were up to, and took them to the police station. Thus late in 1941 my brother ended up in a hostel an this along with the fact (that I discovered years later) my mother thought Mrs Isaac was getting too fond of me, resulted in us both returning to Croydon. The blitz was over but of course there were late incendiary attacks, machine gun fire, V1’s and V2’s – all rather exciting for 15 – 17 year olds who did not fully appreciate the dangers.
Certainly my stay at Bideford resulted in my not wanting to spend my life a large metropolis, consequently my two careers one in Gloucestershire and another in Monmouthshire have been spent in environments similar to North Devon.
Gwen Burchell – nee Woodhatch. Memories of my time in Bideford during WW11 as an evacuee.
Evacuated to Bideford on the 6 June 1940 aged 9 years. From Sydenham, South East London.
Picked up from our local school by coach and taken to London for our journey to the West Country.
Train to Bideford took about 6-8 hours – took 2 hours from Exeter to Bideford all uphill and steam train. Travelled with other children. Not forgetting the gasmask!!
(Gwen and Audrey with their host family ‘Auntie and Uncle Shute’ )
Arrived at Bideford and all taken to East-the-Water school – not there now – and from there we were picked out for our billets. My sister and I were taken together which was fortunate and had a very nice “ Auntie and Uncle Shute “ which we used to call them at West- the –Water, in Elm Grove. Nice people and a nice house. Don’t remember too much about life as such there. She was a good cook and I loved her junket she used to make for us.
I well remember our first Christmas with Mr and Mrs Shute. A large cardboard box parcel had arrived from London and we eagerly opened it on Christmas morning in bed. Matching jumpers for both of us, together with pixie hoods, all knitted by Mum. Cross and chain for each of us together with other goodies. Wonderful!!
After 18 months we were taken from Elm Grove as “Uncle Shute” had unfortunately died and “Auntie” took adults then to get more money. We kept in touch with her and in fact visited her once or twice when on holiday in Devon, until she died.
After “Uncle Shute” died we were in a hostel until a second billet could be found for us. On Saturday evenings they used to have a “sing song” and I was enjoying my singing “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square” – my sister had gone to bed as she was younger than me – when one of the older evacuees who was sort of in charge of the younger ones, saw me, and apparently I should have been in bed too!! So I was quickly ushered off.
We went to East-the-Water school in Torrington St. and as I have already said it is not there now. When I was eleven years old I went to Peckham Central School which was in the Baptist Church at the top of the town. Had some very nice friends there but terrified of the headmaster, who was very strict. He did however, give me a good report on my return to London.
We were then billeted in East-the-Water with a stone deaf spinster, Miss Gabriel, “Auntie Gabriel”. She was in fact a cockney – born within the sound of Bow Bells. Her brother lived next door and had a business on the opposite side of the road – a monumental masons. Certainly a different environment than the first billet. However, she did her best for us and was very kind, but as I have already said, stone deaf.
Every Saturday morning we would go to the pannier market at the top of Bridge Street and she would go to the same stall for her faggots. Lava bread was also bought.
Sunday was Church day and we both went to St. Mary’s Church at the bottom of Bridge Street and then walk round to the main building for the 11.00 am service. Once a month was christening Sunday when parents had their children christened. As far as I can remember the vicar was Rev. Manning.
The girls from Edgehill school at the top end of Bideford Town would file in to the service in their school uniform.
We used to go blackberry picking in the autumn with our walking sticks to pull down the branches.
Summers were hot as I can remember, and Auntie Gabriel used to pour cold water on our windowsill in our bedroom, which was made of concrete, to cool our bedroom at night.
We also kept in touch with her until she died, but never visited as she died before we ever went down there. She was 60 when we were with her as children and we didn’t go back until we were married and had a family.
Our parents would visit us as when they could, Mum would sometimes come with her sister-in-law – Aunt Charlotte – as Dad would be on duty at work as a Railway signalman at Crystal Palace Station. He only had one weeks’ holiday a year. They stayed with a family in Torrington St. who had a family two sons and a young daughter – with whom we keep in touch every Christmas to this day and have in fact met up with her on a couple of occasions when in Devon. One of the sons came to visit us in London in 1948 with his friend and stayed with our parents and visited the Olympics at Wembley.
You ask about food, I can remember the lava bread we had for breakfast with dried egg.
Going in to Boots the chemists in Bridgeland Street and buying Victory V lozenges, Throaties, and Tins of Ovaltine tablets, and eating them like sweets!!! Sweets of course were rationed.
Salmon fishing was very popular in the river in Bideford and we used to watch the fishermen from the Bridge trawling their nets.
I do often recall an incident on Bideford Bridge when one winter’s day the wind was blowing a gale and I was wearing a new red Macintosh cape my Mum had just bought for me on one of her visits. I only had it done up at the neck and it was blowing in the breeze when suddenly a gust of wind took it and it went over the bridge and in to the river!!! I was in fact just going home to Barnstaple Street, and in the street were wharfs and I knew one of the owners – Mr Baker – and I went running round to his house and asked him if he could get a rowing boat out to retrieve my Macintosh. However, by this time the river which was also a little choppy because of the wind, had taken my mac down under and it was nowhere to be seen!! Needless to say when my parents heard about it, they bought me another one but with buttons all the way down and not “poppers”!!!
Kingsley Park (I believe it has a different name now), at the end of the quay was a popular place to visit when we had visits from Mum and Dad. There used to be a gentleman in there who used to sit in one of the shelters and knit his socks on four needles.
Chudleigh Fort was another popular place to visit East-the-Water, the views from the top were wonderful. So many times I can remember rolling down the hill on the grass as a child.
Places like Appledore, Instow, Westward Ho and Clovelly were places to visit too but of course the beaches were cordoned off so we couldn’t actually go on them.
Mill Street in Bideford was I remember a very very narrow street, in those days of course there weren’t many cars on the roads. Braddicks the butcher I remember as Miss Braddick was a teacher at East-the-Water school. Yeo’s the drapers was a little further along on the corner.
We returned to London in March 1943. Many of the children were returning home and I was feeling homesick. The school medical showed this and they said I would have a nervous breakdown if I did not return home. As soon as Mum and Dad heard this we were both brought back home, to doodle bugs and rockets!!!
I have some lovely memories of Bideford and we were lucky on both occasions with our billets as all the people concerned were very kind to us opening their homes to welcome the London evacuees.
Audrey Patterson – nee Woodhatch. CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF MY WWII EVACUATION TO BIDEFORD
I was 5 years old when I was evacuated to Devon, together with my sister Gwen, on or around Thursday 6 June 1940. Mum and Dad must have done a lot of soul searching before deciding that with the onset of the London blitz it would be safer for us to leave our home in Sydenham London for Bideford in North Devon.
We had our photographs taken in the garden at Kangley Bridge Road and then with our gasmasks on our shoulders waved goodbye at the local school and boarded a coach. The journey from London on a steam train for 5 hours or more was obviously very boring for a little 5 year old so I remember passing the time with my knitting. Mum and Dad were completely unaware of where we were to be billeted, however we were very lucky to be placed with Mr & Mrs Shute who lived at a house with the name ’Gabriel’ in Elm Grove, a lovely couple who were very kind to us and where we were both very happy. I remember she used to make junket, a white sloppy substance sprinkled with nutmeg which I hated, perhaps that’s why I remember it well, despite the fact that I only have a very vague recollection of most things at the time. My most vivid memory is of their canaries which were always singing in their cages in the little garden room leading from the sitting room and of an old eccentric cousin, who lived a few doors away, had bright red hair, red lipstick, yellow fingers and who always seemed to have a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
I remember walking over Bideford Bridge to attend school on the other side at East-the-Water. With my little legs it seemed to be such a long trek, however when I visited many years after, I discovered that the bridge was only small and that Bideford itself was a lovely place which I did not appreciate at the time In our little straw hats we always went to St Mary’s Church on Sunday. We were happy there but sadly Mr. Shute died suddenly and we had to move on to another billet.
Our new guardian was a Miss Gabriel who lived in Barnstaple Street opposite the wharf. Such a coincidence that this name ’Gabriel’ was to be once again a huge part of our lives. I believe she was about 60 years old, very prim and proper, stone deaf, wore long skirts, and had her hair tied back into a bun. She looked after us well, however life was very different in our new surroundings. Gwen and I slept together in a big double bed and I remember making my own amusement by pretending to play the piano on her large dining table but do not recollect having any toys. Back over the bridge at West-the-Water, with Miss Gabriel, we carried on attending St Mary’s Sunday School and the service which followed. I used to love the laver bread which she fried up for breakfast. This is a seaweed which I know is a Welsh traditional dish but also found in the West Country. Quite often on Sunday we would enjoy scrambled egg made with powdered egg, because of course with food rationing real eggs were hard to come by. Sweets were also very limited so we resorted to buying oval tine tablets and Victory V cough sweets. I remember Kingsley Park with the statue of Charles Kingsley and also Chudleigh Fort where I played. One of the highlights of my stay was helping Miss Gabriel pick the rose hips from the hedgerow, from which she made her rose hip jelly. I also have a very strong recollection of the pink flowers growing from the walls in Bideford which I have since found out are ‘centranthus’ and are now one of my favourite flowers which we grow in our own garden.
We used to love the visits from Mum and my Aunt Charlotte. They used to take us for days out to Instow, Westward Ho and Clovelly. Didn’t have a car but cannot remember how we got there, although probably by train as there was such a good service in those days. Dad was unable to make it on a regular basis because he was a Railway Signalman at the Crystal Palace, a very essential service at the time, however I believe he did manage a visit or two which was always very special.
Due to the long separation from Mum and Dad, Gwen became depressed and the Doctor advised we return home for fear of a nervous breakdown. Although everybody was kind to us, in 1943 we were happy to be back in Sydenham, despite having to face the doodle bugs, rockets and every night sleeping in an Anderson air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden, no electricity and just candles for lighting! I suppose even for a child, whatever the circumstances, ’there’s no place like home’.
I feel quite sad to think that we were never able to see Miss Gabriel again who had passed away by the time I was able to visit Mrs Shute with my family, which we managed a couple of times. Sadly she too has now died but it was during these trips that I enjoyed visiting old haunts and realised that I was very fortunate all those years ago to be sent to beautiful Bideford, which will always have a very special place in my heart.
Audrey Patterson (nee Woodhatch)
Gwen and Audrey at Clovelly.
Photos very kindly supplied by Gwen and Audrey nee Woodhatch evacuated from Sydenham, South East London.
The photo at the top of the page, kindly supplied by Gwen Burchell, Nee Woodhatch, was taken by Mrs Shute, of Mr Shute, their niece Gladys, her friend Muriel, and Gwen and Audrey Woodhatch. Thank you for your photos and recollections.
Evacuee Mickey – by Mrs Valerie Morrish, Bideford.
This is a photo of ‘little Mickey’ he was an evacuee from Bristol. Mickey was lucky to have been placed with Val’s grandmother, Mabel Steer, who lived in Torridge Place, Bideford. When he first arrived in Bideford, the planned arrangements were very different, he should have gone to stay with another family, however, they were a little surprised by the colour of his skin, and he was eventually placed with Mabel. Mabel did recount a few times that there was some surprise at her taking the little boy into her home, but he was a lovely little boy, and he remained in contact with Mabel through his adult life, and up until Mabel died, clearly there was a very strong bond between them.
Many thanks to Val Morrish, for letting Bideford 500 use this photo.
Greeting the evacuees at Bideford Station, by Mr Basil Pidgeon, Bideford.
Basil can clearly recall, as child and attending Bideford Grammar School for Boys, that each class was involved in the arrangements of meeting the evacuees from the train, when they arrived at Bideford Station. The Billeting Officer was Mr Langford, the Headmaster of Bideford Grammar School, so it was natural, that the school boys were “told” to help. Each class was told on which day and time to be at the Station to greet the new arrivals, Mr Langford, quite used to organising children would travel to Barnstaple first, then board the train, and as it travelled to Bideford, stopping as the train did then, at the stations in-between, which included Fremington and Instow, by the time it was arriving at Bideford station, Mr Langford had arranged all the children into the correct groups, in the most orderly of fashion, who were then greeted by the by school boys, who were instructed to take the children’s bags, if they had a bag at all with them, and walked across the Longbridge to the meeting hall.
Sam and Audrey Watson, twins, evacuated from Croydon to Bideford, North Devon June 1940. Returned home in July 1945.
Sam, Joan and mum, Croydon 1939 just before the evacuation.
Sam Watson’s recollections
The account that follows is my recollection of the events during the five year period that my sister Audrey and I were evacuated to Bideford. Contemporary information was obtained primarily from the local newspapers published during the Second World War. Additional information related to Thornton Road School was obtained from the school records held in Lanfranc School, Croydon.
Thornton Road Infants School. Croydon.
The school, first opened in 1913, was situated in Boston Road, just off the busy Thornton Road which runs between Purley Way and the Thornton Heath Pond.
Our older sister Joan was transferred from Ingram Road School to the Junior school on January 9th 1939 when the family moved from Thornton Heath to Mitcham Road.
Audrey and I were born in Thornton Heath near Croydon in Surrey on April 28th 1935, our father was in the Corps of Commissioners and a member of the Royal Naval Reserve. On October 10th 1938 he was recalled to the Royal Navy when the Fleet was mobilised as Europe headed toward war.
Authorities in London and the surrounding districts had prepared for the evacuation of civilians from the city in the event of war during the early twenties, the plans were hurriedly taken out and preparation made for the wholesale movement of the population to safe areas. Rehearsals were carried out in the early part of 1939, children assembled at their school with a few personal belongings and a gas respirator, lists were prepared and officials instructed what to do and how to do it.
In late August 1939, time had run out for peace in Europe and the evacuation plans were put into motion. Before September was over, one and a half million women and children with their school teachers had been moved to safe areas.
Evacuation forms had been issued to the West Thornton parents on July 5th.
War was declared on September 3rd 1939 and in Croydon, schools were recalled by a radio broadcast to rehearse their evacuation plan.
West Thornton School was evacuated to Brighton on September 4th. The log states that the school assembled at 8am, 69 girls, 5 staff, the head teacher and 2 helpers, 90 infants, 5 staff, the head teacher and 4 helpers.
By midday, the log records that the school was at East Croydon station and at 1.30, “Left for somewhere”. A further entry that day was “Reached Brighton, everyone wonderfully behaved”. On the following day, “Heavy hearts but smiling faces”.
On September 18th, the school re-opened and became part of the Lewes Road School in Brighton, with Miss May G Eldridge in charge, she had started with the school in 1937 and was destined to remain with the West Thornton School until her retirement in 1951.
Our older sister Joan was one of the children evacuated to Brighton but was subsequently moved to Bideford North Devon but not with Audrey and me. We saw little of her during the war.
Members of staff at the time of the evacuation were:
Miss Tucker, Miss Stent, Miss Grumble, Miss Nevelle-Kaye and Miss Hay.
The log records that gas masks were issued and fitted by an ARP warden on September 22nd and air raid drills were started.
The school remained in Brighton until the end of March 1940 but returned to Croydon and was re-opened on April 1st. This was the period of the “phoney war” and many of London’s evacuees returned to their homes, in retrospect, for the Eastender’s, a terrible mistake. Two weeks later on April 19th, the School was re-opened full time.
On May 10th the School was closed, the log records, “Grave war news, the German forces have invaded Holland and Belgium” and on May 17th, the BBC broadcast the Government evacuation order.
The Evacuation Begins
On the following day, a Saturday, the schools in the evacuation areas were opened and parents were required to register their children for evacuation, the schools were opened for the following three week’s end, May 18th, 25th 31st. A few days later, on June 3rd 1940, Audrey and I were registered; numbers 1946 and 1947 in the admission register.
The School log records that on June 13th, 26 infants, including Audrey and Sam Watson, assembled at Lanfranc School, a few hundred yards away from the Thornton Road School, Miss Oddy, the head teacher and Miss Stent accompanied the children.
The evacuation had begun.
Bideford June 1940.
At 5.30 in the afternoon of June 13th and the following two days, several hundred school children from the Borough of Croydon arrived at Bideford. 1,500 were expected, the actual figures were split between the Bideford Borough and the Rural District, 1,100 and 750 respectively. In total, 4,000 evacuees were expected to arrive in the North Devon area during the first week or two of June 1940.During the early part of April, a total of 12 schools from the Croydon district were re-located at 10 schools in the area, West Thornton was attached to the Church Junior School just 5 minutes from the Parish Church of St Mary at the west end of the town.
Meanwhile, in Croydon the bombing had started. The Thornton Road School log records that on the night of August 1940 there was an air raid, on the 30th the log recorded that children attending were very tired because of the night raids, sleep was broken as everyone stumbled to .the shelters. Sleep was impossible over the crash of exploding bombs and the incessant racket from the anti-aircraft batteries on Mitcham Common and other open areas surrounding Croydon.
During the first week of September, there were two raids daily and the children were hurried to the shelters, on the Wednesday, the children were sent to the shelters just after registration at 9.45am and did not emerge until the “All clear” was sounded at 2.30pm. On the 16th, more evacuees left the School and on the following Monday there were three raids during the day, the “Alert” was sounded at 2.15, the “All clear” wailed into life four hours later at 6.15.
Toward the end of the month, on the 26th the School was cleared because of a delayed action bomb in a nearby street, on the following day, gun fire sent the children to the shelters again. The log records, “Raids every day in September”.
The following month was worse, on October 14th a bomb exploded just 10 yards from the school, all the windows on the west side were shattered, three class rooms were declared unsafe, a week later incendiary bombs landed in the playground. And so it continued.
Our new home 3 Raleigh View, along the Northam Rd.
Sam and Audrey Watson with Mr Mrs Alfred Ernest Hill, Evacuee Foster Parents,1940 on the Quay on the Torrington side of the Bridge.
Audrey and I both recall our arrival at 3 Raleigh View along the Northam Road, it was evening time, dark and with rain pouring down when we drew up in a small canvas top Austin Seven.
Our foster parents were Mr and Mrs Alfred Ernest Hill, with a son George, he was aged twenty five or so. They were strict with us in all that we did, but neither of us recall any harshness or ill-treatment during our five years with them. We were well dressed, well fed and were both very happy.
Our first school was the Church Infants School at the end of Allhalland Street behind St Mary’s Church. Each school day, we walked from our new home toward the town, but turned down Minuet Walk alongside the sports ground. High walls were on either side until we reached the Stella Maris Convent and into the Strand. We turned right into Chingwell Street then left into Mill Street.
On a recent return visit to Bideford, little appeared changed along the Mill Street, indeed, apart from the odd modern video shop or chain store many still trade as they did fifty years ago. The fishmonger opposite Bridgeland Street still sold the dark green laver (sea weed) which we so often ate for tea, Crouch, the newsagent and tobacconist was still there as I remember it.
Our walk to school continued across the High Street into Allhalland Street and up to the Church, along the raised pathway, Church Walk, around the churchyard and then to the school. The school, still there although now a private house, was built on the steep slope alongside the Church on its southern side.
Directly below and underneath the school playground was the Church Institute which was used by the school for plays and other events, an internal stone staircase led from the school playground down to the Institute.
Inside the school there was an entrance hallway, Headmistress’s room and four class rooms, at the rear were toilets and wash places.
During the winter, the milk, which was delivered in one third pint bottles, was placed in the galvanised sinks with warm water until break time. We drank the milk through the cardboard top of the bottle using a real straw, golden and shiny. Periodically the air raid siren was tested and we left the school, crossed the narrow pathway between the school and the Church, walked around to the east end of the Church and descended into the crypt. We sat on benches facing each other and against the white-washed walls of the crypt, a small amount of light came through a narrow slit window high up in the east wall. The school records of the period detailed this event and other mundane events which took place, the visit by the nurse for head inspections, the Rector, Mr Manning, called to see the school and commented upon the teaching of scripture and the general well-being of the children, the Headmistress was permitted to attend a civic function, a teacher away sick, five tons of coal were delivered and so on. There was no indication in these terse log book entries, of the turmoil of war in which the country was now plunged.
Audrey Watson, Mrs Mary Hill (Evacuee Foster Parent) & Sam Watson 1940
In London on Saturday September 7th 1940 at precisely 4.56pm, the London “blitz” began, air raid warning sirens began to wail and Londoners hurried to the shelters, presuming that this was another false alarm, it was not, within minutes of the warning, a large force of German aircraft turned west and followed the River Thames toward the capital.
The first bombs fell near the Ford works at Dagenham, Beckton gasworks then the Royal Docks, within less than two hour there were no less than nine conflagrations, fires so large, that they burned out of control, warehouses along the Thames, split by high explosives, poured their burning contents into the river, sugar, spices, wheat, paint, rum and timber.
The “all clear” was sounded at 6pm.
At 8pm another raid started, this time, a force of over 250 aircraft bombed the same area, the “all clear” sounded nine hours later, the whole of the East End seemed to be alight.
In Bideford, that afternoon, there would certainly have been no awareness of the horrors taking place in London, although there were two incidents during that month which involved fire, the laundry and glove factory opposite the house in Raleigh View, caught fire and was gutted, the fire was discovered during the late evening, Audrey and I watched from our bedroom window. The other concerned a case of arson, a man in nearby Torrington wanted to go to prison to get away from everything so he set light to his house.
During the early months of the second world war, Bideford remained much as it had always been, a delightful place, with its splendid bridge, steep and narrow streets and the broad waters of the River Torridge dividing the town from East of the Water. As time passed, there were changes, the gas lamps were removed from the bridge, sandbags appeared around the entrance to the library and the town hall. Windows were criss-crossed with white tape too prevent the glass from flying, blackout screens were erected at the entrances to main buildings, air raid shelters and static water tanks began to appear in the streets.
The Art College opposite Charles Kingsely’s statue. (Note the “dragons teeth” in the foreground. 1940)
“Dragons teeth” tank traps were placed on the quay near to Kingsley’s statue, oil pipe lines were placed along approach roads to the town ready to spray flame on to passing enemy vehicles, there were oil pipes laid in the hedge rows of Raleigh Hill, a road which winds steeply up from the junction of Kingsley Road and Northam Road.
We were issued with respirators before we left Croydon, each packed in a small square cardboard box which we were required to carry with us.
The local Home Guard was formed and we would watch them march along in uniform to some training place or to guard the approaches to the town and at the quay.
Mr Hill was a member of the ARP, Air Raid Precautions organisation. He was responsible for equipment and each Sunday morning we would accompany him to a store above a drive-in storage building just off the Northam Road, between Westcombe Lane and Northdown Road.
This was an Aladdin’s cave, filled with everything imaginable, from gas capes to gas respirators for babies, the baby was placed inside and the cover closed, the baby could be seen through a clear Perspex window in the front of the respirator.
There were greatcoats, stirrup pumps, buckets, tins of gas ointment, uniforms for members of the ARP, steel helmets, the list was endless, picks, shovels, ladders, vehicles.
When I see photographs of wartime London and the civil defence at work amongst the smoking ruins of the City, the uniforms, badges and all the paraphernalia of war, are vividly recalled.
There was only one incident which I can recall which brought war anywhere near us in Bideford, on March 13th 1945, a Wellington bomber which came down East of the Water and burst flames, only one of the crew survived. I was given a piece of Perspex from the aircraft.
The laundry, gutted by fire in October 1940 referred to earlier, provided a splendid playground for us although in hindsight, very dangerous, we would climb out over a long, fire damaged, un-supported beam and drop off the end. In the ruins were great vats of washing, sheets and pillow’ cases. The ARP used the ruins for exercises and we would watch them burrowing under the mounds of rubble, pipes and boilers to rescue their colleagues. The war did in fact come very close during the early part of 1942/3 when the American forces arrive in Bideford.
The area around Raleigh View was very prone to flooding, each year, the water in the stream rose steadily until the surrounding fields were under water, then just below the road, then over it came.
During the week of February 8th 1943, the flooding was particularly severe and houses in the area were flooded to a depth of two feet or more, the fire brigade was called to pump out the water but were unable to contain the rising level, several days were to elapse before the water was drained.
3 Raleigh View was the only house still using gas for lighting, electricity had not been connected and in consequence, the radio required batteries. There were two, a large HT dry battery, with several connections each a different voltage to suit most types of radios, the other was a glass accumulator with a metal carrying frame and two large terminals on the top. This was the LT battery and was required to be charged periodically, the spare was connected and I would take the battery to a house some few yards down the road to have it recharged, this was on the corner of Alexandra Terrace and was also a small dairy owned by Mrs Petherick.
This area flooded periodically when the pond water in the marshy area behind Alexandra Terrace rose, but 1943 was apparently the highest for many many years, the entire entrance and hall way was awash, the water was well up to the top of my boots on these occasions. The newspaper report occupied two complete columns describing in detail the extent of the flooding and the damage to property and furnishings. The National Fire Service sent three trailer pumps to clear the water from the houses. On a recent visit, the dairy has not changed one bit, it still has the coloured glass in the door, a ground and cut glass main panel, surrounded with a border of clear glass and red and bright blue corner pieces.
Today an elaborate drainage system is visible under the low bridge which carries the Northam Road toward Northam.
St Mary’s Church.
Audrey and I were sent to Church each Sunday morning, we sat just inside the North entrance in the first pew and always sang “our ladies” at the end of each hymn, a lady in the pew always gave us a “three-penny bit” for the collection.
I joined the choir in 1943 and served initially as a probationer, probationers were not permitted to wear a surplice and took their place in the rear of the choir stalls before the service started. Later, after the probationary period, I became a full member of the choir attended all services and wore a cassock and surplice, I was always most proud to walk up the aisle into the choir, turn into the stalls face inwards then sit and find the first hymn. The choir master was Mr Harper, the choir was rehearsed once a week in the choir vestry at the West end of the Church.
St Mary’s church is a beautiful building, its stained glass, rich blue and red. The North-South aisle was broad, as broad as the main aisle and each end led to a large porch. At the time, the pews were varnished almost black, in contrast to the strong colours of the stained glass and the crimson carpets of the aisle.
The incumbent was the Rector, Mr W M Manning. He was a very formidable character and would sweep in an out wearing a long cloak. When he preached, his voice was monotonic, I remember an Easter sermon when he spoke ‘of the “empty tomb”, he roared at us over the pulpit, “The tomb was empty, empty, empty” great gestures with his arms and this huge voice.
Regularly during those hot summer days of the early forties when we were on holiday from school, we would walk to Westward Ho across the fields. The route took us along the Northam Road to the dairy farm, down a path opposite the farm entrance, past a circular corrugated building which was a shoe repairer and through country lanes and fields to the ground immediately above the shore. At that time, there was very little in the way of building, a wooden holiday cottage or two and a steep path down to the beach. On a recent visit, I did notice that there were many pre-war buildings in Westward Ho, maybe we never walked in that direction.
Instow and Appledore were two favourite places which we visited regularly, Instow by train from Bideford station and Appledore by bus. Both these places were used by the American forces at the latter stage of the war, as loading and assembly points for the invasion craft which were destined for Normandy in June 1944. In 1940 these two places were still peaceful riverside resorts, albeit, mined and barbed wire fenced into the estuary of the Torridge.
The railway line from Bideford to Instow, ran for its entire length alongside the River Torridge, in places no more the a few yards from the waters edge, the track was single except for the approaches to each station. The journey was always very interesting because of the closeness of the track to the river, particularly so as the train approached Instow.
Moored alongside, high and dry when the tide went out, were ships awaiting repair at an Appledore shipyard on the opposite side of the river, walkways had been built from the shore to these ships.
By a strange co-incidence, after the war, I spotted what appeared to be a familiar scene in a photographers window in Folkestone where we were living at the time. I went into the shop to enquire and discovered that it was taken during the war on the Torridge and was of a merchant ship with a large hole in her side caused by a mine or torpedo.
We often went to Appledore, not a great distance from Bideford, certainly not from where we were living, up the Northam Road, over the hill and there was the Torridge again flowing down to the estuary, Instow was on the far side in the distance. During the early part of the war, there was access to the quay and the rocks and pools, there was a rough hewn pool, quite large which lay below the quay and was filled by the incoming tide. When we arrived in Bideford, we brought our bathing suits, identical, one-piece black to the waist and a green top with straps over the shoulders, we would change into these and play in the shallow water of the pool, the pool was there until quite recently but has now been completely obliterated by an infill from quay level to form a car park, another great blow, a well remembered haunt, gone.
Later during the war, it was not possible to walk along the quay at Appledore, a high wire fence had been erected behind which were the ships of the invasion fleet, secured alongside the quay wall. On the opposite side of the river was the sandy beach at Instow, drawn up high and dry at low water were many large landing craft, secured with stern anchors, bow doors open and ramps down.
Before the invasion preparations, the Instow beach was ideal for swimming, entirely of sand, beautiful, soft and clean. At low tide, just a narrow strip of water separated Instow from Appledore on the opposite bank of the river, seemingly almost possible to walk across.
The railway line from Torrington followed the River Torridge to Bideford, then Instow and on to Barnstable it then curved across the river on a narrow iron bridge to the railway station where it terminated. Alas, the railway and the bridge, the stations and level crossings are no more although clear evidence is to be seen of the course of the railway and the station buildings. Bideford station is in a particularly sad state because the sloping covered way up to the Barnstaple side has been taken away, also the station buildings on that side.
The original signal box was demolished when the railway was closed originally just a few broken stones from the base indicate where it stood, a few rusting sections of control rods and signal wires lay tangled in the overgrown grass at the end of the platform. On a more cheering note, on my visit in 1993, the signal box had been rebuilt by enthusiasts and looked much as I remember it a small section of track has also been re-laid between the station platforms.
3 Raleigh View
One of the problems I experience from time to time is that of coming to terms with the passing of the years. It is said that memories are places, we re-visit them to remind ourselves of those days long ago. I believe that memories are of people and they are not there. The location only serves to remind us of experiences of long ago and our family and friends as they were.
Behind the house along Raleigh View, was an area of waste ground used by a local builder for storage. The extreme edge was bordered by a low stone wall beyond which was a stream, on the other side was a sports ground on the Kingsley Road, during the war, sheep were grazed there almost continuously. One of the sides of the waste ground was flanked by the rear of the houses in Elmdale Road, the other by a high stone wall, a low wooden building and storage racks for builders material. The area today is Meadowville Road, a very quiet cul de sac. The stream at the bottom provided everything a child could wish for in the way of an adventure playground, later during the war, the Americans moved in to the area with tanks and other armoured vehicles.
We used the stream for rafting and would build them from any material which we could find along the banks of the stream and in the nearby builders store.
I fell into the stream several times soaking shoes and socks which I endeavoured to dry before returning home. On one occasion I fell in and was completely soaked, that I could not hide and squelched my way home to take the consequences.
During the winter the water rose to a considerable depth, flooding the waste ground and the stores, this was always great fun because we had a much larger area in which to punt our rafts. The stream ran along the Kingsley Road on the opposite side to the sports ground, crossed under the road and re-appeared in the sports field then continued along a line parallel to the Kingsley Road again, passing the bottom of Elmdale Road and joining the low swampy ground which lay between Kingsley Road and Northam Road.
This whole area would flood once during the year and would include the fields on the other side of the Northam Road, the road alone was above water. Today, the area is drained.
Victoria Park in Bideford during those war years was much more open than it is today, the end of the park away from Kingsley’s statue was all grass with a tarmac path around the outer edge, no golf course or bowling green. My sister and I would walk from home, down Chantry Lane, turn right into Park Lane, past the low lying land to the left which always grazed sheep, but is now the cricket ground and into the park by the lower gate. There was a large ‘Monkey Puzzle’ tree just inside the gate which was always a fascination for us, today, the paths remain much as they were in the war years but the tree has gone.
The Quay at Bideford was a constant source of interest to us, ships would come in on the high tide and lay alongside the wall to be unloaded, a wheezing steam crane trundled up and down wherever it was required, usually with buckets for ballast. sand coal or other bulk materials. Small steam coasters would unload their cargoes onto the Quay side using the ship’s derricks and steam winches rattling and screeching as the loads were hoisted clear of the ships hold. These ships would be grounded as the tide went out, the ships leaning on the wall it seemed, as if for support.
The Royal Navy HMS BIDEFORD, visited the town once during the war, she was one of four Shoreham class sloops, built in Devonport in the early thirties. She displaced just over 1000 tons and carried two 4″ guns, she survived the war and was broken up in 1947, there was a model of the ship in the museum until quite recently.
High tide at the Quay was always an exciting experience, particularly if the tide was very high. A feature of the rising tide, was that the rising water could be seen to rise very quickly. We would sit on the stone steps which led down to the water and watch as the water reached a tide mark or line of cement. The water on these high tides would reach the underside of the arches of Bideford Bridge and lap at the very edge of the Quay, sometimes overflowing. All the buses stopped at the Quay or on the opposite side of the road, single decker’s on the quayside under the trees which bordered the Quay.
As the war progressed and petrol became scarce, gas generators were towed behind the buses to provide the necessary fuel, cars were fitted with a large gas bags carried on the roof, they resembled a bellows.
This was bolted to a framework on the roof of the car and contained gas, probably coal gas. The buses to Barnstaple, towing their heavy trailers, were hard put to climb the incline on the other side of the bridge over the railway line along Barnstaple Street. The town had already started its own Civil Defence Organisation, part of the ARP (air raid precautions), as it was known, and deserves more detail. One of the obvious precautions was the ‘blackout’ mentioned earlier, headlights of cars and buses were shaded completely with black covers, a narrow slit permitted just enough light to illuminate the road in front of the vehicle. Houses were fitted with heavy black curtains across windows and doors such that when the door was opened, no light showed, Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets to ensure that this was done. The library and the Town Hall were fitted with double access doors which prevented any light from showing in the street outside, there was also a blast wall constructed from sandbags. All the windows in every house were protected with paper tape, stuck to the inside in a lattice pattern. In the event of blast damage, the windows would shatter but the glass would be prevented from flying.
Inside each house it was recommended that a stirrup pump and buckets of water and sand be available to extinguish fires created by incendiary bombs. The stirrup pumps were very distinctive, they consisted of a barrel and piston, about one inch in diameter and three feet high operated vertically by a broad handle. A foot rest was provided for the operator, the whole contraption resembled an inverted tuning fork.
The pump end of the barrel was placed in a bucket of water and the handle pushed down and pulled up. A long black hose permitted to be used at some distance from the fire.
The Cattle Market
The cattle market during this period was situated between Meddon Street and Honestone Street, today, all the signs are very visible, the distinctive floor tools, raised like pale cream chocolate blocks and the railings forming the cattle pens are still there. The Market was a great novelty for my sister and I, coming from a built up suburb of Croydon, the sight of lots of animals and all the activity associated with buying and selling cattle, sheep and pigs was quite new.
A visit to the newer market, sited in Chanters Lane, brought back many memories because the scene was as I remember it, with the auctioneer standing above the crowd, usually on the back of a trailer, a clip board in one hand and an ash walking stick in the other. The farmers, always very distinctive with their tweeds and brown leather gaiters, leaned over the rails of the auction show ring, making just the occasional gesture, easily missed by the un-observant. Outside, the cattle lorries, again, very distinctive, with their slatted sides and trail of straw, waited for the new purchases or perhaps to return empty after a successful sale.
Correspondingly, not more than one hundred yards down Honestone street is Market Place and the Pannier Market.
I have an old photograph and a modern photograph of the interior of the market, I can also recall the market as I experienced it during the war, very little has changed. During a visit in 1989, apart from the garish plastic household goods and toys, the scene was unchanged, perhaps the dress of the stall holders was different here and there, but the un-even brick floor, the open whitewashed rafters, the cast iron columns, the old pendulum clock on the wall all as original.
The butchers and fish mongers sold their produce from small lockup shops sited in the front part of the Market away from the open floor of the main market.
The wooden shutters and steep sloping slabs were as I remembered them, the butcher, with always lots to say, wearing his straw boater, striped blue apron and standing behind his counter on which stood large bowls of cream, baskets of eggs and great slabs of butter.
There is a tea room in the market, un-changed, a narrow room with a counter, glass covers over the buns and cakes, a monster of a boiler in one corner hissing steam, big china cups and marble topped tables, old pictures of the town on the white-washed walls.
Across the street in front of the Pannier Market was the World Stores where Mrs Hill shopped for the groceries, the shop was typical of the period, with most things sold loose, tea, sugar in blue paper cones, salt in large blocks, biscuits, loose in square tins with transparent lids, great cheeses on the wooden boards with the wire cutter with a wooden toggle which was pulled through the cheese and from my recollection, always seemed to be exactly the right weight. Butter was patted into small amounts using two wooden butter pats which were stood in a jug of water when not in use. The grocer would pull a lump from the huge blocks which rested on the marble slabs, pat it vigorously into shape, weigh it, add a bit more or lop a bit off and re-pat it to shape and made the characteristic ribbed pattern all over.
The smells from the grocer’s shop, even today, evoke very fond memories of those wartime years, especially the shops which have retained their original form of the family grocer.
Like so many of the shops in Bideford, the World Store is gone, the building is still there, but all that remains is the tiled entrance to the shop with WORLD STORES in black marble mosaic chips. The shop now sells antiques, I spotted the, remains of the bars in the ceiling from which the sides of bacon, poultry and sausages had hung.
A feature of the shops of those days was of course the individuality of each shop, it’s wares and the shopkeeper.
The family butcher stood on the corner of Lower Gunstone and the High Street, it was until recently an estate agent but now stands empty. A tiny shop, the floor was always covered with saw dust, the meat hanging on great hooks from the double row of bars which hung from the ceiling. Meat was severely rationed as was all food in those days, but I recall that the shop always had full slabs and hooks.
Recently, I have been able to establish the names of some of my contemporaries, one such was Adrian Luxton , he lived in Allhalland Street with his brothers, Julian and Christopher. I recall that the building stood on the corner of a narrow alley which led out on to the Quay and was a bakery, the ground floor of which was gutted by fire, it always smelled of smoke there after.
Bill Harding, a very close friend, lived with his parents and a brother at the smithy at 28 North Road. Access to the smithy was through a high arch in the building under the first floor of the house and into a yard beyond, the smithy and work shop were on the far side. Large, full height doors in the archway, closed off the building from the street. Access to the house was through a door in the street or under the arch through a side door, the front room to the right and the remainder of the house to the left inside the door. I spent much time with Bill in the smithy, watching his father and grand father making horse shoes or shoeing the horses in the yard. We would walk from school together, have some tea then see what was going on in the smithy.
The Americans Arrive
Four thousand American troops of the 34th Infantry Division arrived in Britain in January 1942 the first of many Americans to be based here. In Bideford troops and equipment began to arrive later in the year and continued into 1943 as the build-up to D-Day began. Behind Raleigh View the waste ground began to fill with armoured vehicles, mainly tanks the workshops were established in the Kingsley Road in two large garage type buildings, still standing today.
We spent much of our waking hours with the Americans, they were always very generous with sweets and chewing gum, we would climb over the tanks and sit in the seats look through the periscopes from the driver’s position I remember having a prism from one of these periscopes, where it came from, I do not recall.
The gun mechanisms of the tanks were preserved with a very heavy grease not unlike putty but khaki in colour, we used it just like plasticine.
On one particular occasion, the whole of the Northam Road was lined with American Army lorries, these were typical of the time, large, with grills over the headlights, huge chunky wheels and no doors just a rounded, shaped access into the cab, it was at this time I chewed tobacco for the first time.
The ground in front of the house was a waste dump of sorts! we called it lithe dump”, the Americans tipped all of their dry rubbish here we turned it over there was everything and anything to be found great treasures we thought the rubbish spilled down on to lower ground we slid or rolled to the bottom, then clawed our way back to the top again.
The Americans built two Nissen huts on the site, both surrounded by a brick wall which reached to roof height, an ammunition magazine perhaps, we used the walls and roof for jumping practice, great fun.
There was a large camp of American soldiers to the south west of the town at Bowden Green on the Clovelly Road~ now an industrial estate, no doubt there were others in the area, the whole of Devon was probably an armed camp at that time. Instow and Appledore were particularly busy primarily with landing craft, beached on the Instow sands and alongside the sea wall and the repair yard at Appledore which was associated with ship repair and building of small coastal craft, wooden minesweepers, patrol vessels, motor torpedo boats and armed trawlers
As an aside, three of the yard’s motor launches were used in March 1942 when Combined Operations mounted a raid on the great Normandie dock in the estuary of the Loire at St Nazaire. An old American destroyer, re-named Campletown then especially modified to look like a German destroyer rammed the dock gates and subsequently exploded, destroying the gates and flooding the dock. Army Commando’s destroyed the pumping equipment and essential electrical power stations, the dock was rendered un-usable and was not repaired until after the war had ended.
From photographic records, it appears that Dad was able to visit us twice during the war, the first in the summer of 1940, maybe early September, the leaves are still on the trees, there are several pictures taken on that day, we have the same clothes in each, Mum was probably not with him because there are none of her. There is one other recorded visit, probably in the summer of 1943. A single photograph exists, taken on the River bank just below Kingsley Park.
Joan Watson, Dad ( Mr.Watson), Audrey & Sam Watson, August 1943. Down river beyond Victoria Park.
The date can be easily established because Dad was wearing “fore and aft” rig, peaked cap, collar and tie with a single anchor on the left arm. This was the uniform of a Leading Air Fitter, his papers show that he was promoted to Leading Air Fitter 7th July 1942, our summer clothes suggest that it was unlikely to have been earlier than May 1943, he was promoted to Acting Petty Officer Air Fitter on May 6th 1943, a different uniform. The war was in it’s third year.
Whilst we were sitting there in the Summer of 1942, oblivious to the great struggle taking place far away, Britain was in a most parlous state, Singapore had fallen in February and the Japanese Army had run us out of Malaya, Thailand and Burma and the Dutch from Sumatra and Java by June that year.
There was a scrap metal drive in June of 1943, saucepans, pots, railings anything metal, was collected and sent to be used for munitions, I remember the removal of the railings around the churchyard. We walked to school along our usual route, reached the church gate and began to wind our way around the pathway above and to the right of the churchyard, there we saw men burning the railings away with cutting torches and lifting them on to the pathway. By the time we left for home after school, all the railings were gone. The Bideford Gazette of June 1st 1943 recorded the removal of the railings around the Parish Church and included a photograph of workmen lifting them away. From that day, we walked along the wall almost all the way to school, jumping across the west entrance gateway to the churchyard.
Photograph Wings for Victory , small child placing stamp onto a replica of a bomb, being pulled along by a US Jeep. (Copy given to Bideford 500 by the late Pat Slade, Bideford Community Archives)
During that first week in June was The Wings for Victory campaign, the purpose to raise money to buy a Spitfire, at the time, the cost was about £9,000.00. A parade of servicemen was held on the opening Saturday and on the following Monday, hundreds of school children gathered in Victoria Park. Audrey remembers Lady Astor standing on the fort to talk to us.
Joan, Sam and Audrey Watson.
Thank you very much to Mr Sam Watson for his photographs and recollections.
Audrey Watson EVACUATION JUNE 1940 TO JUNE 1945
The year is 1940, I can remember starting school with my twin brother at Thornton Road Infants School Croydon. Our enrolment date was June 3rd, a few weeks later on June 14th we were evacuated with others from our school to Bideford in North Devon.
I can remember vividly being taken by coach to a main-line railway station, our only luggage a small case and a gas mask over our shoulder. I cannot remember much about the actual journey, I cannot even remember if my Mother was there to see us off but I do remember wearing a large luggage label and that my brother wore a brown school cap. The journey was a long one I can remember a stop at a large station and people giving us drinks and biscuits, possibly it was Exeter.
By the time we arrived in Bideford it was quite late in the evening, we were taken to a hall in the town where people were waiting to choose an evacuee. I do not think that there was much in the way of organisation, anyone with a spare room was asked to accept a child or children into their home. It was very late, we were very tired and confused it seemed that no one was prepared to take twins and the organisers were reluctant to separate us. A lady named Mary Hill offered to have us for a day or two until alternative accommodation could be found. She in fact gave us a home for over five years.
It was very bleak at first she was often ill and was strict with us. She had one son of her own who was in his mid-thirties, he was an asthmatic who also had a deformed spine, so was not eligible for army service. It must have been very difficult for two middle aged people to suddenly be confronted with two five year old children to bring up. Mr Hill was a really nice man and often gave us little treats, he was good company and our favourite outing was a trip to his depot, he was a member of the ARP being too old to enlist in the forces. His depot was a small child’s dream of interesting things to play with, tin hats, stirrup pumps, gas masks, hose pipes, what a time we used to have, we spent many happy hours with him, helping in or own way and keeping out of Mrs Hill’s way.
Soon after our arrival in Bideford we were enrolled at the local Infants School which was attached to St Mary’s Church. I can remember the building clearly, later on we were transferred to the Junior School, I well remember one teacher, a Miss Foden, who praised my needle work, a pair of blue knickers that I had made.
The dentist used to visit the school, I recall having a tooth filled, he used an old fashioned treadle drill which he operated using his foot. The filling cost 3d, he threw my three-penny piece up into the air and said “Little Audrey laughed and laughed”
I made friends at the school, one was Margaret Nicholas and her sister Barbara; they lived in Lime Grove.
We had quite a long walk to school each day, on our way we walked down Mignonette Walk, there we used to see an old gentleman who used to sit in a little wooden hut in his garden, he used to throw conkers and apples in their season.
I remember clearly the school dinners, the helpers were very strict and would not allow any pudding until your first course was finished. I was not able to eat fat meat, I still cannot cope with it. Many lunch times I hid the nasty bits up my sleeve and threw them down the drain outside. I used to go back to the class room with gravy running down my arm.
One night there was great excitement as the laundry opposite our house was on fire.
After that our favourite playground was the burnt out shell. It must have been very dangerous but I do not remember anyone reprimanding us for playing there. We also built dens in the rubbish tip, playing was un-supervised for hours on end. The little girl next door was Gillian Taylor, I was very envious of her ringlets, my hair was completely straight and cut very short, just like Mrs Hill. The neighbour on the other side was Mrs Dark, she used to let my Mother lodge there on the few occasions that she was able to visit. Looking back I feel that my Mother must have had some disagreement with Mrs Hill because she never offered lodgings with us when she came, unlike my Father who always stayed with us when he had leave and was able to visit. I can remember tickling his feet to wake him up in the morning. On one occasion we went to the railway station to meet him, we waited for ages and he didn’t come, noses pressed against the side of the bridge between the two platforms. Suddenly someone clapped their hands behind us and there he was, we both threw ourselves at him for hugs, somehow we had missed him and he had returned to the station to find us. We used to raid his kit bag for chocolate buttons.
One day he came to see us wearing a different uniform, he had transferred to the Fleet Air Arm, that was the last time that we saw him. After Christmas 1943 Sam and I were taken out for a walk by Mrs Wall who was also billeted at Raleigh View with her son Alan. She had to break the news to us that our Father was dead.
I can remember her exact words as if it were yesterday, “Sam, Audrey, I have something to tell you, you haven’t got a Daddy anymore”. His death had occurred by drowning in the Cromarty Firth on September 19th 1943, we were not told until early in January 1944. Now we understood why we had not heard from him at Christmas, nor did I ever get to know if he liked the scarf that I had patiently knitted for him, I have thought since that they probably only pretended to send it.
Many years later I was told by Mrs Wall that Mrs Hill kept saying that she was not well enough to break the news to us. My Mother was angry that we were not told, but why did she not come down to Devon to tell us herself? Looking back I realise that Mrs Hill was a very sad lady who took refuge from life’s traumas in her ill health. It is difficult to recall my feelings at this time, no one seemed to treat us any different, Mrs Wall was extra kind to us, she lived in the same area of Croydon as us, her husband was in the Army, she was able to accompany her son to Bideford. She remained a true friend until her death in the 1960’s. I think it was not until our return to Croydon in 1945 that our true loss was brought home to us.
We used to walk miles in those days, cars were few and far between, what cars there were ran on gas which was kept in a large balloon-like contraption on the roof. The buses dragged a huge cylinder of fuel behind them. We used to walk from Bideford to Westward Ho about three miles across the fields and down the lanes, in those days the fields and hedges were full of beautiful flowers.
The beach was sectioned off with barbed wire and there were pill boxes everywhere but there was still a part of the beach where we could play in the rock pools.
At some stage in the earlier part of our stay, my sister Joan was transferred from her billet in Swanage to one in Bideford so that we could all be together. Unfortunately she had a series of very bad billets and we were not allowed to play with her, my mother took her back to Croydon early in 1943. I do recall though that she got into terrible trouble for losing her knickers on Westward Ho beach.
I was always very frightened of the gas geyser at Raleigh View, the house had no electricity and they used to put me in the bath with this thing hissing and spluttering, I was scared stiff of it. I am still very wary about water tanks, boilers and heaters of any kind. They also tried to make me eat tripe, many time I went without my meal altogether rather than eat the stuff. The “sea weed” I did like, it was collected off the rocks, boiled then sold at the fishmongers from big white bowls. You ate it with fried bread or toast, it was full of iron and minerals, so sadly lacking in our wartime diet.
I also have a vague recollection of men leaning over the old bridge at certain times in the year, salmon fishing maybe.
Two people remain in my memory of those years, one was Miss Batman or “The Song Lady” as my brother and I used to call her. She lived in a little cottage in New Row above the town; I am not sure how she came into our lives, but I have a feeling that my Mother used to lodge there when she came to see us. What intrigued us as children was her toilet which was at the end of the garden and had no chain.
She was a member of the Salvation Army, hence our name for her, she was a very kind soul and we spent many happy hours in her company. I have in my possession several old cards with Miss Batman’s name on them, I found them amongst my Mother’s thing when she died in 1991.
The second person who sticks in my memory is Mary Astor, although I did not know who it was at the time she was making a speech in Victoria Park perched up on the fort where the cannons were. I can still see her in a long navy blue skirt and a large navy blue hat. I have found out since that she was at that time Liberal candidate for Plymouth. Whenever we visit Victoria Park, we went to find the “monkey puzzle” tree, we called it “our tree”.
Towards the end of the War the Americans arrived in the town. They had a supply depot at the bottom of our garden in Raleigh View. One week I was off from school with chicken pox, I took them out a large jug of tea, when they had finished they filled the jug with all their loose change, I felt like a millionaire.
We used to spend a lot of time making rafts which we would sail down the stream. One day an older boy nicknamed Lanky Long Legs jumped onto my raft, I was so frightened of him that I jumped into the water and got into terrible trouble for arriving home soaking wet. Another time we got into trouble was when Sam and I played truant from Sunday School, we went to play on the cannon at Chudleigh Fort, East of the Water. Our Sunday School teacher reported us to Mrs Hill.
One Autumn Mrs Wall took us to pick blackberries, we picked so many that they were piled high on a huge meat dish, we also went scrumping apples at the same place enabling Mrs Hill and Mrs Wall to make loads of jam. Everything possible was done to eke out the meagre rations of war time.
George, Mrs Hills son married his Molly on our tenth birthday in 1945, they were both in their late thirties, which seemed awfully old to me.
One Christmas time I was given a boy doll with a big red nose, I called him Pinocchio.
We brought a few toys with us from home, one I can remember was a brown dog called Dusty Brown.
The house in Raleigh View was very gloomy, there was no electricity only gas mantels which used to flare and splutter when they were lit. Sam and I used to take the accumulator for the radio to the dairy to be re-charged, we carried it between us but I recall that it was quite heavy for two tots to manage.
The room was full of large furniture, on the dining room fireplace was a large black marble clock with a vase at each end to match.
I can remember Sam sitting at the kitchen table having his knees dressed, all the photographs of Sam in Bideford he has bandages on his knees, I have a vivid memory of him with his head over the kitchen sink bleeding profusely after losing a tooth. I was so frightened, we were very close to each other, I could not bear the thought of him being ill.
On looking back, I think we must have been quite a handful for two middle aged people to cope with. We had a filthy habit of spitting on our bedroom wall, whose spit reached the bottom first was the winner!!!
Very occasionally we went to the pictures, the Strand Cinema. The first film I ever saw was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, we also saw films at the “Penny Pictures”, these were usually held on Saturday morning and were mainly silent films, Pearl White, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and various cowboy films. When the projector broke down, which it did quite often, we all used to “boo” and “hiss” and make a terrible noise. In the interval an usherette used to come round and spray us all with a Flit gun of insect repellent, 1 don’t think we were a very hygienic lot. 1 can remember catching head lice on several occasions and having my hair combed through with a fine toothed comb dipped in vinegar. There is a certain piece of music which to this day reminds me of our trips to the “Penny Pictures”.
In April 1945 we were told that the war in Europe was at an end, we went racing upstairs to pack our few belongings, but in fact it was another two months before arrangements could be made to get us back to our homes, we eventually arrived back in Croydon on June 26th 1945. Soon after we arrived back there were street parties to celebrate Victory over the Japanese.
It was a very different London to the one which we left over five years before, I can remember feeling so frightened and insecure, my Mother being a war widow obliged to work full time, her pension in those days was £3.00 a week for herself and three children. We were left very much to our own devices, everything was so strange, I was scared of the bomb sites, the taped up windows and our new school, luckily Sam and 1 were able to attend the same school for a while longer.
My elder sister had the job of getting us both up for school each morning as my Mother had to be at work by 7.30 am. I well remember one particular morning, we had not been home for very long, I screamed and screamed not wanting to get up and go to school, in the end Joan had to go and fetch Mother home from work. She came up to the bedroom, gave me a good hiding and said “Don’t you ever get me home from work again”
There were no support groups in those days to help families come to terms with five year splits and the loss of a parent through the casualties of war. I did not realise at the time but on looking back it must have been a traumatic time for Mr and Mrs Hill, we had gone to them as two five year old tots, they had given us a home for five years and more or less brought us up only to lose us again. They must have felt a terrible void in their lives made worse by the death of their only son soon after the war during an asthma attack.
If the same thing had happened when my own two sons were tiny, no way would I have sent them away unaccompanied, but in 1940 circumstances were very different, in those days, with the threat of real hostilities, the parents had very little choice. It is only recently that psychologists have started to study the effect that evacuation had on our lives, the feelings of inadequacy, lack of confidence, breakdown in relationships, especially with mothers.
Since joining the Evacuation Reunion Association I have found such a relief that I am not the only one to feel as I do, that all of us to a greater or lesser extent were affected for life by our experiences. It is good to talk about it now, to bring out into the open, thoughts and emotions that have remained hidden for nearly 50 years.
I must add that I consider my brother and I were among the lucky ones, Mr and Mrs Hill gave us a clean and stable home life for over five years, we were very happy with them and I think they must have been devastated when we had to return home.
Sam and Audrey Watson with their Father taken in Victoria Park 1940
Sam and Audrey Watson with Alice and Alan Wall, taken at Ilfracombe around 1944
PLEASE NOTE THE PHOTOS CANNOT BE COPIED OR SHARED OR REPRODUCED WITHOUT THE EXPRESS PERMISSION OF EITHER BIDEFORD 500, OR THE OWNER OF THE PHOTOS.
Thank you to Alison Taylor for providing us with this information regarding her mother
“my mum, Ann Green (nee Smith) was evacuated when she was 4 (along with her sister Louise) to a dairy farm by Bideford. It was run by the Brooks (or Brookes) family.
Where you evacuated to Bideford during WW2? If you were, Bideford 500 would love to hear from you, so that we can add your name to the list of evacuees. Use the contact page or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org