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Two Rooms And A View: 14 - The Wandering Evacuee

...On the day of my evacuation, my mother was too upset to take me to the station and the unpleasant duty fell to my sister Addie. She later told me she had to lever my fingers out of her hand to get me on the train. This was the first time I had been on a train or away from home....

After the first bombing raid on South Shields during World War Two, children - including Robert Owen - were evacuating to Cumbria on the other side of the country.

Continuing his vividly-written life story. Robert recalls those times. For earlier chapters of the story please click on Two Rooms And a View in the menu on this page.

Bombing also commenced on many large towns and industrial locations and this stimulated a second national evacuation of children to safe areas. This time I was one of over 1800 children who left South Shields for various places in Cumberland and Westmorland during the summer of 1940.

If my family believed it was a long way to Cumberland and Westmorland, I don't know what they thought about my cousin: John Owen's two sons were evacuated to Canada. James and Hunter were very fortunate to be on the last evacuee ship that made it to the new continent.

Sadly, the next ship, City of Beares, was sunk in the Atlantic in September 1940 by German submarines. The enormous loss of life, with only seven children surviving, put a stop to any further evacuee ships to Canada.

On the day of my evacuation, my mother was too upset to take me to the station and the unpleasant duty fell to my sister Addie. She later told me she had to lever my fingers out of her hand to get me on the train. This was the first time I had been on a train or away from home.

Emotions must have been mixed. I was saddened at leaving home, but excited at going on a long train journey to some unknown destination. We all had labels around our necks and carried a gas mask and small suitcase that contained all our worldly goods. Some teachers came with us and fed us drinks and sandwiches from the corridor of the train. We didn't know where we were going and we most likely fought for window space to view the strange sights that the train was passing. Looking back, these must have been the River Tyne, Newcastle and the countryside towards Hexham and finally Carlisle.

From there we continued our journey by bus and finished up at Flimby, a small colliery village situated on the west coast just outside the town of Maryport.

We were met by a number of Billeting Officers whose job it was to find accommodation for each evacuee. They herded us into a reception centre, which was very likely the school hall, where prospective foster-parents were assembled. What followed must have been something like a cattle auction. Exhausted evacuees were paraded around in front of, often reluctant, foster parents for selection.

It was common knowledge that many of the foster parents had been forced by the government into accepting these strange speaking children from the cities and towns, for only 8s 6d (42p) per week. There was often conflict between the evacuee's urban upbringing and the foster-parents' middle class background.

One evacuee on a farm was famously reported as saying, "We don't get milk from dirty cows back home - we get it in nice clean bottles." In his book, George Osborn, (1999) - a year older than me, says on selection, "Many of the children were not chosen immediately. Strong looking lads were not a problem as they were useful in the farming community. Likewise older girls were soon found a home because they were useful around the house. But small boys . . .!''

I was one of those small boys and was finally chosen (or was I the only one left?) by a couple named, amazingly, Mr and Mrs Foster. They were a middle-aged couple and had a teenage son and daughter. The family lived in a terraced colliery house at Rise Howe Cottages, Flimby Colliery. Just like Whitburn Colliery used to be on Tyneside, Flimby was right on the coast and overlooked the sea. As expected, both father and son worked at the pit and teenage daughter Mary had just left home to go into service.

When we got back to Rise House Cottages, I discovered that for the first time in my life, I had a bedroom to myself. I also remember at the back of the house, there was a long narrow garden that was used for growing vegetables I didn't know existed! The village also had a magnificent view of Solway Firth with the mountains of Scotland in the background.

I evidently soon settled in at Flimby without any major problems. Mr and Mrs Foster treated me very well, although I recall being told off by Mrs Foster for behaviour my mother would have said nothing about. She was very strict on table manners and I had to say please and thank you for everything. At the end of a meal I dare not get up from the table without asking, "May I leave the table please?"

As evacuees, we continued our education and I was fortunate that Flimby Junior School was only a few minutes walk from my new address. The school had been built in 1876, enlarged several times and by 1901 had room for about 600 pupils. Even so, with the import of many evacuees from Tyneside in 1940, it was grossly overcrowded. I recall being taught in a hall with a large fireplace by a teacher who had travelled with us from Shields.

The large classes caused some resentment and playground fights between locals and evacuees were not uncommon. However, on at least one occasion, I remember playing with the locals. This must have been during the 1940 haymaking season when we enjoyed team hide and seek. First the evacuees hid and the local pupils had to find us. The many stooks of corn in the nearby fields were excellent and warm hiding places, until the locals found us, then we had to look for them.

While at Flimby Junior School, we had a visit by the school nurse. To our amazement, however, she only examined our hair. I later found out she was what we called the nit-nurse and was looking for nits, or lice! I never knew whether she found any, but looking back, it suggests somebody must have thought we had brought some with us!

No sooner had I arrived in Flimby, than nearby Maryport had one of the few air raids. Unfortunately on this occasion seven people were killed and five injured. The Foster family must have thought that we had brought the air raids with us. During my evacuation, I also remember special savings weeks when everybody was encouraged to buy War Savings Certificates. One such Warship Week in Maryport in February 1941, was to help to adopt HMS Mangrove - a local trawler/ minesweeper.

Whilst living with the Fosters, some relative of the family who lived away, died. I recall this not so much because it was the first funeral I attended, but because at five years of age, it was the first time I had been in a motor car. We had an enormous tea after the funeral and everybody seemed to know each other - apart from me.

Looking back, the first few months of evacuation must have been a very important period of the war. As a prelude to the expected invasion of Britain, the Germans pounded the southeast of England with bombs. Then during September, although vastly outnumbered, the RAF defeated the Germans in what became known as the Battle of Britain. Plans for the invasion were cancelled and a major bombing blitz of London followed.

At a local level, in Maryport, we had only a few siren alerts. The principle of evacuation seemed to have been successful, perhaps because Maryport was much smaller and more isolated compared to South Shields. It did have a busy harbour, but not the shipbuilding and repair of the River Tyne.

Many years later, I found out that much of the coal from the mines of Northumberland and Durham was also 'evacuated' to Maryport during the war. The coal was to be transported by sea to various ports in Northern Ireland and Southern England and it was very much safer to do this from Maryport in the west, as opposed to the river Tyne in the east. As a result, much of the coal from the mines of the north-east was moved by rail to Maryport for external shipping.

With the aid of some assisted travel scheme to help relatives visit evacuees, Addie and Jenny came to Flimby to visit me. They confirmed that I was all right, well-looked after and that my schoolwork was satisfactory. "He is good at arithmetic" they were told. Perhaps I was lucky because reading about evacuation many years later, some children in my position were exploited or treated very harshly by their foster parents. In the end, however, I was the culprit of my own downfall.

Although well-behaved, I was very quiet, shy and did not mix very well. Also as the months went by, I developed what could be called an individual wanderlust. I used to wander off on my own to explore different places. People used to tell me I would get lost, but I argued that I always knew the way home.

On one occasion after school, I tried to find another way back to the Foster's house over the fields instead of the normal road home. Everybody was out looking for me. As a result of this and some other illegal excursions, Mrs Foster asked my mother to collect me at the end of the 1941 summer term.

Somehow, I think the end of my evacuation was partly mutual because during the year, parents had been made to pay towards the cost of keeping evacuees away from home. This was not with my mother's approval, so in July 1941 I returned to South Shields and our two rooms and a view flat in Reed Street.

Wilson (1999) indicates that it was much later in the war that Flimby suffered damage and this was not by bombing, but from our own mines. The coast around the village had been extensively mined and following fierce storms in 1943, several mines were washed out of place and onto the coastal road. The school that I had attended and Rise Howe where I had lived were damaged when a wandering mine detonated. Fortunately there were no casualties as the village had been evacuated and I had long since returned to Shields.

One of the evacuees who was also billeted in the Maryport area and who returned home with me, was a lad called Dennis Clouston. He was a few years older than me and lived in Taylor Street at the bottom end of Reed Street, with his mother Lily and younger sister Beryl. Our mothers had previously met in the 'maintenance queue' at the Magistrate's Court and became good friends during our evacuation.

I recollect joint family visits to the Brinkburn and West Park during the summer holidays of 1941. These were adventurous days out for a six-year-old, with swings and slides at the Brinkburn and watching people playing tennis and bowls at the West Park. If we were really lucky, we might also see some army personnel from Bollinbrook Hall practising their guncraft in the park field.

The park was supervised by an official looking man wearing a peaked cap and carrying a walking stick. We called him the Parkie. He used to shout and wave his stick at anyone misbehaving.

Like most young children, I wanted most things and was reluctant to accept 'no' as an answer. I also liked cornflakes. The connection was apparent one Sunday morning when Addie's friend Chrissie was waiting in our small flat for her to go on their regular week-end cycle ride. At the same time, I was enjoying a delayed breakfast and my mother was doing some hand washing with a packet of soap flakes on the crowded table.

We didn't have any cornflakes at the time and seeing a similar packet with flakes on the side, I refused to take 'no' for an answer. Extrovert Chrissie, fed up with my whingeing said "Give him some!" and before anybody could say anything she emptied some soap flakes into my bowl. Everybody watched as I innocently put some milk on the flakes and started to eat them. I'm told that my face was a picture as I learnt the hard way that soap flakes taste vastly different from corn flakes, while Chrissie sang sarcastically in the background, "I'm forever blowing bubbles."

The South Shields I returned to from evacuation in July 1941 was much changed compared to what I had left ten months earlier. A German bombing raid of seven hours on 15th February had killed seven, injured 24 and made 85 people homeless. Worse followed on four nights in April when 31 were killed and over 150 injured. Masses of debris throughout the town evidenced the pounding Shields had taken. Many people thought it could get no worse. Little did they know what was to follow during the coming months.


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