Memories of the Lost Years 1939-1945
Audrey Demers 2002
I was born in 204 Grange Road E13 in the home of my maternal Grandma and Papa, on the 10th March 1934, being the 6th child of Richard Albert Jones and Williamina Jones (née Watson). I lived there with my parents and siblings - Williamina, Mildred, James, Bernard and Edna until I was 3 years old when we all moved to 50 Desford Road E16.
My sister Rita was born here 18 months later and I remember crying at the bottom of the stairs for Mummy, who was giving birth in the bedroom, and being pulled back by some-one (a neighbour?).
I was holding Mummy's hand one day as we passed Hermit Road School, and remember saying I wanted to play with the children. We lay on little camp beds in the afternoon, and each day was given milk to drink, which I hated. When seeing the big grey barrage balloons in the sky I hid behind Mummy's skirt/dress as they frightened me. When I was five the world was preparing for war, and every day all the children would attend school, with their gas masks ready for evacuation. It was all very 'hush hush' and no one knew which day we would depart. The day eventually came and we all walked to the station with our parcel of clothes, gas masks, food and a piece of cardboard on string around our necks with our name on it. The date was Friday September 1st 1939, destination unknown to parents and children alike, this being for security reasons. The parents were notified after we reached our designated spot. Many years later I learned that some-one had seen the line of children leaving the school and had run to tell as many parents as possible ''The children are going''. Mummy had been shopping and had run with heavy bags all the way to the station, but missed us. My heart still aches for her, to think how she must have felt, not being able to say goodbye.
My two eldest sisters Williamina and Mildred were too old to be evacuated, as they were 17 and 19 respectively. Daddy would not allow them to go into the forces, so they both had to go into a factory doing war work. Mildred hated it as the other girls made fun of her being 'posh'. During the Blitz they often had to step over bodies and rubble caused by the bombings. Mildred and James told me the children at Silvertown School E16 who had not been evacuated were all killed, and the people whose houses were bombed all filed silently through the streets, carrying photos, a kettle, a jumper, or anything they could salvage from the debris, and all slept in the little tin church at the end of our road. Poor Souls.
James-Bernard-Edna and myself along with the other children all boarded a British Rail train (I don't remember the name of the station possibly Euston) and I wet myself because I was frightened. We arrived at Bletchington about 8 miles from Oxford and were taken to the village hall. In retrospect we were treated in a similar fashion to cattle, as the villagers came and looked us over and selected and rejected. Mummy and Daddy had asked for the four of us to be billeted together, but that was not possible, James and Bernard were chosen at once as they were big boys aged 12 and 10 years, and they went to live on a farm. Bernard loved it, but I don't think the 'muck' appealed to James, as he was a 'Little Lord Fauntleroy'.
Edna and myself were the last to be selected. Many people had chosen Edna, as she was a very sweet looking 6½ year old with lovely blonde hair and blue eyes, whereas yours truly was a plain red head with protruding red cheeks, who had sat all the time under a table wetting herself. I don't know how long we were in the hall but it was many hours. Eventually a Mrs Denton said she would take us, I think she considered it her 'Christian Duty'.
We were only with her for about a month, and we spent our time with her reading the Bible and being very clean. We then had to leave as she said she needed the room for her daughter, but I think the bed-wetting was too much for her. As soon as our parents were informed of our whereabouts they came to see us. Well not exactly they as Daddy had to work and was also on Home Guard duty. Mummy and Mildred came by coach as far as Bicester (approximately 10 miles from Bletchington) and were stranded until Mummy stopped a passing motorist who gave them a lift. They had no way of getting back to Bicester to get the coach home, so two young men with motor bikes who lived at the farm gave them a lift back. I still smile at my petite and ladylike Mother riding on the back of a motorcycle. When they arrived all that way from London, they were not invited into the house, but had to speak to us on the doorstep. Mummy could not believe her eyes on seeing me as when I had left London I had long ringlets, but Mrs Denton had cut them off saying, long hair was sinful. Mummy said my hair looked like Cinderella's dress at the bottom.
We went from Mrs Denton's house to a Mrs Taylor who lived across the village green. The second part of our ordeal had begun. Mrs Taylor had a daughter and grandchild who stayed there most of the time. There were very few men around as those between 18 and 40 had been conscripted into the forces. We went to the village school, which I enjoyed, but as we both still wet the bed we were continually thrashed.
One day whilst wandering around on our own we found some brown paper and string and Edna tried to roll me into a parcel and find a letter box large enough to post me home to London. Such innocent exploits of two little girls aged 6½ and 5 years. Another day whilst out the hem of my dress caught in my shoe and ripped completely off. Edna using her hand and spittle patted the torn edges in the hope it wouldn't be noticed. Arriving back at the house we were asked about the torn hem, and because we were both scared we replied that we didn't know how the hem had got torn. The branch of holly, which had brought into the house for Xmas, was then used to whip both Edna and I until blood was running down our arms and legs. We still didn't tell how the hem was torn accidentally.
The bed-wetting continued every night and I now realise how very difficult it was for them as the mattresses were made of flock and had to be shaken into shape every day. We went to bed every night and prayed to God not to let us wet the bed. One particular morning we awoke to find the bed drenched as usual, and Mrs Taylor was even more angry than usual. It was a shear icicle day and she shoved me first into the back yard - naked, and threw a pail of freezing water over me, then proceeded to break the ice in the water butt to throw at me. It was like shards of glass hitting my body and of course drew blood. The next-door neighbour banged on his/her bedroom window, so I was unceremoniously dragged indoors and thrown onto the kitchen floor where I cut my head on the flagstones and still sport the scar 60 years on. I can't remember Edna's punishment for that day. I really can't remember any nice days at Mrs Denton's other than at school.
During our time there one very unpleasant incident occurred. The telephone box near the village hall was smashed. Edna and I saw it and went to investigate and picked up several pieces of glass. That evening the village constable knocked at the door and I was accused and reprimanded, as a villager had told the constable that I had been seen running away from the broken box.
True - Looking but Breaking, even now the sense of injustice rankles, but then we were only ''those bloody Londoners'' who said throopence instead of threepence.
I next remember landing in the John Radcliffe hospital with a kidney infection. Mummy and Mildred again came but when arriving at Mrs Taylor's door she refused to tell them which hospital I was in. The Billeting officer was out, so they had to wait and follow Mrs Taylor by foot and bus to find me. The mind now boggles at such behaviour. In my kinder moments and thoughts I feel Mrs Taylor was not 'all the ticket' in treating a Mother and sister in this fashion.
I enjoyed my couple of weeks in hospital except I missed Edna. Although she was only 18 months my senior she looked after me as best as possible, and while we had each other we felt a unity against these people who were as alien to us as we were to them. I tried very hard and prayed every night not to wet the bed but when living with Mrs Taylor I confess to asking God to let her die, whilst asking to be good. I thank God he didn't answer my prayers on that subject, as it would be difficult to have that on my conscience now I am older. In excusing myself I was only 6-7 years old and very scared of her.
I'm not sure how many years we lived with Mrs Taylor, or our reason for leaving, but off again went these two little girls carrying their clothes, gas masks and heading for new territory - the far end of the village to Mrs Harris and daughter Christine. There was one bedroom divided by a curtain. In one bed was Mrs Harris and Christine (younger than myself) and in the other bed Edna and Audrey. Above was a small attic and down steep stairs one room that served all purposes. Each day two little girls Edna and Audrey would take pails and walk to the well about a ¼ mile away to draw water and carry the big pails of water back to the house, trying not to spill it. The 'toilet' was in the garden about 50 yards away. It was a deep hole dug into the ground and a wooden box like structure erected around with a hole cut into the top wood to act as a toilet seat. Some sort of acid must have been used to disintegrate our body waste and I was always afraid the waste would reach the top when I sat down. It was utterly primitive.
Inside the front door and across a narrow passage hung a curtain. Christine who was 'backward' would wipe her nose on it and the whole of this dark coloured curtain was speckled with glistening snot. It made me feel sick.
When not at school Edna and I would wander everywhere without any supervision and without any-one caring where we were. There was a very big house at this end of the village, at one time owned by Lord and Lady Velencia, then Lady Astor and The Baileys. During the war it was used by the BBC, and we had Christmas parties and our Brownie meetings there. Most people and of course tradesman went to the back entrance, but Edna and I with delusions of grandeur always insisted on mounting the steps to the front entrance.
Not far from 'The Big House' was the High Church with beautiful stained glass windows. Mrs Harris, Edna and I cleaned the church, and we were made to attend services morning and evening daily also Sunday school, where I earnestly prayed to go back to Mummy and Daddy and Edna would roll little balls of fluff from the kneeling mat and stuff them up her nose, whilst I presume also praying. On our weekends alone we had many little adventures, one being trying to push a barricade across the road. We must imagine ourselves to be child Samsons as the barricade was a massive tree trunk put to the side of the road; its purpose being to try to bring to a halt any invasion. Hearing men marching further along the road we thought it was the Germans coming, and as we couldn't shift the tree trunk we ran and hid in the ditch, but it was only the Home Guard practising.
Every year the Hunt gathered on the village green. The participants looked wonderful in their hunting pinks, but as soon as the bugle was blown and they 'tally ho'd' off we would scoot across fields to try to 'shoo' the fox away from the hounds. When walking through the fields one winter we came across a dead sheep (I think now it may have fallen against the electric fence). It was as stiff as a board, and we took off our coats to cover it and attempted to bring it back to life. Then tried to lift it to carry it 'home' - it must have weighed a ton. That same night Snowy (Christmas white rabbit) disappeared from the hatch in the garden, and in the pitch-black night (not a glimmer of light), Edna and I were made to climb over the wall into the field to look for the rabbit. We just stood there holding hands and calling his/her name as we were petrified to move, and also the field where we were standing was where Mrs Harris and others emptied their chamber pots. We were in our nightclothes, having been pulled out of bed so when we eventually were allowed to retire the beds stank even more than with the usual urine smell.
During one of these freezing winters we awoke one morning to the sight of hundreds of men camped in the field. They were Canadian soldiers on manoeuvres. We went amongst them to explore and it was great for us because they gave us chocolate and tinned fruit. I was sorry when they left as we often stole bread because we were hungry. In the small attic above our bed were sacks of apples, put there to ripen, and on going to bed we would creep and take an apple to eat, leaving just the stalks which we held in our hands all night ready to throw away the next day.
Summertime was fun as we helped the prisoners of war in making the haystacks. The prisoners all had circle patches on their clothing (I don't remember the colours). These patches were the 'shoot spots', in case they tried to escape. The Italians were given more leeway, but the German prisoners always had a guard nearby with a gun. They were very nice to Edna and myself and were among the few men we had any contact with.
We were told one day to meet the daily train as Daddy was coming to visit us. The station was a few miles away and we had to pass the gypsy camp, which made us nervous. Their caravans were lovely, all painted bright colours with massive wheels. As we ran past we saw this man walking towards us - we had dawdled and was late, or the train was early, it was DADDY. I don't know how long it had been since we had last seen him but I felt shy and held onto Edna's hand. She said, 'Let's walk past him and just say Good morning Mr Jones'. He replied, ''Do I know you two young ladies'' and we both cried, ''Daddy, Daddy it's us'', as if he didn't know. I was walking ten feet tall, absolutely bursting with pride, as was Edna. He was tall, handsome, wearing a suit, collar and tie, with an Anthony Eden hat, complete with a walking cane. The perfect gentleman, which he was in the truest sense of the word. How unfair it was to compare this knight in shining armour against the few men left in the village wearing dungarees and gum boots, milking the cows and toiling the land. It was one of those wonderful moments in life that ended all too soon, when he went back to London.
We were very lucky in our visits, as Mildred would come with a friend whenever possible, and Williamina would do the same with her friend. Mummy came for a whole week and at least Mrs Harris allowed her to stay, not like Mrs Denton and Mrs Taylor. It rained most of that week, but to us the weather was unimportant. The morning Mummy went home we saw the imprint of her shoe heel in the mud outside our 'loo'. Edna and I put little stones and sticks around the imprint to try to preserve it, and were very sad when the rain washed it away. During the days we would count the Bomber planes going out to fight, and count them coming back. If the numbers did not tally on their return journey we got upset, but sometimes the remaining planes would come struggling behind, so we were happy again. Whenever the BBC news came on the wireless, there was automatically complete silence, although I doubt if we understood what was being said.
Before bed in the dark evenings Mrs Harris, Edna and myself would read a chapter each of a book. Little Women being my favourite at that time. Then came the night when from the garden in the far distance we could see a huge red glow. Mrs Harris said it was London burning. I still am amazed that we could see it from all those miles away. Edna and I held hands praying that our parents and sisters would be safe. That night there were soaking wet pillows as well as the usual soaking wet beds.
During our stay with her Mrs Harris went away for a while to stay with her Mother in Kent. Edna and I packed our clothes and gas masks and went to Kittington, another village about 2 miles away. It was a massive house owned by a Mrs Budget who bred race horses and also kept greyhounds. We absolutely loved it there. 'This was more fitting to our station'. There were two Nannies to care for us called Nurse Amy and Nurse Barbara. There was running hot water, plenty of food, which we ate in the big dining hall, and each day we were taken for long walks. During this period we lived the lives of little ladies. All good things come to an end, and although we wanted to remain at Kittington Hall, back we had to go to Mrs Harris, plus gas masks, nametag and clothes.
The media nowadays portray evacuees as having a wonderful time, but I think these were in the minority. A few years ago Edna and I visited the British Museum to see the Evacuee Exhibition'. What happened to lots of the children was heartbreaking and made us realise how much luckier we had been than some. We were always getting thrashed and 'told off' and although never rude I had a habit of giving a 'LOOK', which I expect was insolent and bordering on contempt. I knew these people had no right to beat us as our parents had never once raised their hands or voices to us. So I would just stare and give the 'The Look'.
When I was approximately 9 years old I told Edna I was going to run away. As there was nowhere to run to, we found a big bush for me to hide behind. Edna went to tell Mrs Harris I had disappeared, and from my hiding place I watched Mrs Harris, Edna and Christine walking around homes looking for me, with me giving an occasional little wave to Edna. When it started to get dark, I came out of my hiding pace and let them find me, thinking that Mrs Harris would be so upset and yet pleased to see me, that she would never hit us again. Ha Ha thought was all wrong. She beat the calves on the back of my legs so hard with the copper stick that Edna had to help me walk to school on the Monday. My long socks kept falling down and I felt so shamed when the teacher saw these welts on the back of my legs. I was asked how I came by them, and said I had fallen over. Although they must have guessed what had happened, nothing else was said or done.
I guess we were two plucky girls as Edna took me to the Billeting Officer at the other end of the village and after getting the courage to knock on his door (because he had a big dog) I told him about running away and the consequences. He seemed shocked at the state of my legs, but told us to go back to Mrs Harris and be good girls. By the time we had another visit from London my legs had healed and like most abused children we were frightened to tell our parents - I don't know why. When we did go home to London and told our parents the things that had happened to us, they were terribly upset not to have known of our treatment, as they thought by receiving our monitored letters that we were happy.
In retrospect I don't believe Mrs Harris meant to be so unkind. I think the strain of Christine (who ended up in a mental institution), a husband away at war and two evacuees were too much for her to cope with. Lots of people took in evacuees as they were paid 7s 6d (our money?) for each child. That was a lot of money in those poverty stricken days. My two brothers both went home when they were 14 although we saw little of them as they lived at the other end of the village. There is much more I remember and much I have forgotten, but the six years of evacuation were ones of waiting and longing. I'm sure I gained many things from my years in Bletchington, but the overall feeling is one of loss.
I was 11 when the war ended May 8th 1945, but we did not manage to get home until just before VJ Day August 12th 1945, as there was so many children's homecoming to be organised. When the coach arrived to take us to the station and HOME, I did not even wait to say good-bye, but just ran and jumped onto the coach. I now realise how wicked my actions in doing so were, as we had spent all those years with Mrs Harris and she must have formed some attachment to us, as proved in later years, as she always wanted and did keep in touch.
Joy upon Joy we arrived HOME. We were not allowed to wander around at will, yet the new found freedom in belonging at times felt strange. I am most fortunate to have had two of the best parents, lovely sisters and brothers and the secure knowledge that I belong to a large family.
My six years in 'exile' taught me, to laugh at life, also have the stamina not to let the lows in life get the better of me. There is always a light on the horizon. There have been and are still many trials and tribulations in my life (as in all human life) but I think this is a wonderful world and thank God daily for allowing me to live in it.
Audrey Demers, 2002
Mother Fate she laughs at me
Great joy she gives - then misery
But I laugh back into her face
I will not let her win the race
One day I'm down, then up I climb
With head held high, my dreams sublime.
I'll not give in without a fight
For joy in life is mine by right
Faith and hope conquer every trial
I'll face the future with a smile,
I'll allow fate to win when I'm 86
For Death will stop her mocking tricks
Poem by Audrey
Author Audrey Demers/BBC Peoples War