World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                      Rita Ownsworth 

My Life as an Evacuee

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Rita Ownsworth, Mr. & Mrs. Walter Day and family.
Location of story: Pen-y-Fan, S. Wales, London, Northampton, Farncombe (Surrey) and Cotton (Nr. Stowmarket, Suffolk)
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anne Payne of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Rita Ownsworth.


I was evacuated three times during the war; firstly the Brecknock School in London arranged the evacuation. On the due day we all got on the coach and were taken to the Railway Station and put on a train with no idea where we were going. We finally got off the train in Swansea and were given refreshments and then put on a coach and taken to Argoed a small village in South Wales. We were put in a hall where we waited for the foster parents to collect us. After a while we were told there was a hitch because most of the people who had opted to take an evacuee had already got them as a coach load of children had been rushed in after Dover had had a bad bombing. They were busily trying to find more people who would be willing to take children. The people were fantastic and we were all found homes.

I was very lucky and seemed to land the prime position with a lovely young couple, who ran the village sweet shop, the husband was a miner. I settled down to a very happy life which was quite idyllic with plenty of space to roam and play in, grassed hills that sloped down to a little river, that ran black because the coal was washed in it we were told. At the other side was a big slagheap that we used to climb up to get to the hills behind, where relatives of my foster parents had a farm. In the summertime when the haymaking was being done we would help by throwing ourselves on the top of the hay whist it was being driven from the fields. Another joy was going to the nearby Pen-y-Fan pond, which was like a large lake and learning how to make pebbles skim across the water. We would pick lots of winberries (bilberries in Sheffield). Later we looked for Cob Nuts, which were plentiful, in springtime we picked wild primroses and violets. After a year or so---1940-41---I received a letter from my mother saying I could go home as they were moving out of London. My mother came to collect me and bring me home, when we arrived back in London there was a bad raid on and we had trouble finding a taxi. When we finally got one he was doubtful as to whether he could get us to the other side of the river as all the bridges had been bombed. We had to get to Camden Town to spend the night there. My mother was very worried and said perhaps she should have left me in Wales.

We spent a year or so in Surrey and then returned to London, when the raids became quite bad again it was suggested that I be evacuated again. I wasn't too upset at the prospect as I imagined it would be like before. How wrong I was. Horrendous hardly describes it; right from the start it was a nightmare, the dreaded Northampton. We were taken to a school at Northampton where people came and looked us up and down and picked whom they wanted. Finally a woman said she would take me and another girl that was left.

I was feeling far from happy about being in Northampton as the people weren’t nearly as welcoming as those in Argoed in Wales and nobody had thought to get us a drink or something to eat on the way. The woman who had taken us in said she hadn’t got anything for our tea and gave us a shilling to go and get some chips. I wrote a letter to my mum telling her I didn’t want to stay, and while we were down at the chip shop, the woman opened it and read it. She went mad and said she wouldn’t keep me any longer and I would have to go somewhere else. I was pleased at that but I learned that the only place that could have me was a woman who had four evacuees already and lived also with her two sons aged 13 and 23. (Before being evacuated I’d visited this school in London, which gave us information and prepared us for being evacuated, and there I’d met a girl who I’d got on quite well with and we asked if we could go together. They said they didn’t see why not, but I never saw her again.)

When I arrived at the new place I realised it was “out of the frying pan into the fire!” Her eldest son was the one who used to give us a good hiding if his mum decided we needed one. We all hated it as we used to have to do loads of chores. There was a rota up in the kitchen for dusting, cleaning, washing up, and doing the spuds. If you did the washing up, you had to pay for any breakages out of your pocket money. As you only had pocket money if your parents sent you some, one of the girls who was there, called Christine, was an orphan and never had any pocket money, so she was always in debt. If I was doing the potatoes, I’d always rush to get it done so that I could get out and play at my favourite pastime which was doing hand-stands. (The house we were in was right by the racecourse in Northampton, which had been taken over by the army who used it for manoeuvres, but there was still plenty of room for us to play.) One day I’d rushed too much and she made me peel the peelings!

My Mum used to send me 3/ old money per week (three shillings and six pence---now worth 17 ½ pence) and it mostly went on food as we never got enough. We used to buy a three-penny bag of chips and ask for a bag of scraps (batter left-over bits), which was free. It wasn’t a very healthy diet, but it kept us going. We never had any eggs or bacon. There was always meat of some description in the meals but there was not much of it and it was never very good. The woman made us go and fetch the sack of spuds on a trolley, which was always a struggle, and the shopkeeper said “why doesn’t she send the lads to collect it?” My mum used to send me sweets when she could get them, and I used to think “I’ll save that for another time.” The woman said she’d save it for me, and then when I asked for my Mars bar, she said I’d already had it. When I kept saying I hadn’t, she then said she hadn’t got one for her eldest son’s pack-up, so she put it in there! After that, whenever my mum sent me things, I never saved anything---I always ate it all straightaway. There were some steeplejacks who came to stay as lodgers (it was a big house on three storeys) and they used to get cheese and biscuits for their suppers. We’d not seen cheese apart from this, and we used to stare at every mouthful. They could see we didn’t get enough to eat and were very good to us, and used to say, “Have some cheese and biscuits”. We used to say, “We’re not allowed”. They said, “Go on, have some and we’ll tell her that we’ve eaten it all”.

The school I went to was all right and the second one was quite good, but we never had much time to spend playing with any friends we made at school because of all the chores. One day, my teacher commented on my blouse which was filthy, and said I should ask for a clean one as that was disgusting. I explained that we only had one clean one a week, so I went back and told her what the teacher had said. Her only response was “Well, you’ll have to keep it clean then, won’t you?” At first, we looked forward to bath night until we realised that the same water was used for everyone, and the woman got in first. By the time we got in it was filthy, and I think we were dirtier when we got out than we were when we went in!

There was a little boy of 4 at the same house and his mother came and visited him once and stayed over-night. At breakfast, his mum said that he liked Weetabix, and the woman had the nerve to say, “Oh I wish I’d known---I’d have got him some”! His mum went out and bought some and the next day after she’d gone, he asked if he could have his Weetabix now. His breakfast that morning was a boxed ear!

I got on quite well with my teachers, but they didn’t know what was happening. I hated it so much that I wrote home to my mum, saying I was going to run away. My Mum wrote back to say that I should try to settle down and she was worried about me, but she had her own problems as she and my Dad had separated. Eventually, she came to live in Northampton, but because she was then classed as a single person, she was made to work in the local flax mill, but it made her ill because the fibres got on her chest. She asked if I would like to go and live with her if she got a bigger flat, and I said I was ready to leave tomorrow! My Mum couldn’t leave the flax mill on grounds of ill health, but she could leave if she was looking after me. I stayed with the woman for just over a year and then moved in with my mum, but we didn’t stay there very long before we moved back down to Farncombe, near Godalming, Surrey. My mum and step-dad were trying to make a go of things again, and he was managing a shadow factory in Godalming. (A shadow factory was one which produced things as a back up in case another factory got hit in the bombing raids.) It didn’t last for long and my mum and I went back to London again in 1942. I was 11 at the time, but the bombings started again, and pretty soon it was obvious that I had to go away again.

This time, I wasn’t keen on being evacuated again, so my mum suggested I went to Suffolk to stay with my Auntie Mary near Stowmarket. She and my uncle lived in a little cottage near the village of Cotton, and my uncle worked at Cotton Hall Farm. I stayed with them for a while, and that was fine, but I became very friendly with the daughter of the foreman on the farm, called Pat, and eventually she told me that her mum said I could go and live with them if I wanted. So it was agreed and I moved in with Pat, her mum and dad---Mr. & Mrs. Walter Day---and her brothers, Walter, Charles and Richard. As I was an only child, I enjoyed living with a family, and they were very good to everyone. There were also three Italian POW’s at the farm and they all lived together as a family in the same house as the Days. Also, there were some American air bases nearby and Mr. Day used to see the airmen in the local pub at times, so they were often invited round for Sunday Dinner, and then they would invite the lads in particular back to the base. One of them took Mr. Day’s son up in an aeroplane, and he came back saying, “Guess where we’ve been---to Ireland!” I stayed there till the end of the war and loved it. I was there when VE Day was declared, and was in no hurry to leave. My mum visited but not very often, though we always wrote to one another regularly. I really didn’t want to leave Suffolk, but my mum said what would I do if I stayed as I was nearly ready for leaving school and there was no work there.

By that time, she’d moved to Ipswich and I visited her there occasionally, so I went back to live with her soon after the war ended. (Though I’d been to 18 schools in all from starting school to finishing, I’d always done well in tests and normally came near the top of the class. In fact, I’d taken the 11 plus while I was in Northampton, but hadn’t passed, so when we went back to London, I went to see my old head-teacher and he was amazed. He looked into it and found that the authorities had given all the places to local children, so I took an exam again and my mum paid for me to go to a grammar school for a while, but when I moved to Suffolk, I went to the village school which had two classes---one for the infants and one for all the rest---and if the teacher for the infants was off sick, they used to send one of the seniors to take the class that day.)

After all the moving around I did in my early years, I came to Sheffield when I was 20 and I’ve lived here ever since. Ten years ago, I went to an evacuees’ re-union in Wales. We arrived in Wales on the station and they put labels on us again, like before and we were given a tea like the one provided for us when we’d first arrived, and we then went for a special service in the local church. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anyone I knew, but discovered that Auntie Phyllis and Uncle Jim who looked after me in Argoed were now dead but their daughter was still living. We went to her bungalow, but no one was in. We never managed to make contact, but I enjoyed the day.