A London Boy in Butterknowle by the late Jim Atkinson

Jim had family connections to the area, particularly Ramshaw but was evacuated to Butterknowle from London.  I asked Jim back in 2010 to write about it.  Here’s his story.

“I can remember hearing when war was declared on our radio in the living room.  I remember my Mum and Dad listening but I don’t remember if my elder brother or younger sister was there. It obviously did not mean a lot to me being only 9 years old at the time.

My next memory is my Mother frantically getting us ready with our clothes packed in pillow cases and our gas masks on our shoulders.  We didn’t have suit cases and taking us up to Eldon Road, our local school, where the evacuation was being organized.  I believe my parents had only decided at the last moment to send us away with the school. The school teachers tied labels to our pillow cases and large labels on us and we marched to the local railway station where we were given a bag of sweets and a packet of crisps.  We then boarded the train.  There were tears and frantic waving, the tears mainly from the parents.  To us kids it was a big adventure. The last thing Mum said to my brother was to stay together. As it turned out we only went about 30 to 40 miles from London to a small village in Essex, Silver End near Braintree but to us it seemed the end of the world.  It was our first time on a train.

It was dark when we arrived and I remember being ushered into a big Hall where we all sat round the edge and people came and selected which children they would look- after. When we set off on the train Mum had told my older brother that we had to stay together.  This was a problem as a lady only wanted two boys but her daughter agreed to take our sister.  She only lived in the next street which my brother said was OK.

This was the start of the Government initiated children evacuation scheme. I am sure this procedure was going on throughout the country where the Govt. thought the civilian population was at risk.  Our ages at the time were brother 11, me 9 and sister 7.  My evacuation experience was in two parts.  The first few months of the war was very quiet with little happening.  Consequently, after approx. 12 months, our mother brought us back home.  Whether it was because of the quiet period or maybe she was lonely as my father had been drafted to Birmingham on deferred war work, we never knew.

Then the war started for real with nightly air raids from 6 at night till 6 in the morning, 7 days a week.  I remember one night seeing a big red glow in the sky.  I know now it was the night the London Docks was fire bombed.  These were exiting times for a then 10 year old boy with very little schooling.  At night-time, searchlights played across the sky.  Guns thundered then lit up the sky.  During the day we watched the occasional dog-fight high in the sky and then collected shrapnel pieces which were still warm.

This all came to an end when a large bomb dropped close to the house, windows were blown in and ceilings came down. This frightened my mother and she got in touch with her relatives up north from were she originated and made arrangements for us to be evacuated to a little village called “Buttonhole”.  Thus started the second part of my evacuation experience.

Mum contacted an Aunt Polly Sparks who lived in a small village called Buttonhole near Barnard Castle, Yorkshire. I can’t remember the train journey.  In fact I can’t remember any train journeys bar for the first one to Essex and there must have been some. I can recall isolated events and happenings, like the house and the location. It was in a small block of terraced houses with no sanitation.  The needs of each house were supplied by another block of shed like buildings a few yards away, one per house. I remembered these particularly, freezing cold in winter and smelly when emptied. There was a brook that ran at the back of the houses at the bottom of a large bank.  We used to dam the brook to form a pool to swim in. I have been back since.  The houses are still there with the brook and the bank; everything looked smaller. I don’t know how long we were there but it must have been terribly over-crowded with three additional children to an already crowded house. As I am recording this, a smattering of memories is coming back like, the two boys of the house coming in from work – they both worked in the pit.  Aunt Polly used to have a tin bath in front of the fire filled with boiling water ready for them to bath.  They used to come in black with coal dust.  We had to make ourselves scarce.  Another thing that sticks is a smell, the smell of bread baking in front of the fire. For a London boy there was nothing better, coming in from school on a cold winter’s day to a hot slice of freshly baked buttered bread.  Again this was to change for whatever reason I don’t know about. Mum came up and took my elder brother home.  He was getting near fourteen and ready for leaving school.  My sister and I were taken to a farm outside the village to stop with a farmer and his wife.  I understood later they used to take in evacuees from around the Newcastle area. The farm seemed a long way from the village we certainly had a longer walk to school.

I will note down my next and final experience of evacuation in two parts “play days & schooldays”

Play days: was time spent out of school like evenings, holidays and forced absences through bad weather (which accounted for quite a bit with a bad winter.) I remember it was difficult trying to find something to do all day as we had to play out. I used to dig paths in the fresh snow in the adjacent field.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget how cold it was. I sometimes used to wander up to the next farm – they kept cows, to help clean the cow sheds out.  I learned a valuable lesson one day, after cleaning out, I saw a cow lift its tail.  I quickly put a shovel underneath.  Big mistake – I won’t go into the result – only, I was in trouble when I got home!  When we could get into the village I used to spend hours sledging. I enjoyed that. There wasn’t a lot to do during the dark evenings except go to bed.  Sometimes if there was a rug being made I used to help cutting rags into strips. I hated the winters. The farm also kept a pig.  To a London lad it was a massive thing.  One Saturday we were told to come back late as the pig was being slaughtered. The next time we saw it, it was hanging up in the barn and farmer was shaving it.  I won’t tell you about the blood draining into pans which we were told was black pudding.  My wife Joan thinks it’s too gruesome.  The summers were different there was so much to do, the evenings were light I could play out after school.  I was always trying to earn money for the local picture house on a Saturday morning. There was pea picking, pay was two bob a bag.  I used to manage one bag all day, still it was enough for the pictures, then there was potato picking, you had to take your own bucket.  They went by weight but you had to clean off the mud.  I forget how much the pay was but I know you were given a bucket of potatoes as part payment I had more trouble getting that bucket home which I had to do for the farmers wife than working all day, I have never been the biggest kid on the block, the other money making scheme was going to the woods and collecting fallen branches from the fir trees, bundling them up and selling them for kindling a shilling a bundle.  My favourite activity was going to the local drift mine. This was a mine dug into the hillside and went underground and they used pit ponies to tow the coal tubs from the coal face to the surface.  They used to let me lead the ponies back and forwards.  There was no need to do any leading.  The ponies knew their own way, I just used to ride but I did feed and water them. I seemed to have a good relationship with the miners.                                                                                                      I never forgot that experience and later on in life when I used to read about miners striking for better conditions I thought about them miners and the conditions they worked under, having to walk possibly over a mile underground with water dripping from the roof, carrying a small board which they would put under their shoulder and pick the coal from the coal face.  It was then loaded into tubs.  They also had the fear of rock falls and blocking the tunnel. They certainly had my sympathy.

Schooldays:  which I will say from the start I hated. I think it was because the lessons were all above me.  I wasn’t very academically minded to start with, when I left London.  My brother was in a higher class than I was, he was two years my senior.  On starting school in the village we found we were in the same class with the same teacher with the result I hadn’t a clue what was going on. A lot of time had been lost with air raids.  My day usually started being asked which way the wind was blowing (he kept a weather chart) some times I guessed right but more often I was wrong, out would come his strap with the words, “Pay attention boy!”  If I heard that expression once I heard it a dozen times a day it was usually followed by a lump of chalk.  I got quite adept at dodging those. It just seemed I couldn’t win, no matter what went on.  For instance, the school had a choir and used to give an annual concert and our teacher was the choir master. We were singing his classic, “Hills of England” when he called a stop and said somebody was singing flat.  Yes it was me!  He banished me from the class but he did let me attend the concert, he put me in the back row and told me to pretend.                                                                                                               That’s about it – there is only one more incident that I vividly remembered.  It was when my sister and I tried to run away. I can’t recall what triggered it off, in fact I can’t remember her being billeted with me at all.  Perhaps she was stopping with the daughter Gillian who didn’t live too far away with her two children. Any way she was upset this day and I decided we would run away.  I knew which way the train went to London after Mum had visited once. We started to walk back along the track. I don’t know how far we walked or how long.  It started to get dark and it was cold and my sister was crying for a drink of water.  We stopped at a house, the lady obviously twigged something was not right and took us in and sat us by the fire while her husband went for the police.  The outcome was that Gillian came with the police and took us back. As I recall we didn’t get into trouble but what I think it did was to bring to every one’s attention how unhappy we were, especially me.

I don’t think it was long after this that our Mum took us away, my sister went to grandmother Atkinson in Newcastle and I went back home as I was 13 and nearly ready for work. I was happy back among my friends and the excitement of the war.  The air raids had eased but we had the doodle bugs and the rockets to contend with but I stayed at home and my evacuee days were over.  I felt I needed to explain the whys and wherefores of the evacuation.  When I look back I was also sorry that the later part of my stay at the farm was not a happy one.  In fact it was the saddest but never the less it was an experience I will never forget.

All the best, Jim.

PS  one day I will have another visit up there to see if I can find that farm.”

Jim Atkinson is the grandson of Corporal George Parmley, 1/4 Bn., The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died of wounds 16 October 1917 received on the battlefields of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres.  George lived at Gordon Lane, Ramshaw before moving away to Bill Quay near Gateshead.  His wife Selina, widowed was left to look after their 3 children and was pregnant with their 4th child.  Selina died in 1919 leaving her mother to raise the children.  In 1927, the eldest daughter Maud then only 16 married Jack Atkinson.  In 1929, Maud and Jack decided to go down south in search of a better life for themselves and their newly born son, John.  They settled in Edmonton, Greater London.  Jim was born in 1930 and Audrey in 1932.  Maud had relatives in the Ramshaw, Evenwood, Cockfield & Butterknowle area.  Her aunt was Lily who married Robert Close from Cockfield.  Another relative was Polly Sparks.  As the Blitz hit London, Maud wanted her young family to be in a place of safety.  Jim was eventually evacuated to Butterknowle – surely Hitler could not hit Butterknowle.

Sadly, Jim never managed a trip back up to the North East