MY STORY AS AN EVACUEE by HELEN SMITH
Originally given as a talk in January 2001 to Evenwood School year 6
I was born 19 May 1937 at Wallsend on Tyne. I never knew my dad. My mam and I lived with my Grandma in Atkinson Terrace which was only metres away from the railway and not very far from the River Tyne where Swan Hunters built ships.
I was 2 years old when Britain went to War with Germany in 1939. Soon the workmen came to dig the land in front of our house and built air raid shelters. My first war memory was of a military funeral – the son of one of our neighbours had been killed in action and the street was lined with people watching the procession. The coffin was covered with a Union Jack flag.
One day we all had to attend a hall where gas masks were being given out. The children were all given Mickey Mouse masks but when it got to my turn there were none left so I had to have a grown up one in case of a gas attack. Another day we all rushed out into the street to see the barrage balloons high in the sky. They looked like large rugby balls with ears on. They were to deter the German warplanes when they came. At night searchlights lit up the sky looking for the enemy. And all our windows had to be fitted with blackout so that German aeroplanes couldn’t be guided by our lights. One night the air raid warning siren sounded and I was snatched from my bed wrapped in a blanket (a siren suit) and rushed into the air raid shelter. I could hear sounds like thunder a long way away. Inside the shelter it was dark and musty smelling. I was asked if I wanted to go on the top bunk with cousin Johnny but I thought “If a bomb drops it will hit the top bunk first” so I chose the middle one and was tucked in right against the wall. But soon a very large lady climbed in beside me and I couldn’t see or breathe. Next time I went on the top bunk.
We only had candles to see with and one night the sirens sounded and we all rushed into the shelter but my Gran realised that our next door neighbour wasn’t there so she went back and brought her in. As she bent over to sit her down, she was very old, Grandmas’s tin helmet slipped (she was an air raid warden so had to have one) and cut the old lady’s nose. By this time the German aeroplanes were thundering over head trying to bomb the railway and the shipyard but old Uncle Tommy went rushing out the back to get a doctor who stopped the nose bleed.
Then one night the noise from the bombers was unbearable even with our ear plugs in and there was a tremendous explosion. We knew there had been a direct hit but it wasn’t until next morning when the all clear sounded and we came out of the shelter it was revealed that the house at the end of our street had been bombed out. Thankfully the family had been in the air raid shelter. By this time, I had shelter cough and my hair was getting thin. Children from Jarrow, Hebburn and Newcastle had already been evacuated to the country and one day my mam said to me that she was taking me to Evenwood. She said it was a lovely place and Uncle Tom and Aunt Mary lived there and they would look after me ‘til the bombers went away. I remember going to a phone box to find out the bus times and there was a sentry guarding it. He had to ask my mam who she was phoning – in case she was a spy! My Grandma had knitted a red suit for my doll and my mam, Aunty Millie and me took the bus to Newcastle then from Newcastle to Bishop then from Bishop to Evenwood. It was the Bluebell Bus and I remember riding past the fields with real cows and sheep which I had never seen before. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I remember turning in at Evenwood Gate and riding past gardens full of flowers and thinking this must be the place everybody had been talking about – peace. I thought “peace” was a place. We got off the bus at Walter Willsons and walking down Swan Street. Uncle Tommy and Auntie Mary and their family were waiting to greet us.
I was nearly 5. They all made me welcome and I didn’t realise when mam and Auntie Millie left, I wouldn’t be seeing them for a long time. Aunt Millie was in the Forces – a secretary, working in Brussells. I made a friend on my first day and she lived near the Post Office, Ann Hodgson. She brought a ball for us to play donkey against the Swan wall. I was taken to Ramshaw School and my first teacher was Miss Amy Moore. I remember her asking me who had knit the beautiful clothes for my doll. Her fingers were covered in chalk. She told all the class my name and where I came from and assured me that she thought that there would not be any bombs or guns coming to Evernwood.
It wasn’t until I was much older I realised that the war from 1939 – 1945 had been caused by a man called Hitler, a German whose evil influence caused so much death and destruction, even the holocaust but in the end he was beaten and good men and women gave their lives to bring peace. But Hitler was responsible for changing the path my life would take – becoming an evacuee then eventually being adopted by the family who took me in. I’m glad it was this village and happy in the family who guarded me in the wartime. Dad (Tommy Clarkson) a public spirited man who worked hard for the community of Evenwood and mam (Mary Clarkson) who, as well as running a fish shop until she was 76, was responsible among others for bringing the Pentecostal Church to Evenwood in 1928 and which is now the Cornerstone Christian Centre where Harry (now 77) still does Kids Alive and Maggie (now 87) is a regular attendee.
As an evacuee in 1942, I was nurtured by this family and although I returned to Wallsend after the war in what turned out to be the worst 8 months of my life, the winter of 1946/47 when we had no heating and very little food, I was glad to come home to Evenwood where “The heart yearns to be.” I really felt I was home when our Harry took me up to the Empire (the old picture house) and a shout went up from the ninepennies – “Fish is back!” – Fish was my school nick-name which at 10 years old I didn’t like very much but I was over the moon to hear it again.
Like my Auntie Millie, I became a secretary and worked for Durham County Council for 46 years including the Old Shire Hall, Spennymoor Divisional Education Office and Bishop Auckland Div. Ed. Office then Ramshaw School secretary for 9 years then Evenwood School for 22 years.
Probably a very different outcome if I’d stayed on Tyneside, so being an evacuee turned out well for me.