My mother-in-law was asked by a group at her local church to capture some of her memories of World War 11, so she asked me to help. She was nervous about doing this! I simply chatted to (well, interviewed!) her for an hour or so on the phone to tease out some of her tales. I get the feeling there are many more to be told, but this is what was going into the local publication. What a difficult decision her mum had to make, in letting her child grow up in another family, where she would have a better life, and because the family to whom she’d been evacuated were the only family she really knew.

Another reminder of how resilient people were back then, and more poignancy because we are all living through a pandemic at the moment, with its destruction, devastation, but its illustration of people volunteering to help others in so many ways. (For example I’ve been volunteering at the vaccination hubs and collecting for food banks, and disseminating information, in our village via the good Neighbour Network. Relatively minor contributions but so many are playing their part.)

Some wartime memories – Gladys O’Donnell

As the decades have gone on, there are no longer any answers, just questions, and memories. I’ve often pondered over some of my wartime experiences – why did such and such happen, why didn’t this happen, why can’t I remember so many details…

I was 7 when the war started, and I can’t remember how long it was before I was evacuated – 3 times in total, and each time with different sisters. Why that was the case, and how which sisters were chosen to be sent away at any one time, and why in fact I was the one who was always evacuated, I’ll never know. It could have seemed to someone else that I was the one Mum thought needed to go for some bad reason! But I was always secure in the fact that she loved me – I was really close to her and never doubted that – and I like to think that it was because I was easy-going and probably the one who would have adapted more easily. Mum loved having us all around her, and always came and took us home as soon as possible, whenever things quietened down in London. Some mothers could have been evacuated as well, but she didn’t go with us – I think what she felt was that her duties came first. She was a loving person through and through with a huge sense of family loyalty – that’s the way we were brought up and I think I’ve carried that forward – family comes first. Amongst all the other pressures on her, feeding and clothing us on not a lot of money, coping with whatever the war threw at us, out working in various roles to help make ends meet, she had to care for my grandmother who had a bad heart, so she couldn’t have left her. Everyone came to her like she was their mother. As the oldest child in her family she had to bear the responsibility of looking after siblings and family members, and cope with the fact that Grandad was a bit of a ladies’ man with numerous affairs. Poor Mum.

When things got bad in London, parents were encouraged to have their children evacuated to other areas – posters all over told them we would be safer. The first time, Lily (the oldest of the 4 girls – Tony, my brother, wasn’t born then) was evacuated with me to Kettering, only about 70 miles north of London.

If you didn’t have family in the country to go to, you didn’t know who was going to have you stay with them, and unfortunately our host family in Kettering really wasn’t nice. They already had 2 young sons around our age and were very strict – if anyone giggled at the table they had their head pushed down into the food.

They put us in big tin baths and threw jugs of water over us, like standing under a waterfall. That probably wasn’t a bad thing, but we weren’t used to having baths! We weren’t allowed back into the house until after 6 o’clock – in all weathers. And we weren’t equipped for the bad weather – we had arrived with the essentials such as knickers and vests and skirts and blouses, but we had never owned raincoats or wellies or the like – we were quite poor. We stayed out of trouble – sort of! Lily was bolder than I was, and whilst she made me stand guard, she went scrumping apples in people’s gardens – like a real street urchin! My mum came to visit and Lily, being 4 years older than I was, told her how horrible it was there and she took us home. We’d been quite homesick.

The second time we were evacuated, I was sent with my sister Doris – this time to Rhymney in South Wales. I don’t remember how we travelled there but I do vividly recall, to this day, the wonderful countryside – beautiful scenery I had never seen before – the mountains that I came to love, spilling right down into our back garden in the Rhymney Valley village with only one main road.

What wonderful people we stayed with on this occasion. I was in one house with ‘Aunty Madge’, and Doris, who was only about 4 years old – maybe younger – stayed with their family next door: ‘Aunty Nan’ and ‘Uncle Willie’, as we called them. Willie was Madge’s brother. As soon as we had arrived, having been walked from the collection point down the street, we had our tea, and then Uncle Willie made me stand beside him and write a letter to tell Mum and Dad we had arrived safely. I had a tiny box room at the front, and we used to stand on the front gate, high up from the pavement, and watch passers-by, as we weren’t allowed out on our own. They really loved Doris and me. In fact the house is still there today and I was able to revisit it recently – that was quite an emotional visit, for a reason I’ll explain shortly.

Our host families took us into a big store in Cardiff and bought us toothbrushes – something we’d never had – and kitted us out with new clothes including mackintoshes, wellies and sou’westers. This was a huge treat for us and we were allowed to choose our colours – Doris had yellow, I think, and I had red. Madge was a real old-fashioned spinster and I still have fond memories of what she taught me, such as darning the holes in socks, and what we did to fill in the days.

Uncle Willie would take us up the mountain to the coal mine offices where he worked, and showed us how to throw a stone down a hole and just listen – hear it going down, down, down – like a pebble in a well, only much deeper – and to hear that big plop!

Sundays were a day of rest when no-one worked – they were very strict Methodists and didn’t even sew on a Sunday. However we went to chapel 3 times a day; once in the morning, then there would be lunch; then in the afternoon, to the children’s service, after we had all gone to the graveyard. Perhaps because of the war, or perhaps because it was accepted as part of the pattern of life and God’s will, but people thought a lot about death, and the cemetery played a big part in our weekly routine. They tended the graves of their relatives whilst Doris and I played around the headstones, and I can still hear how we used to call out across the street, ‘Hello, Mrs Evans!’, ‘Hello, Mrs Jones!’ And then chapel again in the evening.

As a treat, on a Sunday when we walked up and down the road as far as the cemetery, Aunty Madge would let me wear a gold watch belonging to her mother. I wasn’t allowed to keep it but was entrusted to wear it. It didn’t work but was of sentimental value and she said I had to take care of and value things, and she used it to show me how to tell the time. To this day I can hear the lovely Welsh lilt of her voice teaching me.

Talking of teaching, I can’t really remember much about the schools to which we were sent when we were evacuated, and I don’t recall the other children ever being unkind to us, though I remember the teachers in Rhymney, just like our families, being very kind and teaching me my numbers. And yes, I can still count up to ten in Welsh, and say basic things like, ‘Bore da’ (Good Morning) and ‘Nos da’ (Goodnight). I wasn’t very good at school, but I was able to turn my hand to most things – as well as things like sewing and knitting which Aunty Madge taught me, I could remove a window pane like the best of them!

Christmas Day here was a highlight for us. We were so excited to wake up to stockings on the bed with our treats and lots of pressies, and lunch was roast goose – everyone took their meat and trundled down the hill to the huge ovens in the bakery, which became communal ovens for the day.

We experienced different foods in Wales – I loved the haricot beans and tripe I was given there, but – and I don’t know why – I’ve never tried it since. The Welsh cakes were also new to me and smelt lovely, home-cooked on the griddle – we were certainly well-fed. I had big rosy cheeks and the villagers couldn’t believe I came from London: ‘How do you have rosy cheeks with all that smoke?’ I soon put them straight on that: that we had lovely gardens and parks to play in such as Regents Park and St Pancras Gardens, and at the back of Kings Cross. (The Germans, though, constantly targeted these big stations to stop the movement of troops.) Some – though not Aunty Nan – thought we couldn’t possibly eat healthily in London, but I was able to tell them that my mum had worked as a cook and fed us well – stews, dumplings and pearl barley being the staples.

I mentioned before that it was a particularly emotional visit back to Rhymney recently, and that was because I was reunited with my sister Doris. You see, when mum came to collect us to take us home again, Doris didn’t even recognise her and didn’t want to leave. She was like Aunty Nan’s and Uncle Willie’s child. (They couldn’t have children.) To be honest, I probably didn’t want to leave, either, as I loved it so much there, but I also loved and missed my mother terribly. So what must have been a really difficult decision was reached, and Doris stayed with her Rhymney family – for the rest of her life. Mum knew Doris and I had been well looked after, and she trusted them. I’ve often thought about that decision she and Dad had to make, and I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions all of the adults must have been feeling. Mum knew that Doris would have a good life there, which she certainly did, and Mum had many mouths to feed back home, so maybe that was a factor in her and Dad making that decision. Doris is still there, in the same village, in the same Welsh valley. They wanted to adopt her, but Dad wouldn’t let them – he promised he would let her stay with them forever if that was what she wanted, but he wouldn’t give her up as his daughter – there would always be a place for her back home. Doris’ Welsh family were true to their word and would bring her to visit us in London during her childhood, so that she never forgot her birth family, and she kept her name of Boittier.

As things got bad again in London we were sent off a third time, only on this occasion it was me and my younger sister, Celia. Mum took us to get the coach from school – I can still see her coat flying open in the wind, as she waved both arms in the air. We had run down to the back seat of the coach, knelt up on the seats, and waved back at her until we couldn’t see her any longer, not knowing when it would be that we could return home. On arrival at Paddington Station, our teachers walked all of the children in line along the platform, having given us a brown paper lunch bag. There was a marshmallow biscuit on the top – probably with a cheese sandwich below but it’s the biscuit that I remember, and I ate it straight away. I don’t remember who picked us up at the other end and I don’t remember where exactly it was, but unfortunately – and I don’t know why – it was not to the Rhymney I had loved, but to somewhere else in Wales. We were all taken to the village hall and the billeting officer or some other volunteer called out our names and organised us, whilst local people decided how many children, and who, they would take on. We stayed with a lady who had a shop, and she would let us weigh up the potatoes, so we had some fun doing that.

Again, there was an acceptance of death – it’s how it was in those days. I remember the young couple next door were nice to us, and we were excited for them as they had a young baby. But it died, and we were invited in to see their baby lying in the coffin in the front room.

The Welsh teachers in this second place were very strict – I got the cane because I was late for school one morning, even though it was very hilly and there was snow at the top of the hill. Though in truth I had stopped to have a snowball fight with friends!

However, Celia had a terrible time here, and I don’t think I realised this until later, when she was back in London and shared some of what had happened. The family tolerated us rather than anything, and there was an old lady in this family who really was horrible to us. I had forgotten about it until my sister reminded me, but I caught impetigo and was in an isolation hospital, where I quite enjoyed it as we were all being spoilt. But back with this family, Celia was wetting the bed. Hardly surprising – she was so young, she had learning difficulties, and she must have been missing Mum terribly. It breaks my heart to think that the old lady thought that Celia must have the strap for wetting the bed and I can’t bear to think that my sister suffered. I don’t know what else went on but Celia cries about this old lady and the terrible place to this day, whereas I think I’ve blocked out most of the bad memories. I sometimes think that if I had been in the position of my mother, I would never have sent Celia away, and I do think that I was too young to be given charge of Celia so far away from home, but I tried to take on that responsibility – I always tried to please everybody. On reflection, I wonder why Mum let Celia be sent away – she was so young, and she just couldn’t cope. But there was a war on, mum was soft-hearted and trying to do her best, and to be honest, she hadn’t by then realised the extent of Celia’s difficulties. Celia later went to a special school and has gone on to successfully live a long and fairly independent life.

So what about our life back in London, between the evacuations? Well, we lived bang in the middle of 3 major train stations that the Germans would target. We were sent straight back to school after each evacuation. We kids were like a load of animals and would emerge from the shelters and stumble all over, vying to pick up the biggest piece or the most pieces of shrapnel, amongst the acrid smoke and dust everywhere. And once a barrage balloon had come down, which was exciting – I remember all the strings lying everywhere. But we didn’t think about the bodies lying around or brought out of the wreckage, how bad the situation was, or death. It was just what happened, all around us.

At school, we all had to knit for the Army and Navy: gloves, maybe scarves and balaclavas, socks with heels. It took us time to learn and was a big expectation for our ages but we got there, and I was then able to teach all my children to knit.

Work throughout the war for Mum, apart from looking after all the family members, was a stint on the railway; she used to be a cook; and also she took on cleaning jobs early in the morning at a gentlemen’s place where they lived; then all sorts of evening jobs to earn pin money, just like I did later as an adult with a big family.

We didn’t escape the bombing. When our house around the corner from the station got bombed, incendiary devices designed to start fires came through the roof, right through the house, burning their way down. Dad had told us to get out of the Anderson shelter in the garden and go round to the school, so I carried Tony, my brother, in my arms to seek safety there. When we got back to the house, my father and grandfather, who were ARP men who couldn’t go to war as they were too old, were using shovels to get the incendiaries out onto the road, making little piles of red flames in the tarmac. Then there was the water damage after the firemen had been to the building. Another time when I came home from school for my lunch (Mum was out working and my grandmother would be preparing the veg for the dinner), the siren had gone, so I took charge. We didn’t have time to go to a public shelter, so I said, ‘Quick, let’s go to Sally Wells’ house!’ We ran 2 doors down to take refuge in the table shelter in her house – basically under a table with wire wrapped round it. Grandma was a tiny roly-poly lady and I was making her crawl and pushing her in – when I look back it was comical!

Going to the bomb shelter one time, Mum told me, ‘You go ahead and take Tony – I’ll bring Grandma’. The shelter wasn’t far away – the next turning to our house in the green opposite St Pancras Hospital. I hadn’t reached the shelter when I heard the whistle of a doodlebug which suddenly stopped – a really bad sign – and an ARP man shouted to me, ‘Get down!’ But I was so scared that I just stood against the wall, Tony in my arms. I was thrown back against it, but we were safe – though I had a massive telling-off from the ARP man!

In Camden Town, again my Grandma opened the door to me at lunchtime, and a bomb dropped just at that point. We were both blown down the hallway but luckily we weren’t hurt, though the neighbour had to bring in some smelling salts for Grandma to inhale to bring her round. And another time, I forgot to take my little haversack with me to the shelter. We emerged from the shelter to discover our house had been bombed and I was left with only what I had on me. No clothes. Nothing. Aunt Doll then made me some navy skirts and 2 little blouses. Things weren’t easy.

I sometimes wonder what happened to my gas mask: we all had to carry one round. We had to be fitted with them on a trip to the town hall, and I fought against it and hated the feeling of having it put on my face and, especially, the rubbery smell. I never wore it after that fitting, and to this day I hate the thought of any mask being put on my face during a hospital procedure, for example – in fact it’s only recently that I’ve realised that’s the root of my fear. It’s amazing how these things stay with you.

When we were in London, Mum would send us to whatever church was available on a Sunday, so amongst others I went to the Salvation Army (I loved the singing), and the High Church of England where we went to school. She used to walk to the shops to get her Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut and News of the World, then she went to bed in the afternoon for a well-earned rest and we were always sent out to something or other.

We were back home for VE Day. I was about 13, and we went up to Oxford Street to see the celebrations and were singing, dancing and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We knew it was time to get home but because of the crowds we had a job to get through Tottenham Court Road and to Euston, but we got there in the end. However my mother was at the front door waiting for me, and Dad was out looking for me. I stayed safe all through the war, but on the day the war in Europe ended, you can imagine the hiding I got for staying out so late!

As for what has been the most lasting impact of the war on me, it was the positive experience of being in Rhymney in Wales and the kindness of strangers – one of the happiest times of my life that has stayed with me forever.

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