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What the Poly boys wrote at the time about the Evacuation

From The Quintinian, Autumn 1939 & Spring 1940


D. H. GRANT, of U.5Aii.

IT was the late evening of a hot, sultry day in August, and as I walked homewards I was thinking of the prospects which the following week held, for it was one of the few remaining weeks of the summer holidays. This pleasant mode of thinking was rather incongruous with the atmosphere of the time, when everybody was weighing the question, "War or Peace?" in their minds. Although we, the younger generation, fully appreciated the results of another conflagration of the 1914-18 type, the time of crisis of last September made us more optimistic of the outcome than the circumstances warranted.

          We had considered the question of evacuation as a reasonable precaution which was too inconceivable a happening really to trouble us. Little did we know how soon "the even tenour" of our ways was to be ruthlessly broken and the whole system of living disjointed. There were signs, yes; but signs had come before and gone with unfailing regularity. War we could not conceive. It was too impossible, in this enlightened age, that the great slaughter of 25 years ago could be repeated. So I walked home without any particular foreboding.

          I was in time to hear in the "News Bulletin" the developments on the Polish border, and of the message of complete support sent by our Cabinet to the Polish people. Then came an announcement which brought home to us the nearness of warfare and the danger of world strife which loomed over us.

          The announcer said in that entirely unmoved way which characterises B.B.C. announcers:

          "All school-children wishing to be evacuated under the L.C.C. evacuation scheme must report at their respective Schools on Monday for a full-dress rehearsal."

          It brought home unmistakably and unavoidably to us that we were nearer the catastrophe of war than ever during the last 25 years, but even then the assurance that no Schools would be evacuated on that Monday held a loophole for optimism.

          The following Sunday was a day of preparation, the packing of necessary clothing in a kit-bag, and instructions from anxious parents to 'phone home as soon as definite news arrived at the School as to the time of evacuation, if it became necessary.

          Monday morning saw a very depleted attendance of boys at the School in Regent Street. The general conversation circled around the questions "When?" "Where?" and more general comments on the results of last term, the presence of certain Masters, and the absence of others. Several minor things were attended to and squads and sections formed, but the most devastating announcement was the news that we must attend School every following day until it became imperative to evacuate us, or the situation improved sufficiently to allow us to return home.

          The three following days passed rapidly, each being more monotonous than the preceding one, until Thursday, which we afterwards knew was zero hour, approached. Thursday lunch time brought no news, and we were speculating as to the probability of having School on the following week-end. At one o'clock we stood in a great store in Oxford Street and, amidst hushed silence, heard a special news bulletin over the radio - the great evacuation to the country was to commence on the morrow.

*     *     *

A. BARBIERI (L.5A) recalls the preparations at home for the move.

"PASS me my clean shirt, please, Mother." It is put into my hands, and I make it as compact as I can and place it neatly into my new rucksack, which is on the bed. I stand up and try to imagine what to-morrow will be like, for we have been told we are moving out of London to-morrow. Will we fight for trains, or will everything go off to time. Then no great muddle will occur, as there might have been last September. Then I think of our parting; it's a pity my sister can't come with me  - it would be such fun. Then a hearty handshake for father, the supporter of the family, a tender kiss for mother, a cheery good-bye, and I'm off for better or for worse. I can see myself walking along the street, a conspicuous figure, with my rucksack on my back, my football boots dangling round my neck, and the ever-present gas-mask at my side. I pass a newsagent's. Shall I buy the "Wizard"? No, I won't have time to read it on the train. Oh, well, I can read it some other time; so I see myself going in the shop and, unable to procure the "Wizard," I come out with the "Rover." We know we are going by tube from Oxford Circus, and from there to Ealing Broadway, and thence to "somewhere in England." How will we live? I imagine a big camp, and us being awakened to the tune of Mr. Beadon's whistle; then a rush for the near-by river and an early morning swim. Or will we go to a big boarding school "somewhere in England"? I can see all the pranks of the boarding-school boys of school stories coming to life. But I am aroused from my day-dream by my mother's voice. "Where's your toothbrush?" - and I'm still in London.

*     *     *

R. F. PANNELL (L.5C) continues the story.

IN the squad-rooms after assembly there was a bustle of activity. Squads had to be checked up, newcomers put on the register, gas-masks were inspected, first-aid equipment examined. After the storm comes the quiet, and we were faced with about an hour with nothing to do. Someone brought out a pack of Lexicon cards and was immediately hailed as a hero.

*     *     *

R. H. McCULLOCH (L.5A) adds-

AT about 10.30 we had the order to get ready; then, a few minutes later, the order to GO. H82 had started on its journey. Everything went like clockwork. With Squad 1 leading, and the others up to 9 in double line, we marched out of that so familiar building, and the two police-constables outside stopped the traffic for us to cross over Regent Street and proceed to Oxford Street station. Many of us looked round to have one last look at the Poly., and in many of our hearts was the thought, "When shall we see it again?"

*     *     *

D. SPEAIGHT (U.5Ai) takes up the tale -

It was a pathetic but funny sight to see some of the smaller lads struggling along with their kit slung over their shoulders. But, small and big alike, from the moment we set off, had made up their minds to behave in a manner befitting our great School. The long line of boys wended its way through the population to the Oxford Circus tube station.

          Here we re-assembled on the platform. The minutes ticked by. Trains kept on coming and going. "When would we be moving?" asked a few of the fellows. Then, at last, the train drew into the station. "O.K., lads, this is it," came the order and, within a short time, everybody was in that train waiting to go. Nobody could be accused of not obeying orders; all were playing their part to make the scheme go off without a hitch. The train pulled into the tunnel and we sped off on our way to Ealing Broadway. When we arrived here the job of re-assembling took place again. All along the line of boys, prefects could be heard calling the roll; Masters moved about here and there ascertaining the whereabouts of boys in their squad. Although a lot of orders had to be obeyed, no complaints were made, and everybody waited patiently and quietly for the next move. Different rumours were spread, and soon practically every place on the West Coast was mentioned as being our new home.

          We started off from Ealing Broadway, after a long wait, still in doubt as to where we were going. It was not till we were about ten miles out of Paddington that the guard came along to tell us our destination was Cheddar. Great rejoicing, and eager searching for Cheddar on the map in the railway carriage.

*     *     *

G. DYER (L.5A) tells how we arrived at Cheddar and Weare.

By the time we reached Swindon we were getting rather tired, and by the time we reached Bristol many of us were asleep. After passing through a long tunnel our train puffed into a sleepy little station labelled "Cheddar." We gave a loud cheer, and we tumbled out in a mass of luggage and macs. on to the platform. We marched into Cheddar village, and rain began to drizzle. Kind-hearted villagers handed out jugs of cool, clear, and welcome water. Everyone was parched. We then lined up outside the Church and a coach came to transport us to our village, Weare, while other squads went to Blackford, Theale, or Wedmore. The coach was a racketty old thing, and it spat and coughed viciously. At last, when the engine burst into life, a voice from the back, in mock wonder, exclaimed: "Crikey, it goes." After about 20 minutes' journey we halted outside "Weare Memorial Hall, 1920," and then trooped inside to find tea and biscuits waiting for us. We drank and ate heartily, and then the Masters set about the task of alloting us to billets. A lady took Harry Eastwood and myself to a big, red house on the main road, where we were warmly welcomed. After a big supper we went to bed and reflected on our adventures of the day.

*     *     *

C. NABARRO (U.5Ai) arrives at Blackford.

AFTER having watched the train slowly puff out of Cheddar's small station, we remained for a time under its roof in order to shelter ourselves from the steady downpour of rain, which had persistently followed us from London. Fortunately, for us, in a short time the rain eased off considerably, and so we moved off in a long "caterpillar," headed and punctuated half-way by our large banners. The procession proceeded through Cheddar, and was watched by the entire awe-struck population. Without any incident of importance we arrived at the end of the town, and were all much cheered at the sight of a new cinema nearing completion! We then divided into our squads, and prepared to board the coaches which were waiting to take us to one of four small villages, all of about five miles distant. The task of boarding was by no means pleasant, as we had to enter with all our luggage, and by this time the rain had added to our difficulty by returning once more in far more ferocious mood. However, we eventually managed to get our squad on board the second coach, and, amid cheers, we made our way through avenues of less fortunate boys who were still waiting in the deluge. The coach was most definitely not a 1939 model, and it gave one a feeling of holding on to a road drill as it ploughed its way through the murk on its long journey to the little village of Blackford. The long, narrow, winding country road shone with rain as it stretched far off into the mist, and on each side for as far as the eye could see were the hills, assuming purple hue in the fading light. After about half-an-hour we drew up outside a small building which had the title of Blackford Council School. Then came the pleasant task of disembarking in the merciless rain. We slowly came out from under the barrage of cases, which we had placed on our knees, and slowly but surely reached the warmth of the quaint little school-rooms. Here we received a very warm welcome from the persons who were to attend to our future welfare, and their first job was to present us with our emergency rations. These were received with no little consternation, and it could be plainly seen that some doubted very much whether they could (should the emergency arise) last out on the contents of the parcel for two whole days. Then came the colossal job of the actual billeting, and much credit must be showered on the billeters for preventing a minor chaos when the question arose as to "Who goes with whom?" Several of the persons connected with the billeting possessed motor-cars, and this aided the job of distributing the boys very considerably, and in a time much shorter than all had anticipated we reached our billets. My "billet companion" and I were very lucky in being selected for what turned out to be the billet of the area, and we did not have long to wait at the School before being whisked away in a car to our new home. Here our hearts sank as the lady of the house assumed an expression of surprise and horror at the sight of us, dripping wet and laden with bags, as we presented ourselves at her doorstep! Her dismay, we learnt later, was due to the fact that we were supposed to be "children of 4 or 5." But she soon recovered, and we were welcomed with a huge meal which satisfied our hunger, which by now was telling us that it was a long time since lunch! Then, relaxing in a spacious arm-chair, I looked back over the eventful day of travel.

*     *     *

D. C. JONES (4A) gives his general impression of life in Blackford.

IT did not take us long to settle down in our new home, an old but very comfortable farmhouse, or to the strange surroundings. Everything was so different from London - no buses, trams, or motor-cars tearing to and fro, but just an occasional clip-clop and rattle of a horse and cart passing along the road, and the whirr of the reaping machine in the fields. Each morning, as you walked into town to report, everybody you passed said "Good morning," or passed some comment on the weather, whether they knew you or not. Most of us found a lot of things to do to help pass away the time, such as helping the farmers in the fields haymaking, and later still, just before we left, making cider.

*     *     *

A MARSHALL (4A) adds-

THE village of Blackford consisted of one main street, with about three side streets. There were four shops - a general stores, two sweet shops, and a butcher's - besides a public house. If anyone walked for five minutes in one direction they would come to country. Everybody seemed to know everybody else, and the whole village seemed to share three names, notably Duckett, Starr, and Wall. When we arrived at Blackford we were just in time for the blackberry season, harvesting, and apple crop. Those boys who worked on a farm were lucky to be able to have as many apples as they wished. The others, however, had only to ask and could have as many apples as they wanted.

*     *     *

R. CHATTERJEE (U.5A2) meditates on the characteristics of the people he met.


THOSE of us who have been evacuated to Somerset have had, and are still having, a great chance to study the lives of the Somerset people and see in what ways they differ from those of Londoners. The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Cheddar was, I think, the general hospitality of the villagers. An illustration of this was when we got off the train after that long and tiring journey. Most of us were very, very thirsty, and how gladly we welcomed the glass of water and cut-up pieces of apples and oranges which the villagers brought out to us. After we had been in our billet for a few days we began to find out another thing about village life and Somerset people. This is how everybody in the village knows everybody else's business, and how well they knew each other. One finds things absolutely different in London, or in any other town for that matter, for very often you do not know your next-door neighbour, let alone anything concerning him. Often, when we went to School to report and hear notices telling us what not to do, we knew what was to be said, for we had been told the night before by our landladies. Then, of course, we were struck by the Somerset dialect, but by now most of us are used to it. What we notice most, which differs from London life, is how everybody greets you with "Good-morning" or "Good-night," or whatever is appropriate to the hour. This was especially so in Wedmore. Whenever asked to be shown how some farm implement works, or how to catch rabbits, or milk cows we were always sure of a friendly and interesting reply. One notices, too, that the villagers' outlook on life has no great ideas in it. All he wants to do is eat well, sleep well, and enjoy life in general. Thus, generally, the labourers are very cheerful and contented. In a nutshell, the Somerset people are kindly, generous, hospitable, and cheerful.

*     *     *

What the evacuation meant to Regent Street:-



Rest you content,

O quiet street,

That once rang to our thousand feet,

And carried us with books complete

Each and every morning.

Your symphony of traffic blare,

Your motor fumes that filled the air,

Is much reduced since we were there,

Still, grin and bear it.

How quiet and drab it all must seem,

We've robbed you of your colour scheme,

Those bobbing caps of red and green,

Have all departed.

Cradled between the hills we stay,

Where Severn sweeps the Minehead Bay,

But we'd exchange it any day

For all your clatter.

We'll come back, maybe with regret,

Hurrying from 'bus, or tube, or Met.,

The same old Regent Street, and yet

We'll dream of Minehead.





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