Narrative contributed, as below, in May 2013.
Bon was eight years old at the beginning of the war, and was evacuated to Duton Hill in 1940.
From Concrete to Grass
“If I can’t go with them then they don’t go!” Those ten words spoken by my Mother were about to change my life for ever.
We were living in West Ham in the East End of London; I was eight years old, the youngest in a family of seven. My father had died when I was six months old, leaving my mother with six children to raise. He had joined the Royal Navy in his early teens serving in the Far East and the First World War as a Chief Stoker.
Apparently when I was born it appears that I was quite a lump. My father’s first comment was “What a Bonnie Boy”. For some reason or other that word Bonnie, or Bon, which I prefer, has been my main recognised name, or nick-name, to this day. The nurse who assisted in the deliverance of yours truly asked my Mother if she would name me Maurice Alan after her brother, who was killed in the First World War serving as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy; which my Mother wholeheartedly agreed to.
I was in our house with my mother and one of my sisters when the sirens were sounded on Saturday 7th September, 1940. My other sister and three brothers were out working. A few minutes later we heard the drone of engines and within seconds there was a roaring noise like a train, and suffocating explosions which seemed to go on and on. We were crouched in the hall-way, and after the Luftwaffe had delivered its payload there seemed to be a deathly hush. All the windows were blown in, and I can remember my mother and sister looking grey. We were all covered in dust. Within minutes the Police poked their heads through the hole where the windows used to be, and after making sure we were all OK they ordered us out immediately – not even allowing my Mother to collect any clothes, papers of importance; nothing.
We never ever returned to that house again. We were told to make our way to the underground shelters in the park. During the evening my other sister and three brothers found out where we were and they came drifting in one after the other. We spent three nights in those shelters and on the evening of the 10th September, London double-decker buses arrived and the order was given: Children only to be evacuated – without the parents. They did not say where they were taking us but my Mother called out, “If I can’t go with them then they don’t go!”. Then all the other parents joined in and they had to agree.
So off we went; all the buses in convoy, in the dark, not knowing our destination. It must have been turned midnight when the buses all stopped. We had arrived in Epping Forest, where we spent the night, on my ninth birthday.
We were then taken to the Empire Cinema in Epping where we stayed for two nights. We set off again only this time there were no other buses, and we were travelling in the daytime. It was a welcome break to enjoy the scenery of the fields with the cattle grazing in the green meadows, until we arrived at the Foakes Memorial Hall, Great Dunmow. Councillors and various other volunteers were there ready to organise our final destination. In our case it would be Duton Hill. We were taken to Great Easton village where Crystal Pudney, wife of John Pudney, writer of the poem ‘For Johnny’, and Bert Sibbons were waiting to take us to Collins Cottage.
When we arrived the locals were already in the cottage fixing the blackout over the windows, and others brought in bread and jars of jam. All the local boys and girls were eagerly waiting to see what had been bestowed upon them. We must have looked like tramps, because we were still wearing the same clothes since 7th September and looking bedraggled, whereas the locals were healthy and tanned looking.
One or two of the boys made their presence known by mimicking our accent, and in turn we replied by mimicking their efforts. But we all came together at Great Easton School where we were educated by the Headmistress, Mrs Langman, who was a very strict disciplinarian. With the influx of evacuees and the local children all coming together, there weren’t many days going by when the cane wasn’t used!
Everyone took care of themselves. My eldest sister Phyl was quite handy at perming and styling her own hair in those days, and the girls in the village noticed how different the style was to theirs. So that’s how she made friends; perming and styling their hair before she joined the WAAF for the rest of the war.
Our next door neighbour asked my mother if she would like to go potato picking with her and some of the other women in the village. She always drummed into us: “You must work to exist”. When she came home her eyes were swollen, her back was bent, and there was no bath to jump into. But back she went, only this time she took my two elder brothers with her until they both found employment.
From then onwards my mother worked in the fields pea picking, sugar beet singling, pulling and chopping, and even working on the chaff box when they were thrashing with Mrs Watson at Duton Hill Farm.
And then it was my turn, with my other brother and sister, to accompany my mother on the potato and pea fields. All the money we earned was handed over to my mother for housekeeping. But that was life in those days. By now the local boys and us evacuees were living life together, walking across the fields, playing together in the evenings – still arguing our differences, but having a laugh afterwards.
But then the American Air Force arrived, in 1943, and that changed our daily interests. They were very friendly, and we soon got to know them by their names. When thy visited our local pub – The Rising Sun – after a mission, we could always tell that it had been a tough time for them. They moved to France in September 1944, and the RAF took over the Airfield with the Airborne Regiment and gliders. They didn’t allow us on the camp like the Americans did.
When the War finished, going back to London didn’t even enter my mind, but my mother was quite concerned so she told me years later. We had no house to go to, my two eldest brothers demobbed from the Army, and nobody knew the answer until the Rent Collector from the Council (my mother paid 5/- per week to pay for blankets and camp beds supplied by Dunmow District Council) asked my Mother if she had a house to go back to. After my Mother told her “no”, we were offered a Council house in Abbey View which she eagerly accepted. We were the first family to move into the new Estate; flush toilet and all the mod. cons.
So began our life in the Country in peace time, digging the garden, growing vegetables under the advice given by our neighbours, playing football for Eastons and Duton Hill FC, going in the local – The Three Horseshoes – playing darts, and enjoying the company of the older generation.
“If I can’t go with them then they don’t go!” – I said it changed my life.
But then it changed everyone’s life ….
Updated 9th January 2018