At the start of the Second World War children from London and Dover were evacuated to Caerleon to escape heavy bombing and the threat of being caught up in an attempted invasion.
You can read here the memories of Mavis Robinson (nee Ewens), a pupil of Thorpe Hall Primary School, Highams Park, London, who at the age of seven arrived in Caerleon with her classmates and teachers to live with total strangers...
This year (August 2010), my husband and I visited Caerleon to celebrate my seventy-seventh birthday and to reacquaint myself with landmarks remembered from time spent there at the beginning of the Second World War. My stay also helped me to continue writing (for my children’s’ interest) about my evacuation and what it had meant both to me and to my parents.
1940 My first memory of Caerleon was of arriving at the station after a very long journey by bus and train from my home near Woodford, north London. We all were taken on foot to the school playground where we stood clasping our haversacks and gas masks and wondering when we were going to have something to eat and drink. I can’t remember being particularly concerned as we were accompanied by teachers from our school (Thorpe Hall School, Highams Park) and my parents had been very supportive beforehand although probably had private reservations.
I was taken by my teacher (Miss Painter) and a billeting officer to 23 High Street where I was welcomed by Mrs Hughes (Aunty Alice) and her friend Miss Greenway (Aunty Hilda, who worked in the Co-operative Store) and who lived in Cross Street. A genuine and warm welcome here! Mr Hughes (Uncle Jack) and Mr Simms (Granpa) came in from work to add to an initial reception which led to a lifetime’s association. Mr Simms was Mrs Hughes father and although he had no grandchildren in the UK, he proved to be a great help – turning skipping ropes, testing spellings and sums and telling stories of life in the 1890s when he was a coachman to a wealthy doctor. It helped me considerably that he knew the area around Woodford where, in the past, he had accompanied his employer. Mr Hughes worked on the railway and cycled to Newport each day. He encouraged me to get my ‘two-wheeler’ bike sent to Caerleon so that we could share an interest. After retirement he worked at the amphitheatre and the roman barrack sites, helping with grass-cutting etc, since younger men were in the armed services. Granpa (in his 70s) still did a little gardening in a big property near Goldcroft Common. This I believe is now an old people’s home.
Although Mr and Mrs Hughes did not have children they seemed to enjoy the situation in which they found themselves. I had found a lovely surrogate family even if the surroundings were different and rules a little more Victorian than in my 1930s home in Woodford. An apron was to be worn at mealtimes and help with the washing up was expected but I never resented this as it was presented as a fun, grown-up thing to do. Baths were taken in front of the big, black kitchener in a tin tub and hair inspected rigorously with a fine-toothed comb on Friday evenings. Prayers were said each night before jumping into a huge feather bed. There was no bathroom and the lavatory was across the yard in a little pantiled building. It was connected to the main sewer, had a scrubbed wooden seat and was flushed by emptying a bucket of water down the hole. Here was a perfect place for catching up on a spot of reading, there being a ready supply of newsprint (in squares on a bit of string because of the shortage of toilet paper). At night the spiders could be a bit alarming, their shadows being enlarged by the torch which lit the little building.
Sundays were a rather tedious, particularly in the winter, because any reading of a frivolous nature was frowned upon by Mrs Hughes. Comics or annuals were out but stories like ‘What Katy Did’ were allowed and so was letter writing. I went to Sunday school in the Baptist chapel joining in all the celebrations and then went to evensong with Mrs Hughes at St Cadoc’s. (This situation came about because I had attended Congregational church in London and Mrs Hughes thought she could cover my spiritual needs in this way!) In summer we always did sedate walks around Caerleon, meeting up with friends and observing the season’s changes in gardens and fields. All the time I was talked to and encouraged to learn, including trying to understand about the roman presence in Caerleon and not quite taking in exactly how long ago it had happened. In subsequent years this fired an interest in history, archaeology and Latin studies at school and my husband and I were delighted to see that excavations are still continuing today.
Yes, I did realize in a limited way that war was a serious and dangerous and that my parents and baby brother were at risk in London, but the adults kept their worries from me and never listened to news broadcasts in my hearing (the radio ran with an accumulator and was sparingly used). I did all the things that happy children did; playing outside in safety both in the lanes and in the fields, picking nuts, blackberries, climbing for conkers, scrumping and was never upbraided for a dirty dress or scuffed shoes. There was a lot of laughter, in the playground and in the home. There was also a great sense of security and whilst the family tried to give me the upbringing they thought my parents would appreciate, I now realize that they really quite enjoyed those years of extra work and responsibility.
My parents moved to Newport when my father began working at Glascoed munitions factory but I was not able to live with them at first. We had an interim period of time-sharing – weekends here and there- so that Mr Simms and Mr and Mrs Hughes could get used to the idea of my leaving them. Eventually I did go to Newport to live and then went to Newport High School for two years before returning to London in 1946.
By this time my parents, my young brother and I, felt we were part of the extended family and visited and kept in touch until the last of the Simms/Hughes family in the UK died. Mrs Hughes had moved from 23 High Street to a pensioner’s flat and then finally to the Abbeyfields Home where she lived contentedly until the age of ninety six. We also kept in contact with her sister, Amy, who had moved to America just a few years after the war, until she died aged one hundred and one. When my husband and I visited their grave this year, I grieved over their loss but rejoiced that life had become richer for us by knowing them.
Their love, understanding and unstinting support ensured that those turbulent years did not leave any psychological hurt to me or to my family. I am truly grateful to them and to the other kind people I met in Caerleon.
Mavis Robinson (nee Ewens)