By Gillian Mawson
Since 2008 I have been interviewing evacuees who left Guernsey between 20 and 28 June 1940, just prior to the German occupation of their island for five years. 17,000 evacuees left the island that month (almost half the population). The first to leave were 5,000 children who were evacuated with their school teachers, leaving their parents behind. Hundreds of mothers also left with their infants, together with a number of families, which often contained an English-born parent. Thousands of men also left to join the British forces at Weymouth. The evacuees expected to be in England for a few weeks, but due to the German occupation of their island on 30th June 1940, this turned into five years of family separation.
During the past year I have concentrated on interviewing surviving women evacuees – now in their 90’s – who left Guernsey in June 1940 and settled in northern England. Some travelled as ‘helpers’ with the evacuated Guernsey schools, whilst others left Guernsey with their own infants to take them to safety. Many of their husbands joined the forces, whilst others remained in Guernsey to protect their homes and businesses in the event of German invasion. The stories of evacuee children are frequently heard, but less attention has been focussed on the women evacuated within Britain during WW2. Even during the war, evacuee women were rarely interviewed by reporters, and usually stood in the background, or out of shot, when groups of evacuees were photographed.
Their personal stories are filled with emotion and courage. Most had never left their island before and they arrived in the unfamiliar landscape of Northern England, practically penniless and with very few possessions. Mrs Eva Le Page, for example, left Guernsey with just the clothes she was wearing, her infant son, and a bag containing baby clothes and feeding bottles. Winnie Digard was pregnant when she boarded a ship with her young children, and recalled;
Whilst I was waiting for the bus to take us down to the ship, my baby quickened, and I fainted. Someone tied a ribbon around my arm to let people know that I was expecting. My suitcase was full and heavy with clothing for my children and a layette that my Mother had bought for the new baby to wear when it was born.
The evacuees arrived at Weymouth where they were bundled onto steam trains – the first they had ever seen – and sent to the industrial areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire. Few evacuees were given any idea of their final destinations, despite the efforts of the women and teachers to obtain information. Beryl Merrien recalled:
‘We had no idea where we were going. All the stations had their names removed so we kept calling out of the window ‘where are we?’ but no one on the platform would tell us’.
The sight of industrial towns was a shock to these rural women, who recall their first glimpses of smoking chimneys, double decker buses, terraced houses and factories.
One arrived in Oldham and saw ‘tripe in a butchers window, but the clogs and shawls and mills were very unfamiliar and different. The people were very friendly but everywhere seemed so noisy after living on a quiet island‘. Some women also endured prejudice from people who had no idea that the islanders were actually British.
Winifred Best recalls being approached by French interpreters, ‘They didn’t think we could speak English! Another person said ‘We thought you’d all be in grass skirts’ and that upset us all, I can tell you!’.
Ruth Alexandre wrote in her diary ‘I told the girls at the Co-Op that we were from Guernsey, and was surprised to hear them say “Fancy! And you speak perfect English too!‘.
The evacuees were initially housed in evacuee reception centres, but when Guernsey was occupied by Germany, they were moved into more permanent accommodation. Now hundreds of Guernsey mothers were scattered throughout England and Scotland, many with babies or infants, but with no money or possessions. Many were also trying to find their older children who had previously been evacuated to England with their schools. When Mrs Edmonds tried to find members of her family, Wigan council advised her to contact Nantwich Council because that particular Guernsey evacuee school had been sent there. Most of the women received a helping hand from their northern neighbours, and as a result they remained in contact with them after the war. Agnes Scott moved into a house in Manchester;
Word must have got around, because neighbours knocked at the door with all kinds of household equipment which were most useful, as we had nothing. A coal man came with two bags of coal ‘With compliments from Mr and Mrs Milligan’, they were an elderly couple, who lived across the road. I will never forget the so many kindnesses we received.
After the war, some of the women decided not to return to Guernsey at all, but to remain in the English communities in which they had settled. I have also been given access to wartime diaries, Red Cross letters and photographs from mothers who are sadly no longer with us. Many contain notes, poems, photographs and newspaper cuttings between their pages, which paint a picture of the lives that these women created for themselves in England between 1940 and 1945.
Gillian Mawson is the author of Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War, recently published by the History Press. You can read the ‘Diary of a Guernsey Mother’ – which she has constructed from her interviews and from wartime documents – on her research website here.