Betty Collins (nee Painter): experiences as an evacuee in Abberley, 1939-1941

Audrey Lowe and Betty Painter in 1940

Audrey Lowe and Betty Painter in 1940

We were recently contacted via this website by Mrs Collins’ daughter in law, Christine, who saw that we were researching the 20th century history of the village, and wondered if we would be interested in Betty’s memoirs of her time in the village.  Betty lived in West Ham, London, just before the outbreak of the war, and was evacuated with her school friends first to Essex and then to Worcestershire.  Here is her story in her own words:

Towards the end of August 1939 we were taken home early from Guide Camp because of the serious political situation.  For the last week in August all those who intended to be evacuated from London met at their assigned collection points; with a suitcase, a gas mask and a packed lunch.

We lived in the County Borough of West Ham only two or three miles away from the London Docks.  It had already been decided that I should go with my school.  I was 14 years old, normally I would have been starting my final year at school.  So I set off for school, where we were put into groups of about 10, and in my group was the young sister of one of the boys, she was my special charge.  As far as possible families and friends were kept together.

After reporting to school on Monday we chatted and played games in the classroom, then we were sent home and had our sandwiches at home.  The same thing happened on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – but on Friday 1st September we were kept at school and had our sandwiches there.  Then we set to walk to the L.N.E.R.  station.  A long line of children from our school and others in the area.  We were packed into the carriages, some of us sitting on the floor.  My small group scattered between carriages, but I kept my little girl close to me.

Eventually the train stopped at a place called Woodbridge in Suffolk, and we got back into our original groups and schools.  We were given a drink and some cake, a can of corned beef, tin of milk, some hard biscuits and some chocolate.  About 30 of us were put on some buses with 3 teachers and driven to a village school in Martlesham.  We sat in the little desks and waited for one of the ladies there to pick us out, and take us to their home.  My friend Audrey and I went with Mrs Wray and were happily settled with her and Mr Wray and their daughter Mary.

As far as I know most of the evacuees in Martlesham were soon settled with their foster families.  It was on Sunday morning 3rd September, that it was announced that Great Britain was at war, so we knew it was not going to be just a short holiday in the country.  However we felt sure it would be over by Christmas!

While we were staying [in Martlesham, we had our first] air raid warning in the night.  Everyone got up and assembled downstairs, not knowing what to expect.  Supposing there was a gas attack! We all had our gas masks with us in the cardboard boxes provided.  We looked with horror at Audrey, because she had a mop of thick blond hair and every night she curled it up in dozens of curlers – she would never get her gas mask on over that lot! Frantically we all helped her get the curlers out while listening for the sound of rattle swinging Street Wardens which would herald the imminence of gas.  Audrey’s vanity made the supreme sacrifice!

[Betty & Audrey’s school group remained happily in Essex until the following spring…]

Towards the middle of May [1940] it was obvious the war was not going well for us, and that the threat of invasion by the Germans was very real.  So once again we were moved away from the East of England.  This time we travelled by steam train for about eight hours across England to Worcestershire.  We had no idea where we were going.  All the names had been removed from the stations, road signs taken down as well.  The train was overfull, there were other schools being moved besides ours, so it was not exactly a comfortable journey but we made the best of it.

After getting off the train the usual “de-lousation” ritual began then we were split into smaller groups.  Our year was taken to two small villages, the boys to Great Witley and the girls to Abberley the next village.  Audrey and I were to be billeted with Lady Brooke at “The Elms”.  Both of us pictured a gentle old lady dressed in black with a lace cap on her head.  We were soon disillusioned.

Can you imagine two scruffy and weary teenagers being driven up the front drive to a wide forecourt of a white Georgian Style house?

The Elms in 1940

The Elms in 1940

003_The Elms today

The Elms Today

A rather tall gaunt lady swept forward and said, “Come in, my children!” Turning to a weedy looking gentleman said, “Christopher, bring in the luggage!” As by this time Audrey and I had acquired a large trunk, as well as a suitcase – no way, was he going to manage that.  Later, we learned that this was in fact Sir Richard Brooke, Bart: and his wife.  We were led straight through to the back of the house and to the servant’s quarters.

I don’t think we ever spoke to Sir Richard and only occasionally to “her ladyship”, and they never knew our names.

We were given a spacious bedroom sparsely furnished at the top of the house and I think it was the only house in the village to have electricity and water which was not hand-pumped.  Our windows overlooked the front of the house and the paddock where the Derby winner ‘King Salmon’ was kept.  Our room was also immediately above Lady Brooke’s bedroom, which we found out later on to our cost.

I had put some socks to soak in the hand basin in our room, when the gong sounded for our evening meal and I forgot to turn off the tap properly.  The resultant mini-flood on to Lady Brooke’s bed was not the best way to win her approval, and I don’t think my apology was as whole-hearted as it should have been.

Our best friend among the servants was Anne, the kitchen maid.  She used to smuggle up pints of milk to us.  Louise, the parlour maid was quite friendly too; and there was Gladys, the house maid, she was a little older and had been in service with a Duchess “a real lady!” Later on a little Welsh girl came as the scullery maid.  Her name was Myfanwy, and she was very shy.  We did not care very much for Mrs Jenkins the cook, she always seemed to have a cigarette in her mouth when she was cooking.

We settled down in a new village, and had our lessons in the Village Hall.  It was there that I was first told to lead the opening school assembly at a few minutes’ notice.  I just had to choose a hymn, read a prayer and a reading from the bible.

A postcard photograph of Betty's class, photographed outside St George's Halll in July 1940

A postcard photograph of Betty’s class, photographed outside St George’s Hall in July 1940. Click on the picture to see it in greater detail.

Image of the reverse of the postcard, listing Betty's classmates

Image of the reverse of the postcard, listing Betty’s classmates. Click on the picture to see it in greater detail.

At one time “The Elms” was shut up for a short time, and we stayed with Mr.  and Mrs Cully at the Lodge.  Here there was no electricity and the bath was in the out-house.  Our room was much more cramped, but we were far happier there, Mr & Mrs Cully were good to us.  Unfortunately, Mrs Cully became ill with bronchitis.  Audrey and I stayed away from lessons to look after her, as best we could, we cooked the meals as well.  Of course that arrangement could not go on for long, so we were moved again.

During the first summer we helped with fruit picking and hay-making, I had my birthday tea in a hayfield (June).  The vehicles on the farms were mostly horse-drawn; the hay raked up by hand into stooks, when it had dried sufficiently it was poled on hay-wagons and then built into a rick.  Quite a number of people came to join the farm workers in getting the hay in, although it was hard work especially for us, as we were not used to it, it was great fun too.

Betty and her school mates ready for a dip in the Abberley Hall bathing pool

Betty and her school mates ready for a dip in the Abberley Hall bathing pool

The boys, ready for a dip in the Abberley Hall bathing pool

The boys, ready for a dip in the Abberley Hall bathing pool

Later on we went hop picking in the next village.  The hop wine was rested across the top of a canvas crib, and we pulled off the delicately pretty pale green hops, shaped like small soft pine cones.  They stained our hands dark green and the smell gave us a healthy appetite.

We were paid for this work and it supplemented the allowance we were sent from home.  About once a month we went into Worcester on the bus, and shopped for toiletries and other little things we needed.  In the afternoon we went to see a film before catching the bus back to Abberley.  There were only two buses a week into Worcester.

As the year wore on, there were more and more air raids on London and the South of England, and later on the big ports.  We were still at The Elms when a great many German bombers went overhead on their way to bomb Coventry.  There was no air raid siren in the village but we had to get up because Sir Richard and Lady Brooke were officially notified of the raid.  I should think the white house must have been very obvious, but it was not the bombers’ main target.  However one of them did drop a bomb in a hop-field about 2 miles away on its way back.  It did little damage but caused quite a stir.

Our parents did not write about the raids and their endless sleepless nights, but never the less we were anxious when we heard of raids in London.  Some of our boys went back to London at the end of August and got jobs, before they were eventually called up to serve in the forces.  We had some more younger children sent out to us, and we did our best to make them welcome.

Our Christmas was mainly spent together with our school friends and various things were organised by our teachers, to make the time as pleasant as possible.  We older ones organised a dance, about once a month to which some of the villagers came.  We had a wind up portable gramophone and a selection of Victor Sylvester records.

We did have one or two visits from our parents, which we were very pleased about.  I was also able to visit my eldest married sister at Bristol for a few days.  Most of the time I was left to my own devices as Joan (my sister) had to go to work for the BBC in Bristol.

That winter we went to live in a little council house near the church.  There was still no electricity, gas or mains water, and an earth closet down the garden, although the cottages were comparatively modern.

During a particularly dry spell in the summer, the well that served the cottages dried up, and we had to fetch the water from a nearby spring.

In the winter there were deep snow drifts on the hill roads- which were called ‘banks’.  We had to negotiate these to get to lessons in the Scout Hut.  When we had first come to Abberley we had used the Village Hall for our school.  Later we went up the hill to the Scout Hut, a wooden built hall with an open fire at one end.  The Village Hall was used as a small factory to make aeroplane parts – all very hush hush!

In the summer of 1941, we helped on a farm in Great Witley.  The main work on the farm was done by two brothers, Edwin and ‘Kite’.  Their father had an accident on the farm and lost both his legs, however he still managed to do quite a lot, and could hoe a row of vegetables far quicker than we could.  There was a large farmhouse kitchen and at lunchtime we all sat round and enjoyed the plentiful farm-house food.  We enjoyed working with Edwin and Kite, they let us ride the horses and drive the big hay-rake.  That was quite safe because the horse knew exactly what to do anyway.

For us in the country there were usually plenty of eggs and in our area plenty of fruit trees and bushes.  People in ports and large towns were usually able to get more of imported fruits and vegetables and tinned goods.  However, the rationing system worked very well on the whole.

We were able to have one or two school trips.  We went to Warwick and to Stratford-on-Avon where we visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

It was 31st August 1941 that we returned to London.  I had been away from home exactly two years.  No doubt our formal education had suffered, but we had learnt a great deal from the experience.  Especially about what it was like to live in the country and in other people’s homes.

Most of the people we met had been kind and helpful.  I think we responded to them appreciatively, and we were old enough to make the best of things anyway.

I returned to get an office job in London near Liverpool Street Station and to live with my parents and sister.  The worst of the air raids were over but we still had to contend with the black out and rationing, of course.  My home had escaped severe damage.  My family continued to do their share of fire watching at home and at work.  My sister helped in the Public Shelters and later with a youth club which I joined too.  I was in London when the flying bombs ‘Doodlebugs’ came over.  We soon got used to their distinctive sound and did not worry too much until the sound stopped and they dived to earth.  Many of them were shot down over open countryside, and the damage was limited but they were still dangerous.

A postcard view of St Mary's, Abberley, sent by Audrey to her friend Betty in August 1944.

A postcard view of St Mary’s, Abberley, sent by Audrey to her friend Betty in August 1944.

Audrey writes about her trip to Worcester in the rain, and hopes that Betty is not too troubled by the Doodlebugs menacing London.

Audrey writes about her trip to Worcester in the rain, and hopes that Betty is not too troubled by the Doodlebugs menacing London.

Mrs Betty Collins recently passed away, and these photographs were found by her daughter in law, Christine, as she cleared the family home.  Mrs Collins’ funeral takes place on the same day as our second Open Meeting so we shall read her story to the villagers as a tribute to a remarkable lady.

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4 thoughts on “Betty Collins (nee Painter): experiences as an evacuee in Abberley, 1939-1941

  1. my grandfather is always talking about this time when he was evacuated with his class. So when I googled Martlesham evacuees and found Betty’s story, my grandad was over the moon to see the photos of him and his class, and it has bought back a lot of memories for him.

    Wonderful to see Betty’s story, thank you so much for sharing it. I’m sorry to hear that she has passed away, it would have been great for them both to have talked about this shared experience.

    • Thank you very much indeed for getting in touch. Betty would have been delighted to know that her contribution brought back such good memories to your grandfather!
      Abberley Lives web team

  2. Hope you don’t index. You have some photos of the children who were evacuated. My father is in 2. Frank Christian. He’s still alive and 91 years young. He often speaks about his evacuation days

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