As the 70th Anniversary of the D Day landings has been so affectingly commemorated this month, I thought it would be timely to also focus on another aspect of life during the Second World War.
In May 1940 a group of schoolchildren from West Ham was evacuated to Abberley. Among this group were 14 year old Betty Collins (nee Painter) and her best friend, Audrey Lowe.
Betty kept a treasured memoir of her time as an evacuee which you can read in full on our archive. Today I would like to share with you the humorous description of her first billet;
‘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?
A rather tall gaunt lady swept forward and said, “Come in, my children!” Turning to a weedy looking gentleman she 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.’
Betty remembered her time in Abberley fondly, although she never had the opportunity to return. Shortly after she passed away last year her son and daughter-in-law visited Abberley, spending a poignant and memorable Summer’s day tracking down the places described in the memoir, with some help from myself and other WI members.