During World War II, children were sent away from cities to safer places in the countryside. Gerry Emsley was just one of many who left London and found himself in the heart of rural Britain. Emily Ashworth speaks to him about his memories.
By the end of World War II it is said that more than three million people had been evacuated, including mothers, pregnant women, teachers and helpers.
But the largest proportion were children of school age.
Parted from their parents, these children were sent away from major cities and towns to the safety of the countryside, many with not much more than a ‘pillowcase of belongings.’
Along with his brother Ted, Gerry Emsley, now 86, was among the last batches of children to be evacuated from London in 1944.
Growing up in Harrow, he can recall the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939, when he was only five years old.
His father worked in a metal bearings factory and it was he who heard the rumblings of what was to come, the threat of V-1 flying bombs – also known as doodlebugs – and V-2 missiles imperative in his parents’ decision to evacuate them.
With no knowledge of where they were going, the pair arrived in Forton, Stafford, after a long day’s journey on the train, soon to be rehomed with the Evans family on their dairy farm.
He says: “We got off the train and were taken to a school where we were fed and watered,” recalling being only 10 years old at the time of evacuation.
“Then we were distributed between buses and we were taken to New Guild Farm. By this point it was dark and there was no electricity on-farm. We walked in the kitchen to find an old gentleman, Mr Evans, and we were given a sandwich and a glass of milk.
“Our room was up in the attic.”
And so Gerry’s new life with the Evans family began, who he would stay with for the next 10 months.
With no electricity, it was early to bed and early to rise, says Gerry, and the only warmth came from the heat of the range in the farmhouse kitchen. Things were certainly different, but he took it in his stride.
“You just accepted it,” he says.
“It was our parents’ decision to do what was best for us. You have to think, what would induce you to send your child away? It would have to be something extraordinary to make you do it. It was a very big thing for them.”
At his age, Gerry still had to attend school but, being a young boy, as soon he finished there he ‘wanted to see what the men were doing in the field’.
And although more than 70 years has passed, he can recall memory after memory, from the chilblains to bringing the cows in from the field.
“You don’t realise, as a child, how much you are absorbing,” he says.
The first thing Gerry and his brother had to do was write home to their parents to ask for some boots so they could get around on-farm.
“Boots were essential and there was always jobs to do,” he says.
“The bales were smaller back then and I could carry them with a pitchfork. I used to put fresh bedding down for the calves. You had to fit in with the routine of the farm – there was the milking to do before it got picked up.
“It may all have looked casual but there was a routine. I didn’t think twice about doing anything, nobody did really.”
Life in the countryside may have seemed a world away from the terror faced in the cities, such as London, but as young children, they took their surroundings ‘for granted’.
He says: “It’s things like walking to school on a misty morning and coming face to face with a barn owl sat on the gate or how they let me help take the cattle to market on my birthday. And I can remember the changing of the seasons, when the corn was cut.”
Gerry’s ration coupons were given to the Evans family and once a week the grocer would arrive with their weekly allowance of foods, such as meat, bacon, cheese, sugar and margarine.
And although the family included them, it was ‘just another part of the situation of war’.
Families who received evacuees were also given extra allowance – the equivalent of about 50p for the first child and 40p for the second.
But those working in agriculture were considered to have a reserved trade, so there was always a shortage of labour, especially as the Ministry of Agriculture urged farmers to grow more crops to feed the nation.
Children, Gerry says, were vital helping hands, as were prisoners of war.
“They bused German prisoners of war on to the farm to help dig drainage in the fields,” he says.
“Mr Evans didn’t want to grow potatoes – he said he was a dairy farmer, why would he want to grow potatoes? He needed grain and turnips for the cattle to produce milk.
“He was told that if he didn’t grow those potatoes he would be evicted and replaced by another farmer willing to do so and his son would no longer be in a reserved occupation. You didn’t mess about.
“I’ve since read that in the autumn of 1944, there were only enough potatoes left in the country for three weeks. They had to increase this acreage.”
This part of his childhood clearly stuck with him, as Gerry and his family often went back to New Guild Farm and became close with Richard, Mr Evans’ son, and his new family who had taken on the farm business.
“We’d stop in a caravan nearby and after breakfast we would motor down to the farm and I worked with Richard – he would always have a list of jobs for me to do,” says Gerry.
“I loved milking, so I used to help him with that too.
“Sometimes, we’d go twice a year. hey came to my son’s wedding and we went to their daughter’s wedding. I think that explains the relationship we had.”