WW2 Evacuee - PRE PUBLISH

'Memories of a WW2 child evacuee' by Les Barker
Les Barker lived with his family in Peek's Yard, Merryland, St Ives from 1940 to 1949. He arrived in the town in 1939 as a WW2 evacuee from his home in central London. Aged 7yrs, he was accompanied by his older brother and sister, aged 9yrs and 11yrs respectively.

His story is moving, painting a vivid image of a youngster's experiences finding himself away from family in a strange town. There are also valuable details of St Ives in 1939 and the years immediately after.

Here is Les' story.

CHAPTER 1 - Leaving home
CHAPTER 2 - First experiences of St Ives
CHAPTER 3 - Our new home
CHAPTER 4 - The first day
CHAPTER 5 - Our lowest point
CHAPTER 6 - Redemption
CHAPTER 7 - Miss Gore's predicament
CHAPTER 8 - Enjoying St Ives
CHAPTER 9 - Time for school
CHAPTER 10 - 'New' school premises
CHAPTER 11 - A telephone call from mum
CHAPTER 12 - We return home to London
CHAPTER 13 - Back to St Ives
CHAPTER 14 - New accommodation in Peek’s Yard
CHAPTER 15 - Back to school
CHAPTER 16 - Earning pocket money
CHAPTER 17 - Full time employment
CHAPTER 18 - We move house
CHAPTER 19 - National Service

Operation Pied Piper - child evacuees
Operation Pied Piper child evacuees.
CHAPTER 1 - Leaving home
Although many of you will be well aware of the background to the wartime evacuation I will briefly serve a reminder. The National Government evacuation scheme, code named Operation Pied Piper, was introduced to move children and vulnerable adults from major towns and cities that were likely to be the target of enemy bombing. The evacuation began on the 1st September 1939 and would involve more than three million people.

In the days leading up to evacuation day our London school had received several visits by government officials who explained that we would shortly be taken by train to spend some time in the countryside, suggesting to us that this was to be some sort of adventure holiday, which seemed very exciting. Up until this time my only 'holiday' with the family was the occasional day coach trip to the seaside where we would paddle in the sea, play on the sand, have an ice cream, fish and chips and return home. Being told that we would travel by train for a real holiday in the countryside was very exciting, particularly as many of us had never been on a train.

The day before departure our mums had been told to prepare a bag or suitcase to contain a clean set of underwear, spare socks, tooth brush, washing aids and some sandwiches, biscuits and a drink. On departure day we assembled at our school with our prepared pack-ups, with labels bearing details of our school, our name and address pinned to our clothing. Our gas masks contained in a cardboard box were secured around our neck by a length of string.

Taken from school by coach, we arrived at the railway station and there together with our teachers boarded the train. At this time no one apart from some officials who accompanied us knew of our intended destination. Travelling through open countryside peering out of the train window, I was so excited to see for the first time in my life sheep, cows and horses roaming free grazing in the fields. Living in central London I have never seen such things.

Corn Exchange, St Ives, 1935
Corn Exchange in 1935, celebrating King George V's Jubilee with a children's party.
CHAPTER 2 - First experiences of St Ives
After what seemed several hours we were told that we were about to arrive at our destination. As the train began to slow we entered the station. As we did so, someone on seeing the station name board shouted out that we were at the seaside!

Our excitement at walking out to find sea and sand was quickly dashed by another quickly followed announcement that this was not the seaside town of St.Ives, Cornwall, but St. Ives in Huntingdonshire. Although we would not find sea and sand we would soon discover the rather lovely River Ouse.

Leaving the train, we were all then marched down through the town to the Corn Exchange where we soon discovered a 'pick-your-own evacuee' session was about to begin. Having arrived at the Corn Exchange, we were taken into a very large room with an impressive domed glass ceiling (no longer visible) where we found it to be attended by many officials called billeting officers, together with very many townsfolk.

By this time we were tired from the long journey and hungry having eaten our pack-up food on the way down. We were instructed to line up against a wall and the hosts, as they were called, were invited to walk along the line and choose a child. It seemed many preferred to chose the most presentable child, whilst other children, perhaps appearing a bit scruffy, were passed by.

The government had instructed that, wherever possible, siblings should not be split up. So when a woman chose me, on being told that I came as a package of three she quickly changed her mind!

One by one the children were chosen and departed with their host. Standing in the line with people walking up and down choosing their particular child gave the impression of being viewed like a piece of furniture or cattle from a pen. It wasn't a very nice feeling and I was somewhat bewildered by the whole thing. How did this form part of the holiday we had expected?

Finally the only children left unclaimed were those in pairs and myself with my brother and sister. At this point it appeared that the billeting officers were getting concerned that the remaining children would be left without accommodation, so rather than allowing the host to make the choice, the few remaining hosts would be forced, no doubt very reluctantly, to take the paired children.

Failure to take an evacuee had been made a criminal offence. It was now late afternoon on a Friday and with all the hosts and children gone only we three were left unclaimed and unwanted. After some discussion the billeting officers decided to take the three of us to an address in the town and deposit us there.

The government had required all billeting officers in towns and villages where evacuee children would be taken to make a list of the houses which were suitable to take a child, such as having a spare bedroom and suitable bedding, but they were not asked to check if the person living there was a suitable person to take care of a child. As a result many children were placed with people who were cruel to them or abused them.

Bridge Street, St Ives, 1940s
Bridge Street, St Ives, c1940.
CHAPTER 3 - Our new home
We were taken through the town by the billeting officer to a greengrocer's shop in Bridge Street. By this time it was late afternoon. On entering the shop a loud bell sounded, obviously intended to alert the shopkeeper of the arrival of a customer. A lady, possibly in her 60s, greeted us with a look of surprise on her face as it was quite apparent that we were not customers. The billeting officer announced that she was to take we three evacuees to live with her.

At this point she became very angry and refused to accept us, pointing out that she had nowhere to put us. On being told that it was compulsory to take evacuees and that she could face prosecution if she failed to do so, she reluctantly agreed to take us. She was told that she must now provide us with some food, as apart from mum's pack-up, long since consumed, we had nothing to eat for several hours.

The billeting officer at this point departed, no doubt pleased to have got rid of us. The lady, obviously unknown to us at the time, was a spinster and lived alone above her shop, which she ran on her own. She therefore had absolutely no experience of how to care for a child, let alone three. We were taken through to a small kitchen at the rear of the shop and provided with an apple each which, as we discovered, would serve as our only meal of the day. The lady then left us saying she would try to provide some sleeping arrangements for us.

After some considerable time the lady returned and lit a small paraffin lamp, which she handed to my sister. We were then taken upstairs and into a room we assumed to be a bedroom, but this was full of stock for the shop. There were several bales of straw, bags of potatoes and a large assortment of fresh vegetables. Apparently there were only two bedrooms in the house, one obviously used by the lady, the other as we now discovered used for storage.

In the corner of this room was some stairs more resembling a ladder. With my sister leading the way, nervously holding the lamp, we climbed the stairs which took us into the attic. It was extremely cold and smelt heavily of damp. The single window in the attic was covered by a thick curtain, no doubt provided to conform to the government blackout instructions strictly enforced by patrolling air raid wardens.

On the bare wooden floor some straw had been laid and this was covered by a large piece of cloth or curtain. This to serve as the straw mattress cove. Another large piece of cloth or old curtain was laid across the bed as a blanket. This was to be our shared bed.

After giving instructions that my sister should turn off the lamp once settled in bed and telling us that we must remain in the attic until she rang a bell in the morning to summon us down, the lady left us. We had been provided with a small potty to share, which my sister would need to bring down with us and dispose of any contents. Because our 'bedding' was so dirty and smelly we decided not to soil our clean night clothes packed by mum, but to sleep in our day clothes. Totally exhausted by the events of the day, and despite still being extremely hungry, we managed to snuggle down and soon fell asleep.

St Ives railway station
St Ives railway station.
CHAPTER 4 - The first day
Many hours later we were awoken by the loud sound of a hand bell. We descended from the attic, the first full day as an evacuee in St. Ives and a new life about to begin.

Possibly I had been too exhausted and overwhelmed by the events of the previous evacuation day to express any emotion. On being wakened to find myself in such a dark, horrible smelly place, the only light coming into the room from the open access hatch, it was frightening and confusing. I cried desperately, wanting my mum.

Thankfully I had my brother and big sister to comfort me. They themselves were only children, my brother aged nine and sister just eleven years of age. How those children billeted on their own without the support of brother or sister coped with the situation is difficult to imagine. Hopefully their lodgings would be somewhat better than ours.

Having been summoned down by the sound of the bell, we descended the stairs and made our way to the kitchen. We were greeted by the lady, who may have been somewhat surprised at the speed we had dressed. She was of course unaware that we had slept in our day clothes.

Mum had packed for us soap, a flannel and towel and the lady told my sister to take us into the scullery to wash our hands and face. There was a large brown stone sink, but no sign of any tap. My sister told the lady that she was unable to find the tap, to be told that the only water for the house was drawn from a pump in the yard. The lady had filled a bucket for our use, placed next to the sink. My sister was told to empty some water from the bucket into the sink and use this to wash.

Unable to lift the heavy bucket, it was decided to skip our wash. This pleased me as I was never too keen in having my face washed, particularly with cold water. Unwashed, we were then taken into a small room where there was a table, two chairs and two wooden packing cases brought in by the lady to seat us all. The lady delivered our breakfast, which consisted of a large thick slice of bread spread with marmalade. I hated marmalade, but being so hungry with so little to eat over the previous twenty four hours, I ate it.

We were then served with a mug of very strong unsweetened tea. Horrible! Having finished what served as our breakfast, it was now about 8.30am on a Saturday morning. The lady told us that she had a a shop to run and we must leave and not to return until the shop closed at 6pm. Provided with an apple each, carrying our gas masks and still bearing our identity labels pinned to our clothes, we left for the next nine hours or so to explore our new home town.

We now had the prospect of having to wander without particular purpose around a strange town, now to be our new home. Any thoughts of this being a holiday had long since been dispelled. Each evacuee had been provided with a blank postcard in the form of a greeting card to which a penny postage stamp was required, which had been provided by the parents. The card was supplied to allow the children to provide their parents information as to their whereabouts, as up until now the parents had no idea where their children had been taken.

Only very posh houses, certainly not ours, would have a home telephone, so the only means of communication was by post card or letter. As the supplied card was a greeting card, under post office postage rules only details of the addressee, that of the sender and up to five words of conventional greeting were allowed. I don't know what my sister wrote on the card prior to posting, but I expect she simply conveyed our location and that we were safe and well.

Initially, exploring the town was interesting, particularly on finding the river. We were fascinated by the antics of the many swans as they dipped their necks deep under the water, with bottoms high in the air. We had never previously ever seen a swan.

We spent a great deal of time sitting both on the Quay and The Waits, watching passing boats. We hoped that one day we might have the opportunity to have a trip on a boat, which looked so exciting. At one time we decided to visit the railway station where we had arrived the previous day, to watch trains passing. But on arrival we found access to the station required a penny platform ticket. Having no money, we had to turn away sad and disappointed.

Without any money we could not pass the time visiting shops. Unlike today, when you can spend time in a supermarket unchallenged, without making a purchase, the smaller shops of that period would not encourage persons just wandering around, particularly young children, without making a purchase.

Around mid-day we had consumed our apples and were feeling thirsty. By chance we came upon an impressive structure in The Broadway which showed, on reading the inscription, to be the Queen Victoria Jubilee Memorial 1897. Around the monument were several small basins, above each a silver button which when pressed discharged a weak jet of water. A passing gentleman assured us that the water was safe to drink and we were able to take a drink, which was fun trying to catch the water in your mouth.

Still with several hours to go before being allowed back to the shop, we searched the town further and discovered the Free Church, which we found to be open. We spent some time in the church admiring the interior decoration. With no one about we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon there.

Worried that we really should not be there, we found some seats hidden behind a pillar, hoping that we wouldn't be discovered and ordered out. My sister would occasionally sneak out to check the time on the church clock. With six o'clock approaching we left what we considered to be our safe haven and very reluctantly made our way back to the shop.

On entering to the sound of the door bell we were met by the lady, who told us to go to the scullery, wash our hands and then wait in the small back room, which I suppose served as her dining room, and to wait there while she prepared a meal for us. Some time later she appeared carrying a tray containing three plates with food which she placed before us.

My plate was almost completely full of vegetables, covered thick brown lumpy gravy. Absolutely vile! I discovered, submerged beneath the gravy, what appeared to be a small piece of meat no bigger than the standard small matchbox. Somewhat cautiously I sampled some which, yes, was some type of meat and tasted not too bad. Two mouthfuls and gone.

As with most young children, vegetables were not my favourite meal of the day. Faced with a plate full of vegetables covered with gravy, any pangs of hunger I experienced from having had so little to eat over many hours mysteriously disappeared. I did manage with some effort to eat some of the vegetables, trying to remove as much of the gravy as possible.

The lady, realising that we had finished our meal, took the plates from us and scraped the uneaten contents into a bin. She then returned with the same plates, now empty of food but still showing traces of the gravy, and placed them before us. From the oven she took out an apple pie, sliced this and placed a portion on our plates. She then poured some custard over the pie which, on coming into contact with the gravy residue, changed a somewhat darker colour.

I ate the pie and custard gravy mixture, which surprisingly didn't taste too bad, although not recommended. My sister was then required to help clear the table and assist with the washing up. Although it was still around 7pm we were told to go to our bed. With my sister carrying the oil lamp to light our way and my brother carrying our shared potty to serve our needs we climbed up into the attic to our bed.

We decided to again sleep in our day clothes and settled down in our straw bed for the second night. For me this night was very disturbing. I woke up several times, distressed and crying for my mum. Thankfully my big sister was there to cuddle and comfort me to help me through the night.

Sheepfold, St Ives 1930s
Market day, with the Free Church in the background.
CHAPTER 5 - Our lowest point
The sound of a clanging bell the next morning roused us and we descended from the attic to start yet another day. The lady greeted us and, this being a Sunday without the need to open her shop, she had left it much later before waking us. Possibly she would have again been impressed by the speed we had dressed, although having slept in our day clothes for two nights they were surely looking somewhat creased and not too fresh.

We were told to go to the scullery and wash. The bucket of cold water at this visit was less full and my sister was able to pour some water into the sink. For the first time since leaving home almost three days ago we had our first wash, although confined to hands and face. We were each allowed to toast some bread in front of an open fire and spread this with the choice of marmalade or jam. I chose jam. This was followed with a mug of strong unsweetened tea.

Although it was never suggested that we should now leave and stay away for the whole day, we did get the impression that we might be in the way of her daily chores. With nothing to occupy us, the prospect of remaining just to stare at the four walls all day didn't appeal. Of course there was no television, and no sign of a radio in the house.

At around ten o'clock we decided to leave the shop, remembering to take our gas masks with us, and headed off into town. The lady did not suggest a time for us to return or provided any details of meal times. She gave each of us a pear to eat.

Our immediate thoughts were that we should start the day by visiting the Free Church and return to our seats where we had spent so many hours the previous afternoon.  We had enjoyed the feeling of peace and calm away from the hectic events of previous days.

As we approached the church we were surprised to find so many people heading in that direction and entering the church. We remembered this was a Sunday and people would be visiting the church for Sunday worship. We were able to recognise some of our school friends who had been evacuated with us, accompanying their new guardians. They all appeared to be quite happy.

On entering the church we immediately made our way to our chosen seats, only to find them already occupied. This truly upset us and I cold not help but cry. These were our special seats, our secret den, our hideaway where we could escape all our troubles. This had now been taken away from us.

It might appear to some people that this was a trivial matter and by crying over it I had somewhat over reacted, particularly as the seats would soon become vacant again. Now looking back at the situation, perhaps I had over reacted, but by this time we had already lost so much. The comfort of having a mum and dad, our home, our previous happy way of life, everything we had previously enjoyed. Now our special seat in the church had been taken from us.

I don't want to dwell too long on how the affect of losing our seats in the church had on us. It is so difficult to find the words to convey to the reader how the fanciful minds of young children full of pretence and adventure would work so to create in their mind a special secret place of their own. It had been so upsetting for us to find that someone had discovered our own secret place and taken it from us.when we had already lost so much.

Finding other seats, we remained throughout the service. But hearing people singing joyous songs and seeing how happy everyone seemed to be only served to upset us further. It seemed so wrong that others should be so happy when we were so unhappy. I believe that for the three of us we had now reached the point when it was all beginning to be too much.

With the service finished we followed the congregation out of the church, having no opportunity to speak to any of our fellow evacuees. That was was sad, as we would have enjoyed talking with them about their particular circumstances. We would never again return to that church for many years.

At this time we had possibly reached our lowest point and just didn't know what to do. With nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to talk to, we just wandered aimlessly around the town. Later we found ourselves sitting on a wall on the Quay. We were deeply unhappy and all crying. We decided we could not go on any longer and determined to run away and go home to our mum.

Victoria Jubilee Monument, St Ives
Victoria Jubilee Monument, with the Peek's house behind.
CHAPTER 6 - Redemption
At this point a lady was cycling past and, seeing our obvious distress, stopped to talk to us. She was well aware that we were evacuees. This lady was quite tall and elegant and possibly in her thirties. She had her hair set in a large bun.

We told her of our troubles, where we were living and how unhappy we were, and that we were planning to run away. She told us to follow her and pushing her bicycle she took us to her house in The Broadway. Our life was to about change

The lady identified herself to us as Dora Peek. We arrived at the house which was situated over a shop close to the Queen Victoria memorial where we had previous quenched our thirst from the fountain. The house was accessed via two large wooden doors which lead into a passageway. We were taken into the house and into a large very posh hallway where we were asked to wait whilst Miss Peek spoke to her parents.

After a short wait we were taken into another large room where we were introduced to her parents. The gentleman, who we assumed to be her father, greeted us with the words ' Our daughter tells us that you are coming to live with us'. This came as a complete surprise, for up to this time we had no idea that this was being planned by Miss Peek.

We were taken upstairs to very large bedroom where there was an equally large double bed, a wardrobe and two large comfortable chairs. We were told that this was to be our bedroom and we would have to share the bed. It was so large this would not cause a problem. On discovering that we had had nothing to eat for some time Miss Peek arranged for a maid or housekeeper to prepare a meal for us.

She also arranged for someone to collect our belongings from the lady at the shop. Possibly this lady was relieved for us to be leaving her, as we were to move to our new home.

Miss Peek brought to the bedroom a table, another large chair, some books and jigsaw puzzles. After spending some time looking through the books and starting a puzzle we were called down to another room where there was a very large table surrounded by numerous chairs. Seated, meals were served to us. We were each given a piece of cloth called a table napkin which we were told to place under our chins so to avoid soiling our clothes from spilt food. As we had been wearing and sleeping in these same clothes for the past three days a bit of spilt food would hardly have caused any problems.

I cannot remember what meal we had or the desert that followed, but it was very nice. Following the meal we were taken upstairs to a bathroom where there was a large white bath and lots of towels. The housekeeper brought warm water and filled the bath ready for our use. My sister decided to pull rank as being the eldest took the first bath. My brother and I, using the same water, shared the next bath. This was the first full wash we had since leaving home three days ago.

Now fresh and sparkling clean, for the first time we changed into our night clothes. We then returned to our bedroom and after reading a few books went to our most comfortable bed, and far more contented with our life soon fell asleep.

We were wakened not by the sound of a bell, but by the housekeeper, who told us to dress and come down for our breakfast. This day would find three very happy children exploring their new home and surroundings.

Aerial view of St Ives, largely unchanged after WW2.
CHAPTER 7 - Miss Gore's predicament
Before I continue with my story, it would be unfair for me to walk away from our greengrocer, identified throughout as 'the lady', a somewhat impersonal title, without finally closing the chapter and turning the page. Many of you, having read my story of the brief time we were living with her, may have concluded that she had been cruel and uncaring towards us. I remind you that as war approached leading up to the evacuation, the Government had required all local billeting officers in towns and villages where children would be sent to make a list of all houses which were suitable to home a child, such as having a spare bedroom and adequate bedding and facilities. Clearly this had not been done in this case.

Here we have a somewhat elderly lady, a spinster, living on her own, trying to make a living by single handedly running a greengrocer shop. She would obviously have no experience of looking after a child, let alone three. She had just two bedrooms, one for her own use the other being used as a store room. Living on her own she would have no need for a second bed or the need for much spare bedding.

Late one afternoon, just as she was about to close her shop for the day, she was suddenly confronted without prior warning by a billeting officer and we three young children evacuees. Despite her pleas that she had nowhere to put us the billeting officer, on threat of prosecution, simply deposited us there and walked away.

Living on her own, she most likely only had sufficient food in the house for her own daily requirements. At this time no one would have a refrigerator or freezer. With no way to preserve food, people only purchased sufficient food for a day or two. No late opening of shops in those days, all closing strictly at 6pm. Following our arrival, there was no opportunity to pop out to a shop to purchase food. She was therefore forced to provide us with all the food she had, that of an apple from her shop.

She was now faced with the task of providing some sleeping arrangements for us. Without a spare room she had no option but to use the only available space in her attic. Lacking any spare bedding she was forced to use the only thing she had, namely straw from her store room to provide a makeshift mattress and some curtains to use as blankets.

With a shop to run unaided, she would not have the time or facilities to occupy three young easily bored children and really had little choice other than to send us out for the day. Her cooking abilities were perhaps somewhat questionable, although she shared with us what little meat she had. I will not defend her lumpy gravy.

In retrospect I believe that this poor lady, clearly out of her depth struggling to cope with the situation, was unfairly treated by the authorities in forcing her to accept three young children when she clearly had neither the capacity nor experience to do so. If we are going to point the finger of blame this should be directed towards the dismissive billeting officer, who chose to abandon us and walk away.

The lady, who I can now reveal to be Miss Gore, faced with such a formidable task should, in my opinion, not in any way be condemned for her actions. Others might feel differently. Over the following months and years we would often pop into her shop for a chat. We fully accept that this lady did her best for us in very difficult circumstances.

Hemingford Meadow, St Ives
St Ives from Hemingford Meadow.
CHAPTER 8 - Enjoying St Ives
We were wakened by the lady housekeeper and told to go to the bathroom for a wash using the hot water she had bought for our use. On returning to our bedroom to dress we found that whilst we slept someone had taken our somewhat crumpled day clothes and ironed them for us. We dressed and went down for our breakfast, which was some porridge a boiled egg with toasted fingers, orange juice or tea. We had remembered to protect our now smartened clothing by using the napkin.

After breakfast we returned to the bedroom where we spent some time reading our books. Apparently Miss Peek held a quite senior position at the town's paper mill and she and her father, a successful business man owning several houses in the town, had already left the house for work. Seeking permission from the housekeeper, although I am not sure that I accurately describe her actual status in the household, perhaps maid or servant, we were allowed to leave the house and explore outside.

In the passageway, which we discovered lead down to the river, there was a large dog kennel with run where Miss Peek kept her two large collie type dogs named Betty and Bunty. Making our way through the garden we reached the river, where we found a boat which we later found to be a punt, and a very lovely wooden houseboat. The housekeeper had told us that usually when returning home from work, Miss Peek would take her two dogs in the punt across the river to the meadow to exercise them. Perhaps she might take us with her? An exciting thought.

After spending some time at the river watching the passing boats and enjoying the antics of the many swans, we returned to the house to be told that Miss Peek had left us sixpence each to spend. This would be the first money we had since leaving home. Now off into town, with the money burning a hole in our pockets, we looked at ways to spend it.

I spent three pence on my money in Robb's toy shop at The Cross, buying some crayons and colouring book. My brother and sister chose to buy some chocolate, my sister also buying a postage stamp to write home. We had spent some, but not all, of our money, keeping a few pence back for another day.

As instructed by the housekeeper, we returned to the house, where we had some soup and bread roll for our lunch. Then back to our bedroom reading books and colouring in my book.

Sometime later Miss Peek came to our room and we were able to thank her for the money. She invited us to join her in taking the dogs to the meadow. Together with Betty and Bunty we climbed into the punt and were taken across to the meadow. None of us had ever been on a boat before.

After spending some time playing with the two dogs it was now time to return. We enjoyed another lovely meal before returning to our room. A bit more reading, a quick wash and so to bed. This had been a truly wonderful day for us.

WW2 child evacuees wearing gas masks
WW2 child evacuees preparing for a gas attack.
CHAPTER 9 - Time for school
Behind the scenes the local education authorities together with our teachers, who had been evacuated with us, had been busy in arranging some schooling for us. We were now about to start our new school life in St. Ives.

We were waken not by the housekeeper, but by the loud sound of the mill hooter coming from Enderby's paper mill at 8am each morning to herald the start of a new working day. The sound would echo around the town, the timing so precise that people could safely set their clocks by it. It would sound again at 5.30pm at the end of each working day.

The start of another day, Tuesday being our fourth full day as evacuees in St. Ives. We were told we should assemble at a former school or meeting room in Ramsey Road, opposite the Dun Horse public house, at 10am that morning. With breakfast over we collected our gas masks, tidied ourselves and headed off through the town to the meeting point.

On the way we met up for the first time since arriving in the town with several of our fellow London school friends and were able to talk with them about our various experiences since arriving in the town. All seemed to have been billeted with kind and caring local families. Not one had anything unkind to say about their hosts. When telling of our own experiences, of the straw bed in the loft, curtains as bedding, the somewhat questionable gravy custard mix meal, although forgetting to mention the lumpy gravy, our story was met with laughter rather than horror.

Having arrived at our destination, we met up with two of our teachers who had been evacuated with us, our headmaster Mr Smith and teacher Mr Stanley. We were taken into a large room with bare wooden floor boards, completely empty save for a large blackboard and easel. We were told that this would be our temporary school until such time as our own school equipment was brought down from London.

Without even a chair to sit on, desks, books or any writing material, lessons commenced. We had to squat down on the bare wooden floor throughout. Because of the very poor conditions our school working day was restricted few hours each day. 

During the day we would often suddenly receive a mock warning of an imminent gas attack. We had to immediately don our gas masks and keep them on for perhaps an hour or more throughout lessons or playtime, only to remove them on receiving the 'all clear'. Wearing these rubber masks was not only very uncomfortable. They smelt horrible, the plastic eye piece often misting up making it difficult to see. The Government genuinely believing the Germans would launch a gas attack against us had instructed all schools and places of work to conduct regular gas attack warnings so to prepare for the real thing. It was later revealed that the gas mask filters contained asbestos.

Free Church Passage, St Ives
The school building and playground in Free Church Passage.
CHAPTER 10 - 'New' school premises
After a couple of weeks, with the arrival of our school equipment from London, we were moved to our new school in Free Church Passage, premises now occupied by St. Ives Beds. Our new school consisted of just one large room fully fitted out with desks and chairs.

Our 'playground' was restricted to the short section of the passage immediately adjacent to the school building, a short length of Chapel Lane up to but not beyond the rear of The Golden Lion Hotel. Not allowed to enter Bull Lane or Clare Court, which lead down to the Quay, we were told to keep as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the residents. With young children in play, that would sometimes prove a bit difficult. Anyone who is familiar with this part of the town will know just how small and restricted our play area was.

At this time school discipline was very strict and a cane was brought into frequent use as punishment for misbehaviour. Shortly after our arrival at our new school two of my classmates, neither above eight years of age, during playtime had wandered off down to the Quay, which was out of bounds. Our headmaster discovered this and brought them before the class to be punished by caning.

You might think that with all the upset these two young boys had experienced through their evacuation, the headmaster would have been more tolerant, but not so. With hands out stretched, both boys received a blow from the cane, one on each hand.

Apart from the two boys suffering the punishment, none of us were disturbed by witnessing the caning. This was the norm and we all fully accepted if caught misbehaving you would receive the cane. The best thing to do was not to get caught! As I soon discovered, receiving a caning was extremely painful. Your hand would sting for some time, the marks on your hands remaining for several days. You always tried hard not to cry in front of your school mates. I certainly received my share of the cane.

Over the following weeks we continued our schooling and living with the Peek family, free to come and go as we wished and frequently enjoying a trip across the river to the meadow with the dogs. We occasionally had an outing on Mr Peek's beautiful house boat, chugging up and down the river. We were even allowed to take the steering, or perhaps more correctly in nautical terms 'the helm', always closely supervised to prevent us running ashore. Much of our free time was spent with our friends playing on the swings and slides in the 'Rec'. It was a very exiting period.

Telephone exchange
Telephone exchange in 1940.
CHAPTER 11 - A telephone call from mum
Miss Peek owned a large orchard situated in Pig Lane, close to where the police station stands today. In the orchard were a variety of fruit trees and fruit bushes. There was also a full sized grass tennis court with net where we would often enjoy a bit of a knock-about. Living in central London there were very few trees, certainly not a tree bearing fruit. Discovering such trees in the orchard was something completely new for me. If someone had asked me where apples or pears came from I would most likely innocently have said a shop!

In the orchard there was a very large garden roller and equally large heavy hand propelled grass mower. My brother and I thought we would use these to trim and roll the grass, but they proved far too heavy for us, best left to the gardener whose task it was to maintain the grass court. We would often help in gathering fruit from the trees and bushes and were allowed to eat as much as we wished. My favourite fruit was a Victoria plum. For some reason, perhaps because of some earlier experience, I was unable to eat an apple. Many happy hours were spent in the orchard and I personally learnt a great deal about the wonders of nature.

We discovered that the Peeks had a home telephone which at the time very few, other than quite well-off people, would have. We were told that if we provided the telephone number to our parents they could visit a public phone box to call us. At this time, long before the introduction of direct dialling codes, all calls were directed through a switchboard operator. For some reason, every time I think back to that time, the telephone number St Ives 3171 comes to mind.

None of us had previously seen a home telephone, let alone used one. On the first occasion mum rang us and I was handed the telephone, the sound of mum's voice coming magically into my ear confused and upset me. I was unable to compose myself sufficient to talk to her. This later improved and I was able to talk with her, which was wonderful, for up to now our only communication had been by letter.

During the first six months of the war, which became known as 'the phoney war', there was almost no fighting and no bombs were dropped. Many people decided war was never going to happen. They stopped carrying their gas masks and many parents decided to bring their children home. We would shortly be leaving St. Ives and return to our home in London, destined later to return together with mum, dad and little sister.


1940 London Blitz
The London Blitz, 1940.
CHAPTER 12 - We return home to London
During the first six months of the war, which became known as 'the phoney war', there was almost no fighting and no bombs were dropped. Many people decided war was never going to happen. They stopped carrying their gas masks and by Christmas 1939 almost 60% of evacuees had returned home.

A few days before Christmas we said a sad goodbye to the Peek family, an equally sad farewell to St Ives, and returned to our home in London. My father was the steward of the Highbury and Finsbury Park Conservative Club situated in Finsbury Park, north London and we lived in a flat above the club premises. We were happy to be back with mum, dad and little sister.

The blackout was vigorously enforced, the sky full of barrage balloons. There was rationing and frequent mock gas attack alerts, but our lives soon returned to near normal.

At this point I embark on a bit of war history for which I make no apology. This is an important part of my story and describes just what happened in those harrowing days. All was going well until July 1940 when Hitler began preparation for the sea-born invasion of Britain. German bombers attacked our airfields, docks and radar installations.

The Blitz started on 7 September 1940 when the German airforce launched a massive raid on London. Over 350 bombers dropped 300 tonnes of bombs, which claimed the lives of 2,000 people on the first day. The raids continued relentlessly for 57 consecutive nights. A total of 32,000 civilians were killed and 87,000 people injured. Two million houses were destroyed or seriously damaged. During the raids many people sought shelter in the underground railway stations, others in Anderson shelters in their gardens.

Where we lived, we were too far away from an underground station. Without a garden, we did not have the benefit of an Anderson shelter. We had no alternative but to take cover huddled together under a large table where we spent every night. The sound of the air raid siren alert would rise and fall, warning of another imminent bombing raid. This was followed by the sound of approaching bombers and our anti aircraft guns. The sound of exploding bombs was extremely frightening, particularly for young children.

In October 1940 the large detached house next to us received a direct hit and was completely destroyed. The family sheltering in their Anderson shelter, well away from the house, were unhurt. Many of our windows were blown out. An incendiary bomb, designed to cause fires, landed on our roof and luckily self extinguished and caused little damage.

Cromwell's Barn and Green End
Cromwell's barn and Green End.
CHAPTER 13 - Back to St Ives
It was getting so dangerous to continue living in London that mum and dad made the decision to leave London and return to St Ives. We arrived back sometime in late October 1940, having been away for about ten months. Eight years old and safe from the bombing, I was about to start my new life in St Ives. We would never to return to London.

Although we didn't know at the time, following the decision of our mum and dad to escape from London dad had contacted Mr Peek to ask if he knew of any rental property currently available in St Ives. None of Mr Peek's own houses were available, but he told dad that should any become vacant we would have first refusal. He arranged for us to rent a large room in a farmhouse called Green End Farm. Within a week we were packed and on our way.

It was only when we arrived at St Ives by train and we walked out of the station and into the town that I had the feeling of being safe.  Green End Farm was situated on the Ramsey Road close to the junction with Houghton Road. Set well back from the road and approached by a long narrow path, it was owned my Mr and Mrs Purser, whose son owned the nearby garage.

We only had one room on the first floor, but it was very large and had sufficient space for three double beds, a wardrobe, table and chairs. I have no idea where the three beds came from. Mum and dad had one bed, I shared with my brother, and my sisters also shared a bed. It did not have any electrical or gas power, the only means of lighting was by a table paraffin oil lamp. In the room there was an open coal fire and no cooking facilities.

Somehow our mum used the open fire to cook our meals and used water warmed by the fire to wash us. How she managed to do this together with dressing us is difficult to understand. Water was drawn from a pump in the yard. The only toilet was in an outhouse at the back of the house. It was fitted with a wooden bench with a hole cut in it, beneath this an open cesspit. Newspaper cut into squares and hung from from a piece of string provided our needs. There was no lighting and none of us kids would visit the toilet in the dark unless accompanied.

Although its name suggests that this was a farm, the only livestock were a few chickens. Next door was another house which had the name Green End. This was owned by the Kimpton family. They did run a farm with many cows and horses, together with a milking shed and fields where the animals could graze. I never could quite understand this, for here we have Green End Farm which was not a farm, whereas next door a real farm was simply called Green End!

We visited our neighbour, Mr Kimpton, and would help muck out the cow shed, feed the animals and watch the cows being hand milked. I had a go, but as much as I squeezed and tugged I just couldn't produce any results. The milk would be collected into buckets and then passed through a cloth filter into a churn where it would later be collected by the local milkman, who would then take the raw milk and with his horse and cart deliver it around the town.

The milk would be poured into a measuring jug and served to the customer using their own container. I was always quite amazed that the horse seemed to know the round as well as the milkman himself, for it would follow him unlead house to house. Even when the milkman vanished from the horse's view behind a long row of houses, when he emerged at the other end sure enough the horse would be there waiting for him. On one occasion Mr Kimpton asked my brother and I if we would take one of his large shire horses to the local blacksmith to have it shod. We agreed, but were concerned that the horse might suddenly decide to take off with no way for us to prevent it. We also had the idea that one of us would ride the horse to the blacksmiths, the other to ride it back. But it soon became apparent that there was no way we could mount such a large horse. Even if we managed to do so, if we fell off it was a very long way down.

The blacksmiths was situated in East Street, via a passage to the rear of Tomhams shop. Watching the blacksmith fit the new red hot shoe, the smoke and smell concerned us. We felt the horse would suffer, but it seemed not. He stood quite happily throughout. We returned the horse to Mr Kimpton with a feeling of 'well done you two'.

Behind Green End Farm and within the grounds there was a very large barn. We later discovered that the farm had a connection with Oliver Cromwell. The building would certainly have been there in the year 1630 when he was said to have lived in St Ives. Records show that Oliver Cromwell lived at Wood Farm, Green End, but there is no record of a Wood Farm. Green End Farm did exist then, so was that the farm rented by Cromwell?

Within the grounds of the farm stood a barn known locally as Cromwell's barn. Legend has it that Cromwell drilled his soldiers there. It was a very exciting thought that perhaps Oliver Cromwell once lived at the farm and may have actually slept in our room. The room had dark wood wall panelling and I often wondered if there was a secret panel. I would often go round tapping each panel trying to locate one, but sadly never did. Despite the very basic living conditions at Green End Farm I thoroughly enjoyed my time living there.

Around this time dad received a letter from our Uncle Ernest, who was living with Aunt May in Southampton. On hearing that we had escaped the London bombing he asked if there was anywhere in St Ives where he and Aunt could move to. Southampton was being heavily bombed by the Germans and Uncle felt it was no longer safe to live there.

Mr Purser had another large room at the farm which at the time was not being used. He agreed that my Aunt and Uncle could rent it. A short time later they moved to the farm, where they remained for the duration of the war.

WH Smiths newspaper delivery boys
W H Smiths newspaper delivery boys with caps.
CHAPTER 14 - New accommodation in Peek's Yard
We received some good news from Mr Peek. He had one of his houses for us. The house was 3 Peeks Yard, situated off Merryland. Leaving Green End Farm and our Aunt May and Uncle Ernest, we moved to our new home. The accommodation was in one of four terraced houses reached by via archway, a three-bedroom house with kitchen and small lounge.

There was no electrical supply or running water. The latter was drawn from a pump in the yard to serve the needs of the four residents. There was a mains gas supply, but this only provided lighting in the kitchen and lounge from a small wall mounted gas mantle. In the kitchen there was a coal fired cooking range with oven. After cooked on an open fire at the farm, for Mum this was pure luxury.

The toilet was situated in a small barn across the yard, which also served as a coal store. Although the toilet could be flushed, you had to collect water in bucket from the pump and pour this into the bowl. We did not have toilet paper. Newspaper cut into small squares and threaded on a piece of string hung within reach. The ink from the print would often leave a lasting impression on you.

Raw sewage was discharged directly into the river. The majority of houses bordering the river would similarly discharge their toilet waste into the river, something perhaps to think about when using the town's outside swimming pool, where the river was simply diverted through the pool. A length of chicken wire had been placed across the river entry to prevent some less than desirable items from entering. However, small fishes might occasionally get through the netting into the pool. You had to be careful not to swallow one.

Immediately next door to the archway into Peek's Yard was Mr Smith’s gents hairdressers, next to him the Co-op food shop. It always fascinated me to watch money collected from a customer sent to the cashier, who occupied a small cubicle. An overhead spring loaded cup, accompanied by the ting of a bell, was used, with any change returned by the same method.

Number one Peek's Yard was occupied by Miss Peek, not the same good woman who had earlier rescued us, but her Aunt. There were no even numbers. Number five was empty and in poor condition, occupied by Mrs Ding and her son Richard. The passageway from the houses lead down to the river where my brother and I would later spend many hours fishing

Now 1944, and having attained the age of twelve, I was able to find a job to earn a bit of pocket money. My older brother and sister had already started paper rounds. My brother was also a delivery boy for Anderson the butcher in Bridge Street. I found a job as a delivery boy at Barton’s the chemist in Bridge Street. After school day and each Saturday morning my job was to deliver various medicines and paraffin by cycle around the town. I would also keep the shop clean and tidy and each day polish the long brass display board bearing the shop name attached just below the shop window. The Norris museum has this very board on display there. 

The shop was owned by Mr Barton senior, who lived above the shop. His son Michael was employed there together with two pharmacists, Mr Armitage and Mr Clayton. They would mix the various liquid medicines from a variety of bottled potions. One of Mr Armitage’s party tricks was to partly insert a cork into a bottle full of some medicine and somehow flick the bottle into the air with it falling to the floor always cork first, fully securing the cork into the bottle neck. I watched him perform this trick many time and he never failed.

In order to supplement my income of seven shillings a week and before school each morning I started a paper round with W H Smiths. They had a kiosk on the down platform at St Ives railway station. Although there were several newsagents in the town employing delivery boys and girls, W H Smiths were the only ones to provide a cap with their name on it for their boys and girls to wear. To be honest, it was the thought of having this rather smart cap to wear which attracted me to them. This I would proudly wear as I performed my deliveries, possibly at the envy of the other paperboys in town.

My Dad continued working at Wyton airdrome; my mother had started work at the egg packers in Needingworth Road. My sister Brenda, sixteen years of age, was working at the laundry in Wellington Street owned by Mrs Winnie Briers, the sister of our Miss Peek.
Boys' school, 1940.
CHAPTER 15 - Back to school
It was now time for me to start school. As many of the original evacuees had also returned to London, the school in Free Church Passage was no longer required. The few remaining evacuees were transferred to local schools. Boys were sent to the school in North Road, girls to a school in Cemetery Road. My brother and I met up with some of our old evacuee friends at the North Road school.

We had been a bit worried about going to what was the local boys school. Although there had never been any trouble or any unpleasantness between the evacuees and the local boys, we never really mixed with one another. There was always a feeling of them and us. We were referred to as 'one of those Londoners, those who spoke with a funny cockney accent'. But there were no problems and we soon all became friends.

The headmaster was Mr Samuel Frith.  He was always referred to by the boys as 'Sammy', though we were all careful to ensure it was not within his hearing. His wife Olive was also a teacher at the school.

My school life at North Road boys school was relatively uneventful. Our headmaster was always very keen to use the cane for even trivial breaches of school discipline. He had two bamboo canes and a large plimsol to dispense 'justice'. I remember on one occasion he left the classroom to go around the back of the school, climb onto a pile of coke and peer into our classroom. When a teacher left a classroom the class often erupted in disorder. Rubbers and other items were thrown, chairs or desks were climbed on and we generally had fun. We would always be aware of the imminent return of the teacher by the turn of the door handle.

Suddenly someone spied Mr Frith's face looking through the window and quickly raised the alarm. We couldn't help all looking at him. We froze with horror as his expression clearly conveyed to us that we were in big trouble. On his return to the classroom our worse fears were quickly realised. With too many of us to individually cane out came the plimsol. We were told to line up along the front row of desks and bend over. He walked up and down several times applying the plimsol with considerable force to our backsides. Those queueing up waiting their turn swopped places and off he went again. We had all received another painful reminder not to misbehave.

Mr Frith's wife was also a teacher at the school and had her own form of punishment. Not for her the cane or plimsol. She would make the culprit place his hand palm down on a desk top. Taking a heavy flexible ruler, she held one end down on the desk top, raise the other end as high as possible and released it like a coiled spring, bringing it down with considerable force on the knuckles. Having had a taste of all forms of this punishment, given the choice I would opt for the plimsol. At least you had some clothing as protection.

The Government conducted a campaign to encourage people to save and spend and to dig for victory. To this end the school had an allotment where we would frequently attend. This was situated in North Road, at the junction with Ramsey Road. We had a whole variety of vegetables to look after and gather the crops. There was a well from which we drew water for the plants. This was not of the type where a bucket was lowered. You walked down several steps to the water level. I have no idea what happened to the gathered crops. During school time we were sometimes taken to surrounding fields to gather hips and haws from the hedgerows, as part of the war effort, for making into rose hip syrup used as a supplement food for babies. We would also visit local farms to help the farmer pick potatoes. I can't remember ever being paid for this.

Our dad was 43 years old and exempt from conscription. The age range was 18 to 40, although the upper age was raised to 51 at the end of 1941 after an extensive loss of life at the various battlefronts. Dad was still required to engage in some form of war defence. He worked at Wyton airfield, maintaining and extending the runways ready to receive heavy RAF bombers. He was also required to carry out some form of wartime voluntary work with one of the defence services. He chose to join the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS).

Although very many items had been subject to rationing since January 1940, sweets and chocolates surprisingly remained unrationed until as late as July 1942. The monthly allowance for everyone over the age of five was 8 ounces (227 grams), which represented about a couple of sweets each day, but only if you could find them. They were in short supply and deliveries were eagerly awaited.

When the Cadbury delivery van arrived in town word soon spread. Before the poor chap had time to make his delivery long queues of eager children, with their ration books and a few pence to spend in hand, would hope to get some of the sweets before stock ran out. Adults had the same allowance and would give their share to their children. During this period the Americans would occasionally send chocolate powder to schools and children would bring their own container for the teachers to share it out.

Newspapers
1940s newspapers..
CHAPTER 16 - Earning pocket money
In spite of my paper round for W H Smith and an after school and Saturday morning job at Barton’s Chemists, and my brother's morning paper round and working at Andersons butchers, we decided to boost our income even further by also doing a Sunday paper round. Because Sunday newspapers mostly carried large supplements they were quite heavy, so we decided to construct some means of conveyance. An old wooden box fitted with some pram wheels gave us the means to transport newspapers rather than carry them.

Householders would call at their newsagents shop to pay for weekday and Saturday newspapers. Working from a shed in East Street, the sole distributor for Sunday papers expected payment at the time of delivery. So, rather than being disturbed early on a Sunday morning, customers would leave money on their doorsteps for collection. Although only a few coppers, as far as I know none of the money ever went missing.

On our first day disaster struck half way through the round. A wheel came off our wagon. Unable to fix it and not being a member of the AA or RAC, we had to abandon our wagon and carry the newspapers for the rest of the round. It was later recovered and repaired.

After finishing the round we would take the money collected to the distributor. After counting he gave us a very small percentage for our efforts. Wearing my W H  Smith cap at the required jaunty angle, I would deliver a weekday morning newspaper a house in Needingworth Road owned by George Harrendine, of the local butcher family. I occasionally meet at the gate a young girl of around eight years of age who would take the newspaper from me. Although not related to the Harrendines, she would spend time with them during her school holidays. Little could either of us know ten years later that same little girl would become my wife. We remain very happily married after sixty three years of marriage, with two daughters, eleven grandchildren, fourteen great grandchildren and counting.
Les, aged 14yrs
Les, aged 14yrs, in his telegram boy's uniform.
CHAPTER 17 - Full time employment
At the age of eleven I passed my eleven plus exam and was awarded a scholarship to a grammar school. Spaces at Huntingdon and Ramsey grammar schools were allocated to local children first. Evacuees were given spaces at the nearest available grammar school. I was allocated to Northampton grammar school, but this would mean me living away from home. Having so recently been taken away from mum and dad when evacuated, I had no desire to do it again. With Northampton being quite a large town there was also the possibility that it could be subjected to enemy bombing. My parents therefore reluctantly decided that I should forgo a grammar school education and in 1946, at the age of 14, I left the school in North Road and commenced employment.

I still have my old school report, albeit a bit faded, signed by Mr Frith in summer 1946. It shows my position in class to be fourth out of twenty five. I received twenty four marks out of thirty for composition. In the remarks section he writes 'Leslie has done well. He has much ability, and can be trusted to do a job quite well. He should succeed in his new position'.

My first job was as a telegram boy at St Ives post office, then situated at the Cross next door to Robb's shop. My wage was twenty-five shillings a week. The job was to deliver telegrams in the town and surrounding villages by bicycle. Not only did I get a post office hat, but the whole uniform. The photo above is of me posing in Peek's Yard, aged fourteen, in my telegram boy uniform on the official post office bike. Complete with long trousers and the required jaunty position of my hat, I look cool and trendy (or perhaps not!)

Sending telegrams was very much the 'in' thing and represented an almost instant way to convey messages. There was a special telegram, called a greetings telegram, which displayed some form of printed greeting relative to the event, be it birthday, anniversary or wedding. The message from the sender was then included. The telegram was placed in a sealed yellow envelope and conveyed in a leather pouch attached to a belt fastened around our waist.

We telegram boys hated wedding telegrams. They would be sent at varying times of the wedding day and had to be delivered immediately so they could later be read out at the reception by the best man. One telegram might be received early in the day for delivery to Woodhurst or one of the Hemingfords, and having cycled all the way there and back to, on returning to the post office there was another for the same address. So off you would go again. This could happen several times during the day.

Much of my free time was taken with fishing, messing about on the swings and slides in the Rec., playing football or cricket and generally hanging around town with my mates. One evening a week I attended the youth club in the Constitutional Hall in the Broadway. Most Saturdays we would attend the afternoon matinee at the Regal Cinema, costing three pence.

We would meet up to spend time chatting without buying very much in the Welcome Café in the Broadway, or the Townsend café in Crown Street. In the latter Mr Townsend would allow us to buy our drinks or other items ‘on tick’ when we were bit short of money. The amount owed would be written against your name in chalk on a blackboard behind the counter, displayed for all to see. Most of us took advantage of this at some time or another and there was no embarrassment in seeing your name and sum owed on open display. We would settle at our next payday.

At the age of fourteen boys would traditionally change from wearing short trousers to long trousers. This was the time you were no longer a child but a grown up. We all looked forward to this, wearing our new long trousers with considerable pride, announcing to all that we were now grown up men.

Clothing rationing was still in force. A pair of long trousers required eight points. Unfortunately by the time I was ready for the changeover we had insufficient points. Much to my disappointment, my change from boy to man had to be delayed for several months.

Dad finished working at Wyton Airdrome and started at St. Ives railway station as a platelayer in a gang of men responsible for maintaining the rail line. My brother, aged sixteen, started work as a porter at the railway station. Once he was sent to the shunting coal yard and told to help with the coupling of the shunted coal wagons. Unfortunately, having no experience with this type of work, his first attempt to apply the coupling resulted in his left hand being caught between the buffers. His fingers were crushed and two had to be amputated. The person sending him to the yard denied doing so, saying my brother should not have been there. Long before the current culture of seeking compensation for such injuries, no claim was ever made.

WW2 ration books
WW2 ration books.
CHAPTER 18 - We move house
In 1946, with the war now thankfully behind us and still living at 3 Peeks Yard, we were on the council housing list. We were waiting our turn to move to one of the council houses being built on a new estate off Ramsey Road, to be called Green Leys. A list of the names waiting for housing was displayed outside the Town Hall in a glass fronted display cabinet. When passing I would check the list, watching our name slowly climbed up the list as the names of those allocated a house would be deleted. I would then convey our current position to my parents.

My big sister Brenda, at the age of 17, had met and fallen in love with David Rigby, a young airman stationed at RAF Wyton. After a near two-year courtship they were married at the Free Church in 1944 when she was 19 years of age. The reception was held in our front room in Peeks Yard. This was the first time any of us had entered the Free Church since the occasion many years earlier when someone had occupied our special seats and upset us so.

Clothing was still rationed, so there was a problem collecting enough coupons from various family members to buy the wedding dress and dresses and accessories for the four bridesmaids. Food was also rationed, so catering presented a bit of a problem. Fortunately attendance must have been quite low in numbers, the reception being held in our small front room. Clothes rationing ended on 15 March 1949, food rationing continued until 4 July 1954.

Brenda continued living with us in Peeks Yard. Her husband had to live on the base at RAF Wyton. She moved with him to his hometown of Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset following his demob. in 1945. She lives there to this day, aged 93 years. Sadly, in 1994 after 50 years of marriage, her husband David passed away.

After living in Peeks Yard for the best part of seven years, in November 1949 we finally reached the top of the waiting list and were allocated a newly built council house, 55 Green Leys. It was pure luxury, particularly for our mum, to move from Peeks Yard with its very basic provisions to this new council house. It had an outside flush toilet, fully fitted bathroom with another toilet, electric and gas supply, a large kitchen with gas cooker, and a very large garden. Our new neighbour at number 53 was Michael Barton, son of my old boss at Barton’s Chemist in Bridge Street, where I previously worked as a delivery boy.

National Service poster
National Service poster.
CHAPTER 19 - National Service
In 1947 my brother Eric, aged 18 year and still working at St Ives railway station, was conscripted for National Service. That year compulsory National Service had been introduced for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 to 30. Initially 18 months was the period of service. This was increased to 2 years during the Korean War. Despite having two of his fingers missing from his left hand following the accident in the railway-shunting yard, Eric was still considered medically fit. He was conscripted into the Army and spent much of his service in Egypt. Following his discharge in 1949 he returned to work on the railway as a signalman at Abbots Ripton.

I commence my 2 years National Service in 1950 at the age of 18 years, joining the RAF. For several months I was stationed at nearby RAF Oakington. I would often nip home on my bike, taking care not to get caught. For the first 18 months of National Service personnel were paid fourteen shillings each week. For the final 6 months this increased to two pounds five shillings per week, the same as regular personnel. It was suggested this considerable increase in pay was to encourage those about to leave the service to sign on as regulars.

I returned to work for the post office following my discharge from the RAF in 1952, working at Huntingdon. The unsocial hours and long bike ride through the Thicket to and from work each day caused me to leave after just a few months. I started another job at the new Permanex factory in Ramsey Road, where radar equipment was built and assembled. The test station for the radar equipment, a large fitted trailer, was situated on Warboys airdrome. Aircraft doing what was known as circuits and bumps tested the new equipment. Guided in by the radar, the aircraft would briefly touch down, then immediately fly away to perform another circuit before again briefly touching down.

The power supply for the trailer and radar equipment was from a large diesel powered generator, which needed to be kept going day and night. To provide the necessary supervision and diesel top-up two workers from the factory would spend the whole of their working day there, another two would spend the night in a small wooden hut. I did day and night shifts by rota several times.

My brother Eric met and married a local girl. They were married at the Methodist Church on the Waits, where her grandfather was the caretaker. They continue to live in St Ives to this day. Our mum and dad would eventually move from Green Leys to a retirement council bungalow in Crown Close, where they lived happily for many years until their respective deaths.

Each Saturday night most of the young people of the town would attend the regular Saturday night dance at the Corn Exchange. Others might choose to travel by bus to the dance held at The Palace Ballroom in Chatteris, where Lou Hope and his band provided live music for dancing. It was at the Chatteris dance in 1953 when I met Stella Haynes, the girl who would later become my wife. It was only later we discovered it had been Stella who, when an 8 year old girl staying with the Harradine family in Needingworth Road during her school holidays all those years before, had been the same person who had often taken the newspaper from me, the delivery boy. A truly amazing coincidence. We married in her home town of March in 1956 and lived in March with Stella’s parents. Both of us worked locally, I on the railway in the Signal and Telegraph Department. In 1958 I joined Bedfordshire Police and we moved to Bedford, where we remained for the duration of my 30 year police service. We now live in Northamptonshire.

Below is a photograph of my sister Brenda’s wedding in 1944 in front of The Free Church. The best man is on the left, a friend of the groom. The two older bridesmaids are, on the left, Phillis Howes of the local Howes family and a friend of my sister, on the right Gladys Collins, Brenda's friend from London. The small bridesmaid is our little sister Vera, behind her our Dad.

Nothing good could be said for the actions of Adolph Hitler, nor the brutality of the Nazis in World War 2 resulting in the death of millions of innocent people. But neither I nor my family would have been introduced to the beautiful town of St.Ives without his actions. Some good came out of evil. My story has now been told. Thank you for your interest. Les Barker

Les' sister's wedding
The wedding of Brenda, Les' sister, in 1944. On the far right is Les' little sister, Vera. Behind her is Les' father.

No comments:

Post a Comment