Memories of a child evacuated from West Ham, London, to Churchill during World War II
The writer Artin Cornish (left) and Norman Horlock (right) at Lowfield Farm
Edited highlights of accounts of the lives of London children in Churchill during the war, reproduced by courtesy of the BBC "WW2 People's War".
From Upton Park station we were transported by red District Line train across London to what I can only presume was Paddington Station where we disembarked and simply walked across the platform and onto a corridor train which was pulled by a steam engine. The train was the sort with a corridor running down one side with compartments for eight passengers with a toilet at the end of each carriage. We must have had food and drink for such a journey but I do not recall what it was, other than that a girl called June Goss in my compartment couldn’t find her orange. My orange was at the top of my haversack so I gave it to her which was the beginning of a very nice friendship.
Eventually we arrived at Chipping Norton railway station in the Cotswolds. I can remember that we were all lined up against a white wicket fence and that somebody got stung by a wasp. We were then taken out onto a coach, or rather a charabanc. I recall that it must have had open sides. We were taken up the centre of town to the Town Hall where each child was handed a white carrier bag (paper of course as plastic hadn’t been invented at that time) the contents of which included a bag of sugar, a tin of Nestles condensed milk and a large bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate.
From there we were taken about four miles to a village called Churchill which was a typical Cotswold stone village. I cannot remember how many from our school there were but we all sat on benches out around the playground. A trestle table had been set up with a number of grownups around and from there names of children were called. Gradually they went off with other grownups to their own particular village until there were about a dozen of us left and we were then taken in cars to a hamlet called Sarsden which was about a mile away. Once there I recall four of us from one car got out and we were told where we were going to live. Norman Horlock and I went into one house and next door a boy called Peter Tomkins was going to be billeted and we were told then that June Goss who was with us would be going to a house about fifty yards up the road. I recall that when I protested and wanted her to stay with us I was told she would only be a stone’s throw away. I said “I can’t throw a stone that far” which seemed to cause some amusement.
The house where we were going to live was one of a pair of estate workers houses and the man of the house was, I believe, named Pengell who was the butler to Lord Whyfold. He had a housekeeper and she was going to look after us. However the next day her daughter came and took her away as she seemed to be unwell. This meant that for our meals we had to go up to’The Big House’ where we had three meals in the servants’ quarters. Obviously this was not a satisfactory arrangement so later on the third day, which must have been the third of September sometime after I can recall hearing Mr Chamberlain’s famous announcement of war being declared on Germany. We were taken down to Mr and Mrs Roberts at Lowfield Farm which was about another half a mile or so down the road. It seems that Mrs Roberts had said that she would be willing to have two little girl evacuees but none were allocated to her and hearing of our plight she said that she would have us. In fact Mr Roberts, who dispensed milk from churns which hung from the handlebars of his sturdy bicycle, had seen us and related the story to his wife that there was the possibility of Norman and I being sent back to London.
By the time that we arrived at Lowfield Farm I was pretty fed up with grownups not understanding that my name was actually Artin. They did not seem to believe that that could possibly be my name and I felt at nine years old quite insulted because I was suspected of not knowing my own name. So I told Mr and Mrs Roberts that my name was in fact John which, of course, is my second name and so they always called me John and most of the people that I knew in Sarsden called me John. Mr Roberts said that most children had enough uncles and aunts and we were to call them Mr and Mrs Roberts and that’s what I always called them until their death, which was many years later.
Lowfield Farm was not a farmhouse as one tends to imagine. It was, in fact, a pair of semi-detached houses, in one of which we lived and the one next door was mostly used for the storage of apples and as the dairy. There was no electricity or running water as such and the lavatory was down the garden behind the washhouse. When I say there was no running water, we did have the luxury of a pipe running from the stream in the front garden to a tap just outside the back door. The stream was fed from just a few yards away by a pipe coming out from the side of the road connected to a natural spring and was absolutely beautiful water. The occupants of the two pairs of cottages a little further down the road had to come up to this pipe for their own water supply, there being no other water for them to drink, other than what they could gather from rain butts . The only lighting we had was oil lamps and we had to take a candle to go up to bed.
The cooking facilities were a fire range and a couple of rings that were heated by calor gas. The gas rings were rarely used except in the height of summer. The fire was kept going for most of the year in the kitchen where most activities took place, including having a bath in the zinc tub in front of the fire. I can recall on one occasion getting out of the bath, being dried and, after sitting down in an armchair leaping up very quickly saying I had sat on a pin. In fact I had sat on a wasp, so it must have been in September, and suffering the indignity of having a blue bag rubbed on my bottom. Norman and I slept in a big double bed with brass knobs on the ends. The washing facilities were a washstand with a china bowl on top and the bottom shelf held a chamber pot which we were told to call an ‘arrangement’! Outside the bedroom window was an old Blenheim apple tree.
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts were in the mid to late fifties and had three grownup children, two married daughters and an unmarried son, who lived in the house when we first arrived, but moved away shortly afterwards. There was a fairly large garden with a couple of apple trees, a greengage and a damson plum tree. The garden had Sweet Williams and London Pride, lupins, and hollyhocks in the borders and then an area laid to vegetables. I particularly recall there being a plague of cabbage white butterflies and Norman and I going through this patch of cabbages with a watering can of Jeyes Fluid, picking off the cabbage white caterpillars from underneath the cabbages and dropping them into the watering can. For two little London boys this was almost akin to big game hunting. There were a couple of pigsties at the bottom of the garden and about half a dozen or so beehives. Beside the back gate was a large wood stack, a large grass field which contained about four oak trees, and a couple of hen coops.
A path crossed this field and then continued across an arable field to the actual farmyard. During our stay Norman and I were each given a little plot of land, about six foot by three foot, where we grew a couple of rows of broad beans, some shallots and a few other vegetables and salad crops which we proudly showed our parents on their visits to us. Coming from the East End of London as Norman and I did, living in the countryside was a whole new experience for us, quite a change of lifestyle. Just about everything was new and exciting; the wildlife, such as seeing the rabbits and all the different sorts of birds, learning their names and on the farm itself of course, horses and cows and sheep and chickens and even geese. Not long after we arrived it was Michaelmas and on Michaelmas day we had a goose for lunch. Never before had I tasted goose which I thought was absolutely marvellous. In the spring there were goslings and chicks and lambs and calves and it was absolutely wonderful.
In the spring sickly or orphaned lambs were brought into the kitchen only having just been born and to keep them warm they were put in a side oven by the range to help them to survive and then fed from a feeding bottle before being placed in a tea chest with straw in the bottom. As they grew a little stronger we would be allowed to feed them and they used to get quite boisterous and in the end we had a pen out by the side of the garden where they lived as they grew up. On one occasion we had about half a dozen or so lambs there which we used to go out and feed and when they were big and strong enough they would go with the rest of the flock and eat grass.
Then, of course, all through the year and twice a day, the cows would be called into the farmyard to be milked and it amazed me that you opened the farmyard gate and called and they would come up and walk into their own particular stall. There were about half a dozen milking cows and it was just amazing to me that they each seemed to know just where to go. The chain was put round their neck and they munched away at the hay in the manger waiting for Mr Roberts to come round and milk them by hand. I can see him now, sitting on a three legged stool with a pail between his legs and his head up against the flank of the cow milking them. Then, of course, from time to time there would be calves and these would have to be weaned and to encourage them to drink from a bucket you would have to put your fingers in the milk and they would suck your fingers at the same time until they could drink on their own from the bucket.
There was no tractor on the farm but three horses. There was Prince and Sharper that worked as a pair, or team, and a much bigger horse called Bess which was younger than Prince and Sharper. Mr Roberts had just one helper, a man called Arthur who always wore his cap pulled down particularly on one side. The farm was typical of its time, being about 112 acres of mixed arable and dairy farming; different of course from the vast acreages you see in East Anglia which are mostly arable. We helped a little bit from time to time on the farm collecting eggs from the hen coops or searching around the rick yard for nests that the chickens would make to lay a clutch of eggs.Sometimes we would help churn a little bit of butter or pick stalks off gooseberries or go blackberrying, but for the most part as far as I can recall, there was a great deal of play involved which very much depended on the time of year.
We learned from the country boys to string and play conkers, how to make bows and arrows and we would play in the wood stack just outside the back garden and make a fort from the various tree trunks that were out there just ready for us to play with. I remember at one stage we had a pram chassis from somewhere which we were able to take out on the road, there being no traffic to speak of and by dint of leaning a bit on one side or the other we could guide it and roll it down the hill for quite some distance.
A quarter of a mile up the road there were three other houses where half a dozen other boys were billeted behind which there was a spinney and Norman and I used to go up there and play. In the spinney we built a den and used to play games in the woods there. One day we learned there were some old corrugated sheets across a couple of fields in another wood and we trooped across there and got these and started dragging them back across the field in which there was a herd of bullocks. They were, of course, very inquisitive and came running towards us, which scared the life out of us. We dropped the sheets and ran for all we were worth to a stone wall and climbed over it. We threw stones at these bullocks until they moved off and we retrieved the metal sheets to take them back to our spinney to make our den bigger and more waterproof.
Each day we would all have to walk the mile to mile and a half up to the village of Churchill to school. It was a church school with only two teachers, apart from the two teachers we brought with us from London, so it was rather crowded. There was also another bit of the school and another teacher for the infants. I don’t think for the two years that I was there my education really improved very much from what I had already been taught in London, apart from the fact Mr. Blake, the headmaster, was very keen on aircraft recognition so we often spent time talking about aircraft and how to recognise them. Also, of course, I learnt a lot about country life.
Each day Norman and I would set off in the morning with our white haversacks containing our packed lunches in a tin box to be eaten in the classroom at midday before we went out to play in the playground. It was not tarmacked but just hard stones as far as I can recall, and very rough. In the afternoons we would troop back home again, down the hill, over a little humpbacked bridge, then up an unmade lane to the road and down past where the other boys lived to Lowfield Farm. On the way home we could see the ridge of the Cotswold hills, on which Little Risingham sat, and we could see the weather coming. We often could see clouds coming towards us and see the rain falling on the hills and would know that we would have to hurry if we wanted to get home in the dry. On one occasion we got caught in a thunderstorm and took shelter in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Timms. He was the cowman where Roy and Bob Blackburn were billeted, and I recall Mrs. Timms pulled the curtains, covered the mirror over, and put all the knives and forks away because she was scared of the lightning. It struck me as all being very weird.
One winter we had so much snow that we could not go to school for three days. We were completely cut off by the snowdrifts across the road which of course Norman and I thought were great fun and we used to be able to walk on top of the snowdrifts for a couple of days until they collapsed. We built ourselves snowmen and of course this was a treat for two little London boys who had never seen so much snow. Living on the farm we had lots of food and there was always chicken or rabbit or pigeon or even pheasant sometimes and hare, which I had never had before. We had another roast goose at Christmas and on one occasion a pig was killed and we had a side of bacon hanging up.
We had lots of lovely ham, sweetbreads and all sorts of food which I don’t suppose I had ever eaten before. There were eggs, both chicken and duck and plenty of milk. There was lots of fruit, some of which was bottled during the summer months so we could eat it during the winter. We made some of our own butter which we were sworn to secrecy not to tell anybody about because other people of course were on rations during the war. Of course there was honey too.
It was fascinating seeing Mr Roberts gathering that in wearing his hat with a mesh attached which covered his head and shoulders and with a little smoke gun which he puffed when he was taking the honey section out of the hive. These would then be placed in a machine, which looked something like a boiler and then spun around so that the honey ran out and this went into jars. This was carried out in the dairy part of the house.
On Sunday mornings she would send us off to the village church where we soon joined the choir and that was the beginning of my choral singing for 65 years later I am still singing in a church choir. As I believe I have already said, during 1940 Norman’s father was called up into the navy and my own father died so that meant the mothers were living alone in London. It was some time during the blitz that Norman’s home was badly damaged and his mother came down to Sarsden in a very shocked state but was able to rent a cottage about a mile away from Lowfield Farm. However she very kindly consented to let Norman stay on with me at Lowfield Farm and only go up to visit his mother on occasions until I left to go to join my grammar school at the end of August, beginning of September 1941.
Of course that began another chapter in my story of evacuation but I used to return during the long summer holidays to Sarsden and Lowfield Farm and I continued to keep in contact with them until they died in the 1960s. Thoughts of my stay at Lowfield Farm at Sarsden in Oxfordshire Sunday was always a rather special day as regards Sunday lunch. We would always have a Yorkshire pudding to start with. This was absolutely delicious. The batter was poured into a baking tray and put in the oven with the joint suspended above it so that as it was cooking the juices of the meat would run into the Yorkshire pudding. When this was ready it was placed before Mr Roberts for him to carve out slices for each of us and this was eaten separately with just gravy poured over it. After this the joint would be brought in and Mr Roberts would carve slices from the joint on separate plates piled high with fresh vegetables.