‘I remember feeling frightened and abandoned’ - Ipswich child evacuee shares her story
- Credit: PA
For many VE Day represents an opportunity to mark the heroic efforts of soldiers bringing the Second World War to an end but evacuee Mavis Bensley reminds us that it also marks the occasion when families were able to be reunited after years of separation
Ipswich resident Mavis Bensley has a special reason to be celebrating VE Day. For her and for many others victory in Europe not only brought an end to the fighting close to home but it allowed her to be re-united with her family.
Mavis, now 85, of Christchurch Street, Ipswich, was born, not on the banks of the River Orwell, but on Teeside, close to a railway station, marshalling yards and in between two bridges and a large steel works.
As the phoney war of 1939 turned into the real war of 1940, she says: “It was not the place to be.” With raids becoming more frequent and more deadly, Mavis became one of the first wave of youngsters to be evacuated to somewhere a little more tranquil.
“We became the target for fortnightly bombing raids, sometimes more than once a fortnight. Alerted by the sirens, we took cover in the cupboard under the stairs. We could hear the whistling of falling bombs, then the silence, followed by the noise of the windows vibrating. I remember counting the seconds of silence, to try and gauge our distance from the strike area.
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“My father was a steel worker and volunteer fireman – joined the RAF after lying about his age. He served in France as a mechanic, repairing Spitfire engines. My mother joined the Red Cross and was on duty at all hours of the day or night. Me and my brother, who was five years older than me, spent many unsupervised hours playing on bombsites, looking for shrapnel or, hopefully, an unexplored bomb!
“One night, a bomb fell in the yard of our school, so, in waves, all the children were evacuated. Armed with a gas mask, one change of clothes, a topsy doll, a sandwich, and a tin of corned beef for the “new” family, we all boarded the train headed for a village called Stockton-on-Forest.”
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She said that her first experience of being an evacuee was difficult and they were herded into the local school house to be chosen by their new families. “I remember feeling frightened and abandoned, as my brother and I were the last remaining children. No one really wanted these pathetic townie kids, least of all a brother and a sister with a five year age gap.
“We were eventually taken to a house known to have a spare room; the owners had not volunteered to take in evacuees but, late in the evening, they left us there. We were given instructions on how to behave: “Call me Captain Jack. Children are to be seen and not heard. Do not walk on the grass – keep to the paths”; and were sent to bed. I was too scared to get up to find a toilet, so I’m sorry to say that I wet the bed, for which I got a slap across the legs the next day.
“In the morning we were given a bout of lumpy, watery porridge. I just could not swallow it, but was told, “If you don’t eat it for breakfast, you will get it for lunch. If you don’t eat it for lunch, you will get it for your tea. If you don’t eat it then, you will go to bed hungry.” I have never had porridge since.”
Mavis said that the pair didn’t last long there before being sent home, only to be sent away again, this time to relatives. “When a second wave of evacuees was announced, I was once again on a train to York, bussed to a village called Wiggington and billeted on a widow, who was probably older than my grandmother. She was kindly enough, but really didn’t relate to a five year old, so I spent much of my time alone.
“The evacuees attended the local village school and were given slates to write on, as paper and pencils were for the ‘proper’ school children. I remember the class having to stand in silence until the teacher could hear a pin drop, literally. If anyone coughed or shuffled, we had to start again.”
While staying in Wiggington, Mavis received a visit from her parents – a visit which may have saved their lives. The visit also, indirectly, resulted in her gaining a new happy home-away-from-home environment to live in.
“In the summer of 1942, my father had a weekend leave, so he and my mother rode on their tandem bike from Middlesbrough to York to see me, a distance of 50 miles. We were together for a few short hours before they cycled back home. No doubt they were upset, but I was distraught at being abandoned yet again. I tried to follow them, I ran after them, until I could go no further and I sank to the grass verge, crying my eyes out.
“I don’t know how long I had been crying on the grass verge, but a lady came out and carried me into her home. I clung to her skirt and would not let go, even when she went to the toilet. Still tearful, I asked if she would be my new mummy. She said she could never be my real mummy, but I could call her Auntie, which meant that we were family. I had found my Guardian Angel.
“After the war, I learned that a bomb had been dropped near to my parent’s home, in a daylight raid. When my parents arrived home, they found the front of the house as rubble on the street.”
Having settled in with a new family, Mavis said the next few years were idyllic with plenty of food, baking, jam-making, and a garden to play in. To begin with she slept on two Lloyd Loom basket chairs, pushed together in Auntie and Uncle Swales’ bedroom.
“The next rooms were taken by billeted military personnel and land girls. Their son, Harry, was an army medic serving in Egypt, and their daughter, Joyce, was a land girl. They lived in a big, posh (to me) house, with an indoor bathroom and separate toilet.
“There was a large garden, with a greenhouse and strange green fruit called tomatoes; a run for a few chickens, giving fresh eggs; a vegetable plot; fish pond; apples tree; and an Alsatian dog called Rita.
“Best of all, Uncle Swales worked at Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York. Sweets were rationed (12ozs per month), but he could use his coupons for more if he took the broken or miss-shaped ones. I don’t remember any panic buying, but if word got out that the butcher was making sausages, the queue would be right down the road.”
But, by early 1945, the time had come to go back home. The family were reunited and life returned to normal. Her mother worked in a plastics factory, her father after being demobbed returned to the steel works and she and her brother returned to school – although she was teased for being ‘posh’ having lost her Teesside accent.
“I never forgot the Swales family and revisited them almost every year, once even by tandem bike, to introduce my fiancé. I am ever grateful for their kindness and affection at a time when I felt so lost and alone.”