New Buckenham Archive
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Margaret Webb as a child evacuee at New Buckenham School, Norfolk, September 1939.  She wrote: Friday 1st September 1939, a beautiful sunny morning and there I was, Margaret Webb, at the age of 9 years, standing on the platform at London Fields Station in the East End of London, with my sister Joyce who was 4 years older, plus hundreds of other children. We were all agog at going on this lovely train journey to God knows where. At that age we were very naive and didn't really understand what a war meant. Most of our parents were there to see us off, double-checking that our name labels, which were tied to our coats, were secure and that we had our gas masks neatly packed in their boxes and slung over our shoulders, plus a case or bag containing our clothes and one or two personal effects. They, of course, also had no idea where we would end up. We finally set off about 9 a.m. with some tears, some fears, but a great deal of excitement. After what seemed a very long journey, we alighted at a station called Thetford, which is in Norfolk (which we didn't know at the time). From there we were taken to a large hall, which I learned some years later was the Guild Hall. We were then given a mug of cocoa and a sandwich. A short time later our names were called out and we were given a paper carrier bag each, which contained a tin of corned beef, some biscuits and one or two other items of food, and put into various charabancs or coaches, as we would call them today. We were then dispersed in different directions.After driving through the famous Thetford Forest and some beautiful countryside, during which time I had been sick (being a bad traveller and the cocoa probably didn't help,) we duly arrived at a village called New Buckenham, this was to be our final destination. We were all bundled into the village school hall where all the local women were gathered. I cannot recall seeing any men there, apart from the two male teachers who had travelled with us. Having arrived and feeling very nervous, we were well scrutinized by the waiting foster mothers - our skirts were lifted to check our undies etc. Joyce and I were holding on tightly to each other as we had been given instructions by mother not to be separated. Finally a lady asked if we would like to live with her and we were taken over to a Mrs Powell who was in charge of the billeting and duly registered. Mrs Tofts, the lady with whom we were to live, took us home to meet her husband and two daughters; Joy aged 7 and Shirley who was just 3. We were thrilled to find we were in fact living at one of the village shops (incidentally they made fantastic ice-cream). Everyone must have thought I was deaf because I can well remember saying pardon to everyone who spoke to me - I just couldn't understand their funny ways of talking. I had never heard the Norfolk dialect before. Mrs Tofts then gave a basket to Joy and suggested she take us to the common to meet some of the local children and collect blackberries which she wanted to cook for our dessert after dinner. On Sunday 3rd September, we attended church in the village and during the service we were told that war had now been declared with Germany. I'm afraid this didn't mean much to me as I thought war was a battle in a field just like the big picture hanging on the wall outside my old headmistress's office. I really had no idea that it could go on for years.  That night when we went to bed, my sister tried to explain it to me and was so convinced we would never see our parents again. I was far more optimistic and I remember taking the sweet out of my mouth and giving it to her to suck just to pacify her and stop her crying. She was always sensitive, whereas I was the tomboy of the family and wasn't going to let things like that worry me. We wrote home to our parents and let them know where we were and told them all about our new surroundings and school and the many new friends we had made. One Friday evening, after we had been there about a month, I looked out of the window and couldn't believe my eyes. There was my Mum getting out of a car. Oh the excitement!! What we didn't know was that she had written to Mrs Tofts, who in turn had invited Mum to come to New Buckenham to stay for the weekend to see for herself that everything was O.K. During the weekend Mum went to see the billeting officer (Mrs Powell) and got a list of the names and addresses of the parents of all the evacuees in the village and, when she went back to London, contacted them and arranged a coach so that they (or at least one of them) could make a trip to see the children on the first Sunday of every month. Just before Christmas 1939, Mr Tofts was taken ill and at the same time his two daughters went down with chickenpox. As Mrs. Tofts had the shop to run as well as look after her sick family, this meant that we had to move and leave the home we were getting nicely settled in and find somewhere else. Unfortunately no one could take us both together, but we found billets next door to each other. Joyce went to live with Mrs Smith on the other side of the village green and I went next door to live with Mr & Mrs Brown. Mrs Brown was very strict and extremely houseproud so I had to watch my step. However she was a wonderful cook. Mr Brown (Ronald) was a farmer, a churchwarden, a member of the Royal Observer Corp and a very respected member of the community and I loved him from the start. He had the most wonderful giggle and when the two of us started it drove everybody mad. We always had a lot of fun together. My own father had always been very distant with me and I can never remember him giving me a cuddle or sitting on his knee. Whereas Mr Brown was entirely opposite, so I suppose it was only natural that I came to regard him as my true dad in every sense. I had only been with the Browns for three days when I woke up and found my body was covered in spots and blisters. I'd caught chickenpox. As it was Christmas Eve this meant we could not spend the festive holiday with Mr Brown's parents, which was the usual custom, as I was confined to my bed. As Mr Brown was so determined that I should be kept amused he climbed up into the loft and brought down his mandolin which he had brought back from Greece at the end of the First World War (and incidentally never played since) and tried to keep me happy by playing lots of tunes (not too well I'm afraid). Even though I was feeling pretty ill I can tell you we had plenty of laughs. The farm was just outside the village, but I spent every spare minute there. I may have been a Cockney but I was a true country lass at heart.  I took to the life like a duck to water. I would feed the hens, muck out the cattle, brush and groom the three beautiful shire horses. The largest was Captain and he was huge. Next was Blossom and then my favourite, the smallest one John. I helped with the haymaking and harvest and the threshing and adored every minute. One day in Autumn, when I was leading one of the horses pulling a cart load of sugar beet I wasn't watching where I was going and the horse ended up standing on my foot. Not knowing any different I tried pushing his body to get him off. He knew better than to be pushed off balance so trod down all the harder. It was only when one of the farm workers saw what was happening and picked up the horse's hoof by the fetlock that I realised how easy it was. Fortunately no bones were broken, but my foot was badly bruised and swelled up like a balloon and stayed that way all the week. I didn't blame the horse - it taught me a valuable lesson. Mr Brown also owned a couple of orchards and round about September time each year we gathered all the eating apples, cooking apples and pears in bushel baskets and took most to market, either in Diss or Norwich. As he was a farmer and an important citizen he was allowed a certain amount of petrol. I couldn't believe it when I first saw his car - wow! It was a navy blue Rolls Royce. Whenever we went into the town, Mrs Brown always asked if I wanted to stay with her and go round the shops or would I rather go with Ronald and yes, of course, I always preferred to go with him. He took me round the museums and the cathedral and in the winter we mostly ended up at Carrow Road in Norwich to watch the football. I suppose this must have caused a bit of jealousy, but at the time I didn't realize it. Mrs Brown always went out on Wednesday nights to play whist somewhere in the village and did not get back until around 10.00 p.m. She gave strict instructions each time that Ronald should make sure I was in bed by 8 p.m. Once she had gone we got out the cards and he taught me to play rummy, Newmarket and crib. Naturally as we were enjoying ourselves the time just flew and often we would hear the back gate and I would fly off to bed just before she came in. On entering I would hear the same old question "Did she go to bed on time?" and the answer "Of course Maggie." and I would be giggling under the bedclothes. In September 1941, I had to go to the school in the next village now I had attained the age of 11 years. Old Buckenham School was just over 3 miles away and of course much bigger. For the first few months we had to walk there and back, no matter what the weather and that winter was one of the worst on record. Deep snow drifts and the snowploughs were brought out to clear the roads. I developed enormous chilblains on my feet and the backs of my legs, but I still got to school every day and on time. There was quite a crowd of us that used to go together which made it all the more enjoyable. Eventually the Norfolk County Council gave us all bikes, which we had to take good care of. Our headmaster held an inspection every week to check that we had cleaned them and everything was in order. If we were caught playing around on them or giving someone else a lift they would be taken away, so we were always very careful to keep within the rules. We were taught how to mend a puncture and put the chain back on and pump the tyres up to a certain standard and clean and polish them so they always looked like new. Extremely proud of our bikes we were - never had anything like it in our lives before. Sometimes at weekends during the summer I would go out with Mr and Mrs Brown round the countryside on our bikes. By this time my sister Joyce had already returned to London, having reached the age of 14, and also because she was suffering from asthma and needed hospital treatment. When I first went to live with the Browns they had a beautiful cat called Peter. Although I have never been a cat lover, something about this one appealed to me. Maybe it was because he was so friendly from the start. He had a lovely pure white front and the rest of him was a kind of pinky-ginger. He really was a great big bundle of soft cuddly fur. I spent hours grooming him, while he purred loudly with contentment. One day I decided to give his whiskers a trim and he sat there quite happily while I cut them back to about one inch on each side. When Mr Brown saw him, he was horrified and that was the only time he scolded me. He went on to explain that the whiskers on animals were used as a measuring device. By putting them against a gap, the animal knew whether the rest of his body would go through. Lesson No 2. After I started at Old Buckenham School I developed a habit of stopping off at the farm gate and giving a long whistle. If the horses were not working they would come in answer to my whistle. Invariably John was always the first. One afternoon in late Autumn, I stopped as usual and could see John lying down in the next meadow. As he didn't respond I got worried and raced off to find Mr Brown to tell him. It transpired that poor John was so old and had collapsed. The kindest thing was to have him put down. This really upset me and I cried buckets. It's hard for an 11 year old to realise that this was for the best. I had regularly taken all three horses down to the village blacksmith to be shod, and I loved the warmth of his fire, especially on cold winter days. I had many friends in the village and when not on the farm we used to go on to the common to play. I must admit when the boys were playing cricket I used to steal their ball and get chased and sometimes thumped for my cheek. I was also a bit of a rogue on the farm and tormented the poor farm workers. One day after we had mucked out the cattle sheds and had a nice big pile of warm manure, they got so fed up with my torments they grabbed me by my legs and arms and threw me on top of the pile. I was only wearing a little top and shorts. By the time I climbed off, I stank to high heaven. Mrs Brown was not best pleased when I arrived home. Mr Brown Senior, who was my foster grandfather, had a pony called Peggy and a trap, which he took great pride in. Always polishing the wood and brass until it shone. I felt very privileged when he taught me how to drive the pony and allowed me on one occasion to take the reins on a return trip from Diss. I was so proud I felt like the lady of the manor. Grandfather Brown used to grow grapes under his veranda in the garden, which were his pride and joy. On one occasion when I was playing out there, I looked up and saw these enormous bunches of grapes hanging down just above my head so I reached up and pulled a bunch down. I was sitting enjoying these lovely juicy things when I received a cuff around the ear. (The one and only time in my life) - Lesson No.3 - Never take something which doesn't belong to you without asking permission. Late in the year of 1943, Mrs Brown informed me that my Mother was coming the next day to take me back to London. I was completely stunned as I was prepared to stay for the rest of my life and couldn't understand why I had to leave. No explanation was given to me. On the day of parting both Mr Brown and I were heartbroken. My Mum told me later that Mrs Brown had written to say she could no longer cope and suggested I should come back to London. As she never did tell Mr Brown the reason he naturally thought my mother was to blame. I can only assume on looking back that she must have been jealous because we had grown so close. Mum thought it might have been because she didn't know how to handle things as I was becoming a teenager and it might mean a lot of explaining. However I did write to them regularly and was invited back each year for a two-week holiday, but of course the closeness between Mr Brown and myself had been broken and I must confess I found it hard to forgive Mrs Brown for that. Anyhow I was determined not to lose contact and when I was to be married in 1953 at the age of 23, I not only invited them both to my wedding, I asked Mr Brown if he would do me the honour of giving me away (my parents by this time had been divorced). I don't think I have ever seen such pride and pleasure on a man's face as I did that day. I thought his speech at the reception was never going to end. To cap it all we went back and spent our honeymoon at my old home in New Buckenham. Mrs Brown died a few years later, having suffered from diabetes for some time. I discovered she had never told Mr Brown the truth about my departure and I didn't feel it was right to enlighten him.  As he had always been a busy farmer and never had to do cooking or housework he was completely lost and eventually his brother found a neighbour who was widowed and was willing to move in to the house in New Buckenham and become his housekeeper. Eventually they were married and I must say, Grace, the second Mrs Brown was an entirely different personality to Maggie. She was homely and had a lovely sense of humour and I got on very well with her. I still went for holidays occasionally but Mr Brown's health gradually deteriorated. Then at the beginning of the '70s I received a letter from Grace telling me he had died and I knew I had lost a true and lovable friend. I still keep in touch with Grace, even though it is now 2004 - some 60 years or more since I first went to New Buckenham. She is now in poor health and in her late 80's. I also regularly keep in touch with one of my old school friends, who is 4 years older than me, who was also an evacuee and married a Norfolk man at the end of the war and settled in Thetford. It was in fact Florrie who organised a celebration for some of us together with the villagers after 50 years. We went back each September where we had a church service and called on some of the village folk that we remembered. We also had another celebration after 60 years in the village as well as attending a march and special service organised by the Evacuees Association, in Westminster Abbey. This was supported by hundreds of ex-evacuees from all over the country which included many famous names. I wrote a poem for each of the 50th and 60th celebrations which were printed in the New Buckenham parish magazine. Copies of both have also been lodged with the Imperial War Museum in London. As I spent so many happy years of my childhood in Norfolk being loved and cared for, I still class New Buckenham as my home. Copied with thanks from WW2 People's War, an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar
An evacuee’s story: Margaret Webb