Pupils and evacuees unite to mark 80 years since Second World War
PUBLISHED: 14:00 17 October 2019
Children from Dagenham were among millions of youngsters to be sent to the country for their own safety at the outbreak of the Second World War.
And 80 years on from the mass relocation, the stories of some of those who swapped their urban upbringing for a rural village have been shared with the borough's young people.
Former evacuees and war veterans were among those to attend a special commemorative event hosted by Sydney Russell School.
Len Townsend and his brother Bill were sent to the village of Pakenham, near Bury St Edmunds.
"It was a little village with two shops and one road," Len, who now lives in Cranham, recalled. "It was a bit of a difference. We couldn't play knock down ginger!"
He added that the first time he returned to his home in Bethnal Green was just before Christmas 1940, near the start of the Blitz.
"Our neighbours next door had an Anderson shelter in their back garden," he said.
"One time, we got to the back door and a screamer bomb landed right in front of me."
Another evacuee, Daphne Harris, was interviewed on stage by a Sydney Russell pupil about her experience.
She said: "I think it's very important for young people to know about the evacuation.
"It was hard on the mothers of children and the people who took us in. It isn't only us evacuees, there were a lot of people involved."
A mock evacuation took place after the interview, with guests ushered out of the hall according to the destinations on train tickets they were given when they came in. Each destination was one of the places children from Dagenham were sent to during the war.
Sydney Russell principal Janis Davies said she felt "humbled" at seeing how her pupils had embraced the day.
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"All our children are talking to the evacuees about their experiences," she said. "Some of them have shown photos of when they were 16."
The event, on Wednesday, October 16, featured displays by both primary and secondary schools across Dagenham, each focusing on the experience and memoirs of one particular refugee.
Among the stories to be shared was that of Eric Percival who, along with his classmates, had to walk from Fanshawe Junior School to Dagenham's docks to board a paddle steamer to Yarmouth.
Around 17,000 pupils were moved to the east coast in this manner, and Eric - just nine at the time - described how he and his peers "decided and convinced purselves that our destination was America".
They arrived, instead, in Norfolk and joined new families, with Eric spending two years with his foster parents and their children Enid, Betty and Ray.
He wrote: "I made friends with the local children, including some from the big farm, so life was always interesting.
"I had never experienced heavy snow and drifting before, but when Ray foud a sledge we had a great time."
Fellow evacuee Vi Charlton was also nine when she and her classmates from Dawson Junior School were taken by coach to Paddington station.
From there, they boarded a train to Taunton, in Somerset, where hundreds of pupils from a variety of schools were gathered in a large building.
Vi and her best friend Amy then boarded a bus to a little village called Catcott, where they waited to be chosen by a foster family.
"It wasn't a very pleasant sensation waiting to be allocated - a bit like being an animal sold at market," she wrote.
"At last Amy and I learned that we could remain together."
Their foster parents were "pleasant enough," Vi recalled, but their children "made no effort to be friendly and ignored us as much as they could".
After eight months, the family moved house, meaning Vi and Amy had to be rebilleted. They were sent back to Dagenham briefly where they "experienced the terrors of nightly bomb attacks" before returning to Somerset, eventually coming home for good in March 1941.
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