The Train Journey

An account of the evacuation by one young SHSB student...

Keith stirred restlessly in his bed, it was early morning and he had slept well. His mind was constantly churning the events of the last couple of years and now he was facing a major upheaval in his young life, an upheaval full of uncertainty and a complete disruption to the life that he clung to. He was really scared.

He was 12 years old and lived in the house with his Dad, two brothers, Charles who was 4 years younger and Edward who was 16 and their old Grandmother. Their mother had died two years ago and this had a devastating impact on their young lives. Dad had carried on as best he could, enlisting the aid of his aging mother to help look after the boys. It was a struggle and really unfair for an old lady to help bring up three active boys... She did however a remarkable job, cooking, cleaning, washing etc. Dad and the boys pitched in of course but without her they would have foundered.

Then last year, war was declared and most people complacently thought that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. A complete misunderstanding and underestimation of the Nazi regime. The British Forces were swept to the sea in France and through the miracle of Dunkirk were driven back to Britain. Leaving Britain, alone and unprepared as it was, to face the Nazi might.

This was the situation the country was in and in trying to protect as many innocent citizens as possible had quickly come up with a program to evacuate as many people as they could from the coastal areas. Keith’s family was included in this exodus so his Dad had decided that Edward who was 16 would go to work at the munitions factory where Dad worked and would move with that factory to a safe area in Buckinghamshire. Charles the youngest would stay with his Grandmother and they would move to a safer area. Keith would stay with his school which was being evacuated en-bloc to some place up north and he would be billeted with a foster family.

Today was the day of Keith’s evacuation. It was a bright sunny day; a light breeze was blowing in from the Thames and you could smell the salty twang. Keith had always enjoyed this, it was one of those familiar senses that everyone has in their childhood, with some people maybe it is a cooking smell or maybe a certain flower but with Keith it is the salty brisk air. He reluctantly got out of bed and got himself ready, his Grandmother had laid out a clean shirt, underwear and trousers and his little case was already packed. It had his few meagre belongings; two shirts, a change of underwear, another pair of trousers, a sweater, some socks and his school books. It didn’t seem much to be leaving home with but he didn’t have much.

His Grandmother had made him a good breakfast, fried bread, an egg and fried potatoes. Although he was very nervous he managed to eat most of it and got ready to go. There were some sandwiches to eat on the train. He hugged his brothers and Nan as his Grandmother was called, and with lots of tears said goodbye. His Dad was taking him to the schoolyard where he was to meet up with the rest of the school and where they were to get the bus. As he left he turned to wave goodbye to his brothers and Nan standing at the gate. Little did he realise that he would never ever return to this house or live with his brothers and Nan again.

So with his little case and boxed gas mask around his neck Keith grouped together with his school class in the yard. The parents who had brought them were only allowed to go as far as the railway station; they were not allowed to travel with the children. The time had arrived to walk to the railway station which was only a few hundred yards away. Some of the parents clung fiercely to their sons crying as they were led away and there were also those putting on a brave face engaged in frivolous conversation. Keith overheard one mother saying to her son “don’t forget to wash your hands before you eat”. In retrospect this was not really an admonition but a mother trying to keep a closeness and get him at least to think of her even if only at meal times.

Keith and his Dad did not talk much but just held hands while walking along the street, somehow this was just right, his Dad’s hands were big and rough and seemed to give Keith the security he needed right at that time.

There was an enormous crush of parents and children at the station, the whole school had arrived and crowded onto a small platform. The train pulled in amid a hiss of steam jets and acrid smoke that seemed to momentarily envelope the whole crowd making them disappear into an eerie confusion.

His Dad gave him three shillings for the journey and to help him get settled, that was all he could afford at the time and in fact seemed a lot of money to Keith who really had no idea what he would need. Boarding the train was confusing, there was one teacher for about thirty boys and as each train compartment took about ten boys the teacher would have to change compartments every time the train stopped so he could try to look after as many as possible. There were no connections between the compartments so the teacher had to get out at every station to change compartments. It seemed that the train had several stops scheduled. Keith managed to get into a carriage with his best friend Ray and some other boys from his class, there were also two or three older boys from the upper classes. As soon as they got in the carriage Keith went to the window to say his last goodbye to his Dad. His Dad had blue eyes and it seemed to Keith that they were bluer than he had ever seen them, magnified by the tears he was obviously fighting back. All at once a feeling of pure love swept over him and a deep sense of sympathy and compassion for his father.

Temporarily forgetting his own fears he was suddenly focussed on his father who had cared for his sick wife for many years before she died and tried to bring up three boys with very little money and now the home he had tried so hard to keep together for all those years was about to be torn apart. Somehow Keith grew a little taller in those few moments.

As the train started to pull away Keith’s Dad chokingly said “write to me as soon as you can and I’ll try to send you an allowance”, Keith, holding back the tears said “don’t worry Dad I’ll make out.”

They were quickly out of sight of the station and the train was heading somewhere up north. Looking around the compartment he noticed one of the boys in his class was crying in the corner, it was Billy Tibbles who we called Puss, in the other corner were the upper class boys, one in particular was Wally Clarke a top footballer and cricketer (and later to became President of the OSA). He was a big boy but no bully although he did have an aggressive way of talking to you. Keith was no athlete but he admired Wally. Wally spoke directly to Keith “I think that you had better do something about your class mate” he said pointing toward Puss, “none of us are at all happy with the situation but he is making matters worse.” It was not what he said but how he said it that made Keith realise that he wasn’t alone and that we were all relying on one another to get through this. Ray and he quickly went over to Puss and tried to comfort him. He gave him his Hotspur that he had brought along to read. He seemed to settle down. Ray and Keith stated to chat and stated to speculate as to where we were going and suddenly Ray said “look why don’t we try to stick together when we get there, tell them we are Baptists from the same church and we have to be together.” Keith thought about it and although he didn’t quite understand the significance of being a Baptist agreed with Ray that they would try to stick together. So the journey continued, Keith ate his fish paste sandwich and thought of his Dad.

The train eventually pulled in to a small country station, the carriage door opened and Hutch clambered in. Now ‘Hutch’ or more correctly Dr. Hutchinson was not their home room master but taught music and some English. He was Keith’s favourite teacher, a striking looking man with long, dark, curly hair and two false teeth in front which he took out in class to humorous effect. He had no reservations in showing disappointment to students who did not measure up to their potential, had a contagious enthusiasm for music in particular, an enthusiasm that had opened doors that Keith never knew existed and introduced him to a world of classical music, a love that was to remain with him for the rest of his life. He was the one person in the world that could brighten that carriage and raise the spirits of all the boys. Before long he had us all singing and for about an hour it was fun. As ‘Hutch’ was about to leave the compartment at the next stop Keith asked if he knew where we were going, he said that he did not know for sure but somewhere near Nottingham but he would not be staying as he was joining the RAF next week. Keith was deflated. The journey continued in a more sombre mood and eventually passed through an area of coal mines and small coal mining towns to arrive at a place called Mansfield.

They were all tired and apprehensive as they were unloaded onto waiting buses that took them to a large church hall. Keith and Ray had stuck together and were given biscuits and milk then told to line up in single file along the side of the hall. Ray whispered to Keith “don’t forget what we agreed” and Keith nodded as he looked down a long line of boys. It was a sad, pathetic line of boys with gas marks draped around their necks, sitting on their cases, clothes crumpled from the long journey and all of them had the same anxious look about them. As sad a scene as this was, what followed next was even more humiliating. People were coming in to the hall, husbands and wives from the community, some with their own children with them. They walked down the line choosing the boy that they liked the look of to go home with them. These new foster parents took their chosen boy to the registration desk in the corner and took him home with them. It conjured up thoughts of perhaps the slave trading days or even a cattle market as the boys themselves had no say in the matter. Ray and Keith were still there with about another twenty boys when a new bunch of foster families were let in for a viewing. At this time Ray was one of the first to be chosen and although we both protested we were told that it was not possible to keep boys together and as far as the foster parents were concerned it was ‘first come first served.’ Ray called back as he went away “see you at school Keith, wherever that is.”

Now Keith stood alone in the middle of the hall. He began to doubt himself, “what is wrong with me?” “Why does nobody want me?” “What will happen?” “Will they send me home?” One of the local officials separated himself from the front desk, came over to Keith and tried to put him at ease as he said “don’t worry someone will come.” This seemed to poor Keith a rather hollow and insincere remark and contributed to a feeling of despair. The official went back to his desk and embarrassingly fumbled with some papers. All the other officials left, it was starting to get dark and cold. Keith realised he didn’t have a heavy coat with him so he picked his bag up and went over to the desk. The official looked him over very carefully not knowing quite what to do as no one had mentioned the possibility to him that any of the boys would not be picked up. He said to Keith “you look cold, would you like some cocoa?” “Yes I would” said Keith miserably. The official turned and walked slowly to the back of the room, his footsteps echoing hollowly throughout the hall. A door creaked opened and then slammed shut, leaving Keith alone and miserable. Keith sat there, looking down at the floor anxiously waiting for him to return. It was getting colder and the only sound he could hear was from the old clock ticking at the back of the room. There was nothing else. No one was coming. The official did not return.

This above account of Ken’s trip to Mansfield has been reproduced with kind permission of Ken’s brother Anthony. The report is factual, though written as fiction, with the names changed. Keith = Ken, Charles = Anthony and Edward = Alfred.

Kenneth Bennett (Athens, 1939-1944)