Colchester and Evacuees

The following entries from Eric's pre-war diary record the arrival of evacuees from London.

1st September 1939

About 11 we heard that the Germans were moving into Poland. I went up to Benham's office [the local press office], and there was a telegram in the window. Everybody looked very gloomy, but the appearance of the streets was normal, except for an enormous barricade of sandbags being erected against the basement windows of the Town Hall. Went into the Bank and drew £20 of my £200, and converted this into silver from the Castle takings, just in case anything happens to bank notes. Although there is so much gloom all about, there is great bustle and excitement - thousands of London schoolchildren began coming into St Botolph's [railway] station this morning and were taken away by "National" buses into country districts. Some, with mothers and babies, are to go to Shrub End and Lexden, but few are staying actually in Colchester itself.

Army billeting officers were about today, in the New Town District especially.

More sand-bag filling today, and I had Bob out this afternoon to cart them across to Holly Trees, to cover up the windows of the Muniment Room. I dare say old Bob worked in the last war, and now he works in this one.

Rose [Eric's girlfriend] is terribly worried, threatens to close down the cafe and get a National Defence job. I advise against it, and say wait for a time. The BBC partly closed down today.

2nd September 1939

Many of the shops are boarding up their windows. Others are bringing out the old-fashioned shutters which I remember when I was young.

Tonight full black-out regulations in force, evening paper placards say "Poles Stand Firm", but many still say "Full Results", and the boys still call "Football, Full Time Results". Crowds going into the pictures tonight. Billeting going on in our road, men brought round in lorries, and dumped at each house. Children are still pouring into the town at St Botolph's Station, thousands of them. Saw Miss Deville, Hamilton Road schoolteacher, [who helped to make arrangements for the evacuees] who told me that the whole affair had gone very well.

In his book 'Essex at War' (1945, pp 16-18), Hervey Benham recorded that 14,000 evacuees including children, expectant mothers and women with babies arrived at St Botolph's railway station in Colchester during the first three days of September 1939. According to a detailed scheme, already drawn up, the evacuees were then dispersed into the neighbouring districts by bus: 5,500 in the Lexden and Winstree Rural District, 5,500 in the Tendring R.D.C., 1,600 in Brighlingsea, 900 in West Mersea and 500 in Wivenhoe.
Benham continues:
'The order to evacuate London was put into operation on Sept. 1, 1939, and trains began to arrive as per schedule; the unaccompanied children first in charge of their teachers, and later mothers and young children in hastily organised trainloads. Before being despatched by bus to their new rural homes all were "watered and fed" at one of three schools and issued with 48 hours' emergency rations. The staffs of these three reception schools, Wilson Marriage, St. John's Green and Canterbury Road, had a very strenous time. ...
The picture in the villages whence those evacuees went has been drawn for all time in "The Oaken Heart", in which Margery Allingham tells the story of war-time life in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, thinly disguised for the purpose under the name of Auburn. ...
But before the bombs came most of the evacuees and the plucky little schoomistresses who braved the discomforts of a cruel winter in the un-centrally heated villages had gone back whence they came.'

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