World War II brought what must have seemed like an influx of new people to Thornbury as evacuees from the heavy bombing in other parts of the country. However, large as the numbers must have seemed to the local schools and harassed householders, they were thankfully considerably lower than the numbers originally expected.
The earliest communication on this subject that we have found so far in Gloucestershire Archives was a form dated March 8th 1939. It was completed by a local solicitor John Gammon Wicks who at that time was clerk to Thornbury District Council. There had been a survey of the private homes, hotels, boarding houses and empty homes in the area administered by Thornbury Council and it was calculated that the TRDC could if necessary give homes to a staggering 11, 660 extra people, including 3,357 unaccompanied children. The parish of Thornbury alone was said to be able to deal with 1,334 of these. As the population of Thornbury parish was well under 3000 at this time, the evacuees would have a significant impact on the town.
The letters written by John Gammon Wicks on behalf of TRDC to the Gloucestershire Council showed how willing and co-operative the Council members, and presumably the people of Thornbury as a whole, were prepared to be at this time of National Crisis. This was despite the fact that the information they were being given was obviously rather confusing. Mr Wicks notes that the administration in Gloucestershire was giving conflicting information as to where children would arrive Charfield or Pilning but gamely says “I revised my evacuation scheme and I have made it fluid enough to receive at any station on an hour or two’s notice.” Even Mr Gammon Wicks however had one instruction with which he could not agree. The authorities wanted whole schools to be evacuated together. This was understandable as it would give children a sense of security and continuity, parents with more than one child would have all their children in one place and doubtless the paperwork was easier. However it would also mean that some parishes could be given 400 children, far more than they could hope to deal with. The only solution seemed to be was to billet children by classes and have no more than three ‘year-groups’ sent to any one school. In some cases this would of course scatter children from the same family around the whole District Council area. However it does appear that in the country as a whole primary and secondary schools from the same town were often sent to very different parts of the country. It is hard to see how parents could keep track of their children once they had been evacuated.
It is understandable how difficult it must have been to estimate the likely demand for accommodating evacuees and the numbers changed as time went on. John Gammon Wicks was the person responsible for producing a plan for Thornbury Rural District Council to deal with the numbers that the government anticipated would leave the vulnerable towns and cities when the war started in earnest. In the correspondence quoted above and in other notes to Gloucestershire Council he refers repeatedly to “my scheme.”
Planning must have been a nightmare for him. It was nearly impossible to make sensible provision for the feeding and accommodation of the evacuees. The numbers of people likely to come constantly changed as the authorities grappled with an entirely new situation. In the local area the numbers of rooms householders could offer also fluctuated. For example, on 2nd May Mr Wicks wrote to say that he could only take 6000 evacuees in the district as a number of those who had previously promised rooms had made other arrangements. When the evacuees did come, it seemed that accommodation would have to be found very quickly indeed. An early (undated) report mentions a Scheme for 7000 places to be provided in the whole of the Thornbury RDC area. Of these 822 were expected to be billeted in Thornbury parish. The plan said that the evacuees would all arrive over a two day period.
In the scheme created by Mr Wicks twenty villages within the Thornbury Rural District each had designated people who were responsible for making arrangements for the refugees. In Thornbury these were Mrs Burchell and Mr A. C Pitcher. The premises earmarked as centres for these evacuees were mentioned in a later note. Thornbury Congregational School in Chapel Street (possibly this was the Sunday School at the Cossham Hall ) was to take in 150 to 200 people, Old School Hall in Almondsbury 150 and the Friends’ Meeting House in Olveston 100. Further afield the Union Chapel Schoolroom in Newton, Sharpness was to receive 20 to 30 people while the Church Parish room in the same area could have 50 to 100,”Elmside” at Stone, 50 to 100 and Falfield School, another 100.
The scheme set out payments to be made to the householders for taking in evacuees – for full board and lodging, each unaccompanied child 10/6d per week, 8/6d for each unaccompanied child where more than one is taken in. For lodging only, 5/- per week for each unaccompanied child or adult.
Later correspondence makes the numbers seem a little more manageable than those initially anticipated. A letter of 15th June 1939 shows the first wave of evacuees was anticipated to be 800 refugees. These would be billeted only in the southern part of the district in the following way:
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At first there was only a steady trickle of people to be accommodated. A form dated 5th October 1939 shows that the numbers of children who were actually billeted in the Thornbury Rural District Council’s area at that time were far less than than the number that eventually arrived in the next few years. The form completed by Mr Mumford, the Co-ordination and Evacuation Officer who was also Deputy Clerk to the Council, declared that there were 7 unaccompanied school children, 36 children below school age, 22 mothers or other adults and a health visitor – a total of only 65 people as the health visitor was accommodated privately.
Mr Mumford’s form acknowledges that 173 blankets had been received to cope with this group and a roll of 50 yards of mackintosh overlays (possibly to cope with children with nocturnal enuresis – of which more below).
By 14th August 1940 the numbers had risen again but still well below those originally anticipated. It is also very interesting to see that although the numbers of children had grown very significantly to 366 “unaccompanied” children (337 children in houses and 29 in hostels) the numbers of adults had not grown in proportion. There were 26 teachers with one “other”- possibly the health visitor – and two mothers with their four young children. A newspaper report of the time says that there were 30 teachers and escorts, including two Sisters of Mercy with the 21 children from their private convent school.
The numbers of evacuees increased as time went on. Thornbury was officially the receiving centre for children evacuated from the Harwich and Dovercourt area. A large number of children arrived by train and were distributed to the parishes around the district within a ten to fifteen mile radius. The Gloucestershire Archives contains a memo that says they were evacuated on 13th and 14th August 1940 and that there were 9 unaccompanied children, 209 children under 14 and 527 adults and children over 14 – a total of 745. Another 56 people were mentioned on the same form as having made private arrangements for their accommodation. Click here to see a list of the names of those admitted to the Council School
Tony Cherry, the author of “The History of a School” about Thornbury Council School, says that every child was told to bring a backpack and that they each had to bring food for the journey, a gas mask, identity card, ration book, change of underclothing, nightclothes, handkerchiefs, warm thick shoes or boots, spare socks, “house shoes” or plimsolls, warm coat/mackintosh, toothbrush, comb and towel. It seems pitifully little in view of the fact that some children stayed for several years with their new families. However it is certain that many families of children to be evacuated were not able to provide so much. Billeting Officers had visited all the houses in the Thornbury area to assess who had sufficient accommodation to take one or more evacuees. Accepting the allotted number of children was compulsory and fines could be levied on those who refused, although it was possible to select a child from those available. One of the evacuees, Betty Deary, can recall waiting in the Grammar School hall to be chosen.
A newspaper report of the time confirms that the children were taken from Thornbury railway station to Thornbury Grammar School. Here they were examined by the County Medical Officer with the help of Dr Kitson who was Medical Officer of Health, Dr E M Grace, Dr D.C Prowse and the two District nurses. Although they were also given refreshments at the school it must have been a frightening experience to arrive in a strange place and be checked over by people in white coats. The children must also have realised that they were being “sorted” at this point and those “in need of special treatment” were segregated to go to the Malt House.
About 40 of the children were billeted, at least initially, at The Malt House in Gloucester Road, Morton. Some of these had not been found homes and others had been assessed by the County Medical Officer as having special needs . A newspaper report says that the Women’s Voluntary Service led by Mrs Murray and Mrs Noble had cleaned the house and equipped it ready for use. Mrs Noble was to act as a voluntary supervisor at the hostel until permanent arrangements could be made. They seem to have been looked after by a Nurse Corin (or Coran). We know that Jack and Eileen Judd lived in the house at this time and they were joined there by Nelson Higgins who also came to help look after the children.
Discipline seems harsh here by modern standards and Tony Cherry tells us that bed-wetters (with nocturnal enuresis) suffered the shame of having their noses rubbed in their wet beds and then being made to scrub the beds.
People in Thornbury must have had very mixed feelings about the evacuees that they were being forced to welcome into their homes. There seems to have been quite a lot of kindness extended to the bewildered children that arrived after a long journey. One imagines that there was also a strong war time spirit and people may have wanted to help those most threatened by bombing.
However it must be borne in mind that the first wave of “refugees” came before there was any actual bombing and certainly no news reels or photographs of bombed out families. This was a time before people in Thornbury had so much contact with people from all over the country (and even in some cases from abroad). It was also a time of clear social divides. It is noticeable that the son of a headmaster, Mr Nicholls recalls “scruffy young children with their cases and gas masks” and “discussions going on for a long time about behaviour and hair ticks”. John and Susan Fane de Salis in a different social class from the local headmaster and his family obviously had similar reservations. The family at Fairfield House was happy to have Sir Adrian and Lady Boult (see below) because as their daughter explained “it obviously was more sensible to have well-behaved P.G.s (paying guests) rather than the unknown qualities of evacuees with possibly unruly children.”
It is possible that when the evacuees arrived they were a pleasant surprise after the anticipation of problems. It is also possible that Mr Cullum, the headmaster of the school in Harwich was somewhat biased when he was reported as saying “I learned that our children were a most pleasant surprise to the householders who expected to see a very different sort of visitor.”
On July 1st 1940 an advance party of twenty-two of these evacuees came to the Council School from The Esplanade School in Harwich and another thirty-eight arrived at the school with their teachers in September. One of the teachers, Brigit McKearney, was to make her home in Thornbury even after the war, having become a teacher at the Council School. Click here to read about Miss McKearney. Another of the staff was the headmistress Miss Chapman, who according to Peter Nicholls was “short, plump and jovial……I believe she liked a bottle of Guinness at the end of each working day.”
When the first group of children from Harwich arrived at the Council School it was already coping with 34 other children who had come from Bristol to live with family or friends. During the course of the war many more were added to the school register. These included children from as far afield as Kent and Eastbourne and even the Channel Islands. The sheer numbers of pupils and staff joining the school brought problems of their own. Peter Nicholls said that “the school overflowed into two chapels and the Church Institute.” Part of the school garden also disappeared under a new canteen and air-raid shelters.
Despite the shock of being taken away from home at an early age, some of the children evacuated to Thornbury found it quite a happy experience and they were able to see it as an adventure. Read about John and Arthur Heath who were billeted with Frank Poole. It is difficult to assess the truth when reading the newspaper reports of this time, not only for the usual reason of press bias and inaccuracy but also because it was war time and propaganda was commonplace. The situation certainly sounds idyllic according to one newspaper; “on Monday and Tuesday the children had a rest in this delightful piece of rural England. I and my staff have now nearly completed our round of billets and foster -parents. Everywhere we have found happy children in delightful homes and gardens and foster parents who are so delighted with their charges that they want to keep them and would not mind having some more.”
However in reality resistance to the idea of having refugees lingered on. The Western Daily Press of 23rd September 1940 illustrated the reluctance that there was in some quarters. Arthur Charles Pitcher spoke out strongly about the people who constantly refused refugees, giving “trivial excuses” for doing so. One councillor who was not named said it would not be very pleasant for an evacuee who was billeted at house where he was not welcomed.
We have another nice example of someone who obviously became so fond of Thornbury that he or she wrote a poem about the place they were evacuated to. It appeared in the Gazette of November 1940. Please click here to see the poem.
We have fewer reports of what the householders had to say about looking after someone else’s children. One can only hope that they were all as nice as the lady in Cromhall who sent a message to her foster child’s parents that said “I am writing this little note to say that I have got your little girl in my care. I have one child of my own and I know how hard it must have been for you to let her come but I will do my very best for her while she is with me.”
A few of those who came to the relative safety of the town were very famous. The BBC had sent its Music and Light Entertainment Departments to Bristol and with it the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Adrian Boult was the Director of Music at that time and this is presumably why he and his wife, Lady Boult, stayed as paying guests for a time with the Fane de Salis family at Fairfield House in Castle Street, Thornbury. The orchestra was later evacuated once again, this time to Bedford. Similarly, the BBC Drama Director Cyril Wood made his home in Falfield for a time. This enabled Thornbury to take advantage of some very high quality entertainment indeed. As just one example of this Thornbury and District Museum has some programmes from “War Weapons Week” that show that Cyril Wood arranged a serenade concert in the Grammar School hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Marie Wilson and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The BBC singers performed at the same event. On another occasion Cyril Wood produced “Love from a Stranger” starring Wilfred Babbage and Joan Henson of the BBC Repertory Company.
Another notable guest at Fairfield House was Anthony Wagner, later Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms. During WWII Sir Anthony served at the War Office for four years before joining the Ministry for Town and Country Planning. The connection between Thornbury and the Royal College of Arms was Sir Algar Howard of Thornbury Castle who was Garter King of Arms from 1944. Sir Algar and his wife spent the war years at Thornbury House but they invited the Royal College of Arms to store documents and records at Thornbury Castle. Here they were housed under the supervision of William Caffall, who spent a great deal of time researching early Thornbury history and whose notes we have used extensively in this website. It is possible that the College of Arms was by no means the most valuable collection to spend the war years in Thornbury Castle. Local legend has it that the Crown Jewels were also evacuated there, although this has not been confirmed and other places make similar claims.
We have heard that some people just came out from Bristol in the evening and tried to find somewhere safe to spend the night. Other people lodged with local families and eventually stayed many years in the town. One such couple was Bernard and Gesiena Cavanagh, a family of Dutch refugees who lived at 11 Upper Bath Road. Another family who had travelled a long way to escape the invading enemy was that of Alfred Le Feuvre from St Peter Portin Guernsey. He served with the Maritime Regiment in Thornbury and found it a pleasant and safe place to be. He brought his family back here and they lived at 13 Horsehoe Lane.
Filton, only six miles or so away, experienced much bombing which was targeting the aircraft factory which was there. Some of the families whose houses were bombed there came to live in Thornbury. They often had family here already so could lodge with them while they looked for a more permanent home. Amongst these were Reg and Edna Vowles. Reg had married Edna Mary King from Filton on 27th December 1937. Edna was born on 2nd September 1917, the daughter of John King and his wife, Annie (nee Harris). Reg and Edna first lived in a house near the end of the airfield runway at Filton. During the early years of the War they were bombed out and the moved to Thornbury where several of Edna’s siblings were already living. Read more about Reg and Edna. Edna’s sister Gladys had a similar experience. She had married Ken Reece and they also were living in Filton when their house was bombed. Read about Gladys and Ken Reece. Another couple whose story we have heard was Jack and Rose Bond. Jack worked at the Bristol Aeroplane Company and in 1942 the house where Jack and Rose were living in Filton was bombed out and they also moved to Thornbury. Read more about Jack and Rose. Doubtless there were many more families locally that had this terrible experience but there is at least one more such story that appears on our website. Stanley and Dorothy Taylor were forced to move to Thornbury when they lost their home in Filton. Click here to read more about Stanley and Dorothy.
These informal evacuees came from other cities too. Diana Mawson nee Flight recalled that she was born in London but when pieces of shrapnel pierced her cot at home, her family came to Thornbury to live with her grandfather, a retired Metropolitan Police Officer. They eventually settled at The Hackett.