By John Harvey


I had been sent a copy of the Baldock Mail – August/ September 2011 Issue, and was directed to the article “Memories of Wartime Evacuees in Baldock”. I was so excited because it was the first time I had ever heard from anyone about those traumatic days, even after scouring through Facebook, and Friends Re-united on the internet. Needless to say many of the experiences of the writer – Olive Watson and her sisters were similar to my own, coming from Seven Sisters School Tottenham, and being of same age. My memories are still vivid although strangely, Olive’s recollections of the trip from Tottenham to Baldock are more detailed. I am John Harvey (81 now) with so many memories I could turn the article into a book, but here goes…

1939 – The conversations between mum and dad at home were frightening. War, Hitler, Oswald Mosley, Jews, gas-attacks and bombing, all sowing seeds of fear into our young minds. Also, I loved reading comics which featured war stories, with pictures of huge bombers dropping bombs on houses and I pictured the same thing happening to my road in Tottenham. This led to talk of EVACUATION and being taken from our parents and going to who knows where.

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So the day came, September 1st 1939, finding us lined up in the road outside the School, sadly looking for mum and dad among all the other parents lining the street. What are we doing, where are we going, will we see our parents again? I was standing with my younger brother Derek and sister Connie – carrying a gas-mask (having practised many time how to put it on, and struggling to breathe.. So suitably labelled, and being given a packet containing and apple, orange and packet of cheese biscuits’ which I could smell – and I hated cheese. So we moved off but oddly, I have no memories of the journey to what must have been a railway station, because my next memory is standing with a group of children outside Baldock Station’
Our group was led on a long trek along the Great North Road children breaking off as they were taken to their billets. We were last, being told “You are the lucky ones and would be staying on a farm”. So about a mile up the road, we were led into Blackhorse Farm to meet Mr. and Mrs. Redhouse.

They had no children of their own, but greeted us kindly. “What do you want to call us” we were asked. I decided – ‘Mum and Dad’, which was strange I know, as all the other kids used the term Uncle and Auntie. But, that’s what we did for the next few months. First day, fears allayed, time to explore our new home and surroundings - haystacks, barns, stables, pig-sty’s, granaries, horses, cows, carts, tractors and hundreds of chickens and ducks everywhere. It was not long before we were taken indoors, my brother having fallen into the river trying to chase some ducks, and my sister having run into a large bush of stinging nettles was in great pain. The house had no electricity, being lit by paraffin oil-lamps. No bathroom, just a pump in the kitchen sink. The toilet – a small sentry-box just outside the house and to use it you just sat on a bench with a pit underneath. The smell, and the flies and wasps, still live with me.

(I suppose we didn’t find it too bad, as at home we only had gas-lighting and an outside toilet). And so to bed, with a glass of milk and a biscuit, the three of us in one bed, where we cried and cried for our mum. Two days later, I remember sitting in the kitchen having for the first time tasted duck’s eggs, and being told to be quiet for a moment as we listened to the radio. It was Neville Chamberlain announcing that “We were now at war with Germany”.

We were indeed lucky to be billeted on a farm with the quaintly dressed Farmer Redhouse as he was known and his distinct country dialect. I loved the animals especially the four huge horses, and learned so much. I helped feed the pigs and chickens each day, climbed the apple trees and romped in the haystacks, climbed all over the tractor. One day, Farmer Redhouse had a visitor, a man on a bike, carrying a large sack, which was wriggling. I was invited to put my hand inside and found it being nibbled by a couple of ferrets. No harm done as I was soon fondling them in my arms. I was thrilled when one day during harvesting, “Dad” allowed me to hold the reins on the hay-cart and drive my favourite horse Turpin back to the farm, where we would then with lots of help, build another haystack. Other times we would all help with the potato picking, and learn to place them in clamps to protect them from the coming frost. In a far corner of a field on the farm used to be a Gypsy camp, and I mean real Gypsies with the beautifully decorated traditional horse-drawn caravan. We used to spend fun-times round their camp fire playing with some children about our age.

The Redhouse’s were strict church-goers and Sunday evening would drive us in their little Ford car to the Methodist Church in centre of town (still looking same today). One day they told us they had received a letter from our mum, who had saved up some money after finding a job in a pub, and was coming to see us. It was a very hot day I recall, and walked along the Gt. North Road towards the station to meet her, exhausted, but you can imagine the joy at seeing her again. Today I still feel the hurt as mum recalled, “I was dying of thirst, and they didn’t even offer me a cup of tea…”.

                                                         PICTURED RIGHT: BALDOCK METHODIST CHURCH

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Opposite the farm-gates on the other side of the main road was a big white house where two of our school friends lived – Doreen Perry and her sister Alexandra, and we would often play in the fields together. Now – a rude bit I am afraid, but with some interest. In a field just to the rear of this house was an Army unit, with a searchlight battery, and an anti-aircraft gun. At the bottom of the lane leading up to the site would always be a soldier on guard carrying a rifle, and a pair of binoculars, steel helmet, etc. His job was to stop anyone venturing up the Lane, and to look out for enemy aircraft. I used to love chatting to one particular soldier, and he would let me look through his binoculars. One day, cycling past was pretty young girl on bicycle, and a strong gust of wind caused her skirt to blow up, prompting my soldier friend to say to me, “Son, I would ------- her if she had a face like a frying-pan”. Sorry, but I did know what he was talking about.


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School meant a long walk every day to the Town Hall next to the Fire-station, where classes were laid out in an open plan, and even on the stage. I remember getting into a fight with a boy in my class, only to discover he was the son our teacher (Mr Pyatt I think).


Come Christmas and teachers organised a Concert, and I remember a very pretty little girl name Fay Cohen who danced, sang and did acrobatics. From time to time there were organised visits to the local Brewery to see how beer was made, and the famous Bondor Stocking factory, famous for its nylon stockings and now turned over to producing parachutes. There was a walk along the Icknield Way, which I think they said was an old Roman Road. Saturday mornings were exciting as it meant a visit to the Astonia Cinema where we would be given some sweets on the way out. I remember the first film, The Cisco Kid (with Cesar Romero), and a song from a film I remembered and sing even now, “Little Curly Hair in a High Chair…”.
Now to my shame, more drama. One morning I spotted a gold chain on Mr. Redhouse’s dressing table. I picked it up and went to school proudly wearing it on my scruffy waistcoat. It was spotted by a sharp-eyed teacher, a one Mr. Allison who wanted to know where I got it. I was asking myself, “Well, did I just borrow it or had I stolen it”. The teacher took it from me of course returned it to Mr. R making it obvious that he thought I was a thief. I was to report to the headmaster at the school next morning (which was a Saturday). I was ashamed and terrified, but on the way, who should I see, but Mr. Ring, my headmaster. I joined him and he recognised my state. “Please, don’t tell my mum”, I begged. He put his arm on my shoulder, and promised he would not (a promise he kept). Not so Mr. Allison, where on my returning to Tottenham School, whose class should I be put in, but his, and he took delight in letting the whole class know about me. I could have killed him. But, back to Baldock and another trip on a bitterly cold day. A teacher noticed that my hands were blue with cold. She kindly took me to a draper’s shop and bought me a pair of gloves, but the shopkeeper forced this pair of leather gloves over my fingers convincing the dear teacher that they fitted, and my hands were colder than ever. The day came, I, with brother Derek and sister Connie were moved from Blackhorse Farm and three reasons being offered – the gold-chain incident, our room was needed for a Land-girl, and the other, washing facilities not good enough. But for the record, I treasure the memories and experiences at the Farm.
For a short period, we were housed in the Rectory attached to the local Vicarage, a grim place I recall where we were terrified every night by the loud chimes of the church clock. Our sister Connie (7) was separated from us and went to stay with a family by the name of Peacock somewhere in town. Derek and I were taken in by a Mr. and Mrs. Fox who lived in Mons Avenue near the end of Town. They had three children of their own; the house was small so things were a bit cramped. Mr. Fox worked at the local brewery and was also a Fireman. We were happy there, and I was introduced to Brussel sprouts for the first time, something Mr. Fox loved growing. Come Christmas, and one evening my brother and I went Carol singing in the hope we could earn some pocket money, and some very nice houses nearby found two scruffy boys singing on their doorsteps and when one lady gave us a shilling, we were over the moon. Across the main road led to a large housing estate and beyond that the Weston Hills, very popular for sledging. We were moved again, to a large place called Letchworth House. We loved it there, made friends with other children, and summer was approaching, but we never left the place

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One morning I woke up having nightmares, a sore throat and a temperature, and an ambulance was called and I was taken to Hitchin Isolation Hospital with diphtheria. Not long before we left Tottenham for Baldock, there had been an epidemic in London, and the Government introduced an immunisation programme. My mum had us immunised. Back at the hospital, I survived. A couple of days after my admission, several other children were admitted, five from one family. I remember that evening, nurses and doctors were dashing up and down in a state of distress, four of the children died that night.
The road to recovery was long, and I used to have swabs taken from my throat, which were sent to a laboratory in Cambridge and you were not pronounced clear until you had three positive results - and this went on for weeks. My clothes had been incinerated and I had nothing to wear and had to stay in bed during some lovely sunny weather. But the nurses were lovely, one I fell in love with, oddly a Nurse Harvey who would sit on my bed and talk to me. The day came; three clear swabs were noted on my chart. My mum had decided to take us all home, her words I remember, “If we get hit by a bomb, we will all go together. So, home, and the Blitz, but that is another story…..

Article written and prepared by John Harvey from an original story published in the 'Baldock Mail' - Sept 2012


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