All About Wadhurst

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Philip Grey

 

116 Park Avenue Orpington Kent BR6 9EE Tel 01689831708

Evacuee in Wadhurst 1939/40

Before the 1939/45 War I attended a Grammar School in south-east London which in those days was a large school of about 600/700 boys. In September 1939 shortly before war was declared we were evacuated to Wadhurst. Not all the boys came, for a variety of reasons : - in many cases the work place of the bread winner of the family had been evacuated to another part of the country, or the family had made their own arrangements to stay in a safe area away from the air raids which were expected any minute. In some cases the family decided to remain in London, a decision which seemed to be justified by the absence of air raids until the summer of 1940. I do not know the exact number of evacuees arriving in Wadhurst in September 1939, but presumably the figures must be in the records somewhere. As the war progressed the numbers fell even further until when I was called up in 1943 there were just over 100 boys left in the school. Although we gained socially by being more of a community than we were before the War we inevitably lost a lot of the many extra curricular activities that a large school could offer such as choirs and orchestras, debating societies, dramatics etc.

After a slow train journey by a circuitous route from Ladywell station near Lewisham we ended up at Crowborough and were brought over to Wadhurst by coach, where we were led to the playing field at the back of the Commemoration Hall. Fortunately it was a glorious September day as there was a long wait while the harassed Billeting Officers and their helpers tried to match boys with the hospitable local people who had volunteered to take us in. We were given to understand that the reason for the lengthy process was that the local people had been told that they would be receiving mothers with children under 5, and were understandably disconcerted to be asked to take strapping lads of 11 to 18 years old.

Late in the afternoon I was transported to Woods Green with another 14 year old boy from my class and billeted on the wife of a groom who was an Army reservist and who had been called up. In those days the cottages had 4 rooms, two bedrooms upstairs, a kitchen and a room opening directly on to the road which served as a sitting room and dining room. My friend and I shared a bed in one of the bedrooms. There was no bathroom or lavatory and the W.C. was in a small brick building outside the back door. Satisfying the call of nature on a wet winter's night in the blackout was not a pleasant experience, which was presumably why they invented chamber pots.

By an extraordinary co-incidence my daughter's partner who was a teacher in Cambridge took a job in Wadhurst in 1986 and moved to Woods Green with my daughter without knowing that I had lived round the comer as a boy in the War 46 years before. Needless to say the cottage they bought although of the same design as mine had been enlarged by the addition of a top storey and thoroughly modernised.

When my friend and I had a bath we bathed in a tub in the kitchen while the lady of the house retreated to the other room. She was not well off by any standards as her husband was not able to send her much to support her. The Government only paid her seven shillings and sixpence a week (37.5 pence) for each boy, so our parents made a contribution to our upkeep. Even so it cannot have been easy to cater for two teenage boys with healthy appetites in war time circumstances and in early 1940 we were moved to Ticehurst. Apart from our landlady's difficulties it had been decided to take over a large house "Oakover" in Ticehurst so that the whole school could be under one roof. Previously we had been divided between the Commemoration Hall, and two other halls in the vicinity, which made life difficult for the Headmaster to plan a timetable for all the classes and for the teachers who had to shuttle between the different locations. The 4th 5th and 6th forms were divided between Arts and Science in the Commemoration Hall, so maintaining a reasonable sound level was a problem for the teachers.

The Headmaster had taken over the office of an Estate Agent in the High Street opposite our well-patronised sweet shop Gobies and set up the School Office there with the (male in those days) school secretary. It was there we had to collect our passes to go to London, which were so timed that we did not swamp the crowded weekend trains of those days. Of course when the Blitz started all London leave was stopped and we even had to have a pass to go to Tunbridge Wells. As the German panzers swept to the Channel coast we could hear the guns when the wind was in the right direction. The Government planned to move the school somewhere further away from the likely battle ground of the expected invasion. (I remember when the radio announced one lunch time that Abbeville on the French coast had been taken by the Panzers thus cutting off all our army the shock was so great that we refused to believe it). Our Headmaster had fought with distinction in the first War and was not going to let a little thing like a German invasion disrupt everything. He persuaded the Government to allow us to stay, as Wadhurst was a very rural and sparsely occupied area. In 1944, after I had been called up, the school was re-evacuated to South Wales when the V 1 Flying bombs were being shot down in the Wadhurst area.

The younger boys of the village regarded us much as any group of youngsters would look at any outsiders - i.e. with a certain amount of wariness. One of their witticisms would be to shout to the evacuees from Brockley County school "Go home broccoli cabbages!"

In the first weeks of the war many people in the newspapers and "the Establishment" thought that the war would be over by Christmas 1939 for the bizarre reason that Germany would be bankrupt. Our French teacher however had lived through the First War and had remembered the same sort of talk then. He organised us into work parties to cultivate potatoes on the edge of the playing field at the Commemoration Hall in Wadhurst, saying that the War would last at least three years and that food would be short. How right he was. As the war went from bad to worse many farm workers were called up and we were asked to work on farms for two or three afternoons a week. We were paid 6d - later 7d (about 2.5p) - an hour on a variety of jobs :- pulling flax, weeding fields, picking up root crops, haymaking and arranging sheaves of wheat into "stoocks" leaning up against each other so that the wind could dry out the crop - this was before the age of combine harvesters for every farm. All sorts of fruit had to be picked at the appropriate season. One year I picked apples, and we were only paid our usual 7d. an hour although local boys and girls of the same age doing the same work were paid 10d. I complained to the headmaster about this and our pay was increased to 9d. as a result.

By present day standards these amounts are derisory, but of course the cost of living has increased in line with the increase in wages, and it may put things into perspective if I mention the cost of one or two items at that time. For example, a cup of coffee (often made from liquid from a bottle) was 3d. (1p) and tea was even cheaper. My favourite Cadbury's bar of chocolate was 2d, which I bought from the little comer shop in Woods Green - long since gone.

Hops were a common crop in the area then, even on quite small farms and each farm had its own oast house. Now of course it is all much more centralised and mechanised. The first time I picked hops was in September 1940, when the school received an S.O.S. from Scotney Castle farm near Lamberhurst. As the air raids on London were very bad the usual families from the East End had not arrived and we were asked to help. Lorries were sent each day to bring us to the hop gardens, and we soon learned to wear our oldest clothes as the sticky golden pollen from the flowers impregnated everything with its distinctive smell. We worked four to a large container or "bin" and we were warned against picking too many leaves or stalks in our haste to pick a bushel for which we were paid 4d to 6d depending on the crop. If the measurer thought there were too many leaves he would refuse to count them and you would have to waste time cleaning up the pickings.

As the Battle of Britain was reaching its climax in early September 1940 there were many clashes between German raiders and our fighters over the Wadhurst area. On one occasion a plane was shot down directly overhead and seemed to be coming down in our field. The noise of the plane's engine got louder and became a high-pitched scream as it spiralled out of control towards us from several thousand feet up. Needless to say there was great alarm and confusion as the hop-pickers dropped what they were doing and ran in all directions, as it was impossible to tell where it would hit the ground. Fortunately after the noise had reached a crescendo the plane crashed on the other side of the farm buildings and no-one was hurt. We were very relieved to see that the pilot had baled out as it was a Hurricane that had been shot down. Our relief turned to anxiety as he drifted down over the hop garden as he could have injured himself quite badly if he had fallen on the overhead wires which supported the hop vines. Fortunately he landed between the wires a few yards from our bin and we ran over to see if he was injured and to offer him a cup of tea. By a miracle he had not been hit by the machine gun fire that had shot down his plane and he refused our offers as he pulled something stronger from his hip pocket. He asked for the Army to be called as soon as possible as he had to return to his airfield to fly again the same day. I believe this was the usual procedure to ensure that there was no time for shock to set in. After he had left we resumed our hop picking in the warm sunshine as if nothing had happened.

At 15 I was too young to realise the significance of the battle that was going on overhead, or to appreciate what the pilot had gone through, or what would happen if he and his fellow pilots had not won the battle, but in my defence I would say that I don't think many English people appreciated it either. There was a firm belief that we would win the war, although the ordinary people had no clear idea of how we were going to do it. Even to express doubts about any aspect of our war effort was condemned by the Government as defeatist talk, and it was a shock to us in the 6th form when our history teacher said on one occasion "if we win the war. He went on to spell out the realities of our position fighting on our own a country twice as big as we were which was in possession of nearly the whole of continental Europe and had a large experienced army and air force, while we had only the remnants of the army from Dunkirk with no armaments and few modem planes and tanks. With hindsight I can see that our defences were rudimentary in the extreme, and I hate to think what would have happened if the Germans had managed to land even a few troops by glider or landing craft and capture an airfield or port. There was certainly nothing to stop them in our area.

To sum up : - my time in Wadhurst was an unforgettable experience, coming as it did at a very impressionable age, and I shall always remember the sights and sounds of the Wealden valleys in the ever changing seasons. I go there frequently to visit my daughter and her partner, and I still think it is the most attractive type of English countryside, although I am quite prepared to admit under pressure that nostalgia might have made me biased.

Philip Grey 14 July 2003

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