A LEIGH EVACUEE: MRS GLADYS HALE (née Edwards)
Gladys Edwards was born in 1932 in Westminster, London. She was the fourth of six children, three older sisters and two younger brothers. The girls went to a Roman Catholic school, St Vincent de Paul in Carlisle Place off Victoria Street near the Roman Catholic Cathedral. “Our teachers were nuns who belonged to The Sisters of Charity and they used to wear those enormous white winged hats. They had the long grey skirts and we children used to laugh at them and when we went down the stairs we’d imitate them pulling their skirts up”.
In September 1939, like so many other Londoners, Gladys’ parents were told that their children were going to be evacuated to the country. All the parents were given a list of things the children would have to take. “But it was not a big list”, says Gladys. “And it didn’t include a toothbrush or anything like Wellingtons. And we were not allowed to take any toys. We got given a small sack to put all our things in and we were issued with gas masks which were very smelly. When we got the gas masks, we were told to practise putting them on and then we were meant to go along and see if we’d got them to work properly. But we heard you had to go into a room which has gas that made you cry if you hadn’t got your mask on right. We didn’t fancy that. Eventually though, three of us decided we’d go. We went along to Chadwick Street in Victoria – it’s near where Channel 4 is now – and there was this big box thing in the road. You went in one end, through the tear gas and out the other end. When we came out of the container testing thing with the gas, we were laughing because the gas hadn’t made us cry and we asked what we should do if there was an attack and we hadn’t got our gas masks. They said, ‘Wet a cloth and put it over your face’. So we said, ‘What if there isn’t any water and they said ‘Wet your knickers.
“A few days later, we reported to school to be sent off. There were five of us – three older sisters and one of my younger brothers. The sack that I took that day is now in the Imperial War Museum with my name and number still written on it. All of us children were given a label with our name and other things on it and a carrier bag of ‘iron rations’. There were some biscuits, a bar of chocolate and condensed milk – I’ve forgotten what else. Our parents weren’t allowed to come to the station, so the whole school marched along the road to Victoria Station with some teachers. The teachers weren’t the nuns – they didn’t come. So we didn’t even know them. I was seven years old.
“The train only went to Redhill. Then we were put on a coach. The children called out ‘where are we going?’ and they said, ‘we can’t tell you: it’s secret’. By the time we got to Leigh some of the children had begun to eat their chocolate and so on – some of them hadn’t seen such things before – and then a boy got stung by a wasp. So there was chaos. . Anyway when we did get to Leigh, we were all put into the School and the local people came to choose us. My middle two sisters were taken off and went to live with Mrs Sands, who lived in a farm cottage on Miss Goodwin’s farm – it was opposite Paul’s Hill Farm and had a huge tree on the right of the path in. The stump’s still there. Mrs Sands’ husband worked for Miss Goodwin. Mrs Sands’ grown up children were Fred and Florrie and they and Mr Sands all worked on the farm. The Sands’ cottage was pretty basic by today’s standards. All the water had to be carried from a well and heated up. And we were told that there wasn’t much water anyway. I remember when my sisters did the washing up, they had to do it in a special order – the glasses first, then the cutlery, then the dishes and so on – to save water.
“My oldest sister – she was thirteen – and my little brother and I were not chosen; and after a bit we were taken up to a big house owned by a nice lady who gave us food”. [It was almost certainly Park House which was lived in by Mrs Twitchell who was in charge of making the arrangements for the evacuees]. “I had a lovely time on the big swing in the garden and we were given tea. Then the group of us who hadn’t been chosen were taken along to a derelict farm cottage at Home Farm [This would have been ‘Home Farm Cottage’, the house on the road nearest the Farm]. When we got there I looked over the wall and there were lots and lots of pigs in the mud. The building only had one piece of furniture – a bench – and I was sitting on it with my things between my feet, when a teacher came in and said, ‘come and help us. Clean off the cobwebs from the windows’. I said I didn’t like spiders. But anyway that night, the teacher had left us and some children were joking around amongst themselves upstairs with the light on. Then we heard a shout. ‘Put that light out: don’t you know there’s a war on’. Then we heard thump, thump, thump, thump and we thought it must be a ghost coming up the stairs. But it was just the man telling us about the light. We slept on sacks of straw and it was very uncomfortable.
“The next day, my big sister, my brother and I were taken on a long walk round the outside of the village to where our sisters were living with the Sands family. We walked along the roads – there were no cars in those days and then we went all round the fields and saw all the flowers growing wild. I’d never seen wild flowers before. It was very beautiful. We all walked along on the side of the railway track and along past the weir. My big sister lost her ruby ring in the water. Then, after a few days the three of us – my older sister, my younger brother and I – went to live with Mr and Mrs Ferguson. Mr Ferguson was the Head Gardener at Hall Place and he and his wife and two children lived in the quite big house on the left of the entrance up to Hall Place [now called Gardeners Cottage]. We three children were given a room in a bit at the back with two beds joined together. My older sister had one bed and my brother and I the other. We were not allowed to use the front door or to go into the house or to eat with the family. My big sister used to take us outside, sometimes when it was raining, to a shed to have a bath or a wash. She did our washing, too. But Mrs Ferguson used to give us breakfast and she cooked the best scones I’ve ever eaten – she was a wonderful cook.
“There wasn’t room for our school to go to the village one, so we were in the Village Hall, what’s called the Large Village Hall now I gather. I read in Chris Rowley’s book “We Had Everything . . .” that the children from the other Catholic school from London used to have fights with the local children but we didn’t – I was brought up not to do things like that. We were taught to respect and be polite to others but I don’t remember anything about another school of evacuees being in the village.
“At first, the village seemed very different from our life in Victoria. We hardly saw a car but we saw carts and horses; and there was one bus a week which took people to Tonbridge. I particularly remember the forge that they had behind the Village Hall [where Wheelwrights Cottage is now] and I used to go and watch the man making things there. The only shop I can remember was Parrotts because it sold sweets. It was small but where the Village Shop is now. And there was the Post Office on the front house of The Square nearest the Green.
“We kept in touch with our parents. My big sister used to write and I think Dad came down to see us a couple of times. And a Catholic priest used to come on Sunday mornings to take a service in the village.
“Fairly soon after we got to the village, we were asked would we help out with the hop picking. As our sisters were on Miss Goodwin’s Farm, we all went there. We didn’t get paid but Mrs Sands gave us a lovely tea and her fruit cake was lovely. Every time I eat fruitcake, it reminds me of the smell of hops and pulling the bines down. I loved picking hops because just before the War, I used to watch families leave London to go hop picking, so I was curious. My family had never been hopping. I always remember how difficult it was to get off all the stains from the hops – particularly as we didn’t really have anywhere proper to wash at the Fergusons. Miss Goodwin was a kind lady and one day she sent me a wooden box with tiny Spode china animals in it.
“The Fergusons were Scottish and didn’t celebrate Christmas Day much so we didn’t have anything special for Christmas lunch but on Christmas Day afternoon we were invited up to Hall Place to watch a film. I remember being very impressed because there were two flunkies – one on either side of the stairs. [When Gladys came back to Leigh in September 2016, almost seventy-seven years to the day she first arrived, she was shocked to see that Hall Place was so much smaller after the eastern third of it had burnt down. The part that had gone was the end she remembered with the big staircase and big rooms.] Later on Lady Hollenden – Lady Diana – was very kind to me. She called at the house and spoke to Mrs Ferguson and asked to speak to me. She gave me coloured ribbons to put in my hair – they were wrapped in tissue paper. We weren’t at the Fergusons very long – maybe four or five months – but we must have left after Christmas. I can remember playing on the big fire engine with Alex Ferguson, the son. It lived in the building just beyond the Fergusons and it had brass bits all over it. We used to pretend we were firemen having adventures. I remember after Christmas, Hall Place Lake froze over and people went skating on it. Someone had a chair – it was like a rocking chair – and people sat in it and were pushed along by the skaters. I also have a very strong memory of Christmas 1939. At School, when Christmas was coming, we decorated the Village Hall with paper chains and we did a little Nativity Play and had a party. But the thing I remember best was going up to the Churchyard. I used to swing and lean on the metal gate that looked over the park and there were all the deer and the beautiful shapes of the trees. And I just thought how wonderful it was. I saw holly and mistletoe and all the little birds. I was thrilled. I told myself there really is a Christmas. It was magic.
“One of the things that has always stuck in my mind happened on my way back from school was the stag. I was just coming out on to the High Street from the Village Hall and there was this really big stag, standing on top of the Hall Place wall opposite me, with his huge antlers. He looked left and right, then he jumped down. I was scared but he trotted off down the High Street towards Penshurst.
“Eventually, we were moved from the Fergusons to a farm cottage over towards Penshurst. I remember a nice old lady and we had what seemed like a huge double featherbed which all three of us slept in. [In the September 2016 visit, the cottage was identified as what is now called Park Farm Cottage, reached by a cart track on the Penshurst Road opposite Cinder Hill Cottage and where there had at one stage been a few farm buildings – a barn and a small milking parlour.] It was not very good because we had to walk to school and back which was a long way and we got tired. And I didn’t like the cows; I was frightened by them and also the horses in the same field. When we went to school we would walk through the field and then through the woods, we came out on the cart track at the top of Paul’s Hill just above where Mrs Sands lived. When spring came the bluebells and primroses were out and you got a lovely smell from the woods. We used to cry at night because I used to get terrible pains in my legs and my mum was not there to help. I used to cry myself to sleep.
“My sister was fourteen that summer and you had to leave school at fourteen. That was the age you had to go to work. So all us children moved back to Victoria. I was only in Leigh for eight or nine months but I remember it very clearly, even though I was only seven and a half when I left”.
From conversations with Chris Rowley (October 2016)