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{$text['mgr_blue1']} Simpson 6

Me and my brothers. Chapter 2: Evacuee!

by Donald McDonald Simpson

The day they declared war

ChamberlainChamberlain announces the outbreak of war, a broadcast from the BBC

Chamberlain at the BBC (1)

During the 1930s, the Simpson family lived in the Tyneside town of South Shields. I introduced my family and my bothers in the first article: (Chapter 1: Formative years)

My brother Harry was already attending the High School in South Shields in 1939. I had left the Junior School in June of that year and was due to start the new year on Monday September 4th. We were both sitting with the whole family in the kitchen and we heard Mr Chamberlain's announcement that we were now at war. Straight away, mother told me to run across the road to tell our grandmother which I did. I said "Grandma, the war's started and mother wants you to come across and have a cup of tea." So she put her black coat on - she always wore black - and we got to the corner of the street which was only about 50 yards when she said "Oh, we might just get some sweets" and as she always did she gave me a penny. Hurrying to the shop, I dropped the coin and it rolled along the pavement and went into the sink. I had the dilemma (and this has lived in my mind ever since!): should I get down on my knees and try to get it out of the sink or get home as quickly as possible now that the war had started. Anyway fear overcame greed and I just went on with my grandmother.

The South Shields Grammar School evacuation booklet

South Shields Grammar School evacuee booklet (2)

We arrived home as the air raid siren went and my father insisted on pushing everybody but himself under the stairs. I don't remember what we did for the rest of the day. We weren't allowed to do interesting things like going out on your bicycle as you couldn't ride your bicycle on a Sunday. My parents were very strict about such things even though they didn't go to church themselves - or very reluctantly and occasionally. We weren't allowed to buy sweets or carry money so it is probable that mother would have thought it was a good thing that I had dropped that penny otherwise Jesus might have been a bit cross!

At school the following day the headmaster addressed us in assembly and said "You are the boys who are new to the school and you don't know us at all. The majority of the boys have been for several years. We hope to take you all into the country - to evacuate you. I'm giving you a letter for your parents and you have to meet at South Shields railway station on Thursday morning." So he handed out this sheet and we left. That was the only time I set foot in that school. I took it home to my parents. My mother asked;" What do you think?". My father said: " Well the schools won't be open over here but they might be in the country where they are going. It might be a better idea to let them go there." Harry was very keen to go really. He was the sort of bloke who thought "Oh good, father won't be there so I can do as I like". I was too young. I was only ten. But they decided to send us anyway.

South Shields Grammar School evacuees

South Shields Grammar School evacuees (2)

We were to leave South Shields at half past eight in the morning. Harry was thirteen so he was old enough to take us down to the station by ourselves. We said goodbye to our parents at the house because mother had the two younger children to look after and father was at work. When we got there we were put into a long line and they pinned labels with our name on to our lapels. Nobody told us where we were going. I didn't have the slightest idea, it was just into the country, and I hadn't been able tell our parents where we were going.

The first stop was Newcastle and I think three quarters of the boys wanted to get off to go to the toilet. It was one of those trains which had separate compartments where you just got on through a door on each side of the carriage and there was enough room for four on each side to sit on. There was no corridor or lavatory which led to all sorts of consequences later on! It was a slow journey as we had to wait at stations while other trains passed through and it was the afternoon when we got to Carlisle. We hadn't had anything to eat or drink but once there they give us some cheese sandwiches. Most of us didn't like cheese and when the train started off again there must have been about fifteen pounds of perfectly good cheese thrown out of the windows to the animals in the fields. We just ate the bread!!

Mrs Ellison's, Appleby

A plan of Appleby in Westmoreland at the beginning of World War 2

A plan of Appleby: 1939 (3)

It was five o'clock when we arrived in Appleby and it had been a very long journey. By this time I was just feeling numb and it didn't seem to me to be such a good idea. We got out of the train and we were marched to a nearby school. There were two railway lines in Appleby which ran parallel through the town and the school was between the two. We were lined up along the corridor so that people from the town could come along and picked us. Mrs Ellison wanted two boys so we were chosen and she took us to her house. Straight away Harry said "Do you mind if I go out Mrs Ellison". She said: "No certainly, off you go". He had somehow found out that there were teenage girls in the family in the house next door and a friend of his had been evacuated with them. So he went in and they had a rollicking evening playing darts with the family in quite a party atmosphere.

Meanwhile, I just sat at the table on my own. That was the furthest away from home that I had ever been and I really didn't know what to do. There were no books to read and nobody was talking to me. The mother was putting the two younger children to bed. The father, a rather dour individual and uncommunicative apart from saying a quick hello, came home from work at about six o'clock. He read his newspaper while was eating his tea. I just sat and sat. It was beginning to get dark by then but in desperation I asked: Can I go out?" and the father said: "Yes, yes." I think he was actually pleased to see me go. I traced my steps back to the station, over the bridge and down a steep bank on the other side. I saw houses where children had been playing but they were being called in by their parents. There were lights in the windows as they didn't have blackout restrictions over there at that time. I walked down a diagonal path past some bushes across a park into the main street into Appleby, crossed the bridge over the river and on the right hand side there was a shop. I stood in the doorway for a long time: over an hour I think. I was absolutely overcome. I didn't know how to face the situation really. Eventually I decided that the best thing was to find my way home. So I walked back up and Harry came into the house almost at the same time about half past eight. We were given something to eat after which we went off to bed. I remember this in terrible detail as it affected me so much.

Boys on a nature study walk

The Nature Study Walk (4)

That would have been the end of it but for the fact that Harry used to smoke, a habit that neither of our parents liked. He got his cigarettes out in the bedroom and lit one. The chap in the house must have come upstairs and of course he smelled the cigarette smoke. He hammered on the door and demanded to know who was smoking. Harry had already thrown the cigarette out of the window. Anyway the old man went downstairs again and Harry lit another cigarette. Unfortunately the match caught the nap of a very furry blanket on the bed which went on fire. We were able to put out the flames but there was a large brown patch left in the middle. Harry decided that he would have to shave the top layer and the scorch off. He then turned the blanket upside down so that the burned area was on the inside. Nothing was said about the episode and we wondered whether the bed was ever changed.

We were in Appleby for four months (September through to December 1939) which seemed an age to a child of ten. The school had been set up in the church hall and was divided into two rooms by a partition. Only 60 or 70 pupils had come from South Shields (the rest had very sensibly stayed at home. First, second and third year pupils were all mixed together in one room; the fourth and fifth years, with a few sixth formers, in the other. Teaching in those circumstances was impossible. If I was supposed to be learning anything I certainly didn't. We were all at different stages and we had no textbooks. Eventually they gave up classroom work and occupied the time taking the whole school with maybe four or five teachers (three at the front and two at the back) for country walks. After the first mile or so, lads would start to drop out, ostensibly to irrigate the hedgerows but really just to get away for a while. We'd start with 70 kids but by the end we were down to about 10, with the five staff, but they didn't seem to notice - or if they did notice they didn't seem to care. That was the education!

Continued in column 2...

Page added June 10th 2007
Last modified: March 22nd 2012

Back to Shields

When my parents heard that I wasn't getting any education in Appleby, they said I might as well come home. I was extremely pleased. There hadn't been any bombing during that time and while we were away they moved to North Shields on the other side of the River Tyne. My father had to be on the premises, ready to help out in the case of bombing. So he obtained the assistant dockmaster's house which was on the side of Northumberland dock.

Auntie Nan's wedding

Nancy Welch (Auntie Nan) Wedding

Peter met us at Percy Main station and took us down to the house. Our parents had spent all the savings on furnishing this house with all new carpets. The house was about four times as big as the one we had been used to. It had two enormous rooms downstairs, big enough to take a billiard table, and upstairs, two bedrooms: one for the parents, one for the rest of us. Our room was big enough to have two double beds and between the beds was a large kitchen table and there was still enough room to get between the bed and the table on each side.

While we were away we had missed the wedding of our Auntie Nan - my mother's youngest sister - and Les. They got married during the war and all the people that were there gave Peter, our younger brother, pocket money which amounted to something like twelve shillings. Peter, always the generous one, divided it into three and gave Harry and me a four shilling postal order each.

We immediately started at Tynemouth High School. The first term that I was there was very uneventful and both Harry and I got into our stride. The next thing that happened was that the Germans took over the Low Countries, attacked through Holland and there was panic immediately and they were going to be in this country within two weeks. Our house was right on the edge of the dock and was close to a diver's workshop. That building received a direct hit in an air raid and the diver was killed. I remember Harry was lying on a rug in front of the fireplace when there was this terrible explosion. All the windows and frames and ceilings of our house came down while we were sitting in the cupboard under the stairs. Mounds of soot were dislodged from the chimney and we watched as Harry was engulfed in this black wave. My father was of stout Victorian character and he comforted us with a "Steady boys". There was no school for several days after that but mother always had our clothes washed and there was always a meal on the table.

Evacuated again

Donald Simpson as a schoolboy

The author as a young scholar

So everybody had to be evacuated again.

This time even mother was initially happy for us all to go but within a week she came to bring Peter and Brian home again. Harry and I were evacuated again, this time to Hexham. Harry declared that he had had enough of younger brothers and would not agree to be evacuated to the same house as me. So I was taken in with a young lad called "Kipper" Heron by an elderly lady (whose children had left home) and her grumpy husband. We arrived on a Thursday and were met the old man who obviously did not want us. There was nothing in the house for us youngsters and so Kipper and I went out that Thursday evening and walked around the town. On the Friday night one of us wet the bed, probably through anxiety, which angered the old lady. The next day we both went out but in separate directions and I never saw Kipper again. Apparently he had telephoned his parents who came and collected him. I was amazed by this as I didn't know anyone with a telephone or with immediate access to petrol.

The River Tyne Bridge, Hexham

Tyne Bridge, Hexham (5)

I was even more dejected by this and once again I was entirely on my own. One Saturday morning I asked the old lady if I could have a bath. She said: "My boys always got bathed in the river. I'll give you a towel and you can go and do the same." and she sketched out where I should go. I had always thought that the Tyne was a treacherous river that people often drowned in. When I got there all I could do was stand on the bank and hold on to the grass with one hand and let the water run over me and then pull myself out getting muddy again on the way.

I didn't have many friends at this time because I had only been at the school in Tynemouth for a matter of weeks and I hadn't come from the same feeder schools as the other pupils who had known each other from their junior school. I would wander about Hexham by myself and on one occasion I met Harry. I asked him where he was living and I told him all about my situation. He said "Oh we can't have that, that's terrible." He was with a Mrs Armstrong, a thoughtful motherly person, and her husband, Will, who was a boistrous, rubicund sort of fellow. "We are a bit crowded but she might be able to do something." It was an old council house which had one living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an outside loo. Already the occupants consisted of the mother, father and daughter Georgina; Harry and his friend Harry Murphy, and in addition there was another family comprising a mother and two small children (the father was in the forces, at Dunkirk actually) who had been bombed out from Stanley, County Durham. Somehow she agreed to take me in. We were all in three rooms. Harry and Harry Murphy were in one room sharing a three quarter bed while I was on a camp bed across the foot. We were cramped for space but it didn't matter because the atmosphere was so good. There wasn't even room to eat together but it didn't matter to Mrs Armstrong and she prepared a rota for the children to have their meals first and then we would clear up and the adults could eat afterwards. We were short of butter, and this that and the other but she would put our names on little saucers so that we knew which our ration was.

I was in Hexham between April 1940 to March 1941. With the best of intentions the authorities wanted us to be educated and it was arranged for us to go to the Grammar School in the afternoons. Again there was a shortage of teachers and textbooks and exercise books. We started with over two hundred children but within a month the number was halved and by August our numbers when down to about 50. You never knew which teacher was going to be there, and what subject you were going to be taught. Harry, having an inate expertise in avoiding work, told everybody that we were going home. Then we just went out into the woods and when the teachers called out the register someone shouted out "They've gone home, Sir!" and that was it and nobody asked where we were from that day onwards. Harry thought it was great because he used to meet some of the Australian soldiers in the fruit machine shop and chat to them.

Holy Trinity Methodist Church, Hexham, Northumberland

Holy Trinity Methodist Church, Hexham

He always seemed to have a lot of girlfriends. I mean he was quite dedicated at times. One day we heard that the South Shields High School for Girlsí train was coming through Hexham station. I donít know how he got this information but Harry went down to the station and when the train stopped he got on board. He just walked up and down asking: "Can you tell me where Cynthia McLean is?" He eventually found out which compartment she was in and was visibly engaged in courting her when a lady teacher appeared. She had the train stopped at the next station along the line and got Harry ejected off the train!!!! And he had to get a lift back into Hexham.

I just used to wander around the town. I was always hungry at that age and I discovered a way of adding to my diet because the Congregationalist and Methodist churches had monthly whist drives followed by a pie and peas supper. It is a very hard woman who can turn away a young boy with curly blond hair and a very miserable look if he is standing at the door of the church and I got many a good meal that way. I also discovered the Salvation Army where I just had to go in and explain that I was going to be a non-drinker and that I was willing to sign the pledge. In exchange for that I got my supper.

Even with all this I couldn't settle and it was purgatory being away from home. At one time, Mrs Armstrong took me to see the doctor - a very nice old fellow. He said that there was nothing wrong with me, that I just wanted to go home and if I did I would be fine. So Mrs Armstrong said she would take me home the next day. This seemed to me amazing at the time because Hexham seem to be a heck of a long way away from North Shields, but we got on the train and were back at our home at the docks by lunchtime. I couldn't believe it. This was all discussed with my parents who said that because it was nearly Christmas I could stay. But blow me, on the second of January if they didn't send me back to Hexham!! I just couldn't believe it. By then, it was getting to the stage where I just wasn't being cooperative. I was so fed up I didn't attend school at all. I didn't do any type of study or homework and I didn't make any type of progress that my contemporaries were making. My parents did allow us to go back to North Shields at Easter and we didn't go back to Hexham after that.

................ to be continued

The next episode: ME AND MY BROTHERS: Chapter 3: Education! Education!! Education!!!


1. Chamberlain announces the outbreak of war: BBC Schools Radio
2. The Evacuee's booklet. September 1939: South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys
3. A plan of the town of Appleby, Westmoreland. 1939: from South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys
4. Photograph The Nature Study Class on a country walk. Appleby 1939: South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys
5. Tyne Bridge, River Tyne, Hexham: Photograph: © Oliver Dixon, and licenced for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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