Monday, September 07, 2009

New Cross Evacuees

From a Telegraph story on Women in World War 2:

'As an evacuee, Betty McDonnell swapped the overcrowded streets of London for the lush and restful lanes of Sussex. 'I'd never been to the country before,' says Betty, 78, who cuts a tidy figure and has a mind for detail; she can still remember the blackberries she picked on her first day (and the wasp that stung one of her classmates). But then being evacuated changed Betty's life. 'We were really lucky,' she says.

Betty grew up in the packed, terraced streets of New Cross, south-east London, where her father was a caretaker at Goldsmiths College. The family rented a house with a resident landlady. So Betty, her two sisters, her mother and father lived in just three rooms. There was another drawback: Betty was a sickly child. 'I used to get bronchitis every December and was ill right up until Easter.'

Betty's poor health was inextricably linked to the London air. 'We lived right near the Thames in an industrial area. I can still remember the hooters of the ships on the river and the fogs. You couldn't see anything. There used to be a yellowy mist.' Betty was eight and a half when war broke out and it was only a matter of weeks before her mother was packing Betty's woolly vests and liberty bodice into a carrier bag. 'There were a few arguments. My mum didn't want us to go, but Dad insisted. Mum came around, realising that what he was saying made sense.'

On 3 September 1939, the day war was declared, Betty, her younger sister, Stella (their elder sister, who worked in a factory, stayed behind), plus most of their school-friends and teachers climbed on a steam train at New Cross Gate station and arrived two hours later in a different world. Betty and Stella went to live with the Coshams, an elderly couple in Ringmer, East Sussex. 'They had this beautiful cottage with a thatched roof and a lovely little garden. They were a really nice couple. They said, "This is your bedroom." I'd never seen such a big bed!' Betty, who'd only ever been out of London to go on holiday to Clacton or Ramsgate, went for country walks, drew flowers and felt like a heroine from one of her much-read girls' stories. And her health improved.

Other children were less happy. 'Lots ran away or went back to London, and unfortunately some of those got killed in an air-raid. It made me feel awful.' In 1940 the girls' mother joined them in the country, and they ended up lodging with the Fennells, a childless couple: 'Mum became very good friends with them.'

After the war Betty trained as a typist; in 1953 she married Guy McDonnell, who worked for the gas-light company. She was living in Lewisham and pregnant with her youngest son when she had 'the surprise of my life'. The Fennells had left their house to Betty and Stella – an 18th-century house in Lewes. Betty bought her sister out in the early 1960s for £600. They sold it 11 years ago for £170,000 to buy a bungalow in Seaford. 'It turned me from a Londoner to a country woman,' she says. 'We had the house for 32 years and it gave us a very nice retirement.'

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