Tag Archives: Evacuees

East Coker

What is the late November doing

With the disturbance of the spring

And creatures of the summer heat,

And snowdrops writhing under feet

And hollyhocks that aim too high

Red into grey and tumble down

Late roses filled with early snow?

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

East Coker is a place that has mostly won the battle to preserve its rural charms, mainly due to the Eliot connection, and still has few modern buildings or street lights. Visitors come to see the “deep lanes”, “the open fields”, the houses of “grey stone” and the “hollyhocks that aim too high”. It has even been said that Eliot based part of his poem on the 1876 Friedrich Gerstäcker tale of the mysterious community of Germelshausen, where the population had been cursed by the pope and were only allowed to come out of the earth for one day of revelry every hundred years. There is certainly a feeling of liminality when entering the village through the ancient lanes that resemble tunnels into another world. And it is not too difficult to imagine that the place is haunted by the spectre of an earlier time which can only be faintly glimpsed at certain moments.

The morning I met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in Coker woods on that Whit Monday over sixty years ago (see In my Beginning is my End) – the village was looking its time-warped best. The jaunty, red, white and blue bunting strung up between the thatched houses in the main street hung still in the mid-summer air, and the sounds of hay stooking cut across the yellow fields. The Helyar Arms was preparing for its first customers, and the church was alive with the bustle of middle-aged women setting the final touches to the arrangements in St Michael’s Church flower festival.

Flower Festival at St Michael's Church, East Coker

St Michaels's East Coker

St Michael’s and All Saints, East Coker

By noon the cow parsley in the hedgerows was wilting in the heat, and the exhibition in the village hall was coming to a close. We called those long wooden sticks ‘staves’ back then Alan Cornelius said, as he packed away his black-and white copy of ‘my’ photograph amongst his other WW2 memorabilia. And we were off to fight the enemy in the woods. He shook his head. It seems like a lifetime ago now!

Among all the other bits and pieces on his stall that the younger visitors to the exhibition found so fascinating, was a copy of his childhood diary. The short, scribbled entries illustrated just how exciting the war could seem to a thirteen year old boy. There were numerous descriptions of long bike rides searching for incendiaries in the surrounding fields, building model aeroplanes bought from a shop in Yeovil, watching out for enemy aircraft, visiting the local Westland Aircraft Factory (where Lysanders or ‘Lizzies’ were built). 

One diary entry triggered a particular memory for Alan Cornelius which made me smile: Early on in the war a bomb fell on a nearby farm, killing a bull. Your dad said this was ‘abominable’. It was typical of him. He always was a sharp one. I thought back to how my father used to make up  limericks and nonsense rhymes when we were young, and could imagine him honing this skill amongst his peers. He had arrived in the village with his mother and baby brother as a ‘lone’ evacuee, not as part of a school group, so a sense of humour and an aptitude for word play might have eased the path to acceptance by his new classmates.

My aunt was actually the first in the family to be sent to East Coker when war broke out, being evacuated with part of her school, and was the reason my father finally ended up in the village. Alan Cornelius described this event in his unpublished memoirs as such: 

The pupils of the Charles Edward Brooke School for Girls in Camberwell had left their school at 8am on the morning of Friday September 1st, and after a train journey of over four hours from Waterloo to Yeovil Town Station via the Junction, arrived at the reception centre in the Yeovil Liberal Hall in the early afternoon. Here they were divided into ‘Village Groups’, and the East Coker contingent arrived at the village hall sometime around 4pm, resplendent in felt hats, uniforms and badges, and with school staff, house mothers and an air of genteel respectability which most foster parents found very acceptable and in stark contrast to the primary school children from Battersea who had preceded them by some hours. Even so, there was still the air of a cattle market over the business of placements in foster homes.

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461)

Children from the Charles Edward Brooke (girls) School boarding trams in Camberwell New Road. The children are to be taken to Waterloo station for evacuation, 1939. (1998/36461) (c) London Transport Museum

Click here to read a personal account of evacuation from the Charles Edward Brooke School, (which coincidentally was recorded on the day I first visited East Coker).

While my aunt was sent to Somerset, my father was initially evacuated with the local Gipsy Hill primary school to Leatherhead in Surrey. There he was billeted alongside other children with a Mormon family whom he remembered chiefly for the fact that they gave their charges the cast-off bicycles of the junior members of the Kennedy clan. (Joseph Kennedy – then American ambassador to Great Britain – had stayed in a house in nearby Headley during the first year of the war, before being forced to resign in November 1940). I like to imagine my father cycling to school on J.F.K’s old bicycle, and sometimes wonder if that was the catalyst to my parents’ on-going joke that our family and the Kennedys shared a series of (near) parallel death dates. In an uncanny twist of fate, my father was to eventually die in January 1995, several hours before Rose Kennedy did.

Within a year, my father was back home in West Norwood  – like many London families the ‘phoney war’ had lulled them into a false sense of security – with my grandparents omitting to tell my aunt, lest she want to return too. My father remembered the constant trips to the air raid shelter (seemingly always when he was in the middle of a setting out his lead soldiers), so this would have been in the autumn of 1940, around the time that the bombing  started in earnest. Having only recently moved the family from a dilapidated Victorian terrace in Brixton to a modern, cottage-style semi on the Bloomfield Hall Estate, my poor grandmother must have despaired at ever being able to create the comfortable home she craved!

One inauspicious afternoon, my father arrived back home from school to find my grandfather standing at the end of their road, a couple of battered suitcases at his feet, telling him that their house had taken a hit and they would be ‘going away’ (the London bomb maps shows the area was heavily shelled during this period). It is one of the very few things I ever remember my father telling us about that period in his life – apart from the spectacle of watching The Crystal Palace burn down from his upstairs bedroom window in the old house in Denmark Road.

In the end, my grandmother took my father and his brother to Somerset to join their older sister in a bid to keep her children together, while my grandfather stayed in London working as a tram conductor out of the Camberwell depot. From my aunt, I know that this was not an easy time for my grandmother: in her first billet she stayed with a woman who lived in a cottage opposite the church, and who treated her like her own personal skivvy. This must have been galling to a mature mother of three who was used to being mistress of her own home, but she eventually found a more convivial place for the family in a cottage at Burton Farm, where the Dunning family lived. And this was the place where my father retained strong memories of helping out on the farm with the other children – and which gave him his lifelong love of the British countryside.

Burton Farm

Burton Farm, East Coker (now a listed building) – Burton Cottage is on the far right.

Burton Cottage

The more I heard from Alan Cornelius about life in East Coker during the war, the more I realised that evacuation to the village would not necessarily have been a hardship – as long as the children were placed with a sympathetic household. The villagers appeared to have made a great effort to integrate the evacuees, and many of the youngsters were pleased to welcome the newcomers to their clubs and dances. What adolescent hasn’t rejoiced at the injection of new ‘talent’ into their midst? Alan Cornelius describes the impact of the arrival of the girls from the Charles Edward Brooke School thus:

The Primary school children (from Battersea) with the few parents that accompanied them, soon became bored with country life. With the ‘Phoney War’ extending into 1940 and seeing little reason to remain evacuated, they returned in ones and twos to their familiar life in the city. A few did come back when the Blitz started in earnest and their school in the Mission Church in Burton remained in operation until nearly the end of the war.

The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean

The Mission Church, Burton Lane, which my grandmother used to clean when it was used as a school.

The CEBS girls, however, settled down quickly, adjusted to the quiet country life and were much more concerned to complete their education with good School Certificates. Each day, coach loads of girls were bused in from the villages, and in the early days the local company of Barlow and Phillips used their rather ancient (even then) char-a-banc, a wide-bodied vehicle with a folding canvas roof and celluloid windows, on the East Coker run. A relic from the 1920s outings to the seaside, it produced much merriment with us ‘lads’, particularly if girls of our acquaintance were traveling in it. It didn’t take long for some of those to blossom into more fulsome friendships, although the village foster mothers were probably even more protective than their natural ones in guarding their charges from the amatory advances of the local youth.

The East Coker Boys Club,1944 at Coker Court

The ‘local youth’: East Coker Boys Club, 1944, at Coker Court. My father is on the far left (kneeling). Alan Cornelius is 3rd from the right (seated).

Despite the charms of East Coker, for the rest of his life my father was to wonder at what might have happened had he been able to take up his scholarship to attend the prestigious James Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. He remembered the smart uniform which had already been bought, and the sense of life about to begin; but the war sent him off spinning in another direction. East Coker, however, kept him rooted during a time of great upheaval and chaos. And he was, I believe, always grateful for that.

Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factal inaccuracies)

Western Gazette, July 15th 2005 (some factual inaccuracies in regard to our story). Click on the image to read.

To be continued next month in I Remember, I Remember . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2015


In my Beginning is my End

In my beginning is my end, in succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Perhaps I wasn’t being entirely truthful when I said last month that I did not have any photographs of my paternal family (see Begin Again). Some years after my father died, my mother came across a handful of old snapshots in a battered leather wallet, one of which was recognisably a small black and white picture of my English grandparents flanking their first car (a retirement treat) on a day trip to Hayling Island.

The other photographs, however, were disappointingly of unknown friends and colleagues. But one of the pictures fascinated me in particular. It was the only hand-coloured image in the collection, and showed five boys under a tree, relaxed and grinning at an unknown photographer, long pointed sticks in their hands. On the reverse was written in faded blue ink: Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit Monday 1944. It was not difficult to locate my father (to the far right) and my future uncle (through marriage) behind him.

Expedition to East Coker Woods, Whit-Monday 1944

From the date (my father was born in 1928) I knew the boys were all most likely teenagers, but their old-fashioned clothes and obvious pleasure in their bank holiday outing made them seem much younger. In fact, such was the incongruity of the image that I was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, set in 1943, where a group of children, played by adults, set off to play in the Forest of Dean, with tragic consequences. I had even watched that film with my father, who was normally averse to anything by Dennis Potter.

That must have been taken when Dad was an evacuee my mother explained. He was sent to Somerset. I think his mother’s family originally came from somewhere near there.

But wasn’t the place called Yeovil – not East Coker? I remembered the name because as a child my father had occasionally told me stories about the time he’d spent there during the war. He told me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs (something of which he was later ashamed), about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. When I grew older, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. When I finally asked my father where this village was, all he said was that it was called Yeovil. To my Scottish ears the place sounded exactly like the kind of mythical English village of perpetual idyllic summers, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes.

I pulled out the AA drivers’ map circa 1988 that now had little use in a family of non-drivers. Once I located Yeovil it wasn’t that difficult to find the Cokers (East, West and North – where was South?) standing to the south-west of  Yeovil like sentries. But there was something else about the name that seemed vaguely familiar. It niggled at me for days before I later came across the Eliot poem – part of the Four Quartets. I thought it strange that my father, who loved poetry, had never bothered to tell me about the village and its link to Eliot, particularly when I had studied the writer so intensively for my English ‘O Grade’ exam.

My 1941 5th edition - originally one shilling
My 1941, 1st edition, 5th impression – originally priced at one shilling.

As we were growing up, my father had given my sister and me an eclectic mix of poetry books, from Seamus Heaney’s North to Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and he must have been aware of the connection Eliot had to East Coker. Although the poem had been first issued in pamphlet form by Faber and Faber in 1940 (and reprinted several times, such was its popularity), the Four Quartets was not published until several years later. So my father would have certainly heard about the poem at some point. It was almost as if he had never wanted us to know the exact location of the place which had taken away so much with one hand (his home in London; his coveted scholarship to the posh school in Dulwich), but had bestowed gifts with the other (love and respect for nature; an appreciation and understanding of the British countryside).

A few weeks later I came across the on-line East Coker Newsletter while trying to find out more information about the village. An announcement proclaimed that there would be special events set up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ Day during the second weekend in July 2005. This seemed to resonate with my plans to visit, and I knew then that I had to make the trip.

East Coker Commemorations

What I couldn’t realise then is that the date of my first visit to East Coker would forever be linked in my mind with the London bombings. That weekend was due to be hot, and as my mother and I boarded our flight on the morning of July 7th   we were oblivious to the horrific events unfolding in the capital. But the news soon filtered through to us, and in the end we were unable to leave our luggage in the centre of Bristol to look round the city as we had planned, so we simply took the next west-bound train and ate our limp picnic in the stuffy compartment while the ticket collector nervously prowled the corridors, checking and re-checking for any stray luggage. As we watched the lush West Country scenery slip past, it was hard to imagine the scenes of carnage in the capital – just as it must have been difficult for those who moved from London to the countryside for the duration of the war to envisage the destruction of the Blitz.

After everything I’d expected from the ancient-sounding name, Yeovil seemed an unprepossessing place. Disaffected youths roamed the bland post-war shopping area around the bus station, and there was a feeling that the market town had seen better days. I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a similar disappointment with East Coker. After all, it had been my father who had always told us that we should never go back anywhere. He himself had returned in the 1980s and had been saddened with the changes to the village, and reluctant to talk about the experience. But I consoled myself with the thought that as we had no memories of the place ourselves, there was not the same degree of emotional involvement, and that whatever we might see or experience there would more than likely be a revelation to us.

From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way some of the evacuees might have come on September 1st, 1939. Before long a cast iron signpost – of the kind seldom seen nowadays – pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus suddenly veered off down a narrow lane which sunk deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

One of the many sunken lanes around East Coker

Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker
Sunken lanes and cast iron signposts around East Coker.
Thatched Cottages in East Coker
Thatched Cottages in East Coker

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the main road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields), to later, more personal information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he first went dancing; this is the church where he carved his name in the vestry), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present.

And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the red soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Nash Priory
Public Footpath from Burton Lane to Naish Priory.

The following day we finally met the boy who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall war exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees.  

And there I saw it. Amongst the letters and diaries and various bits and bobs of printed memorabilia, was a copy of our own photograph in black and white, mounted in a crude wooden frame. Not trusting myself to speak, I reached into my bag and pulled out my hand-coloured version, and passed it across the table, watching the old man’s face twitch as he struggled to work out the connection.

It was then I learnt about that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow cast by the war, and caught on camera like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

To be continued next month in East Coker.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2015