Miss Marple and World War II evacuees

I’m sure Miss Marple would agree: There are no secrets in the village. But there’s a lot of misinformation, and if you want to unravel a story, that’s where you start.

Wild Thing and I worked on the village newsletter for a while. Then we stopped and the newsletter continued on. Long story there and not one I’m going to tell (sorry), but I mention it because we got a letter last week addressed not to either of us but to the newsletter’s secretary—no name, just the title—with no street address and a post code that would land you somewhere in the village but not at our house, or even close to it.

And it reached us. Because we used to get mail for the newsletter, and because the letter carrier remembered that.

Remains of a church, destroyed in the bombing of Exeter city center, now preserved as a monument.

Remains of a church, destroyed in the bombing of Exeter city center, now preserved as a monument.

I took the letter to M. She’s not the newsletter’s secretary, but then neither is anyone else. It works just fine without one. She does work on the newsletter and part of her job, at least when I was still involved, was to type up announcements that come in on handwritten scraps of paper, so it more or less made sense to choose her. Here was a handwritten bit of paper. Not a minute’s walk from our house was M. So I rang her bell and handed her the envelope.

“You didn’t open it,” she said.

I hadn’t. Not because I’m virtuous (although, oh, I am; painfully so; if I didn’t swear so much, I’d float a good six inches off the ground) but because I hadn’t been curious about it. Mostly—let’s be honest here—the newsletter’s pretty dull. Suddenly, though, I did care. We were holding a secret and we were inside the village. We were two bad kids, about to be find out something that was none of our business. Except that it was, but let’s not argue, the feeling was delicious.

She tore open the envelope.

The letter turned out to be from a woman who’d been evacuated to the village during World War II, asking for information about someone she’d known. M., who’s much better than I am about knowing who’s related to who(m, if you insist), immediately started talking about who would know. And there I left it. She’ll make a few calls. People will ask around. The network will be activated. If nothing else works, the newsletter will run the letter. Maybe it’ll run it anyway, because other people will want to know about it, and it may trigger reminiscences of those times, and all of that is the job of a village newsletter.

*

If you don’t know the history of the World War II evacuations, or if you’re interested in how it affected the Southwest: Many British cities were heavily bombed and children were evacuated to safer areas. It was a measure of the desperation families felt that they’d send their children off into the unknown, to live with strangers. Most of the evacuees returned home at the end of the war, but a few settled locally, and more than once we’ve met people who, when we asked if they’d always lived in the area, said, “I was evacuated here as a child.”

Of the nearby big cities, Plymouth was heavily bombed, and Exeter was bombed but not as heavily. Unlike Plymouth, it wasn’t targeted for its industrial or military importance, but for its cultural and historical interest, which no one had expected, and although children were evacuated from Plymouth (a predictable target), they’d been evacuated to Exeter, which must have seemed safe. The BBC has compiled a list of bombings in Cornwall and some memories of evacuees and others who lived in Cornwall during the war (and elsewhere in the country, but the link will take you to the Cornwall pages). The memories especially are worth a look.

15 thoughts on “Miss Marple and World War II evacuees

  1. The family historian in me hopes that the village grapevine works to help the former evacuee. Having lived in a small, rural community for a decade, I know the grapevine can be a power for good as well as for gossip.

    My Dad was evacuated out of Aberdeen as a toddler and, with his brothers, sent to a farm run by a farmer who had lost a leg in WW1. The farmer had a one-legged turkey who persecuted my Dad into having a life-long phobia of turkeys. He’s also never drunk milk since having warm milk straight from the cow during that same period.

    My Gran was evacuated along with her whole school to some country house where she was so naughty that her sweet ration was confiscated every week. She didn’t stay the duration and when her mother came to fetch her home she had a massive haul of sweets to take with her on the train.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expected you to say he had a phobia of creatures with one leg, which struck me as very funny, although if it was my phobia I don’t suppose I’d be laughing.

      The stories of evacuees seem to range from blood curdling to inspiring. What a chilling time that must’ve been.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s impossible for us to imagine what it was like to live through the Blitz. The sustained levels of anxiety must have been terrible even aside from the devastation. My Grandad was bombed out in London and the family left with nothing but they were lucky as they all lived through it. So many were not so lucky. Unimaginable. Let’s hope we never have to experience the like of it for ourselves.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Someone we knew was evacuated here to live with her grandmother (if I remember right). Someone in the family gave her grandmother a gun so she could shoot herself if the Nazis came, and she said, “I guess I could just toss the children down the well.”

          I like to think it was sarcasm, but who’s the say.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Oh and thankfully the fear is not of one-leggedness. That could be awkward. I mentioned the farmer’s loss of limb simply by way of explanation of why he kept the ferocious turkey around: his empathy for it meant he couldn’t kill it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting twist to the day, surely?

    The BBC link is a treasure trove. I know what I will be doing with my spare time in the next few days. Thank you for sharing.

    The Boffin, my husband, grew up in Southampton, so his hometown was a place that was evacuated rather than inhabited. I told him about your blog post, and he showed me pictures of what the city looked like before the war. It was a far cry from the modern buildings we know today.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That is such compelling stuff. American soldiers suffered and died in such vast numbers in WW II; but, except for the shock of Pearl Harbor, those battles were never done on our soil. It’s important to recognize the countless victims worldwide who lived with the horror on a daily basis. Thanks, Ellen

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Ellen, for the links to the stories and the information about bombings in Cornwall. What a frightening time! I’ve read about that period and know an evacuee who has stories to tell. There’s nothing romantic or nostalgic about it. I admire the bravery and resilience of the British during WW II. Also, your story about the village newsletter and the networking that goes on makes me wish I lived in such a place. Mostly.

    Liked by 1 person

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