ID: TUP_VAC / Peter Tucker

TitleEvacuees and Wartime Life
AbstractEarly in the war it was decided to evacuate London children to the country. Mersea had to take very many of the poor kids, but as to why they should have been sent to a forward area of perhaps a battle yet to come, is one of the imponderables of Government thinking that as ever defies comprehension. The billeting officers in conjunction with the local council, had to view prospective homes and accommodation and decide who was to receive the evacuees. Many a row broke out when childless folk were told that they would have to take one, two or sometimes three children and bring them up for a small payment from the state, but there was no real redress or excuse unless the people in question where disabled, and the compulsion was backed by a threat of imprisonment on failure to comply. Many couples who had no children of their own by choice found that they now had a ready made family over night, and this must have come as a very severe shock indeed and I do recall over hearing the row between a retired army colonel and wife and the billeting officer in Seaview Avenue as I worked on the eaves gutter of the house next door. The couple had no children of their own and had spent their lives in the service of their country, and quite understandably just wanted to retire in peace. To no avail for they had two kids plonked on their doorstep that very night. One can only speculate as to who was the most upset, for it is quite possible that the kids would not be too kindly treated.

Most of the children who arrived, pathetic with their gas mask slung over their shoulder and with an identifying label tied to their coats and clutching just a few belongings, and in some cases, hanging on to a younger sibling, were aged from 5 years upwards to about 14 years of age I would guess. Having to walk with the billeting officer and several volunteer helpers to be handed over to their new foster parents, many of whom were hostile anyway must have been frightening in the extreme for the poor little souls How ever, after a week or two, a sense of calm prevailed and when the school was able to adjust to the large influx of pupils, the happy chatter of children became part of life, and because most of the kids came from very deprived families, their foster parents felt a sense of helping the poor little ones to come to terms with their plight. Predictably perhaps, some of the childless couples did adopt their charges when the war ended and the true parents were in agreement, and some of the children came off quite well indeed in later life*

In addition to the single evacuees. some families complete, (less the men who were presumably in the forces) took over some of the empty houses in the village and stayed until places were found for them over in Wales, away from the bombing throughout the home counties. Whether these families were sponsored by the government or not I do not know. Mr Gasson and myself had various plumbing jobs to do on the properties, and the owners agents paid for the work that we carried out. I expect that some reimbursement was forthcoming at some stage as these families were extremely poor and just didn't seem to know how to go on in what to them must have appeared like palaces. They had been used to gas up at 'Smoke, and many mishaps with the coal fires and the electric were recorded, although none fatal that I can recall. The fixed bath in the houses proved completely alien to the new tenants and was mainly used to store coal for the fires or potatoes, and the rest of the house and toilets in particular left a great deal to be desired.

In addition to the evacuees, an influx of Land Army girls arrived to work on the local farms. Some of the girls were billeted in Orleans on Coast Road, other ones at Well House farm. Later, a hostel at the Wigborough end of Peldon was built to house many more. Many of the girls were from the London area, and knew little or nothing of country life, and had a good deal of difficulty in learning the job of ploughing, milking, haymaking and pig keeping, and I'm sure that they must have found life somewhat hard to cope with. That was the thing with the war, for we all found ourselves in situations that had to be adjusted to, and that life would never ever be the same again for any of us. The girls of course were "entertained" by the local lads who had not gone into the forces, or who worked on the land anyway and were therefore exempt from military service, and though a curfew was imposed on the girls at night, some seemed to find a way around it to be out with the lads.

On the 3rd of September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany at 11o'clock and I well remember the fateful broadcast by Chamberlain as we all sat glued to the radio. Few of us knew what was in store for us, as although mum and dad had been through the Great War, the civilians had little part of it other than a few Zeppelin raids which I make no attempt to belittle for without doubt, they must have been terrifying to the people of that day. There were shortages and heavy loss of life, but that had happened 20 years before and there was talk of fearful happenings in Poland and we expected no mercy from the Germans for the broadcasts that were relayed from the Nuremberg Rallies with Hitler ranting and raving, and being cheered on by his power hungry supporters had been heard by everyone in this country for a few years now. There was talk of blackouts to make the areas light proof and safe should enemy aircraft fly over head, and numerous statements over the radio, on what to do and where to go to get ration cards, identity cards and the like. Within the hour of war being declared, the air raid sirens went and everyone thought that this was it. After about ½ an hour the all clear sounded and nothing had been heard. The coastal defences were very jittery indeed, and I suppose that it was quite understandable that things had to be tried out in preparation for the real thing. There were many such alerts in the weeks to come when the phoney war got under way, for little or nothing was going on anywhere in the U.K. other than the British Expeditionary Force was getting ready to go off to France. The army had been giving talks in village halls throughout the country for the last year as a recruitment drive for the Territorial Army with displays and demonstrations of the latest guns etc, and many of the local young men had succumbed to the glamour of uniform and the prospect of war games and camping at weekends and being paid for it all. It was now that their chickens came home to roost as the saying goes, for the whole lot had to go off within the week to the Warley barracks as the first draft of mobilisation to the regular army.

As most people had seen the coming of the war as inevitable, the building work had dropped off largely and for the plumbers there appeared to be a slack time. There was work for the better off to be done in the form of air raid shelters and the sand bagging of government taken over buildings, and so father and I took on the digging of an air raid shelter in the grounds of the Post Office in Yorick Road and the sand bagging of the telephone exchange also in Yorick Road as these came under the heading of essential services and as such needed to be protected.

Having now got in to the swing of things, we filled hundred of sand bags and protected the First Aid post in Mill Road and the Air Raid Wardens Post in the garden shop at Captain Catchpole's road side produce outlet in East Road. We also dug a slit trench system in the field beside C.M.W.s house in Melrose Road for use of the firm, should there be an attack. The ironical thing about that was that when an attack did come, there was no time for any of us to run the 50 yards to the site and as far as I know the shelter was never used for anything other that to store some materials after the danger of attack had passed. But to return to the war and the job of air raid precautions. All available labour was mobilised to build pillboxes for the Army at strategic positions around the island, both on the beach and inland as well. An army of shuttering carpenters cut up mountains of plywood and formed the shape which was followed by the army of bricklayers and labourers who moved in to mix up the quick setting cement and ballast in the large mixers that some how appeared from nowhere, and the whole of the shuttering was filled in a very fast time. We as plumbers only went onto this band wagon when the normal work was low and I'm pleased to say that although I did enjoy the change of work and the open air made a nice change but the work itself was hard indeed. The biggest task for we of the plumbing fraternity was the building of two such pill boxes out on the East Mersea Stone as it is called, a stone bar going out from the seawall from the then golf course into the River Colne, and forming a somewhat strategic defence point in view of the fact that the Navy had taken over Brightlingsea for a flotilla of patrol craft and that all of the ship yards of that town and also Wivenhoe and Rowhedge yards were quickly turned over to the building of small craft such as Motor Patrol Beats and Motor Torpedo Boats and Armed Trawlers, which were soon being turned out at quite a rate, and the specialist trades were coming in to install the armament and new things such as ASDIC and SONAR aids that as yet had only recently been devised by Marconi's at Chelmsford

The logistics of getting the pill boxes built out on the point involved transportation of the materials across the unstable ground for about 250 yards and some wise soul thought up the redundant light railway system at Weeley Brick Yard. Father, Fred Gasson and myself with a couple of labourers and the lorry went to Weeley and over a few days, dismantled the whole system and brought it all back and laid it via a ramp from the top of the sea wall and laid on improvised sleepers all the way out to the pill boxes, and the tipping trucks were then loaded with the plywood and timber at the outset, and when built, the cement was mixed up and via a somewhat primitive lifting system was barrowed up into the trucks and gravity sent the loaded trucks out to the site. I well remember the weather was extremely hot and we all needed drinking water as that which we had taken with us soon became used up and as the Army officers mess was at the newly requisitioned Golf House, and therefore was an obvious nearest source of drinking water, another young lad and myself took a couple of buckets and walked the considerable distance to the mess and went around the back where some soldiers were using the field kitchens and preparing the meals and asked to get some water for the men from the stand pipe that was in the yard. Having filled the buckets and going on our way, suddenly all hell was let loose and some armed soldiers surrounded us and said that we were under arrest. The water buckets were kicked over and we were marched into the Commander's office, where we were given one hell of a going over and accused of being spies and given very little chance to explain ourselves. Eventually we were sent on our way without the water, and it was quite clear to us that it was some jittery little jumped up who wanted to show the soldiers who was boss and we got caught in the cross fire. There was little a civilian could do, as we were all the lowest of the low to these new little power crazed junior officers who soon found out as the war got nasty that they were not as tough as they thought they were.

Later Clifford Whites built many surface shelters of brick for local schools. The thick bases and the roof had to be concreted in one day and this meant that it was all hands on deck of which the plumbers were part. Three of these shelters were built in the school field behind the British Legion (still there). Others were built by us at Tiptree, Tollesbury and Messing but I do not know if any of these are still in being. It is a fact that the Mersea school shelters were used on a number of occasions, although there appeared no danger was involved as most of the bombs on the island fell before they had been built, but this does not say that they should not have been built for there are very many unforeseen things that occur in times of war, and any way there is a need to show the people at large that protection for them has been provided should the need arise.

Further work for the plumbers came by way of the explosions around here that were always rattling the windows and doors from near or far, and the draught they caused forced the many leaded lights in the older houses to bulge out, or in some cases to rupture completely. These lights at 'High Acre' in particular and other similar property had to be taken out and taken back to the yard, pressed back into shape and re-soldered up and then re-installed. There was on the market, which had no doubt been produced with the war and the obvious breaking of glass in view, a coarse type of hessian which was covered with a transparent plastic and was called Windowlite which could be cut to size and tacked into place for temporary protection against the weather. Clifford Whites machine shop and carpenters shop took over making oars and paddles to assist the contract of Clarke and Carters who were the main contractors for the Admiralty on Mersea and their work also embraced a sizeable work force who made up steel hawsers and slings for use on board ships. This was an extremely hard job and involved considerable skill at splicing, the art of which was in the hands of Bob South, (Trevor's dad) and a band of men who had learned hemp splicing during their yachting days and therefore could be easily taught to do the same with steel. Large quantities were produced, some up to 20 feet in length in the case of oars which had scull type of blades and were made of spruce, as were the paddles which were of the usual design singles with the tee shaped handle and about 5 feet long. The work involved cutting out the rough timber to the approximate shape and a long base wood lathe was set up to turn the shafts to the round shape. Special curved blade spoke shaves were made up in the plumbers shop to shape the spoon blades that were required. The width of the blades of both oars and paddles had to have widening pieces glued on to desired shape, and this was the first time that any of us had seen cold glue as the old method was with the scotch glue that had to be heated up in a glue kettle, and was time consuming to say the least. The new glue that was made available to us from the ministry was Aerolite 300, an epoxy resin that really made us sit up and take notice, for its power was truly phenomenal. It had been devised for the aircraft industry in the making of such planes as the Mosquito, and had its beauty in the fast setting. After all of this work had been done, the whole lot was transported down to C and Cs where the whole lot were fine sanded by men using a special sander to give the finish that was required by the inspectors who had the whole lot checked over before acceptance.

Gowen and Co, the sail makers, had a contract of making up rope halyards and the like for the Navy and gun firing halyards. Much of this was done at the sailmakers sheds down the Coast Road where the machinists were also engaged in the making of kitbags and other canvas things like tents, slings, covers for open boats and anything that could be of use to all branches of the armed forces. Some of the lighter forms of work was undertaken by women in their own homes, such as the cutting to length of halyards and whipping the ends with a binding to stop fraying. A bale of rope would be taken round to the ladies house by Ken Gowen and left; and when that bale had been used up, a new bale would be delivered and the finished work removed. Piece work rates of pay were used in all of this and some of the ladies did quite well at it as well as helping the war effort. When the war hotted up and there was need for still greater supplies, a large shed in C.M.W.s Kingsland Road yard,(where the doctors surgery is now) was opened up for the making up of large black floats or pontoons that had to be stitched to shape and then filled up with kapok to give floatation, and handles fixed to the outside so that they could be used for hanging on to by survivors in the water if a ship was blown up. At a later date towards the end of the war, most of the contents and some of the building went up in smoke as a fire started by some overheating of a machine caught the tarred fabric alight. There was plenty of slightly soiled rope and kapok for anyone who cared to go and pick it up from the heap after the clearing up had taken place. Many a cushion of that day was stuffed with the kapok, and many a linen line was graced by some good quality rope halyard.

Between the few plumbing jobs, I also helped in the making of hundreds of concrete paving slabs. These were made to the M.O.D. specification of 3ft x 2ft x 2ins thick, with one surface trowled smooth, and were used for pathways on ack ack and searchlight sites which would soon become bogged down with mud in winter times. The first ones that we made were laid out on a raked bed of sand and a series of timber cross pieces to form the moulds, but these were not acceptable to the M.O.D. and individual pallets had to be made up and we of the plumbing fraternity had to cover the base with sheet iron, and the whole of the inside of the mould had to be coated with thick sump oil to prevent sticking, and after the emptying out of the slab, each mould had to be cleaned and oiled ready for the next filling. One bonus of all of this was that even after the war, C.M.W. was able to make and sell slabs for years to come. Even during the war, because a ready supply of cement had to be allotted to the firm for the manufacture of the slabs, then some could and was siphoned off for general repairs on the civvy side of things.

One war time event must be recorded. When the government made an order for the surrender of all non-essential metal such as railings, gates and anything that could be used for the war effort to be handed over it was useless to protest for men with cutters and a lorry descended on the island and took just what they needed. The church railings were soon victims but the school field railings were left in place and survive to this day. There was a particular lovely ornamental gate at Yew Tree House on Coast Road, and this disappeared over night as soon as the order became known. The lady and the gentleman who lived there, Mr Tyrell Orgill and wife were great patriots, she running the W.V.S. and he the Air-raid wardens department of the island among other things. Their patriotism did not extend to the gate however, for it appeared again after the war having spent those years in the cellar of the house, and is now still there under the loving care of Dr and Mrs Fox. I do not blame the Orgills for their action when one reflects that a week before the outbreak of war, several ship loads of scrap metal left Wheeler's wharf at the Hythe, Colchester, bound for Germany. Without doubt we got it all back with interest in the ensuing years of the war.

As the shortage of fuel took hold, the local bus company and some private cars converted to producer gas in order to keep running. For the buses, a trailer was towed behind which had a coal fire that had to be stoked up to heat some other coal in a sealed container which gave off the gas and was piped under pressure to run the engine. The resultant power was poor indeed and some difficulty was experienced in getting up hills with a load of passengers. The cars however had a large gas bag, some half the size of the car, fitted on the roof, and fed to the engine by a gas pipe. This bag had to be filled at garages that took on the holding of gas supplies in much the same way as petrol stations, and so life went on, but with great difficulty, especially at night for the head lights were fitted with masks to give only a narrow shaft beam to the ground in front of the vehicle and the glow from the fire on the trailer of buses caused much concern to the police.

The seats of all of the buses were moved and fixed around the walls so that more people could be carried by standing down the centre, and you were lucky to get a seat for the journey. When seated however should the driver have to brake hard, you had to brace yourself as best you could, for the whole lot would slither sideways towards the front. We gave them the name of invasion buses, and people got very used to strap- hanging on all of the transport whether it was bus or trains. it was part of life in the raw and comfort was a thing of the past.

Because of the fear of a major raid on Colchester, which after all was a garrison town and was absolutely bursting at the seams with troops and must have been well known by the German high command, a very secret project got under way at the bottom of Shop Lane, East Mersea. Several Mersea men got jobs down there and used to bike to work, but you could not get anything out of them as to what was going on for either they didn't know, or else they were sworn to secrecy. Most of the story came out after the war ended. A large concrete oil storage tank was built in the garden of the last bungalow before the marshes and mock structures of steel scaffolding and corrugated iron were built over the marshlands. To these were fed pipes with large burners to which could be pumped oil and could be ignited by electric spark, causing an almighty set of fires to light up the sky. The theory was that should Colchester be attacked, then all of this would be fired up, and the raiding planes would believe that this was the target, and dump their bombs in the already burning town. It may well have worked especially at night, and most of the bombs would have landed harmlessly in the marshes. (called a 'Q' site)

Bradwell airfield, just over the river, was taken over by the Canadians at a later stage during the war, and they were equipped with Mosquitoes, and because of the sea fogs that are prevalent in this coastal area, it became one of the first dromes to be fitted with the new F.I.D.O. Fog Intensive Dispersible Operation. This was again an oil fired system around the perimeter of the drome, and on lighting up, the heat from the intense flames dispersed the fog and allowed the planes to land in safety. The first time it was used it gave us all quite a fright, as we believed the drome had suffered a major attack, especially with the planes coming in to land and before we had identified them as our own. A similar system was later used along the coast that was nearest to the French potential invasion area, and consisted of a complex system of pipe work with outlets just below the high water mark and should an invasion come from the sea. then oil would be pumped through the nozzles and the whole surface of the sea would be on fire to make any landing virtually impossible. All of this smacks of the British attack on the French fleet at the time of Waterloo with the tar boats which proved such a huge success.

Mersea was at last, very much on a war footing and like the rest of the country, it was a godsend that the phoney war as it was aptly called, lasted long enough to give a breathing space so that at least some degree of defence could be put into place. Not that the defences were strong enough to withstand the might of the German war machine should it have decided to invade at that early date, but at least some attempt had been made to give a token resistance should this have happened, and reading history of the war will show that Hitler made grave tactical errors and that England benefited from them. All of our survival was truly down to the great leadership of Winston Churchill although the wise men who have come out of the woodwork long after the war's end seem to know far more than we who went through the whole dreadful episode ever did. It really is a great shame that we did not have those brilliant chaps with us at that time, for I'm quite sure that the war would have been over in just a week to hear them talk. But then someone once said that talk is cheap and he or she quite obviously knew what they were talking about.

Many different regiments were billeted around the area and on the island during the early years of the War. The Royal Artillary of course. The R.A.S.C. the Durham Light Infantry, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSBIES), Royal Scots and various other detachmants such as the Motor Boat Company who ran the patrol craft from the Mersea Hard. Colchester of course held many more troops which at varying times numbered Canadians, Aussies and New Zealanders, and the Cherry Tree and Roman Way camps were built to house this huge amount of men, and even the military fields all around were covered with tented towns, and every empty house was taken over for billets. Trying to get a place at the cinema meant a long queue up, and very many fist fights took place in the streets as the beer talked and tempers flared between different regiments. With the coming of Dunkirk the feeling of despondency had a sobering effect on the people with a sense of forboding that was somewhat put into perspective by the fleet of small craft that set out for the south coast and then across to France to bring home those troops who had managed to escape and the Military Hospital was bursting at the seams.

Soon after Dunkirk, there came an order from the resident army commander to remove all of the beach huts off of the entire seafront, so as to give a clear field of fire to the defending troops and to facilitate the laying of both anti-tank and anti-personal mines, and the erection of a vast complex of barbed wire all around the beach and the marshes of the whole island. We of Clifford Whites got orders from far and wide to remove and store huts on their owners behalf. Many of course lived in the London area and the local council had to notify the owners by letter as very few people had telephones in those days. It was all hands on deck yet again as every lorry,and cart was mobilised, and we started to dismantle those huts that were sectional, dump the pots and pans into tea chests and take the whole lot up to a field near the brickworks for storage. However it soon became clear that it was going to take far too long by this method, and we then had an army of men to lift the huts bodily onto the lorries and carts and that greatly speeded up matters.

People came from far and wide and took off huts on their own transport that did not belong to them, and it quickly became a free for all. Some people who could not be bothered or who could not remove their huts for various reasons, just sold them to whoever would pay cash. £1 to 30/- per hut was the going rate and there still remain many a garden shed around today that has it's roots on Mersea beach. Brother Leslie still has one in good condition that he gave £l for. It was and still is called, W.U.B.M.A.D.I.I.T.U. and to the many folk who ask what the name means, (Will you buy me a drink if I tell you.) The overtime that summer gave us all full wage packets and we were very pleased about that. There was some talk of the house-boats suffering the same fate, but on advice it was decided that most would not bear moving and would either break up where they were or founder in the channels and cause much more of a hazard than if they were left intact. Barbed wire was everywhere and that included right down the Naze and as most was erected in the river at low tide, there was an extreme danger to craft who were nit well versed as to the whereabouts of the clear channels for navigation.

Although in the main there was ample warning via the air-raid siren of any approaching enemy air craft, the warning was in the early part of the war a somewhat jittery reaction, a sort of blanket warning of planes leaving the enemy coast with little or no real idea as to where the raid was likely to concentrate and this sent people over a wide area onto the shelters quite unnecessarily for a long period of time. This, as far as the munitions plants were concerned, was not on for every hour was vital to provide the huge output that was wanted to catch up in the arms race that was now going on. Therefore, the sounding of the siren became far more selective and some times low flying aircraft which skimmed the waves on their way across the Duck Pond, (North Sea) as the R.A.F. pilots called it could make land fall without being detected. Being young and interested in planes anyway, I was sensitive to theirs and ours as the saying went and whilst eating our midday meal on one occasion, on hearing what sounded like a whole lot of engines filling the air, I went to the back door which faced East, and there being nothing in the way of houses any where near at that time of day, saw that the sky was full of Heinkel He llls coming in low at around 1000 feet up the river, some 50 or so with M.E. 109 fighters weaving above them. I shouted out, 'Come quick, there's hundreds of them' to which father said 'Don't be so daft boy' but came anyway and mearly said,'God your'e right boy, and we all watched as the spectacle proceeded.

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Mersea Home Guard by Peter Tucker
Evacuees come to Mersea

AuthorPeter Tucker
PublishedJanuary 2008
SourceMersea Museum