Sheelagh recalls an unhappy childhood


Many children evacuated to safety were received and made welcome - or at least looked after. But some were met with unkindness and even cruelty. Here is one account from Sheelagh O'Shaughnessy.

My brothers and I lived in Silverton in East London, an industrial area close to the docks. My father had died just before war and Mum was left to look after our newsagent, tobacco and confectionary business. She did not want to be parted from us, but a relative insisted that we children be evacuated with the rest of the school.

I remember the bus journey from Silvertown Viaduct to Paddington Station and the fact that parents weren't allowed to see us off. Lots of the children were sick on the travels - possibly because of too many sweets given by the parents. Neither children nor parents were told where we were being sent to.

We ended up in a hall in Albert Street, Jericho, Oxford. We were all very tired, but were then dragged through the streets in groups whilst the billeting officers knocked on doors; we were almost the last to be picked as no one wanted 3 children together. I felt really unwanted.

Eventually Alan (age 5) and I (7) were left at a small house in Nelson Street, and Ivor, (9) and another boy went on later to Walton Crescent where he was housed to a family of 7 (I suppose they wanted the money) plus another evacuee. They all slept top to toe, 4 in a bed. He was not too badly treated, though the mother would exclude him from small treats, like cakes etc. so like me he felt out of it, and unhappy.

Our foster parents told us plainly that they did not want us. Mum and others visited every month even though the authorities thought this wasn't good for parents and children! Special coaches were laid on for these visits. Mum sent money and parcels which we didn't see. Mrs. L treated me like slave, no affection at all, I felt she hated me. We had to see ourselves off to school and we weren't allowed in the house if she was out . She sent me out in the bitter cold weather to run her errands and do bits of shopping. My hands chilblained and I always felt hungry. I was often sent into the scullery to eat just one slice of bread and lard for my evening meal. (Alan says that was only when I had been naughty or answered her back.)

MR L was good to Alan and brought him toys from the shop where he worked. I had to put up with mild sexual abuse from him, but I never told anyone, I was too afraid. We were sent to church 3 times on Sundays, and sometimes during the week. In those days St. Barnabas was extremely cold and dim, we were far too young to understand the services and long sermons and I grew to hate it (which I suppose is why I'm now an agnostic).

My mother survived the terrible East London Blitz; she had stayed to keep the business running, spending darkness hours in the Silvertown viaduct. The docks were the main targets of the German bombers, and our house and shop were burned down by incendiaries, and later looted, so she lost money, clothes, nearly everything she possessed. She managed to get out of the area, and friends helped her to get to Oxford. She was unable to get help or money as she had lost her identity card.

She found a temporary room fairly near with some good people, worked long hours in Radcliffe Hospital laundry, desperate for money, and it was then she began to realize how bad our foster parents were. She eventually moved to fresh billets in Longworth and found another places for me and Alan in Shellingford with a childless farm labourer and his Yorkshire wife. They had no experience of bringing up children and were very strict, furniture always covered with dust sheets, but they fed us well.

It was my first experience of country life and animals. I saw hunts, picked wild flowers and went to a farm to see cows being milked straight into the jugs we took there. Meanwhile my mother found a tiny old derelict condemned cottage near Longworth; been empty for 15 years, persuaded farmer to let her rent it. It was extremely primitive, no electricity, water, sewerage; the whole place was falling to bits; the thatched roof was full of birds and vermin nests. She must have worked like a Trojan to get it even slightly habitable.

One day my brothers and I were told we were being re billeted. I was upset to be shifted around again and not knowing where to and who to, but we were taken to this cottage by a fake billeting officer, and when he knocked on the door there was our MUM. So finally the family was together once again.

Another East London school had been evacuated to Longworth and we joined up with them, and then I won a scholarship to Faringdon Grammar. We had lots of relatives and friends to stay for short periods to get away from the bombs in London. To make room for them, we younger ones slept in the cottage opposite with some wonderful neighbors who gave us garden produce, rabbits, pigeons and sometimes even eggs. Mum was an excellent cook and managed to make lovely nourishing meals for us all, even though she only had oil and primus stoves to cook on, and regardless of the severe rationing of most commodities. She would make sandwiches and tea for the soldiers who often stopped their convoys on the main road outside the cottage

Over the years the cottage was modernized, but the eccentric farmer owner demanded two rooms back to live in, so Mum looked after him in his old age and illness. She never went back to London; she had no desire even to see where once we lived. But for me, even to this day, I cannot bear to be in the Jericho area. Recently had to go there several times to a foot clinic almost opposite the house where we had been billeted. I made myself walk around, looked at the church and the school, found a bench where I sat and cried, reliving the unhappy memories, hardships and the loneliness which some evacuees had to bear.



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