“This country is now at war with Germany. We are ready”. The nation heard the Prime Minister’s words over their wireless sets on 3 September 1939. Across the town, gas masks were distributed, to be carried at all times. The Bridgwater Mercury for 6 September carried an article about the King’s speech and on the need for “Somerset homes for mothers and children”. As the men of the town were called up and headed away, many never to return, evacuees from London began to arrive. Across the nation, three million women and children were on the move. Bridgwater took nearly 6,500, over a thousand in the first week to be housed in the town with a further thousand for the villages, those from the East End of London arriving first.
It was tough on those children who arrived at Bridgwater railway station, confused and afraid, with luggage labels tied to their lapels giving their identity. In many cases brothers and sisters were separated. Scabies, ringworm and other complaints were additional problems they brought to the town. It was 8 September when the first two train loads arrived with their teachers, to be marched down to St John’s School. There they were given biscuits, chocolate and a tin of meat before being allocated to a family by the billeting officer, Mr. P H Beckett. Then on to a fleet of motor buses for those destined for the villages. That same evening, a further 800 arrived and were taken to Eastover School for processing. On the Saturday and Sunday, yet more trains arrived and they were still coming late on the Monday evening, by which time the billeting officer had finished for the day.
Parents were free to visit their children whenever they could – but it was very difficult with London being bombed and travel restricted. When they arrived, it got no better. In case of a German invasion, all place names and direction signs had been removed and the East Enders found it daunting finding the local villages. The culture shock of moving from the bustling street life of London to rural Somerset proved traumatic for many children and so the local Labour Party opened up 27 Friarn Street as a community centre for the evacuees and their mothers. A hostel was built at Sunnybank, off Rhode Lane for the same purpose. By June of 1940, they were still arriving, a further 750 in that month alone. Once again, Eastover School was their first point of call where a medical and a bottle of milk preceded their transfer to new homes.
Many evacuee children ended up at Wembdon where the school and church, with their windows covered in wire mesh, had been identified as the places to go in the event of an air raid. 123 children were allocated to the school and 25 to the church. On 27 September, 1940 the air raid siren sounded and a German Junkers dropped its load of bombs over Wembdon, a quarter of a mile away from the school and church. It was a lucky escape. The following month, only 140 more evacuees arrived – the pace was slowing and Bridgwater was coming to terms with the mini-invasion.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans