Evacuees and No Fly Zips

I first met Tom about 9 years ago. He lived in an old people’s’ home. This is the story he told me.

Tom was born in 1932 in London. Unfortunately this made him 7 years old when WW2 started and 8 years old when The London Blitz started in September 1940. Bombs dropped everywhere and so his parents, along with many others, rushed to send him out of London as an evacuee to escape danger. Unlike most children Tom did not stay with a family but was placed in what seems to have been an orphanage in some sort of big old farmhouse in the Far Cotton area of Northampton.
He described the house as being run by a Matron who ruled with a big silver hairbrush, which had a raised pattern showing a big bowl of roses on the silver side. Unfortunately for Tom, he found out about the silver hair brush very quickly.
On arrival he was put to work with the other children digging a huge hole which was to be converted into an Anderson Shelter. This was a type of home-made air raid shelter, made of corrugated iron with lots of earth and grass on top. He was given a garden fork to use which was far too big for him and to make matters worse it only had three prongs instead of four. One of them had snapped off long ago about 4cm from the top. Whilst looking at the fork, Tom had an idea on how he could impress his new colleagues and hopefully win friends. He put his foot carefully under the broken prong and bit by bit managed to push the whole fork down until the broken piece just pushed on the middle of his foot. Satisfied that it looked as if the snapped off prong had gone right through, he suddenly gave out a full bloodied scream, as if in agony and threw his arms about in the air. He made sure to keep the one foot still, as if it was pinned to the earth by the fork.
The matron rushed over, shrieked and went white with shock. She was in a terrible state when Tom promptly pulled his foot out from under the fork and said, “Surprise, the jokes on you!” and started laughing.
He was somewhat startled to discover that his efforts didn’t seem to be appreciated. Instead his feet did not touch the ground. He realised he was in serious trouble when he noticed that not one other child smiled. Rather, they all seemed to look on with pity. He was carried into a big front room that was obviously far too posh for children. He was made to stand whilst his trousers and underpants were pulled down. He was then put over the back of a settee and hit very hard on his bottom, six times with the silver side of that hair brush. It seems he screamed rather loudly. Also, he said, it felt as if the exact same spot seemed to receive each individual blow and he decided the matron had been getting a lot of practice at this. He was then told to get dressed and return to the other children who all looked away as he returned to the digging.
That night, as usual all the children had to have a bath. There was one very big tub and they had to squeeze in as many as possible each time. The girls went first and the boys would follow after they had finished. They all had to use the same bit of hot but eventually dirty water so the smallest boys always got pushed to the back. By then the bath looked like it had treacle in it.
As the boys started to get undressed, waiting to be ushered into the bathroom, Tom noticed they were all staring at him and he didn’t know why. All he knew was that he had a very sore bottom. Gradually he took his clothes off and all the boys lined up behind him to have a look and there were gasps of approval. Tom felt quite proud, a bit like showing off scars to show how tough he was. It was only when they were led into the bathroom that he managed to catch sight of his bottom in a big mirror. There, formed out of deep red and purple bruises, was a surprisingly clear picture of a bowl of flowers. Another boy told him later the children called this being “branded”.
For three days a week Tom had to go to school, which was in an old gas lit building. He couldn’t attend on all five days of the week because the arrival of so many evacuees meant there wasn’t enough room and so turns had to be taken. As he walked to school each day he had to pass the posh house of his headteacher Mrs Flat and then a sweet shop where he would stare in the window at all the marvellous tasty things that a young person loves so much. Sadly, as he had no money he knew he could not buy anything.
One morning, after a few months of school he somehow managed to convince himself that he was a tough London boy and that he could use that to make some money. On his arrival in the playground he proudly announced that if anybody paid him two pennies he would allow them to hit him full in the face. It doesn’t sound like very much money these days, but if you think that during the war a grown up could have a night out for sixpence, then you will understand that two pennies would buy a lot of sweets.
Later, looking back on that time of his life, Tom said he could not believe he had been so stupid.
In the end four children collected one halfpenny each and gave it to Tom, so that the biggest boy in the school (Jake) could hit him full in the face whilst the other children watched.
It happened after lunch. Tom stood still and closed his eyes. When the punch came it was right on the end of his nose and there was a fearful cracking, squashing and crushing sound. He was knocked clean off his feet and lay rolling around on the ground grasping his face. At the end of the day Tom was taken back to Matron at the home. She looked at his flat, broken, swollen, misshapen, purple and blue nose plus his two black eyes and simply said, “You’ll learn.” We have to remember that in those days a visit to the doctor had to be paid for. There was no National Health Service and so people just tried to manage and Matron certainly had nothing to spare.
As I sat listening, I could plainly see Tom’s still flattened nose and the trouble he had breathing through it.
Without any medical attention and in great pain, Tom went back to school the next day. He couldn’t blow his nose and so he sniffed a lot. In fact, as bits of his smashed nose mended in all sorts of wrong positions, this sniffing never stopped. After a few weeks Mrs Flat started calling him “Sniff” as a nickname. There were only two comforts for him out of all this. Firstly, Tom could afford sweets although he said, as he had no sense of smell, somehow they didn’t taste as wonderful as he had remembered. Secondly, it seemed that Jake had also been sent home, as he had broken four bones in his hand by punching Tom so hard. Luckily for Jake, his parents could afford a doctor and he arrived the next day in plaster, saying he would never punch anybody again.

It was some time before Tom decided to try and raise money again for sweets. When he did he was 11 years old and near the end of his very last summer term before leaving. It seems his school had a bell tower, which had never been climbed. Beside the tower there was a winding staircase where Mrs Flat had her office.
That day he went into the playground and announced to all the children that if they collected together three pennies for him, he would climb the bell tower from the outside while all the children looked on. Eventually it was agreed that a few local children would collect the money together, if he climbed when it was raining. Looking up at how he could manage it, Tom could not help but notice the three steep grey slate roofs at different angles that would be very slippery once he had scaled the first wall but he instantly agreed. He wanted those sweets.
Three days later in pouring summer rain, the local children were as good as their word producing three pennies for him at morning playtime. He put them in his pocket and (feeling rich) started to climb up a metal drainpipe attached to the first wall. It was hard work and he slipped many times but eventually he got to the first stage of his journey. Ahead of him were the three small slate roofs at different angles. He planned his route and set off. After much slipping and sliding as well as wishing he didn’t bite his nails he reached the top of the first roof. Eventually, at the top of the second roof he slipped and slid down to many “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” from the watching children but he luckily managed to catch a toehold in a loose tile slot of the roof below. So, up he went again and managed this time to reach the top of the second roof. As the rain seemed to get even heavier he managed to get halfway up the third roof when disaster struck.
One simple slip was all it took.
This time every scrambling and grasping foot, toe or finger just met a slippery surface and he gradually gained speed as he fell. The three roofs went by as he gained speed bouncing down and then he was over the wall and falling, head first, to the ground whilst trying to put his right arm out to protect himself as best he could. The result was a fearful crack and, as he lay there screaming holding his arm he remembered hearing one boy say to another, “We’ll let him keep the money.”
An hour later and still in agony, Tom was once again returned to the big house where Matron waited. He was carried in and put on that same settee. Matron took one look and in a matter of fact way said, “Oh well, another table gone” and the two men who had brought him simply nodded and left. She took off his jumper and shirt which was agony and as he wriggled in pain the three pennies jingled in his pocket. Matron took them, said “Ah! That’ll pay for another table from the junk shop” and put them in her pocket.
It was obvious the arm was in a bad way, as apart from the terrible pain, Tom could see bone sticking out below his elbow. The Matron said, “Well, it’s going to be your bedside table that gets used” and off she went, returning five minutes later with his small table and a big saw. She looked at the arm, saw Tom in a hot sweat and said, “You’ve got far worse pain to come than this Sunny Jim” and started measuring above and below his elbow. She then sawed two legs off the table before cutting each piece to the right size. Holding the pieces against his arm she nodded and said to herself, “Right, that’ll do.” She folded up the arm of his shirt, put it in his mouth and said, “Bite on this,” which he did. Without warning Matron pulled the arm straight and Tom told me that he felt a searing, shooting agonising pain that was almost hot and then he fainted.
When he awoke Tom found that his arm had been taped and tied with string to both of the pieces of table leg. His arm was now fixed in an “L” shape. It was extremely painful and moving in any way was out of the question. After a few minutes Matron came in and saw that he was awake. “Well,” she said, “I’ve set the bones as best I can. You’ll live, but don’t move or it will be sore.” Tom wanted to scream, “It’s extremely sore right now thank you very much,” but, having already had one run in with the silver hairbrush, he kept quiet.
It was a week of pain before he was allowed to move properly. All that time he sat upright on his bed with no pyjamas so he (with great difficulty)could use a big potty Matron had given him.
After 10 days Matron announced that he was fit enough to go back to school. Tom was pleased to be moving, although it still hurt.
The following morning Tom arrived in school with his L-shaped arm and table leg splints where his teacher told the class monitor (a beautiful girl according to Tom) called Mary that she must look after him. Tom thought this was wonderful, as he was desperately in love with Mary but she had never seemed to notice him. Mary was very kind and everything was wonderful until about 10.40 that first morning. It was then that Tom realised the awful truth; he needed to have a wee.
At this point in his story Tom became very embarrassed and told me that he still had nightmares about what happened next, which he put solely down to the fact that school shorts in those days had buttons for a fly and not a zip.
He slowly put up his hand and asked to go to the toilet. The teacher (Miss Prone) who was very strict walked over to him and said, “Yes you may go Tom. Let me see your shorts. Oh yes, just like everybody else, buttons. You won’t be able to manage them on your own. Mary, go with him” and with that she turned and carried on teaching the class.
The only further utterances that an extremely red-faced Tom would say about all this was that he and Mary stood looking at each other outside the classroom door, both horrified at what was about to happen. Worse, this was to become a common occurrence and Mary stopped being friendly.

Tom’s final memory of that school was the very last day. Every child attended and they all gathered for an assembly after lunch. Towards the end Mrs Flat announced there were two children who, for their own good, she was going to teach a lesson, so that in a good Christian way, they could become better people. She then shouted out, “Spot, come here.” Michael, a poor boy who suffered from terrible acne went up to the front of the hall. Mrs Flat then shouted to the caretaker, “Mr Clog, please bring that rope up here.” She then looked at Michael and said, “Spot, you are going to spend two hours at school without picking your spots. Mr Clog, if you please.” Every child watched as Mr Clog tied Michael’s hands together in front of him and then lifted him up so that the rope went over the u-shaped gas lamp that came out of the wall. Michael was left hanging there with his arms above his head as Mrs Flat announced, “Mr Clog will be here to get you down at the end of the afternoon.” Michael was left hanging with a face that showed he couldn’t believe what was happening.
Mrs Flat then turned back to the children and shouted, “Sniff, come here.” Tom’s stomach turned over and then slowly and awkwardly, due to his L-shaped arm, he stood and walked to the front of the hall. Mrs Flat took out a clean white handkerchief and handed it to Tom saying, “You will run round the playground for the rest of he afternoon and each time you reach the school gates you will blow your nose. I will be watching from my room beside the bell tower.” He was sent from the hall to start immediately so that, five minutes later, as all the children filed back to their classes, they watched him running. Up in her window stood Mrs Flat watching him with a stern face and only losing sight as he approached the hall below where each time he looked in a window and saw Spot still hanging from the gas lamp and crying.
It felt like an eternity to Tom, trying to run with one arm fixed with wood and tape. By then the pain was not so great but he was in no fit shape to be running and blowing his nose became a sore mess of snot and blood. On each circuit he looked up at Mrs Flat’s window as he approached those big locked gates. They had very tall railings with spikes on top and were due later in the summer to be taken and melted down to help the war effort but that didn’t help Tom that day.
Eventually however, after about an hour, with a soaked and very snotty hankie, Tom noticed that Mrs Flat wasn’t watching. He immediately decided to climb the gate and run for it. It was very tricky with only one good arm but he found he could use the fingers of his broken arm and that he even had a bit of strength in them. The problem came in getting into the right position so that he could grip enough to climb.
It was extremely slow progress. Bit by bit he edged up until he came to the trickiest and most delicate bit of climbing over the spikes. You will dear reader, be very well aware there are certain bits of the anatomy that boys did not want to catch on pointed spikes and he spent some time trying to work out the best way to get over the top without falling. Bit by bit he manoeuvred himself until, with tip toes on one side, he tried to swing his broken arm and one leg over the top of a railing. Half way through he slipped and his whole body fell and then hung there suspended by that L-shaped arm wrapped round a spike. Tom had no idea if the arm, table legs, tape and string would hold or give way and so he kept as still as possible. Out of one corner of one eye he could just about make out Mrs Flat’s window and, yes, she was watching. In fact, by straining to see, he was sure she was smiling. One thing was certain; Mrs Flat was not racing to help him.
About 40 minutes later Mr Clog came, as he always did at the end of the afternoon, to unlock the school gates. Tom thought to himself, “At last, help has arrived,” but was shocked when the caretaker looked at him, smiled and then swung back the gates leaving him gently rocking in mid-air. Mr Clog then marched off to the hall and came back with Spot, who was still sobbing. Five minutes later, the school went home and the children did not miss the chance to make point at and fun of Tom as he hung helplessly above them.
Ten minutes after everyone had gone, Mr Clog came with a ladder and (rather easily it seemed to Tom) lifted him off the spike and carried him down to ground level where he was allowed to leave. He saw nothing of Mrs Flat.
On his way back to the home Tom walked past the wonders of the sweet shop and then a little further on he came to Mrs Flat’s house. He hesitated and then, realising there was nobody in, he sneaked into the driveway. Out of his pocket he took the blood and snot soaked handkerchief and posted it through her letter box. As quickly as he could, he walked away.
As he told me this final act of his story, Tom had a big smile on his face. I however, could not help but think how hard times were in those days.

You may be interested to know that Tom arrived in Northampton at the same time as identical twin brothers called David and Frederick Barclay who were also evacuees and who stayed with a family in Far Cotton, Northampton. They are now two of the wealthiest people in the country who built (and live in) the last castle in Britain. It is on the Channel Island of Brecqou where they live.