diary · family · History

Nan’s Diary: Evacuation – billet #1

As well as my own diary of 1990, before she died, my nan wrote a memoir called ‘A Life Worth Living’, detailing her life up to her 70th birthday. It’s full of all the things you wish you’d questioned loved ones on before they are no longer here to ask.

I’ve leafed back through it over the last few days as we experience lockdown in the UK, to see what was happening to her during this period in 1940. She was 15, turning 16 in 1940 and had been evacuated from London when the war started in 1939. I will let her take over now:

‘My brother was eleven and a half years old, and he was evacuated with me. All the children were responsible for younger brothers and sisters, it must have been awful for even younger people than myself to have such responsibility, it was bad enough at fifteen. What it was like for them, I just can’t imagine.

As well as basic garments, we had identity labels tied on through button holes on our coats, as well as gas masks in cardboard boxes suspended across our shoulders with thick string. I can’t remember much about the journey – we went to Dorking in Surrey – but I remember everyone getting into the train very subdued, and I can feel now that feeling of hopelessness and the lead weight feeling in my stomach.

We went first to Headley Manor, between Dorking and Leatherhead. There were eight of us billeted there in a sort of manor house, which we though was very comfortable, and the girls and boys were separated into two dormitories at the top of the house. We had been used to separate bedrooms as home so it was a bit odd to share a room with several other people.

The lady of the house, a Mrs Crookenden, I think, was very kind and did all sorts of things to make us comfortable. She was Sir Laurence Olivier’s aunt, and I remember that one day he came to visit her with his then wife Jill Esmond, who was his first wife (they had a son called Tarquin), but at that time he was on the point of divorcing her and going off with Vivien Leigh, who he was seeing quite a lot of in those days; he married her in 1940 (I think).’

After about six weeks, my nan had to pack up and move on somewhere else in Dorking so that school arrangements could be made, leaving tales of Hollywood stars behind her.

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