Evacuees in Lewes during World War II.
The Arrival of the Children
According to R. A. Elliston, in “Lewes at War” (published by Alma Cott Publications, Eastbourne, 1995) on Friday 1st September 1939, the first trainload of evacuees from London arrived in Lewes at 9.50 am.
They were met by adult helpers, including local teachers and Scouts and Guides who escorted them to the various centres where there lists of families who had agreed to take them in. 1,219 children were sent to Lewes in the first batch. The evacuees arrived over the weekend and included numbers of mothers with children under school age – and although there were a few unhappy scenes where the householder did not like the look of the offered child, all were found a place in due course.
Mr Elliston paints a rather sad little picture of children arriving with one permitted piece of hand luggage and a gas mask, and given some sweets, biscuits and fruit by the station before setting out on foot to go to the various centres. It must have seemed a long weekend for some of them, staying in a strange place, and not able to meet up with their friends till the Monday.
Where they stayed.
The Lewes schools opened 2 weeks late that autumn, as air raid shelter construction did not begin until Saturday 2nd September and it was felt necessary to wait until the shelters were ready. Pells School took in 108 pupils from Croydon Junior Parish Church School, with other children coming from Bermondsey; many of these children from the poorer areas of London were placed in the more modern homes on the Landport and Neville estates, whereas some of the more affluent boys from better off Tooting were sent to more modest homes with no bath, sometimes no electricity, one cold tap and an outside toilet.
Help Needed from the people of Lewes!
Although each evacuee had brought clothing, there was an immediate need for beds and bedding, with cots, pushchairs and prams needed for the youngest children. An appeal was made to the town, as the allowance for boarding an evacuee (10/6 or 52p a week) did not cover the cost of the extra bedding. A number of infants from London nurseries were sent to Glyndebourne, where estate workers got busy, stuffing mattresses with straw and putting up cots, while the general manager was despatched to Lewes and managed to buy a large number of chamber pots- no doubt causing the first wartime shortage!
Most schools coped with the increase in numbers by operating a two-shift system, and by welcoming back a number of women teachers, who had been obliged to resign on marriage. Several male teachers had entered the armed forces, but 40 London and Croydon teachers came to Lewes with their pupils so all subjects could still be covered.
New Opportunities for the Young.
The war also brought opportunities for new activities in schools. East Sussex County Council organised Junior Service Squads in schools to promote National Savings, gardening and knitting comforts for the Services, and Lewes Council provided money for the evacuees’ Christmas parties. Older children were encouraged to help the war effort in other ways, forming groups to help local farms with weeding, gathering potatoes and harvesting. The County School for Boys maintained a large colony of rabbits and a piece of land at the rear of the school was used for allotment gardening. Each year impressive amounts of potatoes, carrots, onions, peas and beans were grown.
The London schools started various clubs; St Joseph’s School from Bermondsey held their Worth Club in St John’s Parish Room in Talbot Terrace.