Memories of my evacuation to Aberdare from Ilford
by Douglas Cook, 1941–1943
I remained at Shenley Brook End until the summer of 1941. I sat for the equivalent of the 11+ examination in my last term at the school in Church End, and passed. I overheard teachers saying that I had gained the highest marks in Buckinghamshire in the exam, but I can’t say if that was really so. If I had been living at home, I would have gone to the Ilford County High School, but by now the whole of that school had been evacuated to Aberdare in the Cynon Valley, South Wales. After returning briefly to Gantshill, I was sent to Aberdare to join Ilford County High1, and that was to be my home for the next two years.
I had already made some journeys to Wales on my own. I would be seen onto the Cardiff train at Paddington. The guard was asked to “keep an eye on me” and given half a crown to help his memory. Wave goodbye at the window, then look forward to the race through rural England with some comics or a book to read, and food in a brown paper bag. Close the windows when going through tunnels to keep the smuts out. Watch the toy cows in their model fields. See the telegraph poles flash by, hypnotised by the blur of wires strung between them as they rose and fell. Look forward to the seemingly endless roar and murk as the carriage plunged through the Severn Tunnel. Emerge into Wales. Pass the first mountains. Change at Cardiff onto the right local connection from where the train would climb slowly up the Rhondda Valley to Tonypandy, where I would be expected and met at the station by Sally or Cyril. It felt very grown-up and important to be trusted to cope on my own, and I enjoyed being in control of what I did on the journey and of managing the change of trains and so on. Now I was on my way to Aberdare, and this time would be met by someone I didn’t know, and be taken to a strange house in a strange town.
I didn’t have much luggage to carry, just a small suit-case, gas-mask, and carrier-bag. I don’t remember arriving in Aberdare, but I do know that I was allocated to live with a childless couple who lived in a modern detached house in a fairly new part of the town. This was on a small estate set a little apart from the rows of terraces which formed the majority of Aberdare’s housing.
The people who had agreed to have me stay with them were rather formal and somewhat aloof. They had obviously had little experience of dealing with children and although I am sure that they meant well, only succeeded in making me feel rather uncomfortable. I was soon shown to my bedroom and encouraged to have a hot bath. Perhaps they felt that the young evacuees from London would inevitably be dirty and need cleaning. The precious link with home, family, and security, was made through contact with familiar possessions, and one of my first actions in the privacy of that new, characterless bedroom, was to open my suit-case to recover Pip, lying where packed, on top of the small collection of pyjamas, shirts, ties, handkerchiefs, underpants, tooth-paste and tooth-brush. He had been a constant companion through all the many travels, and would wait on my bed, laying back on the pillows, for me to cuddle him to sleep at bed-time.
The Ilford County High School had already been evacuated to Aberdare when I arrived there. They were sharing the premises of the Aberdare County School for Boys, and this meant considerable crowding and the complications involved with dividing the facilities. Assemblies for the two schools had to be staggered, and somehow the completely independent time-tables were interleaved. Each school had its own teachers and staff, but miraculously shared the classrooms and buildings. The Aberdare School was not very large and in order to make the arrangements work at all, it was sometimes necessary to make use of external spaces. A whole class would then trail out into the streets to assemble in a local church hall, or some other available building where a lesson would be held.
That first year at Grammar School was one of innocent excitement and enthusiasm. There was the delight of starting with new text books and exercise books, (even in those days of wartime economy there was one book per pupil for each subject!); copying the time-table; sharpening pencils pushed into the pear shape sharpener clamped to the side of our form teacher’s desk, turning the handle to watch the epicyclic gears revolve inside the transparent casing to remove shavings from the pencil’s tip, relishing the distinctive smell of freshly cut cedar which resulted.
Our French teacher was an actual Frenchman, and my first introduction to another language was interesting and enjoyable. Subsequent teachers managed to kill all of that initial response, and I sadly came to dislike French considerably, never managing again to find that former interest or to achieve fluency in it. However I did discover a liking for mathematics, in particular, geometry, and also that I had an aptitude for those subjects. The logic and economy of Euclidean geometry was very satisfying and I loved the challenge of discovering proofs of the theorems, swottily eager to be first with a solution.
The school playground was small, and it was also necessary to stagger playtimes with the Welsh pupils. Marbles and five-stones were serious preoccupations as well as noisy chases and football games. The boundary walls were high and the usual attempts to piss highest up the wall would be made when it was thought that we were unobserved. Altogether school time passed agreeably and painlessly, and the terms slipped by.
This time, Mum had not followed me, perhaps realising that I was managing quite well on my own, and I certainly don’t remember missing either of my parents. I am sure they suffered much more from our separation than I did. Regrettably I was very bad at writing letters home, or even of replying to the frequent letters I received requesting news of myself and what I was up to. At one time I did acquire a desperate desire for a second hand cricket bat which I had seen in a shop window in the town. It was £1:10:0d, a considerable sum in those days, and this prompted pleading letters to Dad for the money to buy it. He was understandably reluctant, and sent several searching questions about the bat, its condition and value. In the end he succumbed to my pleading or relented. Sent the cash, and the bat became mine. It was a prized possession for many years although my skill at batting was never as great as I would have liked it to be or felt that it should be.
During the school holidays I returned “home”, but I’m no longer sure where that was. I think Mum stayed on in Bletchley for a while after I had passed the eleven-plus and gone to Aberdare, so I may have joined her there sometimes or have been farmed out to Nana and Granddad in Basildon or gone to stay with other relatives. I did make several visits to Theydon Bois to stay with Mum’s sister Auntie Grace and her husband Uncle Dick, and that may have accounted for some of the time. I also spent some holidays staying with Jean and Aleck Bothwell, who were then recently married.
My first foster parents in Aberdare decided quite early on, for reasons unknown to me, that I was not what they expected, I fear I may have wet the bed a couple of times, and I was soon moved to live with another childless couple living not far away. Mr and Mrs Stevens lived at 1 Mary Street, and belonged to a very different segment of Aberdare society. Mr Stevens was a miner at a local colliery. Their house was at the end of a terrace of small one-up, one-down houses. The front door opened directly onto the street and there was a cramped garden in the rear with a wooden hut at the bottom containing the only toilet. The toilet did have a flushing cistern, but the battened door, fastened by a Norfolk latch, finished six inches from the floor and had an even larger gap at the top. Toilet paper consisted of squares torn from newspapers, pierced in one corner, and suspended by a loop of string from a nail in the door. In the winter and in wet weather it was not the most convenient place to have to go! The main part of their house consisted of the “front room” downstairs, only used on rare special occasions, and the small bedroom above where Mr and Mrs Stevens slept. Despite the comparative poverty of the dwelling and environs the Stevens’ attitude to me was utterly different from that of my previous carers. The Stevens were warm and friendly and I believe tried their best to make me happy while I stayed with them, which was eventually for almost two years.
Daily life in this little house all took place in the narrow kitchen at the back, which was a kind of lean-to, with a tiny bedroom above where I slept. The only access to my bedroom was through a low door leading from the Stevens’ own bedroom. The kitchen had an old fashioned cast-iron range at one end, with a little basket grate next to the tiny oven. As a miner Mr Stevens could buy coal at a very low price, and the stove was always kept alight, making the room warm and cosy even in cold weather. The only furniture was a table, a few chairs and a plain wooden sideboard. There were no books and few decorations. On Sundays the News of the World provided the week’s reading and contact with the world’s scandal and gossip. Most memorable were the seemingly endless tales of misbehaviour by Hollywood stars. Lurid accounts of Errol Flynn’s latest treatment of young starlets, with charges of rape and lawsuits, which had little meaning for me at the time.
Apart from this weekly diet of misinformation and distortion, the wireless delivered its measured, middle class version of the latest news from the war front and more interestingly, comedy programmes, and Worker’s Playtime. ITMA (It’s That Man Again), with Tommy Handley and cast, was not to be missed. Its catch phrases and characters were familiar to everyone. The show was a non-stop torrent of fast wisecracks and one-liners, woven around a thin plot featuring all the well known characters and their catch phrases. “Can I do you now Sir?”, from Mrs Mop.
When Mr Stevens arrived home from the pit, completely black with coal dust, apart from the white circles of his eye sockets, he would strip off completely, stand in the galvanised tub in front of the stove, which his wife had already filled with steaming water, and be washed down by her from head to toe, emerging white and gleaming from the grime of his work underground. Then we would all eat a big meal, probably of mashed potatoes and sausages, or something equally starchy and filling. Sometimes I would be sent to buy fish and chips from the chip shop on the far end corner of our terrace, or maybe just for chips to put in a bread sandwich - a chip “butty” as it was called. Nine-pence would buy enough for a meal for all of us, and I was always under strict instructions not to lose any of the change. The fish and chip shop was warmly welcoming, with its hot chromium covers over the cooked fish. The windows, steamed from the fryer, with condensation running down behind the half net curtains. Neighbours gossiped in the sing song accents of the valley as they waited their turn in the queue. Some would converse in Welsh, but with the occasional disconcerting insertion of an English word into their speech. Although the neighbourhood was financially poor, the houses were carefully tended. Front door steps whitened every Monday. The sash windows of the sacrosanct front rooms, blinded with net curtains, neatly framing their chill interiors; weddings and funerals being the principal reasons for using them at all. (Where did this practice of preserving so much space out of such a small total amount begin, and why does it still persist?) In a small town like Aberdare, the contrast between these mean terraces and the comfortable semi-detached houses only a few hundred yards away, in which I had stayed briefly, was particularly obvious, but apparently accepted by the less advantaged without rancour.
Chapel on Sundays was mandatory. Although I sometimes dared discovery and fled to the hills, most often the ordeal had to be endured. Sermons were interminable and meaningless. Boredom complete. Relief coming from an occasional appealing hymn tune. I mouthed the words, pretended to sing, being greatly self-conscious. The best of the non-conformist hymns crept past my guard and into my memory for ever. The only other way of ameliorating this intolerable religious confinement was to pass surreptitious notes to fellow child sufferers, exchanging information about who was in love with whom, or what we would do as soon as the service was over. It was for this reason that we would chose to sit in the balcony, where concealment was easiest. Altogether, the chapel experience cemented my antagonism to organised religion in the strongest way, and my incipient atheism was confirmed. Luckily, secular life was by far the larger part of my time.
I soon made friends with a Welsh boy called Jimmy. He lived in another terrace a few streets away. His family didn’t seem to care much where he went or what he did, and I don’t think I was ever invited into his house, although we stayed friends for all the time that I stayed in Aberdare. Jimmy went to the Central School, intended for those who failed their eleven plus examination. We would walk to school together, as his was on the way to mine, and arrange to meet after we were let out in the afternoons. We had both learnt how to whistle with cupped hands in the manner of an ocarina. This call could be heard for long distances, and we used it for keeping in touch and locating each other’s whereabouts.
There was a disused railway line at the top of the town, a few streets further up the mountain from where we lived. The rails had long ago been taken up, leaving only the sleepers embedded in their gravel bed. Behind the track was a narrow strip of trees and shrubs and behind that rose the mountain. It was a favourite place for play and much of our spare time was spent there. In season there were hazel nuts to collect. Ripeness expertly assessed and kernels eaten. Rope of all sizes was an important resource. Eagerly sought and collected. It was used for tying to the highest possible branches of trees to form swings and for climbing practice. With time to spare, sometimes on a Sunday morning when avoiding Chapel, we might climb further up the mountain to where there was only grass, heather and mountain streams flowing with ice cold water from which we would cautiously drink from cupped hands.
At about this time, Jimmy and I began to ponder the source of babies and the mysteries connected with that question. Some years earlier I had asked Mum “Where did I come from ?”, and been given the answer - “I found you under a gooseberry-bush”. Even at the time I had found this response hard to believe, but when further tentative enquiries received the same explanation I eventually gave up, and my passing interest subsided. Now, occasionally, conversations between myself and Jimmy led us once more to speculate about possible solutions to this puzzle. Our understanding of the physical details involved was less than rudimentary. Our knowledge of female anatomy non existent, and surprisingly, even awareness of our own bodies remained latent.
There was a nebulous assumption that something pretty unlikely and almost certainly “dirty” was involved, but we thought that improbable since it was impossible to imagine the King and Queen doing anything of a possibly shameful nature. This seemingly logical argument was a recurring barrier to progress, and as a result the topic often dropped to a low level of priority. Arising from this occasional speculation though, came continuing curiosity about the precise nature of female differences, and it occurred to us that a possible solution to this puzzle might be provided by the Aberdare Open-air Swimming Pool.
The Swimming Pool was situated close to some waste ground near the town centre. It was enclosed on two sides by a wooden lapped fence, with a further straggling barrier of scrubby shrubs. The cover provided by the shrubs made it possible to creep between them and the fence to look for empty knot-holes or other gaps to peep through into the Ladies’ changing area. This was a risky procedure, as it was impossible to approach the fence without some chance of being observed and there was no certainty of success during a necessarily brief and nervous foray. On the only occasion when illumination was almost vouchsafed, disaster struck.
I had gone alone to see what I could see. Peering through a small hole in the fence, to my delight and surprise, I saw a young woman walking towards me, completely naked. There was only time for the merest glimpse of an unexpected black triangle below her stomach before an angry shout from a guard patrolling the perimeter, looking for just such a trespasser as I was, sent me racing for safety. Shaking, terrified and frustrated I fled, never to repeat that particular quest, and destined to remain ignorant of this elusive area of knowledge for many years to come.
Sometimes I would write to the Davis’s in Tonypandy and arrange to visit them. No-one had a private telephone, so letters were the only means of contact. There was a single decker bus which made the journey over the mountain to Tonypandy. Locked into the lowest gear, the bus would grind painfully up the steep hill until, finally levelling out, it could sail over the flattened top of the bare mountain before, brakes squealing, it wound down the bends into the next valley.
At the end of my first year in Aberdare, the Ilford County High School was relocated back to Ilford. For some reason it was decided that I would not return with them, so in my second year at Grammar School I became attached to the Aberdare Boys’ County School. A few other evacuees also switched school at this time, but in effect I was now a pupil in a Welsh school. Morning assemblies were held in Welsh on alternate days, and we had Welsh lessons. I never came seriously to grips with the language, but I did manage to learn the national anthem in Welsh. The change-over was in fact fairly painless, as I was already familiar with the buildings and classrooms, and would in any case have had a new form teacher in my second year, so life in Wales continued much as it had in the previous year.
There was a strong tradition of music in my new school, and during this second year we were all auditioned by the music master to discover what sort of voices we had. It emerged that I was an alto and would be in the school choir. We began to learn the Bach cantata “Wachet Auf”, as several of the local schools were going to combine for a wireless broadcast with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This involved much rehearsal, usually in one of the nearby chapels.
We had spent some time learning our parts separately and were starting to put the parts together. One afternoon, with the sun shining through the chapel windows, we started to sing the passage where the Chorale tune floats broadly over the flowing vocal lines below. As we sang I experienced for the first time that tingling sensation which starts in the scalp, flows down the back, and suffuses ones whole body in a kind of ecstatic embrace. The experience was completely overwhelming although it lasted for only a few seconds, and had of course, risen unbidden and unexpected.
It was to be a number of years before I had those feelings again, but the trigger is always similar: almost always arising from a musical experience of a particular kind. That is, either a passage in which the parts move contrapuntally one against another, with a strong independence of rhythm, or on occasions where a slower melody is set against a more rapidly moving and contrasting counter melody. An example of this is the re-entry of the principal theme in the major tonality, at the end of the Fugue in Benjamin Britten’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Henry Purcell”. Even hearing that passage on a poor quality cassette player can induce the same response. I am sure that this arises from something in the nature of the brain, which responds directly to the stimulus of contrast and independent movement. It is a sensation to be savoured exquisitely when it occurs, but is also a feeling which can not be deliberately sought. It arises spontaneously and unexpectedly at times of its own choosing, and is a rare and precious gift when it does so.
Although I did not realise it at the time, that experience represented a turning point in my life, as music made its first powerful emotional and physical impact upon me. It would be many years before I next experienced that ecstatic response, spontaneous and unexpected as it almost always is, but the memory of that first time vividly endures. What significance the existence of this “tingle”, as I have heard some people describe it, has, is hard to understand, and what part such a response has played in the evolution of the human species is very hard to see. I am not even sure that it is a feeling which has been experienced by everyone.
1 The school started life as The Park Higher Grade School and was destined to become, after several name changes, Ilford County High School (ICHS). The original school was home to both boys and girls until 1929 when the girls moved to a new site in Cranbrook Road. The Ilford County High School for Boys moved to its current site in Fremantle Road, Barkingside in 1935.