Operation Pied Piper
Two days before Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany, the government initiated Operation Pied Piper. On 1st September, 1939, over 1.5 million people including some 800,00 children were evacuated from urban areas to the countryside. A further evacuation followed in June 1940.
Like many rural towns and villages, Great Ellingham welcomed a number of evacuees.
We can only imagine how daunting and upsetting it must have been for the children to leave behind their families. Armed with their gas masks and small packages of clothing, many would have travelled by train to the countryside of Norfolk.
It may well have been a traumatic disruption to the lives of many of the children. Maybe it was the first time some of the children had been away from their families – and out of London. However for some, the experience may have been a great adventure.
School Re-opens under Emergency Conditions
Jean Watts’ in her informative book ‘Great Ellingham County Primary School Centenary 1896-1996’ tells us that due to the outbreak of the war, Great Ellingham school reopened under Emergency Conditions on the 11th September, 1939.
Evacuees from Hackney
The book also tells us that the school incorporated children who had been evacuated from London Fields School in Hackney, together with London Fields School staff – Mr Tonkin, Mrs White and Mrs Kirby. There is also mention of further teachers from London – Miss Johnson and Mrs Clift.
In addition to the Hackney children, at least one other child came from London to live with her extended family in Great Ellingham. She too attended the local school.
A former pupil also recalled that when the evacuees came from Hackney, the school was crowded.
Although I do not know the exact number of evacuees received into Great Ellingham homes, the Great Ellingham Invasion Committee Records of 1942, specifically mentions evacuee children with the following families:
One evacuee child with each of the following: Pegnall/Bush household in Town Green Mrs Fincham in the Street Mr and Mrs Reynolds at Islay House Two evacuees with Mr and Mrs Skipper in Low Common
Evacuees were received by Billeting Officer, Edith Polehampton, at her home at the Parsonage. Photograph taken January 2023
Most (if not all) of the evacuated children were received by the village’s Billeting Officer, Edith Polehampton. She lived at the Parsonage along the Attleborough Road. Edith was assisted by retired schoolmistress Mary Antcliffe. I think it more than likely that the old parish room (annexed to the Parsonage), was used as a welcoming point.
Message of Support
The Lynn Advertiser of the 13th December, 1940, published the following message (under the heading ‘EVACUEES IN NORFOLK’) from the Eastern Regional Area Administrator of the Women’s Voluntary Service, to all households and evacuees in Norfolk:
'Miss Mary Gray (Eastern Regional Administrator of Women’s Voluntary Services) has sent this message to households and evacuees in Norfolk: All too seldom is recognition and praise given to the housewife in the reception areas who is able to join in one of the uniformed and more spectacular services because she is looking after evacuees in her home. Yet in many cases her lot may be of the hardest: she has no fixed hours off-duty and no-one to lay down the conditions of her service. By taking strangers into her family circle for an indefinite length of time she has given up her right to claim that her house is her castle, and this, to many women, means a daily sacrifice of what they hold most dear. Taking in evacuees to-day may mean not only giving hospitality to and caring for unaccompanied children, it very often means accepting a mother with her family of young children, an arrangement which calls for endless spirit of give-and-take on both sides. Let it never be forgotten that, but for the spirit shown by our London mothers, this country would not stand to-day where it does in the eyes of the world. People from the bombed areas have been given a great welcome. Now is the time to consolidate the position by making good arrangements for their welfare and helping them to settle down and become happy and useful members of the community.'
Some children returned home long before the end of the war. Perhaps because they were homesick, or their parents just wanted them back.
Nevertheless at the end of the war, many evacuees who were still with their host families in the countryside returned to London.
Of the Great Ellingham evacuees, I wonder how many returned to London. How many kept in contact with their host families? How many remained in (or later returned to) Great Ellingham?
1942 Great Ellingham Invasion Committee Records
Great Ellingham County Primary School Centenary 1896-1996. Jean E Watts
13th December 1940. Lynn Advertiser. Accessed via www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk