My Week: James Roffey, wartime evacuee
The head of the Evacuees Reunion Association oversees a 70th-anniversary gathering – and recalls the painful years of separation
Saturday 05 September 2009
The big day is tomorrow – 70 years since I and thousands of other children were evacuated at the outbreak of the Second World War. I was eight at the time, and living in Camberwell in south London, and the next thing I knew I was in Pulborough in West Sussex. I was there for four years. Everything is in place for the service at St Paul's Cathedral so all I had to do today was travel from the small village I live in in Nottinghamshire to London.
I was at St Paul's by 9 o'clock for the rehearsal. We had to go through all the various things each person would do – credit to the cathedral that it all went well. It was over by 10am. Then I went down to main entrance where we had ticket checking, and as I looked out there were hundreds of people lined up already. It was very daunting, a really awe-inspiring sight. By half past 10 they could come in – 2,000 people altogether.
It was very much an evacuee service. There was this wonderful soloist who sang "Goodnight children everywhere", an old war-time song, and as you can imagine a lot of our people shed tears. The memories it evoked when, as young children, we were separated from our families and homes, with no idea of where we were going and no idea when we would come back, was certainly very emotional.
The family I lived with during the war had a sweet shop, and if I did all the jobs – chopping wood, cleaning up and so on – I'd get a penny's worth of sweets. Homesickness was a problem, but it was really not recognised in those days. If you complained, you'd be told to count your lucky stars. I'd hide my emotions until night-time, or when I was in a dark room where no one could see me and then the tears would flow. I'm sure it was like that for others.
This was when I had to get down to my main job – dealing with correspondence. People had come from as far as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US. We have branches in those countries. Back in the office the phones don't stop ringing.
We also had hundreds of letters from people asking if we could trace where they, as children, were as evacuees. A lot of people don't even know where they were taken to.
I'm arranging for speakers to go into schools and talk about their experiences as evacuees. I just talked to a school near Norwich, who want to start a Second World War project. It's part of our job that an important part of British history is preserved. A lot of people think all evacuees were poor and came from inner-city slums. That wasn't the case with everybody. The house I grew up in in London had five bedrooms.
More correspondence! And an interview with BBC Midlands radio. I just hope to get some free time finally to get back to working in my garden.
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