Adventures of an evacuee

Gwen was evacuated as a child
Gwen was evacuated as a child

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In her home at Coronation Road, Waterlooville, Gwen Butler’s life is proudly on display.

Photographs of her family past and present grace the walls and furniture, next to pictures and ornaments she has collected on trips around the world.

142397_SAT_IV_13/8/14''Gwen Butler with the name tag given to her when she was evacuated from Portsmouth during WWII.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142397-184) PPP-140813-205602003

142397_SAT_IV_13/8/14''Gwen Butler with the name tag given to her when she was evacuated from Portsmouth during WWII.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142397-184) PPP-140813-205602003

On the table in front of 80-year-old Gwen is something which stands out – a faded piece of card containing her name, school, address and date of birth.

She got it on one of her earliest adventures – for it was the label that was pinned to her when she was evacuated as a little girl.

She recalls: ‘I had started St Luke’s Infant school, Southsea, at Easter 1939. On September 3 or 4 we all congregated in the playground and the children that were to be evacuated were there with their little bags and gas masks.

‘The mothers had to make the decision, and my mum thought it would be safer if I went.

142397_SAT_IV_13/8/14''Name tag given to Gwen Butler when she was evacuated from Portsmouth during WWII.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142397-154) PPP-140813-205526003

142397_SAT_IV_13/8/14''Name tag given to Gwen Butler when she was evacuated from Portsmouth during WWII.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142397-154) PPP-140813-205526003

‘We were herded to the Harbour Station to get on the boat to go to the Isle of Wight and we each had a label with our name on in case we got lost.

‘My mum went to the Isle of Wight as well as a school helper for the older boys at St Luke’s, so she could be over there with me.’

When Gwen arrived at Newport, she had an anxious wait.

‘We were put in this big hall to be collected by the people who were going to look after us and at lunchtime the mothers who were helping the older boys came over to see their children, but my mum wasn’t with them.

‘I cried and cried on the lap of the headmistress of St Luke’s, Miss Joyce, and she gave me a cuddle.’

As Gwen speaks, she glances down at some notes she had prepared – not for this interview, but for the many talks that she did for primary school children as a teacher and after retirement.

‘I met Miss Joyce years later at a retirement tea when I was training to be a teacher and she remembered me. She said it was such an awful lunchtime because there was nothing they could do to make me stop crying,’ says Gwen.

‘Luckily I remembered my address – 16 Kings Terrace, Southsea – and the couple I was staying with wrote a letter to my dad to tell him I was settling in. He then wrote to my mum to tell her where I was.

‘She was trying to find me but it was so chaotic at that point. It must have been pandemonium for the adults moving us.’

Her reunion with her mother, Evelyn, was cut short, as she had to go home to be with Gwen’s father.

Meanwhile, Gwen, whose maiden name is Weekes, was moved to stay with an older woman called Mrs Butler at Adgestone, Brading, with whom she spent two-and-a-half years.

‘You didn’t get lots of cuddles and kisses from her, but she was very kind. She had a family of her own, with four daughters and two sons. Both of them were called up for service.

‘The other children used to call me Gwenny Butler when I was over there. I was happy there and loved school,’ she says.

‘It was rather strange that I should marry my husband Jim and become a Mrs Butler – unrelated to the Mrs Butler I stayed with I should add.’

During the war, rationing meant treats were few and far between.

‘My mum used to send over her sweet ration which was often a Mars bar, bigger than the ones you get today,’ says Gwen.

‘I used to cut them into very thin slices and I would share it with Mrs Butler. We would make it last the week.

‘In the middle of the war, mum got hold of six oranges – I don’t know how – and she put them in a parcel and sent them to me.

‘Unfortunately the ship containing the parcel hit a mine and was blown up and many of the sailors mum had got to know on her trips to visit me died.’

On her way to school in Brading Gwen made an unlikely friend – much to the concern of her mother, who visited once a fortnight on a Monday.

‘I always walked to school and one day this soldier appeared and asked if he could walk to school with me. He just used to chat with me and listen to me and I must have mentioned it to mum because she got worried. She came over on an early boat one Monday and walked me to school, and she met the soldier.

‘He said, “I hope you don’t think wrongly about it, but I have a girl the same age as Gwen and it brings her nearer to me when I am talking to her”.

‘I often wonder if he survived the war and if he saw his little girl again.’

Another time, Gwen’s walk home from school seemed much more perilous.

‘We were playing in the playground and there was a dogfight overhead between some German bombers and some Spitfires and Hurricanes that were trying to shoot them down,’ she says.

‘They did hit one, and the German managed to jump out with his parachute.

‘I thought he had escaped and when I walked home I was scared he was going to jump out from behind the hedge and come after me.

‘But when I got home, Mrs Butler told me he was arrested the minute he hit the ground.’

In 1942, the government decided the Isle of Wight was no longer safe, so Gwen had to say goodbye to Mrs Butler and was relocated to Petworth in West Sussex.

There Gwen stayed with a Mr and Mrs Harper, but when she got nits they sent for her mother and she was moved again to stay in a manor with two rich old women. She says: ‘I had to eat my meals with the maid in the kitchen and I was only allowed to eat with Miss Radcliffe and Miss Pemberton on a Saturday for tea. They had a pug dog, and he sat up to the table sitting on a cushion.

‘They used to kiss me goodnight saying “Goodnight my child” and I used to think “I’m not your child”.’

But one day at the school she went to in Petworth, Gwen was exposed to the reality of the war. The boys’ part of the school was bombed, killing dozens of pupils and their teacher.

‘As I was sitting at my desk, the blast of the bomb made my desk lid shoot up and the jam sandwiches I was eating hit the ceiling,’ she says.

‘After that the maid wrote to my mum and said if she loved me, she would take me away from the old ladies, partly because of the bombing but also because their house wasn’t an environment for children to live in.’

Gwen was sent back to the island to stay with Mrs Butler until 1944, when she returned to Portsmouth. She says: ‘I went back home because mum thought it would be safe, but blow me I came back in time for the doodlebugs.

‘We used to sleep down in the shelter – my mum, sister, and grandmother – in four bunks.

‘My grandmother slept above me and her bottom used to come down and I thought I was going to be squashed.’

Gwen looks back on her time as an evacuee with fondness. ‘It was a funny life but on the whole as a child I can’t say that it was a misery. Apart from being away from my mother, basically it was a big adventure.

‘If you were a parent you would have been worried about your children, whether your house was going to get bombed, what was going to happen.

‘As kids it could have scared us, but if anything it toughened me up and made me stronger. A lot of children had a terrible time, and used to go hungry – they would pinch milk from doorsteps on the way to school. I know I was very lucky.’