A day to remember for the children torn from families

PUBLISHED: 14:41 09 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:03 23 August 2010

THE older children marching from the schools where they had assembled had the happy appearance of a party going on a day s holiday trip to the seaside. But it was the sight of the toddlers and children in arms that brought a lump to the throat and drov

...AND THEN: The scene 70 years ago.

THE older children marching from the schools where they had assembled had the happy appearance of a party going on a day's holiday trip to the seaside.

"But it was the sight of the toddlers and children in arms that brought a lump to the throat and drove home the realisation of the terrible inhumanity of modern warfare."

This is an eye-witness account of a journalist from the Gravesend Reporter who saw first-hand the evacuation by boat of nearly 4,000 children from the borough on the day the Second World War broke out on September 3, 1939.

Boarding the ships at West Pier, Gravesend, the children, with name tags tied to their coats and carrying a bag of clothes, waved goodbye to their mothers as they began the 10-hour journey along the Thames and up the North Sea to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.

The reporter continues: "Beside me on a grassy bank in Clifton Marine Parade, women dabbed at their eyes with their handkerchiefs, and then, as the ship turned and went downstream, hurried away to hide their emotion.

"Other parents took their places and a second ship came alongside and took on a complement of schoolchildren, torn from their happy surroundings, comfort and security of home by the greed of one man." Last Thursday, marked the 70th anniversary of Operation Pied Piper, the evacuation of children from towns and cities across the country to the safety of the countryside.

To mark the milestone, Howard Baker, 75, of Melbourne Quay, Gravesend - one of the 3,694 Gravesham children evacuated on that momentous day - organised a boat trip on board Thames sailing barge, The Thistle, along the River Thames to remember what the children went through.

Strong winds prevented the boat from leaving Royal Terrace Pier, but former evacuees shared stories on board, recalling what happened when they left Gravesend for Norfolk 70 years earlier.

Mr Baker was a five-year-old pupil at Cecil Road School when he was sent away to a Norfolk farmhouse. He said: "It was a very traumatic time for all the evacuees. You had to leave your homes, your family, going off to a strange place in Norfolk, where they didn't have running water.

"It is important we always remember what we went through."

On that day in 1939, five ships left from West Pier, Gravesend. The Royal Daffodil, the Golden Eagle, the Queen of the Channel, the Royal Sovereign and the Medway Queen ferried children to Lowestoft in Suffolk and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.

Evacuees from Gravesend and Northfleet were sent to homes in villages and farms across the two counties, attending schools and joining in country life.

Two Gravesend evacuees, who also attended Cecil Road School, have stayed in contact since. Shirley Hermitage and Mary Sargeant were only six years old when they were evacuated together on the same boat.

Mrs Hermitage, 76, who now lives in Georgia, US, visits Gravesend every year, and stays with her friend Mary.

When the war broke out, she was living in Lingfield Road, Gravesend. "We were young, but I can vaguely remember it," she said. "I remember the feeling of leaving our parents behind. I don't think anyone really knew what to expect. I don't remember being weepy.

"We ended up at Great Yarmouth racecourse, where we slept in a stable. The next day we were taken to a village called Aldborough, where we stayed in a big house, with the lady of the manor."

After stays at another location in Norfolk, and in a village near Stoke on Trent, she finally moved back to Gravesend in 1941.

She added: "I was very young, but I do remember being very happy there. We have been discussing it all today, bringing back all the old memories.

Mrs Sargeant, of Melbourne Quay, Gravesend, said: "It was about the 50th anniversary when people started talking about it properly. It was so long ago, and we were very young at the time, but what we remember, we remember by talking to others that went through the same experiences.

"We have shared so many memories today, had interesting talks and have heard so many different stories."

Mr Baker added: "The day was lovely, and even though it was disappointing we didn't get to sail, we were all still able to share stories and memories of what happened. Not only were there evacuees here, but we also had their family and friends. I had my grandchildren there, and to be able to share our memories of what happened with them really made the day.

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