The Second Evacuation
E. A. Williams, M.B.E.
The report below is taken from the Local Studies Library at HALS. The writer was probably Edward A Williams born in December 1907. In 1939 he was a clerk to the local authority, living with the Cole family at 71, St. Andrew Street., Hertford.
The first evacuation was completed the day before the war began in 1939. I was deputizing as clerk of Hertford Rural District Council and we had to receive 1,500 women and children from London. They had arrived at Hertford East and Hertford North where they were transferred into buses and taken round to the villages. It was a hastily organized operation and too much was left to be done after the evacuees had reached their billets in the villages. In time we caught up with their names and addresses and medical records and arranged weekly payments to their hosts, but as fast as we could do the paper work the evacuees went home. Within a fortnight the mothers were high-tailing it back to London with their babies. The older children who had come in school parties stayed rather longer, but before Christmas most of them had been fetched home by their parents. By May 1940 a bare 300 were left.
Then suddenly we were directed to receive a second evacuation. A partial evacuation was to be made of the coastal towns of Essex and Suffolk, and some of the people were to be sent to Hertfordshire. Once again the Hertford rural district was allotted 1,500 and on this occasion we had a little more time to prepare.
I knew that Lord Desborough was distressed that no national use had been made of Panshanger. He had offered it to the Army as a hospital and he had rung me up more than once to come and see him and discuss its use. The truth was that Panshanger was a great house only because great people had lived and stayed there, but it was an ugly brute inefficiently planned and dignified only by its surroundings. When Lord Desborough showed me round I was not surprised nobody had wanted it. He was charming and affable, and one permanent result was that I got a free pass to go where I liked in the park for bird watching – although I never had time to use it. We hatched up a scheme to use the house as a giant hotel for evacuees, and in preparation spent £1,000 on boarding over the marble fireplaces and boxing in the paintings. The plan had fallen through. But when the second evacuation was announced, we decided to base it on Panshanger as a reception centre.
The plan involved the arrival of 30 double-decker buses carrying fifty evacuees each with light luggage. They were to brought in at the west end of the house where the first thing was to deposit their luggage. Each person was given a numbered tag which was also placed on his luggage. Next they were given an opportunity of going to the lavatory and washing. Next they came to rooms where they were given hot drinks and some food. Then they went into a medical room, where they were checked for illnesses and arrangements were made (which we did not have to use) to extract any infectious cases and send them to Gallows Hill Hospital.
The next stage was to go to a room where names and addresses were taken and our guests. were divided into parties of two, three or four and given a ticket with a name of one of the fifteen receiving villages. At this point they left by the main door near the eastern end of the house and were led on to the gravel forecourt, where cars labelled with village names were parked. As each car driver met a party bound for his village he settled them into the car while helpers took the numbered tags and went to the luggage room and collected the bags belonging to this particular party.
It was not difficult to find the helpers to put the scheme into effect. Hertford in war was a wonderful place. Everybody was a member of some sort of organization intended to help the war effort, and up till then they had not had enough to do. The Red Cross took over the medical arrangements, the W.V.S. handled the catering. The police (mainly specials) took over the marshalling of the buses and cars and helped with the luggage, and local government and bank staffs looked after the registration and paper work. I think we had ten days in which to collect our helpers and prepare the paper work.
I woke that Sunday morning, July 21, 1940 at 5 o’clock and mentally rehearsed the procedure we had planned and all the function signs and labels we had printed. I suddenly remembered one thing I had failed to do. The buses turning into Panshanger from the road on the north side of the park would come to a place where the road forked. The scheme involved their bearing right but I had forgotten to prepare a direction sign. It was typical of the time that a local builder thought nothing of being telephoned at 6 o’clock, meeting me at his works and hastily making and painting a signpost. I drove out to Panshanger and fixed it in the ground. I found Lord and Lady Desborough highly intrigued at the prospect of the coming activity and had breakfast with them. The first bus was not expected until 10 o’clock, but from 8 a.m. onwards helpers were pouring in and had to be posted and rehearsed again in their duties.
My great fear was that the buses would all arrive in a single convoy, but happily they came well spaced out, the first one rather earlier than expected, and we were ready for them. In the end only 900 people came instead of the 1,500 we had allowed for, but at times it seemed as though the big house would burst at its seams. The danger was that people would wander about and so confuse the orderly process that had been planned, but happily a detachment of the Home Guard arrived to see if they could help and they performed invaluable policing duties. During most of the day there must have been one helper for every two evacuees and, thanks to their combined efforts, within half an hour of the first glittering red bus directing its snout down the drive towards us parties were beginning to leave. Car loads disappeared into the country lanes, where at every village the parish billeting officer was waiting to direct them to a house.
Throughout the day I walked up and down the gravel forecourt, occasionally going into the house and visiting the rooms to look for difficulties that never arose. There were no infectious diseases, nobody had hysterics and the atmosphere, quite astonishingly, was of a happy country outing. The evacuees, old men, women of all ages and children, had been ordered to leave their homes and go and live in strange villages while their native towns might perhaps be destroyed behind them by bombardment and invasion, but they were comforted by the helpful Hertford people, who made them welcome and efficiently shepherded them from end to end of that one-time famous house.
Lady Desborough stayed in her favourite little room. Lord Desborough walked up and down shaking hands and telling people what wonderful birds they would see in the Hertfordshire countryside. Quite suddenly the last party had gone. Telephone messages told us that no more buses were coming, and I walked from room to room thanking people and telling them the job was over.
There was a flurry of departing cars. The Home Guard marched away, I said goodbye to Lord Desborough and found myself with one police sergeant and a few of the council staff. We spent three or four hours tidying up the paper work and then the car with the council staff drove away. The police sergeant and I made a final check. I looked at my watch. It was just seven in the evening and I reflected that down in Hertingfordbury Mr. and Mrs Lambert would be opening their bar.
“What about a pint Sergeant?”
“I never heard a better idea in my life sir.”