Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: February 2022

The Evacuees

The village of Mells in Somerset is a box of delights boasting a tythe barn, church and inn dating from the fifteenth century, an Elizabethan manor house, an eighteenth-century lockup, a war memorial designed by Lutyens, a sparkling brook and a community café. The terraced houses of medieval New Street lead to St. Andrew’s church which houses a fine collection of art by Gill, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Munnings and William Nicholson. The church yard plays host to a grand collection of memorials to famous people.

But the grave I always visit is a modest, unostentatious stone beside the north wall; a little bit overgrown, it bears the names of Bert and Amy Perry who died in the 1960s. Unlike most stones it was erected not by children or grandchildren but by six men whose names also appear on the stone: Alec McAllister, Fred Barnett, Eric Bounds, Colin Gilbert, Roy Bellion, and David Grey, and above their names a simple message:

“We thank them for their kindness and care during World War Two.
With love from the evacuees”

It has never surprised me that children evacuated from their homes during the London bombings often recount unhappy experiences: far from parents and familiar surroundings, sometimes foisted on host families who did not want them, on occasion subjected to harsh treatment. But this simple stone sings with happiness and I find it easy to imagine the six lads discovering the countryside, rambling through the fields, attending (perhaps reluctantly) the village school, exploring the Mells River and the ruins of Fussells’ Iron Works, and returning at the end of the day to the comforting care of the Perrys. They must have been an exceptional couple, welcoming not one but six boys into their home and lives. I found their story even more remarkable when I discovered that the evacuees were never destined for Mells. They were meant to go to Devizes and arrived in Mells due to an administrative miscalculation, their hosts then completely unprepared for their sudden arrival.

A few years ago, as I crossed the churchyard I spotted a new grave, but the name, Alec E. McAllister, was one I recognised. Erected by a loving family, the inscription explained the familiarity :

“Evacuated here as a London boy,
resting here as a true Mells man.”

I wondered if Alec McAllister had met his future wife in the village primary school all those years ago or on a visit in later years to the kindly Perrys. I had no need of the answer; the touching story told by the two graves was enough .


Growing up in a provincial town in the northwest in the 1960s we felt about as far away from Swinging London as it was possible to be. A strictly enforced school uniform of navy-blue serge skirts, hemlines below the knee, and pudding basin hats above scraped back hair did not help. King’s Road and Carnaby Street, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks existed in a parallel universe to which we did not have the key. Just a hop, skip and two short train rides away however was Liverpool, home of the Merseybeat, the city where our mothers occasionally took us shopping. We were familiar with the “ferry cross the Mersey” and the “statue exceedingly bare,” knew the whereabouts of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. The Cavern however remained as mysterious to us as Ronnie Scott’s or The Marquee, being a bit too young and our parents a bit too strict to allow us ever to penetrate its alluring, murky depths. Instead on Saturday afternoons my friends and I donned our miniskirts, carefully applied our white lipstick, matching white kinky boots if we were incredibly lucky, combed our long straight hair carefully, we imagined seductively, over one eye and congregated in someone’s bedroom to play the latest singles. We were loyal to the local sound and The Beatles featured heavily, indeed it was essential to have a favourite Beatle (mine was George), along with Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers, but the one we all liked best was Cilla. We loved her for her talent, her smile, for being a girl standing up alone on stage confidently belting out her songs and most of all because we really could believe that she was the girl next door, someone’s older sister, a more sophisticated version of ourselves who might irritate us immensely by referring to us as kids but who would always be on hand to help out when the eyeliner went wonky.

So, on a recent visit to Liverpool, I took a bus to Allerton Cemetery and sought her out. Allerton is a large municipal cemetery, and it houses some imposing graves but true to form Cilla was tucked up, near her mam and dad, beneath a very ordinary black stone. Well, not quite ordinary for the gold script bore familiar lyrics: extracts from Step Inside Love, Alfie, and You’re My World

I read them, I smiled, I was transported back to those Saturday afternoons when my friends and I sang along with more enthusiasm than tunefulness – always careful not to let our emotions get the better of our mascara. And I have no doubt that when darkness falls and the cemetery gates are locked for the night Cilla’s voice rings out leading her fellow residents in a hearty chorus of “You’re my world, You’re every breath I take, You’re my world you’re every move I make” bringing smiles to their faces as she did to ours more than half a century ago. Thanks, Cilla.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén