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

Author: Gravedigger Page 2 of 12

William Webb Ellis: Ill-Founded Fame ?

The first sign appeared in late January when I noticed that the wine rack had been pushed to one side to accommodate a generous collection of beers. The Six Nations Championship was imminent, and my partner was making his preparations. When I was teaching I always received two forewarnings as the Head of Games would hand out Sweepstake Charts. A little judicious questioning at home usually enabled me to surprise the staff room with the moderate accuracy of my predictions.

Now there is only the one alert signifying that during  the coming six weeks I will be periodically banned from the television room unless I guarantee To Remain Silent or at least Not To Ask Stupid Questions. (This stipulation rises to a crescendo during the cricket season.)

The temptation to watch some exceptionally large men apparently bent on inflicting the maximum amount of pain on one another is not great and I rarely infringe the ruling. Occasionally, under the mistaken impression that a match cannot yet have begun or must be over, I encounter the pre- or post-match discussion. Once I recognised one of the pundits who had been on my PGCE course many years ago. My partner has never been more impressed: “Lock Forward,” he murmured in awed tones, “three caps in the 1989  British Lions tour of Australia. Part of the England side that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1991. You knew him? You never mentioned this before?”

“Well, I hardly knew him, we just did our teacher training in the same department.” I dredged my memory. “He was the only one who avoided a scolding if he missed classes, and the first to be offered a job.” A faint recollection stirred, “I think it was in quite a prestigious school, but they didn’t have any slack in the English department, so they offered him some junior Latin. We were all impressed until he revealed he only had O-level Latin. It was obviously the rugby they were after.” My partner gave me a look of contempt, clearly I did not recognise the importance of my brief encounter.

The only other reminiscence I could conjure involved standing chatting to the great lock forward as we waited to go into the examination hall. Suddenly he was joined by half a dozen of his mates, and as deep, hearty voices resounded, I found myself trapped in a forest of massive denim thighs: “It was like being surrounded by giants. Literally, I was at eye level with all these huge thighs, while voices boomed above me.”  “The second row,” said my partner with a weary and withering sigh, “are always very tall.”

This was the longest discussion we ever had of rugby  until we took a holiday in the south of France. There in Menton, at the top of the Colla Rogna hill, on the site of the old castle above the town, sits a stunning little cemetery. Its fortunate occupants, shaded by the cypress trees, can view the harbour and the promenade, the Mediterranean stretching in one direction to the Italian Riviera and in the other to Cap Martin, and all beneath an intense cerulean sky. We climbed up through the narrow streets of the old town, and at the top I wandered through the section of the cemetery generously provided for the residents of foreign colonies. In the nineteenth century  large numbers of minor poets, academics, and clergymen from chilly, northern countries brought their agues, distempers, and infirmities to the sunny place, though they seldom survived for long.

He Died Learning
A quotation from the Song of Solomon 2, verse 11. Confidently interpreted today as an expression of sexual love, but in Tawney’s day more likely interpreted as love of god and church.

A sudden shout from my partner drew my attention to one flat and one upright marble stone, surrounded by beribboned railings and fronted by a collection of plaques.

The upright stone provided all the explanation I needed:

The small plaques presented by rugby teams and enthusiasts pay further tribute to this achievement:

Here lay the man hallowed by rugby enthusiasts around the world. He attended Rugby School from 1816-1825 and is credited with picking up the ball in a school football match of 1823 and running with it thus inventing the new game, whose agreed rules were later written down by boys at the school in 1845.

The veracity of this story is however in some doubt. It did not surface until 1876, more than fifty years after the putative event, and four years after the death of Webb Ellis. In the intervening years no one seems to have heard it. Its origins lay with  Matthew Bloxam, Old Rugbeian, and antiquarian of Rugby, who claimed to have learnt it from an unnamed source. In 1895 when the Old Rugbeian Society investigated the story they were unable to find any first-hand evidence of the occurrence. Contemporaries of Webb Ellis did not remember the infamous match and others recalled that running with the ball, though not unknown, both before and after 1823, remained forbidden in the 1830s.

Moreover, almost concealed beneath these new stones, the original flat grave marker makes no reference to rugby, recording only the death of the rector of a London church.

It is indeed improbable that the actions of a single boy changed the game and more likely that it evolved gradually. Some authorities* go further suggesting that the 1895 investigation was an attempt by Rugbeians to assert their school’s authority over the sport at a time when they were losing control of it following the schism between rugby league and rugby union, and that for this they needed a specific character and a good story. Webb Ellis’ relative obscurity for the rest of his life added to the mystique and he died entirely ignorant of the role posthumously attributed to him.

Back with the world’s oldest tournament. On the penultimate Saturday  a triumphant shout reached me in the garden as England won 23-22 against Ireland who had been tipped for the Grand Slam. It was also drawn to my attention that Italy had defeated Scotland 31-29 in Rome. This was Italy who had earlier lost 36-0 to Ireland, before beating Scotland, who beat England, who had just beaten the Irish: it was results like these that made the tournament so fascinating. I glazed over.

Today the tournament ended with Ireland winning the championship, albeit no Grand Slam. The beer bottles are in the recycling, the wine restored to its usual place, the television quiet, and on the Cote D’Azur an oblivious William Webb Ellis slumbers on.

*E. Dunning and K. Sheard, Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (1979)

See also Michael Aylwin, Webb Ellis didn’t even invent rugby, so why is his name on the World Cup? in The Guardian 16 September 2019. Feelings run high on this issue.

Patrick Caulfield: Death After Lunch

The first time I saw it Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch caught and held my attention and it continues to do so whenever I visit the Tate Gallery. The cartoonish, black outlines of the deserted restaurant, tables, chairs, the half obscured fondu set, the bored waiter staring across empty space, are suffused with an eerie blue light. Then, in contrast, from the wall at the back of the restaurant strident colours blaze out, a picture within a picture, a photomural of the Chateau de Chillon. In front of this but barely obscuring it Matisse-evoking goldfish swim around a plastic castle in an aquarium.

Clearly it is not a Swiss restaurant, more likely one of those themed restaurants which enjoyed popularity in the England of the sixties and early seventies. I have no idea what first drew me to the painting save that I wanted to know where and why, and what happened next.

After graduating from Chelsea Art School in 1960, Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), visited Crete where he was inspired by the hard bright colours and fascinated by the Minoan frescoes. Later, looking at the postcards he had bought, he realised that the printer had added black lines around objects in the frescoes. Intrigued, he began using similar black outlines in his own work.

He developed a graphic style, depicting everyday objects – lamps, glasses, clocks – with deceptive simplicity in flat, bold colours: the banal rendered intriguing. At first he used household gloss paint on board, later oil paint, and finally acrylic on canvas.

But it is always the larger stylised interiors of empty public buildings, offices, and restaurants, which attract me most. I am fascinated by the saturated planes of colour bound by heavy back lines  contrasting with the photorealistic landscapes on the walls. They hold me spellbound, transfixed by the unease with which I might regard a snake charmer. For although I find them alluring there is also a sense of foreboding  about them. The anonymity and melancholy  with which I feel quite comfortable in the works of Edward Hopper, here seems sinister and menacing.

When Caulfield died, William Feaver’s obituary recalled  a discussion about famous artists’ epitaphs. Someone had asked  Caulfield what he would put on his own gravestone. The response: “DEAD, of course.” And that is exactly what it says on his grave. Designed by Caulfield himself, the curt monosyllable is laser-cut through a block of granite like a  child’s letter puzzle. Eye-catching amidst the crosses and angels, open books and obelisks, it brings me to a halt as my first sighting of his painting did. And I am not alone, for the arresting design exerts a magnetic lure over amused visitors. The distinctive grave has become one of the most popular in Highgate East.

Patrick Caulfield’s Grave in Highgate East.
A Contrast with the Angels, Crosses, and Urns

Perhaps people empathise with the blunt statement, welcome its frankness. I recall a friend who, wearied by delicate, well meant, euphemisms said crossly, “You don’t lose people. You lose your keys. People die.”

It is a view with which I sympathise and by all accounts Caulfield’s funeral was a joyful celebration of the life which preceded the death. And yet, fascinated  as I am by the memorial, its stark, bleak message chills me, fostering the same disquiet which I experience when I stand in front of those rather threatening interiors.

Letters, Pillar Boxes, and Stamps: the Legacy of Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, and James Chalmers

Once a beloved national institution, the General Post Office has fallen from grace.

The Cameron government severed the Post Office Ltd., controlling branch post offices, from the Royal Mail, responsible for the delivery of letters. It privatised the latter. After a rushed sale at which they were clearly undervalued, the price of its shares on the stock market rose by 38% on the first day of trading, by 70% within a year, and peaked at 87%. As the profits of shareholders rose, previously high levels of public satisfaction with the service plummeted.

Now  there are proposals to dismantle the Universal Service Obligation under which letters are delivered six days a week to every address in the United Kingdom. Deliveries are likely to be  reduced to five or even three days a week, and the target delivery time for all domestic mail reduced to a meaningless “three days or longer.” But to customers in many parts of the country these  suggestions are the more risible for coming ex post facto, as  the frequent absence of any deliveries for a week or more has already left a legacy of missed hospital appointments, useless postal votes, and financial difficulties. Journeys to sorting offices reveal bundles of missing mail accumulating there. Significantly stamp cancellations no longer show the date and time of posting.

None of which prevents anyone from loving their postmen and postwomen. The determination with which so many wear shorts even in the coldest weather is a source of amused affection. All but the most unpleasant and aggressive drivers will move out of the way for their red vans. In our village, where we do still get a six-day delivery, Nicky is known to everyone. When mail is too unwieldy for the letter box she will knock, when she knows that people are deaf or elderly, she will knock extra hard and wait until we open the door. When there is no response she leaves mail with neighbours. And if subsequently she spots us out in the lanes the red van will stop, and she will lean out to tell us where our post has gone today. But the job involves early starts, heavy loads, exposure to all weathers, and delivery rounds have become larger as management seek to squeeze more productivity out of employees. There are not enough post carriers to cover all rounds adequately.

A similar pall hangs over the Post Office Ltd. In the mid-sixties there were 25,000 branch post offices, by March 2021, there were only 11,415, and it is expected that thousands more will disappear in the next few years.

Moreover, an egregious miscarriage of justice has blighted the lives of thousands of sub postmasters. In 1999 a faulty computer software system, Horizon, was installed in branch post offices. It created false cash shortfalls. Sub postmasters called the Horizon helpline when these errors appeared on their screens and  were led to believe that the problem occurred only at their own branch. Post Office executives persistently claimed that the Horizon system was robust. Between 1999 and 2015, 4,000 sub postmasters were accused of financial wrongdoing. They lost their jobs and were forced to repay the “losses,” many becoming bankrupt and losing their homes as a result. More than nine hundred of them were prosecuted for theft, false accounting, and fraud; seven hundred were convicted; over two hundred were sent to prison. Some pleaded guilty  to avoid jail. Four people took their own lives. Chief executives at the post office continued to deny their knowledge of the faults in the system.

For twenty-five years,  Alan Bates has led his fellow sub postmasters in a fight to clear their names. In 2017, 555 of them took legal action against the Post Office in the civil courts, and in 2019  a judge ruled that the software was defective, and in an out of court settlement, compensation, largely swallowed up by legal fees, was paid. This did however  open the way  for the sub postmasters to challenge their convictions and over a hundred have been quashed. In 2021 the government set up a Public Enquiry to investigate malpractice by the Post Office.

Recently a TV drama series, Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office, recounted these events. Since then, the government has announced plans for legislation to provide a blanket exoneration for all the wrongly convicted, and for the Post Office to pay compensation to all the victims of false accusations, but progress is slow. To date more than sixty people have died waiting for justice.

There had been a postal system of sorts in Britain since the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1840 that Rowland Hill introduced a uniform system with prepayment evidenced by the attachment of a Penny Black postage stamp. Previously the post had been mismanaged, expensive and slow, the rates complex. Payment had been made by the recipient who could refuse delivery. An apocryphal story suggests that Rowland Hill’s concern was aroused after seeing a young woman too poor to claim the letter sent by her fiancée. Hill’s system was speedy, cheap, and dependable. The number of letters sent doubled in the first year and the increase in volume continued. By the late nineteenth century London had between six and twelve mail  deliveries per day. Elsewhere there were four deliveries. It was possible to post in the morning and receive a reply by evening.

The name of Rowland Hill is forever associated with the post, and he is commemorated by statues in Kidderminster, Birmingham, and London, and, the ultimate accolade, a burial in Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is a magnificent building but within lies a mess of centuries of haphazard graves and memorials treading on each other’s toes as they vie for space. Nonetheless Rowland Hill secured both a memorial and grave. In 1879 his was the last arrival amongst  the distinctly crowded and overwrought tombs in St. Paul’s Chapel. His bust peers down at a modest stone marker set into the floor.

From on high Rowland Hill peers down at his own grave marker on the floor of the Abbey

Today Anthony Trollope’s fame rests on his novels. But much of his prolific output was composed on horseback, or later at a portable desk on the train, as he travelled the country in his capacity a postal surveyor’s clerk. The result was forty-seven novels. Perhaps reflecting the circumstances in which he wrote, and his reluctance to revise anything, they tend to the long and repetitious, but he produced some gems. I am particularly fond of the Ointment Heiress; her title alone is a delight. I imagine the eponymous ointment to be germolene pink and contained in a tight little metal tin bearing extravagant claims. Moreover, Martha Dunstable is one of the few nineteenth century heroines who can command respect, being worldly, witty, and sensitive unlike the  simpering paragons and grasping harridans generally beloved of Victorian novelists. *

But Trollope also gave us our red pillar boxes. Sent to mainland Europe to observe their postal schemes, he admired the cast iron letter receiving pillars in France and Belgium. In 1854 at his recommendation the first pillar box was introduced in Britain, obviating the need for a trip to the post office. Originally painted sage green, the boxes turned red in 1874. ** As they reached the height of their popularity in the 1860s and 70s, it is said that he regretted their adoption as it enabled young women to correspond with men in secret avoiding visits to the post office.

Trollope’s grave lies in Kensal Green, the first of the London Big Seven to open its doors to customers. The conventional stone disappointingly bears no reference to his writing nor to his association with pillar boxes.

In memory of

Anthony Trollope

Born 24 April 1815 Died 6 December 1882

He was a loving husband, a loving father,

And a true friend

More controversial are the claims of James Chalmers, bookseller, printer, and inventor. I found him in the Howff Cemetery in Dundee, where amongst the darkened stones his stood out on account of a newer, lighter stone directly in front of it. Placed my Chalmers’ son, the second marker makes no concession to modesty, describing his father as the

Originator of the adhesive postage stamp

Which saved the penny postage scheme of 1840

From collapse

Rendering it an unqualified success

And which has since been adopted

Throughout the postal systems of the World

James Chalmers’ grave in Howff Cemetery with the newer stone added by his son in 1888

I love the idea of anyone sitting down to invent an adhesive stamp, and the extravagant claim that without it the whole postage system would have collapsed, but the truth is more prosaic. Adhesive stamps had long been used on documents to show payment of taxes. Moreover, while Chalmers was certainly an enthusiast for postal reform, the earliest proposal found  in his archives for an adhesive stamp or slip to send a letter is in 1838. In 1837 Rowland Hill had already written a pamphlet proposing not only the single rate of postage but also the use of stamps “covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” The descendants of Chalmers continue to produce pamphlets and articles claiming him as the originator of “stamp gum” but the claim seems tenuous.

I grew up an enthusiastic letter writer: penfriends in school days, letters home and to former classmates in university days, love letters, and, as university friends scattered around the world, letters bearing exotic stamps would arrive from Papua-New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, America. No other form of communication can elicit the same joy as a letter: for someone has taken the trouble to gather pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps; to handwrite several sheets; to address their envelope; to lick their stamp;*** and to deliver the aesthetically pleasing stamped and sealed result to a post box.

But letter writing is in rapid decline. The volume of letters which the post office handles is down from twenty billion in 2011 to seven billion today, and most of those are invoices, business letters, advertising. In 2004 the second daily delivery was officially scrapped, but few of us recall receiving a second post that recently. At first, as friends embraced innovative technology, I held to my pen. Typed epistles would arrive as email attachments with requests to my partner to print them out as, “I don’t suppose she’ll deign to read it otherwise.”  At work, younger colleagues watched with amusement as holding onto a pen like a comfort blanket with one hand, I stabbed crossly at computer keys with the other. But I succumbed at length: email is instant, photos easily attached, replies immediate, as many mails as you like in a day. And there is WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, Skype and Zoom; so much immediate, cheap communication. And yet, it carries little of the romance of a letter.

O Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, James Chalmers, the world has changed, your lovely post offices are disappearing, soon our post-boxes may join our K6 telephone kiosks as museum pieces. And the end now looks to be a bitter one, with a once noble organisation torn apart and all sacrificed to shareholders’ profits and CEO’s bonuses, but I treasure the memory of your Post Office in its happier days.

*Martha Dunstable appears in Dr. Thorne and in Framley Parsonage, both in The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

**In the 1930s blue post-boxes were introduced for airmail letters but were phased out again from 1939. One survives in Windsor.

***or to wet it with one of those sponges which used to appear in little round dishes in the post office. Self adhesive stamps appeared in America in 1974 but were not introduced in Britain until 1993.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo is a lovely city surrounded by hills; to the east lies the Turkish old town with its narrow cobbled and marbled streets, gracious squares, small wooden shops, bazaars, mosques, fountains, and pavement cafes serving Bosnian coffee with lokum and baklava. To the west is the new town flaunting the grand, imperialistic buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My  taxi driver spoke of his city with pride: did I know that under the Ottomans it was the biggest and most important city in the Balkans after Istanbul itself; that it was the first city in Europe to have an electric tram network; that the 1984 Winter Olympics were held here…

Yet Sarajevo has a troubled history. The Ottomans conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fifteenth century and stayed for four hundred years. In 1878 Austro-Hungarian armies ousted them and occupied the territory, formally annexing it in 1908. A trading centre and an ethnic and religious melting pot with Jews, Moslems, Orthodox and Catholic Christians amongst its population, Sarajevo became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

But armies of occupation are always unwelcome, and Sarajevo became the centre of Bosnian-Serb resistance to Austrian rule. As we learned in school, drafting painstaking essays on the causes of World War One, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb, Gravrilo Princip, was the spark which ignited preexisting conflicts and dissensions, as European armies mobilised against each other in 1914. By 1918  Bosnia Herzegovina had escaped the Austro-Hungarian yoke, only to emerge from the war  annexed to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under a Serbian monarchy. In 1929 this became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in 1939 the Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement effectively partitioned Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia.

When German forces invaded Yugoslavia in World War Two, the Serbian royal family fled, and the Axis powers created the independent state of Croatia, incorporating Bosnia. The quisling Croat Ustase regime ran the state as a Nazi satellite  promoting terror and genocide. Meanwhile the Chetniks, royalist Serbs, conducted their own campaign of genocide against Croats, Muslims, and Communists in pursuit of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

From 1941 however the Yugoslav Communists under Josip Brod Tito had organised their own multiethnic resistance group; the Yugoslav Partisans fought both the Axis and the Ustase. In 1943 they established Bosnia Herzegovina as a republic within the provisional state of Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, and on 6 April 1945 they liberated Sarajevo itself from the fascists.

The Eternal Flame dedicated to the Partisans who liberated Sarajevo from the Fascists
Dedicated 6 April 1946 on the First Anniversary of the Liberation

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,  comprising the six republics of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, emerged as a successful decentralised federation, supplanting the national disputes of the past. For forty years Yugoslavia developed its own brand of Communism, maintaining neutrality in the Cold War and close ties with developing countries. An open society whose inhabitants were free to travel for work and holidays, whose borders were open to foreign visitors, it witnessed economic growth and political stability. Along with the other capitals Sarajevo, a multicultural city of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, flourished.

But the Bosnians were to suffer again. By the late 1970s inflation, economic recession, and western trade barriers had led  to a heavy IMF debt in Yugoslavia causing disputes between the Republics reflecting their divergent economies and differing levels of productivity. Moreover, with the death of Tito in 1980 ethnic nationalism revived. Serbians sought a more centralised state under Serbian hegemony while the other partners favoured the continuation of a looser federation. The breakup of Yugoslavia began with Slovenia and Croatia  seceding,  and in March 1992 following a  referendum Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence. The UN recognised its status. Bosnian Serbs however revived the spectre of a Greater Serbia, to include all Serbian populations, and under Radovan Karadzic established the Republica Srpska in the northeast of Bosnia Herzegovina.

From here between 1992 and 1995 the Serbian army directed a programme of ethnic cleansing  against the Muslim Bosniaks. They conducted massacres, the most egregious that of Srebrenica, and  systematic mass rapes of Bosnian women throughout the country.Their soldiers encircled Sarajevo from the hills, attacking the city with artillery, mortars, tanks, machine guns. Sniper attacks in the city accompanied the shelling. Sarajevo was besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. An average of 329 grenades hit the city every day; 100,000 Bosnians lost their lives, the dead included 11,541 civilians of whom 1,500 were children; 56,000 were wounded including 15,000 children.

The Massacre of Srebrenica shocked the West into calling for a cease fire, a NATO air campaign ended the siege, and at length the Dayton Agreement brought the Bosnian War to an end.

More than a quarter of a century later my  taxi driver could still make no sense of it: “We were all living together,” he said, “then out of nowhere….” his voice cracked, the memories obviously still sharp and painful.

And Sarajevo bears witness: outside the reconstructed library, burnt to the ground during the siege with the destruction of two million  books, a plaque reads, “Do not forget, remember and warn.” In the Martyrs’ (Kovaci) Cemetery soldiers and civilians killed in the war lie alongside Alija Izetbegovic, the first President of Bosnia who declared Bosnian Independence in 1992.

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Kovaci, Sarajevo
Lives lost too soon: young victims of the war
Alija Izetbegovic, First President of Bosnia, declared Bosnian Independence, March 1992

The Siege of Sarajevo Museum uses film, photographs, artefacts, and written material to recount harrowing personal stories of the siege. The poignant Sarajevo Roses mark the places on pavements where sniper fire killed people queueing for bread and water during the siege. The pock marked concrete has been filled with red resin like candle wax, creating the red flowers. There are two hundred of them, beautiful but terrible memorials, scattered throughout the city.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo and its inhabitants have suffered horribly, but as he drove me back to the airport my driver’s principal concern was to know if I had enjoyed his city: was my hotel good, had I been up Mount Trebevic in the cable car, did I like the food, had I tried cevapi, had I seen the national museum and the botanical garden, had I had coffee in Sebilj Square, did I like Sarajevo, would I come again, would I tell my friends to visit. It was a resounding yes to everything. For all its sorrows Sarajevo is a warm, welcoming, friendly little city, bruised and hurt by foreign occupations and ugly wars, not forgetting its past and its dead, yet looking forward  even while remembering. I hope its future is as bright as the red roses on its pavements.

Young Lives Lost: A Wartime Tragedy in Cornwall

I have always been fascinated by the experiences of evacuees, those children of the Second World War who were sent from their city homes to more rural locations away from the threat of the Blitz. Photographs of the time show them clustered on railway stations, clutching gas masks, small suitcases, teddy-bears. Some beam cheerfully at the camera, for there must have been a sense of adventure as they headed towards a new world and a new life. Others force a brave smile trying to cover their anxiety and apprehension. A few are blank faced, already uprooted and bewildered. Older siblings keep a determined hold on smaller brothers and sisters, the latter too young even to read the identifying labels around their necks. And several cannot hold back the tears.

National and local archives document the evacuations, and they are brought to life in the many personal reminiscences which have been recorded.* Their stories tell of  children who led two lives: for the luckiest ones a sunny, bucolic interlude followed by a happy return home, and the bonus of two loving families forever after; for others a traumatic and heartbreaking time away from the warmth and security of parents and familiar environment; and for a third and perhaps the saddest group an interval of intense happiness and expanding horizons before returning to cold, indifferent parents.

Strikingly apparent from many of  the accounts are the very deep class divisions which severed  Britain in the 1940s. In an early teaching post, I learned more of this from two older colleagues who had been evacuees. Ron, from a working-class background in south London, found himself with  a prosperous family in Kent  who treated him kindly, but lost in an alien world he was desperately homesick and twice ran away, determined to walk home. After the second attempt his mother decided he was better off risking the bombs with his parents than facing further distress and misery alone. This proved a wise decision, not least because Kent was soon redefined from a Reception to an Evacuation Zone due to the threat of invasion.

Mike by contrast left his very middle-class London home for a working-class village in Scotland where he felt isolated in a hostile environment, looked upon with suspicion and resentment. His one consolation was the semi-friendly rivalry he developed  with the only other high achiever in the village school. Some years later, when he was about to begin his studies at Cambridge, he heard that his former school mate was about to enter a Borstal. “There but fortune,” he reflected wryly.

One of the most pitiful stories of evacuees comes from Gunwalloe on the Lizard Peninsula, one of the oldest settlements in Cornwall. The Lizard coast is magnificent: when the sun shines the sea caresses auriferous shores, and in winter the austere beauty of the granite cliffs competes with the grey lowering skies, and the waves pound contemptuously on the rocks.

Golden shores in the sunshine
The austere beauty of winter

Gunwalloe must have seemed a paradise to imaginative, adventurous evacuees, a story book location with deserted beaches, cliffs to climb, rock pools, a history of smuggling and shipwrecks, and swimming in summer.

But those beaches deemed suitable for amphibious landings by enemy tanks and troops had been mined.

Ronald Munting, an evacuee from London, and his friend Harry Dale, a local lad, both aged twelve, were killed by an unmarked landmine on one of those beaches.

The medieval church of Saint Winwaloe crouches at Church Cove surrounded by its graveyard, and there two pitiful graves bear stark testimony:

The church of Saint Winwaloe at Church Cove

In Fondest Memory of


Beloved son of

Henry Cyril and Caroline Dale

Accidentally killed in a minefield

July 23, 1944, aged 12 years.


  Memory of

Ronald Munting

Died 26 July 1944 aged 12 years.

Evacuated from Hornsey Rise N.19

Came to Cornwall. Was killed with his

Friend Harry Dale by an unmarked landmine

At Gunwalloe Fishing Cove. His parents

Were also killed in the London Blitz.

Faced with the brutal irony of a child sent, surely after much heart-searching by sad and anxious parents, from home to a “safe place,” only to meet with a tragic death, it is almost a relief to realise that his parents predeceased him and that had he remained in London he too would probably have been a victim of the Blitz. For even today for all the surrounding beauty a deep melancholy hangs over the churchyard at Gunwalloe.


*For photographs and archive film of evacuees see:

And for personal reminiscences:

Gillian Mawson Britain’s Wartime Evacuees (November 2016)

The evacuation has also spawned a wealth of literature, not least the children’s books, chief among them Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, herself an evacuee, and Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mister Tom.

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