World War II Jewish Evacuees

The 1st September 1939

The destinations for the evacuees were kept secret. Sealed letters were given out to party leaders at the last moment. For many schools from the East End of London their journey into the unknown country would begin at Liverpool Street Station and lead northwards. Among the schools heading for Ely Station and Newmarket Station were: the Jews’ Free School, Boys and Girls, from Bishopsgate; the Davenant Foundation School, Whitechapel Road; All Saints School; Virginia Road School; Hoxton House School, Shoreditch; and the Robert Montefiore Junior Boys School, Underwood Street. Many of the children were Jewish.

Soham in 1939

Soham, described in Kelly’s Directory in the 1930’s as “a town which is long and straggling”, was once on the edge of a mighty lake or mere. It is said that the origins of the name are in Sea-ham, the settlement by the sea or water. By 1939 the old mere had become a shallow basin of rich farming land and Soham was very much a large agricultural community, with many jobs linked to the land and supporting those who farmed. Two windmills for grinding corn, out of a line that once went through the town, survived as landmarks, corn milling was carried out at Clark and Butcher’s Mill at Waterside.

There was the ancient church of St. Andrew dominating the skyline in the centre of the town, next to the extensive recreation ground and pavilion, acquired for the town and opened in 1929. There was a Baptist Church, a Congregational Church a Methodist Church and a Salvation Army Hall. There was the Soham Literary and Social Institute in Station Road containing reading and recreation rooms as well as a Liberal Club and a particularly well-equipped Conservative Club with a good billiard room and hall fitted with a stage.

The Soham and District Gas Company provided gas for most of the town from the gas works at Station Road and there was some electric lighting supplied to the town by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Electricity Company. The town had a railway station on the London and North Eastern line. Many pupils travelled in daily to the old-established Soham Grammar School which had about 160 boys, some of them boarding. For local boys there was the Shade School with its long-serving head Mr P W Lovering. In Clay Street there was the Church of England Girls’ School and the Infants School.

In March 1939 the Parish Council Chairman, Councillor Mr E Leonard, was defending the reputation of the town: “We all saw in the paper that Soham was considered a slum. While I know we have got one or two dark spots, I maintain that was a very false remark. I think if you take Soham, apart from one or two of the black spots, Soham is not a slum. It is considered a clean and healthy place. We have only to look at the average age of the poor old people that die to see they don’t die through any neglect, or filth or anything you can term a slum. We have had no outbreak or epidemic in Soham for some considerable time, and I think whatever County Councillor made that remark, it was unjustifiable.” At that same meeting under the County A.R.P. scheme the Council was asked to recommend two first aid posts. Mrs Bland, of the Red House, Fordham Road, was willing to allow a room in her house to be used as one of them and Mrs W A Slack would allow the use of St Etheldreda’s Hall for the other.

Soham was quite a self-sufficient town with a good range of shops and a plentiful number of public houses. There was the Regal Cinema in Clay Street, the Central Hall in Fountain Lane, which had been a cinema, and a new cinema was being built in Clay Street almost opposite the Regal. When war came this small Cambridgeshire town with a population of under 5,000 would face one of the biggest challenges in its history, to find homes for several hundred unaccompanied children from London, as well as many mothers with children and a number of adult helpers.

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