World War II Jewish Evacuees

As a boy in the 1930’s I was taken regularly to visit my grandmother who lived a short distance from Whitechapel Road. We had to pass by the house of a colourful local character, Mary Hughes, the daughter of the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Mary Hughes, then a striking old lady who walked about wearing a red cloak, made it her business to alert people to the horrors of a second world war by plastering her window with frightening pictures of skulls wearing steel helmets, and similar material. The warning should hardly have been necessary, for a common sight in London in those days was of men with one arm or one leg playing barrel organs in the streets. Still, Mary Hughes went about her task of educating people and I used to find the display in her window so disturbing that I averted my gaze whenever I passed by. This was at a time when the growing Nazi menace was increasingly dominating the news, inducing in us deep fears.

The story has a peculiarly tragic and ironic ending. The huge block of flats immediately opposite Mary’s house was named after her and in April 1945 the very last German V-2 missile to strike London made a direct hit on Hughes Mansions with appalling loss of life. Perhaps this is not the part of the story at which one ought to end. Hughes Mansions was rebuilt on its old site after the war and my mother made her home there for many years. The memory of Mary, the peacemaker, lives on.

What was happening in Soham in September 1939 was more immediately pressing than what was taking place on the battlefields of Poland. Mr Boyce began digging up his lawn to make a reinforced outdoor air-raid shelter. I even went through the motions of helping him but I - being a little overweight and more than a little lazy - found it hard going. Meanwhile the school had found a place to assemble, in the Church Hall, I believe, until arrangements were made for us to share accommodation for part of each day at the Shade School and eventually take over the Conservative Hall which was to become our “permanent” base.

It was a time of adaptation and discovery. Our education in the all-important broader sense of that term began from day one. Soham at the outbreak of the war was a village with a population of 5,000, uncluttered by cars, uncluttered by throngs of people even in the humming High Street during the busiest shopping hours, and with its imposing church tower dominating the village skyline, its quiet lanes, its gas-lit cottages and houses, its windmill, its fields and the surrounding Fenland never more than a few minutes walking distance, it was about as far removed from built-up bustling central London as most of us could imagine. And what better time could there have been to become familiar with our new surroundings than when we did? Day followed day basked in mellow sunlight, blackberries ripened in the hedges, the countryside was tinged with the colours of early autumn.

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