What was everyday life like in Cornwall during the Second World War? What kind of sights, sounds and smells would have greeted the many visitors and newcomers who found themselves in the county as a consequence of this momentous conflict?
At the Museum of Cornish Life, in collaboration with Bodmin Keep, we have recently embarked upon an ambitious public history project, forming part of a much broader national project coordinated by the Imperial War Museums (IWM) under its Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP) funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As part of this new project, we are seeking to gather stories and sources, from oral history to written testimonies, as well as documents, photographs and objects which tell us about the experiences of people in wartime Cornwall. Our project is called ‘Disrupted Lives’; it explores many topics connected with the Cornish experience of the war, from the plight of conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the armed forces to the role of land and timber girls in maintaining Cornwall’s war effort in the key sectors of farming and forestry.
As the newly-appointed Digital Intern, now tasked with overseeing the research and digital outputs from this project, my introduction to wartime Cornwall came through the accounts of child evacuees from London who were dispatched by their families to the West Country to escape the Blitz on the capital. Beginning on 7th September 1940, London was bombed intensively by the German Air Force, killing 40,000, injuring and maiming almost 90,000 and displacing over three million people. Around half this number, 1.5 million evacuees, mainly children, pregnant women or young mothers and vulnerable people, would be evacuated to the countryside. Cornwall would become a prime location for evacuees due to its perceived distance from the dangers of enemy attack. Almost 30,000 child evacuees would find themselves in a Cornish home throughout the course of the war.
As an Irish national who had not previously set foot in Cornwall, listening to the audio testimonies and reading the written accounts of older men and women recounting this curious aspect of their childhood as strangers in this county held a deep personal resonance. There is the story of Carmin Sidonio, then a thirteen-year-old boy of Italian heritage, who was evacuated from London to Cornwall along with his brother Dominic in 1941. Carmin and his family had only recently relocated to London from their original home of Invergordon in Scotland in 1938. Along with his brother, he was initially settled in the village of Grampound, before being again relocated to the nearby town of St Stephen. Although all this moving around proved somewhat disquieting at first, the two brothers settled well in their new home, hosted by the local butcher and his wife who had no children of their own. Carmin and his brother were fond of the couple, and he remarked upon the delicious pasties that the butcher’s wife baked, something he never previously heard of or tried. Indeed, being billeted with a butcher had its advantages; the pasties contained meat, a food that was in short supply owing to strict wartime rationing. Carmin’s testimony, which is housed in the IWM’s Sound Archive, is available to the public and can be accessed on the IWM website.
Carmin’s story was shared by myself and my colleague at Bodmin Keep, Charlotte Marchant, in our monthly episode upload, ‘WW2 – A Cornish Story’, which recently aired on BBC Radio Cornwall. A link to a recording of this episode can be found here.
Another evacuee from London was Reeny Summers, a dock worker’s daughter from Tower Bridge Road in Bermondsey. She was evacuated to Cornwall in 1940 when it became apparent that the Germans were going to attack London. At the age of 83, Reeny described her experience of Cornwall as ‘lovely’, although she recalled the experience of traveling there by train as a ‘terrific long journey’ which was quite sad when she had to say goodbye to her family. After the war, she regularly returned to Cornwall for holidays with her family, and once visited the house in the little village where she was billeted. Reeny’s testimony is also accessible on the IWM website.
My favourite evacuation story, shared with us by one of our Volunteers, is that of Derek Watts. Then a young boy, Derek and his brother were woken up early one morning in 1940 and taken to Paddington station with a case, a gasmask and some sandwiches. They had no idea what was going on and many other children were boarding the train – Derek was somewhat used to being “handed around” to different people, but he noticed that many of the children on the train were very upset. The train stopped at various places but he, his school mates and two teachers got off at Redruth. They were then transported to Mullion Church Hall where he and his brother were billeted with the Plantins, an Anglo-French family with a large house in the countryside. Far from being a traumatic experience for the young boy, Derek’s evacuation to Cornwall proved enchanting. He had such a lovely time that when he was returned to London in 1942, he opted to go back to Cornwall on his own to spend the rest of the war with the Plantins.
Derek passed his 11+ exams and went to Helston Grammar School from 1944 to 1949. During that time, he joined the Home Guard in Mullion and later undertook his National Service. He decided to settle in Cornwall and began work as a trainee accountant in Helston before being moved to the Penzance office where he qualified. Derek would remain in Cornwall for the rest of his life and died in Helston, aged 86, in January 2019. His son and only daughter still live in Helston.
I look forward to sharing more stories of wartime Cornwall in the coming months. We would also love to know what you think about our Cornish Second World War stories so would be really grateful if you could take a couple of minutes to complete this short survey.
Digital Intern (Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme)
(The above image is reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London. © IWM HU91777. Terence, son of Francis and Alice Matthews, as a child during the Second World War. Terence was evacuated to Cornwall during 1940 – 1944.)
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