There is a blue plaque on the platform at Glossop commemorating the arrival of evacuees in the town. It has nothing to do with my father’s trip though; it recalls a group of more than 600 children who came here almost a year later from Lowestoft in Suffolk.
The “Friends of Glossop Station” blog has a whole feature on it (there is a book of memories too: “A long way from home”) and explains that there have been reunions between the evacuees and the host families in Glossop over the years. The most recent one, just a few years ago, is a reminder that although I am experiencing it second hand, the evacuation story has not yet passed into history; there are still many people alive today who went through it.
I contacted the Glossop Heritage Trust to see if they knew anything about the earlier evacuees from Manchester. I am indebted to them for an excellent e-mail accompanied by several press cuttings from 1939 editions of the Glossop Chronicle that have helped me piece together the story.
A Wonderful Welcome
This is my first visit to Glossop, and I am immediately impressed with the station. The attractive Victorian building is spotless, and the single platform is decorated with flower beds and hanging baskets. There is a little coffee shop in the old ticket office, and there are lots of interesting displays on the wall, including one filled with poetry that celebrates the opening of the English Coastal Path.
The condition of the station is certainly a credit to the staff but a lot of it is down to the volunteers of the Friends of Glossop Station group. I am honoured that Neil, one of the members of the group (who actually put me in contact with the Heritage Trust), has suggested meeting for a coffee to explain things to me. When I arrive, just after lunch, he is finishing watering the hanging baskets.
Neil shows me around the station explaining the displays on the walls and in the waiting room and then tells me something of its interesting history. The station, which is Grade II listed, was built by the 13th Duke of Norfolk in 1845 who also constructed the branch line from Dinting. He later sold it to the company who operated the main line and made a profit on the deal. There is a lion statue, symbol of the Howard (Norfolk) family, mounted on the station frontage and there is a bell that used to be rung whenever the duke arrived at the station.
Next, Neil takes me on a little tour of Glossop town centre. First, he shows me the market hall and explains its renovation, then he introduces me to Norfolk Square and the Partington Theatre. As we walk down the main street, I learn that there are still many excellent independent shops in the town.
There is also Howard Town, an attractive new development of an old mill (the town used to be a big centre for the cotton industry) that has created a new hotel, restaurant, and shops. I quickly get the impression that Glossop (population 33,000) is a great place to live.
We drive out to a lovely cafe at Arnfield Reservoir for a longer chat over coffee. Neil is great company, and we talk for a long time about railways, the experience of the Lowestoft and Manchester evacuees and much more besides. Afterwards we climb Castle Hill and get a great view of the surrounding area. Neil explains what it is like to live here in the winter and how the area can get cut off quickly in the snow.
We finish off a wonderful afternoon with a brief walk around Old Glossop, the original heart of the town before the cotton industry led it to expand, and a wander through Manor Park, developed from the grounds of Glossop’s former manor house.
Neil sees me back to the station and I thank him for a truly wonderful introduction to Glossop.
I check into a room at the Norfolk Arms pub just across from the station. I have a pleasant dinner and a few chats with the friendly locals and then settle down with a drink in a quiet corner of the bar.
I study the press cuttings and the notes from my visit to Manchester Library and I try to piece together what sort of experience my father and his fellow evacuees had here.
The first clipping I read is from the Glossop Chronicle from a few days after the evacuation. The headline is “Evacuated Children Come to Glossop and Longdendale” and there is a photograph that shows Glossop station platform filled with children; some looking worried; some looking happy. As the article explains, they were delighted with the green fields but did not know whether to laugh or cry. I don’t see my father amongst them.
The article also reports that the first special train was on time (the second one was early) and that the school children, accompanied by their teachers and volunteers, were in their Sunday best and carried their rations in school bags, attaché cases and paper parcels; some of them were carrying comic books; all of them had their gas masks.
The article goes on to explain all the procedures that were undertaken by the billeting officer and his various volunteers to get the children to their new temporary homes: It mentions that the children were taken to a reception place to be served refreshments before being placed onto buses or into private cars.
I read of the generosity of the locals towards the newly arrived children. The paper reports that some of them were treated to a free showing on Saturday, courtesy of Gaumont pictures, at the Empire Cinema.
Lodgings and Lessons
Back in 1939 the two boys were billeted together. My father mentioned the house was larger than the one they had left behind; it was on the outskirts of the town; the couple who took them in were elderly and childless.
The Chronicle talks about how many of the local householders had put themselves to great inconvenience and expense and it appeals for extra spare blankets to make the new arrivals more comfortable.
Elsewhere it is reported that the weekly government allowance to each householder of 10s 6d for one evacuee or 17s 6d (ca £87 today) for two was only to cover food and lodging. Spending money, clothing and laundry was supposed to be covered by the parents, but often it was not.
In one of the Chronicle articles there were reports of the difficulties of managing both local and evacuee children at the local schools. At first, there were shift systems in operation along with home tutorials as well.
I cannot help comparing all this with the current COVID-19 crisis. There must have been terrible scenes and incredible problems, but also a lot of wonderful stories of people volunteering and helping each other too.
At first all the press reports are positive, and then slowly it seems that a few doubts and problems start to set in. There are complaints about parents visiting too often and that some children are returning to Manchester for long periods.
The 27th of October edition of the paper has a lengthy piece about a review of the programme undertaken by the Chief Billeting Officer. The article starts by suggesting that the evacuees will gain not only from the safety of being away from the city, but also from the healthy air of the countryside and contact with what he describes as old-fashioned values.
He praises the kindness of Glossop mothers who he claims provide a happy balance between authoritarian and repressive discipline and the too lax and casual attitude found by social observers in the city.
Elsewhere, he admits there had been misfits and that the volunteers had been driven to despair by some of the cases.
Reading this and some of the letters to the newspaper included in the cuttings, it is easy to detect a feeling that there were more than a few mismatches between children from industrial Manchester and the residents of rural Derbyshire.
Unfortunately, all this fits with the story my father and uncle told me about their experience several times. They both maintained that the host couple had no experience of bringing up children, turned out to be quite authoritarian and treated the boys to a much more severe level of discipline than they had been used to back at home.
Soon after they arrived, they always told me, they had begun to take long walks in the surrounding countryside. They found the fresh air and the scenery novel and exciting, but mainly it was a way for them to get out of the house and avoid their host parents. It was on the way back from one of these trips that my uncle “acquired” some apples from a neighbour’s tree and ate several of them all at once. That night he succumbed to a severe bout of diarrhoea in bed.
Over the years, I heard the same story from both my father and my uncle several times. My father’s abbreviated version was always “we were evacuated to Glossop, but then your uncle messed the bed.” The longer version of the story ends with the host couple going berserk and writing a letter of complaint to the parents.
After a few days, my grandparents turned up on the doorstep, rescued the boys and returned them quickly to Openshaw.
At least that is what I was always told.
I now wonder if that is the whole truth. Perhaps the hosts were not all that bad, perhaps there had been an apology from my grandparents, perhaps the children had been taken back in shame, or perhaps they had just been missed too much by their mother.
Don’t do it Mother!
Whatever happened, I had always believed that my father’s experience had been exceptional. I had just assumed that most children were evacuated for the entire war and only a very few unhappy ones returned to the cities before the conflict was over. After reading the Varna Street logbook and the Glossop Chronicle press cuttings I realise that I was quite wrong about that.
750 unaccompanied children (in addition to mothers with young pre-school children) arrived in Glossop during the first few days of September 1939. Even by the 29th of the month the local paper reports that some of the children were already heading home to Manchester. After less than two months had passed, 50% of mothers with young children and 25% of unaccompanied children had returned to the city.
By January 1940 there were enough returnees* to reopen Varna Street School back in Openshaw and in May 1940 those remaining in Glossop, just 30 by then, were integrated into the local school.
Given the proximity of the city and the fact that bombing in the early stage of the war suddenly seemed much less likely than it had beforehand, this is probably all understandable. It surprised me, nonetheless.
It also helps to explain why Glossop had enough room for 600 evacuees from Lowestoft when, a few months later in June 1940, the war finally began to hot up and came much closer to home. There would then suddenly have been much more incentive for the evacuees to stay where they had been sent and for much longer.
(*In January 1941 some of the Varna Street students were re-evacuated to Fleetwood)
The next morning as I buy a ticket at the station for the next stage of my own journey, I remember that my father used to explain how my grandmother’s brief experience of Glossop’s fresh air became a catalyst for my grandfather to start to look for ways of getting the whole family out of Manchester.
It was not the threat of the bombs; it was my grandmother’s asthma. It had been getting worse throughout the years they had been in Openshaw; by late 1939 it had become almost life-threatening. The doctors agreed that fresher air could help save her.
Over the next year or so, my grandfather looked for a business that he could buy in one of the towns along Lancashire’s coast. He rejected a couple of bakeries in Southport before making an offer on a small grocer’s shop in Lytham St Annes in late 1940. (In 2021 it still exists and is now a sandwich shop. On Zoopla.co.uk, it is valued at 95% of the Openshaw property)
Blitzed at Christmas.
The offer for the grocer’s shop was eventually accepted. But as the family started to make plans to sell up and leave Manchester, the Luftwaffe finally arrived in force. The “Christmas Blitz” of December 1940 devastated the city centre and killed over 600 people. Happily, the Heinkels and Dorniers missed most of Openshaw; both of the railway works came through unscathed but more importantly the bakery was not damaged either.
The moving plans continued despite further enemy action and then finally in June 1941, just as Hitler was about to turn his armies towards Russia and his air force away from Britain, the family left Manchester for good.
Exactly 80 years ago this month, ready to begin their new life by the sea, they arrived on their own “evacuation train“ at St Annes-on-the Sea.