Josna Rege

17. Chickens on the Pot

In 1940s, Britain, Family, history, Stories on March 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm

My mother Gladys—Glad, as her family called her—was only eleven when the Second World War broke out, and because London was a special target for bombing, she was evacuated along with her entire school to the old market town of St. Albans.

London was only 20 miles away, but it seemed much farther to Mum, and she was terribly homesick. Hers was a large, closeknit family and she had never been away from them. She had never slept alone either, since they were three to a bed at home, with her tucked in the middle between her two elder sisters. As the youngest girl, she was the only one of the six children to be evacuated, since her younger brother Len was too young to leave his mother, her next-elder brother Ted lied about his age and joined the air force, and the other siblings were already grown and working.

During her evacuation Mum was billeted with three different foster families, in situations ranging from abusive to exploitative to more-or-less-tolerable. In one, the family’s biological daughter secretly tormented her, knowing that she could never complain; in another, the foster-mother starved her and spent the government money entertaining the troops; and in a third family—the best of the lot—the foster-mother extended the food budget by  filling her up with cheap carbohydrates, until she grew so plump that they began calling her Dumpling as a term of endearment.

This last family had a garden, and even kept chickens. Like many others at the time, they had no indoor toilet, so if nature called during the night, one was obliged to use the outhouse in the back garden. Nature did call one night, and so Mum picked her way gingerly down the back stairs and across the yard, groped for the door, and ducked quickly in.

Accompanied by a raucous squawking, screeching, and beating of wings, a dark figure sprang up from the pot and pushed past her into the night.  He was a chicken thief, who had been at work in the coop when he had heard someone approaching and taken cover in the privy along with his haul.

I can’t imagine how Mum screwed up her courage to venture down at night ever again. It occurs to me that this early experience might also account for her lifelong aversion to using strange bathrooms when away from home.

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  1. Wow. Your poor mum. What a dreadful surprise! (A thief is one thing, but thief plus squawking chicken, oh my!)
    I’ve always been fascinated by stories of London children who had to live apart from their families during WWII. Maybe that comes of reading so many of the Noel Straitfield “shoes” books… in which the children’s hardships were no doubt downplayed for a juvenile audience. Did you mother talk often of these years? It seems as if they must have been very formative in her young life.

    • Yes, I think it was a traumatic experience in so many ways. Being separated from her parents and siblings was one, having her schooling disrupted was another. Although her school was evacuated, too, it wasn’t the same–her love of learning and her focus on schoolwork was inevitably affected. And by the time the war was over, so was her childhood and, pretty much, her schooldays, too.
      She ran away once, from a particularly horrible foster family, and managed to take the train by herself all the way back to London, where her parents took her in for the night and the police came for her in the morning. But her father traveled back with her and made sure that she was resettled with a decent family. And she wasn’t evacuated for the whole war.
      By the way, if you like stories of children’s evacuations during WWII, I recommend Nina Bawden’s novels. One of them—perhaps Carrie’s War—was recently made into a BBC film and I’m sure would be available on video if you were interested.

  2. It makes me so furious to think about a foster family taking advantage of a vulnerable child. My heart goes out to your grandparents, too. Some day, I’d be very interested to hear how the war affected the lives of your mothers’ siblings, too.

    • Yes, it was very difficult all round, Mary, and many people who lived through the London Blitz were all nerves. There are some stories I’d like to tell, as they were told me by my mother.

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