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Western FrontSeptember 1939

Child evacuee

Gary Godfrey
Gary Godfrey was one of more than 1.4 million children who were evacuated from cities to the countryside. This voluntary scheme was the largest transportation of people in the history of Britain.

Gary Godfrey’s words are read by Neal Barry.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Gary Godfrey, son of a London bus driver, was not quite eight years old when war was declared. 

Words of Gary Godfrey: We was quite poor. No holidays, of course, no cars, no nothing. No toys, no nothing, no. I never had anything. I seemed to be happy. I’m a naturally happy person, I tend to be positive and look on the good things and perhaps hide the bad things.

Laurence Rees: Gary was evacuated on the 3rd September 1939 – the very day the British declared war.

Words of Gary Godfrey: I think I can remember my mother saying, ‘You’ll be going away to the country today. When you get to school you’ll be going on there. Here’s your gas mask, here’s your little case.’ And I remember her tying the label onto me and I walked to school, which was only about a quarter of a mile, and when we got there all my friends were all in the playground, they had the same stuff as I did, some mums and dads there but can’t remember my mum and dad being there. And I was quite excited. A few children were crying, not so many. ‘Cause it’s all a big adventure as we saw it, and I couldn’t wait, I was quite excited. And had my friends round me anyway so it was just like being at school. I think we changed trains somewhere but I can’t remember where it was, and then after a few hours we arrived at a station in the country called Oakham, in Rutland. We arrived at the station, we got out, lots of cars, lots of people, and we was driven, I can remember there was five, six of us in this car and we were driven and we went down a big, long drive and there was a great big, well, manor house, big, very posh. We thought, ‘Well, this is posh.’ And I can remember two servants being outside, and we was given a meal and we was all put up in this, in the attic of this great big house. 

Laurence Rees: After three days in the ‘posh’ manor house, Gary was looked after by a farm worker and his wife.

Words of Gary Godfrey: So Mr and Mrs Stanley took me in, and I was with them for three months. Then I went to my gran’s over Christmas and then came back again and another family, luckily this family took me in, the most loveliest of all families took me in. People came and said, ‘Oh, Gary, you’re gonna move to Well Street.’ Well, I knew where Well Street was, and they said, ‘You’re gonna go with the Smiths.’ And I knew the Smiths, you know, ‘cause I knew their boy from school. And that was, I suppose, one of the biggest and best times of my life, this family that took me up. They were very, very loving, treated me like, just like their own. And their son and myself become like brothers, and you couldn’t meet finer people, they were really lovely, yeah. Really nice, loving. And I kept in touch with them till they all passed away. There’s only one left now, but I know the grandchildren. And they come and see me.

I don’t think I had any love in my family as such. Not, not like what I’d got there, you know. There was a little problem with my parents, they were always arguing, they didn’t last long together ‘cause they, they split in 1940. So I came from not a very loving household to a great loving household, so it was the best years of my life.

Lovely people. They had two daughters and one son. The son was Derek who was the same age as me, a younger daughter, she was five at the time, and an elder daughter, May. And May I think she was twelve. Uncle Chris, that was Mr Smith, he worked on the roads, building roads, he’d fought in the First World War. He was over 50. They were nearly, they were in their fifties the family. And Aunt Sarah, she did lots of things, did a bit of cleaning, if there was going to be a burial she’d come and lay you out, she did all sorts. Everybody knew her, everybody loved her, everybody in the village loved my Aunt Sarah. She was a wonderful, wonderful lady. Gentle, loving, caring, very respectful. Never heard a cross word in the whole time I knew her, which I must have known her since she was 50, she died when she was 86 and I went to her funeral, so 36 years I knew her, and I never knew, heard anything but a soft, gentle and loving lady. And everybody in the village felt the same.

Laurence Rees: Gary also became very close to Mr and Mrs Smith’s son – Derek.

Words of Gary Godfrey: Me and Derek, thick as thieves. Oh, you couldn’t split us, except that he went to one school and I went to the other, because they’d split the evacuees off the village boys. We went into business. We used to snare rabbits and sell them. What did we charge? Oh, threepence, threepence for a rabbit. If you wanted it gutted, cleaned and skinned it was sixpence. And it took me two weeks to learn how to skin a rabbit, and it’s quite difficult, but I learnt. What else? Birds nesting of course. I couldn’t name birds, except pigeons, coming from London. But in the end I knew every bird, knew what its egg looked like, their songs I could tell. I learned how to milk a cow.

Laurence Rees: It was an idyllic world into which Gary’s parents seldom intruded. 

Words of Gary Godfrey: I think my father come twice, twice a year, my mother about twice. But, of course, being apart they didn’t come at the same time. My father used to also send me about five shillings, I think, a month. Mother never sent me any money but my dad did.

Laurence Rees: Then, as the war went on, Gary had his first sight of Americans.

Words of Gary Godfrey: The Americans were in town, the Yanks as we called them, and we used to make money out of them. We used to watch, we used to wait and watch them, and if they whistled at a girl we used to run across to this girl and say, ‘Do you like them Yanks?’ And she said, ‘Well, they’re alright.’ And we’d go back to the Yanks and said, ‘If you give us five shillings I’ll introduce you to my sister.’ I mean, you know, all these sorts of things. And a typical cockney businessman I was. Business boy, sorry.

Girls, I mean, there was no boys of their age around they was all fighting, you know, and of course the Americans got five times the pay that English soldiers got so they could give the girls a good time. I don’t blame the girls, why not? Yeah, they used to have dances and all that, and it’d be all girls, I think the girls used to outnumber the Yanks about three to one. So they was on a good thing. But they was dying, you know, they were supporting our country, so nothing wrong with that, that’s okay with me.

Laurence Rees: Gary did well at his junior school and managed to pass the 11 plus and gain a place at a Grammar school.

Words of Gary Godfrey: That was a good school, I learnt a lot there. Started to learn Latin, Greek, French, but unfortunately when I got back, when my father took me back, he didn’t want me to be in a Grammar School. ‘Cause he wanted me to leave school at 14 and get to work. Which, looking back on it, I can’t see how a father could do that. My mother went potty, from what I heard, ‘cause she thought I could do well. Things were different, ‘cause it was all, we were poor, you had to earn money, you know. Didn’t get nothing from the government like you do today. But I don’t regret in my life, I had a great life. Well, I’m still alive. It’s been good.

Laurence Rees: In 1943 Gary had been shocked to see his father suddenly appear, in order to take him home. 

Words of Gary Godfrey: Just got out of the blue. I don’t think my Aunt Sarah could tell me. She must have known, obviously. But I felt, I think, you know, she was, ‘How am I gonna tell Gary that?’ ‘cause she knew I loved it being there, and I didn’t want to go. I didn’t even like going back, you know, for little holidays. I was happy where I was, you know. A great family.

Laurence Rees: Once he was back in London with his father, Gary badly missed his adopted family.

Words of Gary Godfrey: I suppose I did bottle it up a bit. I become a loner. I’d lost my best friend, you know, I’d been with for four years, and I was a loner after that. I’d go out with my brother, but that’s about it. I didn’t want to make friends, you know. No. Yeah, it was about affection. I don’t know what psychological effect it would have on me in later life, can’t think of anything, but it probably did.

Laurence Rees: And looking back, Gary believes he’s learnt a valuable lesson from his wartime experience. 

Words of Gary Godfrey: I suppose I learnt the value of all types of people. If somebody lacked something they had something else that made up for it, and in the main most people are nice. It’s easier to be nice than put yourself out to be nasty. Family life isn’t everything. Just because you don’t have a good family life you get things from elsewhere. That there’s always something better tomorrow. As regards the Smiths, for the rest of my life I’ve visited them all the time, sometimes three times a year, sometimes four. Attended all their unfortunate funerals. There’s still May, she’s still alive, lovely lady. She married an Italian prisoner of war, ‘cause there’s lots of them working on the farms. I only saw Italian, I didn’t see any Germans, and she married one of those, yeah. His name, funnily enough, is Corgi. But he wasn’t a dog, he’s an Italian.