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Archbishop Tenison's

Church of England High School

Archbishop Tenison's CE High School
Selborne Road
Croydon
CR0 5JQ

Chapter 4 - BILLETS

Although the billeting of evacuees was not entirely a compulsory imposition on householders, as it would have been in a military sense, there was certainly some pressure applied in the reception areas for accommodation to be provided. The Government made a weekly payment to the hosts for each evacuee taken in. It is doubtful if the amount tendered was adequate for anything other than minimum care and consequently, by providing normal home life, the foster families were in fact subsidizing the situation.  Undoubtedly the motivation for providing accommodation for evacuees varied from one place to another. In some cases, the reasons would have been purely patriotic, whereas at the other extreme, the few shillings that came with each head could have been incentive enough to open some doors that should probably have remained closed. My contemporaries at Tenison’s, together with the form above and the one below, collectively covered the full spectrum of billet types, although it must be said in all fairness that our lifestyles were enriched and our horizons expanded by the variety of our experiences. The majority of our students appeared to stay in the same billets for long periods of time. They were comfortable there and obviously well cared for. Some changes occurred as the older boys completed their terms with the school and moved on to the wonders of adult life. This sometimes resulted in a reshuffling of billets, but as the school year ended with the writing of the Oxford School Certificate exams in December, and the new bunch of delinquents arrived in September or thereabouts, there had to be something of a bottleneck in between. Some of the students did not last the full course at Crowborough and when they returned to Croydon, their billets may have become available or, on the other hand, the foster parents may have been glad to be rid of those blue-jacketed city kids. There was very little either stable or constant during the war. The householders’ own circumstances were frequently changing and there was great unpredictability in the entire situation. It all provided a challenge for Tenisonians, in common with other pupils throughout the country who were faced with the same and often worse situations. Adaptability and tolerance became the orders of the day. In retrospect, I believe that all those who survived the ordeal did so with flying colours.

 

I was with Mrs. Adams for the best part of a year. Living conditions in the house were marginally acceptable, even by prevailing standards. Although it was remarkable that the old lady accomplished as much as she did, alone and unaided to all intents and purposes, the results were somewhat ‘front line’. Except for Mr. Payne, the front-room lodger who managed to retain his privacy, the rest of the household was comparable to a platoon of recruits, thrown together by circumstances and not enjoying it one little bit. We fended for ourselves as far as possible although I can’t imagine how my fellow Tenisonians and I managed to deal with homework in the single living room where everything else would have been happening at the same time. Working in our room would have been out of the question in the winter as, like similar buildings across the country in those days, it was unheated. In fact, there was insufficient bedding to go around and we piled our topcoats on the beds at night in a vain attempt to keep warm. In the warmer weather, when we were able to sleep with the windows open, our slumbers were sometimes punctuated by the passage of military traffic in front of the house. There was plenty of daytime troop movement as well. Bren-gun carriers and small tanks clattered along the narrow road not intended for such vehicles, tearing up the surface in the process. At the end of May and the beginning of June in 1940, there was a noticeable increase in the volume of army vehicles passing the house. The evacuation from Dunkerque was in full swing but we were far enough inland not to be confronted with the immediate results. The Local Defense Volunteers (L.D.V., later to become The Home Guard) were organized hurriedly to face the threat of invasion. A motley assembly of misfits soon became a viable fighting force. In fact, anti-invasion measures were implemented on a major scale. Obstructions were erected in larger fields to prevent gliders from landing; concrete anti-tank cones appeared beside many roads, ready to be man-handled into position when enemy tanks arrived; concrete "pill boxes" appeared at strategic locations; signposts and place names on railway stations were removed to confuse invading paratroops as well as the natives trying desperately to navigate from here to there. The phlegmatic Britons were obliged to adjust to the necessary changes. Mrs. Adams was up very early each morning to prepare our Spartan breakfasts. She did our laundry, which consisted of the things we had discarded at the weekly bath in the galvanized tub in the scullery. She prepared our midday meals which, although basic in nature, were adequately sustaining. She shopped for the few groceries that were available and generally ran the place with a firm hand. Try as I would, I could not adjust to the lifestyle and asked several times to be moved to another billet. But it was not easy to find alternative accommodation and my requests fell upon deaf ears. Until one day, I found in my soup, a piece of gristle that I had discarded from my meal the previous day. That was it! At last my request for a move found a sympathetic hearing and I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Wright. The Wrights lived on Fermor Road, further away from the school than Mrs. Adams’ place, which meant more hurried trips back and forth to Craigmore Hall. There were two sons in the Wright family, one about my age and we got along well together. The billet was only intended to be temporary for two weeks as Mrs. Wright was in very poor health. In fact I stayed there for three months and would have liked to stay on but it was not possible. And so, off to the Hodgins’ residence on Crowborough Hill where it becomes Broadway, and not too far from the Cross. The Hodgins’ house seemed quite large by local standards and stood in well kept grounds. Cyril Painter had been billeted there before me but had moved elsewhere. In a pleasant enough but characteristically forthright manner, Mrs. Hodgins made it quite clear that she did not really want evacuees about the place and that once again, the arrangement was temporary. Like Cyril before me, I was obliged to live in the kitchen with May the maid. It was actually a good arrangement as the kitchen was very large and the focus of domestic activities. May was a day-maid and, in the custom of the times, wore a traditional uniform. She performed multiple functions in the household and seemed to do them very well, especially the cooking, considering the limited resources that were by then available. Too soon, May decided that her immediate future lay with the women’s branches of the armed forces, and off she went to war. And off I went to another billet! The next stop was to make up a fourth with a group of Tenisonians already in residence there. Bob Tant, Jimmy Culpin and "Titch" Edwards were from the form below me. We were all obliged to squeeze into one small bedroom and once again, although we were grateful for whatever accommodation could be found for us it was certainly not home. The landlady ruled the house with a forcefulness that matched her size. Her husband was comparatively diminutive and seemed to do little or nothing but drive a limousine during the day and read the newspaper in the evenings. While we were there, the dreaded telegram arrived to tell them that one of their twin sons had been killed in North Africa. A great deal of it was happening at the time. I can’t remember how long I had been at this place but it was too long. When I left, the woman insisted that I turn out my pockets to make certain that I was not stealing anything. I suppose that in her restricted world, where possessions were so few, she couldn’t afford to lose any of them. And so, to my great surprise, I went back to the Hodgins. The return was a very welcome move, despite the fact that it was on the strict understanding that I look after myself to a large extent. Without a maid, Mrs. Hodgins was also required to perform unaccustomed domestic duties herself. I think she actually enjoyed it! Mr. Hodgins took all of the changes in his stride. He had been a career army man and was retired as a substantive Major from one of the élite regiments. Innovation was no hardship to Mr. Hodgins. He had learned to adapt to difficult international situations in wartime conditions before. With the formation of the Home Guard, Mr. Hodgins was quickly back in uniform. His rank made him one of the senior officers in the local unit. I became his unofficial, but quite willing batman, charged with keeping his boots and buttons highly polished and his lease-lend .303" rifle in fine working order. The shilling or two weekly reward for services rendered was very acceptable. In retrospect, I wonder why officers were issued with rifles rather than the more usual sidearm.  My quarters at this billet were ideal. The large table in the kitchen provided excellent facilities for drawing and model making in the evenings when the daily chores were complete. Model aircraft designs flowed from the tips of my pencils with great ease but, unfortunately, few came to fruition. And, as before, the temporary nature of the accommodation manifested itself and I was moved to the next temporary spot. John Medcalf and "Mitch" Mitchell had lived with the Misses Phillips for some time, probably ever since arriving in Crowborough. Mitch was in the form above John and I. He returned to Croydon before we did. Although the Phillips sisters did not really want another evacuee, they were pressured to put up with me until a more permanent arrangement could be made. In due course I moved along to the final billet that I had in Crowborough, where I stayed happily until finishing school in December 1942.

 

An entire story could be written about Mrs. Meads and the rambling old country boarding house that she ran at The Beeches in Crowborough. Suffice to say here however, that she was a most kind and benevolent lady and far too young to have had widowhood thrust upon her. She provided a home for several mentally challenged young men, whose own families did not want to know about them. Needless to say, when my fellow Tenisonians discovered where I had been moved to, they considered the posting completely appropriate. But to the disappointment of my schoolmates, I did not share the accommodation of Mrs. Meads’ wards, who lived in a separate part of the house.  My landlady had raised her niece Dorothy as a daughter and the two of them, with the limited help of the wards, ran the house very efficiently. The room I occupied was neatly furnished in the tradition of old country styles and I could not have been more comfortable. The only fly in the proverbial ointment was a permanent boarder who had elected to spend his final years there. He had allegedly accumulated some wealth as an overseer in the tobacco plantations of the southern states of America. That was probably in the 1880s and although the Civil War had ended in 1865, it was not hard to imagine that the old fellow followed on with the tyrannical traditions established prior to the war. His total and probably spurious dedication to religion was a travesty of the Christianity that he purported to embrace. He was not a nice person.  Upon returning to Crowborough from one of the statutory holidays in Croydon, I was informed that an elderly uncle of Mrs. Meads had suffered a stroke. Being no longer capable of looking after himself, he was now part of the household. I had lost my room! But Mrs. Meads, ever resourceful, had skated pretty close to the edge of the billeting regulations and arranged sleeping accommodation for me with a neighbour a few houses away. Although the problem was theoretically solved, the arrangement did not work and it was suggested that the summerhouse in the garden could be refurbished sufficiently to provide my own private quarters. A superb plan, which, when implemented, lasted until my spell with Tenison’s ended. Needless to say, there was one small problem. A deathwatch beetle had made its home in the wooden structure and insisted on ticking out of synchronization with my alarm clock during the night. I never did find the beast. One of Mrs. Meads’ wards was a severely deformed epileptic named Eddie. He was about 18 or 19 when I was there and within the limits of his deformity, had a most gentle and kindly disposition. He also had the most remarkable hearing that I have ever encountered. In the evenings, when we may have been together in the kitchen, it would sometimes be possible to detect an unusually concentrated expression on Eddie’s poor distorted features. We learned to know that he was hearing approaching hostile aircraft way down at the coast. It would be some time before the rest of us would be able to hear the machines and the welcoming anti-aircraft fire. Although there was very little to attract the Luftwaffe to Crowborough itself, the military encampments in the Ashdown Forest must have provided attractive targets. But compared with some other places, our war was relatively quiet.

© Archbishop Tenison's CE High School