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Muriel’s story-We are sent away to Wales

My name is Muriel. I was born and brought up in inner city Birmingham. In 1939 I was 9 years old, my brother Leonard was nearly 12, sister June was 7 and baby Margaret was 3. My parents decided that, in the event of war, we three older ones should be evacuated. Since they felt it essential that we should stay together, June and I were to go with the boys school. So, on the morning of Friday, 1st September, before actual declaration of war, we were taken to the school carrying gas mask and just one bag each with a change of clothing. Then we all walked in crocodile to a local suburban railway station where we boarded a train to we knew not where. We were, in fact, bound for the village of Cwmbran in South Wales. Sometime in the late afternoon the train drew into a siding and we were shepherded into what I afterwards learned was the works canteen of the Weston’s Biscuit Factory at Llantarnum. Here we were given a meal and a brown paper carrier containing packets of biscuits, sweets and tin of corned beef. Then by bus to the council offices in Cwmbran where we were sorted out and taken to the homes where we were to stay. We were taken to a large house (Oakfield house) quite the largest house we had ever been in, standing in quite a large area of land. The front gate opened onto the tow path of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. A large garden surrounded the house, in some of which vegetables grew. There were apple trees and a large area of raspberry canes. At the rear was an area with pig sty, hen house and a place for ducks. The family we were with was called Paling. All this a world away from inner city Birmingham. In the convention of the times it was not considered proper that June and I should be taught with the boys, so we two were taken into the village girls school. Another new experience where our accents were considered funny and we felt somewhat inferior. People were mostly kind and we soon made friends and went off on expeditions up the local mountain where we picked whinberries and we explored the upper and lower reaches of the canal where for the first time in my life I saw kingfishers. We had chores to do at Oakfield House – one of mine was daily to feed the hens and collect the eggs. We hated it when the ducks escaped onto the canal for it was a long-winded task to persuade them back in. People who kept pigs were allowed to kill one per year and on the day the butcher was coming to kill the pig we were sent off with sandwiches and a drink to spend the day up the mountain. Our parents made occasional trips to see us so we heard something of the devastation of Birmingham by the bombing. The nearest we came to an actual experience of war whilst at Cwmbran was one afternoon on the way home from school when we saw in the distance an German aircraft falling out of the sky in flames and the pilot baling out and his parachute opening. He was captured by farmers, his plane having been off course.


Return to Birmingham and Postcript

In 1941 my brother returned home. June and I stayed on. Then in 1942, the bombing in Birmingham having abated, my parents decided they wanted us home. My father arrived one Friday to take us home the following day. On arrival he said my brother was very poorly with tonsilitis. So on the Saturday we departed by bus to Newport then train to Birmingham. Some distance before the train reached Gloucester we noticed a single aircraft descending and approaching the train. As it swooped towards us there were cries of “It’s a German”. We were in an open carriage with seats round fixed tables. Dad pushed June and me under the table as the plane homed in on us and machine gun bullets rat-a tatted on the roof. This seemed to go on for an age but fortunately we entered a tunnel and the train halted in there for sometime. Some people were wounded and they were taken off the train at Gloucester. As a result we arrived in Birmingham where, to our surprise, we were met by two aunts and two uncles but no mother, and the news that my brother had been diagnosed with diphtheria and was in Birmingham Isolation Hospital. That was where mum was and dad and an uncle went off to join her. We were not allowed to go home until the public health people had fumigated the house, so we stayed with an aunt. My brother died the following Tuesday so our coming home was not what we had expected it to be and with the loss of my brother our family life was inevitably different.

There were more air-raids on Birmingham after our return and on one occasion our house was set alight by incendiary bombs. Whilst the adult fought the fires, the local children were rounded up by the Air Raid Warden and taken to shelter in the cellar of a local pub.

My evacuation story does not end there. Having initially exchanged letters, in course of time we lost touch with Cwmbran. In the late 1970’s my husband had occasion to visit someone in Cwmbran and persuaded me to go with him. I was very reluctant. I didn’t want to see this busy new town, which was what Cwmbran had become. I thought all trace of my life there would have been obliterated but, to my surprise, we found a sign to ‘Old Cwmbran’ and the old village centre was still there. We took a nostalgic walk along the canal – now turned into a linear park. On the area where the raspberries had been grown was part of a fire station but amazingly Oakfield House was still there and so was Mrs Paling (I had thought she must surely be dead). She greeted me as if it was only yesterday she had seen me and produced from a drawer in the Welsh dresser, which stood where it had always had, a photograph of us three children taken soon after we arrived there. She was in her 90’s and still a very commanding figure. We went over the house and I realised what I had been too ignorant to know in my youth, that the furniture and inlaid tables would not be regarded as very good antiques. This encounter was a real “raise the hairs on the back of your neck” experience. We kept in touch until she died a few years later

Birmingham to Wales, a tragic return home and a postscript

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