by Harry Pope
The south coast of England was to be the safe haven for thousands of children and their mothers in the autumn of 1939. Sunday 3rd September was the day England declared war on Germany. The day before, Eastbourne received its first evacuees.
Eastbourne was regarded as a safe place for children during wartime, much better than the supposed east end of London, so on that Saturday 1,484 mothers and 1,036 of their children arrived by train. The average age of the children was four. Some mothers wanted to leave their children with strangers, and return home, but were persuaded to stay and see their youngsters into comfortable accommodation. By Monday evening 7,400 mothers, babies, schoolchildren, and teachers had arrived.
War had been accepted as a certainty by many civilians for well over a couple of months, and the wealthier section of Eastbourne that was and still is known as The Meads became more of a ghost town, with many of the residents deciding to visit friends and relatives in the peaceful country.
Monday 4th September was excellent weather all day. There were over 3,000 children playing on the beach, with adult supervision, and they certainly weren’t bored. The fruit stalls were doing excellent business. The pier had its entertainment of penny arcade but the variety theatre was closed due to the outbreak of hostilities. And somewhere in the background there was a team of men frantically filling sandbags for the bombing campaign that was rumoured to be starting any minute.
Air raid shelters were being dug, but not to the dimensions previously discussed only a few months ago when peace was still enjoyed. The rejected design suggestion had been to a minimum depth of forty feet for the public shelters, that was now seen to be impractical. Now, they were going to be about ten feet down, concrete, and with limited public money available have a basic inside. No frills, maybe not even a toilet, but that might change.
The new school term had started today, but too many children. A compromise was reached, so the Eastbourne children would attend their normal school during the morning, and then go to church halls for the second part of their day.
The visiting children in the morning went for nature walks, then took their places in the school classroom.
Today the cinemas and all places of public entertainment were closed, but this was only going to be for two weeks, when normal service was resumed. The children and mothers who were billeted with local families were creating problems.
Old theatres no longer there
The householders were being paid, but some of the locals were
vegetarians and the visitors were carnivores. ‘We want meat’. There was even an incident reported in the local paper of a woman padlocking her rooms to prevent the children from entering.
The East End children were regarded as uncivilised. A lot were unwashed, with vermin in their clothes, much to the dismay of their hosts. They were not used to
using indoor toilets in the same way as the locals, and used the beach and front
gardens as public toilets. And the language! It was so bad, they were teaching the local kids to swear.
As so many people had evacuated their houses, there were now over 4,000 empty rooms, so plenty of vacant accommodation for the visitors. No bombs fell on Eastbourne until Sunday July10th 1940, so by Christmas 1939 most of the Eastenders fell safe to return, and Eastbourne return to some kind of early wartime normality.
The pier theatre re-opened. So did the Royal Hippodrome Theatre. So did the Devonshire Park. So did the eight cinemas, including the Gaiety in Seaside showing Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn in Glorious Technicolor.
The speedway stopped for the duration, because the riders had been called up.
Having a great 1939 holiday
And who was starring at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre? Mervo, the well-known medium, whose speciality to publicise his show was to walk along Seaside, the road leading to the theatre, completely blindfolded, while avoiding all objects in his way.