WW2 Evacuation of Pupils from Gateshead Secondary School, later Gateshead Grammar School
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Can anyone identify the pupils and staff in these photos?***
People in the following story about evacuation to Spennymoor and Bishop Auckland from Gateshead Secondary Scool when it was believed that in World War II, the Germans were going to bomb Tyneside into oblivion
Robert (Bob) Ray is the author
Florence (Florrie) Ray; Joyce Ray; Jean Ray; Sheila Ray; Irene Ray; David (Sonny) Ray; Ethel Ray; Ethel Chapman; George Chapman; David MacDonald Ray; Joseph (Joss) Harrison; Amelia Harrison; Douglas (Doug) Harrison; Norman Kirby; Jean Kirby (nee Cockburn); Ron Heslop; Betty Heslop (nee Armstrong); and Sheila Ray (nee Cockburn)
Location of story:
Spennymoor; County Durham; Gateshead; Bishop Auckland; Newcastle upon Tyne; Tudhoe Woods (Spennymoor); Tyneside; and Page Bank
My story begins on 31 August 1939, as I approached my tenth birthday. I knew that on the following day I was going to be evacuated to Spennymoor, in County Durham about twenty miles away from my home town, Gateshead, and, also, that I was spending my last few leisure hours with my pals that Thursday evening. We were playing a game which involved running around the perimeter wall of a newly built hotel, ending by lowering ourselves to the ground from the top of the highest wall. At this point, I should point out that a signpost outside the hotel advertised “Bed and Breakfast, 10s/6d”, in today’s money fifty-two-and-a-half new pence. In my determination to be the fastest, stupidly I forgot to lower myself but, instead, jumped off the wall at its highest point, about seven feet above ground level if memory serves me right, and damaged my big toe. I limped the quarter of a mile to home, in agony, too scared to tell my Mother how I had come to be injured. Next morning and notwithstanding my swollen toe, we were off to Spennymoor.
“We” were my Mother, Florence (Florrie) Ray, my sister Joyce who was about eleven and a half years old, me, my sister Jean who was eight years old, and my sister Sheila who was nearly three years old. Mother had elected to have us evacuated to Spennymoor because Joyce had just started at Gateshead Central Technical School after passing the Eleven Plus examination earlier in the year, and she thought it would be better to keep us all together, as far as possible. My sister Irene who was fourteen years of age, and my brother David, commonly called Sonny, who was thirteen years of age were both evacuated to Bishop Auckland, about fifteen miles away, with the then Gateshead Secondary School, now Gateshead Grammar School. My eldest sister, Ethel, was sixteen years of age and had just started in her first job in Gateshead, so she lived with our Aunty Ethel and her husband George Chapman, at Newcastle. My Father, David MacDonald Ray, was working away in the East Midlands at the time.
I suppose we arrived at Spennymoor later on the morning of Friday, 1 September 1939, and then began the task of getting us all into our respective billets. Starting in the local school yard at King Street, we trekked around town looking for kindly foster-parents, to offer us accommodation. Surprisingly, accommodation for evacuees had not been pre-designated but simply left to prospective foster-parents to pick and choose. Needless to say, with my luck - and a swollen big toe, too - it was, perhaps, no wonder that, according to my sisters, I was one of the last to get a home! My Mother, with young Sheila, got a place with an elderly lady at the top of Marmaduke Street, my sisters Joyce and Jean with a couple just opposite them, and, finally, the kind lady at Number 9 must have taken pity on me and took me indoors, much to my relief. By then, I was in considerable pain and, seeing the state of my foot, she took me next door where the man of the house, a member of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, gave me first-aid and applied cold compresses. That kind gentleman continued to look after my injury for the next few weeks until it got better. My foster-parents, if that was their correct title, were Mr. Joseph (Joss) and Mrs. Amelia Harrison, a lovely couple who, I guess, were in their late fifties and who were to become my substitute parents until June, 1942.
I don’t remember much about the next day, Saturday, 2 September, apart from examining the contents of my emergency rations cardboard box and finding there was a chocolate “Kit-Kat” bar, something I’d always fancied but was never able to afford … delicious!
I was up early the next day, Sunday, 3 September in anticipation of the arrival from London of the grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison. Douglas (Doug) was about the same age as my brother, thirteen years old, and he had lived with his grandparents since joining the local secondary school, two years earlier. At the time, I thought this seemed odd but, in retrospect, it was probably a sensible move. He was the oldest of a large family of brothers and sisters and, no doubt, he would have been glad to get away from them, to Spennymoor where his new school activities would be better served. Also, his home village, Page Bank, was a fair distance from Spennymoor, so it saved him much travelling time. He had holidayed in London with an uncle whose name escapes me but he was Mr. and Mrs. Harrison’s son and the brother of Doug’s Mum. Doug painted a glowing picture of London and regaled me in our bedroom for many nights afterwards with tales of his adventures there. To me, as a nine year-old and a lad from Gateshead, it seemed a different world. Back to Sunday morning; I don’t know if my foster-parents were aware of something I wasn’t, but they turned on the wireless in time for us all to hear Mr. Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany. I had no idea how long my stay at Spennymoor was going to be but I was determined to make the most of it.
We all quickly settled down in our new surroundings. School turned out to be a little difficult. Having to share the school with the local King Street elementary pupils had its problems with numbers and I recall that, for several weeks, we only attended for half days. Also, teachers were sent from Gateshead on a daily basis. The periods I wasn’t at school were spent mostly exploring the town and surrounding countryside. Playing cowboys in Tudhoe Woods was good too!
From distant memory, this state of affairs didn’t last too long. When it appeared that the Germans were not going to bomb Tyneside into oblivion, most families, mine included, returned to Gateshead before Christmas, 1939. However, having decided that life in Spennymoor had more to offer than Gateshead, I soon asked if I could return there and Joyce and I were “re-evacuated” after a few weeks. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Harrison seemed pleased to have me back and, for my part, I was naturally delighted.
When I said before that not many bombs were dropped on Tyneside I believe this to be true but, ironically, a few were dropped on Spennymoor. There were coke ovens near us and the nearby slag heaps often glowed at night like molten lava from a volcano, or so it seemed to me. Two or three times, enemy aircraft returning to Germany jettisoned their bombs on what might have appeared to be a likely target. However, little damage was done.
Life was easy at Spennymoor. There were three local cinemas, which I visited regularly, sometimes twice, occasionally even more times each week, and I was quite satisfied with my lot. Mother used to send a Postal Order to Joyce, I think once a month, for pocket money for the two of us. Sometimes I got my share, sometimes I didn’t! I wasn’t particularly worried — I was never short of money. My new “brother”, Doug, and I had gone into business together. His Granddad, my foster-father, worked at a furniture manufacturer’s and used to bring home wood scraps each week. Every Saturday morning, we would chop them up in the back yard and sell firewood to the neighbours. Additionally, we had three newspaper rounds between us, and we sold "Football Pinks" all over town on a Saturday night. In my school holidays I often washed lemonade bottles at the nearby Gray’s “Pop” factory - hard work but rewarding. Also during school holidays, Doug and I used to help deliver groceries from Thompson's Red Stamp Stores in Spennymoor, to several villages in the area. There was a haulage firm opposite us in Marmaduke Street who had the delivery contracts and one of their lorry drivers, known to Doug, gave us the opportunity to help him. It was great fun being on a lorry all day and although we didn't earn much, if anything, we did get the occasional tip! No wonder I never wanted to go back home to Gateshead, not even for a weekend.
I continued like this throughout 1940 and into 1941. Life was great. Then, in the spring of 1941, I took the Eleven Plus examinations and passed the Scholarship for Gateshead Secondary School. Of course, this would have meant me returning to Gateshead but, even if I wanted that - and I didn’t - I never got the chance. Mother decided that I should stay at Spennymoor with the remnants of the Central School, including Joyce, and complete my education there. By this time, I believe, Irene and Dave had left Bishop Auckland and returned to Gateshead. Obviously, Mother’s lot was a bit easier when some of us were not living at home with her!
Being educated at a high school some twenty miles away from its home probably had its drawbacks. For instance, various teachers would travel from Gateshead to Spennymoor on a daily basis and would “cram” us with their respective subjects. Often, we would have two hours, or more, of Maths, or English or French, etc., but never any Science subjects, Technical Drawing, Woodwork or Metalwork. A big gap in my education resulted. This continued throughout 1941. In about June 1942, with so many pupils having returned to Gateshead and, probably, because it was no longer viable to send teachers to Spennymoor for so few pupils, we were all sent back to Gateshead.
On my first day at my “new” school in Gateshead, about three weeks before school year-end exams - talk about timing! - I was paraded in front of the whole class and the teacher asked me if I recognised any of the boys in the class. I vaguely recognised one or two from my elementary schooldays, and I pointed to one boy and said, “Norman Kirby, Miss Tait, I went to Shipcote School with him between 1935 and 1939". Little did I know that Norman and I would become Brothers-in-Law some years later when we married lovely twin Sisters. Although I lost my first wife twenty-four years ago, I remain very close to Norman and his wife, Jean. In the event, I was put in a seat next to the “bad lad” of the class, one Ron Heslop. He was already a good friend of Norman’s, and we three walked home together after school. From that day on, Ron and I became firm friends, and still are. He was Best Man at my first marriage, to Sheila Cockburn, in 1953 and I was Best Man at his marriage to Betty Armstrong in the following year.
Back to June 1942 and the end-of-term (and year-end) exams were with us. I failed, miserably, in the technical subjects but scored better in those subjects which we’d concentrated on at Spennymoor. Before starting our penultimate year at school, we had to choose our courses, i.e., technical or commercial. I was so far behind in the more technical subjects that I chose to study commercial. In the event, it was a wise move as I did very well in my new subjects during the next two years and found most of them useful later in my chosen career.
By mid-1945 the War was going our way. My school days were about to end, in June, and I was looking forward to a nice long holiday before going out into the big wide world. However, our teachers put an end to those thoughts by hammering into us, on numerous occasions that we would find jobs hard to come by with all members of the armed forces coming back from the War and taking back their jobs. As it was, I had no difficulty finding a job. With another boy from my class we were both offered, and took, positions in a Newcastle insurance office, starting in July 1945 and handling general insurance. The War ended in August 1945 and I continued working in that office until called for National Service, in April 1948. On demobilisation in March 1950, and feeling unsettled in the insurance office, I joined a firm of Marine Insurance Claims Adjusters, which led to a successful career with three such firms, first at Newcastle and later in London and Rotterdam.
While being happy with my chosen career, I never made my fortune. Whatever happened to the entrepreneurial skills developed during my evacuation to Spennymoor in 1940-1942?!