Guernsey Evacuees in Stockport
by Gillian Mawson
In June 1940, just days before the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, 17,000 evacuees left Guernsey for England. The first to leave were 5,000 Guernsey school children, together with their teachers and 500 Guernsey mothers acting as 'helpers'. Most of the evacuees were sent to Lancashire and Cheshire, and the largest number, around 2,500, settled in Stockport for the duration of the war. One headmaster re-opened his 'Guernsey school' in Cheadle Hulme Parish Hall so that the teachers and pupils could remain together. Interviews have revealed what life was like for these evacuees in wartime Stockport, separated from their families for five years.
Children and teachers of the Guernsey school in Cheadle Hulme Parish Hall
Eva Le Page left Guernsey as a 'teacher's helper' with her baby, Anthony, and a bag which contained just nappies and feeding bottles. Ruth Alexandre wrote in her diary: “Hours on a cattle boat, in the hold. Torrential rain about two o’clock so all had to go under cover where cattle had recently been landed. Everything full of coal dust, sat on suitcases,everything very dark and cold.” Ruth eventually moved into a house on Clwyd Avenue, in Edgeley.
John Tippett was evacuated with his school to Glasgow but his mother sailed to England separately, and was sent to Stockport Town Hall. After a few weeks she discovered John’s whereabouts, and he was sent by train to Stockport. He walked into the Town hall and was horrified by the scene that met his eyes: “The noise and the smell, all the camp beds lined up, people’s belongings all over the floor! According to my mum, I didn’t take my coat and gas mask off. She said to me ‘Take your coat off’ and I kept saying to her, ‘No'. I thought that I was just visiting Mum for the day, and that I was going back to Glasgow.”
Five-year-old Stanley Bienvenu, became seriously ill in a Stockport hospital with bronchial pneumonia and it was not known whether his mother had reached England. The press launched an appeal to find her, and The Stockport Advertiser reported “She reached Stockport on Friday evening and a jovial, if not altogether tearless reunion, took place between mother and sick child in his little cubicle. Mrs Bienvenu has five children and they are all with her in Stockport. Her only anxiety now is for her husband’s safety. He stayed on in Guernsey and she has only had one wire from him since she left.”
Stanley Bienvenu and his mother
In early July, the child evacuees were billeted with local families. Ruth Harrison’s family chose a little Guernsey girl, Win De La Mare, to stay with them, and Ruth recalls, “Mum chose a little girl so that she could come and play with me like a sister, and Win did become like my own sister.” Mavis Brown and her mother were chosen by a Stockport housewife “We were chosen by a lady who had a child the same age as me. She asked for a lady with a little girl who had dark hair and we ‘fitted the bill’. She was very kind.”
The evacuees integrated into their local communities but they also set up Channel Island Societies. The Stockport branch was the largest in England, with over 2,000 members. They held meetings at Tiviot Dale Church and printed their own magazine. 5,000 copies were printed every month and circulated throughout England. Most evacuees found friendship amongst their neighbours and Anne Martins recalls, “People brought us books and toys because they knew that our mums and dads in Guernsey wouldn’t be able to send us anything as there was no postal service during the war.” Len Robilliard recalls, “A policeman came along and handed me a ten shilling note, a lot of money in 1940, and told me to use it to buy sweets for the Guernsey children.” Peter Ninnim was touched by the welcome from local people, saying “I cannot thank the people of Stockport enough for taking us into their community – we depended on the kindness of strangers many a time.” One Guernsey mother wrote in her diary “People here are very sympathetic. They say ‘We’re all on the same side love, what bits do you need for your house? We will see what we can give you'.” Sadly a small number of evacuees were treated badly during the war. Some of their neighbours thought they were German because of their unfamiliar surnames.
Stockport was a complete culture shock to these evacuees who had left a small, quiet island and been plunged into a town of wide roads, terraced houses, factories, smog and smoke. Some remember that Stockport people didn't seem to know where Guernsey was, and they assumed that the evacuees would not speak English. One evacuee wrote in her diary “I told the girls at the Co-op that I was from Guernsey, and they replied 'Fancy! And you speak perfect English too!'
When Guernsey was liberated by the British on 9 May 1945, thousands of evacuees assumed they would be able to go home straight away. However on 3 June 1945, 6,000 Channel Island evacuees gathered at Belle Vue Stadium, Manchester, and were told “The immediate return to the islands of a large number of persons would create very serious problems of accommodation and unemployment.” Many of the child evacuees who returned home had difficulty bonding with their Guernsey parents, and family life was never the same again. Many had become attached to their Stockport 'foster parents' and were sad to leave them behind. One recalled, ‘I had left Guernsey when I was five years old so and when I got back, I didn’t recognise my dad - we were like strangers. ’ Win de La Mare said “t wasn’t easy. When I got back home, my mother had two more children, who I didn’t know, and I often felt that I just didn’t fit in. Also I really missed my Stockport 'foster sister' Ruth. We wrote to each other, and visited, and are still in touch now.”
Many evacuees never left Stockport. They became engaged or married to local people, found good jobs or started college. Others realised that Guernsey would have been badly damaged during the Nazi occupation and that their future in Stockport was more promising. Some returned to Guernsey to find that they could not settle, and came back to Stockport within weeks. Some evacuees stated that, back in Guernsey, they were accused of being 'cowards' because they had left their island to go to England in 1940, which was very upsetting for them.