Rose Bussingham talked to Tony Shaw about her family’s evacuation from London in 1940.

Rose and family  were bombed out of their house in 1940 and they were billeted on a family in Little Downham. Her mother was a widow with six children but only three children came with her. Rose was five years old, her brother Henry was eight and Joy was two. Joy cried a lot and was taken into care. Her father was wounded in the first world war and died of TB in 1937.

In 1941 they were moved to a cottage in Popes Lane, Little Thetford.

There were three cottages in Popes Lane belonging to Jack Cranwell, a farmer. His brother Bill Cranwell was also a farmer and lived the other side. Their home had a brick floor and a range. There was a tap outside the door, no electricity1 and an earth closet2 down the garden. Upstairs were camp beds. They came with nothing. They were given blankets, but no sheets, by the billeting officer, Mr Henderson. There was a tin bath but no copper. But eventually Jack Cranwell built a lean to and a copper was installed to heat up water. Rose remembers that the family had to go and sleep in Stretham Rectory for a couple of nights because the blankets provided were infested and the house had to be fumigated. The worst thing was the dark, going to the toilet with a candle and her brother used to blow it out. This was very scary.

There were no street lights1 and only two cars in the village, as well as those belonging to Mrs Veal and Mrs Bedford on Ely Road. So the children could play out in the street. They had never seen chickens or cows before. Cows could be quite frightening. Rose went to the village school. She had lived with her aunt & uncle in London from the age of two until she was five, when her father was ill and when her mother was expecting Joy. They were better off than her parents and she lived a different life. By the time she came here she could read and tell the time. She passed the 11 plus and remembers that some of the school governors sat along the front of the room watching them take the exam. Sometimes her mother could not give the halfpenny required to have school milk so she had to pretend she didn’t like it.  If there was some spare the teacher always made sure she got it.

Her friends—two girls—lived in Jim Mason’s house, Sheep Walk cottage, from Dr Barnado’s. They were Hilda Richardson and her sister Nelly. Rose was also friends with Molly Kisby, Marjorie Taylor and Winifred Smith.

Her sister Joy came back to them when she was five. Sometimes there were seven living in the house when her other brothers, Tommy and Billy, came. Also her older sister, Alice, visited from London with baby Pat who had to sleep in a drawer.  Their Granny and an aunt had been evacuated to Little Downham and the family used to walk over to see them – a round trip of 12 miles!  When Londoners visited they liked to go to the river and especially the Fish & Duck public house, kept by Mr Utteridge. They crossed over to the pub by a chain ferry.

Rose says that there was always something to do in the village, even though they had nothing. Her mother used to say she would go back to London at the end of the war, but she was still here at the age of 99! Her mother worked at Sheep Walk cottage and at the Three Horseshoes public house when needed.  A lot of dances were held in the school, with Ida Bent at the piano, and airmen would come from Witchford. Rose didn’t see them as she was too young but her mother helped out.  Rose remembers peering through a crack in the floorboards in the bedroom to check that the baby sitter (Bert Russell) was there. She could see the glow of his cigarette. Other times she went to sleep in neighbours houses and remembers being brought tea in bed—such luxury.

There were POWs working on the farms and the children would go and see them at “docky time”, when the Italians would offer them a bit of cake or sandwich.  They were very friendly and she cannot imagine this happening these days. The POWs were living where the golf course is now. Both Bill and Jack Cranwell had POWs, the children liked them. Rose says that people today don’t know what it is to have nothing and when she thinks she has a problem she reminds herself what her mother had to endure.

1Electricity and street lights came to the village in 1954 after a WI campaign
2Earth closet. See Henry Moule (1801–1880) inventor of the dry earth closet

Transcribed in 2011 by Judy Young from a recording of Rose Bussingham being interviewed by Tony Shaw.