1939: Children's Sussex escape from the London Blitz


Children arrive at Brent station in Devon, after being evacuated from Bristol

For some children it may have been an exciting adventure, for others evacuation from London at the time of the Blitz in September 1939 proved to be a traumatic experience.


It’s believed that some 2000 children were ‘billeted’ in the Mid Sussex area. Some swapping playing football in the back-to-back streets of the East End for more rural pursuits. Eileen Jefferey recalled her time at a large manor house in East Grinstead:


‘We were told off at school for 'helping Hitler' by sliding down the haystacks so that the rain sank through the thatching and ruined the hay. We would jump on the cows' backs while they were chewing the cud and this upset the milk yield. Mind you, the local children put us up to it. We Londoners were blamed for lots of things!’


In the fascinating book of evacuee recollections ‘Safe in Cuckfield ’ Joyce Mangan (née Ruff) recalled her experiences. Here is a section from her moving and slightly disturbing account:

Joyce Ruff (L), cousin Joan Dowling

‘We were driven to Tower House, a large property with a long driveway, large grounds and servants. We three children were put in the top most room in the house, the attic. The owners were two elderly sisters. We stayed with them a short time and then the sisters decided they were unable to keep us all.


‘We three were then parted. I was billeted in the village greengrocer’s shop, again run by two sisters who had little time for a youngster. I was left to care for myself but remember well their garden and the tortoise that became my friend: I had no one else to play with.


‘My mother, on visiting me, immediately wanted to bring me back to London. The billeting officer, Mrs Askew, assured her she would find a more suitable place. My mother and I were taken to 5 Glebe Road to meet Mrs Sayers who had a young son Edward who at the time was 18 months old. My mother reluctantly left me in her care. I stayed the five years of the war with the Sayers family.


‘My mother visited me as often as she could, about every two months. On her Sunday visits I would wait at the gate, often for hours before she was due. I did not want to miss one minute of time with her.’


This is just a part of Joyce’s account and there are several others in this £5 book which is available from the Cuckfield Museum and well worth a read. You can also read other accounts of diverse experiences from across West Sussex on the county archives website.


Sources: Bulletin of the East Grinstead Society May 1990 No. 47: Wartime Memories of an Evacuee Family (East Grinstead Society, 1990) by Mrs Eileen Jeffery. On the West Sussex learning resources area of their website.


'Safe in Cuckfield, memories of evacuation 1939 - 1945', by Les Croucher, Bill Haynes, Alec Newton, Tom Newton and Joyce Ruff available from the Cuckfield Museum.


Top photo: Wikimedia Commons licence. Photo of girls from the 'Safe in Cuckfield' book.


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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