A van driver’s daughter was treated like a “little lady” when she was evacuated during the Second World War
Audrey Harper was five years old when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 – and it “all seemed just like a game at first” to the little girl.
Indeed, the Roker Baths Road youngster started “playing enemies” with her cousin Hilda – chasing one another round the garden and pretending to shoot the other dead.
“We were both so little that we were far more excited about the announcement than scared. We didn’t realise the importance of what it meant to be at war at all,” she said.
“But, just a few days later, our lives changed completely. We were both evacuated with Redby School to a little village in Yorkshire, well out of the way of any bombs.”
Audrey’s evacuation – part of a programme to keep 10,000 Wearside youngsters safe from Hitler – saw her leave from Monkwearmouth Station on September 9, 1939.
“I was part of a party of about 12 girls and two boys,” she recalls. “My cousin Hilda was one of the girls, and my mother, Florence, was one of two ladies in charge of us.
“We had no idea where we were going when we got on the train, but I think we got off at Driffield. After that, we were taken by bus to Middleton-on-the-Wolds.
“The whole of our group stayed together, including the boys Arthur Scott and Jimmy Taylor, and we ended up being sent to a very posh mansion house – Middleton Hall.”
The hall, built in the 18th century and featuring stables, parkland and dozens of rooms filled with Chippendale furniture, was originally home to the Brooksbank family.
But, by the time Audrey arrived, it was owned by Sir William Prince-Smith, a baronet and wealthy industrialist whose own two children were away at boarding school.
“It was an absolutely wonderful, massive mansion,” recalls Audrey. “We all settled down very quickly except one girl, Florence Farrow, who ended up going home.
“We were given the run of the place, except for the Prince-Smith family quarters, and all played very happily together. I can’t remember any bickering or other problems.”
Audrey still recalls how the hall was “full of servants” – maids, cooks, gardeners and other staff – who cleaned up after the evacuees, as well as made them their meals.
“We didn’t even have to pick up after ourselves,” she said. “We played all over the house and grounds, never had to do any cleaning and had lovely food made for us.
“We all got treated like little ladies and gentlemen. It was a lot different from back home and an absolutely amazing time. We couldn’t have been treated any better.”
Dormitories were provided for the children, although Audrey only shared with her cousin Hilda, and instead of a playroom they “had the run of the whole house.”
“It was an amazing place, just like a museum,” she recalls.
“There were old paintings and fancy furniture all over the place, as well as a huge brass gong in the entrance,
“We were allowed to take it in turns to bang the gong when meals were served. Kids would come flying out of the surrounding woods and from all around the house.
“The bang was so loud that I’m sure you could hear it in the village! After that, the servants would come in to our dining room with huge trolleys filled with lovely food.
“We didn’t want for anything. There was strict rationing across the country, but we had fresh eggs, meat and vegetables from the surrounding land. It was marvellous!”
Audrey spent her weekdays studying in the village school, while at weekends she was allowed to run wild in the surrounding countryside – playing games of hide and seek.
Each Sunday, however, her father James – a van driver for Binns – would hire a car and make the trip to Yorkshire, to make sure his wife and daughter were still happy.
“I don’t know how he managed to keep making those visits, what with strict petrol rationing, but he did. Perhaps it had something to do with his job,” said Audrey.
“Then, at Christmas, a lot of the other parents came down too – bringing presents for their children. But, so I heard much, much later, nothing came for two little girls.
“So my mam wrapped up some of the presents that me and Hilda were due to get, just to give them a little happiness. I didn’t find out about it until I was almost grown up.
“That Christmas, it must have been 1939 or 1940, was absolutely wonderful.
We all woke to find presents next to our beds and it was magical, absolutely wonderful. ”
Audrey’s life was to change again, however, when Hilda left to live in Barnard Castle, and, in 1941, the hall was taken over by the military – forcing the evacuees to leave.
The little girl and her mother stayed with a “very nice family” in Middleton for several months, until her father eventually found a cottage for them at South Hylton.
“It was thought at the time that South Hylton would be safer from bombing raids than the seafront, but we actually came back just in time for the worst raids,” said Audrey.
“We had a brick shelter behind our home in Frederick Street, and spent a lot of time there. It had a little electric fire and mam made it very comfortable for us.
“But, as I got older, I got more and more scared and used to shake during raids I still remember one time a bomb dropped just on the opposite side of the church to us.”
The raid – which took place just after 9pm on October 21, 1941 – left three people dead and two injured. Five villagers also had to be rescued from a damaged shelter.
“We were sitting in our own shelter when I heard a whistling sound and then a huge crash. All of our bay and bedroom windows blew in. It was awful,” said Audrey.
“Apparently the shelter which was damaged actually spun around on its foundations during the blast. But it was the two men still in the house who were tragically killed.”
Audrey – and her family – went on to survive the war without a scratch and, after leaving Ryhope Modern School, she worked at South Hylton Paper Mill for a time.
She later moved on to British Home Stores and Lloyd’s Office, before marrying and starting a family. Stints at Timothy Whites and Joplings ended her working life.
“Although it is 75 years since war broke out, I still have very vivid memories. I was very scared of the bombing raids, but really loved my time as an evacuee,” she said