Wearside Echoes: Childhood memories of war

EVACUEES: Eileen Hopper, pictured second left, with her cousins and Auntie Vera after during her time as an evacuee.
EVACUEES: Eileen Hopper, pictured second left, with her cousins and Auntie Vera after during her time as an evacuee.
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EILEEN Conlin was just five-years-old when her family and neighbours gathered round a wireless set to hear the announcement that Britain was now at war with Germany.

“They were all very sad and worried about what could happen, as husbands and sons would be sent away to fight. I was too little to realise what this would mean,” she recalls.

“But the very next day I was sent to the country, where they thought it would be safe. Sunderland was just the type of place the German aeroplanes would bomb.”

Eileen, known to Echo readers as Down Your Way writer Eileen Hopper, found herself in Egglestone, Teesdale – initially sharing one room with her aunt and three young cousins.

The cramped conditions proved hard on all five, however, and eventually they were “lucky enough” to be able to rent part of a farmhouse just a mile from the village.

“It was much better, really, with more room to run about and play, but it only had three rooms – a living room, a big kitchen and one bedroom,” said Eileen, who now lives in Easington.

“We had no electric light, just oil lamps and candles. The toilet was across the farmyard, and up a long garden in the pitch black. There was no water, you threw ashes on top.”

Rationing left Eileen and her cousins short on sweets and other treats, but farming life brought a plentiful supply of eggs and milk – items hard to find in war-torn Sunderland.

“It was very hard for people thinking of nourishing and tasty food to feed their families. Everyone turned their gardens into vegetable plots so they would have more food,” said Eileen.

“We would go into the pantry and look at the few tins of fruit, working out who would have what for their birthday. That was the only time we had tinned fruit, as it was so hard to get.”

Village life also proved hard. Eileen still has vivid memories of the local children “being horrid” to the Wearside evacuees – just because they were “townies.”

“They would throw our sandwiches on the ground and lock us in with chairs. We started to take out food to the fields and sit in the bushes out of the way,” she said.

“Obviously we were unhappy being away from our parents, but people thought you soft if you made a fuss and called you a baby if you cried. We never told about our troubles.”

Two more of Eileen’s aunts arrived in Egglestone as the war dragged on, bringing three more children. All of them shared the same cramped accommodation.

Eileen’s own parents, however, were rarely able to visit to Teesdale – as petrol was strictly rationed and her father worked long hours at Hendon Gas Works.

“They tried to come for Christmas and birthdays. They had to make beds up on the floor, as there was not much room. But they didn’t care, as they wanted to see us so much,” she said.

“We always had to carry our gas masks – mine was in an Ostermilk tin. I remember once going to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and I left my gas mask on a seat in the grounds.

“The next day my dad walked there and back, six miles each way, as I would have got into trouble not having a mask. We had to have air raid practice at school, rather like fire drill.”

Eileen was occasionally allowed to return to her home town during the war, but only if she had appointments to visit the hospital or eye infirmary.

“The barrage balloons – designed to foil enemy planes – were the first thing I saw when I was coming home, and I knew I was getting near Sunderland,” she said.

“If there was an air raid we had to go into the air raid shelter in the back yard, where there were wooden bunks and it was safer from the bombs.

“Because I was young it seemed exciting. It was lovely having Mam to myself when I came home; as she did lots of special things for me because she was so pleased to have me home.”

Eileen went on to spend over four years in Egglestone, where the woods, fields and moors offered her a refuge from the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombing of Sunderland.

“My cousins were like brothers and sisters to me,” she said. “I was luckier that some children, who had to go and stay with strangers. At least I had my family around.

“Eventually we all came back to Sunderland. My parents’ house had been damaged, and the ceilings fell down, but it was repaired and it was lovely to come home.

“At the time I said I never wanted to go back, but now when all my cousins and aunts get together we look back and talk happily about our days in Egglestone.”

**Details taken from the book Wartime Memories: Stories of the Second World War in the North East. Do you have memories you would like to share? Write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.