BRYAN Rich had a gas mask slung over his shoulder and a name tag tied round his neck as he marched to Millfield Station in September 1939 for “the biggest adventure of his life”.
War had been declared just a day earlier and, with Sunderland identified as a major Luftwaffe target, the eight-year-old was among the first evacuees to be sent to the safety of the country.
“It was all rather an adventure,” he recalls. “We boarded a train – the first train I had ever been on in my life – and away we went to Yorkshire, leaving our parents behind.”
Bryan, then of Matamba Terrace and a pupil at Diamond Hall School, was evacuated with his classmates. His sisters Dorothy and Kathleen and younger brother Gordon were also in the group.
“After leaving the train at York we boarded a bus, also a first for me, and were driven away. Gordon was crying his eyes out, but I was looking out of the window and could not believe what I saw,” said Bryan.
“There were apple trees, pear trees and plum trees all flying past as we went on our way. I’d never seen a fruit tree in my life – well, there were no fruit trees in Millfield.”
The final destination proved to be the North Yorkshire village of Barlby. On arrival, the youngsters from Diamond Hall were “herded into the main hall” of the local school.
“Our names from the tickets around our necks were checked, then people started taking children away. My sisters went first,” said Bryan.
“Finally, there was just Gordon and me left. He was still crying when we were taken to a car. The day was just getting better and better for me though – I’d never been in a car before either.”
Bryan and Gordon found themselves billeted with Osgodby couple Mr and Mrs James, who immediately plied Gordon with comics in an attempt to stop him crying. The ploy worked.
“We settled in and life was truly wonderful,” said Bryan. “It was a lovely house, with a large garden and lots of fruit bushes – gooseberry, raspberry and redcurrant – plus a large pear tree.
“Mam and dad came to see us at Christmas in 1939. My father, George, must have been home on leave at the time, as he served as a ship’s steward in the merchant navy during the war.
“Anyway, away they went afterwards – just a hug and a kiss and they were gone. Little did I know then that I was never to see my father again.”
The Rich brothers continued to enjoy life in the country after the festive visit and, after a year with Mr and Mrs James, they were re-billeted in the same village with Fred and Ethel Coates.
“Life was good. I went bird-nesting, looking for frog spawn, fishing and helped the farmers with the harvest,” said Bryan. “That was always a big day in the village and everyone would help out.
“There were also soldiers based in the village for training. They showed me how to drive Bren Gun carriers, but my driving days came to an end when I put one in Farmer Bristow’s pond.”
Although young Bryan was having “the time of his life,” his sisters were not so happy. Just a few years into the war the girls opted to return to Wearside, soon followed by Gordon.
“Sunderland, as far as I was concerned, just didn’t exist. I never even thought about going home,” recalls Bryan. “Not even when I heard that my father had died.
“To be honest, I hardly knew him. To this day I don’t know what he died of, although he survived the sinking of his ship in 1942. All I know is that he died at Matamba Terrace, sitting in his chair with his boots on.”
Bryan remained happily in Yorkshire after George’s death, only returning “home” to Sunderland in 1943 for a short holiday – after being told by the head of his school that he had to go.
“My mother met me at the station and we got on a tram – but not back to Millfield. She had remarried and we now lived at Plains Farm – an estate surrounded by fields in those days.
“There was no Springwell, Thorney Close or Farringdon. In fact, it was just like the Yorkshire fields with streams, ponds and woods. The only things missing were the fruit trees.”
Bryan quickly grew to love his home town once again and, when the time came to return to Yorkshire, he made the trip only reluctantly. Within weeks, he was back in Sunderland for good.
“I finished my schooling at Barnes School, then worked at Silksworth pit for 20 years before becoming a long-distance lorry driver,” said Bryan, who has three sons and two daughters.
“But, although I’m 80 now, I still remember the war very clearly. Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in Yorkshire with people I shall never forget.”
l If you would like to share your war memories write to: Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.