My next posts will be published one a day during this week so that I can share with you our research into a puzzling list of names on a gravestone in Nevern. I’ll be writing of the lives of the ladies that are listed and the circumstances that brought them to Nevern during the Second World War.
At 9.15 on 20th September 2015 St Brynach’s Church will be marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the names of the thirteen elderly evacuees will be read out as part of the church service.
“In loving memory of our dear evacuees who were blitzed during the battle of Britain 1940.
Benevolent deed rendered by Air Commodore J B Bowen at Llwyngwair to the suffering and homeless people who were bombed out of their homes.”
This headstone, in Nevern’s new churchyard, lists the names and ages of the thirteen ladies, who are mainly from London. Like a war memorial the names are connected by circumstance rather than family relationship but there are few clues as to how these ladies came to be buried here.
The first time I saw the monument I was interested and puzzled. The wording is affectionate rather than formal and the handshake charming but it has taken some research to find the story behind the inscription. The search has taken us along many blind alleys but thanks to the skills and persistence of Heather Hill (a family historian who shares my connection to Dinas) we have made some exciting discoveries and found answers to some of our questions. We have been in touch with some of the families, found and shared photos and delighted in the generosity and enthusiasm of strangers.
There’s still a lot more to discover, however, about these ladies who died so far from home.
The owner of the cuff-linked wrist was not difficult to establish (see ‘Our Blue-eyed Boy’)
Priscilla Evans, a church warden at St Brynach’s Church, put us in touch with the Air Commodore’s daughter, Christina Woodhead (née Bowen), who now lives in Australia and has memories of Llwyngwair during the war years. She told me that the Salvation Army had established a centre for elderly evacuees at Llwyngwair, following her father’s offer of the use of the family’s ancestral home.
I had thought that evacuees were, by definition, young children. However, I discovered that in November 1940, in response to questions from two labour MPs, Dame Florence Horsburgh, minister in charge of the evacuation of children, had wriggled her way through accusations that the government was promising out-of-town accommodation for the elderly homeless and failing to deliver.
“The evacuation of all elderly people as a general class would not be practicable in view of the very special problems of accommodation, care and maintenance involved. My right hon. Friend is, however, anxious to provide such further facilities as may be practicable with the assistance of voluntary organisations and the local authorities, though it will be appreciated that the amount that can be done will be limited by the accommodation available.”
Our elderly evacuees were in the small category that received help in the manner envisaged – a happy co-incidence of a benevolent land owner and a dynamic, capable charity.
The Salvation Army’s extensive work in the East-end of London was based in ‘Slum Posts’ many of which were bombed during the war, leaving no records to help us. The only names we have, therefore, are those on the gravestone. Did any of the ladies return home and tell their families about their experiences as evacuees? If they did, they are unknown to us. However, there are 13 names on the gravestone and the largest group photo we have found includes only 11 residents. Did none of the evacuees return? Did Llwnygwair stay open until the last of the them, Jessie Press and Elizabeth Dorman, died in July 1945? We know so little.
The nearest Salvation Army Centre to many of the evacuees was the Shadwell Slum Post at 34, King David Lane which did not survive the war. I’m very grateful, therefore, to Trevor Smith who put me in touch with Ruth Macdonald, Archive Assistant at The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre. Her research has given us a contemporary reference to Llwyngwair in ‘War Cry’ and an introduction to two of the Salvation Army officers who worked there.
Brigadier Eva Prust had previously worked at the Shadwell Slum Post in Stepney and seems to have had just the right temperament for the job.
“Her life was spent in love and service of others, she worked hard and consistently – manifesting a kindly and loving nature which was a source of inspiration and encouragement to other people… (She) enjoyed singing, possessed a cheerful disposition and maintained a pleasant sense of humour.” (The War Cry 1981)
Her colleague, Major M Horner, had also been a Slum Officer in the East End – Shoreditch and Canning Town, so, like Eva Prust, came from the same area as many of the evacuees.
Their initial task had been to prepare the Bowen’s house for the 20 or so evacuees that were to be accommodated and then to welcome the new arrivals and make a caring home for the elderly residents.
At first I was concerned for the evacuees – taken so far from familiarity to an area that must have been disorientating and lonely – an emptiness of countryside as compared to the crowded terraces where families stayed close and neighbours often remained friends for life.
These photographs were taken by Audrey Bosville, (first cousin of the Air Commodore) in the 1930s and shows Llwyngwair as it was when the evacuees arrived. Audrey lived in Newport for many years. (Photos courtesy of Christina Woodhead née Bowen).
But the character of the Salvation Army staff and of the ladies themselves seem to have made for a happy home and over the next week I’ll be introducing some of these elderly evacuees and telling their life stories, as revealed by the research of family historians and the memories of the ladies’ descendants .
A group of elderly evacuees outside their war-time home at Llwyngwair. Photo courtesy of Jan Ramos, great granddaughter of Mary Moulam.