Page last updated at 06:13 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 07:13 UK

Dover evacuees' 'last' grateful return to Blaenavon

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales

Evacuees to Blaenavon in 1940. Pic: Joan Stevens
Blaenavon received 1,000 evacuees in July 1940

Seventy years ago this June, 82-year-old John Lockyer was evacuated from his home town of Dover in Kent to Blaenavon more than 200 miles away in south Wales.

Now he's heading a campaign to thank the Torfaen town for the kindness he was shown, during what was literally his darkest hour.

"I was among several hundred who arrived in Blaenavon, after a 14-hour train journey," recalls Mr Lockyer. "We were there, in total darkness, due to strict blackout regulations; tired and confused - some distressed - but the people of Blaenavon were there for us.

"Comforting voices and outstretched hands gave us a sense of hope and security which those of us who survive will never forget."

During the course of the war, almost 1.5m children were pre-emptively evacuated or displaced by bombing.

John Lockyer with his sisters in Blaenavon in 1940
The love I was shown during that time has given me a deep affinity with Wales
John Lockyer, pictured with his sisters in Blaenavon

In July 1940, after Dunkirk and the beginnings of the Battle of Britain, a German invasion seemed inevitable. As a result more than 200,000 children in what would have become the front line, in the coastal towns of southern and eastern England, were removed to seemingly safer locations in rural areas.

In Kent alone, 40% of the population found themselves on the move between July and September of that year. For some unlucky ones it was the second time they had been displaced, having fled to Kent less than a year before in order to escape the Blitz on London.

In the six years of the war, Wales received a quarter of a million refugees; 100,000 in the July 1940 evacuation alone.

The counties of Gwent and Monmouthshire took in 8,500 that month, a thousand of them ending up, like Mr Lockyer in Blaenavon.

Spare room

When the Anderson Committee had originally drafted Operation Pied Piper, they had planned to match evacuees with reception families of a similar cultural background, or at least to give the reception families due notice of what they could expect.

However, as the sheer scale of the operation began to overwhelm the authorities, children were bundled on the first available train, and met by whoever happened to have a spare room in their house.

Many children suffered emotional damage, both from the scenes they had witnessed and their unfamiliar surroundings. Symptoms like withdrawn behaviour and bed-wetting were common-place.

VE celebrations in Blaenavon. Pic: Joan Stevens
The evacuees will return 65 years after VE Day

Effective vetting of reception families was impossible, and a minority of evacuees were undoubtedly mistreated and used as a source of cheap labour.

However, as Mr Lockyer explains, the vast majority were extremely lucky, especially as their new families were often suffering equally as much as they were themselves.

"I was taken to the home of the Jenkins' family, at 65 High Street, Blaenavon. They had just been told that their young son, Tom, serving with the RAF, was missing presumed killed at Dunkirk; yet they unstintingly and lovingly gave all they could to my well-being.

"The love I was shown during that time has given me a deep affinity with Wales. No sooner had I found my feet, than my dear nine-year-old sister was killed in a road accident.

"But everyone in Blaenavon did their utmost to pull me back from the brink, and the encouragement they gave me, not only got me back on my feet, but also set me on the road to my eventual career as a graphic designer.

Evacuees to Blaenavon in 1940. Pic: Joan Stevens
With kids being bunged on trains willy-nilly, just to get them out of the way of the bombing, nobody had a clue how many people were living where
Robert Gulliford, Cordell Heritage Museum

"I stayed in Wales to attend university there, and I've tried to visit on many occasions since."

While the goodwill was clearly present in the Welsh valleys, there could be no ignoring the strain which such a large influx of people put on the local infrastructure.

"Everyone wanted to be able to do their bit, but goodwill by itself couldn't keep things together," says Robert Gulliford, curator of Blaenavon's Cordell Heritage Museum.

"For example, each of the evacuated children arrived in Blaenavon with their own ration book, but the shops couldn't order in the extra supplies without providing the Ministry of War with a detailed account of how many people were living in the town.

"The problem was, with kids being bunged on trains willy-nilly, just to get them out of the way of the bombing, in the early stages, at least, nobody had a clue how many people were living where.

"Schools in Blaenavon had to start running double shifts, just to try and accommodate the huge number of new pupils, and believe it or not, they were the lucky ones.

"Across the UK over a million children went without education for at least a year, because of the shortage of teachers, and the uneven distribution of pupils around the country."

VE celebrations in Blaenavon. Pic: Joan Stevens
Mr Lockyer wants to thank the people of Blaenavon for their hospitality

With a relatively small number of evacuees surviving today, and an even lower amount of those who sheltered them, Mr Lockyer believes that now is the last chance Dover might have to offer their heart-felt thanks to the people of Blaenavon.

Between 2-5 June he is organising a pilgrimage to Wales, and is keen to meet as many as possible of the descendants of the most generous reception families.

The weekend will include visits to many of the sights which became so familiar during the war, as well as a service of thanksgiving, presided over by the Reverend Dr Jason Bray, vicar of Blaenavon with Capel Newydd.

Mr Lockyer is urging anyone with contacts to the evacuation, in Kent or Torfaen, to join his mission.

"The message we want to send out loud and clear is: 'People of Blaenavon, and People of Wales, we salute your courage and kindness'.

"They were people who had so little themselves, especially compared with what we'd been used to in Dover, but what they did have, they gladly shared with us."



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