Evacuee's trip down memory lane
PUBLISHED: 12:10 18 August 2009 | UPDATED: 15:21 07 July 2010
Seventy years ago, nine-year-old Eric Percival joined thousands of other London children on an adventure they would never forget to escape the war time capital.
On September 2 the former evacuee will be retracing his steps to Dereham where he was billeted in 1939.
Seventy years ago, nine-year-old Eric Percival joined thousands of other London children on an adventure they would never forget.
Leaving behind their families they were evacuated from wartime London by steamer to Norfolk.
For many it was a traumatic upheaval. But it was also a huge adventure, so much so that Mr Percival is retracing his steps for what may be the last time.
He is returning to his wartime home of Dereham, 70 years to the day he was billeted there on September 2, 1939.
He says he will always be grateful for how he was made to feel welcome - despite vividly remembering being the last child to be picked out by a host family because someone had switched his new suit trousers for ones with holes in when they went for a paddle en-route at Yarmouth.
“Except for the circumstances, it had been a wonderful experience, one that taught me about life and one that I will always cherish,” he said.
“We had a great time,” he said. “We saw the milk being produced by cows.
“Dereham was heaving with people. There were the Sherwood Foresters (the Nottinghamshire and Derby-shire Regiment) in the big house at the top of the hill.
“We ran errands for them, shining their shoes clean, getting them fish and chips, things like that.”
As a youngster the preparations for war in London had not escaped his attention - trenches were being dug to make way for shelters, gas masks were being issued.
His journey to Norfolk started at 7am on September 1 at a school in Dagenham, where he had been dropped off by his mother, complete with a parcel with clean socks and a gas mask.
His father and brother had both been mobilised as part of the war effort.
“We had no idea of our destination,” he said. “Meeting up with my classmates it was an adventure. We assumed the destination must be America.”
Instead the paddle steamer they boarded - later sunk at Dunkirk - docked at Yarmouth and the children sent to North Denes School where they filled hessian sacks with straw to sleep on.
The next day they were driven to Dereham. “We passed real animals in the countryside with wheat alredy being harvested,” he said. “We passed a big town with a huge church (Norwich Cathedral).”
The last to be picked from Dereham's Assembly Rooms, he was sent to live at number six, Council Houses, in Swaffham Road, with Mr Edwards, who worked at an oast house, and his wife Eva, daughters Vera, Enid and Betty and son Ray.
Air raids were spent in a gravel pit - for lack of a proper shelter - and school hours were split between the classroom and Neatherd Moor because there were too many children to keep in school all the time.
It caused havoc with the children's education but he would not change a thing, he said.
The London children enjoyed their time in the countryside, chasing rabbits, seeing snow drifts and paddling in streams.
He remembers the day a Wellington bomber grounded across London Road and Norwich Road. It had been dismantled and was being transported through the town but got stuck.
On another occasion a Hurricane came down quite close to their school in a field in Toftwood.
Life changed a little when two more children were billeted in his room - they brought fleas to the house and one frequently wet the bed.
But June 1941 saw him go home. “Some stayed until the end for over five years,” he said. “It was traumatic for the host parents to lose them when they had to go back home.”
He went on to join the RAF, which saw him return to nearby Swanton Morley in 1948. He ended up working for 32 years at Heathrow in air traffic control.
Mr Percival, who lives in Hounslow in Essex, plans to visit Dereham on September 2 and 3.