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Evacuee's heartfelt thanks to a Shropshire village

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Of the 56 children who were evacuated to Norton-in-Hales, one was Edward Gill, who today lives near Cardiff. He was accommodated at Betton, and has written the following to commemorate the 80th anniversary.

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"It all depends on me, and I depend on God."

I first heard these inspiring words spoken by the Rev P.F. Pierce from the pulpit of St Chad's Church, Norton-in-Hales, in 1939 during the darkest days of the war.

They were attributed to William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury. I was a choirboy aged 10, an evacuee from Manchester, and the words have stayed with me ever since.

This year marks 80 years since the outbreak of World War Two, on September 3, 1939.

Two days before that date an event took place that affected every man, woman and child in the village of Norton-in-Hales, a quiet backwater in the north east corner of Shropshire.

Try to imagine if you can late summer in this peaceful corner of rural England, and thank goodness the weather was fine.

For months there had been talk of another war with Germany, and people were hoping against hope that somehow our Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain could talk Adolf Hitler out of it.

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But events were moving fast and at 4 o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, September 1, two heavily laden buses with 56 children on board groaned to a halt outside the village school.

The children had come from Manchester, accompanied by two of their teachers, and had been on the move all day.

Now tired and hungry, they were welcomed to the village, perhaps with a little uncertainty, by Mr Chadwick, the retired headmaster of the village school.

His daunting task was to find homes for the children.

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There was an anxious air of anticipation inside the village schoolroom, which was packed with country folk summoned from far and wide. They would be asked to provide homes for the children.

In common with hundreds of thousands of children all over the country, these youngsters were being evacuated from large industrial cities to escape the aerial bombing that would surely take place. I was one of those children!

Most of those waiting inside the school had children of their own and hadn't much room to take any more. Some had no children at all, yet regardless of their circumstances they were all united in one desire – to help these innocent children. And it wasn't going to be easy.

The city from whence they came was a world away from this rural idyll. Perhaps even worse, their homes were very different from the homes in which they would live at Norton-in-Hales.

The difference was deeply cultural, not just for the children but also for the people being asked to take them in.

By the end of the afternoon homes were found for every one of those children.

No, it wasn't easy for the people of Norton-in-Hales. Think about it. Put yourselves in their place. How would you react if your own tightknit family were asked to live a bit closer together to make room for two or three young strangers?

To come and live as part of your family, sharing your bathroom, sharing your bedrooms and at mealtime sharing your table.

And think of the children, who not only had to get used to sharing their homes with these strangers, but had to share their school as well. It could not have been easy for them, but they did it and for the most part cheerfully too.

Whatever the problem, the people of Norton-in-Hales accepted the challenge and rolled up their sleeves to confront it. And so I return to my earlier question – could it ever happen again?

There is now no one left of those who so generously opened their hearts and their homes on that day in 1939. Of the seven of my family that came to the village, I am the only one left, the last leaf on the tree, so to speak.

So while there's still time, I want to remember and thank the people of Norton-in-Hales on this 80th anniversary.

I have many happy memories of the years we spent in Shropshire, and when I look back I recall the words of Cardinal Newman's hymn I learnt as a choirboy in the village church.

Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on.

The night is dark and I am far from home,

Lead thou me on,

Keep thou my feet I do not wish to see,

The distant scene, one step enough for me.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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