At 11.15 am on September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation that a state of war existed between Great Britain and Germany, Lynda Grange reminds everyone in an article in the latest issue of The Gillingham Historian, the newsletter for Gillingham Local History Society and Museum, September.

“The announcement was not unexpected and preparations for war had been taking place for some time. The Western Gazette of  September 1, 1939 reported that 2,600 respirators had been distributed at Gillingham School on Sunday, August 27. They had been fitted and tested by Sector Senior Air Raid Wardens S W H Roberts and E A Martin. Blackout precautions were also already in place, though during the course of the war several local people were fined for failing to adhere to the rules.

Air raid Wardens had been appointed but more recruits were needed for the auxiliary fire service. A first aid post was located at New Road, Gillingham.

Mr MT Perks stated that evacuation reception arrangements were in place and had been tested. Six hundred and eighty eight evacuees were expected to arrive at Semley the following Saturday.

Three hundred mothers and children from a poor neighbourhood in Kennington, London were among the group. The evacuees were to be taken by bus to Gillingham Grammar School and then by private cars to their temporary homes.

An Evacuee Welfare Committee was set up with Lady Iredell of Peacemarsh House as Chairman and Mrs Creed as Treasurer. As many of the mothers were billeted in outlying cottages and needed to walk to Gillingham for supplies an appeal was made for prams and pushcarts and gifts of money. £17 was raised in a few days.

Within a couple of weeks reports were received that some mothers and children had already returned to their homes in the cities complaining about the lack of cinemas and Woolworths in rural Dorset. However the 1939 Register compiled at the end of September to enable the distribution of identity cards, food and clothing coupons shows that a number of families remained in Gillingham.

At Slaughtergate Farm, Sarah Groves from Southwark and her small son Robert were living with the Green family and Sarah had found work as a cleaner at Gillingham cinema. Alma Snape and her two children from Lewisham were living in Queen Street with Wilmer Brown the church verger and his family.

At Harwin House, Peacemarsh Annie Silverstone and her sister Minnie Marro, along with Minnie’s baby son Michael, were living with the Wiles family. Annie and Minnie were the daughters of Russian immigrants living in East London. At some point, the sisters and baby Michael must have returned to London and sadly all were killed, with Minnie’s husband, in a bombing raid at Willesden in November, 1940.

Evacuation to Gillingham didn’t always guarantee safety for the children and at the end of September 1939 two evacuated boys were injured while playing on the heavy trucks at the yard of Gillingham Pottery Brick & Tile Company. One had to be taken to Shaftesbury Hospital. There were still evacuees in Gillingham in 1943 when five year old Peter Voak from Southwark drowned in the river at Chantry Bridge.

On a happier note the disruption caused by the war also meant that lasting friendships were formed. GLHS President Sam Woodcock still maintains contact with the boy who, along with his mother, was billeted at Sam’s family home for the duration of the war.”

(Full acknowledgement to Lynda Grange).

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