London to Lincolnshire: An evacuee’s story
Matt Limb OBE follows the life of a Lincolnshire gent who has worked on farms and as a gamekeeper – but only arrived in the county after being evacuated from London during The Blitz.
You just don’t know what life will deal you next. It’s a phrase I have heard many times. The consequences of events and the actions of others can change your destiny and shape your future. Sometimes this can be for the better – it can also be for the worse. But without a doubt when you later look back, you can often see those pivotal moments that have changed your life forever. This is certainly true for Frank Edwards.
Frank has now been retired for almost 20 years, but often looks back at the events that altered the course of his life over the past 80-plus years.
He was born shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, the third child of Alfred and Lillian Edwards, having an older sister named after her mother and a brother two years older, called Terry. Frank can rightfully claim to be a cockney as he was born within the sound of Bow Bells, at St Leonard’s Hospital in Shoreditch, a building whose history can be traced to the workhouse in previous decades. At that time, it was feasible that Frank could have followed in his father’s footsteps as a cabinet maker and lived his life happily in London. But as the dark clouds of World War Two loomed across Europe his life would take a great turn.
Frank talks about the days of the London Blitz; maybe it was an early indication that his life was going to be an eventful one. Frank clearly remembers being in the Underground for many hours waiting for the all-clear to be sounded, also the Doodle Bugs coming over with their distinctive sound – then the silence before the loud explosion.
Another early memory was the arrival of his younger brother, John, who was born under the kitchen table during an air raid, which Frank recognises must have been horrific for his mother. During one air raid, the street was hit, with parts of the living room wall falling away during one of the many blasts – the noise was both frightening and deafening.
Frank and his siblings were soon to be spared any more nights in air raid shelters as they were evacuated. His sister Lilly was sent to Somerset, whilst Frank and his two brothers travelled by train from King’s Cross to Lincolnshire. Frank did not have much to take, which was easily packed into a small suitcase; in addition, he had to carry his gas mask and wore the iconic label on his coat. He was aged little more than four.
Following the train journey, then a bus ride, Frank found himself in the middle of the countryside along with the other evacuees. He was made to line up by a wall outside the vicarage in a village on the Lincolnshire-Leicestershire border, then waited as people from surrounding villages came and picked as many children as they could manage.
With Frank and his brothers being so young, their mother travelled with them, to help them settle into their temporary homes; but she was a proper Londoner and within weeks returned to the capital to be with her husband, who was now working as a firefighter.
It was the first time Frank had been on a farm and seen sheep, cattle and working horses; just a few hours earlier he was walking through the ruins of London streets. History can tell us that the young evacuees of World War Two suffered terribly; many being mistreated, abused and bullied. Nothing could be further from the truth for Frank.
Yes, food was scarce and the work for the family and disruption was considerable. But Frank still speaks affectionately of the family that took him in, the Woods family. They treated him like one of their own, regarding him as a son – their own son had been mobilised into the army and their surviving daughter was serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The appreciation felt by Frank towards the family will last for the rest of his life. He referred to them as ‘Mum Woods’ and ‘Dad Woods’.
Soon it was time to start school in the village, but after school it was back to work, collecting milk from the local farm to take back to the house, which had no electricity – only candles to light the long winter nights.
Frank remembers a large, blackened grate with a side oven and boiler on which Mum Woods did the cooking, plus the hot water for baths in front of the fire. Off the kitchen was the pantry with shelves full of jars and bottled fruit. Then there was the parlour, the best room in the house, which was only used for special occasions, Sundays and Christmas – this had an open fire, making it a very warm and welcoming room.
Life in Lincolnshire was far better than Frank had initially feared it might be. Over time he became part of the family and settled into country life.
Whilst he was enjoying life in Lincolnshire, aged about seven, Frank learned that his father, Alfred, had died tragically in a hit and run accident on his way home from work. At about the same time Dad Woods’s health also took a turn for the worse.
Dad Woods, whose name was Harry, had been a soldier during the Great War of 1914 -1918. Whilst serving in the trenches he had been badly gassed and never a fully recovered. Frank remembers with great sadness when Harry passed away, leaving Mum Woods, whose name was Annie, to bring him up on her own.
After the war, back in London, Frank’s mother was homeless. To qualify for a council house, Frank had to return. He admits this was the most unhappy time in his life. He missed the green fields, helping on local farms and the life he had become very comfortable with. More worrying still, he could no longer relate to his mother. Having grown up in Lincolnshire with Mum and Dad Woods he felt this was now his home.
Plus he had acquired a country accent, which was ridiculed in his new school; he stood out as being different, resulting in him being picked on and bullied. But Frank had a plan.
Realising this was not the life he wanted, he ran away. He made it to King’s Cross and even found the correct train. But this time the train did not stop at Grantham. Frank watched through the train window as the station sped by, and got off at the next calling point. Not knowing what to do, he asked a policeman.
Maybe he did not tell the full story, but it resulted in a ride in a police car back to Grantham, then a bus ticket to Mum and Dad Woods. Frank never saw his mother again.
After leaving school at 15, Frank started working on a local farm. During this period farming witnessed a huge change, going from the heavy horse to the tractor, but Frank’s first job was cleaning out the horseboxes. It was an early start, seven in the morning, after a two-mile walk across the fields from home.
Frank embraced village life, even joining the local handbell-ringing team. He clearly remembers being at the village summer fete in the vicarage gardens, ringing the bells, when he met his future wife, Anne, who was there with her friend.
But more change was afoot – any potential romance with Anne was put on hold. In 1956, Frank joined the army, serving for four years with the Coldstream Guards. Frank thrived on the discipline and the structured lifestyle and has often questioned what his life would have been like if he’d stayed in the army.
During his time in uniform, he was part of the guard at the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Then soon after being discharged from the army, on Valentine’s Day, he married Anne. They would remain together for over 60 years.
Leaving the army and going back to civilian life was a challenge for Frank. There was not as much work in farming, but hearing that he was looking for work, a local Lincolnshire farmer offered him a job. Soon the first of his three daughters, Lynne, was born and more change was on the way as Frank was offered a new job and a new career as a gamekeeper.
The offer came about following the many years Frank had helped local gamekeepers growing up, plus his interest in shooting and working dogs, especially working springer spaniels which he had for most of his life.
The gamekeeper’s job was just outside Grantham. Frank was soon rearing pheasant and partridges on a small syndicate shoot; he thrived on it. With the job came a good house, which he admits was wonderful in the summer but could be cold in winter.
Frank had great support in his first appointment as a gamekeeper, with several fellow keepers in the area always happy to help each other. This was proved when there was a knock on the door one dark winter’s night to say there were lights in the woods, most likely poachers.
A few gamekeepers joined Frank as they silently made their way to the opposite end of the wood. In front of them they could see the poachers, two men. In silence they spread out, determined to catch them red-handed. As they closed in on the men a large Alsatian dog came towards them, had a sniff then walked off. They came out of the wood and surrounded the two poachers; both looking terrified and visibly shaking, as a second Alsatian dog ran off.
Waving his stick, Frank shouted to stand still. In front of them were two local policemen, out dog training. To say they were embarrassed is an understatement. Frank remembers they were soon all laughing, especially when one of the policemen begged them to not tell their colleagues at the police station.
Although life was good it was tinged with sadness, as Annie Woods passed away aged 84. Frank is under no illusion that it was thanks to her that he had the life he was living, now married with three daughters. He still sees Mum Woods as his mother since arriving in Lincolnshire as a young evacuee early in World War Two.
After 10 years the shoot on which Frank had worked so hard was to close. He would lose his job and house, with the land being taken over by the National Trust. For the first time in his life, Frank was without work. But it was only a matter of weeks before he was offered another job, again as a gamekeeper.
It was in the cold of winter that Frank, Anne and their daughters moved house. The weather was horrendous, with deep snow putting into question if the house move was even possible. But Frank and the family were soon in their new surroundings, a fire burning and ready for the next chapter in their life.
Now an experienced gamekeeper, the new shoot grew. Frank found himself working long hours and soon an under-keeper was employed to work alongside him, as he was promoted to head gamekeeper – an appointment he held with the same estate until he retired at the age of 67.
Frank has now been retired for almost two decades. He still lives on the same estate in his cottage and generally still lives a very active life; much of his time now dedicated to his garden. But the recent pandemic has been hard for him.
Anne, to whom he had been married for over 60 years, had to move into a care home when Frank realised he could no longer care for her. Sadly Anne passed away last year after contracting Covid. Frank admits that he can now feel lonely at times, but also acknowledges he has friends locally who help him.
Retirement did not bring an end to his time working on shoots. Frank can now be found helping and driving the game-cart on a local small shoot, which meets in his village. Plus it is only in the past couple of years that he has given up his other passion: working gundogs, all English Springer Spaniels.
I have sat with Frank countless times as he has told his many tales, enjoyed his company on shoot days and shared stories about training spaniels. He is well respected by so many who meet him and has a wealth of knowledge; at heart, a genuine countryman with a love and passion for the countryside.
But it’s hard to imagine that Frank’s incredible journey started over 80 years ago, on the bomb-damaged streets of London during The Blitz, standing there aged just four with his small suitcase, his gas mask and a label on his coat before boarding a train, uncertain of what his future would be.