The History of Leith

August 13, 2004

‘Recollections of an 1939 evacuee’.

Unbeknown to us care free youngsters, having just returned from delightful holiday at our house in North Berwick, preparations for war had been in place for some considerable time, a government edict strongly advising evacuation for all school pupils in the Edinburgh area, this began for us on Saturday 2nd September 1939.

Assembled 9 a.m. at Trinity Academy with parent(s) for issue of identity labels to each individual, tied to clothing and boldly marked – DO NOT REMOVE – ushered literally next door en bloc to Newhaven railway station, under supervision of much harassed teachers, boarded nine corridor coach special train, depart from Newhaven station at 11 a.m. journeyed slowly north via Stirling, Perth — arrived McDuff station 6 p.m. Taken to sorting centre (school hall), issued with interim refreshments, consisting of Rowantree’s York and Cadbury’s Bourneville (plain) chocolate, Carnation Evaporated milk, and a packet of cream crackers, the chocolate disappeared quickly enough but I can not recollect what happened to the tin of milk or biscuits.

Later in the evening various family groups were taken to temporary accommodation, which turned out to be, for us – Mr & Mrs Bowman, 16 Duff Street, a somewhat pious elderly couple with a nice comfortable home, though quite overcome with the idea of having a strange family foisted upon them.
Sunday 3rd September.. we were gathered in the parlour, and told to sit very quiet as an important announcement was to be broadcast on the `wireless`, the fact that War had declared against Germany at 11a.m. by Mr. Chamberlain, did not convey much to us youngsters but the grown ups were very concerned.

Very soon we were relocated to new billet on Monday 4th, with Mrs Garden (directly opposite Bowman), together with the family of Mr & Mrs Thomas Carnie, Nan, Jim, Tom plus twins Sadie & Ann. The Garden household (mother and eleven year old son) being of strict Plymouth Brethren faith were non too enamoured with having such a compulsory contingent of evacuees imposed upon their normal staid way of life – under the Defence of the Realm Act, created before war was declared – there were no options but to comply with such arbitrary edicts as,

how many spare beds!, eh, only two, right first ten in here!, oh the complaints flew thick and fast but landed on deaf ears.

Tuesday 5th entered at Macduff school, totally bewildered with the broad Moray Firth dialect, sic, ‘‘aw yon per vratches oan ee sea iveenoo, snae fair tae lauf at em’’ – with a loose translation being, ’all those poor wretches at sea, it is not fair to mock them!!! with little recollection of schooling, apart from the class being overcrowded, our leisure time was spent in visiting the neighbouring town of Banff, with its silted up and almost disused harbour, by contrast the harbour at MacDuff was like a magnet with great numbers of steam drifters, seine net boats, and inshore crab & lobster skiffs spread over three areas known as basins, outer, middle and inner which also supported a boatyard with several slipways used to pull boats out of the water for overhaul, most of the boats were eventually taken over by the Royal Navy for Patrol duties elsewhere, and eventually only the very small ones or very old were left to scratch a living.

One regular visitor to the harbour was the big coal boat, all domestic heating being open coal fires, these coastal ships were not much more than five hundred tons but in the relatively small basins took up as much room to give them the appearance of an ocean liner, some of the names dwell in the memory quite clearly, Dunmoir whose home port was painted at the back – Grangemouth, Orranmore of Leith, Elizabeth Bromley of Hull, or the Anna Toop from Swansea, all very exciting when our teacher asked us to find out where these places were.

Intently watching the buckets of coal being hoisted out of the hold, to the accompanying clatter of the ships steam winches, and being tipped into horse drawn carts, with the inevitable clouds of dust, was absorbing, but became a different story when arriving home – where on earth have you been, you look like a miner, no more harbour for you (for a day at least), such activities were like new adventures, or alternatively a short walk out of town to Tarlair Park where much fun could be had playing a game of draughts on a huge area of concrete black and white painted board, long bamboo poles being used to pick up or move the ‘counters’, if anyone became thirsty after such activity there was a natural mineral spring well, the outlet being heavily stained with rust, known locally as the iron well, the contents ice cold and tasting like nectar, all for free.

Back into the town the only other place of gory interest to innocent young minds was the local Abattoir down near the shore, to stand and watch cattle and sheep being slaughtered without flinching, even the slaughterman trying to put us off, by showing us Tripe, put off?, no way – a form of natural learning though by no stretch of the imagination could be encountered or even allowed at the present day.

With little or no academic or travel recollection we returned to Edinburgh around end of October 1939, and with the continued threat of air raids we further moved to our second home at North Berwick in October 1939, first to a grand old big house called ‘Ardgay’, ideally situated along the East Bay, with the magnificent beach literally on our door step and an uninterrupted sea view looking over to the Fife coast, the silenced fog-horns and unlit lighthouse beams of the Bass Rock, May Island and Fidra, due to the strict black-out in force.

After a short while we moved to a more permanent abode, a delightful big apartment house situated above a pub named ‘Auld Hoose’, in Forth Street, probably remembered because it was such a happy time in spite of there being a war going on else where.

Entered at North Berwick school, School Street, Mr Lonie Headmaster, it always puzzled us that for music lessons we were encouraged to sing with gusto, the only problem being that all the red coloured hard-back music books handed out were quite useless, none of us could read music, or more to the point the words, which were all in the Welsh language!!!. Our daily lives were not affected directly with war time activities although with several air force stations nearby there always something going on, one of the more regrettable incidents which had us dashing down to the harbour area, with lots of Spitfire fighter aircraft zooming about just above roof top level, on 12th December 1939 word quickly went round that they had just shot down a bomber into to sea a few hundred yards off the old disused Victoria Pier, in addition to numerous naval patrol craft that were quickly on the scene a local fishing boat, named Caithness Lass,put out to help pick up any survivors, as a few these saturated aircrew clambered ashore at the old Victoria Jetty and trundled up past the open air swimming pool, we were looking to see the Germans, as we thought, and to everyone’s surprise and dismay saw only our own RAF uniforms, the story came out soon after that several Hampden Bombers returning from a operation over the Norwegian coast failed to give the correct identification signal for the day and our defence Spitfires promptly brought it down just south of Craigleith Island, one of the Hampden crew died as a result of this dreadful mistake, some fifty years after that incident I actually met up with one of the crew in Poole, Dorset, he not only survived that ditching but went on to successfully complete more than one full tour of war time duties.

In this quiet, almost sleepy little seaside town, it was not a particularly dangerous position to be involved in but during another incident we gathered at the old Life-boat slip in Victoria Road to watch a fishing boat tow a mine into the beach, the local Policeman kept telling us to move away then an old laundry van arrived with a three badge Royal Navy Petty Officer, he started to work at the base of this large sphere, there were five, what appeared to be sticks, protruding from the casing, these we learned later were the percussion horns which if touched by a ship detonated the deadly main explosive charge, after much hammering, banging, and uncomplimentary expletives, the P.O. removed the firing mechanism, the P.O., van driver (elderly) and much harassed Policeman tied a rope on the mine, with the other end secured to the van and towed it up over the flagstone slipway onto the road, then with only the P.O., driver and policeman to lift and load it in the van all us school youngsters were enjoined to lend a hand, and with a bit of huff and puff saw this nasty weaponry duly loaded, sitting on its flat base with several buckets of sand and small stones to keep it upright, carried away for disposal, so much for us having to clear off in case it just happened to blow up – mind you if it had, half the houses around the harbour would no longer be in place, and you would probably not now be reading about it.

Pre-war the Forth Pilot Cutters used North Berwick harbour as a base, but with the onset of hostilities they were moved across to the north shore at Largo, because of the huge concentration of shipping in Methil Bay, when yet again we were attracted like moths to a light when word got around the Pilot boat was seen approaching the harbour, and an ambulance in attendance, as usual we nippers were chased away, and when I arrived home to relate what had just been observed, was promptly told, yes, and its your father who they brought ashore, he is now in bed.

He had been on the Bridge of HMS Edinburgh conducting compass adjusting when the ship was attacked by German aircraft with machine gun fire, he was fortunately not hit by bullets but a LIVE high voltage radio aerial carried away, it fell across his back causing a form of paralysis and severe electrical burns, adamantly refused to be taken to hospital as family just lived up the road, had a couple of weeks off work (almost unheard of at that time) then back to Piloting ships to join the Russian convoys or hazardous Atlantic voyages, not exactly a quiet life in the sheltered Firth of Forth Estuary.

The Heinkel 111 shot down at North Berwick 9th February 1940.

So there we were, safely evacuated away from the danger of being involved in air raids on Edinburgh, the very first German bomber to be shot down on British soil landed on the bleak moors at Humbie, the second, a Heinkel 111 brought down 1215, 9th Feb 1940, 3 survivors 1 dead, in a field on Rhodes farm at the back of the town, again it was overrun with souvenir hunting school lads during their lunch break before the authorities managed to fence it off, eventually it was loaded on to an artic-lorry known as a ‘Queen Mary’ taken to RAF Turnhouse aerodrome in Edinburgh, it was learned after many years that same German bomber was totally re-fitted and used operationally by the RAF.

The second German aircraft to be brought down on British soil, at Rhodes farm, North Berwick

One of the few forms of entertainment, apart from the fore-going, was a visit to the only cinema, quite small but fairly new, built just before the war, the Playhouse visit once a week became a few hours of escapism, with so many service personnel stationed in and around the town it was a full house every night, but we did not mind waiting in the long queue, to see the likes of Kenny Baker in the Mikado, now there’s nostalgia for you.

Change of circumstances dictated that we returned to Edinburgh at time of the BEF evacuation from Dunkirk, an old family friend, regular airman, Ben Sutherland, turned up one day after spending nearly a week on the war torn beach, granted a couple of weeks survivors leave then immediately posted to a training squadron in Canada to spend the rest of the war in comparative comfort, whilst we as a family, like all the others, just got on as best as was possible under the prevailing circumstances, from there on, as they say, is another story.


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