Tales of the Evacuees
On Boxing Day 1944 some of the evacuees were waiting for a bus to take them from Diss to a party at the Thorpe Abbotts base.
When the bus was late, one boy ran out onto the frozen Mere, near The Nunnery, and went through the ice. His brother ran to try and save him but, being weighed down by overcoats and hobnail boots, both went under.
One was drawn dead from the water, while the other died on the bank. They were buried in the Heywood Road cemetery.
Eric Hancock, now 80 years old, and the other children never got to the party. He had come from Middlesex and lived in Alger’s Square, a tiny courtyard on the south side of Church Street.
There were lavatories at the end of the Square and a water pump in the middle. He remembers being there and seeing hundreds of German bombers coming over.
Although the museum has a plaque expressing gratitude from some of the girl evacuees for the kindness they were shown, Eric says that the boys, in their Jackie Coogan hats, were hated. They really had to look after themselves; and there were frequent fights. You could, though, end up the best of pals with someone with whom you had fought.
One of the perks of the time was being able to crawl under the barbed wire of the Rectory Meadow prisoner-of-war camp and spend the day with the Italians.
They were well treated, with a pail of beer daily for each hut, had the run of the town and were popular with the ladies. The prisoners, in specially patched uniforms, worked as farm labourers, played football on the meadow and made models, like rings and cigarette cases.
A model car made by them was exhibited in the Diss Publishing Company window. When a Flying Fortress crashed, bringing down another plane with it, the area was scattered with perspex, which helped in model-making.
Many of the Italians were in tears when they had to go home. Some even stayed as farmers. Eric also stayed here and actually lived in one of the Nissen huts after the war.
He did his National Service in Malaya with the Suffolk Regiment, enjoying the four-month voyage there and back. He wonders why the country ever did away with National Service.
He worked in the Brush Factory where he met his wife, Gladys, when they were 14. She biked from Mellis each day and he used to cycle there to see her. Her father used to chase him angrily off the premises, even following him back to Diss, until he came back from Malaya. Then he found he was welcomed as though the sun shone out of his rear.
He subsequently worked for Ron Chapman, the baker in Church Street, for 20 years.
Eric uses the expression “at that time of day” for “in those days” and refers to me as one of “you youngsters”, when I could easily be a grandfather.
Interviewed by Basil Abbott at Eric’s house in Mount Pleasant on 16 August 2011.
Footnote: I was able to tell him the date of the drowning, as I had seen the grave. He mentioned the fairs on the Uplands meadow, another glimpse of the vanished past.