Peter Paterson

Freedom in Wales

From orphan to evacuee

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Peter Paterson, who died last week, was a political columnist for this magazine in 1970, and later a frequent contributor. This extract, from a piece published in The Spectator in 1983, describes his evacuation, in 1944, from Spurgeon’s Orphan Home, south London, to Cwmllynfell, South Wales:

Our trainload of orphans had arrived in 1944 in Port Talbot, fugitives from the German V-2 rockets, our minders having been promised that we should all be kept together in some Welsh version of the institution from which we had been evacuated.

But no one had told the local worthies who met the train of any such arrangement, and we were scattered by a fleet of cars to destinations all over the South Wales coalfield. Five of us ended up in a small village on the Glamorgan-Carmarthenshire border, under the shadow of the Black Mountains. Consuming a plate of ham and chips, surrounded by people jabbering away in a foreign language, and our heads full of stories from the Hotspur and Wizard, we tried to get our tongues around the inscription on our plates — ‘Cwmllynfell’, it said — and convinced ourselves that we had been kidnapped by the Germans.

One at a time, we were chosen to be billeted by the villagers who circled like horse dealers around us in what proved to be the miners’ welfare hall. Having unaccountably been rejected in this selection process, I was put into a car and driven to various houses, waiting each time while the Welsh family negotiated with each other. I was finally accepted by the Evans family, and walked up the clinker path to their wind-blown house, my knapsack slung behind and my gas mask and spare boots tethered around my neck. I was not particularly welcome: having experienced considerable trouble with a previous London evacuee, they were hoping to be absolved from duty on this occasion, or given a girl. There were no girls in our party.

Dai Tom Evans, my ‘foster father’, was lodge chairman, or branch secretary, of the National Union of Mineworkers at the local coal mine, known as ‘the Clink’, and commander of the village Home Guard. I therefore immediately commandeered the most magnificent toy I had ever, until that moment, had access to, which was Dai Tom’s sten gun. His son Donald also worked at the Clink, and his daughter Megan was at secondary school, travelling each day by bus to Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, or GCG as it was known by the locals. Mrs Evans, though neither she, her family, nor certainly I realised it at the time, was agoraphobic and seldom left the house.

In the grate, an anthracite fire burned all day, all night, summer and winter, warming the living room, heating up the oven alongside it, and providing hot water from a back boiler. The day shift over, Dai Tom and Donald returned from the Clink and a tin bath was filled from a tap in the fireplace. Black with coal dust from head to foot, with the exception of three vivid bullet-like scars in Dai Tom’s back, the relic of a pit explosion, they washed themselves meticulously- except for their backs. Back-washing only happened once a week, because of the old miners’ tradition that washing it every day had a weakening effect. City dwellers often fail to realise how rural the mining industry is, and the scenery around Cwmllynfell, even close to the Clink, if you closed one eye to exclude the pyramidical spoil heap, was beautiful. A rushing, rocky stream ran through the works, and it was possible to spear fish where it narrowed behind the welfare hall. To boys accustomed to being cooped up and supervised for every minute of the day, the village and its surroundings offered a magnificent playground. There were walks up into the mountains, which meant a whole day’s trek, and closer to hand there were old drift mine workings, complete with rusting trucks which could be levered back on to the rails and sent thundering into the dark mouth of the mine, to collide with a satisfying crash into chunks of machinery no doubt sent down by previous generations.

School was a problem. The local council school was only a two-classroom affair, and since our knowledge of Welsh was non-existent, our presence was demanded only occasionally. The orphanage administration caught up with us after a few months, however, and sent a tyrannical master to take charge of us, who took lodgings with Mr Roberts-Thomas, the minister of the local chapel. The master demanded, and received, the second classroom and swiftly set about restoring southern standards of discipline. First to be dealt with were the occasional fights between ourselves and the Welsh boys, which involved throwing caps over the school wall and similar activities, with a minimum of real violence. There was also the question of the bull terrier we had acquired, and which sat quietly in the classroom, a fearsome-looking beast who had lost his hide on one side as a result of the administration of a bucket of boiling water from a local farmer. The dog was normally a docile creature, but given to the pursuit of sheep.

Finding the dog in the classroom immediately after a playground fracas with the Welsh, the schoolmaster decided that condign punishment was required to remind us — and the Welsh — of the superiority of English ways. A slim bamboo cane appeared and, with the entire staff and pupils on the Welsh side peering through the partition, I was given a beating.

Corporal punishment was unknown in Welsh village schools of the time, and I was gratified by the degree of shock created among the host community. Soon after my return home, on my own bath night, the room was full of neighbours clucking and sympathising over my stripes. With difficulty a posse of ministers led by Dai Tom was dissuaded from marching into the village and tearing my schoolmaster limb from limb: even in such troubled times I realised that I should have to return to the bosom of our institution at some time, and that such a demonstration would be revenged.