Peace! But Eastbourne Remembers

Katherine Buckland

With the 75th anniversary of VE Day at the end of this week, we wanted to look back to what daily life was like for people in Eastbourne during the Second World War.

On Friday 31st August 1939, two days before the declaration of war, Eastbourne received thousands of evacuated children from London as well as hundreds of patients from London hospitals. More children and women arrived over the weekend to bring the total to 7000 people who were billeted with residents in Eastbourne. These children stayed in Eastbourne until June 1940 when they left for Wales.

Queues outside the Town Hall for travel vouchers

Almost 3000 Eastbourne school children were evacuated on 21 July 1940 to Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire on five trains and in September, many Eastbourne residents left the town for Gloucestershire on Government advice. They were given travel vouchers and a billeting allowance. Some of these people started returning to Eastbourne after a few months but hadn’t informed the Food Office which meant there was a shortage on rationed food in Eastbourne. Many more returned in December 1943.

Eastbournians during a tear gas test

At the beginning of the war, it was feared that Britain might be the victim of gas attacks so everyone carried their gas masks with them. For a little while, all cinemas and theatres were closed – following Government instructions. A realistic gas exercise was held in the town centre in May 1941 –tear gas was released at various places around Terminus Road. At the sound of the warning rattles, people in Terminus Road and neighbouring streets put on their gas masks until handbells announced that the gas had dispersed.

Air Raid wardens patrolled the streets at night to make sure the blackout instructions were being followed – including restrictions on lights of cars and bicycles. In just over a year from when the regulations came into force, over £600 of fines were issued for lights showing in residential and business premises.  

7000 cubic feet of heavy timber was purchased to strengthen basements and 5000 tons of sand was ordered to fill sandbags to protect vital buildings and services. Food rationing was still a little way off but motorists had to register for petrol ration books

Public air raid shelters were built all over Eastbourne but were only supposed to be used by people more than five miles from their homes and would be locked between dusk and 8am. “Anyone out of doors during these hours is out at their own risk. You are better off in your own home than anywhere in an air raid”[1] Schools were without air raid shelters at first – in an air raid, children would be sent to neighbouring houses. 800 parents signed a petition to build trench shelters (these were thought to be useful for large groups of people and were essentially long holes dug into the ground, lined with wooden boards and then covered with mounds of earth. These shelters were not particularly safe elsewhere – even if a bomb landed nearby, the trenches often collapsed burying the occupants alive) From December 1939, air raid sirens were tested on the first Sunday of every month and a month later, the Education Committee ordered concrete lined trenches or blast and splinter proof shelters to be built in every school playground.  It wasn’t until 1941 that Morrison shelters were available for people in Eastbourne – provided free for those with incomes below £350 a year and £7 for anyone else.

We’ve often heard the statement that Eastbourne was the most bombed town in the South East. This claim came from Mr Carttling, Senior Regional Officer, Civil Defence Headquarters, Tunbridge Wells. He told journalists that Eastbourne had suffered more enemy air attacks (96) than any other town in the south east region (which included, Sussex, Kent and Surrey, but not the Metropolitan areas of Kent and Surrey).

3 weeks after the beginning of the war, every resident in Eastbourne was asked to complete forms so that a national register could be compiled and identity cards could be issued. In Eastbourne, including evacuees and visitors, this meant around 75,000 people.

Help from the community

Bomb Damage outside the Technical Institute, Grove Road

Surgical bandages were made by the Meads Branch of Eastbourne Red Cross Hospital Supplies depot from Stelvio Court and were sent to Finland for Red Cross work and more than 1000 men volunteered within a few days for the newly formed Local Defence Volunteer Corps (Home Guard).  These volunteers would be put to the test on 7 July 1940 during the first air raid on Eastbourne. The same day, there was a ban on visitors – just a few months earlier at Easter 30,000 people had visited the town. There wasn’t an adequate warning system for air raids so a local warning system was introduced which involved the sounding of gongs at various police lodges around Eastbourne. This was replaced by the ‘Cuckoo’ siren in June 1942.

In May 1940, the Town Council decided that the tank in Gildredge Park, a ‘memento’ from the First World War, should be sold for scrap metal, two years later iron railings were removed for the war effort. When the Eastbourne Spitfire Fund was launched in 1940 to raise money to buy the RAF a spitfire, £6000 was raised in just two weeks. Fundraising continued throughout the war – Eastbourne’s efforts included: War Weapons Week (£502,243) Warship week (£306,956), Wings for Victory Week (£504,115) and Salute the Soldier week (£525,607). A whopping £1,844,921 from these events alone – the equivalent of over £65million today.

Eastbourne was also lucky to receive gifts throughout the war including a mobile kitchen gifted to the town by the citizens of Guelph and Wellington County, Ontario, Canada and a donation to Eastbourne’s War Distress Fund was given by the Mayor of Cheltenham towards the end of war alongside ‘admiration of the courage and common sense shown by the Eastbourne evacuees during their stay at Cheltenham. They have been some of our pleasantest wartime visitors.’[2]

The liveliest street party in Sancroft Road!

When Victory in Europe was declared on 8 May 1945, street parties popped up all over the town – the only one to take place in a hall was in Hampden Park as the residents of Glynde Avenue didn’t like the idea of a children’s street party in their road! Sancroft Road was hailed the best and liveliest street party and an excellent iced Victory cake, made by Mrs Lyon, was a highlight of the Cavalry Crescent party. 75 percent of the fathers of these children were still serving in the armed forces around the world.

This was a day to celebrate for many but for some, the war wasn’t over as those dearest to them were still to return from active service.   Indeed, some never would.

Photographs published in the Eastbourne Herald, 12 May 1945

[1] Eastbourne Gazette, May 9 1945

[2] Eastbourne Gazette, May 9 1945

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