war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Bill Skelton
(John and Arthur Skelton)


Bill Skelton, aged 83,  still walks to and from the town most days, from his Aycliffe home. He’s a regular at the River End for Dover Athletic matches. His poignant wartime-evacuation story was told to Mike Webb, of the Dover War Memorial Project.


I grew up in the Ropewalk, a few hundred yards from where I now live. Life was basic and hard. There were no luxuries, except a loving family. Indeed, my mother said that burglars would have to bring stuff in before taking anything!

I was one of eight children, although two died when very young. Aged eight, I had never been further afield than the market square. Every Saturday, I trekked there, to have the accumulator charged, for our wireless. This was carried home carefully, to avoid spillage from the battery; (there was no ‘elf and safety in those days, for pre-teens carrying sulphuric acid!). 

When I was nine, life changed dramatically. My six-year old brother, John, and I were evacuated, although we did not know what that meant! Our parents waved us off, as we went to  Pier Infants’ School at the Viaduct. We had only the clothes that we wore, plus gas masks, so no suitcases accompanied us. I also had two jam sandwiches for the journey, but nothing to drink, as I don’t think water had been invented! If it had, there were certainly no containers to put it in. Our family’s only receptacle was a jug.  Into this, the milkman ladled his wares from a churn on his horse-drawn wagon. 

For the first time, I crossed the Market Square, into an alien land. Then, at Dover Priory, I saw and boarded my first train.  Our group of 40 children, had no idea where we were going.

A lifetime later, the train arrived in Newport, Wales. The Girls’ Grammar travelled on to Pont Newyed, the Boys’ County School went to Ebbw Vale, whilst we were deposited into the chaos of Cwmbran. This echoed a slave market, where Welsh-speaking grown-ups selected frightened children to take home.  John and I were billeted with the butcher and his wife, Mr and Mrs Jenkins. Her first concern was our lack of Sunday-best for Chapel. She togged us out, although we still lacked underclothes and pyjamas. This kind family, wealthy by our standards, still had only an outdoor privy, like everyone else. Their son, John collected  “ The Wizard” and “The Hotspur” comics. Our teachers, Mr Gutsel and (Tinker) Bowden used them as text-books.  We had no others, except in Welsh!

Recreation involved unsupervised swimming in the 60-feet deep, Clay Hole Pool, an abandoned quarry. There were no other diversions except Chapel, which was not ideal, since interminable sermons were in Welsh. That fateful day, 19 June, 1940, only weeks after our arrival, some 30 of us went to the quarry, but only 29 came back. My brother John was missing. His body, trapped underwater by weeds was not found until 10 July. 

My father, Arthur, a delivery-man for Castle Concrete (later, Castle Harris), borrowed the firm’s van to drive my mother, to the funeral. John was buried on 13 July, at the cost of  Cwmbran Urban District Council.

My father decided that, as death had stalked us in Wales, I would return with them to Dover, taking my chances in “Hellfire Corner”. In shell-and-bomb-battered Dover, I passed the 11+ exam  for entry to the Dover County School. However, the school had been evacuated to Wales, so I returned to Ebbw Vale, in the next valley to Cwmbran. Schooling was part time, as we shared the classroom with the locals.

One day, kindly Mrs Lewis, with whom I lived, informed me that my home, 1 King Lear Way, Ropewalk, had been bombed. Whilst my mother had taken refuge in the Anderson shelter, my father, a part-time fire-watcher, and our next-door neighbour* had been killed.  Dad died on 8 November, 1941, sixteen months after my brother.

I did not attend the funeral.  Indeed, I did not return to our new home at 1 Gloster Way, Ropewalk, for another four years.  For a while, my mother moved to Mansfield, to live with her sister. Some three years later, I took my first train journey alone, to visit her. The only travel advice I received was to change trains at Snowhill Station, Birmingham. (“You can’t miss it, because of the smell, it’s next to the fish market”.) My mother too, had an eventful first journey. She’d never seen an escalator, and refused to use it, until her elder sister, Aunt Bess, agreed to lead her.

One momentous day, my headmaster, Mr J.C. Booth, informed us that war was over. A couple of weeks later, on a sea of tears, we left our homes of four years, to return to war-ravaged Dover. There we began to piece together lives that would never be the same again.  

My mother’s brother-in-law, 19-year old Private James Blogg, killed in France, on 18 November 1916, was now united with my brother John and my father, as casualties of war.

This article and photo first appeared in the Dover Express, 2 October 2014
Reproduced with permission

* "Joe" Keyton, who was 80 years old. He died on 17 November from injuries, having been buried in the debris from the blast.


Copyright 2014 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved