Friday, May 13, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Lately, I've become a bit (okay, a lot) obsessed with finding out more about my mother's experience as an evacuee from Liverpool, England to Beaumaris, Wales on the eve of WWII. During the first four days of September 1939, more than three million English school children were evacuated from major cities like London and Liverpool to smaller towns and villages throughout the countryside of England, Scotland and Wales.
Beaumaris Castle

My mother was born in America, but my grandmother had sent her to live with family in England when my grandfather abandoned them. But the family couldn't manage the responsibility, and Mom ended up in boarding school. When she went to England she was eight, and at the time of the evacuation, she had just turned 14.

When I was much younger, Mom talked about her boarding school (straight out of Oliver Twist) and her evacuation to Wales. But when I was younger, it didn't seem as interesting or important. In recent years, when I would have loved to hear her talk about it, Mom had Alzheimer's. So it was all lost.

When going through Mom's things, we found an essay she had written in 1940, after she returned to the U.S. In it, she described the evacuation and the idyllic 10 months she spent in Beaumaris. She was billeted with an kindly older woman whose home faced the waterfront of the Menai Strait. Knowing the sadness and loneliness of Mom's childhood, I instantly wanted to know more about her time in this beautiful place where she had experienced kindness and been so happy.

But how could I find out with whom she stayed and where they lived? I didn't even know the name of the Liverpool school she'd attended. I thought that finding the school would be key to finding other students, still living, who had been evacuated to Beaumaris with my mother. Perhaps they would remember her, and perhaps they would know with whom she had lived.

So I decided to attack it from both directions - from Liverpool to Beaumaris and from Beaumaris back to Liverpool. I googled everything I could think of. I found the Beaumaris website and sent an email to the town council email address. I found a book about the evacuation, called Goodnight Children Everywhere, and then found the author's website and emailed her. I wrote to the Liverpool Records Office and asked how I might find out what school my mother attended.

In a matter of just two days, I have made a whole bunch of new friends over in the U.K! The folks in Beaumaris offered to put my inquiry into their town newsletter. The author, Monica Morris, suggested websites that might provide information about the evacuation. And the folks from Liverpool records asked me some questions to help them narrow down the search.

Then a neat thing happened. Each of them, separately and in completely different contexts, made mention of the Liverpool Blue Coat School. I looked it up, and bells and buzzers started going off. It was a "charity school," for poor children, orphans and fatherless children. That fit - my mother was fatherless. And it looked and sounded just like the kind of place Mom had described to me so long ago. Most importantly, I discovered that the Blue Coat School was evacuated to Beaumaris, Wales in September 1939.

Now I was on a roll. I found the Blue Coat Brotherly Society, devoted to serving the needs of past students of the school. I wrote to the Society's email address, and now a wonderful man named Tony will be going to the school in June to research records and find out if my mother was indeed a student there.

I guess everyone loves a mystery, and even more than that, loves to help solve one. Suddenly, I have a cadre of dear people who are helping me find answers to questions that we - my sister, brother and I - have had for years. It's pretty darn cool, and I have to admit that right now, I am in awe of and extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers.


  1. Melissa - there is a story here!!!

  2. This was a fascinating post. I feel extremely grateful that I was able to write my mom's memoir of her growing up years while she still was alive and her memory intact. She was 90, I really did push my luck by waiting so long. And I have a grandmother who felt compelled to write the story of her life, it's in bits and pieces and I treasure it so much. How wonderful that your mom wrote that essay which started you on your journey to discover her past.

  3. I agree with Richard, it sound like a beautiful story in the making!
    And I know what you mean by as children we are not so much interested in these stories, now I wished I had paid more attention to my family history as well...

  4. Melissa, when you learn it all, you must write a story -- what a compelling series of events! I'd love to read it, to see it! I hope all the pieces come together for you!! Good luck!

  5. Melissa, what a great post and how exciting to finally be getting some answers. I have the same regrets about not paying attention when I was younger to some of those stories. Sigh!

  6. Thank you all! I am really quite excited, as I think we felt a bit helpless and hopeless about ever knowing much. Just to know her school seems like so much. But to think we might know which house it was, and/or the name of the people, would somehow feelhuge. And yes, I am have a story brewing already, the next novel for sure.Perhaps one nice thing about not knowing TOO much of the real story is that I can make up my own!

  7. Thanks again for visiting my blog and reading my story. I am amazed having just read this at how closely the details within my character's story match your mother's. I will put a link on my story to your page perhaps someone else that wanders across it might have information for you too!

  8. Thanks usaukwoods,
    I felt the same way when I read yours. It was like, here I am in the middle of this journey, and you've described it almost exactly as she did. OOO-eee---oooo!

  9. Yay, Melissa! Your post is back!

  10. What an adventure! That is so cool that you are finding so many helpful people...put a smile on my face, knowing there are so many good souls out there. Good luck and have fun with your search!

  11. What a story!
    The response you've gotten is wonderful.
    I, too, have thought of a hundred things that I wished I would have asked my mother about...There were so many things that went on in her lifetime and I thought I heard about everything, but have thought of so many other things that I wish I knew.

  12. Sorry to those of you who commented before the Blogger Crash - your comments were lost but they were greatly appreciated. Love how much interest this post generated - it definitely is fun to go on a search like this! Thanks for coming with me.


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