Guernsey evacuees and the beginnings of the Catholic church in Winsford

In 1940, a group of children evacuated from Guernsey were resettled in Winsford, where they lived for five years. Their story, and their lasting legacy to Winsford, has never been told before.

In June 1940, after the fall of France to Nazi Germany, the British government took the decision to abandon the Channel Islands. Lying a few miles off the coast of Normandy, they were of no strategic value and were deemed too difficult to defend. For Nazi Germany, the archipelago, centred on Jersey and Guernsey, offered a propaganda coup, as Berlin could claim occupation of British territory.

Children of the Guernsey School, Winsford, with their Sisters of Mercy teachers, one of whom is believed to be Sister Mary de Sales. Brothers Leonard and Ronnie Allen circled.

On 19 June, the Guernsey press announced plans for the evacuation to England of the island’s children: an estimated 6,000 were to be evacuated, along with their teachers. Two days later, the first ships departed St Peter Port, the island capital, bound for Weymouth, Dorset. On board one ship were 68 children and their teachers from Delancey Primary School, and nine days after that, on 30 June 1940, their island home was occupied by Nazi Germany.

From Weymouth, Guernsey’s children were scattered to safe places across England, and the group from Delancey Primary School went to Winsford, where they were billeted with local families. They were not the only children evacuated to the small industrial town in mid-Cheshire, as children from Liverpool and London were already there, one of whom recalls the day her foster-parents took in two of the Guernsey arrivals.

Eileen Bennett was evacuated from Liverpool to Winsford in 1939, together with two of her four brothers. Her brothers went to live in Over, and she became the ward of Bernard and Phoebe Curzon, of 48 Ledward Street, Wharton.

“I remember when the refugees from the Channel Islands came,” writes Eileen (pers.comm.). “It was a Sunday, and Mama Curzon said: ‘I will bring you a little sister’. I ran home from Sunday School to find two boys, brothers Len and Ronnie. They were lovely brothers to me for three years. We had wonderful foster parents; we all knew how much they loved us, as we did them. I left Winsford in 1943, after living there for four years.”

Leonard, 8, and Ronnie Allen, 11, arrived in Winsford with their classmates from the Delancey Primary School, and their teachers – nuns from the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic women’s order known for their educational work. Under the leadership of Sister Mary de Sales, the “Guernsey School” was established, which ensured the children in her care were taught together, just as they would have been on Guernsey (Winsford’s Guernsey School was one of many set up throughout England, wherever the island’s children had been evacuated to).

Suitable premises were needed, and the Armstrong Hall, Chapel Road, Wharton, became the first home of the Winsford Guernsey School (today, the building is a care home, known as Chapel House). The school was later moved to Wharton Methodist Sunday School – a building next to the Armstrong Hall.

But it wasn’t only the children’s academic education that Sister Mary was addressing: she needed them to continue their spiritual education, as would have happened had they stayed on Guernsey.

In 1940, Winsford did not have a Catholic parish, church, or priest. The town was served by Methodist, Anglican and Congregational churches, and the few Catholics who did live in Winsford had to travel out of town to attend Mass.

Winsford Urban District Council (WUDC) stepped in to help, and a room at the Brunner Guildhall was offered to Sister Mary de Sales. Every Sunday, Father Bleach, himself an evacuee from Guernsey, made the 25-mile round trip from Knutsford to offer Mass at the Guildhall – an arrangement that lasted for the duration of the war.

Winsford families opened their hearts and homes and cared for the Guernsey children. At Christmas, the Winsford Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) distributed gifts, some sent by the American Junior Red Cross. They went to school, made friends, played in the town’s parks, and enjoyed as close to a normal life as was possible.

In January 1945, Winsford’s Guernsey evacuees were visited by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt. Rev John King (the Channel Islands are in the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth). He was accompanied by Father Phillips, parish priest of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, who had spent ten years on Guernsey: it was his fourth visit to Winsford to see the children. In honour of the Bishop’s visit, the children performed a concert of welcome at the Guernsey School (Wharton Methodist Sunday School). Each child received a sum of money, half of which was to be taken home to their mothers, and half used to buy gifts for their foster parents.

The war in Europe was drawing to a close, and Guernsey’s evacuees could look forward to the day when they would return home.

On 17 May 1945, a few days after VE Day (8 May), the BBC broadcast the voices of evacuees to the people of Guernsey. The voices of children living in Winsford, and Sister Mary de Sales, were sent to Guernsey on records, where they were broadcast over public loudspeakers in the streets. Sister Mary said the children were well and happy, and were liked and very highly spoken of by those with whom they were billeted. For families separated from their children, this was the first time they had heard their voices in five years.

Winsford’s Guernsey children made the long journey home in late July 1945. Before leaving, presents were exchanged and WUDC gave £5 to each child. After five years, parting was not easy. Friendships made with Winsford children were broken, and thoughts of adopting their wards crossed the minds of some local families. The Winsford Chronicle, 28 July 1945, put it this way: “It has not been easy severing links which developed from the delicacy of silken threads to the strength of woven strands of steel”.

Sister Mary de Sales said: “A very definite bond of friendship has been formed between Guernsey and Winsford, and we hope in years to come to see in our island the familiar faces of those who have so carefully looked after our children.”

From his home on Guernsey, a teenage Leonard Allen, the boy who lived with Bernard and Phoebe Curzon, wrote to the Winsford Chronicle (11 August 1945):

Dear Friends
I take the opportunity to thank all the people in Ledward Street for the kindness you have shown to me while I have been staying with Mr and Mrs Curzon these last five years. I was only eight years of age when I came, and I have got to know a lot of kind people in Winsford. Mr and Mrs Curzon and family have been very good to my brother and me, but it is nice to think we are going home to our dear mother. Thanking you all again, I remain your loving friend,
Leonard Allen

The story doesn’t end here. Those bonds, those “strands of steel”, continue to this day. Now aged 89, Leonard is still in contact with his “Winsford family”.

There’s also a spiritual bond that owes its links to Sister Mary de Sales and the Sisters of Mercy. Their departure in 1945 left a void to fill in Winsford, and in the late 1940s the Roman Catholic parish of St Joseph’s was created. Fern Villa, Ways Green, was bought and in 1951 its stables were converted to become Winsford’s first Catholic church. The news reached Guernsey, from where Sister Mary de Sales sent a silver ciborium (chalice) to the parish priest, Father Thomas Fee, for use in the Communion service. On it was engraved: “From the Guernsey children evacuated to Winsford”.

© John MALAM 1 February 2021 Winsford 01606 863540