Bert Evans, The man who made 3,000 refugees feel at home

AMONG the special honours drawn up by the newly-crowned Queen in June 1953 was an MBE for Thundersley schoolteacher Bert Evans (writes PETER SPENCER).

Bert Evans

For Welsh-born Mr. Evans, headmaster of Benfleet Secondary School – now King John School – had personally directed relief services for thousands of evacuees from flood-torn Canvey Earlier that year.
At the first inkling of the scale of the disaster he opened the gleaming new school as a rescue centre – only hours before its official opening ceremony, set for the following day.
And he worked night and day for months arranging food, clothing, bedding and medical care for the shocked islanders.
He had no sleep at all during the first three days following the night of horror and did not have time to shave even when the Queen Mother paid a personal visit to the school.
Mr. Evans, now 66, and living in Benfleet Road, Benfleet, was first alerted by a phone call from police at 4 a.m. on the Sunday.
He was told there was “some flooding” – so he suggested another school take evacuees because of his planned opening ceremony.
But later he went to Benfleet primary school  . . .  and was “staggered” at what he saw.
“The place was packed with people, some dressed, some only in blankets, and children were crying.
“The caretaker was making tea on a tiny stove and people were trying to help, but there was no organisation.”
So he went to the police station, demanded to know why he had not been told more – and ordered the first 1,000 evacuees to be sent to his school.
Mr. Evans returned there, marshalled his key teaching and maintenance staff and launched the operation.

They went out in their cars persuading shopkeepers to give food – and accept payment some other time.
Ironically Mr. Evans had “by coincidence” been appointed Emergency Meals Officer for South East Essex only the week before.
The job was to arrange food supplies in the event of any disaster.
But with so new an appointment he had not had a chance to find out the mechanics or the scope of the job.
“Looking back, it was damned brave offering to take so many people – but by 9 o’clock we had enough to feed the 3,000 people who turned up.
The shopkeepers were marvellous – some practically denuded their shelves for us.
“And later response to nationwide appeals was so vast that we literally had to turn away lorry loads of food and clothing”
The army supplied 1,000 blankets and the county welfare services  and W.V.S. swung into action.
And Mr Evans remembered with a wry smile the “understatement of the year” from a county WVS organiser.
Surveying the desolation wrought hours before by the tide of terror, she said of the shocked families huddled in the school: “I think we shall have these on our hands tonight.”
The school in Shipwrights Drive, Thundersley, became “home” for some of the homeless for five months.
The school – with kitchens and facilities geared to 1,500 children – became the county’s biggest relief centre.
And when it was finally officially opened in My, three months late, there were “at least 100” evacuees still there.
In those few hectic weeks of disaster aftermath Princess Margaret and every cabinet minister except the Prime Minister, visited the school.
They witnessed at first hand a massive display of courage and selflessness as well as an immense human tragedy.
Mr. Evans said: “The main thing this taught me was that provided you have people ready to work for 24 hours a day non-stop you can meet any impact.  And I had staff and helpers prepared to do that.”

One of the many problems faced in the temporary home was that of pets – including dogs, cats, parrots and budgies.
Mr. Evans said: “Of course people did not want to part with their pets, but after a couple of days the noise and squabbling became unbearable.
“The RSPCA agreed to kennel free of charge all pets and that solved the problem, except for one tiny puppy.
“The elderly woman who owned it was desperate not to be parted, and I was in tears myself when I insisted.”
“She agreed in the end, but several days later I heard a yelp under some clothes and somebody saying quickly ‘hush’.”
“I was asked what I was going to do but I just said I had not heard anything.”
Mr. Evans, who to this day regards the flood relief as “the biggest single event in my life,” remained headmaster at the school till his retirement in 1966.

The Queen Mother visiting refugees at King John School


The above article was part of an Evening Echo Special that was issued with the Evening Echo on Thursday February 1, 1973.
The original page was kindly loaned to the Archive by Tina Toomer.

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