“ Some would never see their homes for several years and, within hours, huge queues formed at railway stations. The mass evacuation of British children, the biggest movement of people the country had ever witnessed had begun. “
( from Children of the Blitz )
Children were massively affected by WWII and The Blitz. Though numbers vary, approximately two million children were evacuated from their homes at the beginning of WWII; children endured rationing, gas mask lessons, living away from their homes and families. Some were evacuated to the countryside, some overseas. They gathered at schools, train stations. Some traveled with their schools and teachers, and were kept together as a group. Others often didn’t know where they were going; they didn’t know if they would be separated from their brothers and sisters. The children were tagged with labels out of concern they’d get lost, and their gas masks hung around their necks. “Operation Pied Piper” as the evacuation was termed, started the day after the government issued the order “Evacuate Forthwith” on August 31, 1939. Evacuations continued into 1941.
Some children were treated like their own by their foster parents; others were treated like servants. Some were deliberately split from their brothers and sisters; this might have depended on whether the foster family preferred a boy or a girl. Some were cruelly neglected. It wasn’t uncommon for parents to come and collect their children to take them back home from the countryside.
LIFE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE:
June Robinson recalled, “ … my mother’s last words were, ‘Look after your little sister and remember, you’ve got to stay together!’ … The bus stopped at a little church and we could see a small crowd of people, mostly women. Some of the children were told to get off the bus. I was sitting at the back with my six-year-old sister beside me hanging on for dear life. I heard a young woman in the crowd say to someone in charge that she wanted a little girl about five or six. Immediately I pushed my sister under the seat, but of course they had a list of names and ages, and they soon came looking for her. However, remembering my mother’s words, I said, ‘She can’t go without me.’ That didn’t go over too well, I can tell you, as this young woman, who loved on sight my pretty red-headed, brown-eyed, dimpled, sweet little sister, wanted no part of her gangly, freckle-faced … twelve-year-old sister. However, a compromise was reached when the young woman’s 60-year-old mother said she would take me, and as she lived very near her daughter, it worked out very well. I stayed with her and her husband – who worked in a local mine – for a few months, and I was very happy there. They had raised five daughters of their own, and I learnt a lot from them. “
Netta Parks was an evacuee for three years. She went with her school as a 13 year old. The only person on the train who knew where they were going was the headmaster; parents and teachers didn’t know. The train was met at a station by several buses, which took them to their final destination, where they were first met by the Town Council.
What was life like in the countryside for the children who had been evacuated? Their experiences varied widely.
For some, it was the first time they had seen cows, sheep, horses… the first opportunity they had to spend time in gardens… One evacuee recalled his “ … foster uncle… was a cobbler … my sister and I always had good shoes. “
Many children were homesick and asked their parents to come and take them back home. Mary Humphries was from Gosport, Hampshire, on the east side of Portsmouth harbour with naval shipping, submarine base, naval bases, Army and Marine barracks, Royal Naval Air Station, RAF Station… Because their home was a prime target for attacks, Mary was evacuated. “ We were all put on trains, with large labels pinned on to our clothes with our names and addresses. Each of us was given a brown carrier bag filled with groceries, which included cans of evaporated milk ( which we were served diluted and heated before going to bed each night until it ran out ). We … ended up in Eastleigh, Hampshire. We were all assembled in a local school and the local people chose who they would billet. My sister and I and two other girls ended up in a lovely house with large grounds – they had a Swiss maid, which impressed us no end. They really wanted four boys to stay with them to help out with the gardening, because their gardeners had been called up for military service, so they weren’t too thrilled to end up with four girls aged between nine and twelve years. However, they were very kind and gave us great accommodation… After a few weeks … we were so homesick and missed our parents so much that we begged and pleaded with our parents to let us return, which we did after about six weeks… “ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
Valerie Gibbs ended up in the village of Lacock, near Bath. “ After breakfast we walked the 1 ½ miles to the old abbey where we attended school … Classes were held in one of the passageways in the old abbey. The age of the old abbey gave it a mystery and raised all kinds of scary thoughts in the minds of the kids. Going to the ‘lav’ was particularly scary; it was situated in the crypt below the abbey. “ She had other memories of her time there, “ … fresh vegetables … cow-plop-hopping … collecting wild flowers … haymaking, threshing, mushroom and nut-collecting … blackberrying time … the local pedlars: paraffin, candles, Wiltshire pies, sausages, black pudding and Bath chops from the bacon factory in Calne … film shows held in the village hall…“ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
Not every household wanted an extra body in the house, an extra mouth to feed. Jean Schoebl felt that she was discriminated against, “ I was billeted … with an old lady of 70 and her spinster daughter Addie of 50. And I was ‘invited’ – let is a better word – into their house to be their maid! Every morning before I left for school I had to ‘char’ – dishes, dusting, wash the floor, make their beds. And it was a long walk and I was so lonely walking that road every day … No one to talk to!! Get this!! When they went to visit the other sister … they sat down to a cooked meal at a large table and I was given a sandwich on a card table to the side … I felt alone, frightened, degraded, angry and constantly preached at. “ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
THE FOSTER PARENTS:
And the foster parents? What were their experiences? Thousands of special people took in the little children and treated them as their own. The experiences weren’t always easy or straightforward.
Frances May Guy recalled, “ We had the most traumatic experience with evacuated children, which taught us the strength of love … In January 1940 we were told, not asked, to take in four children from London ( one family ), the eldest about 12 years, a girl with a face with a face like granite, who bossed the others without a word. The younger ones never took their eyes off her. My husband and myself were not keen, or willing, as we did not understand children, but we had staying with us a very serious and kind young man who adored children, so we all got stuck in, as it was supposed only to be for two weeks. We fed them, washed them, and decked them out in what clothes we could rake up. We prepared a room with two double beds, gave them sweets and water, and left them to sort out their own sleeping places. When we thought they must be asleep, our friend went up to check, and came downstairs, three at a time, and white-faced, as there was no sign of them. We looked in every other room, with no result. We rang the billeting people and the police. They looked in the room, and searched the house. Finally, back to the room. They found them when they saw a movement underneath the beds. The police doctor gave them some tablets and we watched them until they slept, and our friend put a mattress on the floor for himself. No amount of coaxing would make them settle, so finally they had to be sent home, as all they wanted was Mum and Dad and the ‘safety’ of the slum – but home – they knew. Even the nice clothes we scrounged for them got no reaction, and the money they were given was taken, like they would take bus fare or dinner money … it taught us to study children and realize that if the going is tough enough, kids can be as logical as adults, even more so. “ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
EVACUATION DURING THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN:
One evacuee had her first experience in March of 1939, when her whole school was evacuated. Her second experience was during The Battle of Britain. She recalled, “ All families in that area for safety reasons had to evacuate, so Mum and all of us did so together this time. Our neighbour was a young bride of a soldier … she came along with us and tried to stay with us… traveled on a train, and arrived somewhere in Norfolk…. Were assembled in a big hall, and that night we all slept on the floor; that hall was packed. I don’t think any of the mothers slept that night … There was so much sadness, so many tears. Then mothers were singing; they sang a lot … next day once again … chosen for a home, and once again was unlucky enough to be without my loved ones. I was taken against my mum’s wishes, and pleading, alone to a home in the country, not knowing where my mum and sisters went … stayed there three weeks; then one day my mum turned up at the home where I was, with my sisters and another lady with her three children. She took me and said we were going home once again … We came home to a rather quiet town, a rather bombed town, with houses and businesses missing … walked home to our house, which fortunately was still standing. “ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
EVACUATION DURING THE BLITZ:
Then The Blitz began. Many people who had remained at home now felt it time to move away from London and other large cities. One girl was evacuated along with her mother and sister. “ Maybe being the only evacuees in the village was the reason for being so unkindly treated by the other children … my life there was really awful … we were teased, ridiculed, blamed and even told, ‘Go back to London and be gassed’ … one village boy contracted ringworm and we were told that ‘dirty London’ must have given it to him. One girl at school used to play ball with me after school, but ignored me in class, denying to the others that she played with me … school was the worst time of my life. We were there for two years. “ ( from The Day They Took the Children )
Other families stayed during The Blitz. Eileen Williamson recalls that time, “ We did not go, thank goodness, and we stayed all through the war in E16. We were bombed out three times, and saw so much bombing … we went hop-picking down in Kent for two weeks. When we came back, our street … was empty. There was no one, only ARP wardens, who used to come and see if we were OK at night in our Anderson shelter … We never saw any of our neighbours come back; they had no homes left. I remember it was like a ghost town. “
The threat of German invasion caused the government into looking at new ways to encourage evacuation. Private citizens in the Dominions and the United States. This led to the establishment of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board ( CORB ), that enabled children between the ages of five and sixteen attending grant-aided schools to go abroad for safety.
Margaret Beal was fifteen when she traveled from her home in Yorkshire to Canada. Excerpts from her diary give us an idea of her experience, “ … after a long wait we were examined by two doctors, one doctor English and one Canadian. We were all passed. Then we had tea, and went to bed early … we all slept well … “ Four days later they boarded the ship … “ we pulled alongside the liner, which is called Antonia. I am in a teeny weeny cabin, with Jeanne and two very tiny girls. It is not a very big ship, but a very nice one. There are a lot of nice boys aboard. They feed us marvelously … the bunk is very comfy and I had a good night’s rest. We have lifeboat drill and must not move without our gas-masks … “ Eight days later, at sea in the heat of August, the children spend a lot of time on deck playing. The children do some chores ~ washing, ironing, darning… They arrived in Halifax ten days after leaving England. “ … we disembarked, and went into the customs house, wwhere we stayed until about 12 p.m. having some milk and biscuits to keep us going. We were very tired when we finally got on to the train and undressed and went to ‘bed’ – two seats facing one another and then let down … the train set off about 1:30 a.m. “ The following day, “ … we had breakfast of bacon, cereals, bread and marmalade, and about ¾ pint of milk. Everybody waves to us as we go past, and when we stop in the stations, people come and talk to us and give us presents and sweets galore. We are passing a lot of water, and we have just seen a lot of wood logs in a lake. There is wood, wood, everywhere, and all the houses are made of it … all the people over here talk so nicely … some men … threw about six peaches in to us … we are always seeing soldiers … lots of them give us sweets and things, and when we move away they all wave and stick their thumbs up, and we do the same … “ The train arrived in Winnipeg and the children were taken to a hospital for another medical exam. Some were inoculated for diphtheria but all were inoculated for TB. Margaret described it as, “ … a very rigorous exam.” (from The Day They Took the Children )
Sadly, the overseas evacuation plan had barely begun when the City of Benares was sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Ireland as it headed for Canada. Seventy-three evacuees lost their lives. The CORB programme was immediately brought to a close. In all, some 6000 children were evacuated to Canada.
“ GOOD NIGHT CHILDREN EVERYWHERE “
While the British government sorted out its plans to evacuate the children, a special song was written for children by Gaby Rogers and Harry Philips in 1939. It was originally broadcast by Gracie Fields from France with a dedicated “tender thought to all evacuated children”. It soon became “ an important children’s wartime anthem “ ( Blitz Families ). Every evening, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) played it:
Sleepy little eyes in a sleepy little head,
Sleepy time is drawing ear.
In a little while you’ll be tucked up in your bed,
Here’s a song for baby dear.
Goodnight children everywhere,
Your mummy thinks of you tonight.
Lay your head upon your pillow,
Don’t be a kid or a weeping willow.
Close your eyes and say a prayer,
And surely you can find a kiss to spare.
Though you are far away, she’s with you night and day,
Goodnight children everywhere.
Soon the moon will rise, and caress you with its beams,
While the shadows softly creep.
With a happy smile you will be wrapped up in your dreams,
Baby will be fast asleep. Goodnight children everywhere.
( from Blitz Families )