What Happened to the Children?
Thousands of parents endured a painful separation from their children during wartime evacuations. Originally intended to protect the young from the terrors of bombing and fires, the large-scale evacuations ended up with many more consequences than expected. These stories need to be heard ... and never forgotten.
Why Evacuate Children?
When the outbreak of World War Two appeared imminent, England evacuated children to the countryside to live in billeted accommodation. Two waves of early evacuations occurred: 1939 and 1940. The last evacuation of children took place in 1944 when Germany’s flying V-Rockets took to the skies and wreaked havoc over England. The risk of staying at home in London was the threat of bombing, air raids, fires, invasion … the list was frightening. The government encouraged the evacuation of children. Parents were met with a gut-wrenching decision to either keep children at home where they weren’t safe, or send them on trains out to places and temporary guardians unknown. This was an era when everyone did their bit. Even HM Queen Elizabeth the Second became an ambulance driver and knew how to fix army vehicle engines. Seeing this on the news galvanized citizens into doing the right thing. They took action and sent their children to areas free from the constant barrage of Germany’s persistent Luftwaffe.
Parents had a list of supplies to send with their children. Each child was to have spare clothes, gas mask and basic toiletries. Children were collected at their schools and shepherded by their teachers to the train or bus station. All were pre-warned about the upcoming separation of family. There were no doubt floods of tears on the days leading up to the evacuation and it simply cannot be put into words the absolute anguish mothers and fathers felt at being removed from their children’s lives. The loneliness children experienced removed a lot of the sense of security from a stable family home.
Children were identified by cardboard tags affixed to their coats. It was a very sorry scene indeed, both when the children left their parents as well as when they arrived at their destination, homesick, bewildered and afraid. Children were led to an assembly room, often the village or school hall, awaiting to be chosen for billeting. It was common for brothers and sisters to be split up, presumably to ensure a more deferential demeanor to their hosts! The billeting process was rather cruel indeed; it was akin to standing around on the playground waiting to be selected for the baseball team. The shame of being picked last has long stayed in some children’s memories as a cruel rite of passage and a much despised part of wartime life.
Children either had luck or bad fortune with their hosts (who were paid to take care of evacuees). Some children had wonderful, caring hosts, yet others found themselves in a not so fortunate situation, literally being treated like unpaid labor with unlimited capacity for work at hosts’ farms, homes and shops. Some upper class households tried to duck out of billeting children, as many inner city, poorer children brought lice and dirt into the home. The upper class’ sense of noblesse oblige, or duty to help, was considered 'satisfied' when they used their grand manor homes for storing precious national treasure artwork instead. Far fewer moving bodies and voices was the obvious intent.
Remember this is long before cell phones and the internet; in the 1940s, it was rare for houses to even have a landline. During wartime, military correspondence and transport took precedence, so families could only hope and wonder that their children were alright. It was a time for learning as well. Children attended the local school but many had their education much disrupted. It was indeed amusing for country kids to listen to city kids learning that milk and cheese came from cows and were not made in shops. City kids were intrigued by the funny smell called fresh air!
For the most part, evacuations were successful. They kept up a nation’s morale, freed up parents for homefront industrial factory work, and kept children safe from routine bombing raids on common lines of fire where armaments plus well-known buildings were located in and around London. For those who had good experiences with their hosts, lifelong friendships were forged. In the end, be it with enthusiasm or begrudgingly, everyone indeed did their bit. Even the Royal Family stayed to suffer out the war with fellow citizens. Refusing to evacuate to Canada, HM the Queen Mother toured damage to Buckingham Palace after one nightly air raid. She felt confident that she could now look London’s East Enders in the eye. Courage and determination; it’s what got the Allies through the war and to Victory in Europe Day.
For a much more detailed look at this topic, including images and videos, visit the wonderful website of the Imperial War Museum. For a first hand account, read John H. Moon’s “The Conway Road School Kids: The story of two children evacuated to Lamberhurst during World War II” in Bygone Kent magazine, Vol.22, #7.
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