About a time when nearly three million British people, mostly children, were made to leave their homes and live with total strangers
They called it The Evacuation. It seemed a compassionate, well-intentioned concept, yet it turned out in many ways to be one of the most chaotic and tragic operations on Britain’s home front during World War II.
In the early stages of the war, the British government moved three million people, mostly children, from the cities most likely to be prime targets of Nazi bombers, and found them homes with volunteer foster families deep in the countryside.
By 1939 the Nazis were already geared for battle, yet Britain’s forces were still at peacetime strength, and rearmament began only in the spring of that year, when the declaration of war with Germany was only six months away. A year earlier Hitler had snatched the German-speaking sector of Czechoslovakia. Now, in March, his army was sweeping into Prague itself, and was about to annex a part of Lithuania.
While rushing, almost too late to recruit, build tanks, planes and ships, the British found time to make a hasty plan of action for the evacuation of children between the ages of three and fourteen. Within three days of the declaration of war, on Sunday, September 1939, the first phase of the plan had been carried out. By then, one and a half million children had already been taken from their homes and sent, mostly by train and bus, miles away to live in the homes of total strangers. Four thousand special trains were commandeered, and London’s red buses alone took nearly a quarter of a million children to the railroad stations, or direct to their new lodgings. A number of the trains had canteens, but many of them and all the buses had no toilets, so the children arrived at their destinations hungry, soiled, fearful and bewildered.
Author Alan Sillitoe, an evacuee himself, remembers “I was vomiting out the window as the convoy wove its way through Sherwood Forest, my sister keeping an arm round me. Brian, who was the youngest at five years of age, normally a terror and tearabout, sat quietly, saying nothing.”
No one told the evacuees their destination or the names of their temporary foster parents. Some very young children traveled with their mothers, but most -- like the Sillitoes and those whose parents were in the forces, doing essential war work at home, or working to pay the bills -- went with their brothers and sisters, or alone.
The children had baggage labels tied to their clothes with their names and addresses, and carried only a toothbrush, towel, a change of underwear, a gas mask, and a doll or teddy bear. Six hundred thousand of them came from London, and another nine hundred thousand from industrial cities and seaports all over England, and three vulnerable areas of Scotland and Wales. The children came mostly from poor working class families, and few had ever seen the countryside before. It was their poverty that caused some of the biggest problems when they arrived, both for themselves and their host families, who described them as dirty, shabby and unkempt, infested with lice and mites, and infected with skin diseases. In the slums of the big cities, but especially in London’s East End, few houses had bathrooms, and the privy was a dark, damp outhouse in a cramped back yard. Instead of bathing at home, the children were used to being marched once a week to the local bathhouse, where they had to call to an attendant with a bucket for more hot or cold water.
For the middle-class foster families, who had looked forward excitedly to the children’s arrival, the reality came as a shock. They may have expected grubby faces and hands, but they weren’t ready for downright filth, bad behavior, foul language and a complete lack of manners. At the family table they ate like ravenous animals, and ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ didn’t exist in their vocabulary.
Children from better homes and some from the poorest families soon adapted to their new way of life. They learned the importance of cleanliness, settled well in local schools and learned new skills, especially those billeted on farms.
But in many households there were frequent arguments and scenes. Some host families had not expected the cost of feeding, clothing and maintaining their young guests would be so high, and complained that the government's support was inadequate. When their appeals were turned down, they demanded supplementary allowances from the children’s families. Some forced the evacuees (they called them ‘Vacs’) to stay out of the house all day, so they became little more than non-paying bed and breakfast guests. Some stores refused to serve the Vacs, and put up signs announcing that their goods were only for 'registered customers.'
Partly because so many children were made to feel unwelcome in strange surroundings, and also because the expected heavy bombing never came in the first year of the war, nearly half of the evacuees had returned to their homes by the late summer of 1940. But within weeks they were packed off yet again at the beginning of the Battle of Britain that September. Having learned painful lessons from the year before, this time the government arranged for as many children as possible to be checked and treated for nits, vermin or scabies before they left. Also the weekly allowance to host families for an unaccompanied child was increased from nine shillings (75c at the present rate of exchange) to fourteen shillings and ten pence ($1.10). This would probably be worth about $10 to $12 today, and was expected to cover food, accommodation and laundry. A modest allowance for medical care was available from a separate fund.
Of course, there must have been thousands of heart-warming stories about evacuees who found welcoming, loving foster parents, and who became a part of the family, and even lifetime friends. Some certainly stayed on and took jobs when they left school, and married into their adopted community but, tragically, there are many more cases in the archives that tell of intolerance, rejection, physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect and deep unhappiness.
So it's not a happy story, but at least some good came of it. Many of the problems that surfaced during the Evacuation played an important part in drawing public attention to the plight and neglect of the British working class, and helped demonstrate to post-war governments the pressing need for reforms in housing, education, health, and nutrition.
As a result, after all Britons had endured and won the war side by side, much of the traditional snobbery in the workplace and in everyday life at last began to break down, heralding the evolution of a more equal and less class-ridden society.