The evacuated children of the Second World War

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

On the day that this edition of The Moorlander goes on sale across Devon, it’ll be 3rd September, and the anniversary of the day Britain declared war on Germany. The rest, they say, is history.

At the time, there was a fear that German bombing would cause mass civilian deaths and this prompted the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities. The evacuation took place in several waves. The first came on 1st September, 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland and two days before the British declaration of war. Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered to be safe, including many who were sent to Devon.

Evacuation was voluntary, but the fear of bombing, the closure of many urban schools and the organised transportation of school groups helped persuade families to send their children away to live with strangers.
Evacuation was a huge logistical exercise that required thousands of volunteer helpers. The first stage of the process began on 1st September, 1939, and involved teachers, local authority officials, railway staff, and 17,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). The WVS provided practical assistance, looking after tired and apprehensive evacuees at railway stations and providing refreshments in reception areas and billeting halls. Volunteers were also needed to host evacuees.

Children were evacuated from cities across Britain. The children in this photograph are evacuees from Bristol, who arrived at Brent railway station near Kingsbridge in Devon in 1940. Parents were issued with a list detailing what their children should take with them when evacuated.

These items included a gas mask in its case, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat. The children pictured here seem well-equipped for their journey, but many families struggled to provide their children with all of the items listed.

Evacuees and their hosts were often astonished to see how each other lived. Some evacuees flourished in their new surroundings, others endured a miserable time away from home. Many evacuees from inner-city areas had never seen farm animals before or eaten vegetables.

In many instances a child’s upbringing in urban poverty was misinterpreted as parental neglect. Equally, some city dwellers were bored by the countryside, or were even used for tiring agricultural work.

Some evacuees made their own arrangements outside the official scheme if they could afford lodgings in areas regarded as safe, or had friends or family to stay with.

Douglas Andrews was first evacuated from Stamford Hill in North London to Great Shelford near Cambridge, before being evacuated to Oakford in Mid-Devon:

“September 1940. My brother and I were sent off without mother this time. Our journey from Paddington took all day, and I have no memories of the trip. We ended up, however, sitting on the floor of a village school in Oakford in Devon.
‘The local residents came and chose suitable children to stay with them. But no-one, it seemed, wanted a five-year-old and an eight-year-old boy who were determined to stay together. Gradually the numbers dwindled, until finally we were the last two left.

‘We were put into a car and driven around the district until we were firmly deposited with a Mr and Mrs Clark and their two children John and Rosie, who were roughly our ages, at Steps Cottage. Our new life with the Clarks was something of a culture shock. We had arrived in Devon with footwear totally unsuitable for our new way of life.

‘Mrs Clark wasted no time buying us some leather ankle boots. It quickly became apparent that our foster parents were disciplinarians at mealtimes. If you dare reach out for another piece of bread without first saying “Please may I have….”

Failure to do so would result in a sharp rap across the knuckles with the cane Mrs Clark held in her lap.

‘Looking back, I do not think that the Clarks really wanted us and there really was not much room. What we believe persuaded them to take us was the money they were paid each week plus the extra rations.

‘We were not happy under the Clarks’ regime and my brother wrote home to make our parents aware. Matters came to a head when Mrs Clark was taken ill and we were removed from her care at short notice. This must have been the winter of 1940.

‘My brother tells me we passed through several addresses before we were moved to Mr and Mrs Bastow (Bert and Maud) and their grown-up son called Fred at Pincombe Farm, outside Oakford. The Bastows were lovely people, very welcoming and open hearted.

‘There was an outside toilet, on the far end of the farmhouse, situated very handily over a stream, (no flushing cistern necessary), and the door had a large gap both top and bottom. Our stay at Pincombe Farm was only ever intended to be a temporary one and was all too soon over.

‘We were moved once more to Frederick Coles, his wife Clara and their daughter Dorothy (34 years old), Manor Farm, Oakford. On one of our mother’s first visits to us at Manor Farm she was aghast at the fact that although we had been issued with a third of a pint of fresh milk every day at our London School, this was not the case in Devon.

‘Mum created a fuss with the local educational authorities and this facility was introduced and thereafter it was my task to go to school every day carrying two metal cans full of the stuff for my schoolmates. I can still feel the wire handles cutting into my fingers.

‘The Coles family was a self-supporting unit. Clara was the matriarch, in total control of the house and meals. Dorothy had been professionally trained at a dairy college and was responsible for all aspects of the poultry and dairy produce. Her father in overall command of the farm and there was one farm hand in full employment.

‘One job a six-year-old could be of real use to Dorothy, was in collecting the eggs from the henhouses, at the same time feeding and watering the birds. I was despatched to bring the cows for morning milking.

‘Only when I was almost upon them would they start to form up one behind the other, there is an established pecking order amongst cows and an order of seniority and woe betide any cow which tried to usurp another’s position. I would follow behind them.

‘The lead animal would turn up the yard by which time Mr Coles, Dorothy and Stan would have the cowshed open.”

Additional rounds of official evacuation occurred nationwide in the summer and autumn of 1940, following the German invasion of France in May-June and the beginning of the Blitz in September. Evacuation was voluntary and many children remained in the cities. Some stayed to help, care for or support their families.

Doris recalls her evacuation from Barnes in London to Dittisham: “We travelled through miles and miles of countryside and we had no idea where we were going. The journey (it was over 300 miles) took all day and we were getting further and further from home. Some children were sent abroad to Canada and America and even New Zealand, but some of the ships carrying the evacuees were sunk by the enemy and many children were drowned, so that arrangement was stopped as it was too dangerous.

‘At last, the train reached its destination and we were put into some coaches and driven through the country lanes to a very pretty village called Dittisham on the River Dart in Devon.

‘We got off the coaches and went into the schoolroom to wait until we were taken to our new homes. The children went off one by one with the people who were going to look after them but Joyce and I waited — and waited — and waited. It seemed as though nobody wanted to take us in.

‘When we were almost giving up hope, a lady arrived and we watched Miss Mobsby talking to her, telling her about us. She was almost the last person to come as the villagers had been told to come in alphabetical order and her name began with a T. She was called Mrs Tozer. She had come to collect one boy but I think that the sight of two woebegone little girls was too much for her and she took us home.

‘We had lemonade and biscuits and then went to find the lady’s husband who was down by the river painting his boat. She had to tell him that instead of one boy they thought they would have, she had brought home two girls. But he didn’t seem to mind as they had no children of their own.

‘So began our happiest childhood years in spite of the war. We entered into the life of the village and made friends with the village children — friends that we still have today. We joined the church choir and took part in concerts in the village hall and attended the village school.

‘Not all evacuees were as lucky as we were. Some were not treated so kindly. We heard later that one girl in our group was treated just like a servant and was not even allowed to have meals with the family. She had to eat all on her own and must have been very unhappy.”

The experiences of children in reception areas, which were mostly rural communities, were varied and have been subject to much debate among historians.

For some, living in a rural setting was an unparalleled adventure, which was enjoyed and remembered fondly; they met people with whom they retained contact for the rest of their lives. Others suffered at the hands of cruel or indifferent hosts.

For the hosts, some were appalled at the children’s health and personal hygiene. Lice and enuresis (bed-wetting) were seen by some as symptoms of neglect, poor mothering and even ‘problem families’ in working-class communities.

But as Richard Titmuss, the official historian of the wartime social services argued, the ‘louse is not a political creature’ and the apparent infestation of urban children might well have originated in the evacuation taking place during the school holidays and aggravated by travelling conditions, rather than just due to societal factors.

Bed wetting also might have originated in the psychological shock of moving. Prejudice might have played a role in the circulation of these stories, which were sometimes exaggerated by the popular press.

The return of evacuees was approved on June 1945, but some began returning as early as 1944. The evacuation was officially ended in March 1946.

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