What might be some problems about children being sent from cities to the countryside?
• Children had never been to the countryside before
• Children had never seen real livestock (cows, pigs, hens etc) before
• Children might have had indoor toilets at home, but in the country, the facilities were often
at the end of the garden and were basically a hole in the ground …
• Children might not know the local dialect and might not understand what the local people
• Children might get cruel people to stay with
• Children might get people who expected them to work hard
And many more.
Also, many children were sent abroad, not just to the countryside.
For some children it was a brilliant experience, but for some, it was a bad time. Some were, for the first time, living a good life with lots of good fresh food; some were expected to work all day (say on a farm) although each local person was paid to take the children.
Some children were abused either physically or sexually; there was nothing to be done.
Yet, evacuation was not compulsory and some parents were understandably reluctant to take part, despite propaganda posters which encouraged co-operation. For those parents who did co-operate it would be a nervous wait of several days to find out where their children had gone with notification coming via a postcard through the mail.
It was one thing to remove children from at-risk areas, but it was another to find somewhere for them to go. Various options were discussed, with civilians generally preferring the option of camps to be set up and supervised by teachers, but government ministers instead decided to use private billets. It became compulsory for homes to host assigned evacuees, with host families being paid 10 shillings and sixpence (53p; equivalent to £26 today) for the first
unaccompanied child, and 8 shillings and sixpence for any subsequent children.
Places were assessed in terms of accommodation available rather than suitability or the hosts’ inclination for raising children. This could lead to resentment of those who would be forced to care for children against their will, compounded with that many children did not want to be there in the first place and tried to run away. This problem was particularly prevalent in the lower-class families, as wealthier families often had relatives or school friends in the country to take in their children, rather than relying on strangers.
Obviously, parents and children often missed each other. In the ‘Phoney War’ that followed the start of the Second World War, Hitler was not ready for a full-scale attack on Britain and France. This meant uneventful months passed, giving a false sense of safety, so many children began to come back. Despite warnings by the Minister of Health, nearly half of all evacuees had returned to their homes by Christmas. But, when France fell in June 1940, Britain became the next target and the Blitzkrieg began.
What was ‘the Phoney War’?
This was the time between war being declared (September 3rd 1939) and the first attacks by Germany on the British mainland (April 1940).
The government had to keep reminding parents to keep their children away and remind them what they were fighting for - even on the Home Front.
Here are a couple of posters used to try to persuade parents to keep their children away.
And then the war started in England fully. Cities such as London, Coventry, Birmingham,
Swansea, Plymouth and Sheffield were pounded mercilessly and evacuation became a policy grounded in reality. The south coast of England was also quickly changed from a Reception area to an Evacuation area due to the threat of invasion and so 200,000 children were evacuated (or re-evacuated) to safer locations. This ‘trickle’ evacuation continued until the end of 1941, but even after the Blitz ended, danger remained.
We do not look at the Blitzes in much detail because that’s a whole subject in itself. Here, though, are some pictures:
Air attacks continued sporadically, then in 1944 an entirely new threat arrived in the form of Hitler’s V-1 flying bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles. This began Operation Rivulet, the final major evacuation of the war. Running between July and September 1944 more than a million people moved out of danger zones.
To try and ease the blow of being separated from their parents, a special song was written for children in 1939 by Gaby Rogers and Harry Philips, entitled ‘Goodnight Children Everywhere’ and broadcast every night by the BBC:
Goodnight Children Everywhere
Sleepy little eyes in a sleepy little head,
Sleepy time is drawing near.
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.
Not only are those the words but here’s the actual song!
You also have to remember that not all children were evacuated in the first place. Evacuation was a voluntary process and, while blackouts, gas masks and other wartime changes were accepted, many parents refused to part with their children during the war. Parents’ concerns were not helped by the fact that the government could often not even tell them where their children would be going, and so only about 47 per cent of children were actually evacuated in the initial wave. Just under half of children in the danger areas.
It didn’t help at all that the Phoney War happened, when there was no action against the British mainland by Germany. Parents who had sent their children away wondered why they had gone through all the hassle and upset, the loneliness and even the long journeys to visit the children once they had arrived. Many brought their children back home.
And then, as mentioned above, the war proper started and suddenly parents wanted to get the children out of the danger areas. And of course they were allowed to go, the government helped.
This evacuation seems generally to give the impression that it was not very nice, generally, but in fact, although there were bad times for some children, for most of the evacuated children (and mothers etc) these were fantastic times. Here again are some pictures:
For some children, it was the first time they had seen more grass than a tiny front or back garden (if they were lucky); many reported being amazed at the size of a cow. They’d only seen farmyard toys before and thought that a cow was a pretty small animal. For many of the children, apples came from a shop - in the countryside they were stunned to see many apples having on trees! The sights, smells and sounds were totally new to many of the children - if they came from cities then they were perfectly used to buses coming along every few minutes, but in the country, one bus a week was often the case. They were used to houses being connected to each other (terraced houses) but in the country, houses, although really tiny, often, were set in their own gardens and ‘next door’ night be a hundred metres away.
When the war finished, coming home was often joyous, a reunion with families and their own cities, the places the played and the schools they had disliked but which added to the sense of ‘home’.
Unfortunately, many city children returned to different areas.
Why might that be?
Because their homes and areas had been destroyed by the bombing of the Germans.
Not only that but there were many cases where the children arrived back home, four or even five years older, with changed minds and changed attitudes. The parents often expected that the children would be more or less the same as they had when they were evacuated (except for being older of course) but they didn’t expect the changes in the way their own children thought and acted.
As you know, your thoughts and minds change a lot between being about 9 and about 14, and this led to conflict between mothers and children; not only that but slowly fathers came home too, after being released from the forces.
Quite a lot of children, far from being happy to be back home, found that they were very unhappy - gone were the open fields, the cozy farmhouses or the comfy cottages they had been living in for the last few years. Gone was the clean air and the more plentiful food - berries from hedgerows, fallen apples and fruit, actually seeing real-life animals.
Arriving back in a tiny house in a crowded city, polluted, constantly noisy and often with many bomb-sites just wasn’t what they expected. Their friends had often been sent to other evacuation areas, and they had made new friends in the places to which they had been evacuated.
But, without Operation Pied Piper, many more people would have been killed in the blitzes on cities in England - one bombed house might have a mother inside, and maybe a grandmother too, but not an extra 2 or 3 children.
More than two and a half million children were evacuated, and many from the other evacuation groups too. It wasn’t just that they had to leave the danger areas - after all, most people travelled on some sort of excursions (one-day trips) or even holidays and that wasn’t a problem.
So what was the other type of problem?
When children went away, and came back again, and the times in between, it was emotional. It could be exhilarating or upsetting, an adventure or something scary.
These emotions, especially the negative ones, were just as much ‘sacrifices’ as were men joining the forces or women working long hours in factories.