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An extract from Norman Longmate: How we Lived Then - A history of everyday life during the Second World War (1971): published by Pimlico ISBN 0 09 908080 x

(used by permission of  The Random House Group Limited)




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Enthusiasm to host an evacuee.  Setting off.  Sadness and apprehension.  The journey.  Arrival. 

The 'slave market'.  Generally successful.  Poor families.  Failures – enuresis.  Verminous children. 

Swearing.  Clothing.  Dishonesty.  Diet.  Widening horizons.  Jealousy.  Adults. 

Going home.  Later evacuations.  The end of evacuation.




‘Some children may try your patience by wetting their beds, but do not scold or punish; as this will only make matters worse.’

W.V.S.  leaflet, Information for Householders Taking Evacuees.  July 1944




For hundreds of thousands of families the war began, not with the blackout at sunset on Friday 1st September, but before sunrise.  The start of evacuation had been announced on the radio the day before and in the residential streets of the great cities soon after dawn mothers were packing into small cases the garments lovingly cleaned and pressed over the last few days.  A Jewish mother in Clapton, East London, remembers the ‘terrible task’ of waking her two small daughters at 5.30 in the morning and the tears of the eight-year-old; her sister, a year older, took it well.  An hour or two later, as the children marched off with their school their parents watched, stunned, wondering if they would ever see them again.  That Friday morning, in an equal number of other homes in quieter parts of the country, other women, almost as deeply moved, were beginning their very different preparations, dusting out the spare room or looking out their own children’s discarded toys. 


The government had decided that evacuation should be voluntary but that billeting should, if necessary, be compulsory.  Although few people wanted to accommodate adults, there was, in 1939, little difficulty in finding foster-homes for children.  The woman M.P.  who told of women in moorland villages in Durham ‘who went home weeping because they had not had a child allocated to them’, the male M.P.  who described seeing ‘a regular fight’ on the platform of a North Wales station as two would-be hosts competed for the privilege of taking in two small boys from Liverpool, were not exaggerating.  The arrival of the evacuees at Luton was typical.  The first arrivals, from Walthamstow, that Friday found the Mayor, the Town Clerk and the Chief Constable waiting at the L.M.S.  station to welcome them, while as the first party of four hundred mothers and children from the East End walked down the streets the Luton housewives poured out of their front doors to carry the mothers’ luggage and to press cups of milk upon the children. 

Enthusiasm to host an evacuee

Many schools had been assembling the children every morning for the past week to keep them together, and one helper at a North London infant and junior school believes she will never get out of her ears the chorus of Ten Green Bottles, sung by hundreds of five-to twelve-year-olds as they sat on the floor of the school hall during these days of waiting.  The departure when it actually came was, by universal agreement, a model of efficiency.  Usually the children were mustered in the playground, parents being asked to stay outside, then each school set off for the station led by a ‘marked man’, often the caretaker, carrying a placard giving its name and reference number.  The effort involved was prodigious.  Seventy-two London transport stations were involved, and in four days the main-line railway companies carried more than 1,300,000 official evacuees, in nearly 4,000 special trains.  The famous red London buses were also busy, transporting nearly 230,000 passengers to London stations or to their wartime homes.  Some bus-drivers went for thirty-six hours without sleep, while a teacher visiting an L.C.C.  education office in North London was shocked to find the usually immaculate staff ‘absolutely exhausted, working round the clock in shirt sleeves and unshaved’. 

Setting off

The hardest burden of all that day fell on the parents and many comforted themselves with small details, like the fact that their daughter looked proud of her new gas mask case, or their son seemed thrilled to have secured his favourite front seat upstairs on the bus.  A teacher who escorted an Islington school to Northampton remembers one six-year-old girl innocently asking, ‘Why are some mummies crying?’, and being satisfied with the explanation, ‘Because they can’t come on holiday with us too.’ The escorting teachers were more apprehensive, for none, apart from schools which had made their own arrangements in advance, knew where they were going until they arrived… In villages round Charing, Kent, the authorities were nonplussed when six hundred girls and staff of the Mary Datchelor School descended upon them, they had expected seven elementary schools.  The headmistress saw her pupils disperse ‘in drizzling rain and gathering gloom to their unknown villages’; it was not for a fortnight that they were reunited in Ashford, and not for some time after that that the last four girls were finally located. 

Sadness and apprehension

The railways were during these days crowded with military traffic and most journeys, as well as being mysterious, were extremely slow.  A Liverpool teacher, travelling with ninety children who had assembled at 10 a.m., found that they did not reach their destination, Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, until 7.30 p.m.  A London woman felt hours after joining a train at Vauxhall that they must be at least in Devon, and was highly disappointed to realise that they were being unloaded in Reading, only forty miles away.  But the slow journey did provide an opportunity for many teachers, travelling with strange schools, to get to know their new pupils.  One woman escorting an Islington Roman Catholic school was astounded at their poverty; most lacked suitcases and had brought their scanty spare clothing with them in pillow slips and cushion covers.  A master travelling with a Liverpool school was equally shocked by his boys’ ignorance of the countryside.  They enlivened the journey by arguing whether the animals to be seen from the train were pigs or sheep. 

The journey

Many unfortunate children and escorts travelled in non-corridor coaches and arrived damp, soiled or, at best, uncomfortable.  In at least one case the lack of a lavatory decided the destination of the train.  Part of a West Ham school, travelling to Somerset, rebelled halfway and were instead unloaded at Wantage. 


The protracted journey had another unforeseen result; some of the children, more from boredom than unhappiness, passed the time writing pathetic messages on the printed, franked postcards issued to them to notify their new address.  ‘Dear Mam, I want to come home.  Pleas come and tack us home’, reads one surviving card, duly delivered next morning to a Liverpool mother.  Only the postmark enlightened Mam as to her children’s whereabouts.  The writer had forgotten to include his address.  ‘Dear Mum, I hope you are well’, ran another card.  ‘I don’t like the man’s face.  I don’t like the lady’s face much.  Perhaps it will look better in daylight.  I like the dog’s face best.’


Bus journeys, though shorter, presented a different problem.  An eleven-year-old Gravesend girl travelling to Sudbury in Suffolk remembers that the whole bus load were sick…


Few people who witnessed it have forgotten the arrival of the evacuees.  I can vividly remember the crocodile of small children, laden with cases and gas masks, filing out of Newbury station and walking two by two up the road to the reception centre at the nearby council school.  Some carried buckets and spades, for, to ease the pain of parting, their mothers had assured them that they were going to the seaside. 


Many people still have bitter memories of the ‘slave market’, at which they were allocated to foster-parents – in one Lincolnshire town the cattle market was actually used as a distribution centre.  A couple who took eighty children from Wembley to a village near Chard in Somerset noticed how the largest were immediately chosen by farmers needing unpaid help, the smallest being left to last.  A thirteen-year-old Girl Guide in the village of High Broome, near Tunbridge Wells, noticed that smartly dressed little girls were soon ‘spoken for’, but ‘a small tousled-haired boy, trousers too big, socks round his ankles, threadbare shirt and jacket and a small paper parcel of his belongings tied to his gas mask case’, remained unclaimed for a long time. 

The 'slave market'

The ‘slave market’ method at least avoided the sad trudge from door to door in search of a welcoming home.  An Islington teacher was moved by the sight of a five-year-old girl, who had kept cheerful all day, finally sinking down on the kerb of a Northampton street in tears, and not even being consoled by the bar of chocolate in her bag.  Before long, however, ‘that lost feeling was cuddled away by the warm-hearted "aunt"‘.  Visiting her charges later that evening, the same teacher found them all happily tucked up in bed. 


This was the general experience.  The nation’s mothers revealed on the 1st September 1939, and the days immediately following it, a warmth and good nature towards other people’s children that many of their guests still recall with affection nearly thirty years later.  The inevitable childish accidents were accepted with exemplary patience.  The daughter-in-law of a Yorkshire country vicar, then aged sixteen, recalls the arrival of two small girls, aged eleven and seven, from Sunderland.  They were very clean and well-behaved – ‘especially selected for the Vicarage’, she suspects – but the excitement, or the contrast between the vicarage food and their usual diet of pie and chips and bread and jam, proved too much for the younger one, who was immediately sick on the dining-room carpet.  Both soon improved enormously in health and became much-loved members of the family, keeping in touch until they married. 

Generally successful

Placings with unmarried women were often surprisingly successful.  At Combe Raleigh, Devon, one billeting officer placed, with some misgivings, a three-year-old toddler with three elderly maiden ladies.  On arrival he stood solemnly gazing round at his new home with tears pouring down his cheeks and announced: ‘My name is Robert; I am a big boy and I don’t cry – well, not often.’ Within a few months he was idolised by the whole household and when his mother eventually came to see him she was horrified when at bedtime he knelt down and prayed: ‘O God, don’t let this woman take me away; she says she’s my mother, but I want to stay here with my aunties.’


Since the poorest families were least able to make private arrangements for their families, the evacuees included an exceptionally large number of ragged and neglected children.  A Dorset woman, then aged seventeen, remembers going with her mother to collect two evacuees from the railway waiting room at Sherborne at ten o’clock on a wet, cold, dark night.  The two little sisters, aged five and seven, whom they took home were cold, frightened and crying and, once in the light, proved also to be filthy and in rags.  When they took the children to the bathroom, they were greeted with hysterics, the girls imagining that they were about to be drowned.  Next morning, their hostess, by no means well-off, bought them both a completely new outfit and the children became contented members of the family, particularly delighting in frequent baths.  When, a year later, they were finally removed after the government had begun to press the parents for a contribution to their support, ‘I do not know who cried most, us or the children’, their hostess recalls. 

Poor families

There were many such successes, but, understandably, it was the failures which made the headlines.  The commonest complaint was of bed-wetting.  A leading article in The Lancet remarked that, ‘Somewhat unexpectedly enuresis has proved to be one of the major menaces to the comfortable disposition of evacuated urban children.  .  .  .  Every morning every window is filled with bedding, hung out to air in the sunshine.’ Official estimates of the number of children afflicted varied from 4 to 33 per cent and the constant washing of bedding soon represented a serious burden on many a housewife.  Ministers drawn from a world where laundry was left to the servants were slow to act.  It was not for months that hostels were opened for incurable bed-wetters and not until June 1940 that a modest allowance, of around three-and-sixpence a week, was approved for householders with enuretic evacuees. 

Failures – enuresis

Even more widespread than wet beds were vermin-infested heads.  In parts of Wales, half the evacuees from Merseyside had heads crawling with lice, and rural Scotland, suffering an invasion from Glasgow, had a similar experience.  In part of Wigtown, in Scotland, the medical officer, aided by three detachments of V.A.D.s, resourcefully bought up all the hair clippers in sight and cut the hair of every mother and child in a particularly verminous detachment of Glaswegians.  One aristocratic hostess was said to have driven her evacuees through the sheep dip…

Verminous children

Many evacuees, too, came from homes where no sentence was complete without a swear word.  One teacher remembers a two-year-old boy scandalising a Cambridgeshire village by leaning from a front window shouting words never heard there from such tender lips before.  ‘He said F’, an outraged woman reported to her.  A W.V.S.  Billeting Officer in Cornwall had to cope with an angel-faced five-year-old from an Irish docker’s family in the East End of London who electrified a respectable farmer’s family by casually remarking when she dropped a fork, ‘Blast the f–ing b–!’ When reproved she retorted, ‘I’ll tell my dad about you and he’ll come and knock your bleeding block off.’


Another common complaint was of the inadequate and unsuitable clothes in which many children had been sent away.  Some had been sewn into their clothes for the winter or encased in a layer of brown paper near the skin as a substitute for warm underclothes.  A nurse living in the Rhondda was surprised on preparing to give her five-year-old evacuee a bath to be told by his mother, ‘Bill don’t want a bath, as I’ve plastered him up for the winter.’…


To some unlucky foster-parents it began to seem in those first, disillusioning weeks that life in the back streets of London and other large towns could hardly have changed since Dickensian times.  It was, perhaps, the beginning of that great movement of opinion towards social reform that was to gather momentum throughout the war.  At the time, however, the predominant emotion was horror.  Soon everyone in the reception areas had an evacuee story, just as later everyone in the blitzed cities had a bomb story… In Blaenavon in Monmouthshire two small girl evacuees caused great amusement by asking their hosts as they prepared to go out for a walk on the first evening if, like mum and dad, they were going out to get drunk.  The sober Welsh couple caring for them there were less amused on their return home; the girls had stripped the wallpaper from the wall, explaining that their mother always did this in a new house to see if there were bugs behind it.  A small boy in Oxford astonished the two respectable elderly ladies who had taken him in by helpfully remarking after supper that he would put himself to bed, ‘so you two old geezers can get off to the boozer’. 


More serious was the dishonesty in which some parents had deliberately trained their children.  A Mansfield hostess was shattered, when taking her ten-year-old evacuee shopping for embroidery silks in Woolworths, to have a handful dropped into her basket, with the explanation, ‘That’s the way you do shopping, buy one or two, drop them when the assistant gets your change, then grab a handful.’ Another evacuee, sent shopping in Eastbourne, returned proudly with both goods and money; he had stolen everything on his list.  A third fried his hosts’ tropical goldfish, worth £25, to eat. 


The restricted diet of many children from the cities was also a revelation to their hosts.  In Eastbourne many children firmly refused chicken, demanding their usual fish and chips instead.  A Dorchester woman’s chief memory of evacuees is of their sitting on the well-scrubbed door-steps of this respectable town eating fish and chips from newspaper… A Liverpool teacher accommodated two brothers who, never having seen an egg before, attempted to eat one shell and all…


The coming of the evacuees widened horizons in other ways also.  A sixteen-year-old Hereford girl remembers admiring the newcomers, because they were independent of their parents and had come from the sophisticated big city.  The children in a Northamptonshire village were, one then aged ten remembers, very impressed by a senior girl’s school from Clapton.  ‘They knew about film-stars, shops and clothes .  .  They taught us rhymes .  .  .  and to yodel in a peculiar way that the adults called cat-calling and annoyed them intensely.’…

Widening horizons

Only occasionally did jealousy blossom between hosts and guests.  One six-year-old girl in Sussex caused great embarrassment to her parents by remarking of their twelve-year-old evacuees: ‘You like that one better, but I prefer this one!’ She consolidated her unpopularity with the two girls by ‘splitting’ on them to her mother, a strict sabbatarian, for playing tennis in the garden one Sunday evening… In one Lancashire house-hold there were bitter quarrels between the ten-year-old daughter of the house and a girl evacuee of the same age.  When the evacuee spilled her tea her hostesses daughter sneered, ‘You ought to live with pigs’, to which the evacuee smartly riposted, ‘Oh, but I do now’. 


Although many evacuated children took jobs locally on leaving school the majority never adjusted very enthusiastically to rural life.  The then headmistress of the Mary Datchelor Girl’s Grammar School, evacuated from Camberwell to Kent and then, in 1940, to South Wales, was amused that as the coach loads of girls drove through the streets of the industrial town of Llanelly they greeted with cheers such signs of civilisation as cinemas and Woolworths.  A woman living in the Dorset village of Piddletrenthide noted that the ‘vacs’ from a Southampton school asked immediately where these essential amenities were, and on finding them missing, went home again in six weeks.  Even those who had spent nights on end in shelters, neglected by working mothers, pleaded to return, preferring raid-smitten Southampton to the quiet of village life. 


With some obvious exceptions, children were in general welcome, at least in 1939, but few hosts wanted adults to share their homes.  A Suffolk head teacher remembers that it was a great deal easier to find homes for the fifty children who flooded into her village school in 1939 than for their four teachers.  Much of this reluctance to accept teachers as lodgers was unjustified but, as with children, a few unreasonable teachers could give a whole school a bad name.  A woman at Saxmundham, Suffolk, did her best to be welcoming to the guardian of one contingent of ten evacuees from Birmingham, aged from four to fourteen, ‘a short, aggressive elderly Yorkshire female, who was so outspoken and demanding that we reckoned anyone so unpleasant must be dead honest and conceal a heart of gold.  We were’, she acknowledges, ‘no judge of human nature, as she started by eating all the evacuees’ bacon ration to keep up her strength, and ended by stealing blankets from our Austrian refugees.’


Expectant mothers were even less welcome than teachers… Even less welcome than expectant mothers were women with small children.  About 524,000 mothers with infants under five were evacuated in I939, but so decisively did the scheme fail – by January 1940 only 65,000 remained away – that it was never attempted on any large scale again.  As with the children of school age, a few slovenly or dishonest mothers were enough to give them all a bad name and, since many such parties arrived at places which were not expecting them, relations were often strained from the start… While many wartime children still have happy memories of their foster parents, very few evacuated mothers recall their hosts with anything except distaste… This evacuees’ eye-view differs little from the recollections of hosts…


Few stayed long.  Some women, after one horrified look at the empty fields around them, simply crossed over on to the departure platform.  A Billeting Officer in a Somerset village remembers one such mother being appalled to learn that the single train that day had already gone.  But the prize for the shortest stay on record must surely go to a Southampton mother who, on reaching the Dorset village of Netherbury, refused even to get out of the bus and returned with it…


Long before Christmas 1939 the great drift homewards was well under way.  The death blow to the largest and most successful scheme, that for unaccompanied children, was inflicted by the government itself, which, as it had all along intended, began from the end of October to demand a contribution from parents to help support their evacuated children.  The amounts involved were less than the official billeting allowance of 10s.6d. for one child, 8s.6d. each for more than one, for six shillings a child would, it was announced, be accepted in full settlement, but the scheme proved literally more trouble than it was worth, burdening hard-pressed officials with an enormous amount of extra work and yielding only a trivial financial return.  In innumerable cases it tipped the scale in deciding parents to bring their children home… By the 8th January 1940, 900,000 of the nearly one-and-a-half million adults and children evacuated in September I939 had gone home.   In London and Liverpool only a third of all children were still away, in Glasgow and Birmingham only a tenth, in Sheffield, Derby and Coventry even fewer.  By May 1940, when the whole war situation changed, an evacuee in many country towns and villages had again become a rare sight.  In the danger areas, despite a new publicity campaign, only one family in five registered their children for evacuation if heavy raids began.  In the reception areas, only one householder in fifty now volunteered to take in evacuees, despite such improvements as medical inspection of children before they left and a far more generous provision of all the items suggested by experience, from hostels for difficult children to mackintosh sheets. 

Going home

Such arrangements help to explain why later evacuations, though affecting overall far more people than the first great flight of 1939? caused much less disturbance and are less remembered.  From May 1940, with the growing threat of invasion, the government began to clear school-children from a belt ten miles inland from Norfolk to Sussex, and in the next few months there was a similar movement of children from supposedly dangerous towns, from Hull to Portsmouth, and from London and the Thames-side towns.  Although owing to pressure on the railways schools were sometimes split up, there was less confusion than in 1939, though altogether some 213,000 children were moved.  After the previous failure no attempt was made compulsorily to billet mothers with young children, the government relying largely on ‘assisted private evacuation’, described in the next chapter.  By autumn 1940 about 56,000 mothers and children from the coastal areas had been officially billeted in reception areas, while another 328,000 people, of both sexes and all ages, had moved under their own arrangements. 

Later evacuations

After the start of the London blitz in September 1940, the government operated a ‘trickle’ scheme under which small parties, mainly of mothers and small children, and homeless people, left London each week.  By now the early goodwill had evaporated and evacuees were unfashionable, so that few jobs needed a tougher skin than that of Billeting Officer.  A woman who took on this ‘most hated job’ in Chertsey still regards the district with real bitterness.  ‘There was a terrible lot of "old pals association", where voluntary billeting had first been accomplished,’ she remembers, ‘so that small slum houses were overcrowded but big wealthy houses left untouched.  The average "life" of a Billeting Officer was six months .  .  .  One had no support from the locals and very little from the Ministry.  Laws were ambiguous and impossible to enforce.  I could have papered my walls with the doctors’ certificates I received immediately I sent out a compulsory billeting notice.’…


By 1944 most people in the reception areas were war-weary and unwillingness to accept evacuees had become even more pronounced, when in June there occurred the fourth and last great wave of evacuation as the flying bombs clattered over southern England and on to London.  In the next few weeks nearly a million adults and children left the capital, 552,000 of them under officially-assisted private arrangements, the rest in organised parties.  This included many small children whose mothers could not go with them, but even these poor, frightened infants could not rekindle the old enthusiasms of 1939’ A woman shop-owner remembers that though the first children to arrive in Morecambe from the V.I raids were ‘complete nervous wrecks with pale faces and blinking eyes’, the local Billeting Officers had considerable difficulty in finding them homes. 


The government rather rashly announced the end of official evacuation on 7th September 1944, the day before the first V.2 rocket fell on London, but even these new attacks failed to halt the steady return to the cities, which reached its peak during the autumn of 1944’ One after another from September onwards the former danger districts were proclaimed ‘go home’ areas, until by the end of the year only Hull and London were not yet considered safe.  Their turn finally came on 2nd May 1945, six days before the European war ended, but it was to be nearly another year before the evacuation scheme was officially wound up.  Few, it must be acknowledged, mourned its end. 

The end of evacuation