Bombs were dropped on London and other cities during World War One.
In August 1938, as the likelihood of another war approached, the British people feared explosives, fire and gas attacks. Plans were made by the British Government to move 2 million civilians, mostly children, to the relative safety of the countryside.
Walter Elliot, Minister of Health described these plans as ‘an exodus bigger than that of Moses. It is the movement of ten armies, all of which are as large as the British Expeditionary Force.’
News films in British cinemas showed vivid images of the effects of bombing Madrid during Spain’s Civil War. Picasso’s famous painting of Guernica highlighted the misery.
Schools were identified as an efficient communication and organisational channel. The evacuation was to be voluntary but encouraged. Children would want to be with their school friends and teachers already knew their pupils. School playgrounds provided ideal muster stations, rehearsals could be had, and information quickly given to parents.
In January 1938 the Women’s Voluntary Service and Women’s Institute helped identify 5 million probable homes for evacuees.
The planned evacuation in September 1938 of 2 million London school children was stopped at the last minute, when the Munich Peace Agreement was signed. Only 4,000 children were evacuated for six days, which provided an opportunity to reflect and learn from mistakes.
The country was divided into three types of areas. Evacuation, Reception and Neutral. Most likely, least likely and unlikely to be bombed.
In July 1939 all households were given a government leaflet ‘Evacuation – How and why?’ 3 million people were expected to be evacuated.
Children under 5 could be accompanied by their mother, younger children could go with their older brother’s and sister’s schools keeping the family together.
In August 1939 enough food for 4 million people was distributed to the reception areas. There would be no shortage of food.
On August 24th 1939 a BBC broadcast told all teachers in evacuation areas to return to their schools on the morning of August 28th. On this day rehearsals took place in most schools. The Cabinet announced that Friday September 1st was to be evacuation day. In London trains left every 9 minutes. Only one third of the expected 2 million departed as a result of mothers changing their mind at the last minute, often at the station. In Leeds over 40,000 school children started a new life that day. Old rolling stock was used for the trains making conditions cramped. As a result head lice spread. Medical checks before departure had not been made. A journey that normally took an hour might take 5 or 6 as express trains were given priority. Hours were spent I sidings. This did give some children the change to go to the toilet on the gravel.
At the reception station, guides and scouts often met the evacuees, handing over toys and games to make them feel welcome.
Back in the cities the RSPCA reported large numbers of school pets, including rabbits and guinea pigs, being sent to them.
Many evacuees had left their parents and homes for the first time. Some had never left their hometown before. Living in a posh or poor house was quite a contrast to their normal lives. In some places there was no running water or electricity. The quiet of some places, especially at night, could be unnerving. Strange food included hot pot and pasties. Regional accents proved difficult to understand.
Each ‘foster home’ was given 10s 6d each week to provide food, lodging and ‘all the care necessary to give a child a home’. Medical expenses were to be paid for by the local authority. It was still the parent’s responsibility to buy clothes.
As a result of such difficulties and the non-appearance of the expected bombings a trickle of children started to return home. The trickle soon became a flood. The government printed posters saying ‘Don’t do it Mother –leave the children where they are’. By Christmas 1939 more than half the evacuees had returned home.
In Spring 1940 the threat of a German invasion on the South and South East Coasts looked real. Some evacuees were moved further inland.
Evacuation continued throughout the war, more irregularly, on a much smaller scale.
End of War
On September 7th 1945 evacuation officially ended. Evacuees returned home leaving behind their new family and friends. Some children had spent most of the lives away from home. As a result of bombing some did not have a family of home to return to. Some had reached the age of 14 and were ready to start work.