Chapter 3: Preparations: Evacuation
The preceding two chapters have attempted to explain the starting point of the Government’s preparations for a variety of emergency social services. This chapter concentrates attention on the progress of preparations for an evacuation scheme in the event of a war which might open with the bombing of London and other centres of population.
The idea of evacuation, of a planned and orderly transfer of people from vulnerable cities to safer areas in the country, grew out of contemporary theories about the character of a future war. It was regarded simply and solely as a military expedient, a counter-move to the enemy’s objective of attack and demoralising the civilian population. The Government thought that a large exodus from London and other cities was inevitable; panic would send the people out and unless the Government took firm control chaos and confusion were bound to ensue.
It was in the spirit that the first committee1 set up to consider the problem approached its task. This was in 1931, after some intermittent discussion by the Committee of Imperial Defence between 1924 and 1929. In its deliberations, the question was viewed not as a flight. This led to the assumption that the police were the appropriate organisation to control evacuation, and to the suggestion that the force should be enlarged and a cordon thrown around London.
So convinced was the committee that ‘a disorderly general flight’ would take place that it felt it could not carry its study further until a decision had been reached on ‘how control of the population was to be exercised’. To enable the committee to continue its work it was agreed—after consultations with the Commissioner of Police and the Home Office—that a scheme should be prepared on the assumption of police control.
While the committee was sitting, arrangements were being made by the Committee of Imperial Defence for work on the preparation of a plan for the passive defence of London against air attack. At the same time, the secretary of the Air Raid Precautions (Organisation) Sub-Committee (Wing Commander E. J. Hodsoll) was compiling a detailed handbook covering every aspect of civil defence. By 1933, therefore, evacuation was being studied not simply in isolation, but
as part of an integrated system of civil defence.2 In November 1932, Mr. Baldwin informed the House of Commons that this work was going on. ‘I will not pretend’, he said, ‘that we are not taking our precautions in this country. We have done it. We have made our investigations, much more quietly and hitherto without any publicity, but considering the years that are required to make your preparations, any Government of this country in the present circumstances of the world would have been guilty of criminal negligence had they neglected to make their preparations.’3
In June 1933 the air raid precautions handbook was presented in draft to the Organisation sub-committee; a few months later the London passive defence plan was completed, and in June 1934 the Evacuation sub-committee completed its report. None of these documents questioned the need for evacuation from London. They assumed, without argument, that dispersal on a large scale would take place. Once the Government had accepted this fact, it only remained, according to these report, for agreement to be reached on many practical issues.
The first attempt to translate the principle of evacuation into detailed plans resulted in a comprehensive report. Railway timetables were worked out—a lengthy and complicated process—and the cost to the Government of an extensive measure of evacuation was computed to be in the neighbourhood of £920,000 a week. The report concluded that some 3,500,000 persons living in inner London, or approximately seventy-five percent of the population, would require to be evacuated. It proposed that control should be exercised by the police, that evacuation should be voluntary, that complete families—fathers, mothers and children—should wherever possible move together, and that all these persons should be accommodated in billets within fifty miles from London.4
In this scheme, almost all the attention was focused on arrangements for an orderly exodus from London. Less attention was given to the other, and administratively more difficult, task of receiving the migrant Londoners. To a large extent this was inevitable because of the rule of secrecy. In July 1934 Mr. Baldwin stated the issue as follows: ‘We feel with regard to the protection of the civil population that our plans have been carried as far as is possible without wider publicity than has hitherto been deemed to be in the public interest. The next stage involves communications with local authorities, with public utility companies, and so forth, and with all those on whom
responsibilities for action would fall in the emergency contemplated, and before long steps will be taken to communicate the necessary instructions to the public generally’.5 Mr. Baldwin then informed the House of Commons: ‘so far as I know every country in Europe has carried its work a great deal further than we have carried ours’.
It was not until the establishment of the Air Raid Precautions Department in April 1935 that public education in civil defence began in earnest. Even the, the department was mainly preoccupied with anti-gas precautions. In its first circular to local authorities on civil defence no reference was made to evacuation.6 When questions were asked at the end of the year, members were told that the problem of evacuation was being considered.7
During 1936 the subject continued to crop up in the new department and in the various sub-committees of the Committee of Imperial Defence. It arose, for example, when food problems were under discussion. ‘… The evacuation of London needs to be thought out in terms, not of transport only but of reception, housing (by compulsory billeting if necessary) and feeding—probably on a free communal basis at first. Adequate emergency stocks of food in a transportable form will be as necessary as gas masks. No doubt those who are concerned with evacuation are making plans about food as well.’8 All the same, little progress was made as yet towards a comprehensive and realistic operational plan.
The drastic scaling-up, in January 1937, of the Air Staff’s estimate of German striking power9 provided a fresh stimulus to the study of evacuation. ‘This increase,’ remarked a Home Office memorandum, ‘strengthens the case for evacuating non-essential persons from areas exposed to heavy attack, so as to prevent avoidable loss of life and lessen the danger of panic and stampeding.’ But by this time—the middle of 1937—the 1934 report and timetables of the evacuation committee were getting out-of-date; nor had any discussions taken place as yet with the local authorities. Moreover, the problem was seen to be more complicated than had at first been thought. It was not enough to think only of London, and of a total indiscriminate mass of refugees. The time had come to ask more exact question. What groups should be sent to safety? From what areas of danger? Where should the boundaries be drawn? And would the police—burdened as they were with many other tasks of civil defence—have enough men to control the exodus? The answers to these questions, were by no means clear.
That the Government had not yet made up its mind about the wider issues of policy was indicated to the House of Commons in July 1937, when a questioner was told that the ‘possibility that it might be necessary to evacuate persons from densely populated areas’ was under examination.10 This answer was too indefinite to satisfy some members. In November 1937, when the Air Raid Precautions Bill (which placed the onus for preparing air raid precaution schemes on the local authorities) was introduced, there was some pressure in the House of Commons for the inclusion for evacuation. The text of the bill did not refer to the subject; but an amendment was moved to place upon local authorities the responsibility for preparing evacuation schemes. In resisting this amendment, the Home Secretary declared that the matter must be left to the Government to decide. ‘The Committee of Imperial Defence,’ he said, ‘is actively engaged upon this problem. We already have certain plans in existence. We intend to make them more comprehensive, and we shall have them ready for the emergency.’ Finally, ‘… we have the question of evacuation very vividly of evacuation very vividly in our minds …’11
When the committee stage of the bill had been reached, and further questions had been asked, the Home Secretary made a concession. He introduced a new clause which laid a duty on all local authorities to provide information to the Government for the purpose of assisting the preparation of evacuation plans.12 ‘We regard the question as very urgent,’ he said, ‘… we intend that the local authorities should draw up their schemes and that those schemes should be based, as far as possible, upon local administration, but that the Government should come in as the coordinating body …’13
This position was maintained in a circular from the Board of Education to local authorities in January 1938.14 It was stated that in areas which were so exposed to danger that it would be decided to close the schools during the whole period in which raids might be expected the ideal solution would be evacuation, and the difficulties of such a scheme should not prevent its consideration. The authorities were therefore told to approach the Home Office for advice on the preparation of schemes. Later on, however, it became clear that the method of allowing each local authority to draw up its own scheme would create confusion. So, four months after the debate, these
From the foregoing it will be plain that plans of action were still in a rudimentary state early in 1938. In April of that year, the Home Secretary told a restless House that the problem was being ‘studied very carefully’, and that it was necessary ‘to have some idea of the shelter provision before giving an direct guidance to local authorities with regard to the question of evacuation’.17 By this time local authorities were also getting restive. On 10th May 1938 the London County Council passed a resolution approving the principle of evacuating schoolchildren. Two days later, however, the Home Secretary refused a request for a billeting survey and repeated that the problem was being ‘actively studied’.18 As a result of this further study, the Government decided to appoint a committee, under the chairmanship of Sir John Anderson, to ‘review the various aspects of the problem of transferring persons from areas which would be likely, in time of war, to be exposed to aerial bombardment’.19
The Anderson committee examined fifty-seven witnesses and received evidence from the Air Ministry, the Health Departments, the Board of Education, the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office. The last prepared a comprehensive memorandum, reviewing development since the 1934 report and drawing attention to issues which that document had left unsettled. The Home Office believed that a great deal still awaited settlement. It summed up the situation thus: ‘It remains broadly true that, apart from certain major issues of policy, any evacuation scheme depends upon the practicability of its detailed arrangements. Until these details can be examined and tested by public discussion and consultation with the authorities concerned, no real evacuation scheme can be said to be planned’.
During the months of June, July and August 1938, the subject of evacuation, in common with other question of civil defence, was being anxiously discussed by the public and the press. The Anderson
committee, realising the need to hurry forward with plans, completed its report on 26th July 1938.20 In presenting the report to Parliament, the Home Secretary declared that the Government accepted its main principles and laid particular stress upon the following:21
a. That, except in so far as it may be necessary for military or other special reasons to require persons to leave some limited area, evacuation should not be compulsory.
b. That, for the purpose of support the national war effort and supply essential civilian needs, production in the large industrial towns must be maintained, but it is desirable to provide organised facilities for the evacuation of substantial numbers of people from certain industrial areas.
c. That arrangements for the reception of persons who become refugees should be mainly on the basis of accommodation in private houses under powers of compulsory billeting. These arrangements will require very detailed preparation in order to avoid unnecessary hardship either to the refugees or to the persons who receive them.
d. That the initial cost of evacuation arrangements should be borne by the Government, but that refugees who can afford to contribute towards the cost of their maintenance should be expected to do so.
e. That, to meet the needs of parents who wish to send their children away, but cannot make their own arrangements, special arrangements should be made for schoolchildren to move out in groups from their schools in charge of their teachers.
Here at least, after many years of study and postponed Ministerial decision, were the firm outlines of the scheme which became effective in September 1939. There were still many details to be settled, and a vast amount of operational planning to be done, but the basic principles were now firmly established.
The Anderson report laid particular emphasis on the limiting factor of billeting in any scheme of evacuation. This, it said, was especially true of the North of England and Scotland, where overcrowding was already very serious. As regards billeting payments—a matter which was destined to become controversial—the committee did not attempt to work out the monetary cost of a scientific standard of board for children of different ages, but confined itself to stating: ‘we are informed that the London County Council pay 10s 6d. per week for children boarded out’. Nor did the report offer any detailed proposals about feeding arrangements beyond pointing out the need for large-scale plans for communal feeding. Finally, the report recommended that the local authorities should be instructed to make a survey of accommodation. It concluded with this warning: ‘The
whole issue in any future war may well turn on the manner in which the problem of evacuation from densely populated industrial areas is handled … the task appears to us to be one of great urgency.
After the Munich crisis, when the Government decided to publish the report, its recommendations were well received. The Economist wrote: ‘The Committee have done a good job of work, but it ought scarcely to have taken two years for the Government to find itself in agreement with its many earnest and sincere critics who urged the need for evacuation plans long ago’.22
In the two months between the completion of the Anderson report and the Munich crisis, overworked staffs in the Home Office who had many other tasks to perform did their best to translate the principles of the Anderson report into plans. The plans were inevitably incomplete and it was perhaps as well that they were never put to the test. Full-time planners for evacuation were appointed on the very eve of the Munich crisis.23 But before this the London Country Council had become alarmed, and pressed Government to reach certain decisions in order to allow transport planning to begin. On 5th August, the Clerk to the Council (Sir George Gater) saw the Home Secretary and offered the services of members of the Education Officer’s staff. This offer was not accepted. With political tension increasing by 12th September, Mr. Herbert Morrison (Leader of the Council) urged upon Sir Samuel Hoare the need for immediate decisions.24 The Council then drew up plans, necessarily for a primitive and faulty nature, for the removal of some 637,000 children from London.25 Plans for the transfer of schoolchildren were also hastily improvised in Birmingham and other areas. The conclusions reached as early as 1933 that improvised schemes by a variety of local authorities would lead to trouble were now amply justified. While children were to be evacuated from East London to the area of Essex bordering on the Thames estuary, the Essex authority was arranging to evacuate its children from that area. While King’s School, Canterbury, was moving to Scotland, the Canterbury City Council took over the school buildings for the reception of children from London.
A little later in September the Home Office began making arrangements so that anyone—man, woman or child—could turn up at an
entraining station in London and be decanted into some other part of the country.26 Hasty discussions were held on the question of drafting regular troops into London to keep order and prevent panic in the event of a public announcement of these arrangements.27 Fortunately, the signal for this mass evacuation was cancelled at the last moment.
On the day that Mr. Chamberlain travelled to Berchtesgaden (15th September) the subject of evacuation was reviewed by the Committee of Imperial Defence. Sir Samuel Hoare took the view that ‘in existing conditions’ it was ‘not desirable to published the Anderson report’,28 but he agreed that no time should be lost in preparing a detailed plan. A new Evacuation sub-committee of Passive Defence sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence was set up to consider the matter further. Events, however, overtook this sub-committee, and with the immediate crisis at an end by October the inevitable post mortem began.
The House of Commons reviewed the work of the civil defence services in a censure debate on 3rd November 1938. Members were in a worried and critical mood, and among the charges made it was maintained that the Government had neither policy nor plans for evacuation when the country was on the verge of war. To this Sir Samuel Hoare replied: ‘On the broad question of evacuation I claim that the plans were laid on a sound foundation, and further that if we had been compelled to bring them into operation, they would have worked not unsatisfactorily’.29 Despite this confident answer, there was much uneasiness in Whitehall.
Immediately after the Munich crisis the Committee of Imperial Defence called for a review by heads of departments of measures taken during the period of tension. The Ministry of Health and the Board of Education presented a joint report, the main conclusion of which was that the Home Office as not the appropriate department to handle evacuation. It was pointed out that the reception of refugees was primarily a matter of housing, education, health and the poor law services, and that therefore the administration of evacuation
schemes should rest in the hands of the departments supervising these services. At the local level, it followed that the main burden of work would fall upon the non-county boroughs and urban and rural districts—authorities which had no direct relations with the Home Office.30
The behaviour of the public during the Munich crisis did not apparently allay the Government’s fears of a break in morale. There were symptoms of instability which were interpreted unfavourably, such as the ‘premature panic migration’ of 150,000 people to Wales, and a continuous rush of cars from London. (These and other disquieting phenomena were referred to in a report by the Home Defence sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence.) The lack of any Government announcement about evacuation plans until the evening of 29th September—when the worst of the crisis was over—did not east the state of tension that prevailed. The hurried distribution of 38,000,000 gas masks and the digging of 1,000,000 feet of trenches also did not conduce to mental peace. One result of all this was an abnormal rise in the sale of grocery and provisions in the West End of London.31 Curiously, however, the conception rate did not fall32—as it did after the outbreak of war.
The Government may have felt, when it reviewed the events of the crisis, that these signs and symptoms supported it in thinking that public morale could not be relied upon .But the relations between Government and people were not at their best during this period; there was a lack of guidance on some essential matters, and a general feeling of uneasiness that the Government’s plans for civil defence and other emergency services were not fully developed.
As a result of the Government’s review it was decided to transfer responsibility for evacuation schemes to the Health Departments. This was part of a general redistribution of the functions of the Air Raid Precautions Department taken, as chapter I has already recorded, as the instance of Sir John Anderson, who, as Lord Privy Seal, had recently been made responsible for coordinating the whole field of civil defence. The reasons which led to this reallocation of responsibilities among various departments will be fully dealt with in the War History of Civil Defence. Here it is only necessary to record that the Health Departments took over on 14th November 1938 the duty of preparing evacuation schemes, and that henceforward Sir John
Anderson continued to be responsible for the direction of policy as Minister for the coordination of the civil defence services.
In the Ministry of Health, work began immediately on the task of translating the principles of the Anderson report into a practical plan. A new division was established and staffed jointly by the Ministry of Health and the Board of Education. This division, later strengthened by the addition of a member of the staff of the London Count Council, was responsible for the detailed working out of plans. Other departments, such as the Board of Education and the Ministry of Transport, as well as the London County Council and other local authorities were continually consulted during the planning period. Soon after taking over the work, the Ministry of Health appointed an Advisory Committee on the Evacuation of Schoolchildren composed of representatives of the associations of local authorities and local education authorities and of the several branches of the teaching profession. This committee met regularly and was of real value to the officials of the Ministry in advising on the many difficult human problems that arose. In Scotland, the Department of Health was responsible for evacuation, and organisation was on much the same lines as in England. There also an advisory committee was appointed to assist the department.
The plans that were built up and put into operation in the outbreak of war were largely based on the recommendations of the Anderson report. The detailed application of the Anderson principles was a formidable undertaking. One of the first tasks was to draw new boundary lines throughout Britain and divide the country into three zones—evacuation, neutral and reception. This was accomplished by January 1939, but now without much firm decision by the Health Departments. Over 200 local authorities in England and Wales graded as reception asked to be ranked as neutral,33 and another sixty authorities wanted to be scheduled for evacuation. It is significant of the temper of the country at the time that no authority zoned as evacuable disputed the Ministry of Health’s decision, and no authority asked to be a reception area.
Most of these representations for a change in status had to be rejected. The classifications by the Health Departments were settled with the advice of the Defence Ministries, and with the predominant aim in mind that somehow or other accommodation had to be found for 3,500,000 persons in England and Wales, and 400,000 in Scotland. It was thought that if many concessions were made resulting in a large number of sending, and fewer receiving, areas, then the problem of accommodation would become insoluble.
Owing to the backwardness of evacuation at the beginning of 193934 the Health Departments were faced with a two-fold task.They had to prepare short-range, and admittedly defective, measures to be put into operations should the situation deteriorate suddenly, and while they were thus fighting against time, they had to prepare a long-range and more detailed plan for the dispersal of nearly 4,000,000 persons. This scheme was known as plan 2
Under this plan 13,000,000 persons in Britain were in areas scheduled as evacuation, 14,000,000 in neutral areas and 18,000 in districts classified as reception. Some changes were subsequently made, as a result of local representations, and the additions—known as plan 3—increased the numbers to be evacuated by ten percent. Both schemes—plans 2 and 3—were operated in September 1939.35
At the centre of this problem of ‘thinning out’ and dispersing to safer areas the inhabitants of the vulnerable and congested cities of Britain was the question: who should be evacuated? What groups should be given Government assistance to move? It was clear from the experience of the Home Office in the autumn of 1938 that no plan would be workable if facilities were thrown open to all and sundry who changed to arrive at entraining stations. The Government therefore decided, partly for this reason and partly because accommodation was considered to be the most important limiting factor, that the scheme would have to be restricted to certain defined groups. These—officially described as priority classes—were:
1. Schoolchildren, removed as school units under the charge of their teachers.
2. Younger children, accompanied by their mothers or by some other responsible person.
3. Expectant mothers.
4. Adult blind persons and cripples whose removals was feasible.
Would all the members of these groups wish to be evacuated? Although the scheme was restricted to these classes, evacuation was still to be voluntary. In the words of the Anderson report:
Whatever the Government’s plans, it is to be anticipated that there would be an exodus, on a scale which cannot accurately be foreseen, from any area which had been subjected to repeated air attack. Men and women engaged on work of an essential character would in the great majority of cases be moved by a sense of public duty to remain at their tasks, and the Government of the day may be expected to exhort them to do so, as their contribution to the national effort. The tendency to migrate would accordingly by found more especially among those whose presence could be spared. We have assumed that the Government would not normally attempt forcibly to restrain persons from leaving a vulnerable area. If large numbers of persons are determined to leave a district, it does not seem to be practicable, even if it were desirable, to prevent them from doing so.
We have also assumed that as a general rule compulsion would be exercised to require persons to leave a vulnerable area if they desired to say. Limited areas might have to be completely evacuated for military reasons or on such ground as the risk of flooding, but apart from these special cases we do not believe that public opinion would accept any scheme for the compulsory transfer from their homes of vast numbers of town dwellers.
To build an evacuation plan on this voluntary principle was an immeasurably harder task than if a measure of compulsion had been put behind the scheme. It meant that concrete plans, worked out to the smallest details, had to be created on the basis of a number of unknown and variable factors. Assumptions had to be made about the probable mental reactions of over 10,000,000 individuals living in, and conditioned by, widely differing environments who, historically, had shown a marked affection for individuality.
In arriving at estimates about the numbers who would wish to be evacuated the Health Departments were strongly influenced by the considerations discussed in the preceding chapters. Their reading of how the public might react to air attack, and the London report of an eighty-three percent registration for evacuation at the time of the Munich crisis,36 led to an estimate that plans would have to be made for eighty percent of the eligible classes. This proportion was applied to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, the Midlands and all other areas, as well as to London. It meant arranging transport, food, accommodation and a host of other things for, in round figures, 4,000,000 persons—a community more than half the size of the population of
Australia. Of this number, 1,400,000 were to be evacuated from the Greater London area.
The question raised by the Anderson report of evacuating other groups of the non-essential adult population was not forgotten. But, although there was considerable pressure upon the Government before the war to extend the scope of its schemes, it was thought that no decision could be take until the priority classes had been dealt with. ‘‘It is clear,’ said Mr. Walter Elliot (Minister of Health) ‘that the evacuation of a considerable section of the adult population must in any case come subsequent to the evacuation of the priority class.’37 The Government was right in this decisions, for any substantial extension might have jeopardised the whole scheme. Dispersal was being considered in terms of 4,000,000 persons, and those responsible for planning did not know how much more time they had in which to prepare.
From the beginning it was foreseen that billeting in private houses provided the only answer to the problem of finding accommodation for 4,000,000 persons. In the first place, the standard for mothers and children would have to be a reasonable one; it was no use thinking of rough and temporary accommodation. At that time no one envisaged the evacuees returning—or even wanting to return—to the target areas. Secondly, even if camps and hostels on a large scale were desirable—which, for young children, was a debatable question—it was believed in January 1939 that there was insufficient time to build a vast network of camps in rural areas. Thirdly, the expense of such a scheme, in addition to the difficulties of labour and materials at a time when the Government’s rearmament programme was expanding, added a further prohibition.
Both before, and during the war, the Health Departments consistently maintained that billeting was the main solution. It was realised that the invasion of family life on such a scale was unprecedented, and that such a policy would have to fight in every village and town of the country a centuries-old dislike of billeting in private homes.
Even before evacuation had begun antagonism showed itself, and the Health Departments were strongly pressed to abandon or modify their policy. The campaign was particularly vigorous shortly after the Munich crisis, when a large number of MPs representing rural areas in the south of England urged the Lord Privy Seal (Sir John Anderson) and the Minister of Health to embark on a grandiose scheme of camps. One MP wrote to say that ‘compulsory billeting would be far worse than war’. Similar proposals were showered on the Ministry by teachers, housewives, local authorities, church bodies and conservative and labour associations. One county council
protested that householders would not take ‘the dregs of London’, while members of the Government’s Advisory Panel of Industrialists suggested that evacuees might be accommodated on Ascot racecourse and in golf club houses.
The Government resisted these proposals. Only one small concession was made to public opinion. In February 1939 it was agreed to construct a limited number of camps. Plans drawn up by an inter-departmental committee recommended the building of 100 camps, a number which was halved at the instance of the Treasury when the matter came before the Cabinet. On 25th May the Camps Act was passed entrusting the work to two non-profit making public corporations, the National Camps Corporation Ltd. for England and Wales and the Scottish Special Housing Association. A sum of £1,200,000 was provided for the construction, maintenance and management of approximately fifty camps, each designed to accommodate about 300 persons. It was hoped to complete construction of them all by March 1940, and it was though that they might be used for three purposes: school camps and camps for holiday makers in peacetime and, in the events of war, to provide accommodation for ‘difficult’ billeting cases and homeless refugees. They were designed almost entirely by reference to their peacetime use and, consequently, for short period of occupation. Considerable alterations were therefore necessary when they were used for permanent residence.
It was after evacuation—at the end of September 1939—that it was decided to use these camps for the purposes of the evacuation scheme. The London County Council, concerned because of the unsatisfactory condition of some of the buildings in which its parties of physically handicapped children had been placed, and unable to find other accommodation, was allowed to use one of the camps for permanent occupations by these children. More of the camps were subsequently taken over the accommodate parties of evacuated schoolchildren. It was in this way that the camps came to be called in to assist the evacuation scheme.
The decision in May 1939 to build these camps did not, however, alter the fundamental fact that billeting private houses would have to be the foundation of evacuation policy. And even then, it was thought, there would be a serious shortage of houses in many of the reception areas. Some of these areas—Scotland, the north of England, Wales and many rural districts—had benefited least from the housebuilding of the nineteen-thirties. A great number of the houses which were built in this period were in precisely those areas vulnerable to enemy attack and, consequently, of little help to the evacuation scheme.
As about ninety percent of the billets would have to be provided by private houses it was decided to make a survey and collect the
facts for all the reception areas. On 5th January 1939 local authorities were asked to make arrangements and complete the work by the end of February. The object was not only to obtain a comprehensive picture of the housing situation, but to ascertain the number of householders who would be prepared to receive children and mothers into their homes. ‘It is obviously desirable,’ emphasised the Health Departments, ‘that so far as possible, children should be accommodated in homes where their presence would be willingly accepted.’38
To measure surplus accommodation, the housing standard used for England and Wales was one person per habitable room; but in Scotland, where the housing shortage was serious, a lower standard was adopted of one person per room over the age of fourteen and two in the case of children under fourteen. The survey had also to take into account the fact that a proportion of the accommodation available would not be suitable for the billeting of unaccompanied schoolchildren. There would, for instance, be the cases of old or infirm householders and of people living alone whose employment required them to be absent all day. These and many other factors, such as the adequacy of water supplies, had to be noted by the investigators and reported to the Health Departments.
Not only was the survey the basis of policy in making allocations to local authority areas, but its results were of value in showing the geographical distribution of the available housing accommodation. The investigation covered over 5,000,000 houses, concerned 18,000,000 people and engaged 100,000 visitors. It was an undertaking of magnitude, but one which was soundly conceived and carried through.
For reception areas in England and Wales, the results of the survey showed, on the basis of one person per habitable room, that there was accommodation available for 6,050,000. But not all this accommodation could be used. Unsuitable houses and rooms, billets required by the Service departments, houses too near aerodromes and military establishments, inadequate water supplies and other factors made it impossible to use 1,250,00 rooms. The figure of available billets and was thus reduced to 4,800,000.
But, as the next few months were to show, the most important factors in reducing the quantity of billets that could be used for the Government’s scheme was the accommodation declared by householders to be reserved for friends and relations. In February 1939 over one-sixth of the surplus accommodation in receiving areas—or 1,100,000 rooms—had been ‘privately’ reserved.
A statistical study, by geographical areas and size of house, of the distribution of ‘private reservations’ shows, among other things,
where over a million persons had decided to go in the event of war; the distances they proposed to travel, and the areas they considered ‘safe’. By way of illustration one or two results of this study may be introduced here.
Over 130,000 persons had, by February 1939, made private arrangements to go to five south-western counties (Cornwall, Dorsetshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Herefordshire). This represented the addition of one person to every ten living in these counties. This suggests that these private reservations were not all made for friends and relatives, for Londoners are unlikely to have had, in proportion to the populations involved, twice as many friends and relatives in the western—and more distant—areas of England as in the eastern—and nearer—areas. This heavy volume of private reservations presaged the ‘flight to the west’ which grew in importance as the war approached. It imposed limitations on the official evacuation scheme, and it continually worried the Government through the anxious spring and summer of 1939.
The percentage of available accommodation which was privately earmarked by February 1939 was highest in Buckinghamshire (twenty-seven percent), West Sussex (twenty-six percent), Berkshire, Herefordshire and Oxfordshire (twenty-five percent), East Sussex (twenty-four percent) and Dorsetshire and Westmorland (twenty-three percent). The lowest proportions were in Northamptonshire and the Isle of Ely (ten percent), Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire (Kesteven) and East Suffolk (eleven percent). In general, private reservations were highest in those counties with the largest proportions of big houses, and lowest in the counties containing more small houses.
The contribution that could be made to the housing of 3,500,000 persons in England and Wales by the use of hostels, camps and empty houses was not substantial. Accommodation in hotels and boarding-houses amounted to 207,700 rooms, of which eight percent had been privately reserved by February 1939. Camps and hostels supplied only 50,400 billets, and empty houses 626,000. But the latter figure was deceptive. Many of these empty houses could not be made suitable for the reception of children, and large numbers of those which might have been adapted had been booked by London business firms evacuating to the country.
It was the view of the Health Departments that, in the interests of the children, the solution lay in billeting in private homes. This opinion was overwhelmingly supported by the results of the survey. By using all the accommodation that had not so far been privately reserved there was room for 3,700,000 persons in private homes. On
the assumption that eighty percent of those eligible to be evacuated would in fact take part in the scheme they would absorb 3,200,000 billets. The margin left would thus be small, and would become smaller still as more persons earmarked rooms in the reception areas.
In Scotland, the problem was worse. Even with the use of a lower standard of houseroom per person the Department of Health found itself with a very small margin of accommodation. Nearly twenty-one percent of all the available room had been privately earmarked by February 1939 as against a proportion of eighteen percent in England and Wales. This higher figure was probably due to numbers of English people arranging temporary accommodation in Scotland.
The Government was concerned about the way in which billets were being reserved. But, after much discussion, it was decided that nothing could be done to prevent this development beyond moral appeals aiming at persuading people not to take up accommodation before the Government’s scheme had been completed. Although these limitations were important, they cannot obscure the first generous response by householders to the Government’s request for billets for mothers and children. This direct approach through the local authorities, asking in a practical way for help, met with a sound and warm-hearted response. Offers were made to received and care for 2,250,000 unaccompanied schoolchildren in England and Wales, and 300,000 in Scotland. And these offers were given with the knowledge of what was to be paid for board and lodging—amounts which later on were submitted to be inadequate.39
With the housing survey completed, the Health Departments proceeded to make allocations to the receiving areas.40 Local authorities were told the numbers to be sent them, these being based on the results of the survey and on such factors as the probable billeting requirements of the Army, Air Force and Government Departments. The task of justly allocating nearly 4,000,000 persons among hundreds of local authorities was not made easier by the geographical distribution of surplus accommodation revealed by the survey. This, over one-half of the surplus was in the area south of a line drawn from the Wash to the Bristol Channel. This meant, for instance, that some evacuees from Liverpool would have to be sent south to such counties as Glamorgan and Hereford.
Another important factor which influenced the allocations was the distribution of railway facilities from the different sending areas. This was a difficulty which was encountered in Scotland as well as in England. But, after a careful balancing of all the factors, detailed timetables were worked out by April 1939. The Traffic Commissioners then arranged for the necessary road transport from the detraining stations to the agreed points of dispersal in the surrounding villages. This was particularly important in the rural areas of Wales and Scotland, where many of the detraining stations were situated at a considerable distance from the billeting districts.
During the period from January 1939 onwards the Health Departments, the London County Council and the local authorities were hard at work identifying problems and drafting plans to meet all manner of contingencies that were expected to arise in the evacuation of nearly 4,000,000 persons. It was the movement from London which dominated these preparations and infused into all the work a note of urgency. The evacuation division of the Ministry of Health was driven by a fear that the London plans would not be ready as time. The character of a war on civilian society, for long speculated about in a leisurely way, now seemed to acquire concreteness as principles began to be clothed with detailed plans. All the estimates of damage, of casualties and panic now looked more menacing where hitherto they had often seemed but vague and unpleasant conjectures.
this transition from leisureliness to urgency was sudden, and it affected, not only the evacuation scheme but the plans for civil defence, hospital treatment and other emergency measures. Up to a certain point in time in the autumn of 1938 everything had seemed possible; any kind of policy or plan. And then, almost overnight attitudes changed, and in one departmental minute after another and in innumerable committee first one policy and then another were immediately discarded because they would take too long.
Time became important. It began to shape policy. The speed with which the entraining movement could be accomplished, for instance, over-shadowed other considerations. When, in the planning of evacuation from London alternative policies presented themselves—as they often did—that which promised greater operational speed and brought nearer the completion of plans generally gained the day. There were fears that if the London movements occupied four days it might be cut in two by massed air attacks. The officials of the London County Council, occupied with entraining and transport preparations, shared these fears. This dominating concern to get mothers and children out of London at all costs, and as quickly as possible, meant that problems at the other end—of reception, billeting and welfare—were obscured and neglected.
While the Evacuation divisions in the Health Departments in London and Edinburgh planned and directed the schemes, the local authorities were responsible for applying and working out much of the detail. In evacuating areas, these functions and the actual operation of plans became the task of the town and district council; in London the county council was asked to coordinate schemes for the whole of the metropolitan area. A great deal of overlapping and confusion always threatened by the complexity of London local government, was thus avoided. The council was made responsible, not only for the county area, but for coordinating transport and other arrangements for eleven contiguous boroughs and, in July 1939, for a further nineteen boroughs and district councils in surrounding counties.
In other parts of the country, where the evacuation zone extended similarly beyond the boundaries of a single local government authority, plans were worked out in unison and, in such matters as transport, on officer was appointed to coordinate arrangements. In the work of reception, the main burden in England and Wales was placed on the town councils and district councils.41 This reversed the policy of the Home Office in 1938, when the county councils had been designated that the problem of reception was primarily a problem of housing and that, in consequences, the housing authorities were the appropriate bodies.
In England and Wales the county councils were brought in mainly as coordinating bodies.42 They were concerned with many aspects of reception by virtue of their responsibilities for education, health and public assistance. In some counties a great deal of thoughtful coordination was required, as for instance in Leicestershire which was scheduled to receive evacuees from London, Sheffield and Birmingham. After the housing authorities had been sent a provisional estimate of the number of persons they were likely to receive, the two authorities—sending and receiving—were put in touch with one another for the purpose of settling many matters of detail. At the same time, the Ministry of Health asked the county councils to arrange conferences of all receiving authorities in their areas and to invite the sending and transport authorities concerned. Again, the purpose here was to fit close together all the reception plans in each county. In England and Wales alone there were more than 1,100 reception districts, each with its own peculiarity, and over eighty evacuation areas.
The progress of these plans was reported by the Minister of Health to the House of Commons when the Civil Defence Bill was debated in April 1939. Demands were made for an extension of evacuation facilities to adults—not in the priority classes—living in particularly vulnerable areas such as the East End of London. The Minister, however, emphasised the limiting factors of accommodation and transport, and refused to interfere with the preparations that were going forward for mothers and children.43
The Government’s financial policy on evacuation was again stated during the debate. No additional burden of expenditure, it was said, would fall on the local ratepayer. Provision was made in the Civil Defence bill for the repayment by the Exchequer of approved additional expenditure by local authorities.
This important measure, passed in July 1939, made it obligatory for local authorities to act in preparing and carrying out any plan of evacuation under the authority of the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland; it gave authority to these Ministers to require private houses for billeting purposes and to stipulate the extent to which the occupiers of such houses should be responsible for feeding and caring of any children who were billeting on them.44
To be successful, the evacuation of nearly 4,000,000 persons required, in the planning stage, the highest degree of cooperation between the central and local authorities. It was therefore fortunate, particularly in view of the ordeal that London was expected to endure in the event of war, that throughout the spring and summer of 1939 there was close contact between the Ministry of Health and the London County Council.
From the early part of the year the Council was actively engaged in planning the entraining movement. A complete system of control of all parties from the points of assembly to the main line entraining stations was vitally necessary. So far as London was concerned, central control, including liaison with the railways, was retained by headquarters staff at County Hall. Divisional dispersal officers were appointed to act as local controllers. These officers were, in London, the educational divisional officers, of whom there were twelve, and, in each of the contiguous boroughs, the directors of education. Each officer was responsible for the arrangements and operations within his division or borough. They had under their charge, in all, 20,000 teachers, about 1,000 official staff and over 20,000 voluntary helpers. A continual flow of instructions had to be issued to these 41,000 workers concerning the tasks of party leaders and escorts, station and exchange station marshals, control point officers, nurses and others.
Throughout the war this organisation was maintained, the divisional dispersal office being the ‘front line’ of operations. The remarkable efficiency and freedom from accidents of evacuation movements (even during air raids) was due, in great measure, to the work of the dispersal officers and their colleagues.
The sending authorities were also responsible for organising the registration of mothers and children for evacuation. In London, registration was dealt with on a divisional basis and each dispersal officer was generally responsible for all action in his area. Mothers with children were advised to call at the nearest elementary school to register. All council and non-provided elementary schools in London were used for this purpose, and teachers volunteered in large numbers to act as registrars. A handbook containing eighty-four questions with model answers was printed for the guidance of registrars. A form was completed in duplicate for each adult applicant; one copy was retained for the party roll, the other copy, containing advance on the back, was handed to the mother.
All this work went hurriedly on, in one form or another, not only in London but in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Hull, Birmingham, Southampton and many other cities. There was of course much local variation in detail. There had to be, if only because of the way transport facilities, and the nearness or otherwise of reception areas, shaped local schemes. With the threat of war approaching closer (after the seizure of Prague in March 1939) attention was increasingly focused on planning the exoduses, on getting the mothers and children away to safety.
The emphasis shifted further in favour of this part of the plans. In many instances it dominated the detailed planning. And the details themselves were, apart from the size of the expected movement, immense in number, novel in content, and subject to all the moods and responses of a large proportion of the population. How much food would be wanted on the journey? How many corridor trains should be run and where to? How many postcards should be printed and distributed so that children could write to their parents at once and tell them of their arrival? These were a few of the question: others are listed, by way of illustration, in Appendix I . They form an interesting collection, and their interest lies partly in the fact that servants of central and local government had to sit down, months before the war and under the forbidding influence of the Air Ministry’s estimates, not only to think out the questions but to find answers to them.
By May 1939 the Government had decided that it was time to publicise in more detail the evacuation scheme, and local authorities were asked to ascertain how many of those in the priority grows desired to be evacuate in the event of war. To the surprise of the
authorities the response was leisurely and, as the Minister of Health said, disappointing.45 Despite Government appeals, the organisation of parents’ meetings and much propaganda, registrations were very low not only in London but in other areas. What was the explanation of this apparent change in public opinion? Did the people still believe that war had been or could be averted?
The Health Departments, worried by the absence of any definite reaction to their appeals by the end of July 1939, asked the local authorities to try again, and this time to embark on a house-to-house canvas. This campaign, which had to be completed by the middle of August, resulted in some improvement in the registration of schoolchildren. In London the figure rose to sixty-nine percent (compared with eighty-three percent at the time of the Munich crisis); Liverpool registered sixty-five percent, Newcastle and Gateshead just under eighty percent, while, by the end of the month, Glasgow reported a percentage of sixty-two. There were still, however, disturbing and unaccountable variations. While seventy-five percent of the school population of Manchester had registered by April, and seventy percent in Leeds by August, the figure for Sheffield was only fifteen percent. For the other main priority group—mothers and children under the age of five—the response for all evacuating areas amounted to only one-third. In Glasgow, it was somewhat higher at forty-three percent.
When this situation was reviewed in the middle of August it was decided not to scale down the evacuation timetables and train schedules. It was realised that these registrations were peacetime responses; the reaction might be very different on the outbreak of war. It was, moreover, thought possible that the demand might even exceed the proportion of eighty percent on which the plans were based—particularly as there was evidence that the private earmarking of billets in reception areas was steadily mounting. Should the Government then prohibit private evacuation? During August, as tension in Europe increased, the Government decided that it could not do so. Last minute appeals were made to the public not to upset the plans which had been carefully prepared; nearly 4,000,000 mothers and children were to be sent away and it was essential that accommodation in the reception areas should not be encroached upon.