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Chapter 4: Preparations: The Care of the Homeless

The purpose of the service, first known by the name ‘Relief in Kind’1 and later called ‘The Care of the Homeless’, was eventually defined in the following words: ‘to give practical help, as quickly as possible and as smoothly as possible, to those who are made homeless by enemy action’.2 This conception of the nation’s responsibility for those who suffered as a result of enemy air attacks was slow to develop; it struggled painfully to emerge during the winter of 1940–1, and it did not gain full acceptance until after the main attacks had ceased.

Schemes for giving financial aid were settled long before clear-cut plans were made for relief in kind. These took two forms; pensions for civilians injured by enemy action, and cash grants for those who were unemployed or in distress as a result of industrial changes produced by war, air attack and evacuation.

The chief stimulus for a scheme of compensation for personal injuries resulting from enemy action was the Government’s fear that workers would not stay at their jobs unless some such scheme was provided. It was though that if vital public services were to be kept going in London and other cities some payment for death or injury would have to be made. The principles of a scheme, first discussed by the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1924, were translated into a detailed plan by June 1937, and on the outbreak of war the Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act was passed.3

The idea of a scheme for relieving financial distress received its initial inspiration from the First World War. The memory of widespread industrial dislocation and unemployment in the early part of the war played an important role, while another factor was the recognition that financial responsibility for social distress arising directly from the war should not devolve upon the poor law authorities.4 With these lessons in mind, the Ministry of Health prepared, in October 1936, a report on the relief of financial distress in time of war. This was later considered by the Committee of Imperial Defence.

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The report did not, however, arouse any ministerial interest in the subject of the circumstances of people made homeless by air attack. ‘Ministers who spoke,’ it was said, ‘were all concerned with temporary monetary relief to persons thrown out of employment.’

This report led, in February 1937, to the setting up of a committee at the Ministry of Health to formulate proposals for the prevention and relief of distress. The conclusions of the committee, which completed its report in July 1938, will not be discussed in detail here.

It is sufficient to record that they were accepted, and that provision was made on the outbreak of war for the administration of a cash-aid scheme through the machinery of the Assistance Board. The Board was made responsible for cash assistance; the people it was chiefly expected to help were, first, those temporarily unemployed as a result of industrial dislocation and air raid damage to factories and others who were in distress because of war circumstances and, second, evacuated women with their children who were temporarily in need of help as a result of being cut off from their husbands.

For both these emergency social service, pensions for civilians injured by the enemy and cash grants for certain groups of people in financial distress, the State assumed complete financial responsibility. The acceptance of this principle of national responsibility in time of war was important, for it will be seen later that the proposals for relief in kind were very different.

In the period before the war, there were roughly thee phases of development of the Government’s proposals for the care of homeless people. During each phase the hammering out of a policy depended not only on the realisation that a problem existed, but on the views that were formed about the effects of air attack in creating a need among homeless people for temporary shelter, housing, food, clothes and other essentials.

During the first phase, covering the period up to the establishment of the Air Raid Precautions Department in 1935, only brief and casual references were made to some of the needs of victims of air attack. These took place in discussions by the Committee of Imperial Defence on the subject of air attack and its consequences, and were generally concerned with the desirability of communal feeding services in areas likely to be bombed.

A wider awareness of some of the problems was evident during the second phase, which lasted from 1935 until the Munich crisis in the autumn of 1938. A minute in October 1936 by an official in the Air Raid Precautions Department referred, for instance, to rehousing, feeding and clothing needs and to the tasks which local authorities might have to undertake. This showed that the social problems of air attack were being recognised. There was, however, a barrier to further understanding in the fact that no department had as yet been

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specifically designated by Ministers as responsible for the preparation of plans. The Air Raid Precautions Department had, of course, a general authority for planning over all aspects of civil defence, but it was preoccupied with the size and complexity of its task. It was, too, understaffed, and its small band of officials were, in consequence, greatly overworked.5

During these three years when the Air Raid Precautions Department was regarded as the authority on all matters relating to the preparations of schemes for the protection of the civilian population, a number of issues were raised which had an important bearing on the problem of homeless people. A report was prepared on structural precautions and damage to buildings by high explosive; a committee was set up to consider financial distress in time of war, and information was received from Spain on the relevance of the problem of homeless people to civil defence.

The report on damage by high explosive, which was available in the Air Raid Precautions Department in September 1936, was in some respects a remarkable document. It portrayed, with uncommon foresight, the effects which might be expected to follow the fall of a 500-lb bomb in the centre of a street of middle-class houses.

Three to four houses on either side of the street might be blasted down and would be penetrated by splinters. About 100 houses might suffer minor damage such as spattering with splinters, falling plaster, falling pieces of chimney stack or masonry, damage to doors and windows, and a general shattering of glass. Despite the intensive damage, the occupants of the three to four houses blasted down might quite reasonably escape with their lives and even without injury, provided they were sheltering below ground level before the explosion of the bomb.

This description bore a close resemblance to what happened during the air raids of 1940–1. But the significance of this report passed un-noticed before the war, with the result that the size and nature of the problem of homeless people came as a surprise to the authorities when the raids began.

There were several reasons why the social consequences of air attack were not properly considered before the war. No money was made available by the Government for carrying out experimental work on the effects of high explosives in relation to problems of this kind. The terms of reference of the committee mentioned above limited its task to collating information ‘already available’. This

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restriction was discouraging to further study; it did not stimulate the kind of question s that might have been asked about housing damage and homeless people, and, as the War History of Civil Defence will show, it handicapped the development of policy on shelters. Moreover, the importance of the report of structural precautions and damage by high explosive bombs was not appreciated in the Ministry of Health, for the reason that the report was circulated two years before the responsibility for the welfare of homeless people was placed upon the poor law division of the Ministry.6

The information that reached the Government on the social effects of air attacks in Spain was, on the whole, rejected as irrelevant to British conditions. It was thought that the different standard of life, structure of buildings, lay-out of towns and other factors made it unsafe to accept Spanish experience without many qualifications. This was the argument advanced in some departments, while in other not all reports on the Spanish war were available.7 The Air Raid Precautions Department appears, however, to have been impressed by an essay by G. T. Garratt on civil defence—an essay based partly on Spanish experience.8 This observer, writing on the organisation of ‘clearing houses’ for homeless people in some areas of Spain, remarked of British civil defence plans that the vital problem of the homeless refugee ‘seem to have been completely neglected’.9

Nor did the work of the committee on pensions and cash assistance (referred to at the beginning of this chapter) lead to the preparation of schemes for the care of homeless people. The chairman of the latter committee did, in fact, draw the attention of the Committee of Imperial Defence in July 1937 to ‘the neglected problem of homeless persons’. But, again, the significance of the problem was missed by Ministers.

Thus, for a variety of reasons all these studies and plans for civil defence and other services in the event of war did not lead to any specific proposals for the care of homeless people. While there was, during this second phase—from 1935 to 1938—when the Air Raid Precautions Department was generally responsible for preparatory work, more awareness of the problem it was not sufficient to encourage the drafting of proposals.

In addition to the lack of ministerial direction on departmental functions as they concerned the preparation of emergency measures,

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the creation of a special department to cover the whole field of air raid precautions did not help forward the study of this particular problem of homeless people. There was at the time no compelling sense or urgency, and other departments (such as the Ministry of Health) were preoccupied with their ordinary day-to-day work. Rightly or wrongly, they tended to regard the Air Raid Precautions Department. As a result, this department was led into trying to formulate by itself plans which might be executed in the events of war by other departments. This was one of the consequences of separating the peacetime functions of departments from the planning of the services they would have to operate in the event of war.10 Vague ideas about social distress resulting from air attack tended therefore to remain vague, especially when they seemed more appropriate to the functions other departments.

Departmental responsibility for the welfare of homeless people was not finally settled until the Munich crisis was upon the country. The decision to transfer responsibility to the Ministry of Health was taken at about the same time as the Committee of Imperial Defence set up a committee of officials under the chairmanship of Sir George Chrystal (Permanent Secretary of the Ministry) to make proposals on relief in kind. Even then, the redistribution of departmental functions was not a ministerial decision. Agreement was reached among senior officials of the Home Office and the Ministry of Health that the latter department should undertake the work11 This decision, and the establishment of the Relief in Kind Committee in October 1938, marked the opening of the third phase in the difficult and novel task of identifying task of identifying the kind of social problems that would arise as a result of intensive air attack.

During this phase, when progress was made in planning a new service, some of these problems were recognised and provided for in the schemes put forward to local authorities. But there was still, however, little appreciation of the magnitude of the task. The high estimates of the committees concerned with compensation to owners of property and with the repair of air raid damage do not seem to have influenced the work of the poor law division of the Ministry of Health and the Relief in Kind Committee. These estimates

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(summarised in Chapter II12) suggested that there might be a great amount of damage to houses and other buildings in the early stages of a war. Even more alarming estimates were made about the number of casualties. But how and where would these casualties occur? It appears to have been assumed without question that, for instance, all slightly injured persons would, after treatment, have homes to return to at once.13

The explanation may lie in the fact that the needs of the individual were hidden from view by the sheer mass and crudity of the problems that were expected to result from an attack on civilian society. The more menacing the picture became, the less was seen of the simply, domestic needs of each individual and family, dazed by bombs and worried about relations, home, clothes and furniture.

The conscious and deliberate recognition of the individual as the focal point of all the services for homeless people was eventually found to be indispensable condition of efficiency. But the lesson was only learnt by experience. And it was learnt, not in any nationwide revelation, but separately and piecemeal as one area came after another—from London to Clydeside and Coventry to Belfast—came under attack.

The Relief in Kind Committee, which was set up in October 1938, but which did not hold its first meeting until February 1939, started its work, like to many of its predecessors, by asking questions about the character of a future war. In the records it has left, there is little to suggest that its general approach differed from the outline sketched in the first two chapters of this book. It was preoccupied with two fears: as mass flight to the country, and the danger of a breakdown in public order.

It was this committee which asked the India Office for the name of someone experience in the management of large masses of people,14 and which, in the interests of public order, endorsed a suggestion that people leaving their houses empty in London should deposit they keys with the police. The committee’s discussions, which were not completed by the time war was declared, were coloured throughout by expectations of a mass exodus from London. Naturally, they were influenced by the work that was going forward in another part of the Ministry of Health for the evacuation of 3,500,000 persons from areas in England classed as vulnerable. The committee delayed drawing up plans for the welfare of those fleeing to the country and concentrated on schemes for homeless persons remaining in urban areas.

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At the end of July 1939 the committee produced an interim report. This outlined a skeleton scheme for dealing with the first stage of the problem of homeless people—with the need for food and shelter. Feeding arrangements were to be simply: ‘emergency stations on soup kitchen lines at which food and hot drinks could be served to persons in distress’15 The responsibility for manning and running these stations was placed on the public assistance authorities. It was not contemplated that people would stay long in the stations for no seating accommodation was to be provided.

In addition to the feeding stations, there were to be temporary shelters for the homeless in halls, schools and similar buildings. Their stay was again expected to be short as no seating or sleeping arrangements were made. Their stay was again expected to be short as not seating or sleeping arrangements were to be made. The second stage of dealing with homeless people centred round the problem of rehousing. Here, the committee expressed the hope that ‘large numbers of those whose homes have been destroyed or rendered temporarily uninhabitable will speedily find more permanent accommodation with friends and neighbours’. But for those who needed help, the committee relied much more on the device of compulsory billeting powers than on the method of re-establishing families in fresh accommodation of their own. And, at the back of the committee’s proposals, there was the belief that large numbers of those who were made homeless would find their way to the country. In its report it was stated that authorities in neutral areas would have to provide accommodation for ‘the people leaving the cities in panic after air attack’. This recommendation was founded partly on suggestions received by the Ministry earlier in 1939 from house agents and local authorities who, in drawing attention to the problem of homeless persons, proposed that each borough should maintain a register of empty properties, and should provide furniture and bedding for those rehoused. The committee deferred consideration of a register—but war was declared before it met again—and its report made no reference to the subject of furniture.

The translation of the committee’s interim report into detailed local authority plans was beset with a number of difficulties. Early in April 1939 discussion had been open with the public assistance department of the London County Council. By the end of the month the Council, with commendable speed, had produced a scheme for forty-three feeding centres to cater for 150,000 people in a period of twenty-four hours. In addition to these ‘first line’ centres, other premises were to be held in reserve and brought into use as required. For the most part, the centres were to be organised in relief offices and other properties held by the public assistance department.

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With these proposals available, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Health for Scotland made a confidential approach in June 1939 to fifty-four other public assistance authorities asking for their cooperation in setting up similar schemes. The chief obstacle, however, to the conversion of these plans into the provision of staffed and equipped feeding stations and shelters was finance. There was a natural disinclination to spend money on services which would not be required if the war did not materialise, and the problem of expenditure became far more complicated when it was decided to entrust the care of the homeless services to the public assistance authorities. The lesson of the First World War, that it was socially undesirable to allow the war distressed to become clients of the poor law, was apparently forgotten.

Thus while cash-aid was placed on a national foundation under the aegis of the Assistance Board—the State assuming a hundred percent financial responsibility—the provision of relief in kind, such as emergency feeding, rest centres and so on, became a local responsibility. The first service was therefore financed out of general taxation, the second out of local rates. This distinction immediately added to the work of administration; it multiplied accountancy, and it imported local inequalities.

It led inevitably to discrimination, savouring strongly of the ancient law of settlement, between natives and immigrants. When questions of responsibility and finance were first discussed in the spring of 1939, the Treasury stood firmly on the principle that it was the statutory duty of public assistance authorities to relieve destitution. It was argued that ordinary public assistance expenditure might be expected to decrease in wartime, and the Treasury ‘objected to any arrangement which would enable the London County Council’s public assistance funds to profit at its expense’. Confronted with the problem of the movement of dispossessed people from the area of one authority to that of another, it was accepted that such people should be regarded as evacuees and therefore the financial responsibility of the Exchequer.

The distinction between natives and immigrants arose in this way. Under the scheme, local authorities were to be responsible for their own residents—a duty that under poor law doctrine it was difficult to define with precision—while the Treasury was to pay for the homeless and panic-stricken who crossed the boundaries of public assistance authorities. When it became clear that local authorities were reluctant to accept this arrangement and embark on expenditure before the war, the Ministry of Health was empowered to give a general assurance that if the burden on the rates became too heavy some financial assistance would be forthcoming.16

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But the local authorities were not satisfied with this assurance. Their attitude did not improve when they realised that they were expected to distinguish, before the war, between the cost of blackout material, crockery and other equipment incurred on behalf of local inhabitants, and that incurred on behalf of homeless refugees from other areas who would use the same furniture and the same crockery. This arrangement meant, apart from other complications, that for most items of expenditure sanction would first have to be obtained from the central department. In July 1939 the London County Council asked to be allowed to purchase blankets, but its request was refused on the ground that blankets would tempt people to remain in the rest centres for longer than was necessary. The Council was, however, permitted to spend up to a maximum of £4,000 for other equipment on the understanding that it acted as a purchasing agency for the Ministry of Health in order to equip other local authorities. The Scottish Department of Health was authorised by the Treasury to spend up to £1,000 on equipment for rest centres.

On 1st September 1939, when war seemed certain and the evacuation movement had begun, a hasty meeting was called by the Ministry of Health to consider the state of the arrangements for the care of homeless people. It was decided to expand the schemes already set on foot. In conditions described as ‘hectic’, a circular was issued on the following day to 101 public assistance authorities in addition to those who had been approached in June.17 All were asked to establish feeding stations—if they had not already done so—and to consider the desirability of ‘improving temporary shelter of some kind’.