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Part II: The Invisible War

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Chapter 7: Evacuation: The Exodus

In the early hours of 1st September 1939 the carefully devised machinery under evacuation plans 2 and 3 began to operate. The Government’s scheme, prepared in expectation of massed air attacks, moved, in three days, 1,473,000 persons from the crowded cities of Britain. The majority of these mothers and children were transferred, with teachers and escorts, to safer areas before war was declared on 3rd September 1939. The whole operation was completed without a single accident or casualty

This movement was part of an immense shifting of population which took place during the summer of 1939. In addition to the evacuation scheme, other Government plans involved the migration of large numbers of people. Civil servants were transferred from London to county branches or to establish new regional and local offices, old people and other poor persons were turned out of public assistance institutions, young people were shifted from remand homes and approved schools, some 5,600 prisoners, convicts and Borstal inmates were suddenly given their freedom,1 2 Few places in Britain were immune from this upheaval. Even in the remote areas of Wales over 1,000 patients were ejected from tuberculosis sanatoria to make way for air raid casualties.3 hospital staffs and patients were moved to safer areas, and about 140,000 other patients were sent home.

All these movements of population happened in accordance with Government plans drawn up before the war. In the aggregate, and apart from the mobilisation of the Armed Forces, they probably involved some 1,600,000 to 1,750,000 persons. But the unofficial, or private, migration, that had been a source of much anxiety to the Government, was even more extensive. This unofficial exodus was mainly composed of individuals and family groups who left London and other supposedly vulnerable areas. It was supplemented by a large-scale migration of private and public institutions, such as schools, universities, nursing homes and a variety of charitable institutions. There was also a big exodus of business firms and offices to safer areas.

It is impossible to compute with precision the total number of people involved. However, in Appendix 2, Voluntary Evacuation on the

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Outbreak of War, an analysis has been made of the available statistical material for England and Wales. The figures take no account of the number of people who went to Scotland, Ireland or abroad,4 nor do they include those people who moved from Scottish evacuation areas to other parts of Scotland.5 The conclusion of this study can be summed up in a few words. Between the end of June and (say) the first week of September 1939, approximately 2,000,000 persons privately evacuated themselves to safer areas in England and Wales. Of this number, it is known that over half had earmarked accommodation at least seven months before the outbreak of war.6

So great was the flight to the western half of England that, in the reception areas of Devonshire, private evacuees outnumbered official evacuees by roughly seven hundred percent. Yet not until the fifth year of war, when this analysis was made by the historian, did the Health Departments know that whereas they had evacuated nearly 1,500,000 mothers and children, about 2,000,000 people had evacuated themselves. It is astonishing that such a large number of people could, within a short period of time, leave the vulnerable areas without the Government being aware of the fact. If private moves to, and within, Scotland are included, the total must have exceeded 2,000,000. In all, therefore, the total population movement in Britain (both official and private) may be estimated at between 3,500,000 and 3,750,000. This history is concerned with 1,500,000 of these evacuees—the mothers and children who voluntarily took part in the Government’s scheme and who, presumably, had no friends or relatives in the country to whom they could turn when war came, or no money to buy or hire safety for themselves and their dependants, or no inclination to spend their money this way. About the 2,000,000 ‘private’ evacuees, the historian knows nothing.

The Government’s pre-war plans had envisaged the transference of nearly 4,000,000 persons—mainly mothers and children. Although the combined total of official and private evacuees fell not far short of this, it cannot be assumed that many of those who were eligible to move under the official scheme did not do so because they had made.

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their own arrangements. The statistics derived from national registration at the end of September 19397 provide local population data by age and sex, and it is apparent from these that a high proportion of the private evacuees were adults, that at least 150,000 people moved into or out of the neutral areas surrounding London (not included in the evacuation scheme), and that a considerable proportion of children in London and other evacuation areas after the outbreak of war.

The total number of official evacuees was made up as follows:

London and metropolitan area Other evacuation areas in England Evacuation areas in Scotland Total
1. Unaccompanied school children 393,700 371,200


2. Mothers and accompanied children 257,000 169,500 97,170 523,670
3. Expectant mothers 5,600 6,700 405 12,705
4. Blind persons, cripples and other special classes 2,440 2,830 1,787 7,057
5. Teachers and helpers 89,355 13,645 103,000


The response to the scheme varied widely among the different evacuation districts. So far as schoolchildren were concerned, the most successful areas were Manchester and Salford, Newcastle and Gateshead, Liverpool, Bootle and other Merseyside districts. In these places the proportion taking part in the scheme ranged between sixty-one percent and seventy-six percent. In London, practically half the number of schoolchildren went, while in Glasgow the proportion was forty-two percent. The least successful areas were Sheffield (fifteen percent), Nottingham (twenty-two percent), Bradford (twenty-five percent), Derby (twenty-seven percent), Edinburgh (twenty-eight percent), while the total for Birmingham, Coventry, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich amounted to twenty-four percent. The combined proportion for all English county boroughs and London county was less than half (forty-seven percent), and for all Scottish evacuation areas it was thirty-eight percent. The figures for a large number of areas are given Appendix 3 .

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When the test came, and parents had to decide whether or not to break up the family, the proportion who did part with their children was, in the Government’s view, unexpectedly low. The response was where mothers and young children were concerned was, however, much lower still. The two largest areas, London county and Liverpool, evacuated thirty-five percent and twenty-four percent, respectively, of the numbers eligible. Over the whole of the country there were striking differences in the response by the priority classes. Appendix 4 shows that the proportion of all those eligible to go under the Government scheme who actually went ranged from two-third in Gosport and Bootle to six percent in Rotherham.

The factors responsible for these differences were no doubt as varied and inexplicable as human behaviour in general. Some of the variations do, indeed, defy explanation. Why, for instance, was Leeds twice as successful as Sheffield, and Manchester more so than Portsmouth and Southampton? Why was the proportion for all Scottish areas higher than that for outer London? Why were two-thirds of the evacuable population of Bootle willing to leave their homes, while only one-third were prepared to do so in Hull? It is difficult to believe that in August 1939 the apprehension of risk was twice as great in Bootle as in Hull, or that it was keener in Dundee (which evacuated thirty percent of those eligible to go) than in the suburbs of London.

The amount and intensity of poverty in some of the evacuation districts may have contributed to this confused statistical pattern. Those parents who were poor in material things and handicapped by lack of education may have been more easily persuaded (or told) by local government officials that they must evacuate, or that the Government would look after all their needs if they left their homes. Moreover, it is unlikely that there were many families living in the poorer areas who were able to make their own arrangements outside the Government’s scheme. But this hypothesis cannot be stretched too far; indeed, to identify in order of importance the motives which led parents to keep their children at home or send them away would be as difficult as to try and find out why people want to make money.

One or two surveys, particularly a Scottish study of evacuation,10 have suggested that the smaller the family the tighter the grip the parents keep on the children. Many only children, it seems, either stayed at home, or were evacuated privately. Those parents, who kept one or two children of school age at home, cannot however be regarded as improvident or selfish.They were anxious, perhaps excessively anxious, about their children, by they reflected in their attitude the revolution in standards of child care which divides the nineteenth from the twentieth century.

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To be successful, the Government’s scheme for the evacuation of schoolchildren without their parents demanded a high degree of confidence in the efficiency of the arrangements that were being made. The Government was asking a great deal; it was asking parents to send their children for a indefinite period to a unknown destination, there to be committed to the care of strangers.

In helping parents to make up their minds, much depended, therefore, on the efficiency of local preparations in each evacuation area and particularly on the quality of the relationship between those responsible for preparatory work—from councillors to teachers—and the parents. The art of democratic persuasion, of making people feel confidence in the Government’s plans, had to be practised at the local—as well as the national—level. Those authorities, such as Manchester, whose plans had been efficiently laid, were able to report the evacuation of about seventy percent of their schoolchildren. Other authorities, inadequate in their preparations, bureaucratic in their methods and remote from the people, were less successful. Another group of authorities, whose areas were not scheduled for evacuation until late in the day, were handicapped by insufficient time in which to prepare. All these factors contributed in varying measure to the differences in the response to the evacuation scheme.

In addition, there were many other dissuading factors, trivial and unimportant perhaps to the world at large but of vital consequence to each family. It is easy to visualise the kind of situations that could have arisen. It may have been that an older child was needed at home to do certain tasks for a younger brother or sister while the mother went to work to supplement Service pay. One or other of the family may have been ill at the time, the mother may have been expecting another baby and have been unable to spare the help of an older child, the father may have been unemployed or waiting to be called up for the Army. Any one of these factors may have temporarily overshadowed the family’s assessment of the degree of risk from air attack in a particular district. And even if the danger to life was rated highly, there often intervened a stoical in difference, expressed in the words: ‘If one of us is going to die, it would be better if we all died together’.

It was some time before the Government knew that it had not moved 3,500,000 persons but that less than 1,500,000 had travelled under the scheme. The Times, which presumably obtained its figures from official sources, announced on 4th September that 3,000,000 mothers and children had been evacuated. One result, however, of the fact that a much smaller number too advantage of the official scheme was that the problems of reception were greatly eased. On the other hand, some local authorities were handicapped in the work of

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billeting by the influx of private evacuees who encroached on the accommodation reserved for mothers and children.

Apart from a few areas, however, the number of official evacuees was within the capacity of the accommodation available. Even so, a substantial amount of redistribution and ‘thinning out’ took place within the first few weeks, partly with the object of attaching pupils to more appropriate schools. This was not an easy task in many rural areas with a school population temporarily swollen by about forty percent. In some place, for instance the reception districts of Surrey, the evacuee school population was equal to ninety-three percent of the native schoolchildren.

Appendix 5 lists for all counties in England and Wales that were wholly receiving areas (a) the total accommodation available on 1st February 1939, (b) the percentage privately reserved, (c) the number of evacuees received, (d) the percentage of evacuees received to total accommodation and (e) the percentage of numbers received to numbers expected, i.e., the Ministry’s allocation for taking into account private reservations and other billeting requirements. The appendix shows that there were wide variations in the experience of different reception counties. While Suffolk (East), Westmorland, Sussex (East), Huntingdonshire, Sussex (West), Cumberland and Berkshire received between fifty percent and sixty percent of the numbers expected, Cornwall received only three percent and various other counties less than one-third. Some of these discrepancies were due to changes in the railway programme—referred to below.

Administratively, the evacuation movement of nearly 1,500,000 mothers and children was a success: it was an excellent illustration of coordinated planning tested in action. The careful organisation of the entraining arrangements—particularly in London was aided by the exercises and rehearsals carried out earlier in the summer designed to familiarise those concerned with the mechanical operation of the scheme. When it began, the children were guided by an array of banners, labels, armlets and other devices, and marshalled by an army of teachers and voluntary helpers. Over 40,000 of these helpers accompanied the children and were billeted in the reception areas, and 127,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Services assisted in smoothing the journey from the evacuation to the reception areas.

The Government’s call to ‘get the children away’, the tension provoked by the nearness of war, and the urge to subdue anxiety by physical action, led a large by unknown number of men and women to help in the work of evacuation. Unsuspected, and hitherto unused resources of leadership were thrown up in the back-streets of Stepney, in the more sedate suburban avenues and in isolated rural villages.

The work of assembling the mothers and children, moving them to

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the stations and getting them into the trains, complete with teachers, helpers, food, luggage and labels, was helped by the fact that only forty percent of the scheduled numbers turned up, despite a Government announcement that those who had not registered would still be allowed to take part. By the non-appearance of more than half the mothers and children for whom transport had been arranged led, in many evacuation areas, to extensive changes in train schedules and destinations. This meant, in most receiving areas, the arrival of groups different from those expected. Secondary schoolboys of seventeen were presented at billets in place of mothers with young children, while mothers in the last weeks, and even hours, of pregnancy, arrived instead of unaccompanied schoolchildren. The confusion that ensued is described in the next chapter.

The reason for all these difficulties was—so far as London evacuees were concerned—twofold. The arrival at the entraining stations of less than half of those eligible to take part in the scheme was one. The second was a problem in time and distance, and was peculiar to the movement from London and other metropolitan areas. The children were first collected at some 1,600 assembly points, and the distance of these points from the entraining stations made a double journey necessary. Those to be evacuated had, therefore, to travel chiefly from 172 tube entraining stations to ninety-eight mainline entraining stations. To avoid congestion at the latter, it was arranged that the evacuees should be cleared as quickly as possible as soon as they arrived. This meant that they had to fill waiting trains irrespective of their destinations. It also meant that school groups were broken up.11 The Ministry of Health was not able to give, therefore, guarantees to the areas receiving from London about the number and composition of the parties sent to them. To have done so would have meant a considerable slowing down of the whole entraining movement. It was decided that it was more important to get the mothers and children out of London as quickly as possible, and great efforts were, therefore, made to reduce to the minimum the time occupied in entraining all London evacuees.12 Moreover, the train schedules had to be coordinated with other priority movements, such as the evacuation of hospital patients from London and the mobilisation of the Armed Forces.

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When it was realised on the first day of the London exodus that evacuees were not arriving in the numbers that were expected, the second day’s schedule was brought forward and a process of telescoping train programmes was thus begun.13 With all these transport problems in London being decided by the Government’s anxiety to get the evacuees away as speedily as possible, there was bound to be confusion at the receiving end. The situation would, no doubt, have been accepted if, at the time, London had been bombed. But, in the absence of raids, the Government, the Ministry of Health, the London County Council and bureaucracy in general, were all blamed for the confusion that ensued in the receiving areas with the arrival of mixed and unexpected groups of evacuees.

In Scotland, transport was also a difficult problem for the administrators, mainly because of the distances to be travelled, the large number of wayside halts to be made to allow a few evacuees to alight, and the importance of so arranging the schedules that mothers and children arrived before nightfall. On the other hand, many of the difficulties peculiar to London did not arise in the provincial and Scottish moves. The numbers to be evacuated were smaller than for London and there were not the same problems of entraining. But despite these advantages, there were mistakes and delays in some of the transport arrangements. They came to light because certain of the sending authorities had told the receiving areas the composition of the parties to be sent them. When different groups turned up, the local people, after making careful reception plans, were naturally upset. For instance, in Kilmarnock, the chief reception officer reported the non-arrival of some trains from Glasgow, alterations in the times of others and many vexatious delays. Reports from other areas stated that some of the trains lacked proper conveniences for long journeys and adequate supplies of water. As many of the trains contained children under the age of five, the absence or insufficiency of lavatories was particularly depressing, especially when six or seven hours were required for a journey normally occupying only one or two hours. Some 400 mothers and children under five were, for instance, sent from Liverpool to Pwllheli—a distance of about 120 miles—in a non-corridor train. In another case, where two departments of a West Ham school had been provided with a non-corridor train for a journey to Somerset, the needs of nature proved too strong and the children were deposited at Wantage in Berkshire.14 But not

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all the trains were stopped and destinations changed in this way. It was not surprising, therefore, that many of the evacuees arrived in a dirty, uncomfortable and uncooperative state.

The provincial evacuation operations were complicated—as in London—by the failure of a large number of mothers and children to present themselves. The extent of the failure is given in more precise form in appendices 3 and 4. This contributed to the difficulties of the railway companies but did not, of course, account for the absence of corridor trains for journeys occupying many hours. The confusion at the receiving end was further added to by the lack of imagination shown by some local authorities in failing to sort out parties on their arrival, and by indiscriminately loading the buses bound for surrounding villages.

If the opening phase of the war had been different, if it had followed the course which the Government expected and which shaped the general character of the evacuation scheme, many of these difficulties would have been seen in a wider perspective. The scheme was not planned to operate in peaceful conditions. The physical safety of mothers and children from all-out, intensive and prolonged air bombardment by day and night was the first and dominant concern. Inevitably, the effect on the sensitive mechanism of the child’s mind took second place. To be torn up from the roots of home life and to be sent away from the family circle, in most instances for the first time in the child’s life was a painful event. This was no social experiment; it was a surgical rent only to be contemplated as a last resort. The whole of the child’s life, its hopes and fears, its dependence for affection and social development on the checks and balances of home life, and all the deep emotional ties that bound it to its parents, were suddenly disrupted. From the first day of September 1939 evacuation ceased to be a problem of administrative planning. It became instead a multitude of problems in human relationships.