Chapter 14: The Challenge of London’s Homeless
(i) Deficiencies of Preparation
Historically, there were many reasons why the choice fell on the poor law authorities to organise a variety of services for the people made homeless by air raids. a philosophy of life, cool, detached and secure, which failed to contemplate the possibility that such things as clothing, rough shelter, soup and margarine might have to be provided by the community for others besides the deserving poor was almost bound to call upon the agency of the poor law. It was inconceivable, according to the philosophy, that the accident of war, even with the bomber thrown in, would alter the fact that that poor would still be poor and the fortunate still fortunate.
This attitude, in association with other social and political reasons, therefore led, as Chapter IV has explained, to the poor law authorities being asked by the Health Department on the outbreak of war to organise ‘feeding stations’ and temporary shelters of some kind for homeless people.1 Thus, the provision of food and a place to rest after bombing were thought of as two separate services, supplied perhaps in separate buildings. The resettlement of bombed-out people in new homes, a problem to become the most critical of all the social consequences of air attack, was not clearly envisaged. It was hoped that most of the people would make their own arrangement, either by ‘returning to their homes’ or by obtaining other accommodation ‘after a short interval’.2 Beyond this, the only suggestion offered was that a ‘small residuum’ might have to be officially billeted.3
In September 1939, when air raids were expected, many of the schemes for ‘feeding stations;’ and shelters (or rest centres as the latter were subsequently classed) existed only on paper. Nearly a year later, the position in most places was not much better. Only limited progress had been made and that mainly in London. The provision of these services meant, in concrete form, the requisitioning, equipping
and furnishing of suitable premises, the creation of reserves of clothes, blankets and feed, and the training of staff for duty. Progress in providing these things, even to the modest scale recommended by the Relief in Kind committee,4 was delayed for a number of reasons.
The most important reason was the financial terms laid down in the Government’s original circular to the poor law authorities.5 This established a distinction among homeless people between those were ‘natives’, and those who were ‘refugees’ from the territory of another authority. These arguments in support of this discrimination have already been explained.6 They were grounded upon the doctrine of localism, whose history and practical applications have been discussed in Chapter XII .
Local authorities found it difficult to make much headway with the organisation of services while this distinction remained to confuse many items of expenditure. For nearly five months of war, for instance, the Treasury refused to allow the Ministry of Health to loan blankets to local authorities for their rest centres because some blankets would be used by ‘natives’ for whom the authorities were held financially responsible. ‘If at any time it became likely that vulnerable areas would be seriously bombed’, wrote the Treasury in December 1939,7 ‘we might have to consider the issue of some of these blankets on loan’. In February 1940 the Treasury withdrew its opposition. There remained behind, though, to worry officials of the Ministry of Health and the local authorities, the memory of the arguments that blankets might tempt the homeless to stay too long in rest centres.8 In March 1940, an issue of blankets on loan was made to the poor law authorities; but the issue was very small.9 It was thought that homeless people were unlikely to stay in rest centres for more than a few hours and, in any event, they should not be allowed to stay longer.
During the first year of the war this was about the only concession won by those who argued that the cost of services for the victims of air raids should be borne by the State. The bulk of expenditure had to be found from the rate by 145 local authorities. Every individual bombed out of home would have to be classified as a ‘native’ or a ‘refugee’, the cost of each item of expenditure—ranging from blackout material to latrines—would need to be apportioned and financial adjustments made between local authorities and the Government, and the latter would have to reimburse expenditure incurred on
‘refugees’ crossing local boundaries. No suggestions were offered by the Government as to how local inhabitants could be distinguished from refugees in the conditions of chaos envisaged, for instance, when the evacuation and hospital schemes were prepared. These financial principles, which deterred the Ministry of Health from asking the Treasury to abolish administrative distinctions which could not be applied, did not encourage progress in the organisation of the rest centre and other services.10 Nor did they help the poor law authorities, who needed stimulating rather than repressing, to take a generous view of the needs of homeless people.
The first attack on a British city involving the loss of over 1,000 lives was delivered on 7th September 1940.11 During the preceding three months raids had been increasing in weight by night and day over many parts of the country. In June approximately 100 civilians were killed, in July 300 and in August 1,150.12 The heavy night attacks in September, principally on London, sent the total up to 6,700.
Many of the raids between June and 7th September produced, in miniature form, the kind of social problems which, later, were to cause a crisis in London and a number of other cities. Prominent among them was the social nuisance of the unexploded bomb—real and imagined. Another was the fact of homeless people. During the preliminary period the number of people rendered homeless by a single raid in any one town exceeded 1,000 on half-a-dozen occasions.13
These comparatively light raids brought out all the chief defects in the rest centre scheme, but the lessons were not heeded in Whitehall. Some advice reached the Ministry of Health early in July, notably from its office in the northern region and from the Women’s Voluntary Services who suggested that homeless people were likely to stay in rest centres much longer than had been expected. These reports were not circulated by the Ministry until the last day of August 1940, and the only to regional officers of the department.
Until September 1940, the majority of the staff engaged on organising these services had been drawn from poor law work. This was true of both the policy-making department at the centre and the executive agencies in the country. The responsibility for seeing that policy was implemented rested in each region on two men, the general inspector of public assistance and his deputy. These officials had to act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Ministry, a difficult duty in the regions which generally contained twenty or more public assistance authorities, particularly as it had to be combined with many other activities.
The inspectors’ only equipment in this novel field of relief for air raid victims was a rough notion of what the London County Council was attempting to do, together with any experience they themselves had gained in a life inspecting establishments maintained under the poor law. They received little help from the Ministry of Health, partly because the Ministry itself lacked a comprehensive intelligence service. The few useful suggestions which did arrive at the Ministry were rather forlorn creatures unable to stand alone in the chillly climate of poor law finance. Most of the early reports failed to show imagination about the social consequences of air attack. The first operational report to the Ministry on housing damage from enemy aircraft drily recorded that ‘no question of poor relief has so far arisen’,14 This limited conception of the community’s obligations to those involved in total war was the cause of much of the subsequent trouble.
It was not surprising, therefore, that when the War Cabinet inquired, on 29th August 1940, into the working of the various provisions for homeless people no serious grounds for dissatisfaction were reported. The Prime Minister thought that attention should be given to the matter of compensation for war damage to household effects—a subject which is discussed later. Apart from this, it was suggested that there should be some machinery for coordination between the local authorities; since, if accommodation for rehousing and billeting could not be found in one area, it should be possible to provide it immediately in another. In other words, the housing resources of London—for example—should be pooled regardless of local government boundaries. In principle, this was an advance; but the machinery of execution had still to be tested. The Ministry of Health had already stipulated that, if an authority wanted to billet homeless people outside its own boundaries, application would have to be made to the senior regional officer.15 A great deal depended then on the number and quality of the staff of the regional offices. The London office had not yet been strengthened by the time the storm broke.
It broke on 7th September and the relief services in London were overborne. The following review of the services as they were in the early days of September 1940 explains the character of the social problems which subsequently arose.
The first stage in helping those who were homeless was clear enough: shelter, food, information, perhaps money, perhaps clothing. Rest centre accommodation of a rough kind was available but with little structural protection,16 with inadequate sanitation and few amenities.17 No provision was made for a stay beyond a few hours. Blankets were few and far between. A diet such as was normally provided in poor law casual wards was offered at the centres,18 mobile feeding canteens having been dismissed as an unnecessary refinement in wartime.19 There was no first aid equipment in the centres and, consistent with the history of the poor law, little information was available to guide to the right sources those who needed help.
Through the local offices of the Assistance Board arrangements had been made to help injured civilians and others who were suffering financial distress owing to the war. Also, small sums of money were available for homeless people—but only for the poor—who had lost furniture and clothes. The need for large reserves of clothing for those who had been bombed out of their homes, often in their night clothes, had not, however, been foreseen. The rest centres were soon emptied of the small stocks they had originally possessed.
The second stage in the problem of post-raid welfare was the need to resettle homeless people in accommodation of a more permanent character than that provided by rest centres and air raid shelters. The essential requirements of this stage had received even less recognition before September 1940 than had the requirements of food and temporary shelter.
Before the heavy raids began, local councils and the London County Council had been given power to billet, or provide empty house for, the small number of people who, it was expected, would not be able to find fresh homes themselves. However, the authorities had been instructed to employ these powers only as a last resort. They had been told that empty houses were not to be requisitioned
‘in advance of the occasion on which the property is required’.20 Inevitably, therefore, local arrangements for rehousing people were in a primitive state, and there was hardly any liaison between the various authorities. In London, there was the additional complication of two billeting authorities—the County Council and the metropolitan boroughs—while the function of the Ministry’s regional office as a coordinating instrument had not been clarified.
Preparations to deal with repairs to damaged houses were hardly further forward. On the outbreak of war, local authorities had been charged with the duty of making immediate repairs to all houses in their areas;21 but, because the amount of damage had been underestimated and for other reasons, the schemes drawn up were found in 1940 to be inadequate22 and administratively cumbersome.23 Only a few authorities had compiled registers of empty houses for immediate requisitioning and lists of available billets.24 The need to supply furniture and bedding had received little attention. Nor was it until August 1940 that the first circular to local authorities for the care of homeless people was the Poor Law Act of 1930. The manner in which the Government relied on this instrument epitomised its early approach to the task of resolving the social consequences of air attack.
This, then, was the situation when the German Air Force struck at London on Saturday, 7th September 1940, with about half its total serviceable strength of bombers.25 According to the enemy, when the
offensive was launched the ‘greatest confidence was placed in the effects of loss of life and property on public morale’26 To undermine the resistance of the British people was the first objective.
(ii) Crisis in London County
The first phase of the attack on London lasted until about mid-November. Except for one respite—2nd November—London was bombed continuously for seventy-six nights. Some 27,500 high-explosive bombs, and many incendiaries, oil explosive bombs, parachute mines and delayed-action bombs were employed.27 The East End, and particularly Stepney, received the heaviest blows in September. Although the attack continued to cover a very wide area, the main weight of bombing moved from the East End and the riverside boroughs in September to central London in October. More diffuse and lighter raiding followed in November.28
The enemy never maintained the assault on one area long enough and with sufficient weight to produce a state of complete chaos; but in the beginning he did cause muddle and confusion, the stigmata of all battles in which one side is taken by surprise, is ill-prepared, and is forced to reorganise during short periods of respite. Confusion was accompanied, in some London boroughs, by a temporary loss of balance among elected representatives and officials, and by temporary paralysis of the executive machinery. These were chiefly the shortcomings of ignorance and inexperience. The evidence, when sifted, showed no signs of panic, although a few people talked of rioting when about 5,000 East Enders trudged off to Epping and sat down in the Forest.
Anxiety and loss of sleep were general; disorganisation and social discomfort much more serious. Moving amidst all this discomfort was public anger—anger with the Government and with local authorities for the hardships that were rated as unnecessary. A flood of protests poured turbulently through all the channels of communication to Parliament and Whitehall.
If these protests had not been listed to, if any attempt had been made to stifle their expression, then the situation might well have got out of hand. But minters, members of Parliament and officials went
to see for themselves. Rest centres, shelters, tubes, railway arches and warehouses were visited night after night by representatives of the Government, the local authorities and voluntary societies. A committee of inquiry, headed by Lord Horder, was quickly set up to investigate conditions in the tubes and shelters. Special commissioners were appointed for some of the more harassing problems in London; Mr. H. U. Willink for homeless people, Mr. Charles Key for shelters, Sir Warren Fisher for damage to roads, public utilities and the clearance of debris.
At first, there were so many problems clamouring for attention that it was difficult to separate cause and effect. It was hard to identify the roots of disorganisation while such a tangle of muddle flourished. During the first six weeks or so the Government had little opportunity to think of long-term policies, each day was filled with fresh and urgent claims. Primitive needs cried out; food and water in this place, sanitary buckets in that, blankets for warmth everywhere. These claimant needs had to be provided for, at least in part, before it could be seen that what London really faced was a race between the rate of damage and the rate at which people were resettled in homes.
For a few days, even the provision of essential needs had to take second place while transfers of population from the East End were carried out. These were necessary to relieve congestion in the rest centres, and in response to urgent demands for wholesale evacuation. Some of the districts which suffered most from bombing were small areas of poorly-built property lying in islands between docks, or between docks and the river, and often flanked by warehouses which were set out on fire. For some days, there was a danger that these areas might be completely cut off and their inhabitants put beyond rescue. With transport and communication badly disrupted, it was natural that some cries for evacuation should arise: what was surprising was that they were so few.
The loudest cry came from Silvertown, lying in the south-west of the county borough of West Ham, and hemmed in by the River Lea, the Thames and the docks.29 Caught in this isolated bit of London, the local people felt themselves particularly at the mercy of the German raiders. The unexploded bomb made matters worse, for until the measure of this weapon had been taken many areas of the East
End were roped off for weeks without real cause, and tens of thousands of people had to leave their homes at only a few minutes’ notice. Water supplies were also endangered, for by 10th September the Germans had breached the northern outfall sewer and for some time crude sewage was discharging into the River Lea. Under these battle stresses, local leadership in West Ham faltered. Demands were made, first for transport to empty the crowded rest centres, and then for the complete evacuation of the borough, or at any rate, Silvertown. On the night of 11th September, four days after the first attack, the Minister of Health (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald) went to West Ham. In answer to the urgent appeals of councillors and officials, he promised that transport would appear on the following day: all those who wanted to leave Silvertown, whether homeless or not, could then go. But no further opportunity for general evacuation would be given.
This was a brave and imaginative decision. What West Ham and other disrupted boroughs needed in these critical days was leadership and a clear statement of the practical issues. Henceforward, Londoners were to play a much more active role in the battles. The emphasis was already shifting from evacuation to resistance—resistance from the home, the shelter, the workshop; resistance by the family, the street, the borough. Experience was showing that this was what most people wanted. The West Ham authorities soon learnt that they had been over fearful, for on 12th September only about 2,900 people left Silvertown in the transport provided. At the same time, many workers began to return to their daily jobs from the rest centres and from the camps that had been set up in Epping Forest.
Within a week, the East End, for long remarkably parochial in its interests and associations, began to show a stubbornness which, though it helped the Government in some ways, proved to be in others a positive embarrassment. This stubbornness, intelligible enough to those who knew the people well, expressed itself in a reluctance to move from the overcrowded rest centres to other London districts as a first step towards billeting or rehousing. The people of the East End objected to being transferred to distant parts of London with different social standards and habits of life. Their attitude was consistent with the lessons of the 1939 evacuation and might, indeed, have been expected. To this parochialism was added, as the attack spread over a wider area, the reasonable argument that there was no point in being uprooted merely to experience raids in another district of London. The insistence by these people upon staying where they were made it all the more urgent to deal with the problem of rest centres.
Nineteen days after the first attack, a rest centre population of 25,000 had piled up in the London civil defence region. This was the
highest figure reached throughout the war. Of the total, over 14,000 were in the desperately overcrowded centres run by the London County Council.
Something like a third of the 25,000 were homeless because of unexploded bombs—real or imagined. These people were, so to speak, pariahs in the world of the bombed, since they were not casualties, they had not lost their belongings, and for a period the ‘time-bombed’ (as they were called) were regarded as ineligible for help from air raid distress funds.30 For some weeks, the rate at which unexploded bombs were reported far exceeded the rate at which they were disposed of by the Army’s bomb disposal squads. The proportion of these bombs dropped by the Germans seems to have been in the neighbourhood of five to ten percent of all the high-explosive bombs.31 This was a much smaller ration then the fifty percent suggested by the Air Staff in 1934, when the Committee of Imperial Defence was discussing the need for a disposal organisation.32 Nevertheless, by 27th November 1940, the estimated number of unexploded bombs awaiting disposal in London region had risen to over 3,000. The Germans do not seem to have realised how effective this weapon was in disrupting city life. At any rate, no significant increase in the proportion of delayed-action bombs was noted in later raids.
The direct damage and destruction of home, reinforced by the effects of the unexploded bomb, rapidly created a host of social problems. The one that was seen to be most urgent in the early days of the raids was the bad condition of the rest centres in which thousands of homeless people were living. Something had to be done to improve these conditions much attention could be given to the next problem of rehousing the homeless.
These centres were generally located in schools, although all types of buildings were used. Their defects were almost universal. Bread, margarine, potted meat and corned beef, jam, biscuits and tea, varied only by soup, were provided for days on end for children as well as
adults.33 Apart from a few blankets, there was usually no other bedding and often few chairs for the many who arrived clad only in night clothes, neighbours’ coats or rugs. Washing facilities rarely equalled the need, for the filth which enveloped most of the bombed was one of the unforeseen phenomena of total war.34
What follows is, perhaps, an extreme example of the conditions which stirred the public to anger. An elementary school in Stepney was used as a rest centre. At night the floor was crowded with people lying on blankets, mattresses and bundles of clothing. In the light of dimmed hurricane lamps, some 200 to 300 homeless people had the use of ten pails and coal scuttles as lavatories. ‘By the middle of the night these containers … overflow so that, as the night advances, urine and faeces spread in ever-increasing volume over the floor. The space is narrow so that whoever enters inevitably steps in the sewage and carries it on his shoes all over the building … The containers are not emptied until 8 a.m. By dawn the stench … but I leave this to your imagination.’ Seven basins were available for these people to wash in; no soap, no towels. Water was heated over coals, drinking water kept in zinc baths.35
‘The Picture of the rest centres in those early days’, wrote another social workers, ‘is unforgettable. Dim figures in dejected heaps on unwashed floors in total darkness: harassed, bustling, but determinedly cheerful helpers distributing eternal corned beef sandwiches and tea—the London County Council panacea for hunger, shock, loss, misery and illness … Dishevelled, half-dressed people wandering between the bombed house and the rest centres salvaging bits and pieces, or trying to keep in touch with the scatter family—A clergyman appeared and wandered about aimlessly, and someone played the piano.36
It was the voluntary organisations—the Charity Organisation Society, the Society of Friends, the Settlement workers, the London Council of Social Service and many others—who helped to hold the
line during this period while the official machine was beginning to take effective action. The Charity Organisation Society, for instance, had foreseen the need for blankets and clothing, and through the generosity of the Canadian Red Cross had acquired stocks of 50,000 blankets, 100,000 miscellaneous garments and 50,000 tins of food. These stocks were quickly distributed to London rest centres. Voluntary helpers at the Canadian Red Cross headquarters worked incessantly, packing and sorting. Soldiers of the Canadian Army loaded lorries and moved cases to the offices of the Charity Organisation Society in Vauxhall Bridge Road. The staff of the Society laboured heavily as a tumbled mass of cases piled up on the pavement. Many passers-by joined the work—civil servants, Servicemen, clerks and businessmen on their way to Victoria Station.37 The sight of Red Cross labels and the emotional stimulus of bombing broke down traditional dignities and liberated a spirit of helpfulness.
Next to the shortages of food, blankets and equipment, insufficient staff was the biggest problem of the rest centres in the early days. It was here that many social workers voluntarily gave to the centres the benefit of their training. They had experience in handling distressed people, they knew the value of order, they were familiar with the detail of social provision. Unlike some—not all—of the poor law officials they were capable of taking the initiative, and of temporarily disregarding rules and regulations. This they did effectively. They raided school feeding centres and took away cutlery and crockery without permission, they brought food out of a variety of charitable funds, they appropriated babies’ napkins and clothes from various sources, and one at least fetched to a centre administered by the public assistance committee coal which belonged to the local education committee.38
The number of experienced social workers who could walk in and take charge of rest centres needing staff was, however, very limited. In some instances, members of the Women’s Voluntary Services, teachers, local officials and clergyman retrieved the situation. In other instances ordinary people of the neighbourhood quite naturally became leaders in the centres, just as they did in the shelters and the tubes.
There is, for instance, the story of Mrs. B. who figures prominently in reports from Islington.39 Mrs. B. was a beetroot seller. Her weather-beaten face and good loud voice were the result of years of market selling. When the raids started she left the first aid post where she was a part-time volunteer, walked into Ritchie Street rest centre and took charge. She found a supply of milk for the babies, bedded them down early with their mothers, and administered powders. What was in them no one knew, but sleep was not long in coming. Then she put the oldest and feeblest on the remaining beds and benches and had the whole household, one hundred to three hundred in all, asleep or quiet as the bombs came whining down. In the morning she organised the washing, bathed the babies, swept the floors, supervised breakfast, and went home about 11 o’clock to sleep (or sell beetroots?). In the evening she was back again. She made one rest centre a place of security, order and decency for hundreds of homeless people.
The period of improvised staffing did not last long. Within a few days of the first big raid, and after the chairman of the London County Council had complained bitterly that the post-raid services had been starved of money, the Minister, sweeping aside established practice, gave the Council a free hand. Accommodation in rest centres for homeless people was to be expanded from about 10,000 up to a limit of 50,000. Equipment, and paid or voluntary staff, were to be provided ‘to such extent as might be necessary’.
In effect, this ministerial decision threw the poor law out of the rest centres. Rearguard actions were stubbornly fought by the Treasury for another two months against the principle of one hundred percent Exchequer reimbursement of all expenditure; but at the end of November 1940 resistance finally collapsed. What had been given to the London County Council could not be withheld from the rest of the country.40 The decision came as a relief to many officials in Whitehall and Edinburgh,41 in the regions, and not least to those responsible in the local government world for the actual provision of services for homeless people. The financial basis of relief in kind was thus brought into line with that for relief in cash: both were accepted as a national burden. No longer was it necessary to count heads in rest centres; the
bombed in district A were not to be distinguished from the bombed in district B.
Complete reorganisation of the rest centre services in London immediately followed the Minister’s intervention. It might almost be said that an entirely new service began to develop. The County Council set up a special department distinct from, though ultimately responsible to, the public assistance committee. Young and able officers were put in charge, administrative control was loosened, an energetic drive was started to improve the arrangements for feeding and sleeping, first aid and sanitation. New rest centres were quickly opened. The public assistance officials were withdrawn from the centres and hundreds of school teachers, many of them out of work because of the closing and bombing of schools, responded to an appeal for rest centres staff. A large number of voluntary helpers, particularly from the Women’s Voluntary Services,42 were also used. Other staff, including social workers, were engaged at civil defence rates of pay.43
A scheme was introduced whereby two teams, each of five members, worked in day and night shifts to man each first- and second-line rest centres in the Council’s are. Wherever possible, a nurse and an information officer were included in each team. Meanwhile, in many districts, care committee and citizens’ advice bureaux organisers were visiting the first-line centres to provide some kind of information service for homeless people.
The Ministry of Health also reacted quickly to the critical situation in September. On the 10th, its staff at the London regional office began to be reinforced from the health insurance inspectorate. On the following day, an officer was instructed to deal with the special problem of West Ham and surrounding areas. In Whitehall, the care of the homeless division was immediately strengthened. One of its most pressing tasks was to obtain supplies of equipment for the rest centres, shelters, tube stations and other emergency services.
The need for blankets at first dominated the equipment problem, just as it had done a year earlier.44 Then also there had been a shortage; but, as bombs did not fall and mothers and children returned from the country, no new orders for blankets were placed; indeed, quantities were actually transferred to other services, and 100,000 were sold to the French Army. In September 1940 the Ministries of Health and Works had in reserve only about 150,000 coloured blankets.
A month later the Health Departments in London and Edinburgh found that they wanted about 2,500,000. The need was so urgent that the War Office was persuaded to lend nearly a million. These were hurriedly distributed.45 But the shortage remained acute, despite strenuous and costly efforts to repair it. In March 1941 the Ministry of Health estimated that 1,250,000 additional blankets were still needed.
The problem of camp beds, which was associated with the two blanket crises of August 1939 and September 1940, was in some ways more difficult to resolve because of a history of unfulfilled contracts. In 1939 the Office of Works had placed for the Health Departments contracts for 975,000 camp beds. Because the needs of the evacuation scheme turned out to be less than expected, and because of the Government’s insistence on economy, manufacturers were persuaded to cancel contracts for over 400,000. In addition, 270,000 were unloaded on the War Office. Consequently, only a small number were held in stock for the Health Departments in September 1940.
Eventually, most of these equipment difficulties were overcome. Immense orders were placed in the first few months of the heavy raids for blankets, mattresses, camp beds and bunks, while the Government entered the market for hundreds of thousands of teapots, mugs, kettles, chairs and other domestic items.46 These were needed for rest centres, for rehousing the homeless, for evacuation hostels, hospitals and various emergency services. By 1941 the administrative machinery for estimating equipment needs in the Health Departments had been drastically overhauled, a supply division established, and the problem of storage space investigated.47 From then on, equipment budgets were drawn up a six-monthly intervals to cover all war services, and advance orders were notified to the purchasing agencies—mainly the Ministries of Works and Supply.
The Government’s determined action—by its settlement of the financial question, by its reorganisations of staff, by its forthright attack on the equipment shortage—soon produced good results in
London, Even by the end of September 1940 a ‘substantial improvement’ in the condition of the London County Council’s rest centres was recorded. It was reported a month later that the centres had ‘improved enormously’. These reports did not come from the Council or the Ministry of Health. They came—and that is why they are quoted here in evidence—from the severest critics of the rest centre service, from social workers and voluntary agencies in London.
Throughout the winter months of 1940–1 progress was steadily maintained. The County Council’s centres were equipped with first aid materials, a continuous service for disinfesting bedding was instituted, regular medical inspections were carried out and sanitary facilities were raised to a satisfactory standard.48 At the same time, following a number of disasters from direct hits, a start was made with providing structural protection to the buildings in use as rest centres.49
The problem of providing food and drink for homeless people, and for those who had their water and gas supplies frequently cut off, was also tackled with vigour and imagination. At the request of the Ministry of Food the London County Council began to organise communal feeding centres.50 These centres, which eventually formed part of the scheme known as ‘The Londoners’ Meals Service’, were first run on the ‘cash and carry’ principle, mobile kitchen units providing cooked food chiefly at schools. Although at the outset a dining-room service was not contemplated, by November 1940 the policy of establishing dining-rooms at all feeding centres had been accepted. Hot meals were provided on payment to people who, because of war conditions, were unable to obtain or prepare them. Mobile canteens in the hands of the Women’s Voluntary Services, the Church Army, the Y.M.C.A., and other voluntary agencies served admirably, in the early months of air attack, as a flexible instrument for supplementing food and canteen shortages in bombed areas.
By May 1941 an efficient organisation was in control of the situation in the county of London, The Londoners’ Meals Service had established 170 centres, most of them in school buildings. In addition, twenty-seven community kitchens were maintained by voluntary organisations, the work being coordinated by the Women’s Voluntary Services and the London Council of Social Service. Four food
convoys,51 organised by the Ministry of Food and staffed by volunteers, were ready to go into action, and over 190 mobile canteens, provided by both voluntary and official agencies, were stationed at many points in the London civil defence region.
Feeding arrangements in the rest centres themselves had also been improved beyond the recognition of those who had known the centres in September 1940. Moreover, alternative methods of cooking had been installed and schemes worked out to provide emergency reserves of drinking water. These measures were important, for on many occasions large numbers of people were deprived of water and cooking facilities. For instance, after a heavy raid in October 1940, twenty percent of London consumers had their gas supplies cut off, and some boroughs were without normal water supplies for three days.
A complete account of the development of wartime feeding schemes, expressed in such a variety of forms as British restaurants, food convoys, canteens for homeless people, shelterers, evacuated mothers and children and war workers cannot be given here.52 Enough has been said, however, to show that the problem of providing hot food and drinks for homeless people in London was, after a bad start, successfully overcome. The contribution made by voluntary workers, and notably by the Women’s Voluntary Services, was, perhaps, greater in this field of wartime service than in any other.
As soon as the various tasks of providing the essentials of good food, simple equipment and a reasonable standard of sanitation had been solved, the London County Council began to raise the whole standard of living in its rest centres. Local staffs and volunteer workers were encouraged to vie with each other in devising improvements and adding amenities. Bathrooms, made of salvaged material by the staff, were installed in some centres; armchairs, ornaments, pictures, wireless sets and flowers appeared, while the County Council cooperated with E.N.S.A. and C.E.M.A. in providing simple and informal entertainments for homeless people.
By the end of 1941 the transformation was complete. The bleak, inhospitable poor law standards of the centres in September 1940 had given way to good and kindly board and lodging, available without charge to the homeless victims of air attack. Moreover, what had been done was done, not in peaceful conditions, not when supplies of equipment were plentiful, but at a time when administrators and
executive officers could have found plentiful excuses for inaction. But this was a period in the social history of London when most men and women would have found it intolerable to trade in excuses.
It so happened that these new rest centres were never used to the same extent as the old ones had been in the early months of the raids; but when they were, the changes were not lost on those who had to use them. ‘They couldn’t do too much for me, Miss,’, said one old lady from Shoreditch who had to spend a night in a centre in December 1941.53 That comment was typical.
The task of providing temporary accommodation and food for the victims of air attack in the county of London had been tackled and mastered during the course of the battle. That victory was decisive. In order of time, by reason of the numbers affected, and because of its complexity, the London problem assumed an importance far greater than that of any other raided city in Britain. London, that is, the people of London, symbolised to many onlookers the spirit and strength of resistance. It may not have merited greatness, it may not have borne its trials with greater fortitude than any other bombed city of Western civilisation, but greatness, an uncomfortable greatness, was thrust upon it during the winter of 1940–41. Most Londoners were probably quite unaware of the fact.
(iii) Crisis in London Region
So far, this chapter has examined only the problems of homeless people in the county of London and their immediate need for temporary shelter and food. Their further need was for resettlement in new homes, but before this is discussed something must first be said about the stresses of battle in outer London.
In addition to the bombing sustained by this area, many of the social consequences of the attack on inner London flooded out over the boundaries of the county, and often beyond the frontiers of London Region—i.e. the civil defence region whose territory, but wise forethought, enveloped the whole of Middlesex and part of four other counties.54 These regional frontiers had been well drawn to catch the full flood of people and problems. But because of the region’s size, and because the executive duty of providing services for homeless people rested on local government, the task of coordination—of
simultaneous action by all the services—emerged as one of the biggest administrative problems.
London region contained ninety-six authorities concerned with billeting and housing, and nine who were responsible for the rest centre service.55 During 1940 four of the latter (Middlesex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex) informally delegated part or all of their functions to the local district councils. In a service which depended to such a great extent on voluntary and part-time staff, and therefore upon local help, this delegation tended to stimulate neighbourhood interest. But, on the other hand, it increased the number of agencies and, incidentally, showed that liaison between minor authorities was often defective.
The problems if the rest centres in that part of the region outside the area of the London County Council were not so very different from those inside the Council’s area. There were the same difficulties about food, equipment, sanitation, staff and so on. In general, except for the county boroughs of West Ham and East Ham, the rest centre service was not so hardly pressed as that for which the London County Council was responsible. Partly for this reason, and partly because of the absence of directions from Whitehall on the standards to aim at, the rate of improvement was slow and uneven. But perhaps the most important reason was that a system of central government inspection was late in starting.56
By April 1941 a reasonable level of efficiency had been reached by most authorities, especially in Hertfordshire, where more interest was displayed in after-care and the general welfare of homeless people than in some other areas. In one or two places, new services were started, sometimes by the local authority, sometimes by a voluntary body. The British Red Cross Society, for instance, began an experiment in Middlesex which eventually benefited other areas in the region. Houses were taken, equipped and staffed by volunteers to provide periods of rest for homeless people suffering from shock or in various stages of recovery from illness. Later in the war, these places proved useful in meeting some of the needs of old people and in catering for men and women convalescing after illness. Many of these new ventures grew out of an improved rest centre service.
In a few areas, however, the service continued to be weak for a long time. In each instance, history provided the fundamental reason. The West Ham organisation, for example, brought to its task the memory of a painful history of bad relations with the Ministry of Health. Deep and bitter feelings had been aroused ten years previously, when the
Minister (Mr. Neville Chamberlain) determinedly set out to bring West Ham to heel.57 The Ministry was thus known to this borough chiefly for its parsimony, dating back to the end of the First World War, in the field of public assistance. Moreover, the account had still not been settled in full, for in 1938–9 the West Ham rates was 21s. 2d. in the pound partly owing to the surcharge which had been taken over from the old joint Board of Guardians, and partly because of the repayment of loans for abnormal expenditure in the past.58 When, therefore, in 1940, the Ministry offered rest centre staff to West Ham, paid at rates similar to those paid by the London County Council, officials and elected representatives alike not only regarded the idea as too ambitious for the borough, but also found difficulty in believing that the Ministry would actually foot the bill although it had undertaken to do so.59
The treatment of local government, especially poor local government, during the inter-war period and up to 1940 had much to do with the way in which the new emergency services were at first organised and administered. Authorities—other than West Ham—who considered that they had been badly treated reacted to new duties with suspicion and tactics of delay. The curbing of progressive ideas and the pruning of local expenditure left a legacy which could not be quickly dispelled just when the central Ministry became, for the first time in its career, a generous spending department.
It was not until the early summer of 1941 that any definite improvement was seen in West Ham’s rest centre service. The raids of March and April 1941 had shown up again the old defects; inadequate and poor equipment,60 insufficient staff, faulty liaison between the different arms of the organisation. The borough council, regarding the services as an unwelcome function, gave little support to overworked officials dealing with administrative problems of an urgency and size to which they were totally unaccustomed. Once again, they Government considered depriving the authority of its emergency powers, but with the ending of the London raids and the improvement that was taking place the proposal was dropped.61
Elsewhere in the London region the standard of the rest centre service steadily improved during 1941. While in the other areas it seldom reached the high standard attained by the London County
Council organisation, it was, nevertheless, generally strong enough to deal with the tasks imposed by the 1941 raids. The tests set by the heavy attacks of April and May were successfully passed by London region, although the destructiveness of these raids was far greater than that caused in the autumn of 1940. On two nights in April, roughly 148,000 houses were damaged and destroyed in the region, whereas in the previous September and October housing damage had run at the rate of only about 40,000 a week. Despite the much heavier material damage, social disruption was kept under greater control. In the spring of 1941, the number of homeless people in the rest centres never rose above 12,000 as compared with an average of 20,000–25,000 in September 1940.
Another index of improvement was the fact that there was much less movement of people from inner to outer areas of the region during these heavier raids. ‘Trekking’, the nightly movement of people from raided areas, was never a big problem in London, but it did cause some anxiety in the early days of September 1940. It created a need for the provision of shelter and food in areas on the periphery of the city and in nearby towns and villages. It was accompanied by a considerable exodus from London of motor-cars which were used, so so speak, as mobile sleeping shelters. Moreover, until the ordinary people of London took it in their own hands to open the tubes as refuge for the night, and until better shelter provision had been made throughout the region, there was some haphazard evacuation to the towns and villages of the home counties.
These unorganised movements did not last long, chiefly because they represented a stage in the business of getting acquainted with air raids; a stage described by the Army, in reference to young soldiers, as ‘battle conditioning’. But while they did last, they led to a lot of hardship. In the early days of the London raids, travel vouchers were given to many people who had no claims to any official evacuation facilities.62 While some of these people made their own arrangements for accommodation, others did not and arrived in a helpless state in such towns as Reading, Oxford and Windsor.63 There, after unsuccessful efforts of their own to find homes, they drifted to rest centres run by the local public assistance authority and became the responsibility of the billeting officials, or were transferred elsewhere.
These refugees met with many difficulties, for not only had they no
official status as evacuees, but the rest centre service in the reception and neutral areas was much more primitive than in London.64 The local authorities reacted more slowly to the need for new services, partly because they were not being bombed and partly because the Ministry of Health was at the time completely absorbed with the problem of London. Eventually, the confusion was straightened out, rest centres were improvised, and those people who did not return to London were generally assimilated into the evacuation scheme.65
This problem of trekking and a haphazard exodus of refugees arose chiefly as a result of heavy and continued raids on some of the provincial cities. In London, after the shock of the first blows of September 1940 had worn off, the tubes, the special evacuation facilities, and a variety of public and private shelters offered to Londoners opportunities for rest and relief which were not available to the same extent to people living in such cities as Southampton, Plymouth and Hull. Further discussion of the problem is therefore postponed to the next chapter.
(iv) Resettlement of the Homeless
The story of the first impact, of the first revelation of primitive needs and the successful battle of the rest centres has now been told both for London county and for London region. But the need to provide food and a good standard of temporary accommodation for the 200,000 or so homeless people66 who passed through the centres was only one of the whole group of interconnected needs. It was, in fact, simply the first of the problems confronting the bombed and the homeless. What had to be envisaged, as a typical case and the totality of problems, was a family left on the street after a bomb had fallen, outside a damaged house or no house at all, with no spare clothes, nowhere to eat or wash or rest, perhaps without money or furniture to start home-building again, ignorant of what a rest centre meant or where one was, with only a limited knowledge of all the multifarious
welfare services provided by the authorities, and hazy about what to do and where to go for war damage payments, cash grants for the distressed, pensions, furniture salvage, clothing stores, ration books, identity cards, house repairs, temporary billets, first aid, lost gas masks and so on.
With infinite variations in circumstances this was the sort of situation which confronted about 2,550,000 people in the United Kingdom who were made homeless at some period during the raids of 1940–1. Nearly two-thirds, or 1,400,000 of these people, belonged to the London civil defence region; that is, about one person in every six in London region was rendered homeless.67 For an assortment of reasons, social disturbance on this scale—or, indeed, on any sizeable scale at all—had not been foreseen by the Government when it was planning the defence of the home against air attack. Yet, as will be shown later, the weight of the German attack never approached any of the alarming hypotheses put forward when plans were being prepared before the war.
Three major questions may be distinguished among the mass of social needs presented by the family in the street outside its bombed home. As these questions began to form themselves amidst the disorder of the September battles, it was realised that if they could be answered the foundations of a policy for dealing with the social consequences of air attack would have been securely laid. One question was the rest centre service; the first stage of providing food, warmth and shelter for homeless people. This questions has already been examined. The second, and in many ways a more difficult one, was the resettlement of these people in a home. The third, standing on its own and yet binding together the other two, was the task of consolidating and unifying every part of every post-raid service, official and voluntary, so that there would be no unsatisfied needs, no misdirections, no long hours of waiting, no exhausting journeys to different offices, and plenty of time and opportunity for the individual treatment of each case unique in its distress.
It would have been confusing if this narrative had attempted to discuss, in strict chronological sequence, the efforts of the authorities to cope with each one of the almost unlimited number of social needs arising from air attack. Practically all these needs arose simultaneously. Because the rest centre service has been discussed first, it must not be assumed that other needs were being neglected at the time this service was being reorganised. It is, however, broadly true to say that the rest centre service dominated the London scene in the month of September 1940. In October, and for the next two months, the question of resettlement was the most important. After that came the time
in which the consolidation and unification of all the post-raid services in the London area was the dominant problem. From the beginning of 1941 the attention of the Government turned more and more away from London and towards the provinces; for the attacks on the ports and industrial centres threw up a somewhat different set of social problems.
In discussing next, then, the question of the resettlement of homeless people, it should be recalled that until September 1940 policy was still only vaguely defined. During the first month or so of the London raids the authorities, from the War Cabinet down to the local council, were preoccupied with the problems of bad conditions in rest centres, tube stations and shelters. Significantly, reports to the War Cabinet on damage in London did not refer to housing until more than three weeks had passed. Immediate needs on the field of battle claimed first attention. Meanwhile, a situation was developing which threatened to undo all the measures which were being taken for the care of homeless people. The rest centres were damming up, the population of the homeless was growing, and the restitution of home life was being steadily outpaced by the rate at which homelessness was being created.
It was not at first realised that this London battlefield had to be cleared each day; that the disruption of one night had to be patched up within the next twelve hours. The rest centres, offering temporary shelter to homeless people, were in the nature of casualty clearing stations on the battlefield itself. Unless there was a rapid flow through these stations; unless they were cleared afresh each day to make ready for the next night’s battle, a situation would arise which would defy control. By the middle of October 1940 it was seen that this might happen. On the 30th, the Civil Defence Committee of the War Cabinet was told that it was becoming difficult to restrain press criticism. Four weeks later Sir John Anderson warned his colleagues that public morale would be shaken if action was not taken to accelerate repairs. The rate of damage to houses was so outrunning repairs that there was also a danger—it was said—of confidence between the Army and the public being undermined. Soldiers and officers, too, were impatient because greater use was not being made of their services.
However, when remedies for this situation were considered the military analogy was not really helpful. There were, it should be emphasised again, ninety-six authorities in charge of different bits of the London battlefield. Each had certain powers in regard to billeting and rehousing, while the London County Council held concurrent powers over the area of the twenty-eight metropolitan boroughs. Though the County Council ran the rest centres in this area, it was the boroughs who knew best about the housing situation. They also
had the task of classifying damage and undertaking repairs. The employment of these powers of billeting, rehousing and repairs could not easily be separated from the work of clearing the rest centres. Yet, as the Council somewhat bitterly point out as it saw the centres damming up, it could not order the boroughs about their business.68 For a short time, there was some talk in the War Cabinet of depriving them of their powers in this field. Simultaneously, the idea was put forward of a dictator to take charge of all civil defence and post-raid services in London. Sometimes the Regional Commissioner was cast for the dictator’s role; at other times it was suggested that a Minister of Civil Defence should be vested with unlimited powers.69
These proposals were not considered for long. As each of the main causes of disorder was more sharply identified, their interdependent nature became strikingly clear. It became equally clear the ultimately the answers would have to be found locally. As Mr. Herbert Morrison (then Minister of Home Security) pointed out, when increased powers were asked for in January 1941 by the Regional Commissioner to deal with Southampton’s air raid problems, ‘If the local authorities cannot do without the Government, the Government cannot do without the local authorities’. To carry thorough an administrative revolution would also involve delay—a dangerous matter at such a time of crisis.70 This does not of course mean that greater efficiency might not have prevailed in the London region had there been fewer than ninety-six rehousing and billeting authorities.
Politically, it would not have been easy for the Government to have amputated the local organisations on the score of their failure to deal quickly with the lengthening queues of homeless people. The Government’s own record, as earlier passages have shown, was not faultless. On 9th October 1940, the Minister of Health, in replying to criticisms of his department’s post-raid services, courageously accepted a good deal of the responsibility and paid a tribute to the London County Council for its work.71 Such frankness could not reasonably be followed by action which would deprive the small authorities in London
region of the chance of showing what they could do, once they had been given a lead.
The reason why this question of superseding local government arose in the first instance was because of the failure to billet and rehouse the rest centre population. The seriousness of the situation was evident by mid-October. On the 17th, the number of homeless people in the County Council’s centres stood at about 19,000.72 This showed an increased of 5,000 over the figure for 26th September when a peak total of 25,000 for the whole region had been reported. Although new centres were continually being opened by the Council, and by mid-October ninety-nine first-line and fifty-five third-line centres were operations, others were being damaged and put out of action all the time. Overcrowding was getting worse.
What was equally serious was that about four in every ten of these people had been in the centres for more than ten days. Moreover, these figures did not measure the total problem, for the number of homeless people who were maintaining a peripatetic existence between a shelter and the remnants of their home, or who were settling down to a permanent life in underground shelters of one kind and another was thought to be increasing. Fears for their surviving possessions, too often left in the early days of the raids to the risks of weather and theft, helped to keep many homeless people away from rest centres. Others, too, who were affected by bombing were unable to find the centres or were unaware of their existence. Because most people are not interested in information about the social services until they need it urgently, a heavy responsibility therefore rested on those concerned with the post-raid services. Too few authorities imitated the Hackney air raid precautions controller who adopted the method of exhibiting special posters around the scene of an incident. These directed the homeless to rest centres and other services. Generally, however, the arrangements for direction were not improved until the end of 1940. It was not laid down, for instance, until 15th November that the police, wardens and shelter wardens on duty should know which rest centres were open locally each day.
During the first six weeks of the attacks on London there were, at a guess, about 16,000 houses destroyed or damaged beyond repair, about 60,000 seriously damaged but repairable, and another 130,000
slightly damaged.73 Even if the third category is ignored, there may have been, by mid-October, a population of roughly 250,000 London people who had been rendered homeless. Some of these had, of course, been evacuated or moved away, others were sleeping in tubes and shelters,74 about a tenth were in the crowded rest centres, while many more were presumably lodging with friends and relations or had made their own arrangements for starting a home again. The ninety-six authorities in the London region had rehoused only a little over 7,000 people during these six weeks.
Clearly the situation was a dangerous one. The reverse of what had been expected, a panic exodus from London, had, ironically enough, produced this situation. For had these homeless people fled the scene of damage there would not have been a problem of rehousing them in London.
And yet there appeared to be plenty of room, for on 24th October 1940 it was said that 24,945 requisitioned properties were held for homeless people in the London County Council area alone, and over 12,000 billets were available in the region outside the county of London. Why was there this contradiction of empty houses and a mounting total of homeless people? What, in fact, were the real problems of resettlement?
It was easy enough to say: ‘Here are the empty houses and the billets. Here are the homeless. Clear the rest centres’. But this was a
matter of people, a matter, too, of local government, whose councillors and officials sometimes spoke, not the imperative accents of 1940, but social dialects of the past, punctiliously phrased in the cautious economic language of the inter-war years. Of one such authority in the London region a senior civil servant was simulated to write: ‘The town clerk, who is an excellent town clerk of the nineteenth century, has only just been persuaded that if anything happens action would need to be swift’.
Nevertheless, the simple attractiveness of a dictator to order all things on the London battlefield was a delusion. There was no ruthless way through the tangle of problems, past the resistant forces of history, above the rational and irrational desires of men and women. This crisis of resettlement, when each one of its many constituent problems had been separately dissected, was seen to be something more than just a matter of local confusion: it was in fact an instance of the frightening complexity of modern government. It is, therefore, worth while considering the nature of the crisis in some detail.
Why were the rest centres not being cleared quickly? A general and widespread lack of information was one reason. The authorities knew very little about the homeless who, in turn, knew even less about the authorities. At first, no systematic records were kept of persons admitted to and discharged from the centres, of persons who were genuinely entitled to billeting or rehousing, of persons who were ‘time-bombed’, of those who were waiting for houses to be repaired, of the places where they all came from, where the breadwinners worked, the size of the families to be rehoused, and so on. It was necessary for most of these facts to be known if resettlement was to proceed satisfactorily, quite apart from the help that could be given to anxious relatives and friends seeking information about people whose homes had been smashed.75
For some time, too, many authorities did not known about each other’s functions (this was called bad liaison), or even about their own responsibilities. There was much confusion about the respective duties of the Assistance Board and the public assistance authorities, different divisions of the Ministry of Health were not conversant with each other’s policies,76 some local authorities were found sending homeless people to house agents, some did not know that equipment
could be obtained from the Ministry of Health’s regional stores or that they had requisitioning powers,77 and others were muddled about the concurrent billeting powers of the London County Council and the metropolitan boroughs. Officials of the Council and a borough might both try to billet different families in the same house. It was, in fact, admitted by the Council that whether it or a borough functioned in any particular instance depended quite as much upon the state of the telephone system as upon whether the homeless were local people or whether they had been transferred from some other area.
Since officials were often badly informed in 1940 about the array of agencies dealing with different types of need, misdirections inevitably led to additional hardship among air raid victims.78 The sixteen year old daughter of a widow bombed out on 17th November 1940 spent the whole Monday 18th trying to get a few pounds for some clothes. She did not resort to a rest centre … She first went to the town hall; thence she was directed to go to 71, Park Lane, thence to Woburn Road, thence to 166, London Road, Norbury, and at the end of the day had accomplished nothing. Part of that was the Assistance Board’s fault, part the result of no administrative centre in Croydon.’79
Such fruitless journeys were a common experience of those affected by the raids in the autumn of 1940. It was, moreover, possible for an individual to have to go to different offices for clothing, for cash advances for war damage, for the salvage, removal and storage of furniture, for new ration books, for repairs to the house, for the reconnection of water, gas and electricity supplies and to inquire about evacuation facilities. Information about these and other services was not at first available at the rest centres.
Public ignorance about official and voluntary services, and a lack of coordination between the various responsible authorities, were thus important causes of the confusion during the first months of the London raids. They partly accounted for the congestion in the rest centres.
There were, though, many reasons for the failure to effect a rapid flow of homeless people through the centres.
One was the slow rate of repairs to houses. Before this could be remedied additional supplies of material had to be provided, some boroughs had to strengthen their technical staffs and, above all, many thousands of building operates had to be found. London alone needed, at the end of October 1940, 6,000 tilers—‘a number greater than there are available in the whole country’. Ultimately, the answer to these needs was to take skilled building operatives out of the Army, a process which, inevitably, was not very rapid.
In the middle of October the London County Council reported that unexploded bombs were responsible for thirty-five percent of its rest centre population. Here, then, was another cause of the congestion. An increase in the rate at which these bombs were disposed of depended upon getting a larger number of Royal Engineers employed on the work. This, again, could not be effected by a stroke of the pen.
Billeting and rehousing, the foundations of a satisfactory resettlement service, were slow to develop in the London region.80 Lack of preparations, scanty directions from the Ministry of Health, misunderstanding over housing functions;81 these and several other reasons contributed to the tardy development of a resettlement service. Billeting officers had to be appointed, houses and billets carefully selected, and families fitted to them with that regard for a baffling variety of social standards and personal characteristics that often only an experienced social worker could supply.
Homeless people were reluctant to move from familiar places; they clung to their ‘villages’ in London. Similarly, local authorities did not want to help each other by billeting or rehousing people who
lived outside their dominions.82 They tried to hold fast to the sovereignty of local boundaries. They were abetted in this by individual insularity, and by the way in which class distinctions coloured people’s attitudes to their new home. The transfer of homeless families from the East to the West End of London did not work, partly for this reason. Nor did, for instance, the late inhabitants of Rye Lane fell at home in Dulwich. Moreover, many people had to live near their work because they could not afford the extra travelling costs. Some districts were even rejected by homeless people because of absence of street markets and ‘cut-price’ shops. Some people would not take accommodation which did not provide for their animal pets as well as themselves. A more difficult problem still was the resourceless isolation of the aged, bombed out of their dingy crannies in London and clinging, sentimentally, to the well-loved sticks of furniture.
For all these reasons the work of resettlement was arduous, time-consuming and complicated. While, too, it was administratively quicker to billet homeless people, rehousing was, in the long run, more satisfactory. But in the early months of the raids this method could not be used on a large scale, chiefly because of the lack of preparations before September 1940. Even when suitable empty houses had been requisitioned, families could not be thrust into them without furniture and bedding,83 without water, gas or electricity being connected, and without the necessary cash resources to start home life again. The installation of one family in a requisitioned house often demanded smooth coordination between five or six local departments and agencies at a time when the means of physical communication were disturbed and unreliable.
Closely related to the speed at which rehousing, and to a less degree billeting, could proceed was the problem of furniture. This had two sides to it. First, the Government had to build up a big organisation for the purchase, storage and distribution of large quantities of furniture and household equipment. Secondly, furniture in damaged houses had to be salvaged, removed, stored and, in most instances, moved again. Those who were bombed out of their homes, and were poor in material things, could rarely be persuaded to leave a neighbouring rest centre or shelter until what remained of their belongings
had been rescued or installed in a fresh home. The commercial furniture removal firms in London were quickly overwhelmed with work. The demand for removal and storage services was so great that there was a tendency for some of these firms to seize excessive profits. At the same time, there was a serious shortage of large transport vehicles, the existing depositories were crammed to their roofs, and the local authorities found that suitable premises for the storage of furniture were difficult to obtain.84
Two other obstacles to the resettlement of homeless people in new accommodation were lack of clothes and money. The former was chiefly solved by the distribution of gift clothing by the Women’s Voluntary Services and various voluntary agencies (largely financed by the Lord Mayor’s National Air Raid Distress Fund) and by individual grants from the Assistance Board. The second obstacle—lack of cash resources—was the primary concern of the Board in its dealings with air raid victims.
Those affected by raids were offered cash help under three separate schemes for financial need arising from different causes. The Assistance Board administered all three schemes, but as regards two (injury allowances and war damage) it acted on an agency basis for the Ministry of Pensions and the Board of Trade. Over the whole of Britain, the Assistance Board operated through about 500 local offices.
Some brief account has already been given of the duties of the Board for the ‘prevention and relief of distress due to circumstances caused by the war’,85 and for the payment of money allowances to those injured by enemy action.86 It will be convenient now to discuss its most important function, the payment of advance compensation for war damage.
Because the estimated cost reached frightening proportions, the Government had originally refused to consider making any payments for war damage until after the end of the war.87 But in the summer of 1940 opinion changed, and a scheme was announced of compensation for household furniture and personal clothing belonging to people of limited means.88 Later, arrangements were made for the insurance of all classes of property against war damage, and all householders were given a certain measure of free compensation.89 The effect of this free
cover was to remove the original restriction—that advance payments should be made only to the poor. All social groups were thus brought within the arrangements for free compensation up to certain limits and advance payments in case of need.90
The particular aspect of compensation which closely affected the work of resettling homeless people was the payment of advance grants for furniture and clothing damaged or destroyed. At the outset, the limits of this free scheme were too narrowly drawn, and the amounts were often inadequate.91 The machinery for assessing claims prevented prompt assistance, and there was some initial confusion as to which offices should make payments. Later, the advance grants were increased in value,92 and the Assistance Board’s officers were instructed to interpret with reasonableness and flexibility the income limits and other rules and regulations.
Apart from the question of how much should be paid in the firm of advance grants, the principal defect of this war damage scheme in the early months of the London raids lay in the field of administration. Until the raids simulated action, the Board had neglected to study the relationship between its officers and the public it served. In the main, this was a legacy from the days when the Board’s clients were almost wholly drawn from among the unemployed; people who were dealt with on stereotyped lines by reference to a mass of carefully drawn rules. The Board’s investigating officers had not been trained to develop skill in the treatment of applicants. When they erred in the interpretation of instructions, they usually erred on the side of parsimony.93
Homeless people with their multifarious needs, their pressing anxieties, their bewilderment about what to do and where to get help, required patient handling and a little sympathy. But sympathy alone was not enough, for effective social service could only be rendered if each individual was treated as an individual. Not all the people who had their homes and furniture destroyed were of the same social class. Not all of them lived in poor areas.
These changes in the character of the Board’s work were the cause of a particular handicap which its staff and its clients suffered. The geographical distribution of the Board’s offices had been arranged to fit in with the pre-war map of unemployment. This did not coincide with the map of German bombing. To make matter worse, the distribution of the offices bore little relationship to the boundaries of local authority areas. This raised many difficulties in London with its two-tier system of local government. The local areas offices of the Board, running to a generally uniform standard of efficiency and accustomed to central administration, had to achieve a close liaison with semi-independent local authorities who exhibited every possible degree of variation in the quality of their work. The lack of concerted action between the Board and these authorities ‘caused more inconvenience to bombed-out people than any other single factor’.94 What, then, eventually emerged as the most important post-raid question for the Board was the integration of its work with all the other services designed to help the victims of air raids.
It is time now to refer back to some simple questions which were presented at the beginning of this investigation of the resettlement problem. Why were the London rest centres not being cleared quickly enough? Why were there, simultaneously, empty houses and homeless people? Why had the number of homeless people so alarmingly increased? Throughout September and October 1940, these questions were agitating both Parliament and public and the War Cabinet itself. There were demands for new ministries, for civil defence dictators—for some simple, sweeping measures to cut away the rising tide and the apparent lack of organisation.
Problems of this kind, so mixed up with historical forces and so intricately interlaced in the texture of social relationships, could not be solved by methods of sweet simplicity. There was no quick and dramatic answer, no other way than a patient understanding of each of the many disorders which made up the whole sickness, and then the application of the special remedies suitable for each separate disorder and at the same time beneficial to all. In the present chapter, nearly a dozen distinct but associated problems have been identified, ranging from a lack of information about the post-raid services to a shortage of furniture depositories. The length of this list explains why it was so difficult to re-establish people in homes on the battlefield itself. The answers to all these problems did not come easily and some of the answers were not, at first, always the right ones. There
was, for instance, the policy of transferring homeless people from one side of London to another; of requisitioning empty houses in the West End, providing furniture, and installing families from the East End.95 This was a bad remedy for a bad situation, and by November 1940 it was recognised as a measure to be used only as a last resort. No further large-scale transfers across local government boundaries were, in fact, attempted.
The wholesale evacuation to the country of these homeless people, or at least the ‘useless mouths’ among them, would have reduced the problem of resettlement in London. But, after the first few weeks, resistance against evacuation became increasingly pronounced. When heavy bombing began on 7th September there were over 520,000 children of school age in the London evacuation area. Although the Government’s ‘trickle’ scheme was in operation, the total of children who had returned in July and August 1940 outnumbered those who were sent away. In September the scheme was speeded up, and about 20,500 unaccompanied children were evacuated. But in October the figure fell below 15,000. Next month if was down to 4,000. In December only 760 went out.
For mothers in London, no official evacuation facilities were available when the raids began apart from the ‘assisted private’ scheme under which travel vouchers were given and lodging allowances paid if the mothers found their own accommodation.96 After its unhappy experience as a result of the 1939 exodus, the Government was reluctant to sponsor for a second time the evacuation of mothers with their children. Although heavy attacks were being delivered on London every night in the autumn of 1940, the Government still approached the subject cautiously. On 22nd September—under pressure from the public, and because the problem of homeless people was becoming serious—it introduced a scheme for the organised evacuation of homeless mothers with their children from a few east London boroughs only.
This scheme met with little response. Not more than about 2,600 went out in the last week of September. The Government’s fear that the opening of such facilities to mother and children might swamp and break the evacuation machinery and so over-run the reception areas as to use up all the places earmarked for the coast evacuation plans was seen to be groundless. When this was realised, the scheme was extended by quick stages to all mothers and children in all
boroughs of the county of London and a number of areas outside. The result was that in October a total of about 89,000 mothers and children were evacuated in organised parties. In November this figure fell abruptly to 11,200 and in December to 1,300.
The reaction of London families to these evacuation schemes was much less favourable than at the outbreak of war.97 As will be shown later, fewer people left London during the nine months of air attack then the number who went away either just before or just after the declaration of war.
By December 1940 a vigorous propaganda campaign was in full swing to persuade all mothers and children to leave London. For nearly two months the Civil Defence Committee of the War Cabinet debated the feasibility of compelling all children to be sent away. The Government came closer at this time to sanctioning compulsory evacuation than at any other period during the whole of the war. What, perhaps, helped to turn the scale against such a drastic step was the influence of two developments. One was a noticeable diminution in the weight of the German raids on London; the other was the fact that the problem of homeless people was being steadily overcome.
The widening of evacuation facilities made some contribution to resettlement by removing some homeless people. But the contribution was limited. The real and lasting solution to the crisis was found—as it had to be found—in the boroughs of London, and not by exporting ‘homelessness’ either to other parts of London region or to the reception areas.
By what means was this achieved, and when was the problem solved? The initial phase of disorganisation and confusion, of hurried, and sometimes misplaced, policies, of energies bent almost exclusively on the task of eradicating the worst scandals of the rest centres, tubes and shelters, did not last long. By the middle of October 1940 the principles on which the post-raid services were to be reorganised were crystallising. At the end of the month the first of the new policy directives was issued. From then on the work of applying these principles in the day-to-day resettlement of homeless people was steadily pursued. By good fortune, the German Air Force, in turning its attention to the provinces, allowed this work to go on more quickly than it would otherwise have done, and gave London a breathing space in which to prepare, this time on solid foundations, for whatever the future might hold.
At the end of September the Government had appointed Mr. H. U. Willink to coordinate, under the Minister of Health, the services for homeless people in London region.98 Generosity, said Mr.
Churchill, must be the dominant note in the treatment of the bombed and homeless Londoner. The relevant powers of the Minister of Health were delegated to Mr. Willink, as Special Commissioner, and he was told that he could ask for extended authority if he felt it to be necessary.99
The size and the complexity of the task facing the Special Commissioner in October 1940 has already been described. Not only had he the responsibility of seeing that a large group of services, such as billeting, rehousing, furniture supply and salvage, hostels and house repairs, were effectively organised by the local authorities; he had also to ensure that each service found its place in a single scheme with a single aim in view. This meant that he had to secure coordination between all the different bodies, both official and voluntary, in London’s two-tiered system of government. Thus to begin with, he had to establish firm and clear definitions of the different functions of the different executive agencies.
A clear cut distinction was made between the functions of the London County Council and those of the borough and district councils. It was for the former to provide the immediate necessities of life for the homeless. It was for the latter, with their detailed local knowledge, to take responsibility for resettling homeless people in fresh accommodation. This precise definition of functions removed on source of confusion. The next step was to see that the London County Council on the one hand, and the smaller local authorities on the other, made effective use of the powers allocated to them respectively and by effective liaison with each other kept rest centre policy and resettlement policy in line. Mr. Willink divided London region in to sections, and made each section the special responsibility of one member of his staff. At the same time, some members of the experienced housing staff of the London County Council were attached to the London regional office to reinforce the Ministry of Health insurance inspectors engaged on resettlement work. These officers had many duties; they had to raise the efficiency of borough rehousing staffs, to supervise the maintenance of housing reserves for homeless people, and to make arrangements for mutual assistance between authorities. During 1941 they were largely instrumental in initiating and developing exercises and rehearsals both for rest centre and for rehousing staffs.
It was also decided that experienced social workers should join the regional field staff to deal with the many difficulties that were arising in individual cases of distress; that the metropolitan boroughs should certify the ‘homeless’ status of their own inhabitants; that these boroughs should undertake the sole responsibility for rehousing homeless
people who were residents of their areas and who were transferred to them, and that the regional staff should control any movement of rest centre population from one to another.
Practical decisions of this kind helped forward the reorganisation of the post-raid services. The processes of clarifying functions, raising the efficiency of administrative and executive staffs, breaking down parochial interests, working out better relationships here and making suggestions there, continued, mostly by way of tactical advice and persuasion, for many months. There was little that was spectacular about all this; nothing that anyone could point to as the crucial decision; no simple, dramatic explanation of this curious, but successful, partnership between Mr. Willink’s organisation, the Ministry of Health, the local authorities and the voluntary agencies.
The first Ministry of Health directive to give definitive form to the new policies that were being hammered out was issued to London authorities on 28th October 1940.100 So far, it said, the main effort had been spent on improving the rest centres: now the time had come to secure a similar improvement in the arrangements for providing new homes. The service of rehousing was the major problem; it should operated seven days a week and staff should be made adequate to ensure this. The functions of the metropolitan boroughs, now solely responsible for rehousing, were defined as four; billeting, requisitioning, the salvage and supply of furniture, and ‘welfare’. These boroughs were told to appoint an executive rehousing officer to supervise the work under these four heads and to furnish this officer with sufficient whole-time assistants. They were also told that all their expenditure would be reimbursed in full.
The circular went on to describe the four services in detail. ‘Billeting’ was to include the continuous re-surveying of the borough’s resources, checking the use of billets, escorting people to their billets, and reconciling disputes arising from billeting. ‘Rehousing’ included the careful registration of all requisitions and the detailed preparation of requisitioned property for immediate occupation. The ‘supply of furniture’ was not so precisely defined, perhaps because of the immediate difficulties in meeting demand.101 Later in 1940, as supplies of furniture began to reach the regional stores in larger quantities, a start was made in meeting local requirements.102 The task of salvaging
and storing the furniture retrieved from damaged houses was declared to be an urgent one in October 1940, when the Ministry of Home Security, the department responsible for this service, gave directions to local authorities.103
The fourth important service discussed in the October circular was ‘welfare’. At the time, this was something of a novelty in a directive concerned with homeless people. But it was not long before the meaning of the term became clearer. The duties of those engaged on welfare work rapidly expanded over the whole field of the post-raid services.
This development, while it owed much to Mr. Willink’s initiative, was part of a much wider movement affecting not only the post-raid services, but many of the existing social services.104 Until 1940—apart from the lead given by the Home Office during the nineteen-thirties in helping candidates for probation work to have two years’ training in the social study departments of certain universities combined with practical experience of the courts—trained and experienced social workers had generally been ignored by Government departments. But after 1940 the situation changed completely. The value of trained staff, from almoners in hospitals and clinics to social workers engaged on psychiatric work, child care and family case-work, rose in official esteem. There followed something approaching a famine of social workers.
In June 1940 the Ministry of Health had made the first appointment of social workers as regional welfare officers to deal with problems affecting children under the evacuation scheme.105 From this small beginning the movement spread. It gather momentum during the winter of 1940–1 as the emphasis on welfare work increased in London rest centres under the stimulating influence of Mr. Willink’s organisation. In October 1940 Mr. Willink had decided to appoint a permanent staff of social workers. The functions of these welfare inspectors (as they came to be called) were to manage the difficult rehousing cases arising in the rest centres, shelters and elsewhere, and, in some senses, to act as the ‘ears and eyes’ of the regional organisation. They were needed because they knew about people and about distress, because they could help to bring the wide array of statutory and voluntary agencies to bear on the several
needs of a particular individual at a particularly urgent point time, and because they were qualified to report in practical terms on the way in which one service reacted on another and on the people needing help.
Within about six weeks of the appointment of the first of these inspectors the Ministry of Health was convinced that their work had proved useful. ‘Experience has shown that the rehousing of homeless people involves more than securing simply that there is accommodation in billets or in requisitioned homes for the number of persons involved. “Case-work,” taking into account the needs of the individual persons or families affected is also necessary and becomes more important the greater the distance between the original home and the new accommodation.’106 The contribution of these social workers towards solving the personal problems of homeless people was of value in itself; it was still more valuable because it expressed almost a new concept of the relationship between public agencies and the public served.
Gradually, this approach and consciously regarding the individual as the focal point of social administration spread to other branches of the services for homeless people. Welfare advisers were appointed to rest centres to make known the different forms of assistance available.107 Rehousing staffs were sent to operate at many of the centres with the result that the rate of emptying them of the homeless was quickened. Some local authorities cooperated with voluntary agencies and the Women’s Voluntary Services by arranging for visitors to take an interest in the settling down of rehoused people in their new homes.108 Some boroughs established ‘half-way houses’ (as they were called) where the families most difficult to billet or retain in rest centres could live for a short period until more permanent homes could be found.109
It was realised by the Government that the rest centres could not be efficiently cleared without a concerted attack on these lines. Continual personal contact between the welfare adviser and the billeting officer responsible for rehousing was essential; so, too, was a constant adjustment of each other’s work to the characteristics of every individual case. These principles of administrative and executive action were proved necessary, not only on rest centre work and on the tasks of billeting and rehousing, but also when it was a matter of salvaging and storing furniture, selecting furniture, selecting houses for repair on grounds of individual
need rather than what was most economical, and in running an information service for the victims of air attack.
The trials and the bewilderment of those who were bombed, of those who needed help but did not know what help there was nor where to get it, have already been described. So long as these conditions of ignorance and bewilderment still existed, the rate at which the post-raid services could go into action was bound to be slow and disjointed. There were really two problems here. One problem was to convey to those who needed them the facts about social help as quickly and clearly was possible; the other was to provide all these facts about social help as quickly and clearly as possible; the other was to provide all these facts, not in a dozen or more different places of indeterminate address, but in one place, centrally situated and well known. Neither of these problems was now, for both were symptomatic of the growing complexity of social organisation. But the air raids and all the new agencies created for combating their effects turned this complexity into a painful sickness and made each of the two problems immediately urgent.
From September 1940 onwards a number of methods, some of them strikingly unorthodox by the standards of the nineteen-thirties, were employed to reduce these problems to manageable proportions. Leaflets, pamphlets and posters were distributed on an immense scale. Voluntary and paid workers with special qualifications were stationed at rest centres to give advice. Officials of the Assistance Board left their offices, went into rest centres, gave information and made payments there and then. The Board also organised a number of mobile units, staffed and equipped to act as complete offices and ready to be sent to any bombed area.110
More important still was the establishment of administrative and information centres. To establish the former, it was necessary to assemble under one roof the local offices of various central and local government departments, or at any rate representatives of these departments. Most of the services brought together in this way operated at the administrative centres. Information centres were less ambitious affairs. They were proposed for areas less likely to experience heavy attacks, and their purpose was to provide answers to the questions about assistance that homeless people might ask. Often they were run in collaboration with the local citizens’ advice bureau.
On 5th October 1940 the Ministry of Health advised local authorities in London region to establish one or other of these centres. This was a rather late start; for two months earlier the Women’s Voluntary Services had suggested the setting up of central bureaux of information, and a little later several local authorities had discovered
the idea themselves and put it into practice before the Ministry’s circular was issued. However, from October onwards the practice spread rapidly. In time, the provision of these centres became a duty of all borough and district councils throughout the country.
There were of course difficulties in getting the centres organised, of persuading this or that agency to cooperate, of obtaining the right buildings and qualified staff. In consequence, the standard of efficiency varied greatly in different parts of the country. There was no doubt, though, of the relief these centres brought, and the contribution they made to a quicker settlement of individual problems. The rapid piling up of applications for cash payments immediately after the London raids in March and April 1941 was evidence of improved publicity. Whereas six months earlier it was some days before applicants found their way to the Assistance Board’s offices, in 1941 large numbers made their appearance on the first or second day after the raid.
At the end of May 1941 there were twenty-one administrative centres and seventy-eight information centres establish in the areas of the ninety-six local authorities in the London region. They had not existed in September 1940. During the early months of raiding, voluntary action through the citizens’ advice bureaux had carried the main burden. These bureaux were organised in many parts of the country by the National Council of Social Service, in central London by the Charity Organisation Society (later known as the Family Welfare Association) and in other London areas by the London Council of Social Service. Even after central and local government departments had established their own administrative and information centres, the citizens’ advice bureaux still found plenty of work to do. Indeed, their work increased, as the strains of full mobilisation and a long continuing war created for individuals all kinds of new and complicated problems. The nearing of wartime legislation on this or that personal difficulty, the law of landlord and tenant, compassionate leave from the Forces; questions on all these and other matters were asked in an unending stream. To sustain this service, the Government made grants to the voluntary agencies concerned.111 By 1942 the number of bureaux in the whole of Britain had risen to 1,074. By the end of the war they had answered some 8,000,000 individual inquiries.112
At different periods of the war, and in different areas of the country, other means were found by official and voluntary organisations to
supplement, after an air raid, the existing information services., In 1941, ‘emergency information officers’ were appointed to coordinate all the local publicity work of central and local authorities during and after an air raid, and to cooperate with the regional officers of the Ministry of Information who had at their disposal fleets of loud-speaker cars. In February of the same year mobile information squads, staffed by volunteers, organised by the National Council of Social Service and directed by the Ministry of Health, were used on occasion as reinforcements for heavily raided cities.
These brief references to the work of many organisations barely reflect the great upsurge of demand from the civilian population for information and advice during the war. All this demand spelt distress or difficulty in one form or another. The variety of agencies which developed in 1940 and subsequent years met at least part of the need, and helped the services for homeless people to function more smoothly. Of equal importance, perhaps, was the way in which they spread knowledge of social provision and taught the value of cooperation among officials of local authorities and voluntary bodies.
These information services, both voluntary and official, speeded up the work of resettlement in another way. Not only did they put people more quickly in touch with sources of assistance, but they also helped people to help themselves. Moreover, it is highly probably that they speeded up the return to work of heads of families and other workers whose homes had been bombed. For this last suggestion, it is true, little direct evidence exists; but it would seem reasonable to expect that men and women would return more quickly to work once their living problems had been rapidly and understandingly dealt with.
The contributions made by the new information services towards solving London’s problem of homeless people was indirect and remained difficult to measure. This, however, was not to in other branches of the post-raid services. For example, the increased rate at which unexploded bombs were disposed of and the speedier repair of damaged houses produced immediate results.
The situation in October and November 1940, when over 3,000 unexploded bombs were awaiting disposal and about one-third of the rest centre population were ‘time-bombed’, brought the matter to a head—and to the notice of the Prime Minister. The number of bomb disposal squads was immediate increased, methods of disposal steadily improved, and liaison immediately establish between borough officials and the responsible military authorities. With the scale of air attack also declining, this weapon was brought under control. It never again menaced the functioning of London as it had done in the first months of the heavy raids.
The problem of how to repair damaged houses at a sufficiently fast rate was likewise, in the end, overcome. During the first three months of the raids the authorities had been outpaced. Despite all the various measures taken to remove or reduce administrative difficulties,113 increase the technical staffs of local authorities, and improve coordination between those concerned with house repairs and other arms of the post-raid services, ground was lost in London with every attack. It was not until December 1940 that the breathing space, which the Lord President had said was essential,114 came as a blessed relief.
The crucial issue was building manpower. The Army was naturally reluctant to release men; but the attack on Coventry in November clinched the matter, and on 2nd December the War Cabinet decided that the War Office would have to give way.115 The priority accorded to house repairs, which was low compared with that for repairs to railways, public utilities and war industry, also had to be drastically recast. Another important measure, sanctioned by the Government at the same time, was the creation of a special repair service under the Ministry of Works. This services was composed of squads of men sufficiently mobile to be switched to any heavily attacked area in the country needing reinforcements. By the end of December 1940 the scheme was taking shape, and seven months later it comprised 5,000 men specially released from the Army.
These policies soon began to make an impression. They were materially helped by a slackening in the rate of damage in London during December, January and February. By early January the population of the London County Council’s rest centres had fallen to about 4,000. The heavy raids of March, April and May 1941, which caused about twice as much housing damage in one night as had been caused in a week during September and October 1940, did not lead to another damming up of the rest centres.116 The repair work, too, was dealt with more speedily. A big expansion in London’s building labour force, together with a better repair organisation, made this possible.
Inevitably, there were great variations in the standard of efficiency achieved by different local authorities. The London County Council, owners of a large proportion of the good working-class property in London, operated its own repair service and did not seek outside assistance. It maintained a better rate of repair than any metropolitan
borough, partly because of its resources and their geographical distribution.
Some boroughs had to be given a lot of help by the central departments. One was Stepney, which was deprived—for reasons other than its housing repair record—of certain of its powers by the Ministers of Health and Home Security in December 1940.117 By 11th November 1940 about forty percent of the houses in Stepney had been damaged or destroyed. The carrying out of repairs was made more difficult by the poor housing conditions; approximately one-third of all the houses in the borough were so bad as to be unworthy of repair. While these were serious handicaps for the authority, other difficulties were of its own making. The Council objected, for instance, to the employment of contractors, and for some time attempted to repair only its own house property.118
The problems of Stepney and other weak and harassed authorities were, however, slowly but surely overcome. By August 1941—two months after the last heavy raid—the work of housing repair in the whole of the London region had been reduced to manageable proportions. Over 1,100,000 damaged houses had been made wind and weather proof, and only some 50,000 remained to be similarly dealt with.119
The standard to which the great majority of these houses was repaired was very low; until the beginning of 1943 nothing more was usually attempted than wind and weather proofing, a rough patching up sometimes costing only a few pounds a house.120 All the demands of the war, including later on the imperative calls for building labour and materials on immense schemes of camps and aerodromes for the American Forces, meant that several million people had to go on living in these damaged homes for some years. Nevertheless, they were at least better to live in than rest centres, shelters and other people’s homes.
An improvement in the efficiency of the repair organisation brought rewards, not only in the rate at which the homeless were rehoused, but in other departments of the post-raid services. A more rapid repair service meant that less furniture was damaged by the weather,
and fewer demands were made for removals to furniture depositories. This, in turn, led to smaller claims on buildings for storage, fewer furniture vans, reduced calls on manpower, and a drop in the number of cash grants made by the Assistance Board to help people move furniture from damaged houses.121
Similarly, the vigorous measures taken by the Board during this period to loosen its administrative machinery, increase the mobility of its staff, and adjust the work of its area offices to coincide with borough boundaries in London, effected a closer relationship between its post-raid functions and those for which local government was responsible.122 In 1941, for instance, staff were transferred, often at twenty-four hours’ notice, from one part of the country to another to meet the fluctuating distribution of air raids. In some areas, new offices were set up overnight. During the three days preceding a big London raid on 19th March 1941 eleven East End offices of the Board dealt with about 1,200 applicants whereas, in the three days after the raid, they dealt with nearly 10,000. This was the kind of problem which demanded, for its solution, quick and flexible administrative action.
The chief instruments of policy which were improved and applied during the London raids of 1940–1 to solve the multifarious needs of the victims of air attack have now been surveyed. For the most part, they took the firm of new services. Rest centres and communal feeding had been thought of long before the bombs fell, but the fundamental mistake had been to regard their provision as an adjunct of the poor law. This was a policy which did not pay, for it caused an immeasurable amount of distress before it was correct, and financially—the main reason for its original adoption—it was an expensive error. The hasty and costly buying of equipment and supplies in 1940, and the scattering of billeting certificates, travel vouchers and free accommodation for weeks on end, all without check as to
whether the recipients were eligible or not, were the results of a poor law policy combined with a failure to plan intelligently, sympathetically, and in detail to meet the social consequences of air attack.
When the attack came, the rest centre and communal feeding services had to be completely reorganised. Many new services, for needs hitherto unvisualised or only partly glimpsed, had to be hurriedly established: administrative and information centres; mobile feeding canteens and mobile Assistance Board offices; furniture for rehousing, and the salvage, removal and storage of furniture from damaged houses; hostel and billeting schemes; removal grants, and immediate cash compensation for the loss of furniture, clothing and essential tools.
Practically all this had to be done without devising any new executive machinery: in other words, local government as it existed in 1939 had to be used. At the same time, it was found by hard experience to be an essential condition, and not just an administrative refinement or a sentimental frill, for these services to be informed with a new spirit. The social distresses of each individual had to be regarded as unique. There was nothing new about this, for the Royal Commission on the Poor Law had insisted in 1909 that every family applying for assistance should be regarded as ‘unique’, and that constructive service required a ‘highly trained technical body of experts’. The consequences of bombing in 1940–1 re-emphasised these neglected principles, and called for reorientation of outlook; the response was reflected in the value placed upon social workers by the Ministry of Health and by Mr. Willink—the Special Commissioner for London—and in the way the Assistance Board began to lay the foundations of its future successes by developing a humane and skilful relationship with its clients.123
The problems which have largely occupied this chapter must suffice to show the main lines on which social policies were developed and integrated. No attempt has been made to describe everything that was done in the interests of the victims of air attack. The following list sets down some examples of the variety of official and voluntary provision, and it also identifies many problems which are passed over both in this chapter and the following one:
1. The question of what to do with aged and infirm people found in shelters and rest centres, or living alone in conditions of hardship and needing to be evacuated to the country. The results of transferring some of these old people to hospitals and institutions in safer areas. The results of the efforts of local authorities and voluntary agencies to establish special hostels for these old people.
2. The question of how to provide a proportion of homeless people with clothing, and how to organise efficiently the distribution of an immense quantity of gifts in cash and in kind from the United States, Canada and other countries, which flowed into the hands of the Women’s Voluntary Services,124 the Charity Organisation Society, school care committees, settlements, ministers of religion, hospitals, and hundreds of independent supply and distributing agencies in the United Kingdom.
3. The administration and use of the Lord Mayor’s National Air Raid Distress Fund which, in all, accumulated £4,713,245.125
4. The establishment of hostels in London for various categories of people by the London Hostels Association, the British Red Cross Society and other bodies.
5. The work of local authorities in granting billeting allowances and travel vouchers, checking payments, supplying furniture, and recovering sums of money from different classes of homeless and evacuated persons placed in billets, requisitioned houses and flats, hostels, huts and other accommodation.
6. The work of the Assistance Board and the Customs and Excise Department in making cash payments for the loss or damage of furniture, clothing and other equipment as a result of enemy action.
7. The nature of the tasks undertaken and the contribution made by some 200,000–250,000 people, most of whom were volunteers and unpaid, in rest centres, canteens, shelters, tube stations, information centres, citizens’ advice bureaux, post-raid mobile units, billeting and rehousing departments and hostels.
8. The relationship of the Women’s Voluntary Services to local authorities and voluntary bodies, and the contribution made by this organisation to the following sectors of the post-raid services in every part of the country: providing homeless people with clothes, staffing and running rest centres, hostels, mobile canteens and emergency cooking depots, supplying first aid boxes to rest centres, helping with billeting, rehousing and the after-care of homeless people, recruiting and training mobile squads of rest centre workers, providing transport to clear rest centres, building emergency cooker stoves, and helping to staff administrative centres.
9. The administration of the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme by the Ministry of Pensions and the Assistance Board; its development between 1939 and 1945, and the extent to which it met the needs of those injured by enemy action.
These and other services, provided by official or voluntary agencies and sometimes by a combination of the two, were designed either to
meet specific needs—like cash allowances for civilians injured by air attack—or else they performed a useful function by supplementing a regulated services or by easing difficulties among people who fell outside certain defined categories of assistance. The use of the Lord Mayor’s Fund illustrates this point, for in 1940 it helped by making cash grants to supplement the rather bare minimum of furniture supplied in requisitioned property, and by paying part of the cost of removing furniture for people who were not entitled to help from the Assistance Board.
The impressive array of official and voluntary services which had sprung to active life by 1941 did not, of course, function with uniform efficiency all over the country, or meet all the varied needs of the homeless and the other victims of air attack. Some local authorities achieved a far higher standard than others. Generally speaking, those that showed initiative were few compared with those that did not.126 Even within the offices of a single local council, the efficiency of one department did not mean that the others were efficient. And so it was, too, with the voluntary agencies, perhaps in even greater measure. The quality of the work, for instance, of the local centres of the Women’s Voluntary Services varied enormously. This organisation, which played a great part in the post-raid services, initially met, and to some degree engendered, a good deal of opposition from old-established voluntary societies and certain local councils. By the middle of 1941 there was still much variation in the extent to which local authorities cooperated with and used the Women’s Voluntary Services and other voluntary agencies in their neighbourhoods.
The last massive raid on Britain by piloted aircraft occurred on the night of 10th May 1941, when nearly 1,500 people were killed. This marked the end of the first battle of London. It brought to a close a period in the history of the post-raid services remarkable for patient, day-to-day improvisation. This could not have happened without a resilience, a willingness to learn, and an urge to intense activity on the part of officials from government departments, regional offices, local councils and voluntary bodies. The comparatively quiet phase of December 1940, January and February 1941, sandwiched between two three-month periods of heavy attack, was, without doubt, of immeasurable benefit. It allowed the new policies to mature, assume control, and replace the disorder of September and October 1940. London, which fortunately still had room to spare, was given time in which to absorb its homeless people.
What was surprising, perhaps even astonishing to some most intimately concerned, was that the post-raid relief services worked as
well as they did. They were conceived without much thought and less money, they were nearly suffocated by the uniform of the poor law, they were hardly breathing when they were attacked en masse by the German Air Force, and before this they had been neglected by Parliament and by the press of all political parties.127 Yet, by the time the attack was over, the London post-raid services had to their credit an impressive record of achievements.
By the middle of 1941 there were 780 rest centres in the London region providing accommodation for about 105,000 people. Of this provision, the London County Council was responsible for 291 with places for some 33,000 people. In September 1940, it will be remembered, a rest centre population of 25,000 had piled up in the region—the highest of the war—and the 129 centres then run by the County Council had been desperately overcrowded.
In other branches of the services, much progress had also been made in London by the middle of 1941. There were twenty-one administrative centres and seventy-eight information centres functioning, the number of citizens’ advice bureaux and Women’s Voluntary Services’ centres had greatly increased, the Londoner’s Meals Service had established 170 centres, twenty-seven community kitchens were maintained by voluntary organisations, and four food convoys and over 190 mobile feeding canteens were continuously ready to go into action.
During the nine months of attack over 107,000 people were rehoused in London region, over 366,000 were billeted,128 181,000 mothers and children were officially evacuated,129 475,430 applications were made to the Assistance Board for advance payments for the loss
By the end of June 1941 roughly 2,250,000 people in the United Kingdom had been made homeless for period ranging from a day or so to over a month.132 Of this number, nearly two-thirds—about 1,400,000 people—belonged to London region. These estimates do not refer to different individuals, for people were counted on each occasion if they were rendered homeless more than once during the nine months. If it is assumed that one-quarter of the London total had this experience, then it may be said that about one person in six living in the region was made homeless at least once. Within the county of London the proportion was much higher, and in some heavily attacked boroughs, particularly in the East End, it was high still. Some London boroughs had over seventy-five percent of their houses damaged, and in one or two the number of ‘damages’ to houses was twice the number of houses.133
These figures speak only of the order of magnitude of distress and achievement; they do not pretend to fine statistical accuracy.134 Nevertheless, they are some measure of the problems which confronted the authorities during 1940–1; problems which, it would be fair to say, had not received the attention they deserved before September 1940, although the weight of air attack actually delivered by the enemy in tons of bombs was much less than had been expected.135
Of the 1,400,000 people made homeless in London region only about 200,000, or one in seven, passed through a rest centre provided by the local authorities. There were many reasons for this low proportion. The condition and the overcrowding of the centres in the early months of the raids, their poor law status, and the widespread public ignorance about the post-raid services were among the most important. Whenever they could, most people preferred to help themselves by staying temporarily with friends or relations or by making other arrangements. This was especially true of the outer suburbs with plenty of rooms to spare, for they had an advantage over the poorer boroughs of London which were thrice handicapped with houses already overcrowded, structurally inferior, and exposed to the heaviest attacks.
The extent to which homeless people, and others who suffered in some form or another from the effects of air bombardment, called upon the services provided by the authorities varied immensely. It ranged from a high proportion who wanted help in repairing their homes to about one in seven who needed rest centre accommodation for short periods. It differed from one area to another, sometimes from one street to another, and it also varied in time.
In 1941, when planning began to replace improvisation, the Ministry of Health had the difficult task of laying down standards for certain of the services; to take one example, it had to suggest the number of rest centre places necessary per 1,000 per population.136 In many areas, the standards actually reached by 1942–3 were regarded by some officials as too elaborate, for instance in East Anglia; but over-insurance was a natural consequence of the shortcomings of 1940.137
The three years from June 1941 to June 1944, when the first flying-bombs were launched against London, were for the post-raid services of sustained preparation. Mutual aid was organised between local authorities all over the country; the many branches of assistance were integrated, inspected and watched; the Ministry of Health built up mobile teams of experienced officers to be sent at once to bombed areas; the training of staff was greatly expanded by various means, including exercises and rehearsals of different kinds138 and the establishment of regional schools for training civil defence and allied services; immense stores of furniture, equipment, food and clothing were accumulated, and reserves of empty properties for rehousing were formed in all areas as an insurance against future demand.
‘Experience in all parts of the country’, reported the Ministry of Health in March 1944, ‘has underlined the necessity for careful organisation in advance; nowhere yet has a bombed area suffered from over-organisation or from a too ample provision of buildings, equipment or personnel. Experience has shown also the high value of securing in advance the right personnel in the localities, both for organisation and operations, and of continuous cooperation, both before and after raids between the Ministry’s regional office, the local authorities and the voluntary organisations, and between the local authorities and the voluntary organisations of the target areas and those
around them. In general, preparations can never be regarded as perfect and complete.’139 Thus were the lessons of experience summed up. Less than four years separated them from a philosophy which had spoken of demoralised, panic-stricken crowds and had declared blankets to be a luxury for those whose homes had crashed in ruins around them.