Chapter 20: Families in Trouble
The difficulties and disturbances of home life in the reception areas caused by the presence of evacuated mothers and children were the themes of the preceding chapter. In this chapter, attention shifts back to the cities, and evidence is presented to show in what manners of way the war affected home life and particularly the care and upbringing of children. The follow account is not, of course, a comprehensive study of the family in wartime; it is much simpler and less ambitious than that, for the problem of social conditions is approach on two rather narrow fronts. Both form part of the evacuation sector, and both have their initial starting-point of the inquiry in the reception areas. The first concerns the condition and behaviour of newly evacuated children; the second, the changing functions of the evacuation scheme.
Towards the end of 1941 observers in the rural areas were reporting a deterioration in the type of children they were receiving from the towns. It was said that a larger number were bedwetters, that many more suffered from scabies and lousy heads, that they were ‘little toughs’, out of control, ill-taught, with poor clothes and shocking manners. Some, it was remarked, turned up with all the current coupons torn from their clothing and ration books, some had already been evacuated on several previous occasions and were abusing the hospitality of householders in the reception areas; in more than one report, parents were accused of using the evacuation scheme as a means of ridding themselves of responsibility for their children in order to earn money in factories.1 These reports need to be traced back to their source; to the environment of home and school from which the children had come.
The second approach to the problems of the family in wartime raises a somewhat similar set of questions concerning the state of children: it does so by an analysis of certain factors which led, during the years 1941–4, to important changes in the character of the evacuation scheme. From about the middle of 1941 the scheme began to function to an increasing extent in an unexpected way. Its original role as a means of transferring children to safety diminished in significance. Instead, it operated as a receiver of social casualties; it took into its care, for instance, the children of mothers who were ill or expecting another baby and whose husbands were in the Services, the children of mothers who were forced by shortage of money to work or
who preferred to work, children from homes where strife had broken out, children who were out of control and at cross-purposes with society, children of parents who had no satisfactory home and could not get one. The evacuation scheme, designed as an integral part of civil defence, increasingly assumed the form of a social welfare agency; an agency which placed children in temporary boarding-homes or residential nurseries and hostels in certain parts of the country.
What were the forces that were causing this transformation in the work of the scheme? And was it true that many of the new evacuees were inferior in condition and behaviour to the children who had been billeted in 1940 and during the period of air attack? To answer these questions it is necessary to examine very briefly certain consequences of a war economy; consequences which pressed hardly on those two institutions vital in the lives of children—the home and the school.
During the first two years of war the school system had suffered much injury as a result of evacuation and bombing. The wounds were particularly deep in the great cities where, it was said, the effects of depleted education had led to a rising curve of youthful delinquency’; more children were accused of offending the standards of behaviour set by adults.2 Many city children had, it was true, been involved in the dislocations; in the scattering of school communities, in the severance of relationships with teachers, in the makeshift lessons, the crowded classrooms, and the closed and silent schools of 1939 and 1940.3
The size of a class has generally been accepted as one important factor in deciding the quality of education. During the war the number of large sized classes, already considerable before 1939,4 climbed.
still higher. At the same time, however, there were more small sized ones. The numerical relationship of pupils to teachers was constantly changing in most areas of the country, largely as a result of evacuation and population movements. The experience of different education authorities varied immensely at different stages of the war; moreover, many authorities had to face, within a period of one or two years, two quite dissimilar situations—first, too many teachers, then, too many children. While, therefore, the war led to great disparities, the general tendency was for the number of large sized classes to increase. Some of the big cities suffered severely. By October 1943 for example, Liverpool had over 600 classes in elementary schools with more than 50 children each, compared with 293 in 1938. In Birmingham the number rose from 72 to over 1,000 by October 1944; in Dudley from 2 to 73, while Sheffield, which had only 2 such crowded classes in 1938, reported 406 in the autumn of 1944—60 of them containing 60 pupils apiece.5 Nor did village schools escape the effects of the war. The fate of some, containing children aged five to eleven grouped in one class of perhaps 40 to 60, was often precariously balanced on the shoulders of elderly women teachers, while classes of 35 and over in secondary schools were common in both urban and rural areas.6 It was found at the end of the war that there were, in elementary schools in all areas of the country, 3,283 classes with over 50 children, compared with 2,100 in 1938.7 In Scotland, education was similarly handicapped. Glasgow reported an increase from 62 (1939) to 83 (1945) in the number of of infant or primary classes containing over 50 children. In the first three years of secondary divisions the number of classes with over 40 children rose from 50 to 167. Dumbarton, Lanark and Renfrew were other areas which had many more overcrowded classes.
These swollen regiments of schoolchildren were not due to an increase in the national population aged from five to fourteen. On the contrary, the number in this group in England and Wales fell by about 366,000 between March 1939 and January 1946.8 The nation ended the war with fewer children to teach. The actual number (of all ages) in primary and secondary schools maintained by local authorities in England and Wales in January 1946 was less by 575,000 than the figure for 1938. When comparisons are made with the situation in the First World War the difference in numbers becomes quite dramatic. Then, the nation had just over 2,000,000 more
children aged from five to fifteen to educate, feed, clothe and shelter than during the Second World War.9
There were other burdens on the schools during 1939–45 in addition to the greater frequency of inflated classes. Teachers were fewer in number and older in years (because of recruitment to the Services)10 and those who remained had to shoulder many extraneous duties, up to September 1943 over 4,000 school buildings had been destroyed or damaged by enemy action, others were requisitioned for civil defence and a variety of purposes,11 while a number of schools had to be closed because cleaners and caretakers could not be obtained.
The educational system as a whole did not collapse under the weight of these blows, but in a number of areas it came near to doing so during some of the critical phases of the war. Of great help was the decline in the school population for this saved the authorities from finding—if they could have done so—another 19,000 teachers, equal to over ten percent of the total teaching strength in 1945.12 If this decline had not occurred during the war, and if the additional teachers had not been found, the size of school classes might well have risen to around seventy or eight in some areas and education in any liberal sense of the word would have ceased to exist in parts of the country. This fortuitous easing of the education problem was gained only at the expense of the future. Fewer children to teach during the war inevitably meant fewer potential parents and, more important still, fewer workers after the war, when the nation would be hungry for manpower.
Although the strains of war were to some extent mitigated by the decline in the school population, nevertheless, the accumulating effects of several years of evacuation, bombing and other disturbances, may have meant for some children a standard of education reminiscent of the mass instruction of earlier times. Some school authorities and some teachers, by persistent and unyielding effort, were probably successful in maintaining a high standard of work;.
others, less adaptable and more unfortunate, succumbed to the difficulties of unwieldy classes, drab, out-of-date buildings, disreputable furniture and decaying textbooks.13 Thus it became even less informative to speak in 1942 of an ‘average’ standard of school work than it had been in 1938. In short, there was more inequality within the State schools—quite apart from those outside—in terms of the education received by different groups of children. It was the slow, and perhaps backward, child, always needing more attention than the bright, that suffered most.
This, at any rate, was one of the significant conclusions which emerged from a London County Council inquiry in 1943. In September of that year the Chief Inspector of Education summed up the effects of four years of war on school. What he said of London may well have been true of other education authorities.
‘The shock of war and evacuation has been heavy on London school … Schools were broken up and rapidly lost their identity. Reorganisation and even merging with local schools have been continuous; changes of staff and re-evacuation have been made continuity of work and syllabuses practically impossible. Schools were closed for several months. Home tuition groups were started and later emergency schools; then came the “blitz period” when teachers were transferred to rest centres and meals services. Even now, when schools are becoming a little more stable, they are nevertheless still “emergency”. There are frequent changes of head teachers and assistant staff as more teachers return and new schools are opened. Premises are not satisfactory and many schools still have other occupants; accommodation is strictly limited. Organisation is continuously changing as more children return. For long period many children were out of school; many others were only part-time and attendance was not enforced because of accommodation restrictions. It should be remembered that these children have spent the whole of their senior school years and part of their junior school years in such conditions. Nearly half of their school life, in fact, has been spent in improvised and often unsatisfactory conditions.’14
The Inspector was reporting on the results of certain tests applied to 13–14 year-old children in 1943; there were compared with similar tests made in 1924.15 While children could still write natural, lively and intelligent compositions, spelling was ‘definitely worse’ than the spelling of a corresponding class of children in 1924. On the average, a London boy of thirteen than misspelt a word every time he wrote a
dozen lines of composition; in 1943 on word in six lines was misspelt. The proportion of these 13–14 year olds in senior classes of elementary schools who could not read fluently from a simple reading book was twice as high in 1943 as in 1924.16 In three other subjects, arithmetic, history and geography, the level of attainment was ‘appreciably lower’ than in 1942.17 ‘The worst feature of the results is the disclosure that this age group contain a considerable residuum of children whose attainment in these subjects, or whose ability to express themselves intelligently in writing, is extremely low. This residuum is great than it ought to be, and is great than it was in 1924’. It was the belief of the Council’s inspectors of education that had it been possible to compare the results of the 1943 tests with the results of corresponding tests in 1938 the deterioration would have proved greater than was indicated by the contrast with 1924.18
Within two years of the end of the war confirmation of these fears was to come from an unexpected source. The boys who had spent the last two to three years of their school life in the disrupted conditions of 1939–42 began to enter the Army in 1946 and 1947. As they were taken in, they were tested for intelligence, and given mechanical, educational and clerical tests. The results disclosed a marked discrepancy between the scores expected and the scores attained on the tests with an educational bias. There was no decline intelligence—in native wit—and no decline in mechanical ability or ‘picked-up’ knowledge about mechanical things. But the combined results for twelve intakes between July and December 1946, comprising a total of some 72,000 men of an average age of nineteen years, showed an all-round drop in the level of scholastic attainment, and a serious in-all-round drop in the level of scholastic attainment, and a serious increase in the numbers graded educationally backward and retarded. The bases of comparison were the scores obtained by men who left school mainly during the years 1925–35 and entered the Army during the war.19
These findings confronted the Army authorities with a grave problem. They were faced with an insufficiency of recruits of reasonably good educational standard, and a disproportionate number who
to put it crudely, were semi-literate. The implications of this problem in terms of military training, officer selection, and army educational requirements cannot be discussed here; nor would it be right to attempt to give numerical precision to the problem—to estimate, for instance, the increased proportion of backward and retarded men—without a full description of the scientific basis of the tests applied. What concerns this volume is the significance of this post-war experience as a measure of the wartime performance of schools and other teaching institutions. Incidentally, the evidence disclosed makes clear the need to seek more evidence of the same kind by continuing the inquiry and publishing the detailed results as a contribution to educational research and social policy.
This digression into the field of education has served to show that the wartime worries of parents, school authorities and householders in the reception areas were real, and not imaginary, worries. They saw, as the Army was to see several years later, what the war had meant to the education of many children; plastic, impressionable imitative children, mirrors of every breath of national trouble. When they were sheltering from the bombs, roaming adventurously through the littered streets, or travelling to the country as evacuees, they were regarded as important as honourable young citizens. But as they grew up during the early post-war years these formative influences were often forgotten by older people, and the ugly epithet, ‘spiv’, was thrust into prominence and indiscriminately bandied about. There was much justification for the protests of householders in the reception areas about the behaviour of newly evacuated children during 1941–3. Nevertheless, it is important to insist that the disturbances and difficulties of war did not lead to an immense increase in youthful delinquency. More crimes were committed by children and young people and were detected by the authorities; but, when all the circumstances are assembled in historical perspective, it cannot be said that a tidal wave of delinquency occurred. What troubled householders in 1941–3 was not that they were asked to billet young criminals, but that they were expected to care for children who, in their view, were disobedient, bad-manner, sometimes aggressively selfish and thoughtless, ill-taught, and who generally behaved as though they had been neglected in their homes and by their schools.
The educational setbacks experienced by many children have been considered; these, inevitably, were accompanied by parallel setbacks in the influence of the school as a civilising agent. That was one of the causes at work. A second, and much more important cause, was that many homes lost some of their power for good in the upbringing of children. The effects were mirrored in the working of the evacuation scheme and in its development after 1941. By the beginning of 1942, the population of evacuated unaccompanied children (some 350,000
in England, Wales and Scotland) was less than ever a representative cross-section of the children of London and other large cities. Those who remained in the country from earlier evacuation movement were increasingly a selected group; that is to say, the circumstance of their parents differed from those of other parents who fetched their children home.20 There were a number of important reason why these children stayed in the country, but they were reasons which, for the most part, were not connected with any threat of air attack. Similarly, parents were not primarily concerned about physical safety for their children when they sent them away to the country in the later months of 1941 and during 1942 and 1943.
It is worth examining some of the reasons which led to the use of the evacuation scheme for purposes other than raid-safety; first, as a help towards understanding the trials of householders in the reception areas during these difficult years and, second, in order to throw some light on the disturbances to family life during the war. Insufficient house-room in the cities was one reason why children remained in or were sent to the reception areas. The housing situation in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Hull and other cities steadily worsened with the lengthening of the years in which no new houses were built, war damage was not made good and decay and disrepair went unattended. At the end of the war, more than one-half of all households in London were living in conditions which meant no bath and no bathroom of their own.21 Even by the end of 1942, according to official estimates, over 1,000,000 people in England and Wales were inhabiting houses which had been, or but for the war would have been, condemned as slums; some 8,000,000 people were living in damaged houses which had received only first-aid repairs, and many were carrying on their lives in crowded rooms.22 It was not surprising, therefore, that some parents, whose living conditions were bad, decided to leave their children in the country until they could find a decent home.
While dwelling-rooms in the towns and cities were, on the average, more crowded—particularly at night-time and the weekends—mothers spent less time in their homes. This was another material factor which helped to change the function of the evacuation scheme. The circumstances of the war involved a reduction in the amount of care and supervision given to children; there were fewer people—mothers, fathers, older brothers and sisters, aunts, grandmothers and neighbours—and and around the home to spend time on children. They were in uniform, or making munitions of war, or doing jobs in a variety of occupations in place of younger men and women. By the middle of 1943 Britain had over 4,500,000 men in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and other services—about thirty percent of all its men aged 14–65.23 In striking contrast to the situation in 1939, 2,768,000 more women aged 14–60 were employed in industry, the Forces and Civil Defence,24 and probably another 1,000,000 were serving part-time or full-time in nurseries, canteens, hostels, clubs and rest centres.25 Of all women aged 18–40 (single, married and widowed) no fewer than fifty-five percent were in the Services or employed in industry in 1943.26
This great withdrawal from the home was not good for children. It meant less order and less stability, for the old routine of life with its accepted and regular cycle of discipline was knocked awry. It meant that consistent treatment—the golden rule in the upbringing of children—was less practised, for the war spelt inconsistency in parent-child relationships. Generosity with time is essential to the good discipline and the consistent handling of children, and time spent with parents and teachers was just what children lost in great measure during the war. To this lessening of adult personal influences was
added the uprooting of homes, the ebb and flow of evacuation, the comings and going of members of the family, the shifting of work and work-laces. This restless, harried movement of people continued for more than six years. From the outbreak of war to the end of 1945 some 34,745,000 changes of address occurred in a civilian population of about 38,000,000. Approximately 20,750,000 of these moves took place within the first three and a quarter years of war. Such figures do not mean that nearly everyone changed their address once in six years. They simply represent the sum of removals from one national registration area to another.27
The effect of these disturbances and pressures on the family, a smaller family than before the war and, because of lowered birth rates, substantially smaller than during 1914–18, was to disrupt and scatter many kinship and neighbourly groups. When things went wrong in the family, when there was illness or accident or some domestic crisis, there were fewer persons to come to the rescue. The human aids upon which mothers rely in time of stress dwindled away, leaving a ‘small, fragile, inexperienced, isolated family’ with fewer supports. Margaret Mead, in analysing the situation of the typical American family in the present day, points out that society now calls upon the individual family to do what a whole clan used to do. When it fails in its duties or breaks down in the some way it is concluded—especially by those who read over much in their newspapers about juvenile delinquency—that the modern family has lost its moral fibre. But to understand the consequences of social and economic change, wrote this observer of the American scene, is to realise that the family has not suddenly lost its moral fibre; ‘what it has lost is its grandmother’.28
During the Second World War in Britain, many families missed not only their grandmothers, but a whole host of relations and friends. What this signified might be studied in the records of the War Office, which probably accumulated more information than other Government departments about the troubles of family life. Some millions of letters and documents were received describing the circumstances in which soldiers asked, on compassionate grounds, to be allowed to go to nurse their wives, or to feed, wash and look after babies and young children.29 Early in 1944—on the eve of the Battle of Normandy—leave was being granted for such reasons at a rate of over 100,000 men a year among those stationed in Britain. In addition, large numbers of men over-stayed their ordinary leave because there was trouble in the family of one kind or another.
When the mother of a young child broke down in health, was compelled to enter hospital or nurse a sick relative, or was expecting a baby her need was desperate if she had no neighbours to rely on, and if her friends and relations were all working or far away.30 Yet she
would probably find that the day nurseries, whose purpose was to release women for war industry and to relieve social distress, could not help.31 She would probably be told that the accommodation for children in public assistance institutions was already overcrowded, and she would also learn that very few short-stay residential nurseries were provided by local or voluntary agencies.32 In these circumstances, she might try to get her Service husband home, or she might try to get the child sent away, to an evacuated nursery if it was under five years of age,33 or to a billet if it was older. It was in this way that the evacuation scheme, all unwittingly, helped the Army during the years 1941–4. Had there been no such scheme the demands for compassionate leave would have been greater. Conversely, had there been more residential nurseries for young children, had the widespread but concealed need for this kind of social service been recognised before the war,34 there would have been less misuse of trained military manpower.
When these domestic crises occurred the immediate solution was obvious if there was an older child in the family. The unpaid domestic servant of the poor from time immemorial took over the work of the home. But the war, with all its disorganising effect on family life, came at a time when there were fewer of these servants about.
Seventy years of falling birthrates inevitably meant smaller families. The burden that fell on older children during the war was, in many homes, heavy, for although there were fewer young ones to feed and protect there were also fewer to share the daily tasks and responsibilities when mother was at work outside the home or was ill and father was away. One instance, taken from a book on social conditions in London, illustrates the kind of responsibilities that some children had to carry. ‘Then there is Bill .He comes to use with six little ones who are under his care. Four of them are his proper brothers and sisters and two are his cousins. If justice were to be found on this globe, by Friday night Bill would get the salary of a day-nursery assistance. But instead (being nine years old) he takes the little ones carefully home—with empty pockets as on the other nights, having had their welfare on his mind all the time the play centre was open.’35
The picture of what life was really like for these children during the war is vague; the detail and the colour are lacking. No social studies were made and no reports were written about the impact of a war environment on the character, development and daily life of the ordinary schoolchild. Some of the background has been given in this book in a generalised form, and a little detail may now be added with the aid of official reports on attendance at school and other social questions.
When the attendance registers for 1943 were analysed they showed, in comparison with pre-war figures, a substantial rise in absences from school in many areas.36 In some places the increase was disturbingly high. Yet, of all the six years affected by war, 1943 was the most favourable one to select from the viewpoint of good attendance. Sufficient time had elapsed for education authorities to have recovered in some measure from the upheavals of 1939–41; there were few air raids, evacuation was on a small scale, and there was less population movement than earlier or later in the war. The weather, too, was reasonable good in 1943, and there were no serious epidemics affecting children or adults.
An inquiry in 1943 by the Board of Education among thirty-three local authorities in the west midlands showed every authority reporting lower school attendances than before the war.37 In the north of
England, many of the large cities, particularly Birkenhead, Bradford, Manchester and Oldham, were registering poor attendance figures at the same time. The London County Council, as a report to the education committee in 1943 made clear, was worried about the amount of school absenteeism.38 Its officers had to struggle hard to obtain an average annual attendance of eighty-two percent whereas, before 1939, the usual figure was around eighty-eight percent. What an attendance register in the neighbourhood of eight percent meant in terms of individual children was illustrated in a report from Manchester in November 1941. It meant that thirty-two percent of the children had less than seventy-five percent attendance during a term; of this proportion, sixteen percent had less than sixty percent attendance, ten percent less than twenty-five percent, and two percent were absent for the whole of the term. Thus, the educational work of one-third of the school population was seriously interrupted.
That, in the arithmetic of lost school days, is what generally lay behind an average attendance of about eight percent. What was causing these losses? What reasons were given by parents, teachers, school attendance officers and children themselves? The evidence of many contemporary school reports does not suggest that the rise in absence figures was produced by a further deterioration in the records of a small group of long-standing offenders and sick children. While this group of persistent absentees continued to give trouble, the rise appears to have been chiefly due to a much larger amount of casual and intermittent absence affecting a substantial proportion of the school population at some time or another during each term. As a consequence, more children fell behind with their school work. It was not, therefore, surprising that subsequent reports from the Army revealed a larger number of young people marked out as educationally backward.
It was easy to blame the parents for not putting education first. But the nation did not do so. The loss of a day’s lessons here, the closing of a school or the call-up of a teacher there, the merging of classes generally, were injuries which seemed trivial when so many grimmer problems of war and work remained unsolved. Children shopping and children carrying out household duties were the reasons most frequently given for poor attendance in reports by inspectors and attendance officers. When mother was out at work someone had to be at home to let the coal man in, deal with the insurance man and the rent collector or mind a sick child. Monday and Fridays, important days in the weekly round of shopping and paying, were significantly, commonly mentioned in absence reports.
To quote from these reports is to show how many and how varied were the reasons which kept children from school or encouraged them to stay away. ‘Children are seen in queues at 8.30 a.m. By the time they return home it is too late to go to school.’ ‘Attendance officers are repeatedly told that child are sent to wait in queues before school hours and in the dinner hours.’ ‘ The help of a girl of 13 at home is worth more than 2s. 6d. (the cost of a medical certificate to send to the school).’ The earlier closing of shops, the difficulties of factory workers in shopping during the day, and illness in the home were all factors which contributed to situations of this kind.39 Then there were reports which concluded that ‘parents have flocked to the factories and have thrown off their responsibilities.’ ‘Children are left to fend for themselves.’ Shift systems, it was also said, meant that ‘women employed 9on Sundays take their children out on their mid-week day off’.
In rural areas also there was a reduction in the schooling received and the lessons attended because of the employment of many children on potato lifting and other agricultural work. ‘Children are frequently taken out of school for odd days for various forms of agricultural work without permission from teachers … J.P.s are not likely to impose fines if cases of this sort are taken to court.’ Farmers will defy the law—and successfully—so long as the maximum fine is 20s.’
A considerable increase in the paid and authorised employment of schoolchildren took place in urban as well as rural areas during the war. A Home Office inquiry in June 1944 revealed that fifteen percent of all boys aged 12–14 in England and Wales were regularly employed on some work during the day, a figure nearly twenty percent higher than before the war.40 The situation varied a lot in different parts of the country; in about a dozen local authority areas over forty percent of all the boys were in regular employment, while in some fifty areas the proportion was less than ten percent. Girls aged 12–14 were not employed to the same extent (thought they probably had far more to do in the home). Nevertheless, a figure of 2.3 percent for the whole country represented a threefold increase in the paid employment of girls compared with 1937. The number of boys and girls engaged on seasonal work during school holidays and
on Sundays also increased; the rise—again as compared with 1937—was over 350 percent.41
What were these children doing—or trying to do—before and after their school lessons? There were many who were delivering milk, helping in shops, and doing paid domestic work for other people. It may still be reasonable, war or no war, to introduce children by graduated experience into a work-a-day world—for no society of rich or poor parents should risk coddling its children. But there are strong arguments in favour of education and physical health during this difficult phase of a child’s development, part from the waste of national resources in providing an education service which is not fully used.
Truancy was often mentioned in attendance reports; some part, it was believe, being directly attributable to the employment of children before and after school hours.42 Comment was also made that some children had too much money to spend and that they went to the cinema more frequently than before the war. In general, however, it was considered that no serious increase in truancy occurred during the war. ‘Where there is an increase it is usually slight and as a rule is connected with the absence of fathers on Service of in munition work.’ In a different category (as a a reason for absence) was the widespread practice of keeping children from school so that they could spend time with their fathers or elder brothers home on Service leave. In a particular and quite typical week in the spring of 1943 in Birmingham, school absences were nearly three times as numerous on this account as for truancy.
Illness in the family seems to have been one of the more important reasons for non-attendance, especially when the mother was on war-work.43 ‘Senior girls are kept at home; doctors’ notes have been sent asking permission for girls to be away from school owing to illness at home, no other help being available.’ Another reason was the acute shortage of maternity accommodation; many mothers were compelled to have their babies at home and children were kept from school to help in the house. If, however, it was impossible to book a
midwife or doctor, or overcrowding and bad conditions prohibited home confinements and hospital accommodation was also refused, mothers in London and other cities had to be leave their homes for five weeks or more to be confined in one of the Government’s maternity hostels in the country.44 In effect, many were subjected to compulsory evacuation.45 Those who had children of school age, and whose husbands were in the Forces or engaged on long spells of factory work, had, perforce, to leave their homes in the care of these older children.46 Naturally enough, the children attended school less regularly.
As regards the health of schoolchildren as a group, the war did not apparently lead to any marked increase in the amount of illness though, in the absence of contemporary statistical research, it is not possible to be certain about this. In comparison with 1938–9, certain infectious diseases, notably diphtheria, registered a decrease in 1943 while others, scarlet fever for one, were more prevalent. Nothing can be said—because nothing is known—about all the troublesome coughs, colds and other respiratory ills and whether they were more or less prevalent among schoolchildren during the war. What can be said, however, is that verminous heads, scabies, impetigo and other skin diseases did lead to the exclusion from school of many more children than before the war. In Liverpool, for instance, the proportion of boys and girls with lousy heads, already high in 1938, had more than doubled by 1943.47 The prevalence of scabies, not only in
Liverpool, where the number of treated schoolchildren rose from 693 in 1938 to 11,329 in 1943,48 but in practically every part of the country was a source of much trouble and distress. This disease, always encouraged by war conditions, increased enormously during 1914–18, alike among the troops and the civilian population.In 1938 it was rising again, and was then as high as in 1919. During the following war years a great epidemic blazed up, fanned first by evacuation and mobilisation and, later, by overcrowding, and an ever-increasing shortage of laundry facilities, soap, towels, underclothing and bedding.49
A dwindling supply of consumer goods of many kinds, while contributing to the spread of scabies and skin disease in general, was, in itself, an important cause of the non-attendance of children at school. It was also provocative of numerous complaints from householders in the reception areas about the condition of newly arrived evacuees.50 By 1943, teachers and other people in contact with schools in all parts of the country were also expressing the opinion that the standard of children’s clothing and equipment had deteriorated as a result of the war. Criticism tended to centre round the centre round the state of the children’s footwear. Thousands of reports by teachers, inspectors, attendance and welfare officers spoke of this problem as a serious cause of school absences. ‘Many children have one pair only and when repairs are needed children must stay at home a whole week.’ ‘Repairs now take a month.’ ‘There is a shortage of leather and clog soles.’ ‘Lack of wellingtons is a serious matter in country districts during wet weather. Hundreds of requests were made at the education offices for help in securing wellingtons.’ ‘The number of absences due to lack of boots or clothes during the month ended 25th September 1942 in Bristol varied in sixteen districts from 23 to 860.’
The present winter, in reading these reports and looking at Board of Trade statistics, could not decide whether there were more or fewer children’s shoes to go round during the years 1942–5 than before the war. There were contradictions in the evidence and a lack of reliable data. Although the figures provided by manufacturers for the
Board of Trade showed only small fluctuations in supplies,51 nevertheless, there was an immense and unceasing flow of complaints about shortages from consumers and their representatives in the House of Commons.52 Certain considerations offer at least a partial explanation of the puzzle. If it was true that before the war a great many children spent most of their days in plimsolls, then the wartime cut in production of rubber and canvas shoes may have created a big additional demand for leather footwear.53 If, too, the amount and degree of hardship and poverty among households with children was greater before the war than had in general been known and acknowledged, a rise in the demand for more boots and shoes—for higher standards in fact—would inevitably follow from a state of full employment and increased purchasing power. A further explanation for the shortage may be found in many reports which repeatedly emphasised that the quality of children’s footwear had seriously deteriorated during the war. ‘Footwear is the bugbear of every mother. A pair of shoes for a child of three cots round about 12s. 6d., and no pair of shoes for a child of any age lasts more than three weeks without repair. The cost of repairs … is very high … and quality of materials and workmanship very low. Secondhand shoes, a very great boon to lower income groups in pre-war days, have to be all intents and purposes vanished from the market.’54 There seems to be no dispute about the shoddiness of many of the boots and shoes made for children during the war.55 It followed as a natural, and perhaps inevitable, consequence of all these factors that more children had to stay away from school.
This brief inquiry into some of the wartime difficulties of family life has demonstrated the variety of causes, commonplace and unexpected which contributed to the rise in absences from school. It was deceptively easy to suggest that parents were throwing off their responsibilities and flocking to the factories in search of money. But this was not the answer because the important questions about living conditions had not been asked. Indeed, few questions of a searching character on a significant scale were asked about the wartime state
of education. No one, for example, knew how many children aged five to six were debarred from entering school because of inflated classes, insufficient teachers and inadequate buildings.56
All the problems of home and school life discussed in this chapter—mothers in factories, fathers in uniform, interrupted education, crowded homes, lack of children’s shoes and so on—while important in themselves in any account of wartime conditions are also important as background and material for the history of evacuation. The combined effect of all these social forces was to depress the formative influence and quality of home life in relation to the character and moral development of a proportion of the nation’s children. Some mothers and fathers were less able or less willing to make the home ‘a place of warm activity’,57 a place where children learn the principle and practice of good conduct. Simultaneously, the performance of many schools in their roles of educational and civilising agencies deteriorated. It was not, therefore, surprising that householders in the reception areas protested and complained when they were asked to receive representatives of those whom the war had not treated kindly.
Increasingly from 1941 onwards, the children who came under the Government’s evacuation scheme reflected the deprivations and inconsistencies of the times. Although in a sense they were a selected group, selected for certain reasons to be sent away as evacuees or to remain in the country as evacuees, they were sufficiently numerous to change the character of the scheme. The extent to which it was moulded by the intensity of the nation’s war effort has been shown in this chapter. It became, not so much a scheme for preserving the lives of children in areas relatively safe from air attack, but a scheme whose primary task was to find temporary homes for children whose mothers were working in factories, were ill or were expecting a baby, for children out of parental control because of the absence of fathers, for children who needed on educational grounds to be linked up with a particular evacuated school, and for an assortment of other reasons. In short, it acted as a safety-valve for social distress in the cities, and it gave to some children some of the elements of care which the family, when not separated by war, strained by bodily and economic ills or broken by dissension, was best fitted to provide.