Chapter 21: Evacuation: The Last Phase
(i) Evacuation Movements
By functioning as a kind of disguised welfare agency from about 1941 onwards the evacuation scheme helped to release more women for the factories; it also reduced the demand for social aids in the evacuation areas, and it forestalled the need to call some fathers home from the Services on compassionate leave. In these and other ways it contributed to the alleviation of some domestic distresses during the years when the country was reaching towards full mobilisation of its people. But the consequences were experienced by householders in the reception areas who were expected to receive and look after the children of these parents in trouble, and the complaints that arose presented the Government with several difficult problems.
One of the issues which had to be faced early in 1942 was whether the complicated machinery of evacuation, so laboriously created and tested by time, should be closed down by the Ministry of Health. Should the Ministry shut the hostels, the nurseries, and the maternity homes, disband the rest of the apparatus of welfare, disperse the staffs so hardly come by, give up buildings, and move three-quarters of a million evacuees back to the cities with damaged houses and schools? What would happen if the enemy started to bomb London again?: What would happen when the liberation of Europe began?
Opinion in the reception areas was strongly in favour of the evacuation scheme being brought to an end. The cities were not being bombed; there was no sign that the enemy intended to renew the offensive: so why should some householders—and not others—be expected to endure and sustain the scheme? A scheme which offended because of its inequities; which offended particularly because of the character and condition of some of the new evacuees, and because householders began to realise the reason why children remained in the country had little to do with fears of renewed air attacks.
These arguments in favour of ending evacuation were, so far as they went, valid, but the Government could not answer back in public. It could not talk frankly about its problems; about its plans for emptying the ports of unessential civilians when D-Day approached, its fears of counter-invasion, of heavier bombing attacks, of gas
and secret weapons.1 For these reasons the War Cabinet decided, when evacuation policy was reviewed in the spring of 1942, to maintain the scheme. The risk of dismantling the whole apparatus was too great, it was thought, to be taken in the circumstances of 1942. Moreover, there were other considerations which impressed the Government, In London and other cities the needs of certain groups, especially expectant mothers, young children and old people, for residential care in private households, hostels and various institutions, were steadily growing. The need for short-stay accommodation by distressed members of Servicemen’s families was, for instance, becoming a national problem. If the various arms of the evacuation service were abruptly severed, some other organisation of a similar character would have to be established unless a great deal of social distress was to be ignored. The only other medium immediately available was the poor law, but as a large proportion of these needs arose in families where the father was in the Services this alternative was politically and socially impracticable. Therefore, the evacuation scheme had to be continue.
Throughout 1942–3 and during the first six months of 1944 the evacuation of young children to residential nurseries and of expectant mothers to maternity homes went on at a greater rate than in 1941. Facilities for the evacuation of unaccompanied schoolchildren in organised parties were kept open until the end of 1942 when they were restricted to certain areas—Hull, Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth and other cities.2 The only scheme of organised evacuation to be suspended was that for which there was little demand after the middle of 1941—the evacuation of mothers with their children. This
was stopped in March 1942. During these years, however, the various schemes of assisted private evacuation continued to be available; billeting certificates and free travel vouchers were still provided for unaccompanied children as well as for mothers with their children who went to billets that had been privately arranged.
From a total of 1,340,000 evacuees of all classes billeted in England and Wales in February 1941 the figure had dropped, a year later, to 738,000. This, broadly speaking, was the number at stake when the Government reviewed evacuation policy and decided to continue the scheme. By then, however, the hostels, nurseries and other institutions for evacuated children were, in matters of staff, ‘living from hand-to-mouth’. Handicapped by discontents in the reception areas and perplexed by the social problems described in the preceding chapter the depleted and over-worked staffs of the evacuation services struggled on. For the best part of two years the organisation had to make do, in its staff replacements, with other people’s rejects, with those not called to factory work or the services, with retired nurses, untrained people as wardens, unmarried mothers and their children and girls who had just left school. The fall in the number of evacuees between March 1942 and March 19443 chiefly affected those billeted on private households, and left at about the same level the number to be cared for in institutions of various kinds.
By one shift or another the main elements of welfare under the evacuation scheme were preserved during these years. The fact that somehow or other the line was held was of fundamental importance, for it enabled the Government in July 1944 to quickly throw open once more the door to the country so that mothers and children could take refuge from the assaults of the enemy’s flying-bombs.
The well-tried machinery of evacuation had thus been held together and was in good shape in London when the first flying-bomb fell in the Metropolitan area on the night of 12th June 1944. As the attack increased in violence demand rose for the full resumption of evacuation facilities for mothers and children in both London and south-eastern counties. Information which the Government had previously acquired about the enemy’s possession of this weapon (and also of long-range rockets) had allowed certain preparatory
measures to be taken.4 These were brought up-to-date, and on 1st July the Government asked the London County Council to start the movement of evacuees, and to accept responsibility as the sending authority for mothers and children living in a large belt of country between London and the coast—‘bomb alley’ as it was colloquially called—as well as for those in the Metropolitan area and various districts to the west, north and east of London.5
The first parties of schoolchildren and homeless mothers with their children left London on 5th July. During the next few weeks all trains to the west, the midlands and north were filled to capacity as opportunities for evacuation under both the organised and assisted schemes were extended to include additional groups and wider areas. The flying-bomb attack on the south-east of England rendered obsolete many of the original categories of evacuation, neutral and reception areas. The geography of relative danger and safety changed, and new executive tasks had to be learnt in a matter of hours as local authority areas previously classified as reception were switched to evacuation and vice versa.6
The period during which evacuation was in progress was much shorter than in 1940–1; it lasted for only two months. Demand fell off quite sharply in August, and with the flying-bomb attack petering out, the Government suspended evacuation facilities (except for certain of the special schemes7) on 7th September 1944.8 In these two months, 307,600 mothers and children were evacuated in organised parties from London and the south-eastern areas.9 A much larger number, in all about 552,000 mothers and children, old people and homeless people, made their own arrangements to leave and availed themselves of Government help in the form of billeting certificates and free travel vouchers. With the addition of various other groups, such as expectant mothers and residential nursery children, not far short of 1,000,000 people were helped by the Government to leave
the area of the flying-bomb attack between 5th July and 7th September 1944.
The whole movement was carried through smoothly, with only one or two mishaps and no substantial complaints. Those that arose were attributable chiefly to the difficulties of former evacuation authorities in the north and midlands who quickly had to learn new tasks and adjust their administrative machinery to receiving children and mothers instead of sending them away.10 Another complicated piece of work which had to be rushed through at the same time as the general dispersal was the removal of those accommodation in residential nurseries and maternity homes and hostels situated in the south-east of England. These communities, hitherto considered to be in relatively safe areas, were directly menaced by the flying-bombs. In circumstances of extreme pressure, the children and staff in no less than ninety nurseries and residential schools were moved to new premises well outside the target areas. The wartime maternity scheme was tested to an even greater extent. A further loss of hospital beds, a rising birth rate, a growing shortage of midwives and all the damage and disturbance caused by flying-bombs, placed a tremendous strain on the available resources in London for delivering mothers of their babies. Somehow or other the ordeal was surmounted, chiefly because the emergency evacuation scheme contrived to take, during this period, up to 1,000 mothers a week. Thus, the decision in 1942 to continue this scheme was fully justified, for during 1944 a record number of confinements (41,248) took place in these wartime maternity homes.
While all this evacuation work was in progress during July and August 1944, more plans, of a formidable and far-reaching character,were being hammered out to deal with the possible effects of rocket attack. A special committee of the War Cabinet (the Rocket Consequences Committee) began, at its first meeting on 3rd August 1944, to review these plans. They embraced schemes for the evacuation from London of 500,000 or so people, for the establishment of reception centres and feeding stations on the fringes of the metropolitan area to provide for refugees on foot, for the dispersal of important industries and key production units, for the removal of some Government departments and for the emptying of London hospitals of their patients. While a certain amount of unorganised refugee movement was envisaged and allowed for in these plans, the Government’s policy was to advise Londoners to stand fast. They had, for the most part, done so before, and as the war with Germany was approaching its
climax there was little reason to suppose that the majority would not do so again.
Thus, in the field of civilian defence, the war ended, as it began, in a furious burst of administrative activity on plans for the transport and care of mothers and children; plans to meet the consequences of long-range attacks, plans—and their execution—to meet the flying-bomb attacks and, simultaneously, plans for the unwinding of all these complicated schemes of evacuation and for the return of the refugees to their homes.
The first rocket fell on London on the day the Government announced the suspension of general evacuation facilities (8th September 1944). For a short time it looked as though these facilities might have to be reinstated. There was some demand, chiefly for free travel vouchers and billeting certificates under the assisted schemes, but it was at no time sufficiently widespread to justify, in the Government’s view, the resumption of evacuation.11 The rocket attack was blunted by the advance of Allied Forces in Western Europe, and although 1,053 incidents had been reported in England when the last rocket was fired on 27th March 1945, the attack was not as serious as it might have been had it been launched earlier in the war. Apart from taking certain precautionary steps,12 the Government did not operate the special plans drawn up to deal with the social consequences of this new weapon of destruction. Astonishing, therefore, as it must have seemed to those—Ministers, Government officials and psychiatrists alike—who recalled their grim forebodings of 1938, no general scheme of evacuation was in operation when London was bombed with rockets in the autumn of 1944–5. Yet heavy demands for evacuation might have been expected with so many more husbands and fathers away in the Services in 1944 than in 1940–1 and with so many more wives and mothers alone in London.
More astonishing, still, if the pre-war fears of vast crowds of refugees are remembered, was the spectacle of a Government not stemming demands for evacuation, but pleading with mothers and children to stay away from the area of rocket bombing. The return home had started in August when flying-bombs were still arriving. After a few weeks’ experience of rockets, public opinion, led once again by Mr. Churchill, had measured the risks of the new weapon and the journey home was resumed. When an evacuation census was taken on 30th September 1944 there were 1,040,000 persons billeted
What the Government was really worried about in September 1944 was the problem of shattered and broken homes in London. The last winter of the war—of that there was little doubt—was destined to be a miserable one in terms of housing conditions, whatever was achieved in the way of repair. The total task was so immense that the best advice the Government could give was to tell the London evacuees to stay away, particularly those who had no homes to return to and those whose homes awaited repair.
In addition to all the housing damage sustained earlier in the war and still needing attention in June 1944, the flying-bomb and rocket attacks resulted in 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 damaged or destroyed houses.15 The immediate problem, as it appeared to the Government in September 1944, was represented by 800,000 or so houses in London region which needed repair to some kind to make them ‘reasonably comfortable’.16 The more badly damaged houses, and there were many in that category, would have to be left until the winter was over. And when all the repair work had been executed to a generous standard in all areas of the country, there still remained the formidable task of making good the six stolen years during which very few houses had been built and replacing the 222,000 houses which had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
The manner in which these tasks were undertaken cannot be described here. The housing situation in 1944 is relevant to this narrative only insofar as it affected the Government’s policy on evacuation. It seriously affected, in particular, the nature of the plans for the return of London evacuees, and it created certain problems which complicated and delayed the closing down of the evacuation scheme.
(ii) The Return Home
By the end of 1943 the Ministry of Health was already studying plans for the return of evacuees to their homes.17 The Government had decided that it would have to accept responsibility for this movement, and that everything should be done to arrange for an ‘organised and orderly’ return. Accordingly, detailed planning began in the spring of 1944. The flying-bomb and rocket attacks, and their effects on the housing situation, made it necessary, however, to recast the schemes drawn up for London and south-eastern areas. In September 1944 the Government decided to operate ‘evacuation in reverse’ by stages; London was placed last in the queue.
It was no easy task to settle in advance all the details of the homeward journey of all evacuation areas in the country for a population which might, on the appointed day, range from 250,000 to 750,000. Mothers and children, nursery infants, old people, the blind and the infirm, all from the London area for instance, were scattered throughout the length and breadth of England and Wales. Many schools had lost their identity and their former pupils to such an extent that the local authorities could not pick out a particular reception area as the temporary home of their schoolchildren.18 The London County Council had to plan its scheme so as to arrange for children to be gathered from approximately a thousand billeting areas, formed into parties, collected into train-loads, brought to London, sorted and sent to eighty evacuation districts, and then escorted to a particularly house in a particular street.
Before these plans could be completed it was essential to obtain certain information. A record card for each unaccompanied evacuated child had to be prepared, and house-to-house investigation in the evacuation areas was necessary to ascertain the circumstances of every home.19 Where there was no home, or where conditions were
such as to make the return of the child impossible or undesirable, provision had to be made for the child to remain in the reception area.
Until the results of these inquiries were available, a number of important questions could not be answered. Was it true, as some newspapers alleged, that many parents had ‘disappeared’ in order to avoid accepting back their children?20 How many evacuation hostels, nurseries and other institutions would still be needed to accommodate children who who could not return home because there was no room for them with the rest of the family, or because the parents had not, and could not get, the necessary beds and bedding? How many parents were still in the Forces, on war-work, or ill, and unable to receive their children back from the country? There was not much point in the Government and the local authorities making elaborate transport arrangements21 until the circumstances of these unaccompanied children had been investigated. When this had been done, and when all those who could go home had gone home, it might then be possible to recognise the nature of the residual problem; to see what in fact had been left behind by five years of war and evacuation.
By the end of September 1944, the arrangements for the return home to most of the provincial areas had reached an advanced state, and with the end of the war in sight it was decided to set in motion the first sections of the programme. The signal it was decided to set in motion the first sections of the programme. The signal was given for evacuees from the north-western areas of England to return to their homes.22 Billeting allowances were then withdrawn, requisitioned houses given up, free travel vouchers distributed, and unaccompanied children were escorted home in organised parties. The midland cities and all other areas north and west of a line joining Southampton and Hull were declared ‘Go home areas’ a little later,23 and shortly after, all Scottish evacuation areas were similarly named.24 Then followed, in October, the ‘bomb alley’ districts in the south-east of England, together with Portsmouth, Gosport, Southampton and various towns on the coasts of Sussex and Kent,25 and in December, the return home schemes for Dover and six remaining evacuation towns in Kent were operated.26 At the end of the year only two sections of the plan had
still to be carried out; the return to Hull and other east coast town, and the return to London.
A count of evacuees in all areas in Britain in March 1945 showed that during the preceding six months nearly 600,000 (out of a total of 1,040,200) had left the reception areas. As there were not as large number of mothers and children from provincial areas included in the September 1944 total of 1,040,200, the majority of those returning home during the following six months were obviously Londoners. Thus, the return home scheme for London had to be drastically scaled down as the total evacuated population was reduced to 454,200,27 and the number of unaccompanied children to 134,000.28
The London County Council was therefore compelled to adjust its plan to fit a considerably smaller population.29 Fresh train schedules were prepared, and on 10th April 1945 copies of the plan (a document of 5,000 words and eight appendices) were sent to all local authorities in the country.30 On 2nd May—six days before the end of the European war—the signal was given for which Londoners had been impatiently waiting; all those who had homes to return to could now leave the reception areas, either in organised parties under escort travelling in special trains or with the aid of free travel vouchers.31
The first of the special trains was not, however, run until a month later owing to the many complex details involved in the organisation and collection of groups of parties. It had been expected that if all went well the London movement would be over by 9th July. It was completed by the 12th; 115 special trains carried 29,701 unaccompanied children, 21,127 mothers with their children, and 3,489 other adults—a total of 54,317 evacuees.32 In addition, a large number of mothers applied for free travel vouchers after 2nd May and return of their own accord with their children, and separate arrangements were made by the London County Council for the return of physically handicapped children, nursery infants and other groups.
It had been estimated in September 1944 that at least 500,000 evacuees would have to be brought back to Greater London in
organised parties. Six months later the figure was scaled down to 250,000. When the first train was run in June it had been further reduced to 83,000. In the end only 54,000 travelled. An analysis of the figures for all evacuation areas in Britain (including London) showed that, of 1,000,000 or so evacuees billeted or otherwise accommodated in September 1944, less than 75,000 returned home in organised parties under Government auspices.
Once again in the history of evacuation the elaborate planning and the careful organisation by Government departments and local authorities went by default. The people behaved in an unexpected way. By their behaviour they made planning difficult; they made a good look, in the end, like a bad plan. On the outbreak of war—and also in 1940—there were empty and half-filled trained and unused facilities; at the end of the war, when the Government assumed responsibility for bringing home those it had helped to send away, there were empty trains again. Whatever else they were, these people were not docile. They would not all go away when they were told so, and those who did returned before they were expected. They returned in hundreds of thousands during the winter of 1944–5 to a dilapidated London, to damaged and uncomfortable homes, and to the accompaniment of rockets. They knew—or thought they knew—that the war was ending. They could not wait for the Government’s plans to mature; they were in a hurry to rejoin their families and to get a good place in the housing queue.
Nearly three months after the end of the European war a Ministry of Health inquiry showed that there were 76,000 people still billeted or accommodated under the evacuation scheme.33 These were the people who, for one reason or another, could not return to their home towns; a figure larger—it will be noticed—than the number of evacuees who travelled back under official arrangements. The great majority were compelled to stay on in their billets or hostels because they had been bombed-out during the war and had no homes to return to, because their homes had been given up or requisitioned, because they had never had homes, because parents were so badly housed that there was no room for children, or because there were no beds or bedding. The housing problem in fact, explained why most of these mothers and children, infants and old people, continued to be a responsibility of the evacuation scheme.
Between July 1945 and March 1946, when the next census of evacuees was taken, the circumstances of many of these families were investigated by social workers, and help of various kinds was given to
enable them to overcome their difficulties.34 During this period the number of evacuees fell be one-half—to 38,000. This figure was largely composed of 26,000 mothers with their children and 3,000 others in family groups. Practically all these mothers and children, living temporarily in hostels, requisitioned houses or other people’s homes, represented housing problems. Except that they had acquired the label of Government evacuees they hardly differed in their need for four walls and a roof from many other families in all areas of the country.35 The evacuation label was, therefore, removed, and these evacuees became, like so many other people, the responsibility of the local housing authorities and part of the queue for decent homes.36
By slow degrees the evacuation scheme came to an end. Certain of the responsibilities it had been forced to assume by the pressures of total war and which had little to do with physical safety from air attack could not, however, be thrown off at once. Arrangements had to be made to incorporate some of these newly-assumed Government responsibilities into the framework of the normal social services, to transfer executive responsibilities to local authorities, and to work out schemes of temporary provision until all the new social legislation of the post-war years could take charge of the situation.
One of the most difficult of the residual problems involved in the unwinding of the evacuation scheme was the question of the future care of the children left behind in the reception areas. Public opinion would not, it was though, countenance a policy of simply handing these children over to the poor law authorities. The social conscience of the nation was, at the time, disturbed about the predicament of
children deprived of a normal home life, and the appointment of the Curtis Committee to inquire into the circumstances of such children showed that the Government shared this concern.37 The use of poor law institutions was thus ruled out for evacuated children. But how should they be dealt with pending the abolition of the poor law and the establishment of something better in its place. Essentially, it was a question of numbers. If the receding tide of evacuation left behind only a small number of ‘deprived’ children then the problem was manageable. If not, then some new welfare agency would have to be created to replace the social services provided, under wartime emergency powers, by the evacuation scheme.
It would not have been surprising had the Government been persuaded that a large number of neglected children would be left on its hands at the end of the war. So much had been written and said for so long about a breakdown of family life; about a growing lack of parental responsibility, about a shifting of burdens from parents to a benevolent State, about an increasing number of broken and unhappy marriages. These were the themes of letters to the press and of debates in Parliament when, for instance, problems of divorce and separation were discussed.38 ‘The family life of our time stands indicted.’39 There had been a ‘deplorable increase’ in the number of devices.40 ‘Morality’, wrote the Archbishop of Westminster, ‘has declined. I need only to point to the ever-increasing number of divorces, murders, suicides and robberies’.41 Newspapers carried headlines about lost and deserted evacuees, unwanted children and missing parents.42
These social questions were rarely examined with dispassionate care. When, for instance, the Registrar-General issued figures showing that a high proportion of young women were pregnant at the time of their marriage it was automatically assumed that the behaviour of young women (and young men) had been very different in the past.43 When divorce figures were published they were not related to the rise in the marriage rate, or studied by reference to the trend in
different social groups, the financial costs of divorce, and the level of money incomes before and during the war. It is tempting to generalise about these problems in human relationships—and such generalisations may sometimes be useful—but the truth can be sought only with the aid of much patient research. So far as the consequences of wartime evacuation were concerned, it was simply not true to say that large numbers of children had been deserted by their parents.
On 31st March 1946 when, to all intents and purposes, the evacuation scheme came to an end, there were only 5,200 unaccompanied children left in all reception areas of England and Wales—a figure substantially smaller than that forecast by the Ministry of Health.44 About 3,000 were then living with foster-parents, 1,000 were in residential nurseries and special schools and the rest were in hostels of various kinds.45 They remained behind either because they had no homes to which to go, or because there was some other good reason for postponing their return to their parents. In many instances, housing was the root cause. Other children were orphans, children of parents one of whom was dead and the other unable to make home, and children of parents who were not living together. Only a small number of evacuated children were found to have been deserted by their parents.46 Moreover, as the evacuation scheme took responsibility during the war for proportion of neglected and ill-cared for children, who would, in peacetime, have passed into the hands of the poor law authorities, it is not possible to estimate whether these instances of desertion were in any way abnormal or additional to the general experience of poor law work.47 What does emerge, however, is that viewed against the background of the immense social upheavals of six years of war, these residual problems of parental neglect were, in terms of numbers, insignificant.
The arrangements made by the Government for 5,200 children to become the responsibility of county or county borough councils were difficult to organise on a permanent basis, for a bridge had to be built between the emergency welfare apparatus of 1939–45 and the
post-war legislation for child care, social assistance and health services. An interim scheme, devised to avoid placing any stigma of the poor law on these children, was introduced on 1st April 1946. A detailed description of this measure was given in numerous documents published by the Government.48 On 5th July 1948 the number of evacuated children for whom no permanent arrangements had been made had fallen to about 1,500. With the introduction of the new Children Act on this date, the maintenance and well-being of these remaining children became the responsibility of the local authorities under the Act.
This was only one of the residual problems of evacuation which had to be met in the first place by the organisation of interim schemes. Many of the emergency maternity homes were still needed long after the war had ended, hostels and residential nurseries were still occupied by children, social workers were still in demand to deal with some of the difficulties of adjustment arising in the homes of returning evacuees,49 and furniture was still wanted by people who, bombed-out during the war, were struggling to set up homes again. The Government could not continue to discharge these responsibilities if the emergency powers, so readily given in time of war, were lightly cast aside when victory was won.. The closing down of the complicated apparatus of a nation-wide welfare scheme which had survived six years of war and no little public criticism was a slow and cumbersome business. The process was still going on in 1948.
Nothing has so far been said about the difficulties which children and parents may have encountered in resuming relationships at the end of evacuation and with the return of fathers from war service. Little, indeed, can be said, either about those children who went away under the Government’s evacuation scheme or about the others who were privately evacuated by their parents; for little material based on scientific study and observation is available. A few questions and a few tentative generalisations must, therefore, suffice. Whether or not an emotionally abnormal situation developed in a home depended on many factors; predominantly on what separation had
meant to parents and children. But that is merely the opening question. Others raise inquiring heads as soon as any attempt is made to define separation in terms of the individual child. What was the child’s age when it went away Was it with brothers or sisters or school friends. What kind of a home had it come from and of what psychological stuff was the family made? How long did separation last? How often did the parents visit the child? What was the temporary home like? Was it a warm and understanding home, or a hostel, with plenty of food for the body but perhaps little nurture for the spirit Or was it a residential nursery, run by women with souls unwarped by life in an institution?50 The probing and the searching could no on, but to limited purpose. The total psychological significance to children of separation from parents and home cannot be set down; the knowledge of what children experienced is too scanty.51 ‘We of this self-conscious, incredulous generation’, wrote Francis Thompson many years ago, ‘seek to sentimentalise our children, analyse our children, think we are endowed with special capacity to sympathise and identify ourselves with children. And the result is that we are not more childlike, but our children are less childlike …. Know you what it is to be a child?52
One understanding observer of child behaviour during the First World War reached the conclusion that many children and young people suffered much hurt as a result of the absence of their fathers on Service.53 He believed that some of the emotional crippling, manifested and mirrored in wrong value, wrong marriages, wrong lives, was traceable to the sudden collapse of the traditional role of the father in the texture of family life. In the Second World War, fathers were again absent from homes—sometimes for longer periods than
during 1914–18—while large number of children were separated from their mothers as a result of evacuation, war work and other factors. Considered simply in relation to the need for stability and consistency in the common purposes of family life, the Second World War was a more disruptive force than the First. But, at the end, there was one great redeeming feature; there were more fathers to come home in 1945 than in 1918.
The general disorganisation of relationships caused by the Second World War, and the great extent to which separation affected family life, inevitably led to difficulties of reunion and resettlement during the post-war years. Fundamentally, these difficulties were largely psychological, aggravated in many instances by bad and insufficient house-room. All the unusual and varied personal experiences of life in wartime implicit in different situations and different relationships, and all the new opportunities, obligations and pressures for doing good or behaving badly according to the value judgements of the moment, had played a powerful part in shaping the character and personality of children and their parents. The war had meant much excitement, stress and anxiety for some, interspersed with dawdling periods of boredom, and, later, many were conscious of a sense of restlessness, a disinclination to settle down and resume the ordinary humdrum ways. There were signs of this restlessness in the schools and, with the return of children and husbands at the end of the war, the difficulties of emotional adjustment to quieter and more ordered life no doubt affected the home a well as the school and strained some tempers near to breaking-point. The psychiatrists, looking back over the multiple strains of war, began to talk in terms of ‘delayed anxiety’. This may or may not have contributed to the emotional difficulties people experienced in learning to live together again after enforced separation, or to the strain felt by some parents when once again they were faced with the need to moderate their wants in the interests of rearing children with patience and restraint.
Circumstances in which guilt, conflict and anxiety could flourish during the phase of reunion are easy to visualise. There was the child, perhaps a little neglected emotionally, perhaps, in consequence, a little wayward, returning from a long stay in an evacuation hostel to a home where it was suddenly petted, spoilt and smothered with affection. There was the father, still a stranger to his child, back from the Army with romantic, sentimentalised ideas about domesticity and parenthood. There was the mother, wanting, perhaps, not an independent, self-willed little girl but a small and helpless baby again. And there was the child, accustomed for what had seemed an eternity (for adult conceptions of time-relationships have little relevance in a child’s world) to a quiet and spacious middle-class home returning to a crowded, noisy home in a slum.
These are all simple illustrations of the social and psychological difficulties which followed in the wake of war and at the end of evacuation. Together, they demonstrate the hazards of isolating one war influence from another and of pronouncing on the relative effects of evacuation and separation on the emotional life of children. It cannot, of course, have been good for most—if not all—children to have been separated from their mothers. But the real extent of the harm done by these disturbances of war and of the good that flowed from the social policies adopted to offset or soften the disturbances cannot yet be assessed. Moreover, the manner in which all these derivatives of war—and of war merging into peace—were handled, the good sense or otherwise of parents in dealing with children, the capacity of children to adapt themselves and accept the seemingly unacceptable, these and the host of imponderables active in any society of men will influence family life and the general pattern of relationships for many years to come.
To all this, one vital reservation has to be entered. The evacuation scheme set out to save life, and this it did. It also did something else of importance; it served as a safety-valve for several million mothers and children, as an outlet—a voluntary escape path if only for a few weeks at a time—from the cities that were being bombed. And when it was not filling this role, it functioned again as a safety-valve—or welfare agency—for social distress of a different character. These two forms of service rendered by the various branches of the evacuation scheme for many mothers and children in London and other cities were of great value to a country situated as Britain was for nearly six years of war. Nevertheless, those who were responsible during these years for forming and guiding evacuation policy never pretended that to separate mothers from their children and children from their homes was a good thing. They realised, as others who have studied the roots from which a child’s misbehaviour or mental sickness may grow have realised that while the institution of the family remains as the basis of human society it cannot, in the long run, be wholesome to break it into fragments, and to risk depriving children of their need to give and receive affection. For without affection, life has little meaning for most people and none at all for children.