I have always had a passionate interest in social history, and during 2013 I collected evacuation stories from all over Britain for a new book on the experiences of 100 Second World War evacuees. It contains extracts from the personal stories of, not just children, but also the mothers and teachers who accompanied them – who spent the war in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These moving stories are accompanied by wartime photographs, many of which have been rescued from evacuees’ attics.
Prior to commencing work on this new book, I spent four years interviewing over 200 evacuees for my first book, Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War (published in 2012 by History Press). 17,000 evacuees fled the Channel Island of Guernsey to England in June 1940, just weeks before their island was occupied by Germany for 5 years.
Sadly, many of these evacuees have died since my book was published, so I feel that it is vital that the personal memories of Second World War evacuees are recorded now before they are lost for ever.
For my new book I include evacuation stories from all over Britain and also from children and adults who sought refuge on the British mainland from the Channel Islands and Gibraltar (British territories). In fact, most of these evacuees were not send to the safety of the British countryside.
I also include stories from those who arrived in Britain from war torn France, Spain, the Ukraine and Belgium.
One French child, Paulette, was sent to Guernsey, then evacuated again with her Guernsey Catholic school to England where she was financially supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President. I include the memories of Jewish children who fled Nazi Germany to England and Scotland. Kurt Gutmann stated years later “When I arrived in Scotland and was cared for by a very kind family, it was the first time in months, that I actually felt like a human being.”
Some children have very strong memories of leaving home and arriving at their new destinations whilst to others it was just a blur.
In July 1940, Lourdes Galliano was evacuated from Gibraltar to London, and recalls “My mother, my two sisters and I were taken to the Empress Hall in Earl’s Court, a skating rink that had been converted into an evacuee reception centre. The rows of tiered seats in the hall had been closed and folding camp beds had been jammed into the gaps – there were 750 of us! As we lay on our camp beds we could see that the domed ceiling was entirely made of glass. Not very reassuring had we known what was to come – the London Blitz!”
Peter St John Dawe was evacuated when his London orphanage was bombed. He recalled “On arrival in Leighton Buzzard, nobody knew what to do with me. So I ate my bun and chocolate, and spent the night alone in the station waiting room. The next morning, I broke my piggy bank and bought a sandwich at the station buffet.
Many stories are very positive, with evacuees being extremely happy, gaining new experiences and making new friends. Many formed a lasting bond with the families they were billeted with and some did not want to leave their wartime ‘foster parents’ behind. Adelaide Harris was evacuated from Hull to Lincolnshire then billeted with the Wright family and their children – Arthur and Renee. She grew to love them all and told me, “When I eventually returned home, I cried for days which wasn’t nice at all for her Mum and Dad. I also missed Arthur and Renee very badly.”
Doreen Holden was evacuated to Matlock in Derbyshire and told me, “A nice couple took me in because my name was Doreen, the same as their little girl’s! They treated me very well, bought me dolls and made me jelly and custard because I hated rice pudding! Their house was opposite Riber Castle and at night I sat in my bedroom watching the castle in the moonlight. It was magical and felt like Fairyland!”
Jim Marshall was evacuated from Rochford to Gloucestershire and told me, “My brother Dick and I were very lucky as we were chosen, along with 5 other boys, by Mrs Percival who lived at a huge manor house, Priors Lodge. The following morning, we looked out of the window with disbelief to see a huge long drive which seemed to disappear for miles into the distance!”
I have also gathered stories from mothers and teachers who travelled with the groups of evacuated school children, and who took on a huge amount of responsibility. Jessie Robertson recalled arriving in Bishop Auckland with her pupils and comparing that area with their home town of Gateshead, “Saturday was spent seeing that the children were settling in. They had all come from a new housing estate where every house had an indoor toilet and bathroom and most were housed in homes without either – as I was. Once a week, on a Friday evening, I was invited by the lady next door to use her bathroom. I think that it was the only one in that terraced street.”
Mr Philip Godfray brought his pupils safely to England from Alderney in the Channel Islands, just days before Germany occupied his island. However, because he and his pupils had left their homes at very short notice, Phiip stated, “The total length of the journey from Alderney was sixty hours, with the delays. For the whole of this period the amazing spirit and faith of the children enabled them to respond to our guidance without a single whimper or word of complaint.”
Agnes Camp left Guernsey with her infant son Dennis, arriving in Stockport with no money or possessions. Dennis told me, “Mum moved us into a cottage which only had half a roof and the landlord, Mr Murdoch, knocked on the door saying ‘This place is condemned Mrs Camp!’ Mum replied ‘Well, I have nowhere else to go.’ and he had replied ‘Well, for your pluck, I will have the roof done!”
Many evacuees were evacuated more than once. James Martin, aged 13, was evacuated with his brothers from the East End of London to Bridgwater, Somerset, in 1939, “We stayed there for four months then returned to London. In 1941 we returned to Bridgwater with our Mum, moving into the top half of a house whilst the resident family of Mrs Stone lived downstairs. There was tension between the families and Mrs Stone wouldn’t allow us to use the downstairs bathroom whilst we were eating.” (James Martin’s story is reproduced courtesy of Ursula Martin, Somerset Genealogy http://www.somersetgenealogy.uk.com)
Some evacuees never returned home to their families after the war, others were physically or mentally abused, and some died during their time away from home. George Osborn, and his sister were evacuated from Portsmouth to Wootton on the Isle of Wight. George told me, “Brenda and I were placed in separate billets. I was very badly treated in mine, but with Brenda’s help, I was moved into her billet. However, on 28 December 1941 I was on my own again when Brenda died of blood poisoning. This was caused by an infection after an inoculation against diphtheria, which was given, ironically, to immunize us against a killer disease of the time.”
I have also collected stories from people who took evacuees into their homes during the war, or who offered assistance to evacuees when they arrived in their towns and cities. Judy Fox’s family cared for two evacuees from Gosport and recalls “They lived in the house with my Uncle and Aunt, Mum, me and four cousins, so there was quite a crowd of us! In addition we had no running water, gas or electricity! Roger and Ruth went to school with my cousins, and they were treated exactly the same way as we were, as a part of the family.”
Another moving account comes from a Lancashire man, John Fletcher, who felt so sorry for the hundreds of evacuee children who arrived in his home town, Bury, without their parents, that he tirelessly raised funds throughout the war so that they could have a Christmas present and a party every year.
There is so much more to the evacuation story than groups of children arriving at railway stations with labels tied their coats. Hopefully this book, with the help of the family photographs, will paint an intimate picture of how the British people opened up their homes to evacuated children and adults during the dark days of the war.
These photographs were kindly provided by the evacuees and their families.
My book Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the World War Two Home Front was published on 30 September 2014 by Pen & Sword Books. Here is the link to the UK amazon site:
I organise Second World War Evacuation events in northern England and run a community group for Guernsey evacuees who did not return home after the war. My next event takes place on Saturday November 8th 2014 at St Mary’s Church and Conference Centre, Stockport. All are welcome, free entry, see my community page at this link: