Monday, 1 October 2012

What was it really like to be a WW2 Evacuee?

The Evacuation of Children from Southend, 2nd June 1940 by E.L. Gabain (1941)

Thousands of children were evacuated during the Second World War. While some were warmly welcomed, as I discoveredothers found themselves unwanted guests...

“I went as a Cockney and came back speaking Yorkshire!” Londoner Rita French, like so many other children in wartime, was evacuated from a blitzed city to a new life in Yorkshire. In 1937 the British government published a booklet called The Householder's Handbook warning residents of large towns to consider sending 'children, invalids, elderly members of the household, and relatives or friends in the country' if war broke out. Between 1939 and 1945 around 3.5million people, mainly children, were evacuated through Operation Pied Piper, some multiple times.

While Yorkshire saw an influx of evacuee children, its own youngsters also departed from Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull. Five-year-old Mercy Matthews (née Sword) was evacuated just ten miles from her home in Hull to North Ferriby village, where she lived until 1947. “I can still see myself with the other children – perhaps 100 – in the village hall,” she remembers. “I was one of the last to be 'chosen'.”

Thousands poured into the county from further afield; the younger ones with little idea of what was happening. In 1941 eight-year-old Hilary Crane from Middlesex came to Higham, South Yorkshire, with her elder sister. Their evacuation was last minute, and Hilary remembers taking “very little...I wasn't allowed my doll or teddy bear, just a change of clothes.”

Seven-year-old Margaret MacIntyre from Kent felt unwelcome when she came to Doncaster in 1942. She discovered that “people assumed that we came from the dirty streets of London.” After a brisk medical inspection on arrival, Margaret and the other children were put to sleep on a mattress in a church hall. She woke to find strangers walking round, choosing their evacuees. Margaret and her younger sister were among the last to go, refusing to be separated.

Evacuees also encountered a new “weird” language. When 12-year-old Gladys Hale from Westminster came to Goole, with her mother and siblings in 1944, she struggled to understand Yorkshire dialect. “When we arrived we were given camp beds and blankets. I asked where to put them and the woman said, 'Yonder lass'. I had no idea where that was!”

For Gladys, life in Goole provided new opportunities. The family moved into an empty house on Boothferry Bridge Road and Gladys went pea and potato picking with her new classmates, who became her friends – after calling her 'the foreigner' for a while. She flourished at Goole Modern School: “There was a biology lab and a gymnasium. It was ultra-modern, an early comprehensive. We could do gardening and play hockey. I felt I wanted to learn.”

Derek Goodman from Sussex, also enjoyed idyllic years with 'Uncle George and Auntie Hilda' Jackson, a childless couple from Thurgoland, who took in the Goodman siblings in 1941. “We used to go down to the River Don and paddle. We just had to be back in time for tea.” Like many other evacuees, the Goodman siblings kept in touch with their foster parents after the war.

However welcoming families were, evacuees often experienced a culture shock. Margaret MacIntyre and her sister came from a smart modern home and were unsettled in the mining area of Doncaster. Their kind foster mother tried to help, giving them a treat of strawberries for tea. But when her miner husband returned from work, “all black, covered in soot, with just his eyes peeping out,” Margaret's five-year-old sister screamed, and couldn't settle. The sisters were moved to a WVS spinster who lived in a house more like their own.

Others felt unwanted in their new homes. Foster parents were paid 10s 6d weekly for an evacuee, plus 8s 6d for additional children, but some evacuees felt resented by their hosts. In Higham, Hilary Crane was “physically sick with nerves,” and worrying constantly that her parents would die in the Blitz. Hilary's foster mother made her uncomfortable: “she kept saying that our parents should send extra money for us, but they really couldn't afford to.” As Hilary's foster family had very little room she slept in the bath. “I was fascinated by the bath, as we came from a cottage with no indoor plumbing. The husband was a miner, so he got extra soap rations and I opened up the cupboard to find it stuffed with soap.” Hilary's hosts were also involved in the Salvation Army, and took her to “sing on corners,” leaving her “a bit taken aback”.

Evacuees were sometimes placed with less than suitable hosts, like Joan Colclough, evacuated from industrial Middlesbrough to Hunmanby, a rural North Yorkshire village. Her hosts were two elderly siblings with little experience of young children and six-year-old Joan struggled to settle. “Their lifestyle was completely different from home and I felt intimidated by the quiet, controlled way of living. I remember my parents coming to see me and whispering to them that I wanted to come home.”

A postcard sent home by evacuees
suggests a reassuring idyllic country life
Sadly, a few evacuees experienced worse hardships than homesickness. In 1944, seven-year-old Londoner Michael Booker went to Kiveton, East Yorkshire, with his 12-year-old sister Olive. The siblings were separated and found evacuation traumatic. Olive's family treated her as a maid and between the one weekly meeting they were allowed, Michael would peer into Olive's home, “hoping to get a glimpse of her at the scullery window.” Desperate to get away, Olive told her brother that she had made plans for them to run away with a group of gypsies in the area, but fortunately they were returned home before this could happen, in June 1945.

Rita French is another evacuee whose life was transformed in Yorkshire. Living in hardship in Elephant and Castle, on the outbreak of war Rita's mother sent her away to escape her docker father's alcoholism as much as the bombs. Seven-year-old Rita went first to Cambridge, but found her hosts cruel and prejudiced. Borrowing a few pence from another child, she sent a letter home and her mother came to collect her, although “she didn't have enough money for a ticket, so she put me in the toilet with an orange to hide from the ticket collector.”

Rita then went to Sheffield. In the hall “everyone was chosen. I was the last one there, looking forlorn. I suppose I was a scruffy-looking kid.” But a woman named Mrs Boss took pity on her. For the first time Rita had a normal life: “I was clean and well-fed. She dressed me, sent me to a nice school and took me out to whist drives and to see Lassie Come Home. I found out what better living was.”

At the end of the war, Mrs Boss offered to adopt Rita, but, when evacuation formally ended in March 1946, she went home to London. However, she and many other Yorkshire evacuees have a great affection for their adopted county to this day, and some, like Derek Goodman, still visit the graves of their foster parents to thank them.

With thanks to James Roffey of the Evacuees Reunion Association and to all the evacuees named in this piece who generously gave their time to be interviewed.

The Evacuees Reunion Association
Formed in 1995 the ERA's mission is to preserve the stories of a generation of evacuees. Over 2,200 members worldwide attend events and receive a monthly magazine.

This article is published in Down Your Way magazine (October 2012)


Brett Payne said...

My Dad and his sister were due to be evacuated to Canada, but after the sinking of a passenger ship in the Atlantic the plans were shelved. The intended foster family were a childless couple in New Brunswick, the husband having been a buddy of my grandfather during the Great War. My father occasionally wondered aloud to me how different their lives would have been had this plan eventuated.

Pauline Conolly said...

Hi Jen
Thanks for the twitter follow. I love social history, and really enjoyed this piece. I remember visiting Dorney Court while researching my Thames book and hearing about a little girl who was given a bed in the airing cupboard!

Pauline Conolly said...

Hi Jen
Thanks for the twitter follow. I love social history, and really enjoyed this piece. I remember visiting Dorney Court while researching my Thames book and hearing about a little girl who was given a bed in the airing cupboard!

Pauline Conolly said...

Hi Jen
Thanks for the twitter follow. I love social history. I remember visiting Dorney Court during the research for my Thames book and hearing about a little girl who was given a bed in the airing cupboard.

Hankering for History said...

I cannot even begin to imagine being an evacuee, especially during WWII. Great post.

Michelle said...

In my mom's case it was moving from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth and living in hotels and boarding houses for the war years. Interesting how differently the war touched children in different countries. I had a friend in school whose father was in the Nazi youth and his stories were equally touching and interesting.

I have just finished reviewing a book on WWI written by my great-grandfather's aunt. :) She worked for the French red Cross running a canteen and then again in Syria.

"Arms and the Woman" by E V Culling. :-) said...

Thanks for the insightful article. I am currently writing/ blogging about my grandparents World War II experience in America.

Gillian Mawson said...

This a great piece and struck a chord with my interviews with Guernsey evacuees who came to England in 1940 just before the Nazis occupied Guernsey. They lived here for 5 years - some people were kind to evacuee children and mothers, some were not so kind. Others were downright cruel. More in my blog at:

Gillian Mawson