'Evacuate forthwith'

Photo:Letter received by Lydia Spurrier's parents during the summer holiday 1939

Letter received by Lydia Spurrier's parents during the summer holiday 1939

Lydia Spurrier

As the Ministry of Health on 31 August 1939 gave the order ‘Evacuate forthwith’ and evacuation began on 1 September it soon became clear that nothing like the expected number had turned up. Only 1.5 million of a total of 3.5 million expected schoolchildren, teachers, mothers with small children and the disabled and their helpers travelled under the scheme. Overall, less than half the schoolchildren left England’s urban areas in the first phase of the evacuation scheme and left the cities still loud with children.

As evacuation commenced the children poured on to the nation’s railway platforms in large parties shepherded by their teachers holding onto their gasmasks and emergency rations, guided and controlled by a system of banners, armlets and labels. Parents had all received a Government leaflet instructing them that their children should bring ‘a handbag or case containing the child’s gas mask, a change of underclothing, night clothes, house shoes or plimsolls, spare stocking or socks, a toothbrush, a comb, towel, soap and face cloth, handkerchief; and if possible, a warm coat or a mackintosh’. Many schools amended or supplemented the list. The letter received by Lydia Spurrier’s parents in preparation for evacuation suggested that the children should purchase and pack their belongings in a haversack.

The evacuation process appeared a triumph of calm and order, there was not a single accident or casualty. The Daily Mail reported on 2 September 1939 that ‘Evacuation of schoolchildren from London went without a hitch. The children, smiling and cheerful, left their parents and entrained for unknown destinations in the spirit of going on a great adventure.’

Nevertheless, one teacher called his twelve-and-a-half-hour trip from Glasgow to Aberdeenshire ‘the most depressing, deplorable and disgusting journey I have ever had the misfortune to make’. Many trains had no corridor and a lack of food and conveniences was fairly general. Although assembled in a state of high excitement at seven or eight in the morning, the majority of children arrived in the reception areas dirty, tearful and exhausted. In theory, the shortfall of evacuees meant that the exercise should have been easier to achieve than had been predicted, but this was in reality not the case. When it had become clear that only half the number expected were to travel, train timetables and destinations were hurriedly rescheduled to get evacuees away as fast as possible, with the result that the evacuees who finally ‘detrained’, in the official language, at towns and villages in the reception areas were often quite different from those who had been expected and prepared for. Mothers and babies bound for Tring in Hertfordshire arrived at Woodcote in Oxfordshire, to the surprise of the reception committee who had been expecting schoolchildren.  

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 18/11/2011.
Comments about this page

These evacuation memories are amazing, they remind me of listening to my mothers story of her evacuation when I was young. She was the first child picked from the station and she loved the countryside. Although, like many, she didn't stay too long as her family missed her. Every experience was so different and this website really highlights this, with so many fabulous stories.

By Sarah Macri
On 07/05/2012