Photo:A group of children pictured during the evacuation process

A group of children pictured during the evacuation process

Grace Trueman

The evacuation scheme was by its planners in some respect perceived as comparable to a military operation, with the emphasis on the logistics of rapid transportation and much less attention given to what would happen when the evacuees arrived at their destination. Local authorities in the reception areas had in many cases been asking for months to be allowed to spend money on preparing for the newcomers but had not been allowed to do so until merely a few days before the outbreak of war. Numerous schools were scattered over large, unfamiliar areas and the process of billeting often proved chaotic.

‘I’ll have that one’

Little planning went into matching children to their billet, and many were simply lined up and picked out by their hosts with the words ‘I’ll have that one’.

‘By the time we arrived in Bideford it was quite late in the evening, we were taken to hall in the town where people were waiting to choose an evacuee. I do not think that there was much in the way of organisation, anyone with a spare room was asked to accept a child or children into their home. It was very late, we were very tired and confused it seemed that no one was prepared to take twins and the organisers were reluctant to separate us.’ Audrey Brockman, evacuated to North Devon in 1940

'It seemed to me to be a bit like a slave market. Grown-ups would walk in and after spending some time looking at us would either walk off to another room, or say to one of the children 'would you like to come with me?' and so, in ones and twos, our numbers dwindled but my brother and I would not be parted so we were among the last in our room'. John Trafford, evacuated to Cornwall 1940

For countless children the experience of being matched to a billet was frightening and disheartening as many, especially pairs of siblings not wishing to be separated, were picked last.

Social mismatching

Social mismatching was inherent in the scheme. Whereas the official evacuees came disproportionately from the poorest strata of urban society, the majority of those who had rooms to spare were often found disproportionately among the well-to-do. In many instances, like was matched with like, and working-class families took on working-class children but throughout rural Britain social confrontations became evident.

‘The local children were the biggest problem. 'You kids from the London slums' was the most common taunt'

Evacuation made many middle-class householders aware of the poverty existent in many urban areas. Filthy and verminous children with poor manners were often perceived a result of the mother’s apathy rather than the result of poverty itself. The press, with little news, and no great carnage, to report, reaped a heavy harvest of evacuee stories. Although the image of the evacuee that generated most publicity was that of slum urchins, ‘half-fed, half-clothed, less than half-taught, complete strangers to the most elementary discipline and the ordinary decencies of a civilised home’, is misleading it was the prevalent perception in the media and occasionally also at village level. Preconceptions of the evacuated children as poor and ill mannered could for many prove an unpleasant experience.

'The local children were the biggest problem. 'You kids from the London slums' was the most common taunt. I wonder where they got that from? To call us kids from the London slums was ridiculous. Although we evacuees came mainly from the poor areas of London our homes had gas lighting, gas ovens, drinking water on tap and flushing lavatories.' Dennis Johnson, evacuated to Dorset 1939

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

My mother's account of being evacuated to Cornwall echoes many of these stories; three siblings didn't want to be separated and were last to be billeted individually. Their experiences were very different too; my mother was cared for by a lovely couple whose son had left home, she enjoyed a much better standard of living than at home, sleeping in her own bed for the first time. Her brothers however, were billeted in families with several children and remember the clothes sent for them by their mother being given to the children of the host family instead. Although my mother missed her mother she was sad to leave her host family and bedroom when she returned to London.

By Cate Martin
On 17/10/2012