Evacuation was a huge logistical exercise which required thousands of volunteer helpers. The first stage of the process - moving children and other groups of evacuees on 1 September 1939 - involved teachers, local authority officials, railway staff and 17,000 members of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). Volunteers were also needed in the reception areas to serve as billeting officers and to host evacuees.
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Fear of German bombing caused the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities.
Evacuation took place in several waves. The first came two days before the outbreak of war. Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to safety in the country. Evacuation was voluntary, but the closure of many urban schools and the organised transportation of school groups helped persuade families to send their children away.
Evacuees and their hosts were often astonished to see how each other lived. Many evacuees from inner-city areas had never seen farm animals or eaten vegetables. In many instances a child’s upbringing in urban poverty was misinterpreted as parental neglect. Equally, some city dwellers were horrified by the lack of facilities and entertainment available in the countryside.
By January 1940, when the expected bombing raids had not materialised, almost half of the evacuees returned home. Yet in September 1940, with the beginning of the Blitz, another exodus from London followed. The German V-weapon attacks, which began in June 1944, also prompted the government to evacuate 275,000 Londoners within the first two months.
Many city dwellers arranged their own private evacuation, moving to lodgings or staying with friends or family in the country.
A significant number of evacuees settled in their new homes. For many, the end of the war brought considerable upheaval, as they returned to cities and families they barely remembered.
The Evacuation of Children from Southend, Sunday 2nd June 1940, by Ethel Gabain. This lithograph print is one of a series of five, entitled ‘Children in Wartime’ by artist Ethel Gabain. This work was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1940 who wanted a record of the civilian evacuation scheme. Notes on the original portfolio read: ‘each child brings spare clothes, gas mask, identity card, ration book, and food for the day; and wears a label. More than a million school children have travelled like this, and thanks to the staffs of the local authorities, the teachers and the voluntary workers, the moves have gone like clockwork.'
WVS Settlement, Fairford. Ivor Tolly, an evacuee from Barking, 1945, by Rosemary Allan. This watercolour drawing shows a young evacuee in a domestic setting. The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) provided practical assistance to those organising the civilian evacuation scheme by helping to look after evacuees at railway stations and by providing refreshments in reception areas and billeting halls.
Children are Safer in the Country...Leave Them There, c.1940. By the end of 1940, when the widely expected bombing raids had not hit Britain, many families whose children had been evacuated in September decided to bring them home again. The government produced posters like this one, urging parents to leave evacuees where they were. But by January 1940, it was estimated that 90,000 evacuees had returned home.
A group of evacuees from Bristol arrive at Brent railway station near Kingsbridge in Devon during 1940. Parents were issued with a list detailing what their children should take with them when evacuated. These items included a gas mask in case, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat. The children pictured here seem generally well-equipped for their journey, but many families struggled to provide their children with all of the items listed.
Evacuees in Leamington Spa: Unidentified Girl, c.1940, by Janey Ironside. During the period 1940 to 1941, the artist Janey Ironside visited evacuees recovering in a convalescent home in Leamington Spa. Later, when the children were well again, some would come to visit her in her home. It was on these occasions that she produced over 40 delicate studies in pencil and watercolour of these apparently vulnerable children.