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Explain the differing reactions of people in Britain to the policy of
evacuating children during the Second World War.
London’s evacuations began in September 1939 with the declaration of
War and the fear of immediate aerial attacks. Families gathered at the
railway stations to send off their little ones. Children with labels
tied round there necks stood looking frightened, yet some with a hint
of excitement at the unknown, like an exciting holiday was about to
commence. Over one million evacuees were sent away like this.
The whole process was surprisingly orderly. Mothers were naturally
upset but most managed to keep a brave face for the sake of there
child. Many others were cautious and tried to explain and warn there
children of what they should expect. This was hard for the mothers as
the government had tried to be as secretive as possible, leaving
mothers with many unanswered questions. Many mothers were so reluctant
they did not send there children away at all – only 47% of children
initially were evacuated.
Evacuation meant different social classes mixing for the first time
ever. Much social mismatching went on – and it gave different classes
a taste of something they were before ignorant of finding out about.
Many attitudes were reluctant to mix with other classes but evacuation
forced people to. Subsequent to this – lifestyles changed and welfare
became an issue as people became more and more aware of the problems.
But why was it that this social mismatching went on? It wasn’t
entirely down to the ideas of the government. Many upper class
children experienced ‘arranged evacuations’ to family members or close
friends. Another reason was the fact that evacuation took place in
such poverty stricken parts of England. Areas such as the East End
which was severely prone to overcrowding and filth.
The government’s idea was that if the children were to stay in the
cities the air raid would kill and maim them. They believed it to be
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They believed the householders would be happy to volunteer and would
welcome the child into there home. The government did nothing to
safeguard the welfare of these children and this is why most of the
social mismatching happened. Many problems could have been avoided had
the children been placed in homes according to class.
Instead, the children would be taken to a large hall or school and
selected by potential foster families. Always it would be the cleanest
healthiest looking child that would be chosen first. Often those
families who got ‘second pick’ would resent there evacuee.
A child’s happiness was solely dependant on where he or she was placed
and the attitudes and ideas of the foster family. The children were in
various condition that reflected there social economic and social
standings. Many children came from the squalor and poverty of the East
end of London – from areas such as Bethnal Green. They came from
households which didn’t even have an indoor lavatory, let alone a
bath. They often came with few or no clothes at all – often been sewed
into the ones they were wearing – almost always these were already in
a deplorable condition. Repeatedly, the children would have skin
diseases and body lice. They would be used to a very poor minimal
diet. One source claimed that after a group of such children were in
the town hall the hall had to be ‘fumigated afterwards’ Often these
children would be placed in a family of complete contrast to
themselves and would experience a total culture shock. These children
would find it very hard to cope with such different standards of
behaviour. They would find the new clean atmosphere odd and scary.
Many found the contrast tremendously traumatic.
Many children experienced a whole new experience they could have only
ever dreamt of. Many were showered in love and affection and after the
initial shock; a mutual affection and lasting relationship were formed
with the new family. Many families gave the children opportunities to
experience activities they would never have even heard from in the
cities- they would play in the woods and eat fresh food and see real
live animals. Some families even took there children to the cinema!
These children modified themselves and adapted with ease to there new
Other children were not so lucky. The absence of a government body to
safeguard the welfare of the children meant that some suffered
physical and sexual abuse. Many middle class people were extremely
prejudiced against the lower classes and would beat them subsequent to
this. Many foster families saw the evacuees as free workers. Many
evacuees were forced to do hard labour and girls treated as unpaid
maids. This had extreme bad effects on teenage girls of such an
impressionable age. Some evacuees found this so miserable they
attempted to run away. Many children were so homesick they travelled
between the city and country over half a dozen times. Often these
abusive foster parents only took in the children for the money. Some
foster parents, including abusive ones, would complain to the evacuee
that the governments allowance was not enough to keep them and would
demand more money from the evacuee. Did the evacuee not get the extra
money; he or she would experience dismal consequences – such as
different meals away from the family or worse still, no meals at all.
Many foster families acted this way as they did not want to take in
children! Many complained sternly to the authorities when they low the
grime and nastiness of the children and didn’t want the ‘dirty
cockneys’. Many formed protests and found the system inadequate. They
didn’t want such dirty children coming into there homes and using
there facilities and were appalled by there behaviour. Others were
genuinely shocked at concerned at the lowliness of the children. These
families were so used to cleanliness and hygienic living that the
shock of the state of these evacuees caused some parents to worry that
the evacuee could give there own children diseases.
Others avoided taking in evacuee’s altogether. Many head masters and
mistresses heard about this and passed it off as ‘skirting there
responsibilities’. Others questioned the point and effectiveness of
evacuations and believed it better for a family to stick together
during war time. This view was kept by many city families also, and a
reason why many chose not to evacuate there children.
In rare cases, children from upper class families would be sent to
families of a lower class to themselves. These children were shocked
at the way of life. They found the way of life in the countryside very
primitive to what they were used to in the city. One evacuee said how
‘having come from a modern house it was like going back in time. The
toilet was half way up the garden!’
The children in the families could be equally unwelcoming as the
parents, or equally welcoming. In most cases unfortunately the
children didn’t want to see evacuees in there houses. Taking the
attentions of there parents and schoolteachers. Many children were
horrible to the evacuee and made there lives even worse. Others just
ignored the evacuees entirely.
The school teachers were prejudiced from the start. They were
unwelcoming to the evacuees and sat them in the coldest seat in the
Some priests and holy men insisted to parents the evacuees should
return home claiming ‘any physical dangers they might incur thereby
was trifling compared with he spiritual dangers they ran by
Ideas and attitudes varied so much it is hard to give any conclusion.
But many former evacuees claim evacuation has had a profound effect on
there later lives. Many say for the good one man says how he turned
from ‘a city slicker to a country lover’ to which he is to this day.
Many were adopted by there foster families and moved perpetually.
Others are left with haunting memories and see there evacuation as
wasted and lost years of there childhood and memories of rejection.