THE SPIRIT OF BRITAIN – LIFE DURING WWII: I have always been fascinated with this part of Britain’s incomparable history of self-reliance, tenacity, and valor. Join me as I venture back in time to look at the lives of British children during WWII in this very special look at the Spirit of Britain. (Imagine the Bennet family taking part in the evacuation of these children.)
EVACUEES: CHILDREN’S LIVES ON THE WORLD WAR 2 HOME FRONT
by Gillian Mawson.
In 2008 I began to interview Guernsey evacuees about their experiences in England during the Second World War. I found this totally fascinating and have interviewed 300 so far. My book, ‘Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War’ was published in 2012. Sadly, many of the people I interviewed have since died. It is vital that the memories of Second World War evacuees are recorded now, before they are lost forever.
I then extended my interviews to practically anyone who was evacuated to the British mainland, including children, mothers and teachers. My latest book, published in September 2014, ‘Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the WW2 Home Front’ contains personal stories from 100 people who spent the war years as evacuees in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. They are accompanied by family photographs, many rescued from old suitcases and attics. I have included stories from Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney as well as from Gibraltar, France, Belgium, the Ukraine and Spain.
The stories fall into five chapters. ‘Arrival and Departure’ depicts the initial experience of evacuation. Peter Campbell, aged six, was sent from Folkestone to Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, ‘People were lining the street, waving flags and cheering and trying to make us welcome. Halfway up the hill the string on my parcel came off and I dropped everything all over the street. Some kind ladies ran forward, wrapped them up again and carried my parcel to the mission hall.’
Alderney headmaster, Philip Godfray, sailed for England with his pupils and described the moment that the evacuation ship left the quay, ‘The National anthem was struck up as the gap quickly widened between the silent crowds on shore and on board … that unique and mercifully short music filled the gap.’
Philip Godfray photo with his pupils in Cheshire, England
Chapter Two ~ ‘A Different World’ reveals the culture shock felt by evacuees who found themselves evacuated to homes which were very different to those they had left behind. Mrs Mrs Evelyn May Brouard was pregnant when she was evacuated from Guernsey to Manchester and recalled ‘It was so very different there, as there were lots of houses, all looking the same, in long rows. It was dirty there, all smoke and soot, and your washing got black when you hung it out to dry.’
In July 1940, Lourdes Galliano was evacuated from Gibraltar into the heart of the London Blitz,‘We were taken to a skating rink converted into an evacuee reception centre. The rows of tiered seats in the hall had been closed and folding camp beds had been jammed into the gaps – there were 750 of us! As we lay on our camp beds we could see that the domed ceiling was entirely made of glass. One night we heard the loud wail of the air raid warning but we didn’t know where to turn with this menacing glass dome above us. We were directed to a shelter outside and hours later we crawled gratefully back to our folding camp beds, only to find most of them covered in glass from the panes that had fallen in during the bombing.’
Chapter Three ~ ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ describes the compassion and love shown to evacuees by local communities and foster parents. One Lancashire man, John Fletcher, raised funds from all over the world so that 300 Channel Island evacuees in Bury could receive a Christmas gift every year. His grandson recalls, ‘In December 1940 my Grandfather arranged a Christmas party at which, dressed as Father Christmas, he presented 200 children with gift parcels. Throughout the war, he continued this fund raising work, purchasing at least 300 parcels every year.’
Mr John Fletcher with Guernsey children (in post-war Guernsey)
Mary Draper, aged five, and her sister Vi, aged three, were evacuated from Lowestoft to Chesterfield, Derbyshire. Mary recalled, ‘We had no Mum, and our Dad was in the Home Guard. A lovely couple, Mr and Mrs Bacon, took us into their home. They had no children and practically became our Mum and Dad until the day they died. The war really did us a favour because they were marvellous to us.’
Paulette Le Mescam was evacuated with her school friends and teachers from Guernsey to Cheshire. ‘Our whole school moved into an empty mansion, but Father Bleach had no money to feed and clothe us or to buy equipment. The local people were very kind to us and then Father Bleach heard about the Foster Parent Plan for War Children. Soon, every child in my school was sponsored by a kind American. My sponsor was a lady I knew as ‘Aunty Eleanor’, who sent money, exchanged letters with me and sent me lovely parcels. I then discovered that she was actually Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President!’
The stories in Chapter Four ~ ‘Suffer The Little Children’ demonstrate that, sadly, not all evacuees had positive wartime experiences. Despite being sent to safety, evacuees witnessed death and destruction and lost loved ones in air raids or as a result of infectious diseases. There are stories of neglect, physical and mental abuse and children who were treated as servants. Jean Bell recalled, ‘I was picked out, with my sister, by a Welsh lady who was very cruel to us. Her spiteful daughter stamped on my sister’s fingers when she was drawing hopscotch on the pavement. We started school without shoes and were laughed at by local children for being badly dressed.’
Two year old Brian Russell was evacuated from Guernsey with his brother and his mother, Miriam, to Cheshire, ‘Just three weeks later, my Mum died of meningitis. Dad was allowed to come back to sign her death certificate, but he could not look after us because he was in the forces. My brother and I were then placed in a children’s home in Styal, where we were separated. This caused me great distress, and I kept asking for my Mum all the time.’
Miriam and Brian Russell
The final chapter, ‘We Were with the Children’ pays tribute to the thousands of adults involved in the evacuation and care of millions of children. They include the accounts of mothers, teachers, nursing staff and foster parents. Mothers and teachers travelled with evacuated schools but we tend to hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. Some schools remained together as a unit during the war and teachers became their pupils’ guardians for five years, in a move unprecedented in educational history.
Guernsey teacher, Miss Grace Fry, recalled arriving at a Weymouth reception centre with her pupils, ‘An air raid began and the children and I were quickly pushed out of the building onto a bus. Then, to my horror, the driver locked the door and disappeared. The children had been sick on the boat and were dropping off the bus seats in the dark because they were tired. After an hour, I thought, ‘Well, this is the end, if a bomb falls on us, I hope it happens quickly!’ Grace then took her pupils to Pollokshields in Scotland – an area that Scottish children had been evacuated away from!
After the war, many evacuees remained in touch with the ‘foster families’ that they had come to love. When Richard Singleton’s mother came to Aberystwyth to take him back to Liverpool, he refused to leave. Evacuees were also torn away from their wartime friends and Pam Buckley, from Jersey, was very sad to leave her friend, Audrey Davies, in Bury, Lancashire, ‘When Jersey was liberated my family decided to return home. Audrey and I tearfully said goodbye to each other and promised to stay in touch. She gave me a little brooch to remember her by, which I still have. We are still in touch today.’
The 100 stories underline one thing – there is so much more to the evacuation than the images of children arriving at railway stations, which have entered the popular imagination. This book paints an intimate picture of the different ways in which the people on the British mainland opened up their homes to evacuees from both home and abroad, during the dark days of the Second World War.
‘Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the World War 2 Home Front’ was published on 30 September 2014 by Pen & Sword books
Gillian Mawson is a freelance social historian with a great interest in oral history. She has been collecting personal Second World War evacuation stories and images since 2008. Gillian works closely with museums, schools, television and radio to share the stories and images that she has collected. She has created a documentary film on Guernsey Evacuees in Lancashire. She runs a community group in Manchester for Second World War evacuees to enable them to share their stories directly with the community. In 2011, her efforts in sharing the story of the Guernsey evacuation of 1940 earned her the Guernsey Ambassador of the Year award.
Me again ~ What an amazing undertaking! I hope you enjoyed this sample as much as I did in bringing it to you.