Sunday, 6 September 2015

When we sent children across the Atlantic to escape the bombs*

I am of that generation which was born directly after the end of the last world war and so I missed the mass evacuation of children from our cities by less than a decade.

Don't Do it Mother, 1940
But growing up in London in the 1950s was to be constantly reminded of the Blitz.

We played on bomb sites, took for granted the gaps in rows of houses caused by direct hits and thought nothing of the painted signs on the sides of buildings announcing nearby “Shelters” and “Emergency Water Supplies.”

A few of those EWS signs can still be found much faded but vital back in 1940 for the Fire Brigade in the event of bomb damaged water mains.

And a few old Anderson shelters have survived in back gardens.

But that vital few years separate my experiences from those children who lived through the nightly bombing.

For them, there were endless nights in shelters listening to the bombs fall and walking home the following morning through streets littered with shrapnel and broken glass.

Of course not every built up area received an air raid nor did they last the entire war but there were enough to make parents ponder on that simple dilemma of what to do about the children.

Since Guernica in the Spanish Civil War there was that powerful idea that the “bomber would always get through” and so even before the outbreak of war preparations were made for the mass removal of children and expectant mothers out of the danger areas.

Barrage Balloon, Chorlton, 1941
The evacuations began in early September, experienced a lull during the Phoney War when some children returned home and picked up again after the Fall of France and the beginning of the Blitz.

But there were enormous regional variations with cities like Manchester and Liverpool evacuating large numbers of children while other urban areas sent fewer to neighbouring towns and villages.

I cannot begin to think how I might have reacted to waving my three off to an unknown destination for an indefinite length of time.

All of which was difficult enough but pails when I consider the momentous decisions faced by some to send their children half way around the world.

From the outset there were private arrangements being made and the Government was responsible for evacuating 2,664 most of who went to Canada, and smaller numbers to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and some to the USA.

There had been some official displeasure at the idea of sending children out of the country but in the wake of those private schemes in 1940 after Dunkirk and the real possibility of an invasion the Government approved the policy.

The cost was to be met by the Government with parental contributions based on a sliding scale determined by a means test.

It has I suppose echoes of the much bigger migration of children during the late 19th century to Canada and into the mid 20th century to Australia.

Bomb damage Nell Lane Manchester, 1940
And as someone whose own great uncle made that Atlantic crossing as a BHC I have mixed feelings about the programme and wonder what decision I might have taken

As it was the sinking of two ships carrying children and the loss of 77 young people in September 1940 led to the abandonment of the policy although private evacuations continued.

It is a story that only occasionally surfaces and has been eclipsed by the better known accounts of those children who remained in this country.

All of which brings me to that odd term Guest Children which like British Home Children hides so much.

Guests they certainly were compared to those who were migrated by charities and the Guardians of the Poor Law and the nature of their stay and their experiences will have been different as were the circumstances of their migration.

But here in Britain their story has fared no better than that of British Home Children.

I doubt that there will be many detailed accounts of who they were, what happened to them and what they thought of the experience.

Over here I have come cross one account and that is Canadian** all of which leaves some descriptions in a handful of books, reports in Hansard and references in the National Archive.

But then that doesn’t surprise me given that little is really known about the history of British Home
Children and what coverage exists has been mainly about the more recent migrations to Australia.

So perhaps it is time for more to be done on this side of the Atlantic.

Picture; Don’t do it Mother, Ministry of Health, 1940, and was scanned and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence and barrage balloon on the Rec from the collection of Alan Brown, detail from bomb damage at Nell Lane, 1940, m09736 courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council,

*first appeared in British Home Children, Advocacy & Research Association, April 2015 Newsletter

**Guests” not “Refugees:” Child Evacuees, to Canada during World War II

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