It is impossible to generalise the reactions of the British people to the evacuation policies of their government, as there was a great diversity of reaction. Therefore it would be sensible to look at all areas of society involved in the evacuation policy so that I can obtain a more accurate outlook of different peoples’ reactions to the government’s plans. In the early years of war many children, teachers and expectant mothers left their homes and families so to ensure their safety, they were received in reception areas by host families.
These are the main groups of people mainly involved in evacuation as well as some minor groups such as the government and the Women’s Institute. It is possible to simplify the reactions of each group in society, however this would be rather vague as not all the people in each group would reply to the governments policies in exactly the same ways. The government kept the evacuation scheme secret, as they didn’t want to panic the British people thus creating problems at both evacuated areas and reception areas.
Bulletin officers were not told how many evacuees were arriving in each reception area and so host families were unaware of the amount of evacuees they were taking in. Every station expecting evacuees received more than originally anticipated. This triggered negative feelings amongst host families from the beginning as either they had made much effort in vain so that they could take evacuees in who never arrived in the reception areas, or they were unprepared to care for the amount of evacuees they were unexpectedly faced with. The reactions of the host families to the evacuation policy differed greatly.
The fact that the host families were subsidised by the government so that they could supply the evacuees with a certain amount of care was a factor that could have been looked upon by the hosts as either an advantage or disadvantage. The funding may have been an additional benefit to the lower class families with evacuees. However the money given was often insufficient for those who were used to a higher standard of living and in some cases this caused problems between hosts and evacuees as they indirectly assumed that the evacuees were to blame for the lack of financial support.
Unfortunately some host families used the money selfishly and tried to spend as little money as possible on their responsibility and kept the rest of the money for themselves. Some host families welcomed the idea of evacuation, especially those families who only had one child or were lonely as it meant having someone else in the house. Some children settled in very well to their temporary homes and made very close bonds with their new families, so much so that some evacuees grew away from their own families.
A lot of the reception families felt only too happy to take evacuees under their wing because they felt as though they were doing something to help the war effort, posters were launched saying ‘Making a new home for evacuees is a national service”. Propaganda controlled by the government often proved to boost the confidence of those families who were unsure of taking in evacuees as it portrayed positive pictures of the evacuation process. However it did not always convey the full truth as shown by the disturbing and chilling fact that 12% of evacuees were abused either mentally, physically or sexual by there hosts.
These sinful hosts were happily able to get away with child abuse or child labour as checks were rarely made on the suitability of people receiving evacuees. The most distressing point about these sorts of incidents was that the government inadvertently allowed this to be a ‘paedophiles dream’ through not making regular checks on houses. Even more upsetting is the fact that some old evacuees find it very hard to talk of their traumatic experiences during the war because of their encounters in their foster homes.
Several host families were unhappy at the prospect of looking after evacuees. Reception areas had some fixed ideas of dirty ‘townies’ that they were forced to take care of and therefore took a negative attitude about taking in evacuees. The government could be to blame for enforcing the attitude dirty ‘townies’, as they did not put much effort into improving sanitation on the trains that transported the evacuees to the reception areas. Many evacuees travelled in third class carriages, which were frequently too small for the amount of passengers and often contained no lavatories.
This meant that most children arrived in their reception areas sweaty and smelly from the journey due to the lack of facilities on the trains and left some hosts thinking the evacuees were unwashed, dirty town rogues. There were some complaints of the children bringing lice to the reception areas which in several cases immediately caused animosity and an anti-evacuee feeling which did not contribute to making the evacuees stay a pleasant one.
Those host families who were unfortunate enough to receive very homesick or ‘difficult’ children may have also resented the idea of evacuation, especially those who had to take in children of five years or under with their mothers. Many hosts were often hostile towards these mothers with young children as they thought it were too much trouble. Another problem for host families was if they took in a pregnant mother, this was because they may have had to pay for child birth if the expectant mother was very poor.
The host families which were against the evacuation system or who didn’t want children made up various excuses in an attempt to get themselves of the hook, however some hosts were physically unable to have evacuees staying in their houses as they may have been ill or very aged. The evacuees themselves held numerous views on the government’s policy. Even though some were too young to understand many children who were evacuated have been profoundly affected by their experiences to the extent that some are “still waiting to go home”.
How each child reacted depends on their circumstance; for example their social status and age. The issue of change was one of the key factors that affected the opinions of the evacuees. Many children had come from poor, working class families living in city slums and were thrown into a very different and often more affluent society. Despite this often-difficult switch from London streets to country fields, for some children it meant more freedom, fresh air, better exercise and often a more nutritious diet.
However there were lower class children who found it hard and frightening swapping to an upper class society as life in middle and upper class homes was often stricter, this extract from a boy writing about his experiences aged 13 shows that it was often rather daunting “We were given… toothbrushes. We’d never cleaned our teeth before then… And carpets. And something called an eiderdown. And clean sheets.
This was all very odd. I didn’t like it. It was scaring. For those children who originated from middle or upper- class homes, evacuation to a working class area may have been terrifying, only a few enjoyed the lifestyle the working class had to offer. This extract of a boy from an upper class family who is evacuated to a working class environment clearly portrays his happiness in his new home “Evacuation was the most exiting thing that happened to me. After school we were expected to work… I had never been asked to help my father in the bank… In Yorkshire I played in the fields and the moors.
Even though evacuees would theoretically lead healthier lifestyles in the countryside, some still doubted leaving their homes as most had never seen the countryside before and it’s prospect seemed rather off-putting. However others were overcome with excitement at the possibility of seeing green grass and farm animals for the first time. The very young children of World War Two didn’t react to the government’s plans, as they were too infantile to understand. However older children who understood were definitely affected by the scheme.
It would have certainly been very discouraging, as it seemed to some they were venturing of into the unknown and it was less easy for parents to persuade older evacuees that it was ‘an adventure’. The reactions of the evacuees to the system evidentially altered with age, therefore evacuation may have seemed very different to how it actually was to those involved as their point of view will have changed as they aged and so it is necessary to look at sources written by the evacuees at the time.
There were those who saw evacuation as an opportunity to ‘get away’ from their own families, perhaps because they were unhappy, also an only child might like the idea of evacuation so to have more company elsewhere. Therefore to some, evacuation brought about the expectation of companionship. Evacuees who went to a family with either their brother or sister probably found it easier to settle in and adapt to their new surroundings and in turn made there stay much happier.
This was also the case if evacuees went with their mothers or their schools, as they would feel less homesick, or at least they would recognise a friendly face once in a while. Quite a few evacuees settled into their homes very quickly and this is evident in many of the sources written at the time. Evacuation abroad was very costly and wasn’t funded by the government so it was occasionally done by children from either the middle or upper class, for some this was a brilliant experience as it was likely they would be sent to a decent family because accepting evacuees abroad was not compulsory.
However, one incident that generated a reaction of fury to the organisation that transported the evacuees was when an evacuee ship was sunk on route to its destination, this in turn created an anti-evacuee feeling amongst a number of people. The evacuees did have many reasons to feel against the government’s evacuation policy. For a start many children were unaware of when they were going to be evacuated as some schools carried out practise evacuation prior to the actual event which left them little time to say their goodbyes to their loved ones because they were unaware if it were a practise of not.
When the time came to leave their families various children had no idea of where they were going to and if they were ever to return again since the war for them, was lasting an indefinite amount of time. Families were often split up during the process of evacuation, which proved very distressing for some children as they worried about the future of their siblings. Many evacuees travelled to their destinations in unhealthy conditions, this affected the evacuees in that when they arrived at reception areas some hosts rejected those whose appearance was a reflection of the travel conditions and consequently left the evacuees feeling unwanted.
Several old evacuees recall feeling very unimportant as they were made to wear a nametag around their necks, making them feel little more trifling than a parcel. Another problem with how the government structured their evacuation plan is evident in the rules imposed on the evacuees, which were quite unsympathetic for younger children. For example, the children were only allowed to bring a very small amount of necessities to their new homes, which caused some to be very upset as in many cases, they were not allowed to take ‘luxuries’ such as teddy bears and reading books.
If these children had been authorised these precious belongings perhaps their stays may have been less painful. Frequently, evacuees had to suffer bullying from children who already lived in the places they were evacuated to. Unfortunately for some evacuees several locals resented them because of their stereotypical image of being grubby from living in the towns and the fact that these evacuees were strangers bombarding their lives, this would have made the evacuees dislike evacuation even more.
Not all local children felt this way though, as several liked the idea of having new children in their schools as it presented an occasion to create new friendships. It is also definite that children who were abused or forced to labour by their host families would have hated evacuation, there are many stories of evacuees who had to tolerate the unbearable. One particularly shocking story is of a girl aged four whose punishment for wetting the mattress was being leashed up in the dog’s kennel for four consecutive winter nights, which has obviously affected her for the rest of her life.
Many evacuees who had already been evacuated before the Battle of Britain may have thought the idea of evacuation to be a waste of time as there was not much bombing in Britain during the first evacuation. Therefore many children were sent back to their homes causing them to feel the government’s plan was ineffective. One other factor that could have caused an aversion from the evacuees to the governments policy would have been the time of when they were evacuated. As one knows there were some very hard times during the war when the British morale was at all time low.
This would have caused some hosts, evacuees and parents to feel down and this may have affected the process of evacuation. Parents were another category of society affected indirectly by evacuation. Most mothers and fathers ostracised the idea of not seeing their children for months at a time, especially very protective parents. However, worried parents allowed the knowledge that their children were safe and this dominated the parental anguish of being detached from them. Parents were also reassured by the government’s propaganda films of caring families taking in laughing, happy evacuees frequently shown after films at the cinema.
A lot of working class parents were happy at the prospect that their children may lead a better lifestyle in the country and that they may be evacuated to richer families. Richer families who could afford overseas evacuation may have had connections abroad so would have liked it that the government allowed them to evacuate their children to other countries, however some were reluctant to do this after one of the evacuee ships was targeted. Mothers who had children aged five or under were affected directly because they were evacuated with their youngsters.
To some evacuated mothers this was an advantage as host families were often willing to help with the children, although other hosts were reluctant to do this and were often adverse towards them. Pregnant mothers may have also been aggravated by the evacuation scheme as the government refused to finance birth and there were some cases when expectant mothers were transferred from one place to another across the countryside in order to give birth. Parents faced many worries though, mainly because the government was so unorganised about evacuation, resulting in many parents being left uninformed of the whereabouts of their offspring.
Parents who were very close to their children would have found it very hard to say goodbye to their brood, especially when they were not actually alerted of evacuation. This often caused depression and loneliness amongst parents. It could be said that some parents reacted in a selfish way to the system, as many removed their children from their host families after only a few weeks and this consequently resulted in many child deaths as they were in fact inflicting a greater danger on their children by doing this.
Parents of children living in ‘neutral areas’ (areas in which evacuation was not subsidised by the government) faced an additional worry because many allegedly ‘neutral areas’ were in fact just as dangerous as London, for example Portsmouth was. Therefore many parents had to pay a considerable amount for the evacuation of their children which several were not able to meet the expense of. We can now gather that not all parents accepted evacuation as fully as the government had anticipated. As almost all evacuation happened with the school a lot of teachers were involved in evacuation and for them it was probably very hard.
Few enjoyed having to deal with the children’s emotions and being left completely in charge, although in some ways this made the teachers more aware of the evacuation situation. Parents laid much of their trust in the teachers, therefore many felt as though they would not live up to the parents expectations and that the government was demanding too much of them. The teachers were also asked to write reports on the children’s hosts’ families so to prevent incidents (that did in fact occur) such as abuse or children labour.
However, occasionally teachers did not tell the truth of the matter and made up reports so not to worry the evacuees’ families and the government. The government was also affected by their evacuation conspiracy. This was because many things that went wrong in evacuation were blamed on the government themselves. The Women’s Institute (or WI) was a minor group of people who were affected by evacuation. These were usually upper-class country housewives whose response was closely linked to their social status.
Many claimed the evacuees were ‘filthy. We had never seen so many verminous children lacking any knowledge or clean habits. ” This suggests that these women were not used to children who were not able to afford to be clean. Therefore I can conclude that the British reaction to the government’s policy differed greatly and almost entirely depended on their circumstances. However, not all people in a certain group of people reacted in the same manner because each individual person held their own opinions.