School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries
As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.
During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.
Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London
‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;
‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’
Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940
When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.
In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;
‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’
Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.
Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;
‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’
The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.
My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:
My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/