Evacuation was introduced at the start of World War Two. Evacuation tried to ensure the safety of young children from the cities that were considered to be in danger of Nazi bombing – London, Birmingham, Portsmouth etc.
In the lead up to World War Two, governments throughout Europe had been terrified of bombing. The destruction of innocent civilians at Guernica in Spain during the Spanish Civil War had been the proof that governments needed that bombing was the new horror of warfare.
With this in mind, the British government introduced evacuation. Young children were sent with their ‘minders’ – either mothers or teachers – to what were considered safe areas that would be free from Nazi bombing.
In the first few weeks of the start of the war (September 3rd 1939), nearly two million children were evacuated. The government, which controlled all aspects of the media, wanted to give the public the impression that evacuation was popular among those affected and put out propaganda pictures and film to this effect.
However, many mothers were very unsure as to the usefulness of evacuation. Many children were evacuated but not with huge enthusiasm and when it became apparent that war was not going to lead to cities being bombed (this was pre-the Blitz of London during the “Phoney War”), many children returned to the cities from which they had only recently left.
The official government story was that all young children had been evacuated and that the whole process had been efficiently organised and executed with precision. However, this was not the whole story.
Evacuated children found that their hosts were not always welcoming and that their two lifestyles clashed. Host mothers complained of inner city children urinating wherever they felt like it in a house; locals in rural areas complained of an increase of petty crime – theft from shops and the like. Much of this was never proved though the difference in lifestyles for inner city children must have come as a shock.
One of the most important issues to come out of evacuation was the chronic health observed by host families in the countryside. Many evacuated children were much lighter and shorter than children of the same age in rural areas. Body infections were common. All these signs were symptomatic of lack of nutrition, decent housing etc and gave an incentive for the government to do something that was to lead to the Welfare State after the war ended.