Tuesday, January 14, 2014

World War II Evacuees

by Gillian Mawson


I have always had a passionate interest in social history, and during 2013 I collected stories from all over Britain for a new book on the experiences of Second World War evacuees. It will contain extracts from the personal stories of 100 evacuees - not just from children but also from evacuated mothers and teachers - who spent the war in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These moving stories are accompanied by wartime photographs, many of which have been rescued from evacuees’ attics.

Prior to commencing work on this new book, I spent four years interviewing 200 evacuees for my first book, Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War (published in 2012 by History Press). Over 17,000 evacuees fled the Channel Island of Guernsey to England in June 1940, just weeks before their island was occupied by Germany for five years. Sadly, many of these evacuees have died since my book was published, so I feel that it is vital that the personal memories of Second World War evacuees are recorded now before they are lost for ever.

For my new book I have also interviewed children and adults who found refuge on the British mainland from places such as the Channel Islands and Gibraltar (British territories) many of whom were not send to the safety of the British countryside. I also have stories from those who arrived in Britain from France, Spain, the Ukraine and Belgium. One French child, Paulette, was sent to Guernsey, then evacuated again with her Guernsey Catholic school to England where she was financially supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President. I also have the memories of Jewish children who fled Nazi Germany to England and Scotland. Kurt Gutmann stated years later "When I arrived in Scotland and was cared for by a very kind family, it was the first time in months, that I actually felt like a human being."

Some children have very strong memories of leaving home and arriving at their new destinations whilst to others it was just a blur.

In July 1940, Lourdes Galliano was evacuated from Gibraltar to London, and recalls "My mother, my two sisters and I were taken to the Empress Hall in Earl's Court, a skating rink that had been 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. Not very reassuring had we known what was to come – the London Blitz!"

Peter St John Dawe recalled "On arrival in Leighton Buzzard, nobody knew what to do with me. So I ate my bun and chocolate, and spent the night in the station waiting room. The next morning, I broke my piggy bank and bought a sandwich at the station buffet."

Some stories are positive, with evacuees being extremely happy, gaining new experiences and making new friends. Indeed, many formed a lasting bond with the families they were billeted with. Adelaide Harris was evacuated from Hull to Lincolnshire then billeted with the Wright family and their children Arthur and Renee. She grew to love them all and told me, "When I eventually returned home, I cried for days which wasn't nice at all for her Mum and Dad. I also missed Arthur and Renee very badly."

Doreen Holden was evacuated to Matlock in Derbyshire and told me, "A nice couple took me in because my name was Doreen, the same as their little girl's! They treated me very well, bought me dolls and made me jelly and custard because I hated rice pudding! Their house was opposite Riber Castle and at night I sat in my bedroom watching the castle in the moonlight. It was magical and felt like Fairyland!"

Jim Marshall was evacuated from Rochford to Gloucestershire and told me, "My brother Dick and I were very lucky as we were chosen, along with 5 other boys, by Mrs Percival who lived at a huge manor house, Priors Lodge. The following morning, we looked out of the window with disbelief to see a huge long drive which seemed to disappear for miles into the distance!"

I have also gathered together stories from mothers and teachers who travelled with the groups of evacuated school children, and who took on a huge amount of responsibility. Jessie Robertson recalled arriving in Bishop Auckland with her pupils and comparing that area with their home town of Gateshead, "Saturday was spent seeing that the children were settling in. They had all come from a new housing estate where every house had an indoor toilet and bathroom and most were housed in homes without either – as I was. Once a week, on a Friday evening, I was invited by the lady next door to use her bathroom. I think that it was the only one in that terraced street."

Agnes Camp left Guernsey with her son Dennis, arriving in Stockport with no money or possessions. Dennis told me, "Mum moved us into a cottage which only had half a roof and the landlord, Mr Murdoch, knocked on the door saying 'This place is condemned Mrs Camp!' Mum replied 'Well, I have nowhere else to go.' and he had replied 'Well, for your pluck, I will have the roof done!"

Some children, teachers and adults, never returned to their own families after the war, others were physically or mentally abused, and some died during their time away from home. George Osborn, and his sister were evacuated from Portsmouth to Wootton on the Isle of Wight. George told me, “Brenda and I were placed in separate billets. I was very badly treated in mine, but with Brenda's help, I was moved into her billet. However, on 28 December 1941 I was on my own again when Brenda died of blood poisoning. This was caused by an infection after an inoculation against diphtheria, which was given, ironically, to immunize us against a killer disease of the time.”


I have also collected stories from people who took evacuees into their homes during the war, or who offered assistance to evacuees when they arrived in their towns and cities. Judy Fox's family cared for two evacuees from Gosport and recalls "They lived in the house with my Uncle and Aunt, Mum, me and four cousins, so there was quite a crowd of us! In addition we had no running water, gas or electricity! Roger and Ruth went to school with my cousins, and they were treated exactly the same way as we were, as a part of the family." Another moving account comes from a Lancashire man, John Fletcher, who felt so sorry for the hundreds of evacuee children who arrived in his home town, Bury, without their parents, that he tirelessly raised funds throughout the war so that they could have a Christmas present and a party every year.

There is so much more to the evacuation story than groups of children arriving at railway stations with labels tied their coats. Hopefully this book, with the help of the family photographs, will paint a picture of how the British people opened up their homes to evacuated children and adults during the dark days of the war. The book Evacuees: Children's Lives on the WW2 Home Front (Pen and Sword Publishers) will be published in September 2014 by Pen and Sword books.

Photographs kindly provided by the evacuees and their families.

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Gillian Mawson is the author of Evacuees: Children's Lives on the WW2 Home Front

You can also view my history blog and my Guernsey evacuation blog.
You can contact me via email.

22 comments:

  1. I read this post with happy surprises to hear of the good stories of evacuation. Then I found the familiar territory of how some were abused physically and mentally. I wish you had been able to talk to my mother. She was evacuated to Wales where she spent time with family who treated the three children like outcasts and, would you believe, their cousins had to feed them scraps from the table through the bars in their chairs as the "Londoners" waited on the floor to avoid them starving! By all accounts it was a terrible experience. Sadly my mum now has an ABI and is unable to talk about it any more. But your book looks fascinating!

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    1. Hi Julian, I wish I had been able to speak to your mother too, what an awful experience she had! I really appreciate your comments and support, thank you. Gill

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  2. Sounds like you put in a lot of honest research into a very interesting book

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    1. Thank you, it will be out in September this year. Gill

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  4. Wonderful post, my great uncle was evacuated from Hull (I forget to where) but he always speaks of it fondly.

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    1. HI Rachael, thanks for your comment. It fills me with joy when I hear of a happy evacuation story. Gill

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  5. This is an outstanding post! Love it!

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    1. Thank you very much Beth. I appreciate the support. Gill

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  6. My mother is a World War II War Bride from Wales living in the United States. I really need to ask my mother to tell me her story. We really need to capture these incredible stories while people are still alive.

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    1. Hello again Beth, you are right! Get that story down on paper! I would love to read it when you have it. Gill (you can contact me later via the comment box on my own blog http://whaleybridgewriter.blogspot.co.uk/

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  7. What a great post Gillian. I'm a great believer in everyone telling their story before it is lost. As you know from twitter I love the Channel Islands too and its fascinating history. Your book is on my list of books to read this year. All the best

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  8. Can't wait to read it. Its so important to give a voice to people as individuals. An essential archive of material

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  9. I have also published a book about the evacuation of the Gibraltar civilian population during the Second World War with all proceeds going towards cancer charities. Copies at £20 each are available from the Gibraltar House 150 Strand,London.

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    1. Thank you for letting myself and others know about your book Joseph! Gill

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  10. Hi Gill, I also can't wait to read your 2nd book. I think maybe I will come across some I know being an evacuee from Birmingham myself. Good luck.

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  11. thank you so much Rita and I am so glad I have part of your story in my new book. Gill

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  12. What a Great Blog Gill, I like to reading about WWII and keep up the great writing
    and Thanks for sharing my Blog as I am all new to this..
    Good Luck on the New Book :) x

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