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London schoolchildren off to the west of England
London schoolchildren off to the west of England

National History

Operation Pied Piper

During the early months of 1939, parents up and down the country received a letter from their local education authority advising them that they were in an area deemed at risk from bombing in the event of war, and that plans were being drawn up to evacuate children to places of safety though no indication was given as to where the places of safety where:

“Under the arrangements which are being made the children would gather at the primary school nearest their homes and the older and younger members of each family would as far as possible be evacuated together. They would go to the chosen places in the care of teachers who would remain with them. They would live in the country in houses where they would be welcome. Arrangements would be made to let you know their new addresses as quickly as possible. Children under school age would also be allowed to go if the mother or a woman friend went with them, and all the children of one family would be sent to the same place.” 

Help the city children poster - published by Ministry of Health
Help the city children poster – published by Ministry of Health, WM

During July 1939, evacuation theory was put into practice when schools in several cities took part in rehearsals. To test the procedure for getting people from their designated assembly points to their point of departure, pupils and staff from nine schools in Birmingham descended upon Hockley, the first station out of Snow Hill on the GWR main line to Wolverhampton.

As the international situation deteriorated during late summer, some schools took matters into their own hands and relocated. St Chad’s Roman Catholic Boys School left Birmingham by train on Saturday 26 August, the day all schools in evacuation areas in England and Scotland had been ordered to reopen to prepare for a nationwide rehearsal the following Monday. Meetings were held at every school to advise parents and children of what to expect during the rehearsals. Plans were also in place that should it prove necessary, the rehearsal could quickly be turned into the real evacuation. All school children who were at home were to be at their appropriate assembly school by 9.00am. Mothers with children under the age of five were also invited to take part.

‘Each child should, if possible, bring with them the articles required should the actual evacuation take place. A warm coat or mackintosh, night clothes, a change of underwear and a change of stockings or socks, house shoes or rubber shoes, toothbrush, comb, towel, bar of soap and a face cloth. They should also bring enough food for the day, a tin cup, plate, and their gasmask in its box.’ leaflet3-evacuees

Each child was to wear an identity label listing its name, date of birth, home address, name of school attended and destination. There was to be one adult, usually a teacher, for every ten children. Adults travelling on the trains would wear a white armband, usually sporting the initials of the relevant education authority. Should the rehearsal become the real thing, teachers fortunate enough to own cars would go by road to their allotted reception areas. The reasoning behind this was that a school might well be dispersed in groups across several villages, and the cars would come in hand, keeping the groups in contact with one another.        

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There were exceptions to the rehearsal schedules. Because of the proximity of the naval base, Rosyth was the only part of the burgh of Dunfermline scheduled for evacuation. However, its local schools, King’s Road, Park Road, and the Roman Catholic School, decided to hold normal lessons on the morning of the 28th and their evacuation rehearsal during the afternoon. Like other schools in the designated evacuation areas, they were open the previous weekend so that teachers could issue instructions and answer parents’ questions and queries. 

Leave Hitler to me sonny - you ought to be out of London
Leave Hitler to me sonny – you ought to be out of London – Official Evacuation Poster – WM

The Press listed the designated evacuation areas as, London, Tottenham, East Ham, Acton, Willesden, West Ham, Walthamstow, Stratford, Leyton, Edmonton, Barking, Ilford, Rochester, Southampton, Chatham, and Gosport. In the midlands and the northwest; Coventry, Birmingham, Smethwick, Derby, Nottingham, Liverpool, Bootle, Crosby, Birkenhead, Wallasey, Manchester, and Salford. In the north; Hull, Grimsby, Bradford, Leeds, Rotherham, and Sheffield. In the northeast and Scotland; Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Clydebank, Dundee, and Rosyth.

“It is very important that there should be a complete muster of children at present in the evacuation areas, but children away from home need not be specially brought back.”        

Evacuees in Montgomeryshire
Evacuees in Montgomeryshire – WM

On Thursday31 August, special messengers advised schools that the evacuation would commence the next day, Friday 1 September. Cities such as Birmingham, organised for loudspeaker vans to tour neighbourhoods broadcasting evacuation instructions.

The evacuation was scheduled to continue throughout the weekend or even longer where required, regardless of the international situation. Some towns such as Grimsby did not receive the final go-ahead until late afternoon, early evening, by which time the shops were closed, leaving parents unable to obtain clothing and other lastminute items.

children arrive at Brent station near Kingsbridge, Devon, after being evacuated from Bristol in 1940
children arrive at Brent station near Kingsbridge, Devon, after being evacuated from Bristol in 1940 – IWM, WM

In Grimsby, the children assembled at their respective schools, the first groups away were from Hilda Street, Weelsby Road and Holme Hill. The Grimsby Evening Telegraph reported that Burgh, Mablethorpe, Horncastle, Skegness and Woodall Spa were that day’s destinations and that Scunthorpe and other places in north Lincolnshire would be receiving children from Hull. Surprisingly, few parents were at the Hull Corporation Pier to see the children board the paddle steamer Wingfield Castle for the trip across the Humber – there was no bridge back then. On arrival at New Holland, the children transferred to buses for their onward journeys.

The number of children evacuated from Hull and Grimsby fell far below expectations. It was a similar story in many other towns and cities such as Birmingham, where fewer than one third of the 73,000 children entitled to be evacuated turned up.

At Sheffield, the local authorities had independently arranged for evacuated children to be dispersed around the villages of northeast Derbyshire. However, their thought-out plan was quashed by central government which in its infinite wisdom thought Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire a better bet.

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King's College London Students Evacuated To Bristol, England, 1940
(It was just young children…) King’s College London Students Evacuated To Bristol, England, 1940IWM, WM

For Sheffield, the London & North Eastern Railway laid on twenty special trains to a variety of destinations including Newark, Bingham, Ruddington, Loughborough and Melton Mowbray. Many of the trains carried only a third of the children expected. The second evacuation train from Sheffield Victoria to Newark had places for 840 children but carried only 266. The response had not been great with only fifteen per cent of those registered leaving. Over the following couple of weeks, the city attempted a second trawl with schools opening on 11 September for teachers to take names of prospective evacuees. Thirty-five minutes after opening, the Cathedral School had not taken a single name, and Carbrook Council School managed to register only eleven children in the first hour.

In the London boroughs, fewer than half of the registered children left. On the other hand, Manchester, where a well-organized evacuation scheme had been put in place, saw 75 per cent of its children leave.  Manchester had organised its evacuations to take place over three days. Special trains were laid on and for the first day and additional capacity was available in the shape of 140 Corporation buses taken off scheduled services.

Children are Safer in the Country ... Leave Them There
Children are Safer in the Country … Leave Them ThereIWM, WM

The main emphasis for Manchester’s second day (2 September) was the evacuation of mothers with young children under five-years-of-age, expectant mums and disabled adults, for the later some vehicles were hurriedly converted to carry stretcher and wheelchair cases. Among the schools evacuated on this day were the boys of Manchester Grammar and the girls from Manchester High School.

Manchester children led from buses to trains. Manchester Archives
Manchester children led from buses to trains. – Manchester Archives plus

Manchester’s third day (Sunday 3 September) involved eighteen special trains. As well as mothers and young children, the Central High School for Boys, Chorlton High School, and Levenshulme High also left for places of comparative safety. Manchester was so well organised that by the time Chamberlain made his radio broadcast to the nation declaring war on Germany, only nine evacuation trains remained in Manchester awaiting despatch.

North of the border around 170,000 children and mothers were evacuated from the Scottish designated areas to the comparative safety of the country and west coast seaside towns. Glasgow also pressed into service its five outdoor residential education centres such as the one at Abington, South Lanarkshire. Each centre could accommodate around 250 children plus teachers and helpers. The camps were a Department of Health initiative, the intention being to give children from inner cities the opportunity to enjoy clean air and a healthy diet.

Members of local community waving school children off  during evacuation in Manchester
Members of local community waving school children off in Manchester. – Manchester Archive Plus

Evacuees from Birmingham were scattered in all directions. Many of the city’s evacuation trains started from New Street, Moor Street or Snow Hill, picking up parties at suburban stations as they went. Some, such as Boulton Road Junior School, Handsworth, travelled the short distance to Hagley, whilst others finished up billeted around villages and farms in Derbyshire, Herefordshire, and Monmouthshire. Wherever Birmingham’s children were sent, the Education Department stipulated that no child must be more than three and a half hours travelling time from their homes. 

Boys from the King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham, were evacuated to Repton School. At the time, the King Edward VI was homeless. In 1936 with the premises in New Street no longer suitable, the governors decided a new school should be built on a site at Edgbaston Park Road/Bristol Road. The King Edward VI High School for Girls would also move to the new site. However, the temporary buildings erected for the boys burnt down and the school was forced to seek alternative accommodation centred on the Great Hall at the University of Birmingham.

Coventry was a late addition to the list for evacuation. Indeed, the Government had initially designated it as a safe area, and it was only after some serious lobbying from the council that the overcrowded districts were included in evacuation planning. As it was, only 3200 children out of the 8625 registered turned up at their assembly points on 4 September. Additionally, the city evacuated 922 others comprising mothers with children under school age, the disabled and the visually impaired.

As with many other towns and cities, most of Coventry’s kids travelled short distances to places such as Wellesbourne and Kenilworth, though the boys of Bablake School went on an awfully big adventure and ended up at Lincoln.

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Don't do it, Mother - Leave the Children Where They are - Official WW2 Poster
Don’t do it, Mother – Leave the Children Where They are – Ministry WW2 Poster – WM

It was a similar short distance for the children of the Northern Secondary School, Southampton. They were evacuated in two groups on 1 September. In the morning 400 girls and 150 boys together with teaching staff and helpers made the twelve-mile (19km) journey to Winchester. That evening, they were joined by a further 300 boys together with helpers and the remaining teachers. Winchester was divided into billeting areas with a master in charge of each one. 

Evacuation planners deliberately chose wherever possible assembly points that were within walking distance of local railway stations, though at Derby the corporation’s entire fleet of petrol buses as well as twenty buses from Trent Motor Traction were pressed into service on the Saturday to take 2200 children to various locations around Clay Cross and Chesterfield. On Sunday, a mixed bag of children from infant, junior, and secondary schools were evacuated from Derby, the majority sent just a few miles south to the Shardlow area, though 1000 ended up around Belper and Ripley. All in all, few of Derby’s evacuees were more than fifteen miles from the town.     

Children evacuated from Great Yarmouth to Rampton
Children evacuated from Great Yarmouth to Rampton – Notts Heritage

Of the 23,000 Nottingham schoolchildren registered for evacuation fewer than 5000 left the city. Additionally, of the around 16.000 mothers with young children entitled to evacuation, fewer than 500 went. In all,760 children were evacuated to Oakham, others were scattered around the Mansfield area, and the kids of the Mandella School despatched to Stamford.  

Nottinghamshire was in fact an area deemed suitable to receive evacuees and did so from Leeds and Sheffield.  

Nationwide, between 31 August and 8 September, more than 1.5 million people were evacuated to designated safe areas. The figure comprised 827,000 children, 524,000 mothers and young children, 13,000 expectant mothers, 7000 handicapped people and 103,000 teachers and helpers. Even these figures, impressive as they are and considering that not one serious or fatal accident occurred, was far fewer than the Government had hoped for.

Where the children finished up being billeted was anyone’s guess. Though taking in an evacuee was voluntary, billeting officers were given compulsory powers and could force a household to take evacuees. Households were paid 10s 6d (52.2p) a week for each unaccompanied child they took in and for some reason only 8s 6d (42.2p) a week for each child and mother.

Some slum children finished up in the homes of the wealthy while some children from wealthy families ended up living in slums. Possibly one of the best billets of the whole evacuation was that enjoyed by six boys at Romaldkirk. They were housed with the retired colonel of the Durham Light Infantry. He lived in a large house by the river and the old soldier filled the boys’ idle hours teaching them the rudiments of infantry training in his extensive grounds. From the reports it was fun all round for all concerned.

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Another star billet was Alsager Hall, Staffordshire. It was owned by Sir Francis L’Strange Joseph. Born in Liverpool in 1870, Sir Francis had worked his way up from being a railway messenger boy to one of the country’s leading industrialists. He was chairman and managing director of Settle, Speakman & Co, and held several directorships including the London Midland & Scottish Railway and the Midland Bank. He was also the chairman of Stoke City FC. Between 1937-40, Sir Francis was a member of the Royal Commission on the Location of Industry. 

One of the better-known evacuee stories involved a mother and her young child from a Glasgow tenement. Billeted with a well-to-do family in the countryside, all was going well until the toddler squatted down in the middle of the room to defecate on an expensive Persian carpet. Seeing the look of horror on her host’s face the mother was quick to admonish the child with the words, “Don’t do it on the nice lady’s carpet. Go and do it in the corner like at home.”

The use of toilets was not the only problem. Many of the children were infested with lice. As the evacuation programme had commenced at the start of the new school year, most schools had had insufficient time to organise their annual après summer holidays delousing parades.  

At a meeting of the Newcastle and Gateshead Band of Hope Union, Lady Trevelyan stated she was shocked to hear a story concerning an evacuated child in the south of England who, when on arrival at his billet, and asked if he would like some biscuits replied, “Biscuits? What I want is beer and chips. That’s what I get at Home.”

Within a surprisingly short time, the children in the nearer evacuation areas began drifting back to their homes. What started as a trickle soon turned into a flood. As early as 29 September 1939, it is estimated that 800 children had returned to Coventry, even though their schools were closed. It was a similar story elsewhere. By early October, the drift back was noticeable in Sheffield. In one case, two children aged seven and nine set out to walk from Leicestershire and by hitch-hiking managed to arrive back home in Sheffield by the evening of the same day. As the weeks went by with no bombing, many parents were tempted to have their children back. It is estimated that by the end of March 1940, three quarters of those children evacuated from Glasgow had returned home.

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Soon, so many children had returned that schools reopened though it is true that many did this with less than half of their prewar complement of pupils. The drift back continued throughout the Phoney War. Despite the return of children in large numbers, there remained a steady stream of evacuees leaving London and major industrial centres, many having made private arrangements to stay with relatives. When the Blitz began in 1940, it is estimated that at least 500,000 children who were eligible for evacuation were living in the London boroughs. During December 1939, there were reports of wealthy and middle-class households who having taken in people under extreme sufferance, were now turning their ‘guests’ out onto the streets to free up rooms for entertaining friends and family over the Christmas period. In some areas of the country goodwill to all men was soon in short supply.

Featuted Image: London schoolchildren off to the west of England, WM

Written By

Clive is our Transport and Railway writer, with years of experience he is a fount of knowledge on all things transport nostalgia.

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