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Working Class Life in the 1940s - The Evacuation of the Children

Updated on December 3, 2018

Putting some faces to the term evacuee

The first hub that I wrote about the 1940s listed the three waves of evacuations. These evacuations took place in the last part of 1939, and into the 1940’s during World War two.

The mass evacuation were of those thought to be especially vulnerable. The vulnerable were children, pregnant women and the disabled. This was an enormous task to be undertaken.

The evacuation had an enormous impact on the people being evacuated and their loved ones. It also had a huge impact on the communities and host families that the evacuees were sent to.

In some cases the impact it had is still felt in the lives of some of those people today. It is amazing how sharp the memories still are some sixty five to nearly seventy years later.

This year there was a memorial service for the evacuees held in St Paul’s Cathedral. this link will take you to a small video where some of these evacuees are being interviewed.

The clip is under two minutes long. You will see how vivid these memories still are for those who went through this experience.

One young man Ben has made a video in which he interviews his granddad. In the video he asks his granddad about his recollections of being evacuated during the war. It is easy to forget that these elderly people are those young evacuees.

It is hard to imagine that any children pictured in the photographs and videos are, if still alive, old.

Ben interview's his granddad

It is easy to read the statistics of how many were evacuated in each wave. Statistics will tell us how many and where they were evacuated to.

But statistics alone do not tell us much about what this process meant to the people involved.

In this hub with the use of photos and video clips from Youtube I want to try to put some faces to the term evacuee .

I want to do this so that we can see a little more clearly the human side of these traumatic events.

Putting some faces to the term evacuee

Working class children being evacuated

Just look at the photograph above. how moving is it to see the brown paper parcels tied up with string that most of the children are carrying?

These parcel contain their meagre possessions. The contents of the parcel should be sufficient for the period of their evacuation.

Some children were to remain in the place they were evacuated to for the entire war. A period from start to finish of six years in total.

It is quite clear to see that the children being evacuated in this photograph do not have much. It is easy to see from their clothing and belongings that they are working class children.

Some Very Young Evacuees with the Bus Drivers/Conductors

You can clearly see from this photograph what a stressful process this was for the really young children who had no idea what was happening to them.
You can clearly see from this photograph what a stressful process this was for the really young children who had no idea what was happening to them.

Very Young Evacuees

It was not unusual for young children to be evacuated with out their mother. It was a stressful situation for the children and the adults accompanying them.

When you look at the face of the conductor he is smiling for the photograph. But it is clear from the face of the driver that they are not finding this any easier than the children.

I was speaking only last week to a man who was evacuated in the third wave, which took place in June 1944.

He was just three years old when he was sent away on his own. He was sent to a huge country house which was used like a boarding school.

He was not taken in by a family instead he lived in the big house in a dormitory along with other evacuees.

His father had been killed earlier in the war and his mother was a serving Wren. They lived in an area that was near to Naval Dockyards.

Those dockyards were a prime target for the Luftwaffe. As the war was coming to its close the bombing of such sites increased, as did the danger to those living in the area.

Lives Forever Changed

Lives were forever changed by these evacuations. Not just the lives of the evacuees, but of the host families, teachers, communities, relatives of both host and evacuee families.

Some of the evacuees never returned home, as they had no home or parents to return home to because of the war.

While the vast majority of parents wanted the return of their children some did not. I cannot imagine a parent who would not want their child back. But some did not and disappeared into the woodwork never to be located after the war.

It is easy to see that each story of the people whose lives have been touched by these events is unique.

Each person's story will share some common ground. But each one will in essence be different and personal to just them.

There are many personal accounts on the inter-net written by evacuees. These give us some insight into what it was like to be an evacuee.

One of the best pages that I have found is Meet some of the evacuees . This page contains seven short accounts by former evacuees. It also contains an account of a child called Enid. Enid was part of a host family.

Click on the blue link above to go to this page. The personal accounts are fascinating if you only have time for one then I can recommend Nina’s story.

Nina was one of the lucky ones. Nina was to remain for four years in the care of the same people and her memories of this time are vivid and positive.

The going rate 17/- for one 21/- for two

One of the ladies in the above video (unfortunately this video is no longer available on YouTube) talks about the host families. She talks about how they were paid by the government for taking in evacuees. The rate was seventeen shillings for one child and twenty one shillings if you took in two children.

I think that it is difficult to understand how life-changing the evacuation was. Especially so for the working class children involved.

It was not unusual for working class children in the 1940s not to have been more than few miles from where they lived.

For some of the children the evacuation was the first time that they had been away from home. Many working class children had not been outside of the area in which they lived.

Most working class families did not own a car or even a motor bike. The only form of transport that was common to the working classes at that time was the bicycle.

In the main working class people relied on public transport to get around.

The children and their mothers were evacuated from the cities

For many it was their first view of the countryside and farm animals

This journey taken by the evacuees was often their first experience of travel away from home by bus or train. For many of them it was the first time they had been outside of the city they were born in.

As the children journeyed to the evacuation area many of them got their first view of the countryside.

In a lot of the evacuee’s personal accounts one comment was made over and over again by city children. Many said that they saw their first cow or sheep through the train window on that journey.

It seems strange now when travel and transport are everyday experiences for most children. Yet, had these children not been evacuated they may never have seen these animals in the flesh.

Off they go with a label pinned to their clothes

For most children their evacuation started from their school. Each child would have been taken to school usually by their mother.

The children carrying with them their gas masks and the belongings that they were to take with them. You can see from the photographs and videos that they didn’t take much with them.

The Children had a paper label pinned on their clothing with their name and address written on it. Also on the label were some other details like the names of their school and school teacher.

The children were then taken from the school to either the train or bus station to begin their journey.

The teachers took the children from the school to the station. The thought behind it, that the parting at the school was kinder on both the mothers and children.

All labelled up and ready to go

These children are probably from better off homes from the look of their clothing and belongings.
These children are probably from better off homes from the look of their clothing and belongings.

What to take?

I found it amazing that for the most part the parents had no idea where their children were being evacuated to.

The evacuees and accompanying adults had no idea of where they were being evacuated to.

The government gave guidelines to each evacuee on what they should take with them.

Here is that list and just reading this list makes you realise just how different times were then from now.

As you read this list keep in mind this was not for a two-week holiday, this was for a stay of undetermined length. I think most of us would feel that it was not enough to take on even a short holiday today.

Girls list



Pair of knickers


2 pairs of stockings

6 handkerchiefs




Boys list



2 vests

2 pairs of pants

Pair of trousers

2 pairs of socks

6 handkerchiefs

Pullover or jersey

In addition


In addition they were also advised to pack in their suitcases plus their gas mask.

Overcoat or mackintosh


1 pair of Wellington boots





Boots or shoes


Sandwiches for the journey

All packed and ready for the journey?

Not much to take for an extended stay

It is easy to see from the photographs and the videos that not many of the children actually had suitcases.

Many of them had their meagre possession wrapped up in a brown paper parcels tied up with string. The parcels fashioned into makeshift rut sacks which they carried over their shoulders. Some even had their possession in old pillowcases.

From the size of the bundles that the children are carrying it is clear to see that many did not have much to take with them.

What they were taking was to last for an extended stay. But in fact many had hardly enough for a short visit.

In most cases the children were not taken or accompanied by their parents. nor were their parents allowed to see them off at the station.

They thought that if parents and children said goodbye on more familiar ground it would be easier. So the goodbyes were said at home or at the school gates.

The government feared that if the mothers saw their children get on the train it would be too traumatic.

Plus the children would be much more resistant to boarding a train or a bus without their mum, if she were there.

"I'll have that one"

So for most evacuees the evacuation journey started from school. They were evacuated as a school unit.

The children would turn up at school on the morning of the evacuation just like on a normal school day.

But this time with their makeshift cases packed with the suggested items. Each with their little gas mask in case of a gas attack.

Looking at the photographs they made a pathetic sight. Most had a bewildered lost look on their small faces.

That look would tear your heart out if you were their mum. No wonder the government were afraid the mums would change their minds.

When the children arrived at their destination they would be taken to somewhere central. Somewhere like the village hall or the church hall or maybe the local school.

There host families would be waiting to pick which children they wanted to take home with them.

Of course those children who looked well cared for and best dressed would be the first to go. It was not uncommon for those children from the poorest backgrounds to be the last chosen.

In many of the evacuees’ accounts this particular part of the process was the most upsetting.

I remember one lady saying it was degrading it was like being in a cattle auction.

People were saying I’ll have that one, or I don’t want that one. All this was said in the children's hearing. The people were not at all mindful of the effect that the words were having on the children. that were being spoken about.

It was hard to find host families that wanted to taken on more than one child. Unfortunately brothers and sisters were often split up and taken in by different families.

The children arrived at these church halls tired, hungry, upset, dirty and sometimes wet. Arriving in this state did not make a desirable impression on the host families.

Children had often travelled for many hours in trains. Many of the trains back then had carriages that had no corridors.

This of course meant that young children once on the train would have no access to a toilet. More than one child would end up soaked in their own urine by the time they got to a village hall.

All in all this initial part of the process was felt to be one of the most distressing.

For some children once chosen life with their host families was a pleasant experience. Many evacuees have positive memories of the time and the people.

But not every evacuee was this lucky. Many children ended up with people who just wanted the money and the extra rations.

For some children it was even worse, they ended up in homes where they were neglected and abused by their hosts.

The mistreatment that some of the evacuees experienced damaged them. They were left with physical, emotional and psychological scars. Some of which had long lasting effects on some of the evacuees.

Even today some 70 years on, there are some that are still experiencing the after effects.

I hope you enjoyed this hub

It is very hard to do justice to this event in such a short article but I hope that you have enjoyed this hub and that it has given you a better understanding and some insight into this extraordinary event from a working class perspective. Hopefully it has given you a taste for looking deeper into this event through the many personal accounts that are on the Inter-net.


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    • mchllhwgt profile image

      Michelle How 

      3 years ago

      Nothing I have read up until now educated me about the working class children of those times. I live in NE England so my grandparents didn't have to go through any evacuation so my education didn't really start until I lived on the South Coast for a little while. I cannot imagine letting my children live elsewhere with children. It's an event that would have had me scared for the rest of my life I imagine. I don't actually know how I would have gotten through it. Your insight was very well received here.

    • Ed Schofield profile image

      Ed Schofield 

      3 years ago from Nova Scotia, Canada

      Hello maggs224. Also of interest to you might be Ben Wicks' books on the topic: No Time To Wave Goodbye, & The Day They Took The Children. Ben Wicks himself was evacuated and adds many personal anecdotes in his work. When you hear about physical and sexual abuse of children by the foster parents, the trauma to these children being separated from their families, one has to ask if it was really worth it. It's very difficult to read but emotionally moving. Ben Wicks emigrated to Canada after the war and became a widely known political cartoonist and authour. I like to study WWII, and British sociology in general during that era, so I will enjoy anything you have to say on the topic.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Thank you AidenseTicCic for your comment

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Sunny Spain

      So sorry it has taken me so long to acknowledge your comment, thank you so much for your kind words and for the vote up I really appreciate you doing both.

      I am pleased that you enjoyed the hub I am on my way now to check out your hubs :D

    • LABrashear profile image


      8 years ago from My Perfect Place, USA

      I love history - especially the personal touches! This was a great piece of insight into the lives of these children. The pictures were wonderful. So glad I stopped to read. Voted up!

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Hi Dolores, thank you for your comments. I don't know how the mothers got through that time. They faced so many hard choices and each choice had its own high price. The fear factor these women faced daily must have been huge. Keep your children with you and the fear was from the bombing. Let your children go and the fear must have been of the effects of the separation on the children and for the mum of not knowing the where or whom they were going to.

      You have to admire the women of this generation for the courage they showed in so many different situations.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      10 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Maggs - I can imagine how the mothers felt, how heart wrenching it was to see your little child go off, but how important it was for them to go. The idea that the moms did not know who would be caring for their children...and the poor little ones who could not understand what it was really all about...a very touching hub.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Thanks for your comments RedElf I think it would be very interesting to read the accounts of the evacuees that were sent abroad it must have been very hard to understand what was going on for the really young ones. Sounds like you have a great grandmother a real treasure.

    • RedElf profile image


      10 years ago from Canada

      What a great hub, maggs. I have heard stories from this end about some of the child evacuees that landed in Canada. My grandmother spoke of a few she encountered and some had a decent life - sadly, others were treated as little more than indentured servants.

      Thanks so much for sharing this little-known story - I look forward to reading more.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      itakins thank you so much for your kind comments, I think the same as you it must have been incredibly tough for both parents and children. I am glad that I have never had to face some of the tough decisions that the parents of the evacuated children had to face.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      xuniel thanks for your comments

    • itakins profile image


      10 years ago from Irl


      Incredibly interesting and well written hub-it must have been so tough for parents and children.

    • xunlei profile image


      10 years ago


      it is great !

      I will keep you posted!

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Thanks Paul for your comment, glad you liked it.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Ethel I know what you mean the thought of sending my kids off to who knows where to stay with complete strangers just doesn't bare thinking about and many children found themselves in an abusive situation.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Alekhouse thank you for your comments it is truly amazing how the children adapted in these circumstances a lot of the accounts that I read the evacuees showed a lot of courage and just made the best of it. Some evacuees had a really good family and experience and some did not want to return home as they liked being where they were better than the home they had left.

    • maggs224 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Hello thank you for your comments, it is amazing how these young children coped with this stressful time and came out such well adjusted people like Ben's granddad.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      excellent follow up hub mags224.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      10 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Imagine. You could have been in the home of a complete maniac. Some children obviously fared better than others. It happened to some in my family but their Mum went with them.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      10 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      This is heart-breaking, Maggs, especially for the little ones who were sent away from school without their mothers. The video Ben made of his grandfather really illustrates how courageous these kids were, how well they adapted to the situation and coped with the danger of it. They were amazing. Thanks for sharing this sad tale.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      10 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for this well writing and informative hub. It must have been horrifying. The heartache you can clearly see.


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