The Evacuation of Children, Women & the Elderly

"The children came from all walks of life, while many were well dressed and actually very intelligent, most really were in a deplorable state. They were filthy, their clothing was absolutely disgusting and many were ridden with disease. It was almost as if they had just stepped out of the book 'Oliver Twist', it was almost impossible to believe that these children came from our capital city."
Bernadette Jamison in her essay "And the Children came to Lancashire".

Even before the war had been declared on Germany, is was envisaged that the prime target of Germany would be the city of London. The government then had devised a plan that all children, and all those women that were not on any form of service should be sent to safer areas of Britain away from any area that could be classed as dangerous. The places where these evacuees would be sent would be the safer places of the many English shires. mainly in the country areas away from any major town or city that was under the threat of being bombed. One of those encouraging the children to leave possible target and industrial areas was a young Princess Elizabeth, now the Queen of the United Kingdom. She broadcast to the young in a program on the BBC called "Children's Hour".

Click on the Real Player icon below to download a copy of the sound file to your computer so that you can play it on your own media player.

But although many children had been evacuated in the early months of the war, the biggest armada of evacuees left London starting at 5.30am on the morning of September 1st 1940. Included in the evacuees were: children up to the age of fifteen, mothers, expectant mothers, elderly and frail people, hospital patients and blind people. The government orchestrated a scheme where it was possible to apply for evacuation assistance, and they made all the necessary arrangements regarding future accommodation and travel. But many decided they would make their own arrangements, in fact figures show that one and a half million took advantage of the government scheme, while two million made their own independent arrangements. Posters were to be seen all over London advising "Mothers, send them out of London" with a picture of helpless and forlorn children looking up in bewilderment. All major railway stations were choked to capacity as trains on altered timetables, plus additional trains that had been scheduled to move the great armada of children out of London.

Evacuation of children from London
In all cases the destinations were kept secret. Even the method of departure varied from place to place and family to family. One woman exclaimed that at the time of the evacuation, she was only twelve, and that it was a strange feeling to be marching even with your mother down the street of the suburb that you lived in ready to join an assembled crowd at a pre-determined point, and the strangest feeling being that you did not know where you would be going. It may have been just to a quiet village just outside London, or you may have been taken north out of harms way.

A very elderly lady explained how she did not want to Leave London, mainly because her family was still there, including her husband who was stationed nearby, but it was best that she get the children away in the interests of safety. She spoke about how she cried as she said good-bye to the children not knowing if she would ever see them again. But to them, it seemed to be different. They were ushered from one place to another with large name tags pinned to their overcoats and a gas mask dangled loosely by their side, but surprisingly, many of the children seemed to be happy, they were going away, somewhere different, a holiday....away from the bombs. They were relishing the fact that they were going to do something that they had never done before.


For the most part, mothers and/or parents were told to take their children to their school playground which was the assembly point. The photograph at the top of the page shows a typical child in evacuation dress. Parents were given instructions to place a large name tag to the front of the child with their name clearly printed. They should make sure that their children had a gas mask that was to be carried on the child in its case, and not placed in an enclosed suitcase. They should have at least two changes of underwear, a night-dress or pyjamas, a change of socks and/or stockings, a spare pair of shoes, and toiletries that should include a bar of soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, a comb and brush, handkerchiefs and a warm coat and jumper.

A separate bag should contain enough food that would last the child for the day. The child was to have only the amount of luggage that he/she could carry and no more. Most of them carried a suitcase and had had anything up to three large bags hanging from their shoulders. All baggage had to have the child's name printed in large letters.

The school playground reception areas seemed to be chaotic, hundreds of parents and children not really knowing what to do and where to go. Many sought the advice of "officials" who promptly asked, 'surname?' then depending to the first letter of your name you had to register in a certain queue. This was where many of the children got irritable, children do not like standing helplessly in queues at the best of times, and being loaded down with luggage did not make things any better. But, many of them did start to make new friends while breaking the boredom of just doing....nothing. Parents and mothers too, started conversations with total strangers, and many questions started to be thrown about which of course, no one had the answers.

"I wonder where they will be going ?" "Who are they going to stay with, going into houses, or into boarding type schools ?"
"I wonder if brothers and sisters will be split up ?" "What will happen if anything happens to them, or what if anything happens to us ?" There were so many questions, and nobody knew the answers....except the authorities.

"The feelings amongst the mothers was generally quite orderly, naturally many were upset at parting with their children, many were crying and hugging their children. But the children's behaviour was quite different. Some remained very quiet tightly holding onto mums hand possibly really not really knowing what was going on. Others were quite happy, especially when the time came for them to part from their mothers, which was extraordinary. Oh there were a few that burst into tears and "I want my mummy" but in general the children seemed to feel much better when they were left amongst themselves."
George Clarke, ARP official at a Bethnal Green reception point.
In charge of the children during the evacuation process, were the teachers. These done a marvellous job and like many others, were among the unsung heroes of the war. This first day was to be an extremely heavy day for them. Not only had they the task of organization of the children, but the responsibility as well. They had to answer all sorts of questions, they had to comfort those that became upset, they had to control those that got out of hand, and they had to make sure that all the children were present and that their name tags and their luggage conformed with the required criteria. At each interchange point were they had to change from one transport to another, they had to make sure that all children were present and that none were missing, and to then organize them to proceed in an orderly fashion to the next meeting point.

Children nearly always confided in the teachers, with the movement of so many children the process was only moving slowly, so teachers very often became mothers or fathers, and apply themselves to such duties as comforting some, organizing others yet maintain a well drilled outfit so that even the children at least had an idea as to what to do next.
One on the train that was to take them to their new home, more problems came to light. On the short journeys, railway carriages had no corridor and it presented a problem of being able to keep an eye on all the children at the same time as others were in separate compartments. Certain children had to get out at certain stations along the way, this was a decision that was only known to the authorities and not the teachers.

On the longer journeys, most of the carriages had corridors where the teachers could keep an eye on their flock, usually one teacher from one school to a carriage, although in some cases schools shared carriages so that there were often two or three teachers from different schools to a carriage. Queues often formed at the toilets, and many children did not hurry themselves, and many a time a child had wet or messed themselves, and it was the teacher that had to find clean underwear, wash the child and make sure that the child was once again comfortable. It must be remembered, that in normal circumstances, trains on long distance were often express and non-stop, but with so many additional trains, some running one behind the other, long trips were slow and tedious. Many trains came to a halt, usually just prior to a junction and stayed there for almost half an hour before slowly moving on again. There was no such thing as timetables in this time of evacuation.

So where were the children sent to? Even on the train, the children did not have any idea as to where they were going, The parents were told that all children were being taken to "somewhere safe", but that could be anywhere. All different thoughts went through peoples minds as to where "somewhere safe" was. 'How far away would they be going?' 'When shall we see them again?' 'How will we know were they are going?. Questions that were thrown around and around and around. All the parents were told was that as soon as the children were settled, they would be informed as their whereabouts.


Map: Areas of Evacuation
1. London 241,000
2. Manchester/Salford 84,343
3. Merseyside 79,930
4. Newcastle/Sunderland 52,494
5. Birmingham/West Midlands 32,688
6. Leeds/Bradford 26,419
7. Portsmouth/Southampton 23,145
8. Sheffield/East Midlands 13,871
9. Teesside 8,052
A. Lancashire 71,484
B. Sussex 67,541
C. Yorkshire 50,593
D. Kent 38,000
E. Cheshire 38,000
F. Essex 25,000
G. Northamptonshire 24,000
H. Hertfordshire 23,500
I. Suffolk 23,000
J. Somerset  21,000
K. Surrey 20,000
The above map, and the figures indicating the child movement numbers is taken from "Life in Wartime Britain" by Richard Tames which was supplied by Mr Dave Davis. Accurate figures are always hard to come by but my reference sources state that three million children, mothers, hospital patients and blind people were evacuated from congested areas to areas of safety. In "London Goes to War - 1939" by Gordon Bromley, it is stated that between 1st - 3rd September something like six hundred thousand children accompanied by their teachers left London for safe billets in the country. All we know is that thousands of children left areas that would be classed as dangerous and were evacuated to safer areas in country districts in Britain.


It has been well documented that many of the children, described by many of their new foster parents were dirty, unkempt, and not only were they dressed in filthy and shabby clothes, they were covered in lice, mites and skin diseases.
Lifestyle in the country, was a far cry from that of the big cities and towns including London. Very few houses in London had a bath, let alone a bathroom. In many cases it was a weekly chore to walk to the local council bathhouse and queue up for your weekly bath.

But the areas being evacuated were the highly populated areas of the cities. Most of the children came from slum areas, and the east end of London was typical of this. Boroughs such as Hackney, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Wapping, Limehouse, West Ham, East Ham, Leyton and Poplar were areas where most of the men worked in the docklands, at the power stations and at the large factories of John Knight's soap works, the rubber works at Silvertown, the Leathercloth works at West Ham and the chemical factory of A. Boake Roberts at Stratford. Men worked long hours for just average pay and being as owning your own house in the east end was just about unheard of, most lived in rented accommodation. No houses had a bathroom, so as I have previously mentioned, a weekly visit to the local council baths was routine with most families. Toilets in the house was also something that was unheard of in most cases, usually these were outside in the cold and dark of the back yard.

So when the children were moved to country houses, they found quite a difference in the type of houses that were built. Many of the country homes had hot running water, children could not understand how hot water could come from a tap.

"I remember it was so different from our house in Stepney. There were two of us who had been evacuated to this house in the Chiltern Hills in the west country. This house had a bathroom and an indoor lavatory upstairs. It was wonderful having my own towel hanging on the door, and all the toiletries were on the side next to the wash basin that even had hot water. A long white bath was to one side which also had hot and cold water that you could control while sitting in the bath, quite different from the council baths where the hot and cold controls were outside and you had to call out to the attendant that you wanted either more hot, or more cold water. I think the only thing I didn't like was that I had to bath three times a week instead of only once, but we soon got used to it and enjoyed it."
From an interview with Ron Collins on his experiences as a boy during the war.
But London was not the only area that had slums, Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool and Southampton were also some of the areas that were classed as slums. This caused many of the new foster parents to start making complaints. Up until now, they had experienced healthy and clean living, now the children that suddenly came into their homes brought filth and disease, and they were afraid that such diseases would be transferred to their own children. Many of the so called "middle class" country people made bitter complaints to the government, and others even formed protest groups trying to get the message across that the organization of children from city areas coming to the country is totally inadequate and that a remedy must urgently be sought to alter this. One organization The National Federation of Women's Institutes reported that '....although that this situation related to only a small proportion of the evacuee's, the problem is but nation-wide and we must make this intolerable situation known'.
But the children soon adapted to their new way of life. They learnt what the meaning of cleanliness was, they adapted to the new lifestyle, and many learnt new basic skills because many were living on country farms.


As well as children being sent to the many safety areas in rural Britain, there were an estimated 3,100 children that were sent to the commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. These children were evacuated under a government scheme called the Children's Overseas Reception Board known as CORB for short.

Before the war broke out, the British government had received a letter from a family in Southern Rhodesia stating that due to the unrest in Britain, and with the possibility of a war breaking out, that it would be a good idea to send children to the various Dominions within the commonwealth for the reasons of safety. It does appear, that the government did not favour the idea at the time and the letter was "filed" with a note attached saying that it was a good hearted suggestion, but the whole idea was impractical. Later, as the threat of war loomed closer, similar letters were received from Canada and Australia.

When war did eventually break out, the question of sending the children to commonwealth countries was brought up in parliament. Again the proposal was rejected saying that by doing so, it would create panic and would be seen as defeatism., and that the question of overseas evacuation was not a pressing one at the moment. The government decided that the evacuation to rural areas of Britain should continue as it was felt that this was quite adequate. The idea of overseas evacuation was then shelved.

A number of times the issue kept surfacing in parliament, and the man to whom the issue was left to "sort things out" was the Member of Parliament for the seat of Norwich, Geoffrey Shakespear, and was now in the newly formed cabinet of Winston Churchill. At first, Shakespear was not entirely in favour of such a project, but by the middle of 1940, with many children already billeted to rural Britain, he had changed his mind, and became a central figure in the organization of the Children's Overseas Reception Board.

But as he pushed for the establishment, others were to knock it down, even Churchill was not in favour. On 17th June 1940, at a meeting in the War Rooms at Westminster, the proposal was again under discussion. Churchill again took the defeatist attitude stating that in his opinion, ships at sea would very quite vulnerable to an enemy and that it would be impossible to assign any warships to escort these ships. Later the meeting was interrupted by a messenger who handed Churchill an urgent note.

Children board the liner Batory bound for Australia
The note was to inform the Prime Minister that France, had made the decision to sue for peace, France was to fall to Germany, and Churchill knew that at this time, Britain was alone, and with Germany's continual push to the west, the next target would have to be Britain. Shakespear left the meeting on 17th June not knowing as to whether CORB had been approved. No motion had been put forward for it to be passed and/or accepted. But in reading the minutes of the previous days meeting, Shakespeare found the "the War Cabinet agreed that the scheme be announced in answer to a parliamentary question the following Wednesday, and that the Committee report be published." The proposition of CORB was now ready to be tabled.

Already, it had been estimated that over 10,000 children had been sent overseas privately, but there is no accurate record of this. But as soon as CORB was made public, it became inundated with in excess of over 200,000 applications. The scheme was in existence for only two weeks, and had to refuse any further applications and closed.

In all, 3,100 children were evacuated under the CORB scheme during July and September 1940 to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The transportation of shipping at that period was dangerous, German U-boats were operating in the Atlantic and many convoys became victims of these German hunters. Two ships carrying CORB children were sunk by enemy raiders. One was the Dutch Liner Volendam that had 320 children bound for Canada. Leaving Britain with convoy OB205, that consisted of 32 other ships. On August 30th 1940 at about 11.00pm the convoy was attacked by U-boats, and U-60 fired her torpedoes with one of them going right through the Volendam. All lifeboats were safely dropped and the 320 children were rescued. Other than the ship, the only other casualty was the ships purser who was killed.

On September 13th 1940, the liner City of Benares that was carrying 90 children bound for homes in Canada, left Liverpool with another liner Diomed carrying 18 CORB male evacuees and a huge cargo of aeroplane wings. The ships were in convoy OB213 and were 1000 kilometres out into the Atlantic and in an area noted for U-boat attacks. The weather was bad, and was getting worse. For some reason, the convoys three escorts had been taken away from OB213 to give protection to some incoming ships, and for the time being, it left OB213 weak and open to attack. The City of Benares was leading the convoy, and had no protection and in the inclement weather was making only slow speed. The ships kept a straight course, not taking any evasive action in the open sea and were unaware that they were being shadowed by German U-boat U-48.
In the dark and inclement weather, at about 10.00pm, U-48 turned towards the convoy OB213, and picked out the leading ship, the City of Benares. The German attacker closed in and Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt gave the order to fire two torpedoes. With an horrific roar, and a sudden column of flame the City of Benares was torn apart. Turning, U-48 fired more torpedoes and two other ships in convoy OB213 were hit.

Hurriedly the lifeboats from the City of Benares were launched, but in the wild weather most of these either capsized before they reached the water, or they were swamped by the cold, huge waves. Next day, HMS Hurricane came to pick up survivors, but all that it accomplished was the collection of dead bodies, casualties of both the bitterly cold water and the weather. It was by a miracle that on trying to pluck bodies from an upturned lifeboat that HMS Hurricane realized that two young girls were still alive, 15 year old Beth Wilder, and 14 year old Beth Cummings would live to tell of the ordeal of the Benares. They were two of the 13 of the 90 CORB children on board that survived.

There was outrage within the British government that children should have been innocent victims of war, Churchill the least impressed because it was he who rejected the passage of children on vessels plying in the Atlantic Ocean. In his position, he had more important things to worry about, but he wanted to know, why was this allowed to happen without his approval, that the scheme went ahead on a memo that "the scheme was approved only on as far as it was allowed for a report to be released.

Beth Walder told of her ordeal later, but what were the thoughts of those parents who lost their children, what were the feelings of those naval personnel of HMS Hurricane who realized that it was young children they were plucking out of the cold waters of the Atlantic. It must have been horrific.

The Ordeal of Bess Walder

The night was absolutely horrendous. It was the blackest of nights, and it was raining and the wind was blowing at gale force. The lifeboat's keel was the only thing available, so our hands locked onto it. There was a row of hands alongside mine, on my side of the keel -- and another row of hands on Beth's side, facing -me. Bit by bit the rows of hands grew less and less as people lost their grip, or lost their will to live -- and let go.

We knew that if we could hang on until daylight things would be better. We made up our minds -- we were just going to go on hanging on, despite everything. Obviously in the later stages we were fantasizing. We saw what we thought were enormous fish, we saw icebergs, we thought we saw ships, we thought we saw planes. We had had nothing to drink and nothing to eat, and we were suffering from severe exposure... I think we were very near death.

It was getting dark [on the evening after the sinking], and Beth and I had both made up our minds that this was probably going to be our last day. But there, coming towards us, at a very very creeping speed, was a black dot on a previously blank horizon seen over the crests of the waves. And unlike the other things we had seen this was definitely moving towards us. This one was real. I croaked to Beth, 'Beth, there's a ship'. When we were finally rescued they had to prise our hands off the keel.

Beth Walder / Edward Stokes Innocents Abroad


It would be safe to say that more than a million children had been evacuated out of the cities and the large industrial areas. Wherever it was felt that an area was declared as being unsafe, parents were advised to move their children out. It was a hard time all round, while many children were well dressed and healthy, there were others that only had dirty clothes and suffered many skin diseases. These were the ones that had come from the slum areas, many children did not even take changes of clothing with them and it was up to the new foster parents to provide new and clean clothing and seek medication for many, and this was done out of their own pockets.

Many children found it strange in their new surroundings and were very nervous, they had known no other parents except their own, and in the country areas the rural lifestyle was completely different to which they had been used to. But many settled down in the new environment and stayed for the duration of the war, while others were taken back by their families as life was still "normal" in places such as London and in other big cities. The heavy bombing that had been forecast, never came.

When Christmas was the time to be with loved ones, many children were taken back home to their parents, but of all those that went home, a quarter of them stayed and did not return to their foster parents. The government started asking that parents should pay a contribution towards the cost of keeping the children, naturally most were poor and could not afford it, and slowly the children went back to their parents, by 1944, most evacuations had ceased despite cities still being bombed, and the evacuation scheme was terminated.

But evacuation was not without serious problems. On a number of occasions while the children were in the safe haven of the rural areas, their parents had been killed in the "Blitz". One could not expect the temporary foster parents to adopt them as their own, although in a number of cases it did happen. But most were sent to orphanages which soon became overcrowded. After the war many were shipped to orphanages overseas, to such places as Australia and Canada, which were run by church and catholic institutions, but now it is being revealed that in Australia many of these children had been subject to sexual misuse by Christian fathers, but because of impending inquiries that are now being looked into I cannot and am not at liberty to reveal any more than that.

Some children were told that their parents had been killed in air raids when the truth was that they hadn't, these too were sent to orphanages overseas. Only recently a war orphan was reunited with his brother after 55 years, only to be informed that their parents were not killed during the war, their house was bombed, but they had taken refuge elsewhere and survived. Again, I cannot report any details. But it happened, many children and parents were told lies and the outcome was, that they were never repatriated with their families when peace finally came to Britain.

With the temporary foster parents, things were hard for them as well. When asked at the outset of war that would they take in a child from the cities, they not only felt sorry for the children, but the British way of life was "Let's Stick Together", they were going to do their 'bit' by taking the children in. They were not expecting to house children that had no changes of clothing or were ridden with disease, many just took it in their stride and got the children cleaned up and re-clothed them at their own expense, but others complained and said that disease ridden and dirty children were not welcome to the clean life of the country.

Yes, it was hard all round, and we must not forget the parents who had to let their children go. Where would they go, would they be safe, and when will we see them again. But it was all part of being British, it was the civilian way that they were going to fight this war. This was war on the ground, no one missed out on fighting the war, from mothers to generals, everyone had a part to play.


Women who did not have occupational work in the cities were also advised to leave and evacuate to safer areas. Many of them would not leave their homes and demands by the authorities were constantly being made on radio and in newspapers that it was not safe for them to stay in areas that would be targets for the enemy in the event of bombing raids. Many took heed of pressure by husbands, friends and the government and made the move to rural areas, only to return many months later as there was no sign of the cities being bombed.

There were many that returned to the cities, many of them coming back prior to the Blitz in September 1940 as they thought that Germany would not bomb the cities after all. Many took the elderly with them, to care and look after them in more secure parts, but the main problem of returning while the war was still on was the fact that they could have been returning to homes that had been bombed, or had even disappeared. This then presented problems and additional worries for the authorities. The usual answer was that they must return back to the country areas from where they came, as only after the war would they have time to be able to assist them.

Stewart Ross Home Front 1960
Edward Stokes Innocents Abroad
Gordon Bromley - London Goes to War 1939. Michael Joseph 1974

The Battle of Britain - 1940 website Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007