In 1939 with war about to break out, the government expected major air attacks on all Britain's cities, and that this bombing would pave the way for a German invasion. The government felt it needed to get at least the children out of the city and into the safety of the countryside. Plans for the evacuation of school children began in July 1939 before the outbreak of war. Mass evacuation began on September 3rd 1939 the day that war was declared. Children, mothers and expectant mothers were moved out of the danger areas and into the relative safety of the countryside, to places in Kent, Sussex, Wales, Devon, Cornwall, and many other areas. Children returned to school from their summer holidays and suddenly found that they were all about to move to a different part of the country.
Imagine that you are about to leave your parents, you don't know where you are going or for how long you will be away. You are probably going to a place in the countryside that you have never been to, maybe you have never been to the countryside before. You are going to be staying with people you have never met before, you do not even know their names let alone whether they are nice or not. You have a small emergency ration packed-lunch, a gas mask and a postcard ready to send home to tell your parents where you are. If you are lucky you will get to stay with your friends or your brothers and sisters, but then again, you may not. Add, to these feelings of uncertainty, the threat of war, the fear of attack and invasion, and you might be close to feeling the way an evacuee may have felt standing on the train platform waiting to be sent to the safety of the countryside.
Just under half of all London school children were evacuated. They were met in their countryside destinations by the billeting officers that would take them to their foster homes, and by volunteers from the Red Cross and members of the Women's Voluntary Service (W.V.S.) who assisted with the care and attention the children needed. Some children went to foster homes on farms, some to cottages, some to the manor house (where the care of several children might be left to the servants).
Many Londoners who were moved to the countryside found that they and their country hosts came from completely different worlds. Both the Londoner and the country-dweller had their own prejudiced view of what the other was like. Londoners thought that country folk would be backward, old-fashioned and snobbish. The country hosts thought their guests from London would be dirty, loud, ill mannered and lice-ridden. Evacuation exposed many of these old prejudices and forced people to face issues concerning the differences and imbalances of social class, and the sometimes-squalid conditions of poverty-stricken city life. Evacuation introduced one half of Britain to the other half, inner city to country, middle-class to working-class. A character in the 1941 film 'Dawn Guard' said,
"We found out in this war how we were all neighbours, and we aren't going to forget it when it's all over".
For some London children the experience of evacuation was not a happy one. They missed their families, friends and familiar city streets. Sometimes their new foster parents did not understand them or treated them harshly. For others, it was the best time of their lives and they enjoyed the fresh country air, good country food and lots of new things to do. Perhaps most importantly they made friendships and learned things about themselves and their foster parents, which stayed with them all their lives. One schoolteacher, evacuated with his school to Somerset wrote:
"All of the evacuees have gained an experience and a broadened outlook which will inevitably modify their future lives. A deeper understanding will, I hope, arise between the peoples of our own land"
Let's leave the final word to a Londoner evacuated in June 1940. George Knott with his friend Frank Moons (both eleven year old lads from Tooting in south west London) was evacuated to Barnstaple in north Devon. As an older man, George looks back:
"I think our foster mother found us a bit hard to understand with our somewhat more worldly outlook and ways. I am grateful to her for taking us in as it could not have been easy to handle two lively young strangers, and we were warm and comfortable and well fed at all times"