How the Image of the Shabby British Evacuee Became Established

David Clampin

4 mins

08 Aug 2018

Perhaps the first real encounter that the British people had with modern warfare was with the process of evacuation which was executed under the terms of Operation Pied Piper from 1 September 1939. That scheme presented parents with the opportunity to send their children away from areas designated by the government as being danger zones to safer reception areas.

In addition to that mass movement, mothers with under school age children might also choose to leave their homes, along with pregnant women, the elderly and infirm. Yet it was those children who typically departed from the conurbations of England for the safety of more tranquil parts that had such a legacy.

The UK Ministry of Health advertised the evacuation programme through posters, among other means. The poster depicted here was used in the London Underground.

The representation of those evacuees is still with us today: when children as part of their primary education are asked to come into school on the designated day dressed as evacuees they are invariably advised to attend looking scruffy and dishevelled. There are a number of reasons why the evacuee is imagined in this way and why it was that this became the pervasive vision even at the time.

In the first instance, the children evacuated most readily in that first wave were generally those from the poorer areas of the country. Given that evacuation was an entirely voluntary undertaking, there was a tendency that these would be drawn from the very poorest families where parents, perhaps lacking in education, were more likely to defer automatically to a higher authority and evacuate their children.

Generally setting out from home in a poor state, this was then compounded by the journey itself which was often far from comfortable meaning that on arrival they were in an even very poorer state. This was the first and lasting impression created by evacuation. All subsequent visions were viewed through that prism.

Secondly, for various reasons (some more justified than others) those in the reception areas frequently did not want to take in evacuees, leaving them prone to exaggerate stories in an effort to make things sound much worse and thereby avoid further impositions. The contrast between the circumstances from which these children had come and the very different environment in which they might now find themselves created a dramatic contrast making those differences all the more pronounced.

Similarly, when it came to health professionals reporting on their findings they were inclined to emphasise the negative aspects of the situation which appeared much worse relative to anything they had seen before.

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However, perhaps of even greater significance were the purpose to which such stories and reports could be turned, and their place as a salve on the national conscience. The circulation and ready consumption of such dire narratives acted as a sort of catharsis.

Britain through the inter-war period had been a place of grave contrasts where some became very rich as others struggled to survive. This had typically been along a north-south divide where the old, heavy industries went into a state of utter decline, the new, light industries, generally clustered around the Home Counties, boomed.

The practice of evacuation meant that, whereas it had previously been possible to deny that this was going on and, even as war was declared, pretend that we were a united nation all pulling together, this mixing of the nation denied that opportunity.

The experience of evacuation presented a moment for general public brow-beating. Further, popular responses could also feed into the broader context: through the period of Bore or Phoney War nothing else was going on and an underlying current of suspicion and distaste for the administration that allowed the country to drift into this war was rife.

Child evacuees from Bristol arriving at Brent in Devon in 1940.

The case of evacuation could be used as another stick with which to beat the government, or at least existed as a low grumble beneath the surface. Through such outcries and much handwringing, people were able to abdicate themselves of the responsibility of letting so many areas in the country fall into such a state and, conveniently, transfer the responsibility, wholesale, onto the shoulders of a government that looked increasingly inept.

Here was a case where, in some instances, middle-England came face-to-face with the worst impact of the poverty and deprivation of the inter-war period and tried to find solace in their gruesome descriptions of what they found with lasting impact. Further, it might be argued that these descriptions of unhealthy and unruly reprobates merely helped to assuage the guilt of those comfortable, middle-class families who simply refused to take in evacuees.

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Such stories became further magnified simply by the fact that there was little else to report at this stage of the war. In the absence of little other news of note at the outbreak of war, there was extensive coverage of evacuation in the press. Those stories, driven by the need to appeal to the ‘popular’ in the hope of maximising sales, coalesced around the sensational stories that retold of the poor condition and ill manners of evacuees, even though there were actually few cases so severe as to warrant such attention, thereby setting up the evacuee “urchin” as the durable legacy of the time.