The ties that bind

The ties that bind

In this exclusive book extract, Penny Starns explains the background to the wartime evacuation of tens of thousands of British children to other countries

Header Image: Each child had a gas mask, issued by the government, and luggage packed into whatever bags their parents could find. Monica B. Morris Archives

Dr Penny Starns, Research Fellow, Historian and Author

Dr Penny Starns

Research Fellow, Historian and Author

Offers to provide an overseas refuge for British children for the duration of World War Two were received by the British government in the spring of 1939. These were extended primarily by the Dominions, such as Canada and Australia, but the United States of America also offered to take children. Even Latin American countries were keen to offer help in this respect. However, most British politicians at this stage viewed overseas evacuation as unnecessary, potentially expensive and probably unwieldy in terms of administration. Furthermore, for some people the very notion of sending children overseas smacked of defeatism, and ministers argued that it was tantamount to waving a white flag before the war had even started.

These early offers of help, therefore, were virtually dismissed out of hand. At this point government ministers were reasonably confident that their home front civil defence policies, which included a framework of air raid-precautions shelters and wardens, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses and blackout procedures, would provide adequate protection from aerial bombardment. The cornerstone of civil defence measures however, relied on the systematic movement of city children and other vulnerable civilians to areas of relative safety in the countryside. This planned mass evacuation was referred to officially as the government’s dispersal policy, and ministers were in the process of persuading the general public that domestic civilian evacuation was the best possible course of action should war break out.

Kent Messenger Newspaper Group

Concerns and prejucides
Nevertheless, the issue of overseas evacuation was discussed at length in the House of Commons, and it is clear from early debates on the subject that politicians had a number of concerns and prejudices with regard to sending children abroad. Some of these were sensible and pertinent, while others were sometimes absurd. For instance, there was a general consensus within the corridors of power that British children should not be sent to Latin American countries because English was not the first language. Yet this consideration did not appear to have influenced domestic internal evacuation, whereby hundreds of Liverpool children were sent to Welsh-speaking North Wales. However, the decision to refuse offers of help from Latin American countries was viewed as a sensible one, not simply because of language difficulties but also because these countries did not have strong political or economic ties with Britain. Prevailing political opinion regarded governments in these countries as unstable and potentially volatile. A large number of politicians were also wary about sending children to Australia. During the 19th century, Australia had been first and foremost a penal colony. British prisons during this period were overcrowded and overflowing, and thousands of criminals were condemned to penal servitude in Australia as an alternative to incarceration in Britain. Given this association, a few officials vehemently argued that sending children to live in Australia with a bunch of convict descendants was not an appropriate course of action.

In stark contrast, Canada and South Africa were considered to be ideal destinations for good British stock should the need for overseas evacuation arise. The populations of these countries were regarded as decent, hard-working and of thoroughly good stock. Strangely perhaps, in view of Britain’s long standing special relationship with the USA, politicians in Whitehall shied away from the idea of sending children to America. Their reluctance appeared to be based on the prevailing view that American children were spoilt, rude, arrogant, ill-disciplined and loud. Members of parliament also expressed a dim view of the average American mother. According to the unenlightened parliamentary records of 1939 and 1940, American mothers were described as lazy, materialistic and vain.

These stereotypes, however unfair or inaccurate they proved to be, did serve to block any official government moves to send British children directly to the USA during the war. In fact the majority of British government officials decided that should it become necessary to send children overseas then the Dominions would be the preferred destination, since this measure would serve to strengthen pre-existing ties between Britain and her Empire.

The initial reluctance to send children overseas by means of any organised and officially endorsed scheme did not deter well-to-do families from sending their offspring overseas by private means. Between 20,000 and 30,000 children were evacuated overseas for the duration of the war. Many of them left Britain before the war broke out and did so in sporadic droves. An estimated 5,000 people left Britain’s shores over the two-day period immediately prior to the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. This upper-class exodus included a large number of parents, nannies and grandparents. The Thames Valley in the September of 1939 was filled with men and women of all ages, in various stages of hunger, exhaustion and fear, offering absurd sums for accommodation in already overcrowded houses and even for food. This horde of satin-clad pinstriped refugees poured through for two or three days, eating everything that was for sale, downing all the spirits in the pubs, and then vanished.

Large companies such as Warner Brothers, Kodak, Ford and Hoover also provided a means of escape by paying for the overseas evacuation of children belonging to their British employees. American universities did their part too, offering refuge to the children of leading academics working within British universities. Not surprisingly this elitist escapism became an emotive issue, and the brutal unfairness of the situation was hammered home by the increasing number of newspaper articles that focused on the wonderful lives that children were enjoying on the other side of the Atlantic.

Another contemporary observer, Michael Henderson (see his website here for extracts of his own book on this subject) described the problem succinctly: Why should the son of a rich man sleep in security in New York’s gay lighted towers, the roar of traffic bound on peaceful errands in his ears, while the son of the poor man dozed in crowded shelters below our dangerous cities, menaced by the bomber’s drone? It was unfair; and something needed to be done about it.

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Although the inequitable nature of private overseas evacuation schemes was obvious to all, public opinion was divided over the issue of sea-vacs. The fact that adults were fleeing Britain was particularly frowned upon. Undoubtedly a few sections of the population were resentful and felt deprived because they were not afforded the same opportunity to leave the country, but the majority viewed adult sea-vacs as lily-livered cowards. According to the national press, they were abandoning Britain in her hour of need, and if they were prepared to run away from danger then the country was well rid of such despicable people, while politicians maintained that since all adults were desperately needed for the war effort, any large-scale departure from Britain’s shores should be avoided.

Popular support
While the population as a whole took a dim view of adult emigration at this time, opinion was more cohesive with regard to the subject of child sea-vacs. Over 80% of the population suggested that it was appropriate for the British government to send children overseas out of harm’s way. This overwhelming support for a government overseas evacuation programme was rather surprising, since domestic evacuation turned out to be a dismal failure. Less than 50% of parents took advantage of the government’s dispersal policy, which was implemented on the last day of August and the first two days of September in 1939, and 90% of these evacuees were back in the cities by Christmas the same year. Therefore, it seemed rather incongruous that parents were prepared to send their children to the far-flung corners of the Empire while simultaneously refusing to send their children to areas of relative safety in rural Britain. Government ministers, who were naturally disappointed with the failure of their dispersal policy, resolved to go back to the drawing board and initiate further domestic evacuation schemes on an ad hoc basis in the coming months.

Boys heading for the United States on an escort carrier Michael Henderson,

By the spring of 1940, however, the war had taken an unexpected turn. On 12 May Germany invaded France, and Britain’s main ally succumbed rapidly to enemy attack. Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and on 26 May the Dunkirk retreat began. Subsequently, nearly 900 ships, many of them privately owned, brought 338,226 troops safely back to Britain. The combination of the fall of France and the dire plight of the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk prompted fears of an imminent invasion. Suddenly, overseas evacuation seemed not only an attractive proposition but a wholly desirable one in terms of saving the British race. Thus when the Dominions and the United States of America renewed their offers of hospitality, overseas evacuation became, for the first time, a serious option.

The Under Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Geoffrey Shakespeare was given the task of constructing an inter-departmental committee to consider offers made from overseas to house and care for children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, from the European war zone, residing in Great Britain, including those orphaned by war, and to make recommendations thereon .

It was not surprising that, at a time of strict food rationing and substantial material shortages, transporting children overseas was seen as a sensible option, since they could not contribute in any way to the overall war effort. Military personnel also endorsed the notion, albeit with a few reservations. Army chiefs welcomed the idea on the grounds that it would lift military morale if soldiers knew that their children were safely accommodated thousands of miles away from the European conflict. They also stated categorically that if Britain was invaded, children who were left in cities could potentially get in the way of fighting, or perhaps even be taken as prisoners and used as hostages by the enemy. From a military standpoint, therefore, it seemed that an official overseas evacuation plan had received the thumbs up. Only the Admiralty voiced concerns, claiming that it was unable to guarantee safe passage for children once they embarked on their ocean voyages. Admiralty chiefs stated that they were only able to provide Royal Naval ships as escorts for part of the journey, and pointed out that all ocean-bound journeys were fraught with danger. This claim was not pure rhetoric, because at this stage in the war Britain was losing 66 ships a month on average.

While the notion of getting rid of ‘useless mouths’ dominated some official thinking, with the threat of invasion uppermost in politicians’ minds racial preservation also became a key concern. Eugenicist MPs maintained that if Britain actually succumbed to a German invasion these children would be potential saviours, since on reaching adulthood they would join the Dominion armed forces and continue the battle with the enemy and reclaim Britain as their own. Other MPs, including Lady Astor, viewed child sea-vacs in the role of the nation’s ambassadors, who would display exemplary behaviour overseas and tug at the heartstrings of their host countries. In this way such children would rally ongoing support for the British war effort.

Churchill firmly believed that any mass migration of children would damage the nation’s morale, but his views were in the minority. The cross-party political climate had shifted and now favoured some form of official overseas evacuation scheme. Furthermore, the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Geoffrey Shakespeare, had prepared a detailed report that advocated the rapid implementation of overseas evacuation for children. Interestingly, however, Shakespeare chose not to sell his report to the House of Commons on the grounds of the useless mouths argument, nor on eugenically based standpoints or ambassadorial roles. Instead he encouraged politicians to view child sea-vacs in economic terms and as a method of strengthening ties between Britain and her colonies. In many respects he argued that his proposed policy was a mere economic and political trade-off – a golden opportunity that would have borne fruit even if it were not dictated by the circumstances of war. Speaking at Whitehall, Shakespeare stated:

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We are importing into this country the fighting men of the Dominions, and we are exporting back to the Dominions the best of our children, and for this double blessing the Mother country will be forever in the debt of the daughter Dominions… These children will form friendships, contacts and associations in the Dominions and the silken cord which binds the Empire together will be strengthened beyond all power to sever.

There was an underlying assumption in Shakespeare’s speech that Britain’s problems were her own to resolve. Furthermore, the emotive outlining of his policy to MPs was highly influential and appealed in particular to those politicians who were against sending children to the USA.

In setting out his declaration to strengthen ties with the Dominions and provide a new colonial distribution of the British race, Shakespeare had effectively established the policy course for the British government’s subsequent Children’s Overseas Reception Board. CORB, as it became known, was chaired by Geoffrey Shakespeare from the outset, and aimed to increase the availability of overseas evacuation for all children regardless of their social class. As he recorded in his memoirs (Let Candles Be Brought In , 1949):

The Duchess of Atholl
The Duchess of Atholl, one of the many ships that carried sea-vacs across the oceans

Why should the benefits of security in war time be dispensed to a selective few? If Britain was really to be a fortress, would it not be prudent to get rid of the weaker members in the fortress – the old and the young? And if there was now an opportunity of evacuating a large number of children overseas, it was idle to pretend that our war effort would be furthered by retaining them… The only essential condition was that the scheme should be open to all alike, and no one must get the benefit of it solely by wealth.

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