A Marvel of Organisation

The word 'evacuation' has deep resonances within the memories and writings of the Second World War. It was a word that came into prominence in the early years of that war, when plans for the mass mobilisation of women and children were first put forward by the British Government. The government was aware in the early 1930s that the evacuation of its citizens would be a necessary part of any future war and the increase in German air power strengthened this idea. In 1938 a committee was set up under Sir John Anderson to look into the feasibility of an evacuation scheme and it soon reported its findings. The report concluded that such a scheme was necessary but that it should be on a voluntary basis. In 1939 responsibility for evacuation was undertaken by the Ministry of Health and the Board of Education and it was decided that the billeting of evacuees would be the most effective and quickest way of solving the problem. The Civil Defence Bill of July 1939 enabled local authorities to claim from central government for the expenses of evacuation and also gave them compulsory billeting powers.

On 1 September 1939, the first evacuees were moved out of towns and cities across Britain. When war was declared two days later on 3 September, nearly one and half million people had been placed in reception areas around the country. These were mostly schoolchildren and mothers with young children and actual numbers varied from area to area. By early 1940, with none of the expected bombing or gas attacks from Germany, over three quarters of the evacuees had returned to their homes. Further evacuations were made when the Blitz of major cities commenced at the end of 1940 and again in 1944 when the 'doodle-bug' pilot-less planes rained down on Britain, but none of these evacuations were on the scale of the 1939 scheme.

Under the terms of the Government Evacuation Scheme, the City of Portsmouth employed an Evacuation Officer, Mr E J W Davison, to deal with the implementation of evacuation plans. His job was to liaise with teachers at local schools through the Education Committee in order to ensure that the Scheme was carried out effectively. Each School Party was divided into groups of fifty schoolchildren under a Group Leader, then sub-divided into units of ten with an assistant teacher or voluntary helper in charge. Volunteers from the WVS also participated in the evacuation procedures. All teachers and helpers were instructed to wear armbands showing the name 'PORTSMOUTH' and the school number. The children themselves were issued with labels to tie onto their coats and luggage and 'with the obligatory gas mask in a box around their necks.

Portsmouth conducted an extensive rehearsal for its evacuation plans on the afternoon of 27 July 1939 to test its effectiveness in moving large numbers of children. 900 schoolchildren were transported in fourteen Corporation buses from George Street School to the Town Station old goods yard at Greetham Street, ready for embarkation on trains. Further dummy runs were made from other schools at later dates. The real event took place over three days, commencing on 1 September 1939, during which 12,246 of Portsmouth's schoolchildren were sent to a wide selection of reception areas in Hampshire, Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight. The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Alderman Blake, met some of the children at the town's railway station and watched their departure. The evacuation involved over 2000 teachers and helpers, with 80 buses and 20 trains involved in transporting the evacuees. In addition, three ferries formed part of the Special Evacuation Scheme between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. The first batch of children for the Isle of Wight arrived at Clarence Pier at 9 o'clock and Sergeant Wilson, in charge of the policing arrangements at the Pier, escorted the children to the Southern Railway steamers. Total numbers of schoolchildren evacuated were lower than had been anticipated by the authorities, but it was calculated that nearly half the total school population left Portsmouth in the first four days of the evacuation scheme. Just over 4000 schoolchildren and helpers from Portsmouth arrived at Ryde Pier during the first day.

Each evacuated child was given an official paid postcard to send back home when their billeting address was known. In addition, the Portsmouth Evening News printed a special edition showing where the children from each Portsmouth school had been sent, but giving the billeting area only. The continuation of the children's education was arranged through the Director of Education in the receiving areas in liaison with the Portsmouth Education Committee. A large number of the evacuated children were to return to Portsmouth from the receiving areas very quickly, but many more remained in the new homes for the remainder of the war.

Although the Government Evacuation Scheme was organised and successfully executed along the lines of a military operation, the outcome of evacuation policies were not always totally satisfactory for the children concerned. Little attention was paid to either the suitability of host families, nor whether the evacuated child would adapt to their new home. In practice, billeting officers, voluntary workers and teachers were often overworked and under a great deal of pressure, so that decisions made were not always in the best interests of the evacuees and many suffered as a result.

Picture of front cover

Much has been written about the experiences of British evacuees and the impact of evacuation on education, on class relations and on changing attitudes towards housing and welfare reforms. Clearly these are aspects to be considered, but so too are the lived experiences of those children who left their homes and families to spend, sometimes years, with strangers. Many of the memories are sad ones, but some were of happy times, of new environments, new customs and new friendships. Many children left towns and cities to live in rural areas, which they might never have seen but for their wartime evacuation, and went on to learn the ways of the countryside.

George Osborn, an evacuee from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, was one of them.

Dr Ann Day
History Research Centre University of Portsmouth 1999