September 1939. Britain was at war with Germany. I was nearly three and, with thousands of other young children and young mothers, I had been taken to Ilford station for evacuation to Ipswich.
So wrote Bob Holman in 1995 when recalling his personal memories of his childhood. Like many others whose childhood happened to coincide with the Second World War he was caught up in a nation-wide exercise to move children, mothers and pregnant women from the danger zones in towns and cities, with their risk of bombing, to safer areas in the British countryside. This enforced migration of children and young people from urban to rural areas was called the evacuation. It was a policy that had a profound effect on the children and families involved, but it also helped change the nature of the personal social services in post-war Britain, and contributed to the setting up of what became known as the welfare state.
Millions of people were caught up in the exercise – not only the evacuees (as they were called) who were on the move, but also the host families who took them in, the billeting officers who placed them and the voluntary visitors who visited them. Some young children, like Bob Holman, were evacuated with their mothers but many older children were sent away from home in school groups and parties - unaccompanied by either parent. The selection process was like a cattle market where children waited to be picked out (or not) by local women:
As one of those who suffered the humiliation of waiting to be picked, I know that is something I will never ever forget. With many of the children who were left unchosen, it seemed there was nothing to do but gather them up and begin a walk from door to door. The strange sad lines were a common sight as the billeting officers or teachers tried their best to find someone willing to take them in, if just for the night.
(from B. Wicks: No Time to Wave Goodbye, 1988)
Personal loss and separation, as experienced here, and by countless other young evacuees, had a profound effect on the children directly concerned and those who bore witness to their plight. Because it involved migration on a mass scale, evacuation brought the needs of children into the forefront. While most attention was focused on those separated from their families, there was also a raising awareness of the needs of disadvantaged, deprived or poor children. All this helped raise public awareness of the grim conditions in which many children lived and had the effect of stretching and bending the old class system in a way that no previous war had ever done. It threw people together, and forced one half of the country to see "how the other half lived".
Although it was a contingency policy, brought about by the necessities of war, evacuation brought in its wake widespread changes which directly and indirectly led to the setting up of the welfare state in the 1940s.