Gillian Mawson investigates the experience of Guernsey evacuee children in England during the Second World War.
In May 2008 when I discovered that over 17,000 Guernsey evacuees had arrived in England in June 1940, just before the Nazis invaded their island, I was astounded! I knew that the Channel Islands had been occupied during the Second World War, but had no idea that almost half the population had come to mainland Britain. I was equally amazed that the majority had been sent to industrial towns in northern England from which local children had been evacuated just months earlier.
Amongst these 17,000 evacuees, 5,000 Guernsey school children had arrived in England with their teachers. Interviews with the evacuees revealed a surprise – some of their Guernsey schools had been re-established in England for the duration of the war. One school was financially supported by Americans through the Foster Parent Plan for War Children, with Eleanor Roosevelt being one of the sponsors.
Although some Guernsey children were lucky enough to move into empty properties with their teachers in order to remain together, the majority of the children were billeted with local families. Most of the child evacuees interviewed for my book were well cared for by their foster families, and formed bonds which still last to this day. One girl recalled: “It was very overwhelming the day I was introduced to my English foster parents. They had no children of their own but they welcomed me into their home and I spent five happy years with them.” Another evacuee, Winifred De La Mare, still remains in contact with her English ‘foster sister’ and was distraught at the fact that she had to leave her in 1945 to return to her family in Guernsey. In common with many other Guernsey children, she had problems bonding with her family after five years of wartime separation.
However, several Guernsey evacuee children experienced forms of abuse in England. Mary was evacuated at an early age and fostered by a Lancashire couple: “When the mother was out at work, her husband often sat me on his lap and showed me strange books. I later realised they were books about gynaecology. At the time I didn’t understand the books but I knew that something was not right.”
Maurice, was billeted with the Clarke family and made to care for their bedridden grandmother, often missing school in the process. He was also made to eat his meals off newspaper on the floor. His sister Joan was billeted with a family in the same area, and when she visited her brother, she noticed how unhappy he was with the Clarkes. The following day, she told one of the nuns at her Guernsey Catholic school, then tried to see her brother again. Mrs Clarke told Joan that Maurice no longer lived there, advised her to visit the Billeting Officer, and slammed the door in her face. It was discovered that Maurice had been moved to a remand home miles away, and Joan recalls: “The Manager had been told by the billeting officer that Maurice was a difficult child to place and that he had no living relatives! It took us a few weeks to get him out of there – we told the nuns at our school who told the local priest, who appealed to the bishop!
Financial gain sometimes played its part in the fostering of evacuees, and Rosemary Hall and her brother suffered in a Birkenhead billet: “My brother and I stood in a church hall for ages, people wanted me but not my brother. A woman said ‘I will have the little girl’ but she was told ‘They don’t want to be separated.’ The woman said ‘I don’t want two of them.’ The Salvation Army said ‘if you take them both you will get nearly 20 shillings a week to keep them.’ The woman quickly changed her mind and we spent a horrendous four months sleeping on camp beds in her hallway behind the front door. We weren’t allowed in any other part of the house except the hall and the lavatory in the back yard, we were constantly hungry. She clearly took us in to get the regular twenty shillings. After four months, our mum tracked us down. She knocked on the door of the house, saw the state of us, and removed us immediately from the premises without waiting for the woman to come back from the shops. She took us into a little flat that she had found in Bury. We were much happier there.”
Ruth Harrison recalled an unpleasant incident at an evacuee reception centre: “My mum was about to choose a Guernsey evacuee girl to take home with her, and was told by a rather posh WRVS lady, ‘Don’t worry dear, we will find you a decent one!’ My mum was appalled and I will never forget her reply – ‘They are not commodities, Madam, they are children!’
During the Second World War, the separation of children from their parents was viewed more casually than it is today. John Welshman has studied wartime evacuation at length and believes that ‘evacuation would not happen today because changes in the way that child abuse has been exposed mean that children would never be sent away to live with strangers’. John Welshman, Churchill’s Children: The Evacuation Experience in Wartime Britain, (OUP: Oxford, 2010), p. 80.