The Second World War broke out in 1939. The British government expected the German air force to bomb cities and their factories, and so they began a mass evacuation a few days before the start of the war. Around three million school children from the cities at risk were sent to live with foster families in the safety of the country until the war was over.
One safe place was Oswestry, a small town in Shropshire near the border with Wales. People in the town provided billets (homes) for evacuees (people evacuated) from Birkenhead, part of the city of Liverpool on the north-west coast. At the outbreak of war, about 3,300 children and 900 mothers were sent to Oswestry on special trains from Liverpool.
The children from the city experienced a totally new way of life in the country. For the people in the country, too, having so many outsiders coming into their area was a major event. These sources will show what each side thought of the evacuation.
Preparations for war began in 1938, the year before war broke out. People were given gas masks and plans for evacuation were prepared. The plan for evacuating the children was called Operation Pied Piper. In September 1939, when the evacuation began, the scheme went fairly smoothly.
Householders in the country who billeted (housed) city children were given money by the government. They got 10s. 6d. a week (53p in modern money) for the first child they housed and 8s. 6d. (43p in modern money) for any other evacuees they took in. That doesn’t seem like much, but you could buy a pint of milk for around 4d. (2p in modern money) back then!
The evacuation meant children swapped one life for a completely new life in the country. The 1930s was a period when unemployment was high. Many of the children who came from Merseyside had been living in poverty. Some did not even have the few belongings that they were told to bring with them and some had never taken even a day’s holiday away from the city. The sight of ‘wild’ animals (such as cows or sheep) must have been as astonishing to them as a day at a safari park is to us now. Life for evacuees was not entirely unpleasant. Although most evacuees must have been homesick, some had their mothers with them. In the case of the Oswestry evacuees, up to one mother was evacuated with every three children sent away.
Billeting evacuees was one way people in the country helped on the Home Front and the evacuees got involved in the war effort as well. The children in Oswestry learnt to knit clothes for the armed forces, helped to ‘dig for victory’ by planting vegetables in school playing fields, and manned stalls to collect scrap metal. In summer they helped with the harvest and even gathered acorns to feed the pigs.
The level of this activity is key stage 2. This lesson treats the well-known story of evacuation from the perspectives of:
- how people in the country perceived evacuees, and
- how evacuees perceived the country
The sources on this page show that the atmosphere of evacuation was not entirely negative. Generally, the new life of evacuees was better than it had been in the cities. However, the sources show that the perspectives of evacuees and locals sometimes differed. Although some evacuees like Ellen saw the country in positive terms, others were not so happy with the evacuation.
By contrast, locals (as represented through the local press) were very proud of their role. However, as Source 2 shows, they were not completely altruistic and tried to cherry-pick those children they ‘liked the look of’. Of course, primary evidence from evacuees and from newspapers with an agenda to report the evacuation in positive terms is sometimes slanted.
The lesson could be expanded with a final question asking pupils to do a piece of extended writing, such as writing a letter home or a diary entry describing the first week as an evacuee in Oswestry. Things they might write about include:
- What it was like to be without their family?
- Did other children have their families with them?
- How well were they received by the people of Oswestry?
- Show how life in the country was different to life in the city
The lesson could also be used to teach citizenship issues in relation to ‘Unit 04: Britain – a diverse society?’ The lesson shows how the lives of people living in the town and country were once quite distanced. Today, increased access means people from towns can easily visit the countryside, whilst people from rural areas also experience the cultural and leisure facilities of cities. Thus, although lifestyles in both are still different, the gap between town and country is narrower than it once was.
Find out more about the evacuation and the world wars in Shropshire.