During the Second World War, children and those at risk were taken to places of safety to protect them from bombs and war damage. Often when we think of evacuation we think of people evacuated from London to the countryside. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Some children were evacuated to other British Dominions (countries that were part of the British Empire) such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
In this exercise you will find out what happened to a number of children who were evacuated to Canada. Your task is to use primary source evidence to see how much care was taken over these children. Britain was at war, so were the children just put on a ship and sent to Canada, or were their cases carefully looked after? Once they were there, were they abandoned, or were they monitored? How much care was taken? Examine the official government documents and records to find out.
Soon after Hitler came to power, Britain secretly made plans for evacuation – moving infants, schoolchildren and some adults to the countryside. In September 1939, several days before war was officially declared, the plan was put into action. Many evacuees returned home by early 1940 as the expected heavy air raids hadn’t taken place. With the Blitz later that same year, evacuation hurriedly begun again.
The original plans were just to evacuate people to places of safety in Britain, not overseas. As the Second World War progressed and an invasion of Britain became increasing likely, offers from British dominions and other countries were taken seriously. Many felt it would a sensible option, meaning children and others could be kept safe, far away from the war whilst also reducing the demand for limited food and resources in Britain.
Evacuation overseas began on a small scale and those featured in this lesson are examples of children send to Canada. The number of evacuees sent overseas was never to reach huge proportions though. Passenger ships that had been used to transport evacuees were soon needed for more important duties, such as movement of troops and prisoners. Once this began, any remaining passenger ships that could be used for evacuation became an even more obvious target for German U-boats.
In August 1940 the SS Volendam, carrying British children, was torpedoed, but thankfully all passengers were rescued. In September 1940, the SS City of Benares travelling from Liverpool to Canada was sunk with the loss of 77 children and over 200 adults. The British government immediately stopped the overseas evacuation scheme.
In total some 3,000 children were evacuated under the government scheme, with around 10,000 evacuated privately. This was a small proportion when compared with those evacuated within Britain. Nevertheless, as this lesson illustrates, the part played by British dominions in offering a place of safety and security for those in danger during the Second World War should not be overlooked.
This lesson asks pupils to develop their understanding of evacuation beyond the basic ‘sent from London to the countryside’. Through primary source analysis it examines the fate of evacuees sent to Canada. Pupils investigate the organisation and bureaucracy behind evacuation, before looking at details of individual evacuees. From this, pupils may then develop their knowledge and understanding of evacuation in general – why did Britain take so much trouble and care when the war was on? This lesson helps pupils understand the differing experiences of evacuation as well as developing their ability to use source evidence to question and challenge existing beliefs.
It is worth making note that although the record for George Parr shows he was attending a school for the blind, this was only as a temporary placement when he reached Canada, and none of the Parr children had any problems with their sight.
This lesson can form part of studies for key stage 1 and 2 Scheme of Work Unit 9 and key stage 3 Scheme of Work Unit 18.
Image : Photograph of Betty, George and Doris Parr at their ‘foster home’ in Canada – DO 131/47
Source 1 and 2 : excerpt from a radio address given by Dr R.C. Wallace (chairman of the National Committee for Children from Overseas) on 3 November 1940 – DO 131/45
Source 3 : History and record of George Parr from the Department of the Public Health Nova Scotia (Canada), 9 August 1940 – DO 131/47
Source 4 : Official memo relating to the placement of the Parr children – DO 131/47
Source 5 : excerpt from a letter from Mr Blois (Director of the Department of Public Health Nova Scotia) to Mr Reagh (George’s foster father) – DO 131/47
Sources 6 – 9 : letter from the Office of High Commissioner for the UK, Ottawa, Canada to the Director General of C.O.R.B., London, 23 September 1940 – DO 131/45
Children and the Second World War
An online resource with information and first-hand accounts of the lives of children and their evacuation during World War II.
Information about the North Shields Air Raid in 1941, including personal stories and photographs.