Women and Evacuation in the Second World War
Femininity, Domesticity and Motherhood
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
Hardcover. 233 pages. ISBN 978-1441140685. £85
Reviewed by Pat Thane
King’s College London
Stories of the evacuation of children from bomb-threatened towns in World War 2 are well-known in Britain, though, as Maggie Andrews describes, they can be lurid, stereotyped and unreliable accounts of highly diverse experiences. The most alarming accounts, of course, have always aroused most interest. She seeks to express this diversity and also to focus less on the children- on whom most accounts centre- and more on their mothers, on the women who looked after them as evacuees and the, mostly female, teachers, social workers and volunteers who supported them in various ways and whose lives were often profoundly affected by this activity.
The unprecedented exodus of children from London and other towns and cities began two days before war was declared, having been planned for some years. The British authorities expected the war to open with massive German bombing, causing severe casualties. They wished particularly to protect children from death and injury by bombing because, as in the previous world war, they were anxious to preserve the next generation to replace the expected adult casualties in the war, to safeguard Britain’s future. In fact there was no severe bombing until late 1940. Meanwhile many parents brought their children back home, only to evacuate them again when the ‘Blitz’ finally began.
This suggests how understandably reluctant many parents were to send their children off to unfamiliar places, to live with people unknown to them, for an unpredictable length of time. The initial evacuation came at short notice, with little warning and no notice of where the children were going. They could take few possessions. Ultimately about four million children were evacuated. It was unprecedented in British history. It was supposed to apply to school-age children aged 14, and under. Children under 5 could be evacuated with their mothers, who received some funding for the journey and accommodation. Some whole schools were evacuated. It was not compulsory, though parents came under heavy pressure. Better-off parents could evade the stress and uncertainty by sending their children to relatives or friends outside danger areas in Britain or abroad, sometimes leaving with them. Poorer families could not afford this or were less confident to resist pressure, though many refused to let their children go, or retrieved them as soon as possible. Children, like adults, were killed or injured when the bombs came. People of all ages fled from affected places, crowding safer areas, like Oxford, where colleges gave students’ rooms to refugees and nappies were hung to dry in the quad of Christ Church College, probably for the only time in its long history.
As far as possible Andrews explores the feelings and experiences of mothers of evacuated children and other women involved in evacuation, who housed and cared for evacuees or were their teachers, social workers and volunteer welfare workers. This was not easy because, due to the relative lack of interest of historians and the public in the adults involved in evacuation, little evidence survives, especially, as ever, for poorer parents and foster-parents. Where possible she used personal sources – diaries, letters, memoirs etc. – and the valuable contemporary investigations of the research organisation Mass Observation. But at the heart of the book is evidence collected quite recently in Staffordshire, an evacuation reception area, from oral history interviews, personal documents, newspapers and records of voluntary organisations and other institutions involved in evacuation in the area.
The initial evacuation was not well-organised or adequately funded. Later waves somewhat improved but there were always problems. In areas selected for reception, officials surveyed homes to assess their suitability for receiving children, but they assessed space not the suitability of the householder for the task (difficult though this would have been for inexperienced officials) and their methods led to overcrowding in many receptor homes as well as billeting of children with unsuitable carers. Again, better-off households could evade receiving evacuees by filling their spare space with visitors of their own choosing, or, it was suspected, bribing or gaining favourable treatment from officials of their own class. Caring for evacuees, often with considerable needs, was thus often left to women of limited means and experience.
What followed were long-remembered stories of the shock experienced by some hosts as they encountered, for the first time, children from desperately poor city backgrounds: under-sized, malnourished, poorly clad, with nits in their hair, unaccustomed to polite habits or to fresh vegetables and nourishing food – shocked to encounter cabbage for the first time – and traumatised by the sudden transition from home to a wholly unfamiliar environment. The all-too-common response was bed-wetting – now an expected response to trauma but not understood at the time. Some hosts responded by blaming the mother for neglectful upbringing and such negative criticisms were more often publicised than the more common experience of successful adjustment to the new relationship and recognition that the children and their families were victims of poverty not of culpable neglect. This recognition led to demands for improved state welfare for these blameless children and their families, contributing to the pressures that produced the post-war welfare state. The negative responses gained more publicity in the popular press and lingered longer in popular memory, but were far from universal. Both sets of responses, described in a balanced way by Andrews, have dominated subsequent interpretations of the reception of evacuation.
Andrews focuses upon the impacts upon women who cared for evacuees which, of course, were very diverse. Caring for an additional child, sometimes more than one, increased their emotional labour and their domestic work. Cleaning the sheets and mattress of a bedwetting child was demanding in the days before washing machines were common and rural homes often lacked running water and electricity. Eventually the government provided rubber sheets. Growing children needed clothes and shoes their parents could not always afford, for which the government eventually gave ungenerous grants. Andrews shares the criticism of women’s organisations at the time that the value of the unpaid labour of these women, their important contribution to the war effort, was seriously undervalued by government and society. Andrews sees this as foreshadowing the demands of the post-1960s women’s movement for recognition of the value of domestic labour and ‘wages for housework’, but does not recognise it as continuing similar demands by the inter-war women’s movement, including Eleanor Rathbone’s long campaign for family allowances (partially successful in 1946), designed to provide some payment for this valuable labour .
Sometimes parents and foster parents got on well, co-operating in supporting and providing for children, parents visiting whenever they could, if they could afford the travel and the time off work. Some lasting friendships were formed but there were some severe tensions. Surveys suggested that most placements were successful and children formed good relationships with their foster parents and might be reluctant to leave at the end of the war (another source of stress for parents), though most settled back into now-unfamiliar environments on their return. But sometimes there was conflict and the children moved on to another billet or returned home, sometimes more than once; and there were cases of physical and sexual abuse of evacuees, not mentioned by Andrews
Volunteers, also mostly female, provided advice, support and services to mothers and foster mothers. The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) was established by the government in 1938 to take advantage for the war effort of the experience of voluntary social service of many women of all classes, to provide essential services at low cost. They were very active in arranging evacuation and supervising placements. Longer established organisations, including Women’s Institutes, about which Maggie Andrews has written excellently before(1) and other organisations including the National Council of Women and Mother’s Unions, as Caitriona Beaumont has described,(2) worked with WVS to assist the children, mothers who evacuated with their children and other women involved in evacuation. The WVS developed canteens taking meals to rural schools. They collected second-hand clothing for children and other refugees, organised canteens, social centres, mother and baby clubs, helped women make and repair clothes – essential wartime skills – and to cook with rationed wartime resources.
Evacuation caused much shock because at the time there was limited understanding of the likely impact upon children of sudden parting from their families. As Andrews describes, it created an opportunity for the emerging specialisms of psychology and psychoanalysis to research the evacuees’ experiences and confirm and publicise their theories. The outcome, especially in the work of John Bowlby and David Winnicott was emphasis on the dangers of ‘maternal deprivation’ especially for the social and emotional development of very young children, which became highly influential after the war. Similarly, women activists took advantage, as they had in the First World War, of war conditions, especially concern for children, to promote long-established campaigns, including for more nurseries, better housing and health and welfare provision for mothers and children, contributing to the wider demands for post-war welfare reform and to some wartime improvements including the spread of free school meals.
Andrews argues that evacuation and the problems encountered led to increased vigilance and surveillance of host and parental families and increasing concern with the importance of good mothering within the social services, voluntary and statutory, ‘unparalleled public interference into the private space of the home’, which, she states, women often resented (though she provides little direct evidence of this) and which continued after the war. Such ‘interference’ must certainly have grown in the unusual conditions of evacuation, but Andrews understates the extent of intervention in family life, the advice and direction given to mothers by voluntary and state institutions, since the beginning of the century, quite often recognised by mothers themselves as positive and helpful rather than patronising interference.(3) In this respect, as in others, pre-existing trends were intensified by war conditions rather than created by them.
And both during and after the war the stress of Bowlby and others on mothering as woman’s full-time duty was contested. Andrews quotes Beveridge’s influential report on social insurance of 1942 as representing the dominance of this view in the post-war welfare state, but she overlooks his statement in the report that ‘it should be open to any married women to undertake paid work.’(4) Beveridge was a less determined proponent of woman’s place in the home than is often suggested. As Director of the London School of Economics between the wars he employed married women, including mothers, and paid family allowances. He was committed, like many politicians at the time, to encouraging young women to have and care for children, but this was driven not just by wartime conditions, including evacuation, but, from the 1920s, by concern about the low birth-rate, which had been sinking since the later nineteenth century, and the implications for Britain of a shrinking younger workforce while the population aged. In fact births began to rise during the war, leading on to the post-war ‘baby-boom’, but this was not clear until the 1950s.(5)
Evacuation was one of many wartime changes with complex, good and bad, short-term effects which contributed to further change and some real social and economic improvement after the war. Maggie Andrews provides valuable new insights into the reality of the experience for all the groups involved, especially the women, and its short- and long-term impacts. It is a pity that her publisher has let her down with poor proof-reading. Apart from words and punctuation missing and misplaced, there are unfortunate references to the ‘Chanel’ Isles  and ‘a sense of rye humour’ ; ‘forward’ replaces ‘foreword’ ; ‘exasperated’ three times substitutes for ‘exacerbated’: ‘a situation exasperated by the pubs emptying’ ; ‘problems that could be exasperated' , with another on p.126. This is the second book published by Bloomsbury Academic I have read recently which is marred by such errors. They produce excellent books. It is a pity that they let their authors and readers down with poor production standards.
(2) Beaumont, Caitriona. Housewives and Citizens : Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-64. (Manchester: University Press, 2013 : 137-142).
(3) E.g., see Margaret Llewellyn Davies (ed.), Maternity : Letters from Working Women. (London: 1915; reprinted London: Virago, 1978).
(4) Social Insurance and Allied Services. Report by Sir William Beveridge (London: HMSO, 1942), §111, p. 50.
(5) Thane, Pat. ‘The debate on the declining birth-rate in Britain : The “menace” of an ageing population, 1920s-1950s’. Continuity and Change 5/2 (1990) : 283-305.
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