In September 1938, the first plans were made to evacuate children, nursing mothers and the disabled from vulnerable areas such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham. The country was divided into ‘evacuation’, ‘neutral’ and ‘reception’ areas. Rural areas like Dorking, Woking and Guildford were designated ‘reception’ areas and groups such as the Women’s Institute and the WVS, began to survey likely billets for the expected hordes of frightened and tired evacuees.
The government anticipated that nearly 5 million school children would be evacuated. In the event, less than half of London’s children left under the government scheme in September 1939. Some families made private arrangements while others simply stayed at home, rejoicing in the fact that there was no school.
As Christmas approached and no bombs fell, many evacuees returned to the cities. This retreat was caused in many cases by homesickness and poverty – parents missed their children but could not afford to visit, send clothes, or even, after the rates went up, post letters.
Evacuation didn’t just affect children. By September 1939, some 3,500,000 to 3,750,000 people had moved from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘safe’ areas including staff of government offices and city businesses. An outpost of the Ministry of Supply’s Department of Home Grown Timber was based in Chobham Road, Woking, and Cornhill Insurance moved its head office to Shalford.
For evacuees and their teachers, maintaining a school routine in a strange place was very hard. In Woking, pupils evacuated from three London schools met for classes in St John’s Church Hall, the scout hut and even a private home.
On 2 September 1939, Daphne and her younger sister Peg were evacuated from Nunhead, south east London to Redhill:
‘I have very little memory of the journey except that none of us had any idea of our destination… We arrived at Redhill Station in early afternoon. I had never heard of Redhill and had no idea of what a little distance I had travelled.
‘Then I remembered being in a large hall where all of us children were given a carrier bag with biscuits, a whole 1/2 lb of milk chocolate and I think some corned beef. I think these must have been intended as emergency rations!
‘Next I remember being at the end of a road when the billeting officer went along the street knocking at doors in an effort to place us. Finally Peg and I were accepted by a family who had two children…’
‘What I remember so much about evacuation was how each of our hosts said things like “How could your mother let you go? I’d never let my children go without me”. I was made to think I wasn’t loved enough. I knew very well this wasn’t true and think that lots of London mothers didn’t have much choice. Education was a most important thing in our family and no one considered I shouldn’t carry on at school because there was a war on.’
Mrs Daphne Page (nee Isom) of Nunhead, London