14 February 2017
We review Gillian Mawson's new book, which collects precious accounts of evacuees and the people in the communities that welcomed them during World War II
On 1 September 1939, on the eve of war, more than 1.5 million civilians, mostly children, were evacuated from Britain’s towns and cities to the apparent safety of the countryside, away from Hitler’s bombs; some were taken overseas to Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada. This mass movement of people was an incredible moment in history, followed in May 1940 by more evacuations from the nation’s coastal areas and the departure of 17,000 civilians from the Channel Islands just days before occupation by the Germans.
Gillian Mawson, author of Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War, has widened her scope to record the stories of evacuees from across the UK and Gibraltar; since 2008 she has interviewed hundreds of evacuees and read the testimonies of those who have passed away, and scoured newspaper reports and official documents to piece together this powerful collection of stories.
Many evacuees give positive accounts of caring foster parents who welcomed them with open arms, even if they had little themselves to share, and the tears that were shed when they returned home, often several years later. Some children were shocked at the poor housing they were billeted to – outside toilets took some getting used to when they had inside loos at home – while others found themselves living in mansions complete with servants. A number had more distressing stories of neglect; of parents who didn’t – or couldn’t afford to – take them back or siblings who passed away, leaving them to return home after the war, alone.
These accounts are remarkable and very moving, recalled nearly 80 years later when few parents could even contemplate sending their children away into the arms of strangers. It is an enlightening and valuable read, forming a part of many family histories, recorded for later generations to understand how these experiences shaped their loved ones’ lives and communities.
• ISBN: 9781848324411. RRP £19.99, hardback. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword).
Read Gillian Mawson's guest blog for Family Tree here.