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Did the Blitz conceal another evil?

PUBLISHED: 08:36 06 April 2018

The London Blitz: It was to escape wartime bombing like this that millions of children were evacuated to the countryside. Picture: PA

The London Blitz: It was to escape wartime bombing like this that millions of children were evacuated to the countryside. Picture: PA

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Does the story of Britain’s wartime evacuee programme conceal a darker side, asks Nick Conrad.

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ethel, who was evacuated to Norfolk during the Second World War. Her fascinating story has remained with me since. Hers is a simple tale of relocation, a new caring home and an appreciation for Norfolk which has lasted to this day.

She was moved away from her family in Blitz-hit Camberwell. A middle-aged widow cared for the four children in a large house. Sadly, Ethel’s memory of names, details, geography and dates have faded, she confessed that the whole experience was ‘murky’ and hard to recollect. Ethel’s mother survived the Blitz, though neighbouring properties were hit. Ethel’s story is similar to that of many youngsters relocated in the 1940s.

However, when I asked whether this was a ‘happy time’ she stressed that though children were moved away from danger, many youngsters were thrown into another explosive situation.

One of the unacknowledged aspects of the war was the level of apparent child abuse suffered by evacuees. Though she was at pain to stress she was never a victim, she had heard stories from other evacuees once the children had returned to the capital. Physical, mental and sexual abuse were ‘commonplace’ for evacuees, especially those who were teenagers. We shouldn’t lose perspective - by-and-large evacuees were treated well. Nevertheless, abuse happened.

This isn’t surprising at all - but it is saddening. I’ve often thought of the poor parents, wracked by guilt and sorrow at waving goodbye, blindly trusting that the ‘system’ would look after their children. Having sent their little ones to unknown families, parents had to trust that they would be cared for with kindness.

Their parental anguish must have been unthinkable. In an age before emails, mobile phones and texts, parents would rely on the post to inform them of where their children were. Visits were short and limited. Undoubtedly the movement of youngsters away from where Hitler’s bombs were falling saved lives, but if Ethel’s account was correct, evacuation sadly was extremely traumatic for some youngsters.

Many of the homes ‘commandeered’ for the fleeing children weren’t warm sanctuaries. Sadly, some carers didn’t provide a home away from home. Instead, adults resentful at their new-found responsibility could be cruel and neglectful.

So... is it time to explode the myth that all children evacuated from the blitz were well treated? The evacuees are often portrayed as gleefully escaping both danger and urban squalor, to spend the war gambolling gaily across hill and dale, breathing fresh air and eating the fruits of the land. The nightly drone of overhead enemy aircraft and whistling bombs had been replaced by a delightful peace in the countryside. There are many reasons why this narrative was prominent. One, because for many this was truthful. Two, the government needed parents to be compliant. Three, 1940s society didn’t openly discuss or acknowledge abuse. Children often weren’t believed.

I quizzed Ethel as to her meaning of ‘abuse’. For me this is imperative - was she judging historic behaviour by modern-day standards? Though deplorable, we have to accept that what we now deem to be abusive was previously seen as acceptable. Attitudes have changed - thank goodness. Ethel accepts that the cane and smacking were commonplace and socially acceptable, however she stressed there was a level of abuse in some evacuees’ houses which would have been deemed illegal.

What Ethel wants is a more accurate record of that period in our national story. She thinks Britain should be more honest about the trauma of the movement of children during the war.

James Roffey agrees. The founder of the Evacuees’ Reunion Association recently claimed that “for years the whole evacuation story has been surrounded by myths”. If somebody said to any parent today, ‘We’re going to evacuate your children; we can’t tell you where they’re going, we can’t tell you who they’ll be living with and we don’t know when they’ll be coming home again,’ how many people would say yes to that?”

The sky was raining bombs and their children’s safety was their foremost concern, however loving parents would have been horrified by some of the accusations. It’s impossible now to ascertain the level of abuse, and whether it did increase with the stresses of war.

More than 3.5 million people, mainly children, were evacuated to the safety of the countryside from their bomb-threatened cities. I suspect the number of children targeted and abused in their new homes was minimal. However, their accounts should be told. The problem is that so few actually spoke out. Whether this is because the problem wasn’t as widespread as some would have you believe, or the culture towards reporting abuse is unknown.

Typical of her generation, Ethel refused my offer of an interview but asked that I relay her experiences to a wider audience. She was pleased when I told her I’d written her account in the local paper.

I’ve changed Ethel’s name to protect her identity and stress that the accusation is hers to make. My job is to report it.

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