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Liverpool Blitz: Evacuation

Around 130,000 people were evacuated from Merseyside during the war. Most came from around areas Germany was expected to target, like the docks and oil storage sites.

The people evacuated were:

  • schoolchildren who were usually evacuated with their school
  • younger children who often went with their mothers
  • pregnant women
  • disabled adults

Evacuees gather on the station platform
Evacuees gather on the station platform. September 1939
(larger version, opens new window)

Evacuations began on 1 September 1939, just before war was declared. When the expected bombs didn't arrive many children returned home, but once France fell, and German planes could easily reach the British coast, the evacuations began again.

Many Merseyside evacuees went to homes and camps in North Wales (some also went to parts of Cheshire and Lancashire). Wales was a good option because:

  • Wales is mountainous and is difficult to attack by plane
  • there were no large cities to target
  • there were no large docks or oil refineries to attack

However Wales also had problems:

  • there was a lot of unemployment and no cash to look after children
  • there was a lack of housing and school places for the new arrivals
  • many people spoke only Welsh so there was a language barrier
  • some Welsh people thought the English children threatened their language and culture

The Government had to encourage Welsh people to accept the English children for an unknown length of time. Merseyside people had to be persuaded to let their children go to strangers many miles away. Newsreel reports showing bombs and gas attacks in Spanish cities helped persuade many parents, as did information from schools, loud hailers, churches and newspapers. Understandably some parents did not want to let their children go so they stayed in the city.

Listen to Marie Hain talks about her mother's decision not to evacuate her children (transcript below)

Children were told to bring their belongings to their departure point in a pillowcase - many came from poor families so had very little. Each child was sent with a brown paper bag containing things like corned beef, evaporated milk, biscuits, fruit and chocolate, their gas masks and a label showing their code, party number, name, home address and school.

Many children were terrified, others saw it as an adventure or a holiday, and some were just excited to be going on a steam train. Some children did not realise what was happening to them - they thought they were going on a day trip to the country. Even some parents were unaware, only realising what was happening when their children didn't come home from school.

As children arrived at their destination they were chosen by their billeters, often based on how they looked, how strong they were, how many were in their family etc. Some children were not selected at all so were dragged around homes as organisers tried to find them places. Others were split from family members. This was all very upsetting.

Some billeters were shocked when instead of a small child they received a mother and her child. These women and children were among the first to go home. The women found it harder to adapt to the cultural and social differences than children, and often clashed with billeters over shared living spaces.

Colomendy CampIn the swimming pool
Colomendy Camp in North Wales provided shelter for many children from Merseyside. Here you can see the chalets and swimming pool.

Not everyone went to homes. Colomendy near Mold in North Wales was one of 36 camps built from 1939 onwards to house evacuated children. They were close to the cities yet far enough away to be safe. The first evacuees to visit were from the Dingle area of Liverpool, who were threatened by the possible bombing of the local oil storage depot. The children slept in dormitories, with 29 bunk beds in each. It was thought that the fresh air, exercise and fresh food at such camps would benefit malnourished city children.

Hear Emily Banks talks about her children's evacuation at the outbreak of war while she lay in hospital (transcript below)

During their time away from home most evacuated children were homesick at some point but were very well looked after in their new homes, and cared for as part of the family. Many children kept in touch with their foster parents once they returned home. However there were also problems:

  • billeters were shocked at the state of some children who had come from very poor areas. Some were dressed in rags, infested with lice and unable to use a knife and fork. Others brought diseases with them including impetigo, diphtheria and scabies
     
  • some children weren't wanted and had a miserable time; they were fed poor food, made to live outside and forced to work long hours. Some were physically, mentally and sexually abused
     
  • parents at home, usually mothers, missed their children terribly. They also had to deal with bombings, rationing and the absence or death of their men, as well as pay what they could for their children's upkeep. Parents could visit their children but were encouraged not too go too often as this could upset and unsettle the children

Many children lived away from Merseyside for several years. In that time they had grown a lot and some reunited families were practically strangers. Many children returned to Merseyside able to speak Welsh fluently - some had forgotten almost all the English they knew. Some children did not want to go back home at all, and in some cases returned to Wales permanently, either adopted by their billeters or because they were legally adults.

Merseyside didn't just evacuate children. Later in the war (1944) around 3000 evacuees arrived on Merseyside, fleeing the V-bomb threat to London.

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To find out more about evacuation from Merseyside take a look at: A Welcome in the Hillside? The Merseyside & North Wales Experience of Evacuation: 1939-1945 by Jill Wallis, 2000, Avid Publications, Wallasey or Colomendy - The schools that were different by A.D.Hammersley 1994, Hammstir Publishing, Ormskirk.

 

Audio

audio

Marie Hain talks about her mother's decision not to evacuate her children.
(windows media | mp3 | read transcript)

Emily Banks talks about her children's evacuation at the outbreak of war while she lay in hospital.
(windows media | mp3 | read transcript)

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