The billet troop;Book of the week

8th January 1999 at 00:00
I'LL TAKE THAT ONE: Dispelling the Myths of Civilian Evacuation 1939-45. By Martin Parsons. Beckett Karlson. pound;16.99.

In 1939, three million children were evacuated to rural Britain. Nina Bawden (right) was one of them. Sixty years later, a comprehensive new account of Operation Pied Piper has brought the memories flooding back.

Along with three million other children, I was evacuated with my school in September 1939. Operation Pied Piper, as it was called, was the greatest movement of people ever known in Britain. Those children who took part will be in their sixties and seventies now, and for every one of us it will have been a different experience, on a line stretching from exciting adventure to nightmare of unhappiness.

What I didn't know until I read Martin Parsons's splendid and comprehensive account of the evacuation is that planning for it began as early as 1931 when a sub-committee of the Imperial Defence Committee was set up to create an orderly departure from the cities in the event of war. In 1938 the Anderson Commission under Sir John Anderson (he of the Anderson Shelter) set about organising transport billets in what were thought to be safer parts of the country.

Parsons supplies fascinating details of those early deliberations. It was considered at first, for example, that what was defined as the "Lower Middle Class house" (attracting a rateable value of pound;12 to pound;15 per annum, and having six rooms) could be expected to take an extra 10 to 12 people as evacuees. These figures were amended to one person to each habitable room, and just as well, too: the responses of people in most reception areas were not as enthusiastic as the Government had touchingly hoped.

The organising secretary of the Welsh Nationalist Party complained that the transfer of English people into Wales would place the Welsh language in jeopardy. "If England cannot make its emergency plans without imperilling the life of our little nation, let England renounce war and grant us self-government," he wrote.

The poor were readier to accept evacuees than the rich. This could not have been for financial reasons - the Government paid ten shillings and sixpence a week for the first child, eight shillings and sixpence for the next. It was simply that the poor, in this national emergency, were more generous than the middle classes. The "bridge-playing set who live at places such as Chorley Wood", Parsons reports, avoided taking evacuees when they could.

Apocryphal warnings about lice-ridden children from the slums were popular excuses; "London mothers" were considered to have different expectations from decent housewives in polite rural areas (that is, they drank!) and, as for pregnant women, one Weymouth councillor fulminated on the lines of an "enjoyed conception in London leading to an expensive confinement in Dorset".

The Women's Voluntary Service reported that "the servant problem in the large houses is so acute that it would be unfair to billet children on the owners". (I had two "middle-class" billets. One asked my much poorer mother for extra money to supplement the government allowance, something that the kindly miners and their wives with whom I lived in South Wales never hinted at.) Obviously there were problems that arose from social differences: slum children who lacked what one of my foster mothers called "the little niceties of life" were dumped on families who couldn't cope with them, and children from prosperous homes were placed in rural cottages without indoor sanitation. And there were some tragedies that went beyond misunderstanding or ill-treatment: children abandoned by their parents, and, in one terrible case, dying of hunger on a farm in Shropshire.

Teachers, of course, found themselves with extra work outside their schools - seeing that their pupils were happy in their billets, arranging for occupation and amusements in the evenings for the older children, and in general doing a certain amount of what would now be thought to be "social work" but then was simply regarded as normal pastoral care.

There were difficulties of accommodation; our school, for example, used the local grammar school either in the mornings or the afternoons, and the rest of the time had lessons in various chapels scattered round the town. This was not an option for schools with younger children who needed to be escorted, and Parsons includes some grim accounts of inadequate classrooms without books or paper.

As he points out in his sensible conclusion, it is impossible to get a tidy picture of what happened during the evacuation. All one can be sure of is that many children survived who would otherwise have perished. But the emotional factor - the effect on those children who spent their most impressionable years with strangers - will be with them until they die.

I was happy on the whole; most of the time I had my best friend with me, which made all kinds of discomfort tolerable. But it was 30 years after the war before I was able to write about it for children the age I had been then.

Nina Bawden's 1976 novel for children, 'Carrie's War' (Puffin pound;5.99) was inspired by her experiences as an evacuee. Her latest children's novel is 'Off the Road' (Hamish Hamilton pound;10.99)

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