Review - Books - Youth pitches in to see off Mr Hitler

24th June 2011 at 01:00

You Can Help Your Country: English children's work during the Second World War

By Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow

IOE Publications


By Gerald Haigh

I didn't go potato picking during the war because I wasn't allowed to get my knees dirty. Instead, I went with my mother when she volunteered to make camouflage netting and roll bandages. I liked that, though there was no money in it.

All my friends picked potatoes, though, up to their eyebrows in muck, for a tanner an hour. They and thousands of others boosted the nation's potato crop by a million and a half tons. In 1943 alone, the children of 20 schools in the Fylde district of Lancashire picked 2,000 tons of potatoes.

The figures, and the stories and photographs that accompany them, are in this scholarly, readable and moving book from London University's Institute of Education. It draws on interviews, official records, personal accounts, school histories and logbooks. The key message is that the children of the war were important and willing participants in a flat-out national effort, first to survive and then to come out on top.

For teachers particularly, that is an important antidote to what I think of as "the evacuation fixation" - a classroom approach which concentrates on wartime children as bewildered exiles, tagged, labelled and packed off on trains. Of course that was real enough, but it is important that schools should also take this book's view of children empowered, important and appreciated - children like a nine-year-old Brownie "Sixer", who, on the outbreak of war, was called to action by a phone call, "... to collect my Six and report to the school opposite my father's shop". (They were to escort incoming evacuees to their new homes.)

It really was all hands to the pump. Many interviewees talk of pitching in at home when parents were in the services or working in munitions factories. Joan Barraclough, for example, recalls her skill, aged six, at plucking chickens, skinning rabbits and dealing with innards.

"I found the insides of animals very interesting ... We were disappointed when the war ended and my mother cancelled the cow she had on order," she says.

Some knitted for the Navy, others made armament components in their school workshops, or patrolled their schools and communities as "fire watchers". They collected salvage door to door (we call it recycling) and nearly all were involved in competitive National Savings schemes. Older schoolchildren went on harvest camps, which, at their peak, in 1943 and 1944, set a quarter of a million boys and girls to work on the land.

Clearly, for many, it was the greatest of great adventures, a time for pride and real-life achievement. Any child would have been green with envy of the two Malvern College boys who went out with the Home Guard in their holidays and, in the words of the school's history, "helped to bring down a German raider with concentrated rifle fire".

There is much more to the book, though, than the stories, absorbing though they are. What we have here is a full and thoughtful exploration of the sociology of childhood, parenting and schooling before, during and after the war years. We are reminded how, in the late 1930s, there was still one education for the nation's leaders and quite another for the vast majority, who would leave school for work at 14. It is still rather startling to read here that "many onlookers found it difficult to contemplate the idea that perhaps high intelligence was not confined to the upper classes".

The war, a democratising influence in so many ways, played its part in creating a political mood that could haltingly address some of the fundamental inequalities of educational opportunity.

What the authors also point to, though, with an obvious tinge of regret, is what we have lost from that time, what they call, strikingly, "the visibility of young people during the war".

Visibility is exactly right. We really were everywhere then, out and about, easy with adults, in the streets and shops, getting on with what we had to do. Quotations from adults "show that they understood children as rightfully visible, as rightfully active ... making their contribution".

They do not need to underline the irony of corralling children in school and then setting up schemes to teach them about life, work and relationships. Instead, they content themselves with a mildly worded final plea for the rediscovery of what we learnt in those momentous days. "Crucially, we should like to see fuller recognition of children's rights to engage with life beyond the school gates."


Berry Mayall amp; Virginia Morrow

Berry Mayall is professor of childhood studies at London University's Institute of Education. At the time of writing the book, Virginia Morrow, now a senior research officer at the department of international development at Oxford University, was reader in childhood studies at the IoE. Both have published extensively on how children's lives, perceptions and experiences have changed over time.

The verdict: 1010.

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