London children evacuees preparing to leave the capital

Evacuation to Wales

by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea

The invention of the long-range bomber meant that the general fear of war intensified in the 1930s. The government was estimating that up to 600,000 civilians might be killed in the first few months of any conflict.

To avoid the chaos of a mass migration of people from urban centres in the event of war, the government drew up plans for an official evacuation of children to parts of Britain unlikely to be targeted by German bombers. Most of Wales, including the industrial valleys, was designated a 'reception area'.

Even though the bombing of Britain never occurred on the scale that many feared in the 1930s, some 110,000 children were evacuated to Wales over the course of the Second World War. This number included children who were evacuated from Welsh urban areas to Welsh rural areas. Glamorgan received the largest share - some 33,000 children - but there were few villages in rural Wales that didn't welcome evacuees.

Welsh homes were not always pleased with their new charges. There were fears of germs, lice and disease being brought into the Welsh countryside from English slums.

Welsh hospitality

For children brought up in urban slums and sent to rural areas, evacuation could bring many changes for the better. It could mean not having to share a bed, better and more plentiful food, and the joys of open countryside. Many evacuees found themselves in families happy to accept the financial and social burden. Genuine emotional bonds developed and some evacuees even stayed on to live permanently in Wales with their adoptive families. When a trainload of evacuees left Carmarthen for home in 1945, two boys shouted out of the window "Cymru am byth!" ("Wales forever!"). Reporting their departure, the local paper looked proudly at what people had done for the evacuees, not just housing them but caring for them too, and even reforming some of them of their "thieving". It was, said the paper, 'Welsh hospitality at its best'.

But other evacuees found adjustment difficult. In Ferryside, Londoners reputedly refused to leave their bus because the village was too quiet. Nor did small villages offer the freedom to misbehave found in anonymous city streets. Chapel three times on a Sunday was another common complaint among the evacuees. English children often found themselves in Welsh-speaking homes, and sometimes their adoptive families' English was very poor. The trauma of young children being sent away from their parents was compounded by the communication problems of being in a foreign land. One girl from Liverpool found the language frightening and even thought she'd been sent to witches after entering a rural home with a large cauldron on a fire. It was unsurprising that bed-wetting was common.

We didn't mix much with the locals, it was them and us. There was always mud fights and everything.

Fitting in

The recipients were also not always pleased with their new charges. There were fears of germs, lice and disease being brought into the Welsh countryside from English slums. Some children's first taste of Welsh hospitality was a bath in disinfectant, having their heads shaved and their clothes burnt. In Llanrwst locals were so angry at the condition of evacuees that the evacuation co-ordinators feared rioting. It was not just the physical state of children that worried people but their moral condition too. Buckley Urban District Council received complaints that the evacuees were not only 'filthy' but 'not observing the ordinary decencies in the houses' too. Given such situations, some people tried to evade taking evacuees in and local authorities had to enforce evacuees on some people with the room to take them.

In the communities with large numbers of evacuees, the incomers tended to be taught separately from the local children, sometimes in a different building but sometimes in different shifts at the local school. Such arrangements could mean, in the words of one evacuee in Aberystwyth, 'we didn't mix much with the locals, it was them and us. There was always mud fights and everything.' But where evacuees were more scattered there was a direct meeting among children of two different linguistic cultures. In areas that were overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking the evacuees tended to fit in and often learnt Welsh. Elsewhere, where the local linguistic culture was more divided, they helped tip the balance towards English. A 1953 report into the Welsh language noted that after mixing with evacuees, children 'succumbed to the glamour and romance of acquiring the stranger's language'. Saunders Lewis, the former president of Plaid Cymru, spoke for many nationalists when he called evacuation 'one of the most horrible threats to the continuation and to the life of the Welsh nation that has ever been suggested in history'.

Bridging backgrounds

Yet nationalist opposition to evacuation found little support and tens of thousands of people, mostly quite voluntarily, opened their homes to help children who otherwise would literally have been in mortal danger from bombing. Evacuation brought together people from different regional, class and linguistic backgrounds in a way that really had no precedent. It made both English and Welsh people aware of the traditions, standards and way of life of the other and reinforced not just a sense of shared Britishness, but also of the cultural diversity that existed within Britain.

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