Compulsory Billeting

In the summer of 1938 the government began to make plans for the evacuation of all children from Britain's large cities. Sir John Anderson, who was placed in charge of the scheme, decided to divide the country into three areas: evacuation (people living in urban districts where heavy bombing raids could be expected); neutral (areas that would neither send nor take evacuees) and reception (rural areas where evacuees would be sent).

Anderson decided that people living in rural areas would be forced to take in these evacuees. Many people complained about this authoritarian measure. One M.P. from a rural district wrote to Anderson saying that "compulsory billeting would be far worse than war."

In towns the billeting officer was usually a local government official. In rural areas he tended to be a volunteer worker who did the job without pay.

The billetor received received 10s. 6d. From the government for taking a child. Another 8s. 6d. per head was paid if the billetor took more than one. For mothers and infants, the billetor provided lodging only at a cost of 5s. Per adult and 3s. Per child. This meant the mother had to arrange the buying and cooking of her own food and this often caused conflict between the billetor and evacuee.

The people who took the children into their homes complained about the state of their health. Research suggests that around half of the evacuated children had fleas or headlice. Others suffered from impetigo and scabies. Billetors were sometimes appalled by the behaviour of the evacuees. It is estimated that about 5 per cent of the evacuees lacked proper toilet training. One billetor reported about how when one six year old boy went to the toilet in the front room his mother shouted: "You dirty thing, messing up the lady's carpet. Go and do it in the corner."

Oliver Lyttelton, who allowed ten children from London to live in his large country house, later complained: "I got a shock. I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves."

Some of the evacuees had never slept in a bed. On the first night of having evacuees, the billetor went to check to see how her child was getting on. At first the billetor thought he had run away but eventually she found him sleeping under the bed. Another child told Susan Issacs, who was writing a report on evacuation, "The country is a funny place. They never tell you you can't have no more to eat, and under the bed is wasted."

Primary Sources

(1) Letter from Bathford Vicarage, Somerset, to the Chislehurst Mother's Union (19th October, 1939)

I am writing ... to thank you for the splendid parcel of clothes which you have sent for the evacuated children in this Village . . . nearly all the money collected in the Village has been exhausted in buying shoes and material for thick coats and dresses which are being made up by experienced volunteers.

You may be able to find out about evacuees going from, or into, your own area: try the local Library for copies of old newspapers, and ask older people what they can remember.

We have now about 50 unaccompanied children between the ages of 6-14 and 14 mothers and little children. The unaccompanied children are those we have had to clothe as many arrived from very poor homes in Poplar (London) with their one set of clothing in rags and shoes in holes

(2) A seventeen year old girl from London recorded her thoughts on evacuation for the Mass-Observation organization.

I was an evacuee for six weeks. The main problem between evacuees and hosts seems to me to be the difficulty of adapting one to the other. A few of the hosts treated their evacuees, mainly girls, as guests, or as they would their own children. But the majority treated the girls as unpaid maids.

A good deal of publicity has been given to the hosts burdened with dirty, verminous evacuees, but none or very little to cases where well brought up, middle class girls and boys have been billeted in poor, dirty homes, where they have little to eat and none of the facilities they are used to. At least half of the 250 girls evacuated with the school are billeted in tiny, dirty houses where they have to do any housework that is done. Being billeted in such houses has a very bad effect on the younger girls of an impressionable age, and they grow slack in their care of their personal cleanliness and manners.

There are a good many clean middle class homes in the area but the owners of these homes have seen to it that they did not have to take in evacuees.

The Government allowance for evacuees is another problem. A great many hosts find it impossible to manage on the Government allowance and they grumble incessantly to their evacuees and demand a supplementary allowance from parents. When the parents explain that this has been forbidden the hosts become extremely disagreeable, nag the evacuees, give them poor food and their meals separate from the rest of the family. I think a great many of the problems of evacuation would be solved if evacuees were found billets roughly corresponding in class to their own homes.

(3) Evelyn Rose was a fourteen year old girl living in London when the war began in 1939. She was interviewed about her experiences for the book, Voices from the Past: The Blitz (1987).

I was fourteen when war was declared. In the interests of safety, it was decided that my sister and I should be evacuated. We went to Chorley Wood which was only 30 miles from London but it was considered to be a safe area. We were billeted with a family in a large house where there were servants. It was not something that we were used to. We were terribly homesick and unhappy and after a few months we went home.

(4) Oliver Lyttelton volunteered to put up ten evacuees in his large country house. He wrote about it in his book, Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1962).

I got a shock. I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves.

(5) Jim Woods was only five years old when the Second World War started. At the time his family lived in Lambeth.

I was eventually evacuated. I remember going to the station and there were literally hundreds of children lined up waiting to go. Everyone had a cardboard box with their gas masks in and a label tied to their coats to identify them if they got lost. We ended up in South Wales.

The first night we slept on the floor of the church hall. The next day my sister and I were allocated to a Mr. And Mrs. Reece. At first it was quite frightening being separated from your mother and not understanding what was going on. However, after a few days we settled down and quite enjoyed being in Wales. After living in London we were now surrounded by countryside. The village was lived in was very small. There were mines close up by and we had great fun exploring the slag heaps.

My sister and I got on very well with Mr. and Mrs. Reece. There were upsets sometimes. On one occasion we decided to go home to London. We followed the railway track. We thought it would take us back to London but after following it for about a mile we discovered it was a railway line used by the local mines.

We were in Wales for about two and a half years. After we went home Mr. Reece came to London and asked my mother if he could adopt us. I did not find out about this until I visited them after the war.

(6) Cynthia Gillett went to school in London during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

We were evacuated twice during the war. The first time was to Edworth, a village in Bedfordshire, where we stayed for eight months. We were billeted in a manor house on a dairy farm. The parlourmaid, who was the one designated to actually look after us, used to beat you for reading in the morning. I can remember getting really severely beaten for reading Anne of Green Gables. She didn't approve of working-class people reading, and anyway morning was for work, not reading. She was a very sadistic woman. I had this younger sister, a funny little girl. I had to look after her all the time, I was always hemmed in. My mother used to say, 'Promise me you'll never leave her.' The parlour-maid didn't want to look after us, so she used to get at me through my sister if I didn't do what she wanted. She used to hold her head under the water, that sort of thing. So one day we ran away; there was a nice lady on the evacuation panel, and I can remember trying to find her in the village. The woman at the manor sent her son after us, so after that he had to follow us on the bus to make sure we went to school.

(7) J. B. Priestley, Postscripts, radio broadcast (21st July, 1940)

We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test...

And I'll give you an instance of how this change should be working. Near where I live is a house with a large garden, that's not being used at all because the owner of it has gone to America. Now, according to the property view, this is all right, and we, who haven't gone to America, must fight to protect this absentee owner's property. But on the community view, this is all wrong. There are hundreds of working men not far from here who urgently need ground for allotments so that they can produce a bit more food. Also, we may soon need more houses for billeting. Therefore, I say, that house and garden ought to be used whether the owner, who's gone to America, likes it or not.

(8) Francis Partridge, diary entry (6th July, 1940)

Mrs. Hill on the telephone again! "I've just heard that twenty refugees are arriving in half an hour. Could you have some more?" Raymond, Burgo and I drove down to the village and waited. Then the bus came lumbering in, and children ran to gape and stare. One very small child thudded alone screeching out "Vacuees! Vacuees!" As soon as they got out it was clear they were neither children nor docksiders, but respectable looking middle-aged women and a few children, who stood like sheep beside the bus looking infinitely pathetic. "Who'll take these?" "How many are you?" "Oh well, I can have these two but no more," and the piteous cry, "But we're together" It was terrible. I felt we were like sharp-nosed housewives haggling over fillets of fish. In the end we swept off two women about my age and a girl of ten, and then fetched the other two members of their party and installed them with Coombs the cowman. Their faces at once began to relax. Far from being terrified Londoners, they had been evacuated against their will from Bexhill, for fear of invasion, leaving snug little houses and "hubbies".