I have always been fascinated by the experiences of evacuees, those children of the Second World War who were sent from their city homes to more rural locations away from the threat of the Blitz. Photographs of the time show them clustered on railway stations, clutching gas masks, small suitcases, teddy-bears. Some beam cheerfully at the camera, for there must have been a sense of adventure as they headed towards a new world and a new life. Others force a brave smile trying to cover their anxiety and apprehension. A few are blank faced, already uprooted and bewildered. Older siblings keep a determined hold on smaller brothers and sisters, the latter too young even to read the identifying labels around their necks. And several cannot hold back the tears.
National and local archives document the evacuations, and they are brought to life in the many personal reminiscences which have been recorded.* Their stories tell of children who led two lives: for the luckiest ones a sunny, bucolic interlude followed by a happy return home, and the bonus of two loving families forever after; for others a traumatic and heartbreaking time away from the warmth and security of parents and familiar environment; and for a third and perhaps the saddest group an interval of intense happiness and expanding horizons before returning to cold, indifferent parents.
Strikingly apparent from many of the accounts are the very deep class divisions which severed Britain in the 1940s. In an early teaching post, I learned more of this from two older colleagues who had been evacuees. Ron, from a working-class background in south London, found himself with a prosperous family in Kent who treated him kindly, but lost in an alien world he was desperately homesick and twice ran away, determined to walk home. After the second attempt his mother decided he was better off risking the bombs with his parents than facing further distress and misery alone. This proved a wise decision, not least because Kent was soon redefined from a Reception to an Evacuation Zone due to the threat of invasion.
Mike by contrast left his very middle-class London home for a working-class village in Scotland where he felt isolated in a hostile environment, looked upon with suspicion and resentment. His one consolation was the semi-friendly rivalry he developed with the only other high achiever in the village school. Some years later, when he was about to begin his studies at Cambridge, he heard that his former school mate was about to enter a Borstal. “There but fortune,” he reflected wryly.
One of the most pitiful stories of evacuees comes from Gunwalloe on the Lizard Peninsula, one of the oldest settlements in Cornwall. The Lizard coast is magnificent: when the sun shines the sea caresses auriferous shores, and in winter the austere beauty of the granite cliffs competes with the grey lowering skies, and the waves pound contemptuously on the rocks.
Gunwalloe must have seemed a paradise to imaginative, adventurous evacuees, a story book location with deserted beaches, cliffs to climb, rock pools, a history of smuggling and shipwrecks, and swimming in summer.
But those beaches deemed suitable for amphibious landings by enemy tanks and troops had been mined.
Ronald Munting, an evacuee from London, and his friend Harry Dale, a local lad, both aged twelve, were killed by an unmarked landmine on one of those beaches.
The medieval church of Saint Winwaloe crouches at Church Cove surrounded by its graveyard, and there two pitiful graves bear stark testimony:
In Fondest Memory of
Beloved son of
Henry Cyril and Caroline Dale
Accidentally killed in a minefield
July 23, 1944, aged 12 years.
Died 26 July 1944 aged 12 years.
Evacuated from Hornsey Rise N.19
Came to Cornwall. Was killed with his
Friend Harry Dale by an unmarked landmine
At Gunwalloe Fishing Cove. His parents
Were also killed in the London Blitz.
Faced with the brutal irony of a child sent, surely after much heart-searching by sad and anxious parents, from home to a “safe place,” only to meet with a tragic death, it is almost a relief to realise that his parents predeceased him and that had he remained in London he too would probably have been a victim of the Blitz. For even today for all the surrounding beauty a deep melancholy hangs over the churchyard at Gunwalloe.
The evacuation has also spawned a wealth of literature, not least the children’s books, chief among them Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, herself an evacuee, and Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mister Tom.
An exhibition at Portsmouth Dockyard in 2016 marked the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War, was a multimedia presentation chronicling the only major sea battle of World War I. On 31 May – 1 June 1916 British and German dreadnoughts blazed at each other, through the poor visibility generated by mist, cloud, a dark evening sky, and an increasing volume of smoke from burning ships caught by gunfire. But while the exhibition captured the terrifying noise of constant bombardment, and the confusion and horror of intense shellfire, the claim that this battle won the war rang hollow.
Jutland was an indecisive disaster for both navies despite both claiming a victory: the German fleet retreated, but Britain lost more ships and twice as many men, the German dead numbering 2,551 and the British 6,097. The faith which both Britain and Germany had placed in their navies, building up immoderate numbers of battleships, proved unfounded.
Britain had been confident of victory over the numerically inferior German fleet. The huge losses suffered by her “invincible navy” led to so much criticism of the naval leadership that the Admiralty considered censoring and delaying the official report on the battle.
Moreover, when Kitchener, the then popular Secretary of State for War, drowned five days later when a German mine struck the ship on which he was travelling, and when losses on the Somme numbered 19,000 on the first day of the battle on 1 July, there was a clear need to staunch declining morale in Britain.
Jack Cornwell was fifteen years old when he enlisted in the navy in 1915. He was trained as a gun sight-setter and assigned to HMS Chester which took part in the Battle of Jutland. The ship received seventeen direct hits in the battle. Many of the gun’s crew were killed instantly and others were mortally wounded. The Chester retired from the action and reached relative safety. Medical assistants sent on board found Cornwell, severely wounded with shrapnel and shards of steel penetrating his chest, standing in the shattered gun mounting. He died in Grimsby hospital two days later and was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother arranged for his exhumation and reburial near their home in Manor Park Cemetery, East London. It was another pauper’s grave.
Two months later however, on 29 July, Jack Cornwell was exhumed again and reburied with full military honours; it was the largest public event which took place during the war. Crowds lining the streets witnessed the coffin born on a gun carriage, with a naval band, boys from Jack’s old school and others from the Chester marching behind it. The local MP, Bishop and Mayor accompanied the coffin, a bugler sounded the last post, and shots were fired over the grave.
When the official report of the Battle of Jutland had been published in early July it had included an account from the commanding officer of the Chester which described Cornwell standing alone at his post awaiting orders until the end of the action. Writers on The Daily Sketch had uncovered the reference and turned it into a front-page story with a photograph of Cornwell’s brother George dressed in a naval uniform. With other journalists they fomented public pressure for recognition of Jack’s bravery, criticising the navy for allowing a hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave.
After the military funeral, the Admiralty awoke to the possibility of boosting public confidence in the war, and providing the navy with some face-saving publicity after the disaster of Jutland, by awarding Jack a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 15 September Jack Cornwell became the third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded for a conspicuous act of bravery. The citation read: “mortally wounded early in the action… Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was sixteen and a half years.”
The court painter, Frank Salisbury, portrayed Jack standing at his post by the gun, and prints were distributed to schools accompanied by booklets entitled “Faithful Unto Death” which used his death to encourage concepts of duty and sacrifice. Six days after the award of the VC schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day. A Cornwell Memorial Fund was established, and fund-raising badges were sold to children for 1d each raising £18,000 to finance a ward for disabled sailors at the newly established Star and Garter Home in Richmond. Patriotic propaganda wielded the emotive story of obedience, courage, selflessness, and honourable conduct to boost flagging resolve.
In truth it is hard to imagine that the poor boy could have done other than to remain at his post. On the deck of a severely damaged ship, surrounded by the dead and dying, himself seriously injured, possibly traumatised, frightened, and shell shocked, where could he go? Probably no more or less brave than any other sailor, the strongest impression his story leaves is that a child of sixteen should not have been involved in the fighting at all, and that his memory was cynically exploited in the interests of war time propaganda, to deflect criticism of the conduct of the Battle of Jutland and to revitalize dedication to the war effort.
From 1915 onwards stone memorials had begun to appear commemorating the war dead and serving to promote military recruitment. London’s first memorial appeared on 4 August 1916 in the churchyard of St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate bearing the names of both Kitchener and Cornwell. A Pathe News of the time shows the Lord Mayor unveiling the cross and linking the popular ageing commander with the working-class boy hero as he reminds the assembled crowd that the cross drew together “the statesman-warrior”… and “a young, innocent and humble origined (sic) lad…cutting across all divisions of class and educational background in their sacrifice to a common cause.”
The first World War One Memorial Cross to appear in London. St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
Jack Cornwell is specifically remembered on the plinth,
as is Kitchener.
In 1920 pupils and former pupils of schools in East Ham placed a stone marker bearing a cross and an anchor on what had become the Cornwell family grave. With Jack were his half-brother Arthur Frederick, killed in action in France in August 1918; his father who died in October 1916; and his mother who died in poverty in 1919.
Grave of John Travers (Jack) Cornwell, Manor Park Cemetery, East London
The grave carries a quotation from Ovid:
It is not wealth or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble
disposition that maketh men great.
The Ballad of Jack Cornwell by Charles Causley carries a less sententious and more poignant message. Here are two extracts:
Last week I watched Dramakarma’s production of Two Thousand Days at the Merlin Theatre. Dramakarma is a community-based project in Frome providing drama classes for young people and staging performances based on historical events in the town.
Two Thousand Days told the story of the evacuation of The Coopers’ Company’s School from Bow, in East London, to Frome in Somerset, where the school remained for the duration of World War Two.
On 3rd September 1939 Britain and France had declared war on Nazi Germany; two days earlier Operation Pied Piper had been instigated. This undertaking, named ironically, if not inappropriately, after the menacing German folk tale, aimed to remove schoolchildren, and mothers with infants, from urban locations, where there was a high risk of enemy bombing, to safer rural areas. During the first three days of the operation one and a half million people were moved, of whom 827,000 were school age children.
The government had decided to billet the evacuees in private homes rather than special camps. The hosts in reception areas were paid a weekly allowance but fined if they refused to take evacuees. The billeters, as they were known, were identified by the space available in their homes rather than by their suitability to care for children. Unsurprisingly, while some hosts were kind and welcoming, others were resentful. For some children, the experience was an adventure leaving them with fond memories of their surrogate parents with whom they retained contact. Others were miserable, homesick, and treated with indifference.
The Coopers’ Company’s School, founded in 1536, had remained in London even during the Great Plague, but on 1st September 1939 their pupils gathered at the school, each carrying one small suitcase, an overcoat, and a gas mask. Like all evacuees they marched to the local railway station and boarded trains to an unknown destination. Only after they had arrived was the school telegraphed and a notice pinned up telling parents where their children were.
Things did not always run smoothly, and the pupils, who were supposed to have been evacuated to Taunton, somehow found themselves in the Wiltshire hamlet of Ramsbury where the residents, expecting a small number of women and babies, were faced instead with over 380 schoolboys. The cots which the villagers had decorated with pink and blue ribbons were superfluous to requirements.
After three weeks, during which they were accommodated in barns in Ramsbury and surrounding villages, the school moved to the market town of Frome. Occupying buildings previously used by Frome Grammar School which had moved to new premises, The Coopers continued in Frome for 2000 days, until 19 July 1945.
Dramakarma adapted the memoirs of pupils,* and the effervescent cast of 13- 18-year-olds brought them to life. The memories were not always happy ones, and we witnessed the agony of children waiting in the community hall to be “picked” by the billeters, then facing callous treatment: locked out of their new “homes” during the daytime, and eating separate, inferior meals from their host families.
For most of the time however the mood, in line with the published reminiscences, was upbeat. Alongside their traditional curriculum the boys learned to repair shoes, they put on plays, and developed new skills as diverse as book binding and ballroom dancing. There may have been no gas, electricity or running water in some of their billets, but there were plentiful supplies of elderberry wine, and entertainment was to be had exploring the old quarry workings and, unknown to the schoolmasters and the billeters, midnight swims in the lake at Orchardleigh. They had close encounters with herds of bullocks on the country roads, sat on boxes playing chess on the frozen lake in the harsh January of 1940, and learned to wrap a brick which had been in the fire all day in a cloth bag for warmth in bed at night.
Above all they had the most extraordinary freedom, trespassing cheerfully on the neighbouring estates, and on their bikes exploring the surrounding towns of Bath, Warminster, and Wells. When the bombing was not bad the headmaster allowed them to cycle home to London, a distance of some hundred miles, during holidays. Leaving Frome one Good Friday three lads cycled through the night without lights in the blackout, returning the following Monday. The unmitigated euphoria vouchsafed only to inadequately supervised teenagers, free to roam with their mates, radiated from the stage, and everyone came away from the production smiling.
It is a measure of the affection with which they came to hold Frome that the evacuees continued to visit the town throughout their lives, holding reunions, looking up old friends and those who had welcomed them with kindness. In 1951 they donated two teak seats, set in St. John’s churchyard, to the town. When the the seats eventually fell victim of the weather,they replaced them in 1999 with a bench made of Portland stone.
Bench donated by the Coopers’ Company’s school
Given in gratitude to the people of Frome
who generously opened their homes
to schoolchildren evacuated from London
during the war 1939-45
Twenty Old Boys and the ninety-year-old former school secretary were present at the dedication ceremony. Few of them remain now, but Richard Beer, who first arrived in Frome as a twelve year old evacuee, was guest of honour when Two Thousand Days was first performed as part of the Frome History Festival in May this year.
It isn’t a grave, but the bench serves the same purpose, remembering the boys who for 2000 days made Frome their home, and the townsfolk who welcomed them, a life time ago.
*The Coopers’ Company’s School in Frome 1939-45 edited by George S. Perry.
In the late 50s and early 60s Chester Children’s Library boasted many volumes on the lives of worthy Victorians, and there I became acquainted with Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler, Thomas Barnardo, William Booth. I recall illustrations of ladies in voluminous dresses and gentlemen with voluminous beards ministering to the needs of the sick, the imprisoned, the orphaned and the destitute. I was both fascinated and horrified by that extraordinary world, which was just within touching distance for my grandparents had been born towards the end of it, with its monstrous inequalities of wealth and income, of health and opportunity. Fascinated too by those individuals who with courage, compassion, and abounding self-confidence, did not wait for a tardy, lacklustre government to act, but took it upon themselves to tackle society’s ills.
I learned more of Doctor Barnardo when my primary school issued us all with papier mache collecting boxes shaped like small cottages, with thatched roofs and roses round the door painted in bright primary colours.
Thomas Barnardo had begun studying medicine at the London Hospital in 1866. The following year he followed the example of other philanthropists when he established a Ragged School at Hope Place in the East End providing free basic education for poor children. But 1866 had also seen a cholera outbreak which increased the number of orphaned and destitute children on the streets of London to 30,000. Many of the children coming to the Ragged School were not only poor but homeless, and doubtless as much attracted by the warm fire and the free meal which the school provided as by an introduction to the three Rs.
Jim Jarvis, a homeless boy who attended the school, took Barnardo to see “the lays,” places where children slept in gutters, under market stalls, and on roof tops huddled against the chimneys for warmth. Barnardo abandoned his medical training to concentrate on helping these children and in 1870 opened his first boys’ orphanage in Stepney. The number he could accommodate was limited and a year later he had to turn away John Somers, an eleven-year-old who had already lived on the streets for four years. Days later the child was found dead of malnutrition and exposure. Barnardo vowed that he would never turn another child away. By the time of his death in 1905 he had raised the money to establish 122 homes which had helped 60,000 children.
Alongside the boys’ homes Barnardo established a “Babies’ Castle” in the countryside at Hawkhurst in Kent. After he married in 1873, he and his wife, Syrie, opened the Girls’ Village in Barkingside, where girls were housed in groups with a housemother in “cottage homes.” By 1900 the village with its own school, hospital and church accommodated 1500 girls in 65 cottages.
Eager that they should experience a family environment, Barnardo also assisted the fostering of children, and with Syrie’s help he established a Rescue Home supporting those who had been driven to child prostitution and protecting them from further sexual exploitation.
The work of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes continued after his death with its watchword “no destitute child ever refused admission.” By the 1960s however the availability of efficient contraception, the greater acceptability of single parenthood, and the growth of the welfare system meant that fewer children were taken into the homes. With the emphasis moving towards fostering, adoption and supporting children in their own families rather than direct care, the last of the Barnardo’s orphanages closed in 1989. Today the charity works with vulnerable children facing sexual and domestic violence, FGM, child trafficking and drug abuse, and offers support to young carers.
Though the books I read and the stories we were told when we picked up our collecting boxes painted a glowing portrait of Barnardo and his work, there were always critics. He was accused of kidnapping children who had parents, taking them away without their parents’ permission. As a result, he appeared in court 88 times. He freely admitted this accusation, reasoning that the child’s welfare overrode any parental rights, that children should be removed from violent and abusive homes, and that the end justified the means. He was invariably exonerated by the courts.
Other detractors claimed, possibly correctly, that the photographs he produced for fund raising campaigns, portraying children before and after their admittance to the homes, were stage managed, doctored to make the changes appear more dramatic.
Most seriously, Barnardo’s was one of several charities involved in government schemes to send children to Australia and Canada. Whilst there is no doubt that Barnardo saw this as a means of rescuing children from a corrupting environment and securing for them a new healthy life with jobs and prospects, his good intentions were misguided, and many children faced exploitation as cheap labour, harsh conditions, and abuse.
Finally, there were reports of unsanitary conditions, badly managed homes, and children being cruelly treated. An orphanage is surely no one’s idea of a perfect environment for young children, and yet, the alternatives for many of Barnardo’s children were cold, hunger, abuse from drunken parents, child prostitution, death from exposure. Even for less extreme cases the orphanage could be a haven. My paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was sent to an orphanage (not a Barnardo’s, but the Hull Seamen’s Orphanage) following the death of his father. The regime was harsh: if the boys wet the bed they were beaten, the girls were made to parade around the room with their mattresses strapped to their backs. And yet, my father told me, my grandfather always spoke highly of the shelter which the home provided, of the education he was given, of the lessons in health and hygiene; and from games at the orphanage he developed a lifelong love of cricket. All these things he tried to pass on to his own children, and my father and his brothers were taken every year to the Open Day at the orphanage. And if my father’s inherited obsession with immaculate fingernails seemed a little excessive to me as a child, still my Barnardo’s box always weighed heavy with his loose change.
I doubt if today children’s libraries stock eulogising, uncritical hagiographies of Victorian philanthropists, and if I read those books again now I might find their tone cloying. Modern accounts of those nineteenth humanitarians do not spare them accusations of conceit, arrogance, paternalism, and dogmatism. And yet they were brave, good people who gave of their time, money, and energies, faced down criticism, sneers and personal attacks to make their world a little better for others.
Thousands of people filed past Barnardo’s coffin as it lay in state for three days in Limehouse, and lined the streets as it passed through the East End to Liverpool Street Station to be transported to Barkingside. Barnardo had chosen to be buried at the Girls’ Village Home, where Syrie later joined him. A magnificent monument designed by George Frampton marks their grave. Today many of the original cottages have been demolished and the land sold to developers so that utilitarian new housing forms an unprepossessing backdrop to the Barnardo memorial, but it still looks out onto the “village green” surrounded by the remaining Victorian cottages now leased to a housing association. And looking across the green and the waterfountain towards the church it takes but little imagination to hear the children’s voices and to catch a glimpse of little girls in button boots, long frocks, and white aprons.
New housing on land formerly a part of the Girls’ Village has crept up on the Barnardo memorial
But it still looks out across the “Village Green” at some of the original cottages
Cairns House, the original head office of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, on the village green. On the left new housing intrudes here too.
The children’s church and the water fountain on the village green. New housing on the right.
Village green and original cottages, now leased to a housing association.
Detail of memorial, Charity embracing two children
Detail of memorial, Barnardo and three children, modelled on girls at the Village Home
Since 2016 a new memorial in Tower Hamlets Cemetery has commemorated the lives of 500 Barnardo’s orphans who died in childhood and were buried in unmarked graves. Barnardo buried three of his own seven children there too, in graves also unmarked in keeping with the other children. The memorial, designed by Tom Nicholls, is in the form of a pair of hands releasing a sparrow into flight symbolising the care and support of Barnardo’s Homes which enabled children to fly free into the world. Volunteers from the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery have researched the names of the children buried here cross-referencing Barnardo registers with cemetery registers.
Memorial stone marking the graves of 500 orphans who died in childhood and three of Barnardo’s own children
Detail of memorial
Remembering Doctor Barnardo’s children laid here to rest.
The stone also bears a quotation from a poem of disputed authorship. Contrary to the exhortation, it always makes me cry.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I did not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift , uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
(Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!)
And on the base a poignant reminder of Barnardo’s own beloved sons, as vulnerable to the illnesses that stalked Victorian childhood as any of the orphans for whom he cared.
I have never shared the view that cemeteries are gloomy places but will allow that they may be tinged with sadness. In the Northern Maramures region of Romania however is a cemetery like no other: The Merry Cemetery (Cimitir Vesel) at Sapanta. Here the celebration of life takes precedence over the grief of death, and death itself is no solemn affair.
The Dacian Culture may have inspired these attitudes. Dacians, early inhabitants of these lands, believed in the immortality of the soul and for them the moment of death was one of exaltation, filled with supreme happiness in anticipation of a better life. Herodotus describes how the Dacians were fearless in battle and joyful when dying, going laughing to their graves to meet their god, Zalmoxis.
The forest of oak headstones in the Sapanta cemetery is the work of the wood carver Stan Ion Patras. Between 1935 and his death in 1977 he carved over eight hundred commemorative tablets, including his own. He painted these singular memorials in vivid, symbolic colours. Predominant is the radiant, deep “Sapanta blue” speaking of the sky, hope, freedom. Green represents life, yellow fertilility, red passion, and black death.White doves symbolise the soul and a blackbird hints at a suspicious death.
The Merry Cemetery
On the grave markers Patras carved portraits of the occupants and naive pictures recording their occupations.
The VetThe TeacherThe WoodmanThe Shepherd
There is a distinctly gendered division of labour:
Below the painted carvings Patras inscribed epitaphs, written in the first person, enabling the inhabitants of the graves to tell the stories of their lives. Far from lauding them or whitewashing them with virtues, the whimsical, witty doggerel records indiscretions, shortcomings, weaknesses, faults, foibles, flaws, failings, and infidelities with cheerful insouciance. Even the modes of death, drowning, drinking, and a disproportionate number of car accidents, provide a source of humour. And the soul who was murdered and buried without his head fails to disrupt the prevailing merriment:
Murdered and buried without his head
Yet even in Sapanta I found one grave which broke with the relentless good cheer. The speaking poem of a three-year-old girl killed by a taxi read:
May you burn in hell
Taxi driver from Sibiu!
In all of Romania
You could find no other place
But here, near our house
To stop and hit me
And bring grief to my parents.
For as long as they live they will weep for me.
Three -year-old girl killed by a taxi from Sibiu
But habitually the latter day Dacians continue to greet death with equanimity; Patras’ apprentice, Dumitru PopTincu, continues his master’s work, and the burgeoning cemetery cocks a defiant snook at mortality.