Guernsey’s child evacuees

After British troops retreated from Dunkirk in 1940, many Guernsey islanders evacuated to England, including 5,000 children whose parents hoped to follow on the next boat. Before they could do so, the Germans occupied the island. Seventy years on, Gillian Mawson looks at the children who did not see their parents for five years

Nazis marching through Guernsey during the Second World War, 1940. (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In June 1940, British forces retreated from Dunkirk, and they also withdrew from the Channel Islands. Fears arose on Guernsey that the occupation of the islands was now inevitable. Then, on 19 June, The Guernsey Star newspaper announced that all schoolchildren were to depart the island as part of an evacuation scheme. The first to leave were 5,000 children, who were evacuated with their schools.

The parents said goodbye to their children at the school gates, telling them that they hoped to follow on the next boat. However, on 28 June, German forces bombed Guernsey’s harbour, and two days later the island was occupied. Thus, for many Guernsey residents, that ‘next boat’ never arrived. Those left on Guernsey had no idea where their families had been evacuated to, and did not see them again for five long years.

The Guernsey evacuees endured rough overnight boat crossings, arriving in Weymouth at dawn. The school children were accompanied by 500 adult helpers – their teachers plus mothers with small children. In the confusion, brothers and sisters were separated, and many lost the few possessions that they had. On stepping ashore in Dorset, they were bundled into steam trains that took them north to smoky industrial towns so very different to their island home.

Though some went to Glasgow, the majority were despatched to towns such as Stockport, Bury, Oldham, Wigan and Burnley. Here, council officials had very little time to prepare for their arrival. As the Stockport Express reported: “The first warning was that a train would arrive at 3am. Efforts were made to get as many voluntary workers there as possible. Some evacuees did not even know what day it was, so long had they been on their way by sea and land”.

The evacuees had left Guernsey with little money or clothing. Fortunately, the local press reported their hardships, triggering an extraordinary public response. Money, and thousands of items such as toys, clothes, shoes and furniture, was donated to the evacuees – often from people who had little of their own. Companies were generous too, donating clothes, shoes and mattresses to the children. Many local cinemas gave the evacuees free entry on Saturdays.

Accommodation was another challenge, but thousands of families took the Guernsey children into their own homes, becoming their ‘foster parents’ for five years. Some of the Guernsey adults moved into empty properties to look after groups of Guernsey children as if they were their own. They worked hard to make ends meet, and integrated well into the local communities that had been so helpful to them.

The evacuees also formed numerous local Channel Islands societies where they met regularly to socialise and to talk about their families who had been left behind on Guernsey. There was no wartime postal service between England and Guernsey, but from 1941 some evacuees were able to contact their families using a ‘Red Cross letter’. However, these were limited to only 25 words, and were subject to censorship by the German administration.

Many Guernsey children attended their local schools, but some Guernsey headmasters set up ‘Guernsey schools’ in empty buildings, in order to keep the children and their teachers together during the war. Upon leaving school at the age of 14, Guernsey evacuees went into Britain’s war industries to make radios, ammunition, and parts for aeroplanes, while others joined the British forces.

When British forces liberated the Channel Islands in May 1945, they discovered that the people there were on the brink of starvation, while over 2,000 had been deported to camps in Germany. And, because so many houses and businesses had been damaged, the evacuees could not return straight away. Instead, they had to wait for a special permit.

By this time, some of the younger children were having difficulty remembering what their Guernsey parents looked like, and were treating their English foster parents as if they were their own families. The feeling was often mutual: as the evacuees slowly began to return home, many of the children’s foster parents were sad to lose them. Mrs Johnson from Oldham said: “In those five years, James had become like a son to me. However, I smiled as I waved goodbye, then went home, sat on his bed and broke my heart”.

Going home to Guernsey

Not all of the children who returned home were happy straight away. One girl remembers: “I did not recognise my dad. We’d been apart for so long, we were like strangers”. Another said: “I left as a teenager and returned as a mother with a newborn baby – my parents didn’t know how to relate to me”.

However, many of the Guernsey mothers were delighted to return home. Winnie Digard recalls: “It was lovely to be back home. When we got off the boat, my mum and dad couldn’t get to me and my children fast enough!”

Yet some evacuees did not return to Guernsey at all – they had settled down and found good jobs or started college. Others had become engaged to local people and wanted to bring up their families in England. Numerous Guernsey surnames can still be found in English telephone books.

In late 1945, the Guernsey government presented gifts to the towns that had cared for the children. The evacuees continue to thank the people of northern England for their welcome, and most are still in touch with the families of those who cared for them. Many will meet up this May and June to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the evacuation, with events taking place on Guernsey, and also in Stockport, Oldham and Bury.


Hazel Hall: Didn’t want to go home

“I was 12 years old when I was evacuated with my school on 20 June 1940, and it was a very difficult decision for my family to make. I had a small case and a tiny purse, and when we arrived at Weymouth I had a medical examination. I still have the label that was tied to my coat, which said “NAD” – meaning Nothing Abnormal Detected. We travelled on trains to Burnley where we slept on camp beds until 7 July when I was taken to Bury, to live with Mrs Wood – but I was not happy there.

“I then lived with Miss Shaw for five years. She didn’t have a lot of money but she looked after me very well. I made friends with Brenda who lived next door and we became inseparable. One day my brother, Rex, who was in the army, visited me, bringing with him my younger brother, Ken, who was staying in Cheshire. This was a lovely surprise, and we had a photograph taken that day of the three of us (see right). I returned to Guernsey in July 1945, but the following year I visited Miss Shaw for a holiday. I felt so at home there that it was only at the insistence of my father that I went back to Guernsey! I have returned to Bury many times since and will never forget the friendships I made there during the war”.

Paulette Le Mescam: Young evacuee

“I was eight years old when I was evacuated with La Chaumière School, in the care of Father Bleach. He set up our school in Moseley Hall in Cheshire, so that we could all stay together during the war. Because money for clothes and school books was very scarce, Father Bleach managed to get us into a scheme called the Foster Parent Plan for War Children. I went to the BBC Radio Centre in London to tell the public about this scheme. Each child was sponsored by an American person, who sent money to the Foster Plan’s head office. At the same time, we children received letters and parcels from our sponsor and wrote letters back to them.

“I was fortunate to be sponsored by the wife of the US president, Eleanor Roosevelt, and she sent me a lovely green dress, cardigans, blouses and some lovely Lux soap! I wrote to her in 1944 to say ‘Dear Aunty Eleanor, thank you for the pretty green dress, it fits me just fine, I am very pleased’. Some of the letters I wrote are preserved in the Roosevelt Archives in New York and I still have a letter that she sent to me. When Guernsey was liberated, I sent Mrs Roosevelt a postcard of Guernsey. I was invited to the White House but unfortunately I could not make the journey at that time”.

The boys of Elizabeth College Part of the community

The boys and their teachers left Guernsey on a Dutch cargo boat, and spent two weeks in the Co-operative Hall at Oldham. However, poor sanitary arrangements caused the headmaster to move his boys to the rural village of Great Hucklow in Derbyshire. They moved into the Florence Nightingale Home and Barleycrofts cottage, with some boys sleeping in nearby huts and in the hangar at the local gliding club. The boys narrowly missed injury when a bomb fell on the gliding club in August 1940. In September the senior boys moved into a large private house, called Whitehall, just outside Buxton, for the remainder of the war.

The junior boys who remained in Great Hucklow were taken into the hearts of the villagers and became part of the community. After their school lessons, they spent time tobogganing, model making and rambling, and helped out on the local farms. One winter when the village was snowed in, the boys dragged a sledge to Tideswell and back, to obtain fresh bread for the whole village.

To raise funds for school books, clothes and equipment, the boys put on a play, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which raised £53 – quite a sum at that time. When the boys returned to Guernsey in 1945, pupil Vernon Collinette wrote: “The feelings of joy were tinged by the sadness of leaving so many friends behind”. Great Hucklow residents have fond memories of the Elizabeth College boys, and even today they still receive visitors from Guernsey.

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Gillian Mawson is a researcher at the University of Manchester. Her Guernsey research was facilitated by a grant from the Scouloudi Foundation & Institute of Historical Research. If you were an evacuee and would like to be interviewed, email Gillian.mawson@manchester.ac.uk.