The greatest meeting of strangers in history

I am in the midst of a long-term project to document instances when empathy has flowered on a mass scale and shifted the course of human history. While empathy has periodically collapsed on a collective scale – just think of colonialism in Latin America or the Holocaust – there have also been moments when it has emerged as a force for positive and radical social change. If we want to tackle today’s global crises – from wealth inequality and armed conflict to climate change and food insecurity – we need to learn from the past and understand how empathy can be harnessed as a powerful tool to shift human behaviour and ignite social action. And one of the most interesting places to look is the evacuation of British children in World War Two.

A classic image of life in Britain during the Second World War is a train platform filled with children clutching tiny suitcases and food parcels, being evacuated from the cities to escape the German bombs. There were several waves of evacuation between 1939 and 1944, in which over two million children fled from town to country as part of government schemes. Rather than being placed in camps, they were mostly accommodated in private homes, and many stayed with their foster families for several years. Evacuation was an unprecedented meeting of strangers, which had such a radical impact on children’s lives, especially through the creation of new welfare policy, that the historian A.J.P. Taylor described it as a ‘social revolution’. And it was a revolution in which empathy played a crucial – though often overlooked – role.

The process of evacuation was fraught with difficulties, both practical and emotional, especially in the initial phase before the Blitz in 1940. Billeting officers often could not find enough homes for the new arrivals, with upper middle-class families being particularly reluctant to take in any children. There were the notorious ‘slave markets’, where potential foster parents were able to pick and choose amongst the evacuees, stigmatising those who were constantly left behind. Children suffered the trauma of being separated from their parents for long periods, and there were isolated cases of abuse. Foster mothers complained of bedwetting, swearing and delinquency, and that the government payments were insufficient to cover the costs of their little guests.

It is too easy, however, to dwell on the problems. Given the conditions of wartime austerity, the lack of time for planning, and the sheer novelty and extent of evacuation, it was surprisingly successful. By and large, children were found accommodation, were well cared for by their host families, went to school and made friends. In the most authoritative study of social services in the war, Richard Titmuss asks us not to forget all those householders and evacuees ‘who met each other in a spirit of tolerance and overcame the difficulties of living together’. A 1947 report on evacuation in Oxfordshire suggested that ‘this survey should be called the war memorial to the Unknown Foster-mother’ since it showed how devoted most of them were to their young charges.

The debates on the quality of care mask a vital aspect of evacuation: for the first time relatively well-off rural communities were exposed to the realities of urban poverty. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of homes in small towns and villages were filled with scrawny children from the slums of London, Liverpool and other cities, who were malnourished, suffering from rickets and lice, and lacking shoes or decent underwear. The nation was shocked by the destitution thrust into its living rooms. According to an editorial in The Economist from 1943, the great migration of evacuation ‘revealed to the whole people the black spots in its social life’.

Evacuation created the conditions for the greatest instance of mass empathic understanding in British history by enabling rural people to step into the lives of the urban poor. Although they had not observed the squalor of East End tenements with their own eyes, they were able to hear first-hand accounts from the children and to see the deplorable consequences of poverty standing in front of them. The extremes of city deprivation that had until then been hidden from view became etched into the imaginations of the provincial population. Foster parents did not always like what they saw: many middle-class people were disgusted by the filthy children soiling their nice settees. Others were moved to tears. But in both cases there was a clear acknowledgement that something had to be done. The conscience of the nation had been roused.

A wave of public action followed the revelations of evacuation. Letters were written to The Times, organisations such as The National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Women’s Voluntary Service lobbied for changes in child health policy, and members of parliament called for reform. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister during the first stage of evacuation, wrote in a letter to his wife: ‘I never knew that such conditions existed, and I feel ashamed of having been so ignorant of my neighbours. For the rest of my life I mean to try to make amends by helping such people to live cleaner and healthier lives.’

There was an almost immediate response from the government in the form of an unprecedented expansion of child welfare provision. This was all the more extraordinary because it took place while the nation was immersed in fighting a war. The standard of school meals was raised, cheap milk was made available for children and expectant mothers, and vitamins and cod-liver oil became part of their rations. Throughout the early 1940s, new legislation was introduced to ensure improved public health, nutrition and education for children, most of which became permanent after the war ended. Within just a few years, decades of inadequate social care rooted in the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century were reversed. It is no wonder that A.J.P. Taylor concluded: ‘Evacuation was itself a disguised welfare scheme, and the most dangerous period of the war became paradoxically the most fruitful for social policy…The Luftwaffe was a powerful missionary for the welfare state.’

The history books often say that the welfare state was born out of the Beveridge Report of 1942, which led to the establishment of the National Health Service by the post-war Labour government. But the most significant social provisions for children emerged from a more unlikely source: the surge in empathic understanding that took place when evacuees met their foster families in the living rooms and kitchens of rural England.

This article is based on Roman Krznaric’s latest book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution (Random House).

Here’s a four minute video describing the impact of evacuation on helping to create the British welfare state.

4 thoughts on “The greatest meeting of strangers in history

  1. There is an interesting addendum to this story. The Evacuees Reunion Association now give talks to schools about their experiences – using a child’s eye view to introduce today’s children to this period of history. The recollections of these evacuees are extremely powerful and their reflections on how they shaped their later life are fascinating. There are a number of other projects (either in the planning stage or completed) that reflect on similar stories such as the story of evacuees from the Channel Islands. Also this year marks the 75 anniversary of the evacuation of 4,000 children fleeing the Spanish Civil War to England

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