World War II had a huge impact on the daily lives of the people of Britain, but soldiers and grieving widows weren’t the only ones whose lives were irrevocably altered by the war. Young schoolchildren in cities across Britain found themselves evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside, separated from their families and identified by nothing more than a brown paper tag. They learned how to operate gas masks and were schooled huddled together in underground air raid shelters. Understandably, education sometimes took a backseat to simple survival. Read on for a closer look at school life during WWII.
10. First Mass Evacuation (1939)
Approximately three million British children were evacuated from their city homes and sent to the countryside during World War II. The first of these mass evacuations took place in early September 1939 and saw children carrying boxes containing their gas masks. A paper label attached to each child identified who they were and their journey details. While in the country, the children continued their education in settings ranging from church halls to pubs – basically, wherever there was room.
Children from well-off families who attended private schools had slightly better luck, as the entire school often moved to the countryside to take up residence and continue classes in a manor house. Some of the evacuated children viewed the experience as a kind of grand adventure, yet others found the separation from their families a great deal more taxing, fearing that they would never get to return home.
9. Playtime at the Nursery (circa 1940)
In view of the heavy use of chemical weapons against soldiers in World War I, every British citizen – from adult to infant – was issued with a gas mask during World War II. Gas mask drills were a routine part of the school day for all. The nursery children pictured above are wearing their masks during recess, adding playful fun to the seriousness of the situation and the discomfort of wearing the devices. Even toddlers are reported to have learned how to put the masks on themselves, often making childish sport of it, irritating their parents by blowing through the rubber and making strange noises. All the same, everyone was taught to keep their gas masks with them at all times and to put them on immediately if they heard the warning sound of the air raid rattle.
8. Children Outside an Air Raid Shelter (1939)
These children are pictured emerging from an air raid shelter on November 10, 1939, having successfully completed an air raid exercise. This particular shelter was built in a field next to the local school in the town of Gresford in northeast Wales. Yet despite all the preparation, it was only when France fell in 1940 that the bombing of The Blitz began in full force. Wales became a target, and cities like Swansea were heavily hit – although rural areas were also attacked. In February 1941, a three-day bombing spree on Swansea resulted in the deaths of 270 people – including 37 below the age of 16. Madeleine Scott, who was a child during the war, said that she and her fellow classmates would all troop into the shelter and sing nursery rhymes while they were inside.
7. Nursery School Students Evacuated from Kentish Town (circa 1939)
These nursery school children were evacuated from Kentish Town in North London – and you can see their labels attached to their coats. In some cases, teachers were evacuated along with their students, and some were even responsible for finding the children a place to stay once they got to their destination. Gwenllian Ruth Parris (now Clarke), a teacher from Islington, London, was sent with her school to Bedford in the east of England. “We didn’t know where we were going and eventually we arrived at Bedford,” she said. Parris taught cookery and soccer and even worked as a waitress at one point. She added: “There was quite a lot of rivalry between the Bedford teachers and the London teachers. Not personal rivalry but between the two sort of authorities.” Parris ended up sharing responsibilities with local teachers and teaching classes made up of both local children and evacuees.
6. Taking Cover During An Air Raid Drill (1940)
Because there was a long period at the beginning of the war during which no bombs were dropped, more than half the evacuees had already returned to their families by January 1940. However, this had never been part of the government’s plan, and as a result, many city schools remained closed, and the children themselves were left to drift through the streets during the day. The London Board of Education feared that students wouldn’t have enough time to get to an air raid shelter in the case of an attack and therefore instructed children to take shelter in the middle of the room. The children were to get away from windows, hide under their desks and cover the backs of their necks.
5. Art Class (1941)
By late 1941, some degree of routine had been reestablished. These children from Moorside Road School in Grove Park, London can be seen sketching the damage caused to their school – including missing roof tiles, broken windowpanes and concrete reduced to rubble. The students carried their gas masks when they walked around the school. And the children still used the playground, despite the fact that it had been severely damaged by falling bombs.
London had sustained immense damage, and many youngsters left the city at night with their parents. Others took up permanent residence in the London Underground, whether because they had lost their homes or perhaps to eliminate the inconvenience of moving back and forth to an air raid shelter every night.
4. Farringdon School-Turned-Feeding Center (1941)
Even in the midst of war, there was still time for some simple pleasures – such as imported American cheese. These three school children can be seen enjoying a light snack in the playground of a ruined school in Farringdon in the London borough of Islington (in a picture likely taken in August or September 1941). The school was converted into a feeding center, and though the building itself was massively damaged, the playground was put to use to sustain the hungry. The cheese that the children are eating in the photograph was imported from the United States as part of the Lend-Lease program. The US ended its neutral stance in March 1941 and began providing the UK and many other Allied nations with supplies ranging from canned rations and aluminum to trucks and armored vehicles.
3. Life In the Shelter (1941)
Schooling was disrupted not only by the evacuations and frequent moves, but also by the threat of bombs. Here, students and teachers from a school in Bermondsey in South London strive for a sense of normalcy. The photo, taken on March 29, 1941, shows students participating in a reading and discussion group. Roger Taylor, who is a professor of chemistry at Sussex University, was a child during World War II. He traveled extensively with his mother and sister during the war, often moving from one place to the next and from school to school. In fact, Taylor reports that he attended seven different elementary schools and at times didn’t attend any school at all. However, he claimed that seeing “a wide variety of lifestyles and accommodation was a very valuable experience. Surviving the traumatic events of the time made one recognize that every new day was a bonus, a feeling that has never gone away.”
2. Gas Test (1941)
These children in Kingston, Greater London can be seen filing out of their school during a practice gas test. A canister of tear gas was set off so that the students could test their reactions, put on their gas masks and leave the premises. The photograph was taken in June 1941.
Although no chemical weapons were actually used against the British on home territory during World War II, children were well prepared in case of a chemical attack. Sylvia Kaye, who was 16 at the start of the war, said that wearing a gas mask was incredibly uncomfortable. She recalled, “It was awful, it was stifling, it was all rubber with a sort of plastic front piece for the eyes and you wore it right over your face and it was unbearable.”
1. A Makeshift Bomb Shelter (circa 1940-1941)
The children pictured above are crouching in a crude makeshift air raid shelter in the middle of World War II. Looks of shock and fear mingle with a kind of awe as they gaze towards the heavens. Many schoolchildren experienced close brushes with death during the war. Professor Roger Taylor had his first encounter with the Luftwaffe while living in Torquay. Taylor, his sister and a friend were heading home from a playground when the siren sounded. With 400 yards to go and about 30 seconds before the planes hit, Taylor lay down in the gutter. He said, “The planes… were so low that I could see the pilots clearly. Machine gun bullets were spraying all around.” In the face of such drama and hardship, the disruption of his schooling was, as he puts it, “inconsequential.”