War children who stayed at home
The civilian evacuations of the Second World War have been described as the biggest social upheaval in British history. The figures alone are staggering.
Over just three days 673,000 schoolchildren, 406,000 mothers and young children and 3,000 expectant mothers were moved from their homes to places of safety.
But vast numbers of parents, for varying reasons and despite professional advice, decided to keep their children with them in the towns and cities.
New research now suggests that, despite the dangers, this was for the best. City children who survived the Blitz, said child welfare experts, emerged from the war years emotionally, mentally and physically healthier than their evacuated counterparts.
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Many evacuated children, deprived of family and friends in unfamiliar surroundings, felt lonely and abandoned. The countryside, they soon discovered, was not the rural idyll that many reassuring voices had made it out to be. Within a few months, in fact, the majority had returned home to face the horrors of war alongside their parents.
In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Bristol found itself labelled as having "neutral status".
For parents and guardians this meant that the city – then out of the reach of the Luftwaffe – was not required to receive evacuees from other, more vulnerable, parts of the country. But this also meant that they were not given the choice of evacuating their own children to the safety of the countryside either.
Once France fell, however, Bristol's port and industries became a prime target, suffering six major Luftwaffe raids between 1940 and 1944.
Many families sheltered in church crypts with others believing in the safety of disused railway tunnels, like the recently filled in one under the suspension bridge. Others, if they had the means, made for the relative safety of the surrounding hills and countryside. Many made do, with short notice of a raid, with the overcrowded and often inadequate public air raid shelters.
"I stayed in Bristol for the duration of the war and my whole family survived," one man recalled. "We always slept with our clothes on because you never knew when the bombs might come, often in the middle of the night. I was lucky because I was never ill, even though we ate a lot of bread and dripping and dried egg.
"I didn't go to school much because there were no air raid shelters there and then, when everything was bombed, there was not much left. I do not remember being frightened during the Blitz, I was always with my mother or grandmother and they didn't seem to be frightened. Except for the odd occasion they just seemed to take it all in their stride.
"As children, the war was just part of our childhood, we didn't know any different. We used to play rounders in the streets with an old tennis racket, boys against girls, and a game called five stones. We also had yo-yos and marbles and we played conkers. The cinemas stayed open and all us children went there on Saturday mornings."
Not all children treated the danger so casually, however.
"I felt frightened to death when the bombs came over – it was like all hell let loose," recalled David Gay. "I went to Staple Hill school and one night everything else in the area was bombed, but not the school. My father, however, never seemed to be worried about any of it. Every night he just used to stand there and watch the planes. Sometimes we would go out of Bristol on to a hill and look down on the city. I felt that it was OK to watch the planes then because I felt safer."
After the big Sunday night air raid of November 1940, a savage raid which took the heart out of the old city, many people's thoughts turned to the evacuation of children.
"Things got so bad in Bristol that a lot of people were saying that we needed to get the little children especially out of the city," recalled teacher Rhoda Edmonds. "The problem was that we had nowhere to send them as we weren't an evacuation area and most of the accommodation was already taken up by others."
But something had to be done and in January, 1941, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Underdown, tried desperately to get the city's neutral status changed and so get more civilian protection.
This never happened and the city's officials were left pretty much to their own devices.
Some children left for Devon and Dorset, it's true, but most remained behind, in the city.
By the time that proper evacuation procedures were in place, by the summer of 1941, the worst of the bombing in Bristol was over.
The brave pilots of the Battle of Britain had turned the tide and the Luftwaffe bombers were now turning their attention to the east, towards the Russian front.
The children's attitude is summed up by Iris Williams, who, along with her sister, was offered the chance to leave the city
She says: "My mother asked both of us if we wanted to leave Bristol. I didn't want to go. I didn't like change and the war had already brought about too many changes for my liking. I could tell that my mother didn't want us to go anywhere and I didn't want to upset her. My sister said that she had thought, for a fleeting moment anyway, that perhaps leaving Bristol might be an adventure, but then she thought better of it and decided that she wanted to stay too."
Despite the let-up in the bombing after 1941, the Luftwaffe had one, final tragedy, to inflict on Bristol's families.
In August 1942, without any warning siren, a lone raider dropped a hefty bomb on Broad Weir. The explosive landed on three buses carrying mainly women and children, killing 45 passengers and injuring 56. This tragic incident left an indelible mark on public consciousness and is still recalled in hushed tones today.
Blitz Families – The Children Who Stayed Behind is by Penny Starns. Published by the History Press, £12.99