Northumberland and Durham Family History Society

Evacuees to the North East during the Second World War was the subject of a talk by Liz O’Donnell to the north Northumberland branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society.

Liz’s project was based on almost 200 interviews with former evacuees.

Plans for evacuation began as early as 1934.

In Northumberland, designated evacuation areas were originally Newcastle, Wallsend, Tynemouth and Blyth. The decision to remove Blyth from the list was controversial.

The first wave involved 31,000 people leaving Newcastle on September 1, 1939. This was followed the next day by 13,000 mothers, pregnant women and pre-school children.

The pattern of evacuation changed constantly throughout the war. Few evacuees remained in their initial placements. Out of the 47 people Liz interviewed, 32 lived in 90 billets and only 15 remained in their first. Many children returned home after a few months, with families preferring the risk of air raids than being separated.

For most it was a life-changing experience, sometimes an unhappy one, but often a positive one. We heard a number of stories of individual children, such as Kenneth, who is unlikely ever to forget being marched around the streets of Morpeth until dusk wondering if he would ever find a billet. Fortunately he struck lucky and went to a home with a teacher and a school cook.

This talk was illustrated by photographs of children evacuated, one of which was greeted with ‘they’re my cousins!’ by one of our members. We were told of many children deciding to run away and make their own way home to mother. Sometimes this involved sneaking onto trains and being hidden by soldiers in the toilet to avoid the ticket inspector. One poor lad, sent home to retrieve his baptism certificate before confirmation, arrived at his home in Newcastle to find his family had moved house.

There were even arrangements to send children overseas. Twelve children from Blyth went to Australia. Gwen was due to go to South Africa and got as far as the ship at Glasgow. Her mother had just received word of her imminent sailing when Gwen landed on the doorstep. The ship Benares carrying evacuees to Canada had just been torpedoed and 77 children lost their lives. The scheme was cancelled outright.

Children evacuated to Wallington Hall led what sounded like an idyllic life. The Trevelyan family participated enthusiastically with Lady Trevelyan teaching girls to swim and dance around the maypole as well as gather rosehips and sheep’s wool for the war effort.

The newspapers referred to southerners about to send their children northwards believing northerners had ‘uncouth manners’ and ‘strange ways of speech’ in this ‘grim and ugly land’. Evacuation broke down many of these myths.

This was an excellent talk which gave us great insight into the experiences of children growing up in the North East.

Our next meeting will be on Saturday, April 20, from 10am to noon at Bell View Resource Centre, West Street, Belford, when we are inviting the public to come and make a start on tracing their ancestors with the help of our members. Bring along names, dates, even approximate ones, and places where you know your ancestors lived and we will try to take you further back.