Yeovil at war
How Yeovil coped with over 4,400 evacuees
At the beginning of the Second World War the evacuation of Britain's cities was the biggest and most concentrated mass movement of people in Britain's history. It was expected that cities would be bombed, as the enemy tried to destroy factories. However it was realised that homes and schools too, would be in danger. The government tried at the start of the war to 'empty the cities' of children and mothers, the process of 'evacuation', to protect them from air raids.
In the first four days of September 1939, nearly 3,000,000 people were transported from towns and cities in danger from enemy bombers to places of safety in the countryside. Most were schoolchildren, who had been labelled like pieces of luggage, separated from their parents and accompanied instead by a small army of guardians - 100,000 teachers. By any measure it was an astonishing event, a logistical nightmare of co-ordination and control. The mass evacuation began on Thursday, 31 August 1939 but very few realised that within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address.
It was planned that Yeovil would receive 4,410 evacuees from London, made up of 2,207 unaccompanied children and 2,207 teachers, helpers and others, including mothers with children under school age.
It was then that we really began to learn about the countryside. It was here that I found my first rabbit caught in a snare, which was really sad. Of course this was meat to the farmer and local people and it supplemented their meagre rations. I was there for 3 years - I went when I was 7 years old and came back when I was 10."
In 1939 I was 10 years old and was at Scarsdale Road School Camberwell. On the 1st September myself and my 3 brothers Reginald (12), Harry (9) and Eric (7) were taken to a railway station in London and put on a train to Yeovil. It was the first time we had seen fields with cows in!
When we got to Yeovil we were taken to a big hall where we were nearly the last to be taken so we were put in a lorry and taken round the streets while the helpers knocked on doors to see if anyone could take us. Eventually one woman said she would take 2 boys but would stretch to 3 so the boys went there and I was billeted 3 doors down the road with Mr and Mrs Hillard (an elderly couple). I was there for 3 years. I was very happy as it was a much freer life than in London and Mr and Mrs Hillard were very kind. We had part time school; locals in the morning and us in the afternoon as there weren’t enough teachers. This went on for about nine months, then more teachers came and we went full time.
An initial report of evacuees expected to be housed in Yeovil from the 1 July 1939 edition of the Express & Echo.
Courtesy of Richard Venus
This is Richard, ready to be evacuated to Yeovil from London, in his school cap and an overcoat with a label on its collar saying who he was. Photographed in 1939.
For Richard's memories of his time as an evacuee in Yeovil - click here.
London kids in a rural setting - this snippet is from the 7 September 1939 edition of the Bristol Evening Post.
Notice of special cheap return fares for parents to visit their evacuee children in the Western Morning News of 30 November 1939.
Evacuee children were treated to occasional film shows by the Odeon Cinema chain, as reported here in the 17 January 1940 edition of the Western Morning News.
Courtesy of Richard Venus
Richard (front row, third from left) and his evacuee classmates in Yeovil. Photographed in 1940.
Housing evacuees was an ongoing problem during the war - especially during the Blitz between September 1940 and May 1941. This Ministry of Health notice placed in the Wells Journal edition of 25 April 1941 was still seeking people to house evacuees.
Courtesy of Roger McElliott
This is the letter of thanks sent by HM the Queen to all those who took in evacuees. This particular letter was sent to Mrs Norris of Westland Road (Roger's grandmother).
Yeovil's Evacuation plans
How would they cope? Where would everybody stay? Who would feed them? The problems initially seemed insurmountable - however with careful planning and forethought Yeovil came up with a plan. This scheme was so thorough and so complex that it is reproduced in whole below. The tables at the end, showing who was to stay where, are particularly interesting. The original document is held in Yeovil library and is reproduced here with permission.
In practice however one does wonder about this careful planning - Richard Venus, evacuated to Yeovil between 1939 and 1942 remembers "There seemed to be no plan as to where we were to stay and I can remember walking the streets of Yeovil in the dark with grown-ups knocking at doors asking people if they would take an evacuee."