Refugees of Blitz tie their labels again

ON 3 SEPTEMBER 1939 more than a million children gathered at railway stations ready to be evacuated to the country for the duration of the war.

Exactly 60 years later, at least 2,000 of those evacuees assembled in London to mark the 60th anniversary of their departure and remember the families that took them in. Wearing luggage labels tied to their jackets as they did six decades before, they marched from Horseguards Parade to Westminster Abbey for a commemorative service. The service was the first official reunion of the evacuees, many of whom have not seen each other since the end of the war.

James Roffey, of the Evacuees Reunion Association, said the day was about recognition for the evacuees, many of whom feel they are a forgotten part of the war. "Our lives were probably more disrupted that anyone else's but we are often ignored. This is why we have organised this day's events so everyone can meet up and talk about their experiences."

Although they are grateful that they were given shelter during the Blitz, many have come to resent the stereotypical image of evacuees that has grown up. They say that far from being a bunch of scruffy East End kids who didn't know milk came from cows or how to use a knife and fork, many were from decent homes and ended up in very basic houses.

Mr Roffey said: "We had to leave our homes very early in the morning and spent several hours cooped up on a dirty train with no facilities. It was a very hot day and when we arrived some of the children were wet and others had been sick or had stuck their heads out of the window to get some air and were covered in soot. So we looked dirty and horrible and the myth that we were all slum kids has stuck to this day.

"In fact I came from a big house with gas lighting and running water and a flush lavatory and, like many others, ended up in a small cottage with no running water and an outside lavatory. We are all very grateful to the people who took us in and we don't want to dwell on the downside but I formed this association to try and overturn the myths."

Martin Parsons, a lecturer at Reading University and the author of two books on the evacuation, said he was appalled at the way the children had been portrayed over the years. "Part of the problem was that people had no choice about accepting the evacuees. They didn't want them so they used any excuse to try and get rid of them. There was a lot of negative propaganda about the evacuees and a lot of them are still suffering from that today.

"For some people to go from an East End slum to a labourer's cottage in the country could be an improvement in their lifestyle but for many of them it wasn't and no one has ever bothered to consider that."

Dr Parsons said many evacuees had had problems readjusting to family life when they returned home. "Some of them found they had nothing to return to after the war - their homes had been obliterated and there was nothing left. That increased their sense of isolation and loss. They felt as if they never went home again after being evacuated because home was no longer there."

Alec McCallister has often returned to the village of Mells in Somerset, where he spent much of the war. Tonight he will gather for a reunion dinner with a group of men from his school in north Kensington. "I was an unusual evacuee because I was happy to go away," he said. "I stayed with a family of poachers so I always had enough to eat and I had a wonderful time. I was living as I had never lived before - there was no gas, electricity or bathroom and we got the water from a well but they were very kind to me and I was happy there."

But his years in Somerset changed Mr McCallister from a city boy to a country child and he was never comfortable in London again. Two months ago he added a new headstone to the grave of his foster mother. "I always felt I should do something for her when she died and recently I was able to buy the headstone. It says, `With love from all the evacuees' and lists their names."

But while most have fond memories of their rural life, there remains an overwhelming sense of loss. As Mr Roffey said: "It sounds like a wonderful childhood running around the countryside but it wasn't our childhood - it wasn't the one we were brought up to have."