In March, 1939, less than six months after declaring that he had no more territorial claims in
Europe, Hitler entered Prague and raised his flag on the Hradzin Castle ... two weeks later, Franco
took control of Madrid ... in April, Mussolini occupied Albania ... in July, Hitler's intentions
for Poland were bringing Europe to the brink of war ... and on 23rd August, Hitler's non-aggression
pact with Stalin made war in Europe almost inevitable.
But five years earlier, worried that Hitler's rise to power might result in war, the British
government had prepared secret plans to move children to the countryside. These basic plans were
very nearly put into action during the Munich crisis, and by July 1939, a more detailed plan for
the evacuation of children from vulnerable locations had been devised - on Tyneside, this meant
Newcastle and Gateshead.
By the end of August, 1939, war was seen as the only option and early on August 31st the government
issued local authorities with the "evacuate forthwith" instruction. These instructions
were contained within a Ministry of Health Memo, which read
The objective has been therefore to provide facilities for the
removal from certain large crowded areas, in which the effects of
air attack would be most serious, of certain groups of people whose
removal is desirable on both national and humanitarian grounds,
and to transfer them to districts where the primary purpose of dispersal
can be achieved. This has involved an order of priority as regards
both the classes of persons to be transferred and the towns to be
evacuated, and the provisional allocation of other districts as
The classes of persons to whom priority is to be given under the
Government Scheme are:-
(1) school children in organised units in charge of their teachers;
(2) children of pre-school age accompanied by their mothers or other persons responsible
for looking after them;
(3) expectant mothers;
(4) the adult blind and cripple population as far as removal may be feasible.
The information to be given should include information as to the
points of assembly and the amount and kind of hand luggage which
can be conveyed. A full list should include the child's gas mask,
a change of underclothing, night-clothes, house-shoes or plimsolls,
spare stockings or socks, a toothbrush, comb, towel and handkerchiefs,
a warm coat or mackintosh, and a packet of food for the day. The
children should be sent away wearing their thickest and warmest
Those local authorities in designated evacuation zones activated their plans immediately, with
the intention of completing the evacuation in 5 days. Evacuation was not compulsory, and those
parents who chose to take part were basically told to send their children to school with nothing
more than a set of spare clothes, toothbrush and comb, a handkerchief, and enough food for the
day. Many had to wait several days to learn where their children had been taken.
School groups had the first priority in the scheme, and trains were provided
throughout the country to take them to their new homes. On arrival, they
were met by billeting officers whose responsibility it was to allocate
and then introduce them to their "hosts". But "allocation"
was sometimes extremely arbitrary - boys and girls were lined up, and
prospective "foster parents" queued to select their charges.
"I'll take him" was etched into the minds of many schoolboys
... and with no attempt at checking on the suitability of these "foster
parents", the evacuation scheme has since been described as a "paedophile's
But initially, none of this applied to the children of South Shields - like most of Tyneside,
it was not considered a "vulnerable area". However, several boroughs were unhappy that
their children were being left vulnerable, and eventually the government agreed to extend the
evacuation to a wider area. The decision whether to evacuate was based on how near they were to
the river, on the local population density, and also on the lack of good locations to build Anderson
shelters. Although the South Shields Boys High School itself was outside the designated evacuation
area, about half of its boys lived in the designated areas and of these, half of them chose to
go to the country.