We'll Meet Again

We’ll Meet Again: Evacuations

As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we look at those who were evacuated from Islington to rural locations during this time.

Throughout the Second World War, many of London’s children were evacuated to country towns, such as Cambridge, Kettering, Sheringham and Huntindon. The separation was often highly painful for both the parents and children; However, the press encouraged an unsentimental attitude towards evacuation, stating that, “Mother must use her head as well as her heart and be really sensible.”

Evacuees wore labels indicating their destination and were allowed to take one favourite toy. Parents were issued with a list of items that their children would require whilst away, including clothes and wash items, but many struggled to afford everything.

Foster families were advised to treat evacuees like members of their own family. Some children were probably happier, and many healthier, in the country, but most, naturally, missed their homes and families.

Evacuations from London began on 1 September 1939, however, many of these early evacuees returned to city within a few months. With relatively little military action occurring in the early period of the Second World War, people began calling it the ‘Phoney War’; this encouraged half of Islington’s children who went to Cambridge in 1939 to return to the city by March 1940. A second wave of evacuations took place during the Blitz, which started in September 1940.

Islington’s Evacuees

Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, 1939

A teacher from Hugh Myddelton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell, speaks to parents about evacuation from the school at the outbreak of the war. 

The evacuation of mothers, children and some disabled people began on 1 September 1939. In London, teachers took parties of children to the stations and the trains moved off once filled. Final destinations and billeting arrangements were fairly haphazard.

Evacuation from Holloway, Islington, 16 September 1939

Teachers from Holloway carry their baby while supervising the evacuation of local school children.

Teachers took an immense share of the responsibility for the care and organisation of evacuated pupils, which often disrupted their own lives. All those involved in evacuation found themselves learning how the ‘other half’ lived, sometimes a pleasant experience, sometimes a painful one.

North Islington Nursery evacuees, 1939/40

North London Islington Nursery evacuees playing and having fun outside at Ashenden, Essex.

Several large and famous country houses in Britain, including Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth House, hosted groups of evacuated nursery-aged children and their mothers. Many of these grand houses also became temporary schools. In some instances, the houses and their staff benefited from a sense of new life being brought into stately surroundings.

Tollington Park Central School evacuees, 1939

Evacuated girls from Tollington Park Central School, Islington, tending to a vegetable garden in Huntingdon. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged civilians to grow their own fruit and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet during a time of rationing and reliance on tinned food.

So-called ‘Victory Gardens’ were cultivated in private gardens and public parks, including Highbury Fields. There were vegetable allotments in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, and King George VI even instigated vegetable gardening at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Highbury Park Vale School evacuees, 1939/40

Highbury Park Vale School, Islington, evacuees milking a cow in the country. Dealing with farm animals was an entirely new experience for most Islington children, many of whom would have never seen a cow before.

Additions to the school curriculum included nature studies, practical geography and local history. Upbeat articles in the press encouraged the healthy country lifestyle, and how the children were too busy with lessons, new friends and activities to be homesick.

Islington evacuees fishing, 1939/1940

Whilst away from the city, evacuees took part in many new outdoor activities, including fishing. The Holborn and Finsbury Gazette describes such a fishing trip in 1939, “The river is a big attraction and in the shallows you will find many [evacuated] youngsters, hardly ‘complete anglers’ for their equipment usually consists of a jam jar, line and a bent pin, but all very optimistic and happy.”

Throughout the war, fish was not rationed but it became increasingly scarce and more expensive to buy as the war progressed.

Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be exploring the theme of shelters in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.

We'll Meet Again

We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45)

Islington Museum is delighted to present the photographic exhibition, We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45).

Over the coming months, we will be sharing a series of captivating images of the people and places in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War; shedding light on the hardships endured and perseverance demonstrated by those that lived through this historic time. Each week, We’ll Meet Again will explore a key theme from topics such as evacuations, shelters, bomb damage, the Home Front and Victory in Europe. This post we introduce this exhibition and provide context to to situation faced on the Home Front between 1939-1945.

The Second World War was a conflict fought on several fronts. Not only was victory secured by the forces fighting on the front line, but also by the daily sacrifice and determination of the people they left behind on the ‘Home Front’. 

The experience between 1939 and 1945 was unique in British history. Twelve Million British families fought their own battle, including those in Islington and Finsbury, who went without all but the most basic necessities. Civilians, alongside men and women in the armed forces not posted abroad, all endured the hardships and sudden dangers in what also became know as the ‘people’s war’.

Aspects of the Home Front were common to all: rationing, the blackout and, more terrifyingly, enemy air raids and the threat of untimely death. It was to prove a long period of regulation and shortage, uncertainty, boredom, fear and anxiety, and also a time of dramatic change. Children were evacuated, men and women conscripted into the forces or directed into essential war work, homes disrupted and lives were put on hold for an indefinite duration. Those not called to the armed forces helped the country in many ways: Civil Defence, the Women’s Voluntary Service, working in munitions factories, digging for victory, raising money for the ‘war effort’, or simply making a contribution by remaining cheerful and ‘making do’.  

Timeline 1939-1945: Islington during the Second World War

With its title taken from one of the most famous songs of the war, and sung by Vera Lynn, We’ll Meet Again portrays Islington and Finsbury’s home-front experience during these six historic years. Like many parts of inner London, the area suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz from 1940-41, and as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944. However, in spite of increasing fatalities and an uncertain future and hardship, Islingtonians and Finsburyites on the Home Front kept ‘calm and carried on’.  

Upon the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, Islington Museum presents a photographic exhibition to commemorate all who bravely endured life on the Home Front in Islington, Finsbury and beyond.

We’ll Meet Again is dedicated to the memory of Islington historian and resident Mary Cosh (1919-2020).

Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45. Next week we’ll be looking at the evacuations that took place from Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.

We'll Meet Again

Finsbury Under Attack (1939-45)

Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Citizens lived with the threat of bombing, invasion and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together.

Hugh Myddelton School, Clerkenwell, 4 September 1940. The school’s pupils reading comics and playing cards in their basement shelter during an air-raid drill.

The London Blitz inflicted major damage on EC1’s historic buildings, including the Charterhouse, the Priory Church of St John and the Church of the Holy Redeemer. However, not all was ruined. The 17th-century Oak Room at New River Head was removed to safety “for the duration”.

In 1943, the parcels depot at Mount Pleasant Post Office was destroyed. It relocated to the Royal Agricultural Hall in Upper Street, where it remained until the 1970s. Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Rosebery Avenue was requisitioned in 1940 to serve as a rest centre for bombed-out local families, while the cast and company went on tour.

One of the cruellest losses of life occurred on 15 October 1940 when the deep basement shelter at Dame Alice Owen’s School in Goswell Road received a direct hit. Many families were taking refuge when damage caused to a large New River water pipe resulted in many drowning. A total of 109 people out of the 143 people in the shelter perished – rescuers took weeks to recover the casualties.

Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, after 15 August 1940. A ‘downed’ German
Messerschmitt BF110 on display outside Finsbury Town Hall, as part of a ‘victory tour’ during the Battle of Britain.

The number of bombs dropped on Finsbury during the London Blitz amounted to 175 high explosive bombs and four parachute mines. In addition, further bombs landed during the ‘Baby Blitz’ of early 1944, as did the fearsome V1 and V2 Vergeltungwaffe, or ‘vengeance weapons’, rockets during 1944 and 1945.

Five days after the first V1 rocket or ‘Doodlebug’ hit London at Bow on 13 June 1944, it was Finsbury’s turn. A V1 rocket landed in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street resulting in 13 people losing their lives, with a further 83 injured. Six more V1 and V2 strikes were to follow, culminating in the devastating V2 attack on Charterhouse Street and Smithfield Market in the morning of 8 March 1945. A huge explosion caused massive damage to the railway tunnel structure below, into which many victims fell. In all, 110 people died and 340 were injured.

Of the borough’s 9,899 houses and flats, no less than 9,015 were damaged during the war: 983 were totally demolished, another 23 virtually so, and 642 hit badly enough to force the residents to evacuate. This left more than 11 per cent of the population needing re-accommodation. Although the population more than halved, from approximately 60,000 in 1939 to 27,000 by 1945, it was estimated at the end of the war that some 5,000 new housing units were needed. In the meantime, prefabricated houses rehoused the displaced in various parts of EC1, including Farringdon Road, Gee Street, Hermes Street, Ironmonger Street and King’s Square.

Finsbury Square, 15 October 1941. Firefighters bravely tackling a fire during the Luftwaffe’s ‘Tip and Run’ raids (1941–43) that followed the Blitz.

The severe housing shortage was recognised by the new Labour government, and Finsbury Council could now realise several housing plans that had been decided in its mid-1930s’ ‘Finsbury Plan’. The borough’s rebuild ensured that housing catered for its working-class – the majority of its population. This began with the Berthold Lubetkin-designed Spa Green Estate on St John Street/Rosebery Avenue (1946-50) which embodied the promise of post-war housing: a pleasant life, well-equipped flats and careful design.

It was to be a while before the council’s fuller realisation of a better residential post-war future was accomplished by building among others: the King Square Estate (1961), the Brunswick Estate (1949- 62) and the Finsbury Estate (1967). These schemes were truly born out of the rubble and wreckage created by the ‘terror from the skies’ some quarter of a century or so earlier – a rebuilding of Finsbury in the hope that the post-war era would serve to symbolise a brighter and safer future.

Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Mark Aston, Islington Local History Centre and Museum Manager. First published as The blitz spirit returns: EC1 under attack in EC1Echo (April/May 2020). With thanks to Oliver Bennett.