West Sussex and its London Evacuees

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

It is nearly 80 years since the start of the Second World War.  West Sussex played a central role, not only in the preparation for the D-Day landings – which were commemorated earlier this Summer – but also in being a destination for many London schools during the initial evacuation efforts.


On the 1st September 1939, the Littlehampton Gazette released an article describing the arrival of 2,200 mothers, children, teachers and helpers to the town, 700 at a time by train.  More were expected over the next several days to make their way south from London.

Upon arrival, it seemed all unaccompanied children had somewhere to go, but appeals to house mothers with young children went out.  The demands were “reasonable shelter, access to water supply and sanitary conveniences… It is hoped that, in addition, householders will provide facilities for cooking.”  In other words: a bed, a sink, and a toilet were required; a cooker was optional.  It seemed lucrative to house evacuees, with households getting 10s 6d a week for one unaccompanied child (8s 6d per child if you took in two or more) or 8s a week for a mum and a child.

At the Record Office, the County and District Council records give us a remarkably complete view of the intense planning that went into arranging the evacuation of school children, whilst private recollections held here bring the stories to a more personal level, like adjusting to a new home, and integrating (or lack of integrating) with local children.

In the Summer of 1938, an official government committee laid down the basic principles under which evacuation would take place, and from January to August 1939 intense planning began to determine how many children would be evacuated, and to where.  This included taking stock of available billets in the area, meetings of the ARP and Evacuation Sub Committee concerning accommodation and education concerns, West Sussex being divided into 17 districts with a special liaison officer (aka a teacher)… it all took a lot of planning, to say nothing of the actual transport of the children.  Getting them to Sussex seemed to be the easy part!

By August it was estimated that, on the outbreak of war, up to 27,960 unaccompanied children and 2,970 teachers would be making their way to West Sussex.  It seemed by the 5th of August war was inevitable, as a provision made by the Emergency Executive Committee for the recall of teachers in the event of an emergency was made.  It stated that teachers were to be available at their respective schools on the 28th of August.  When this day came, the Clerk of the County Council received a letter from the Ministry of Health authorising all preparatory measures to be carried out, and on the 31st the Ministry of Health declared that the evacuation arrangements were ready to be carried out at a moment’s notice.

That moment came the very next day, when, with the invasion of Poland and a declaration of war days away, thousands of children and their teachers were taken from London, Croydon, Wimbledon, and Surrey to West Sussex.  Eleven West Sussex Rail Heads were involved in total.  Over the next two days more children were taken south when war was declared.  Only 50% of the expected number came (a percentage higher than the average for the nation) and Head Teachers began meeting to figure out how teaching and recreational activities were going to work.  By the 11th of September the majority of higher level issues had been ironed out, and local schools began to open up for the new term and their new students.

However, it became apparent that issues remained, and on the 23rd of September a meeting of the Liaison Officers was held to try and fix any problems.  The biggest difficulties were the poor distribution of children in relation to educational facilities.  A further meeting on the 7th of October revealed concerns that the London schools were making accommodation and plans for the students independently, causing friction and confusion over who was housing the children. It was quickly resolved, as by the 9th of October the duties of the liaison officers were considered complete.

Interviews held with evacuees revealed how tricky it could be to adjust to the new life.  Some came from relatively new and nice housing in Peckham.  They therefore struggled to deal with having “external toilet facilities consisting of a bucket” and the home being lit purely by candlelight.  Others had the opposite problems, coming from run down London slums to larger open air properties, with too much space and not enough neighbours. From those that housed the children, the transition was also not always smooth, and there were often instances of people insisting that the children be moved to another home for one reason or another.  In a few cases, some were even using the billeting money to try to pay for train tickets to send the children home!

The rest of autumn passed by, with the children adjusting to rural life (some better than others).  Plans for Christmas fast approached, with the government advising children not to be returned home.  They were given a week’s break for Christmas itself, but by the New Year many of the children had returned home regardless, as the first months of the war were not as intense as initially feared.  It seemed that the London parents felt the government had over-reacted to the threat of bombing, and many of the children could just not adapt to being away from home and family.  Though the first months of the war within the UK was not as fierce as first thought, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz the following year would bring a chunk of these children back out to West Sussex.


If you would like to get stuck in with our records, we’d recommend starting with MP 7410, a compilation of source material and notes on evacuation in West Sussex, compiled by Alan Readman.  From there, you can jump to:

  • AM 733/1 – Domestic journal of the war years 1 September 1939 – 10 May 1945, compiled by C. F. Harriss
  • AM 1034 – Billeting Records (WW2) kept by Mrs Ethel Talbot of Billingshurst
  • Garland N18703-22 – Photos of evacuees
  • BO/AR/21/1/12-15 – Arundel Borough letter books
  • BO/AR/24/3/1 – Arundel Borough Register of evacuee accommodation;
  • UD/HO/3/15/1 – Horsham Urban District Council Evacuation Committee Minutes;
  • UD/HO/1/47-50 – Horsham Urban District Council Minutes
  • UD/SH/24/13 – Papers concerning the return of evacuees to London
  • And then onwards and onwards until you have done enough research for a thesis!

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