An Insight into childhood in 1940s Britain.
Growing up during the second World War, children endured tremendous challenges to their young lives. Experiencing upheaval, shortages, grief, fear, fun and a large dollop of the great British ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude! This blog gives an insight into childhood in 1940s Britain.
On 1st September 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany, the Government began the evacuation programme of children from cities and large towns. Travelling, usually by train, often in school groups, children departed for the countryside. An exciting adventure for some, a cause for home sickness and sadness for others. The countryside, especially for those children only used to city living, certainly offered a complete change of life. Indeed, some children settled in isolated farming communities, with no running water or electricity.
The much-anticipated early air raids did not come to pass, as a result, many children returned home. However, the invasion of France in the late Spring of 1940, led to a second wave of evacuations. On this occasion, 24,000 children even found themselves being shipped off to other parts of the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa! There became a real threat of a British invasion. Many children, once sent to coastal areas in the South and East of England, found themselves on the new front line. These children endured further upheaval with a second evacuation!
CHILDREN ON THE FRONT LINE
Germany began bombing British cities and key locations. Air raids became frequent and frightening. For 57 consecutive nights, at the start of the blitz, London found itself a target. Other major cities and ports also endured terrifying attacks. Despite the mass evacuation process, many children remained in these locations. 7,736 children died during the blitz. A further 7,622 children received injuries. The bombings tore families apart, creating a lot of orphans too.
During this time children also found a way to help the war effort. Older children, members of girl guides and the scouting movement, helped with Air Raid Precautions (ARP), acting as messengers and firewatchers. Highly dangerous work, many died in their time of duty. Others worked for the voluntary service, helping displace families and those in need. Young children helped too, by collecting materials, like clothing and waste paper to be recycled. Others collected knitted socks and money to support the troops.
Disruption of schooling became inevitable during this period. The evacuation of thousands of children upset the system for months. In addition to this, the army requisitioned many school buildings for war use. The Imperial War Museum states that bombing destroyed 1 in 5 schools, whilst air raids disrupted lessons, sometimes for hours! Classrooms changed too. Some schools converted basements and cellars into makeshift classrooms. Others conducted lessons outside, especially when schools received damage from bombing raids. Rural schools often experienced overcrowding because of the influx of evacuees.
At the beginning of the decade, schooling remained compulsory up to the age of 14. In 1944, after the war, this rose to age 15, with a clause of this rising to 16. At the same time, parliament created the role of Minister of Education. Local authorities received more powers and compulsory attendance came into being. In addition to basic education, provision for recreation, medical inspections, transport to and from school, physical training and a quota of milk also now featured in a child’s daily school routine.
WORK AND PLAY
During the war time period, many 14-17 year old children worked full time. These children often worked in agriculture, offices, or industries, for example, aircraft production, ship building, or engineering. From 1941, all 16-18 years old children needed to register for National Service, even if they worked full time. Boys received call-up papers to join up from the age of 18. Girls, aged 18, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Service or needed to participate in other work related to the war effort.
Despite the difficulties that war brought children still found time to play. 1940s children loved going outside to play with their friends. Riding bikes, exploring their environments, including climbing trees, skipping and of course playing war time themed games! Children only seemed to stay in on rainy days. On these occasions, colouring, reading, board games and listening to radio programmes filled their time.
Cinemas provided magical entertainment when budgets allowed. Both teenagers and younger children visited the cinema as a treat. Due to the cost of colour production, many films remained in black and white. However, I’m sure they found great escape from the difficulties of the decade watching Walt Disney classics like Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. For older children, musicals like Meet Me In St Louis and Holiday Inn and block busters, like Casablanca, provided light relief for many.
Food rationing began in January 1940. Meat, sugar, butter, cheese and eggs all appeared on the list. Babies, children and expectant mothers did receive an additional quota of milk, orange juice and cod liver oil to maintain their health. In 1941 clothes joined the rationing list, although a recognition that children grow out of their clothes quickly, resulted in an amendment for children’s allowance in 1942. Every family joined the grow your own campaign. Children joined in this effort, growing vegetables at home and school.
A lack of critical ingredients meant sweet treats and puddings became a very rare treat. The government produced leaflets with adjusted recipes in. Steamed and baked puddings included mashed potato! Rolled oats and bread or breadcrumbs also helped to bulk a recipe out. Even Cadburys had to change their offering. The Ration Bar replaced the Dairy milk, made with dried semi-skimmed milk, wrapped in grease-proof paper and about as appetising as cardboard! Choices for confectionary became limited to liquorice, sherbet and boiled sweets like Sarsaparillas and Lemon Sherbets. However, some lucky children benefitted from the arrival of the American troops to Britain in 1942. The American servicemen, generous with their off-ration chocolate and chewing gum, also organised parties and dances for children at their bases!
We hope you have enjoyed ‘An Insight Into Childhood in 1940s Britain.’ If you are looking for gift ideas from this period, why not visit our Sweet and Nostalgic website where you will find a great selection of memorabilia and 1940s gift ideas.