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The Evacuation of Channel Islanders to Northern England in June 1940

by Gillian Mawson - Channel Islands Evacuee Researcher

 


  Evacuees at Cheadle Hulme 1940

The Channel Islands, 1940: beautiful rural islands inhabited by people whose income was derived predominantly from agriculture and horticulture;

North West England, 1940, full of industrial factory towns, their buildings coated in soot from domestic and industrial chimneys. Inhabited by people whose income was mainly derived from industry and manufacturing. 

 

Evacuees at Cheadle Hulme Parish Hall, Cheshire
 

Little did these two populations realise that their fates would become inextricably linked, as Germany invaded France and the threat of Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands became inevitable.  

In late June 1940, over 5,000 Channel Island school children, accompanied by 500 teachers and helpers, fled their homes, followed by around 15,000 further men, women and children. Many possessed just the clothes they were wearing, others had just one small suitcase containing a change of clothes and a sandwich. Some children were told that they were just going on a school trip for the day. As the parents said goodbye to the school children, they told them they would try to follow on the next available boat. However, within days, Germany bombed Guernsey's harbour, so that 'next boat' never arrived. 

 

As a result, only around 20,000 men, women and children, around half of the population, escaped the Channel Islands before they were Occupied by German Forces on 30th June. Many parents had to remain behind, not knowing where their children would end up in Britain, or whether they would ever see them again. They would not meet again for five long years. 

 

The evacuees boarded several evacuation ships plus vessels such as mail boats, coal barges, cattle boats and filthy boats that had just rescued wounded soldiers from the French coast. There were not enough lifebelts for everyone. As the boats sailed throughout the night across the rough sea to England, avoiding mines and enemy aircraft, the evacuees endured appalling overcrowding and seasickness. The boats reached Weymouth at dawn, where the evacuees were fed, health checked and labelled. In the confusion, many brothers and sisters were separated, whilst others lost the tiny suitcases which contained the few possessions that they had. Thousands of Channel Island men joined the British Forces whilst the remaining evacuees were bundled into steam trains - the first they had seen in their lives.  

 

Without knowing their destinations, and with the train windows blacked out to avoid bombing, thousands of  exhausted men, women and children were transported to places such as Stockport, Bury, Oldham, Wigan and Manchester, which they had never heard of, and which differed in so many ways to the islands of their birth. Ironically, many Northern children had just been evacuated away from for safety, yet here were thousands of rural children being evacuated to the North, which would soon become a major target of the Luftwaffe. A number of evacuees were also sent to Scotland. 

 

After many hours spent on trains, the evacuees arrived at Northern railway stations in the early hours of the morning. Town Council officials and volunteers were there to greet them; they had been given only 48 hours notice of the children's arrival in order to prepare to receive, board and feed them. Some of the reception committee evidently did not know where the Channel Islands were, and thought the evacuees would not understand English, as translators were on hand. The evacuees were taken into numerous public buildings, which had been transformed into Evacuee Reception Centres, such as Town Halls, churches, cinemas, Masonic Halls, and dance halls. Here the evacuees were greeted by row upon row of camp beds which would become their home for up to four weeks. 

 

The local communities rallied to the cause, providing blankets, clothing, food, and in particular, entertainment, books and toys for the children. Picnics and tea parties were arranged and some of the evacuees watched special performances at Manchester's Belle Vue Zoo and Circus. Between 1940 and 1945, one Bury man, Mr J W Fletcher, collected hundreds of pounds in order to provide the Channel Island children in the Bury area with Christmas presents; people as far away as America, Australia and Canada sent money for this purpose.  

 

Since May 2008, I have interviewed 170 surviving evacuees living in Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Northern England.  Many evacuees returned to the Islands after the war, whilst others chose to remain in England as they had formed friendships, started college or found good jobs. The interviews give a wonderful insight into the experience of the evacuees during the war. They illustrate how Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire families took evacuee children into their own homes and cared for them for five years, and how many were heartbroken when these children left them at the end of the war. Sadly a number of children told me that they had unhappy experiences in some of their billets during the war. 

 

The interviews show how, after leaving the Reception Centres, Channel Island teachers and mothers took over empty properties, and that, in many cases, their neighbours provided them with bits of furniture, crockery and friendship. Islanders settled in areas such as Cheadle Hulme, Disley, Bury, Halifax, Knutsford, Oldham, Buxton, Eccles, Stockport and Wigan. The interviews show that the adult evacuees had left home with few possessions and little money, but that they worked hard to make ends meet, and to fit in with the local people who welcomed them.  

 

The children attended local schools in order to continue their education as best they could. However, some of the evacuated teachers set up their own schools in England in order to keep the pupils and teachers together throughout the war. For example, Guernsey evacuees in Cheadle Hulme re-established their school in the local Parish Hall. Guernsey's Elizabeth College taught the senior boys at Whitehall, near Buxton, whilst the Junior boys remained in Great Hucklow in Derbyshire. Upon leaving school at the age of 14, many evacuees went straight into Britain’s war industries to build parts for planes and submarines or to make ammunition. Others joined the British Forces, the Home Guardof the ATS, whilst others packed Red Cross parcels and made parachutes.

A wealth of fascinating documents donated by the evacuees - Red Cross letters, telegrams, newspapers, diaries, and photographs - give a glimpse into their lives in towns that were so very different to their island homes. As well as integrating into their local communities, the evacuees also set up nearly a hundred 'Channel Island Societies'. These societies held weekly meetings and the Stockport society even produced its own magazine. Surviving magazines indicate the importance of these societies to the evacuees. The rare Red Cross messages received from the Islands were reprinted in the magazines, as well as news of births, deaths, marriages and deportations of Channel Island civilians to Germany. They were the main source of information on what was happening back home, and were passed from person to person. At one point, up to 5,000 copies of the magazine were produced in Stockport each month. 

The interviews reveal too that, upon their return to the Channel Islands in 1945, some of the younger children were reluctant to leave the families they lived with in England.  Upon arriving home, some discovered that their  homes had been destroyed or looted by German soldiers. In addition, the German army had built fortifications all around the island's coast, which can still be seen today. Sadly, a number of children failed to bond with the parents they had left behind five years before. One boy stated "When I got back to Guernsey, I didn't recognise my Dad - we couldn't form a proper relationship, we were like strangers". One girl stated "I left as a teenager and returned as a mother with a new born baby, my family didn't know how to relate to me". One girl discovered that two new sisters had been born on Guernsey during the war, and she felt she was not really part of the family.  Several evacuees recall encountering an upsetting 'us and them' mentality as they were asked "Were you one of those who stayed, or one of those who ran away?"  Some evacuees decided not to return to the Islands in 1945, but to remain in England to continue their education, remain in their jobs or to marry local people and raise their families in the communities that had taken them in. 

 Evacuees Leaving Disley August 1945

Many of the evacuees still retain friendships with the families that cared for them during the war years, and a large number of interviewees have expressed a wish to thank the people of Northern England for their kindness during the war. An evacuee reunion was held in Oldham in 1990, whilst another was held in Stockport in June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the evacuees in the town. These evacuees were delighted to discover that the Guernsey flag is flown every year around Liberation Day at Disley Church in Cheshire - a lasting tribute to Disley's remembrance of the evacuees from the Channel Islands. 

Disley villagers wave farewell to evacuees on 13th August 1945 
 
 

 

If you wish to keep up to date on my research into the Channel Island Evacuation, please 

take a look at my website and blog at: 

 

http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com  

 

Gillian will be delivering Guernsey Evacuation workshops to several Manchester schools, and has decided to use the hundreds of interviews with Guernsey child and adult WW2 evacuees to create a 'Guernsey Mother's 1940 Diary'. She will update it several times a week, all year, on her research blog & website, to demonstrate some of the experiences these 17,000 children and adults went through in 1940 as they were evacuated to England. Follow Pamela Dorey's daily diary at:

 

http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com/diary-of-an-evacuee-jun-1940/

 

Gillian Mawson – Researcher with the University of Manchester, 

and working with Stockport and Bury Museums on the story of the Channel Island Evacuation 

December 2010 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

  

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