Evacuees first Christmas in wartime Lancashire

Eighty years ago thousands of child children were preparing for their first Christmas away home in Lancashire

By Mike Hill
Tuesday, 24th December 2019, 5:00 pm
A group of children evacuated from Salford to Blackpool during the Second World War
A group of children evacuated from Salford to Blackpool during the Second World War

The first Christmas of the Second World War was a time of great upheaval for thousands of children in Lancashire.

Within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 a mass programme swung into action to evacuate youngsters out of the nation’s major cities amid fears Hitler’s bombers would target the big urban centres.

The Government sought to rehouse evacuees with willing families in the relative safety or rural areas and smaller towns and cities.

Evacuees Christmas Party, Lancaster, in 1939 Picture: Red Rose Collections

As the festive season approached many of these children faced the prospect of their first Christmas away from home and family as the grim reality of wartime life hit home.

The operation was huge with 3,000 children from Salford making the journey to Lancashire on the first day of the evacuation alone.

A further 4,000 followed from Manchester and arrived at Preston Railway Station happily smiling and singing.

With the Government predicting Manchester a likely target of raids so arrangements were made for evacuees to be housed in communities, including Fulwood, Walton-le-Dale and Longridge.

First World War evacuees at the Winter Gardens, Morecambe, in 1939 Picture: Red Rose Collections

Across the first week of September more than 1.5m children across the nationwere transported to safety out of cities like London, Liverpool and Bristol. At the same time more than 500,000 mothers with children under five and 12,000 pregnant women were relocated.

And teachers also found themselves forced to relocate to ensure the evacuee children could keep up with their studies. By the end of 1939 many parents of the evacuated children had decided to bring their children home when the expected bombing raids of cities had failed to materialise.

The authorities were powerless to prevent any parents from taking their children back home for the school holidays as they remained their legal guardians.

However, the Government and local councils strongly urged families to resist the temptation to be reunited in the family home as the festivities offered no immunity from enemy attacks.

Three young evacuees sleep soundly in their new Blackpool home

And the sight of any children returning home would increase the likelihood of other parents wanting to bring their loved ones back.

While those youngsters left with their hosts would be more likely to be unsettled and it was felt children given time at home for Christmas would find it hard to return to their safe havens in the New Year.

There were also fears over the added burden on the rail network of transporting the evacuees at what was traditionally a busy period on the railways. Travel restrictions brought in a few months before the holiday were beginning to bite with petrol being rationed forcing people seeking to get away on to trains. However, plans were drawn up for some parents to be allowed to travel out from the cities to see their children for the holiday.

While there were no concessions on accommodation or meals for the visitors billeting officers often did their best to help. In Fleetwood, for example, residents were asked to co-operate with a scheme to house parents for the holidays at reduced rates. At the same time they did not want to upset hoteliers who would normally expect healthy bookings at the time of the year.

First World War evacuees from Salford arrive in Lancaster in 1939 Picture: Red Rose Collections

Right across Lancashire it was also decided to throw parties for the children staying behind in the county to bring some festive cheer.

With 1,200 children in the port - many from Widnes - Fleetwood’s chief billeting officer Mr E Hewitson told the Lancashire Post: “We are anxious that parents should spend some part of the holidays with their children and we are hoping for an extension of the generosity that has prevailed throughout the reception of these children.

“Artists are volunteering their services to provide daily entertainment of a first class character for the evacuees, and owners of the cinemas are joining in with free film shows. The only thing necessary to make Christmas 1939 a really memorable one is to get the parents to join in the fun. ”

Many of Lancashire’s Salford evacuees stayed for Christmas with their hosts pledging to make the season as happy as possible. In Lancaster, right across the city house parties were organised while fundraising events were held to prepare for civic get togethers for the children. It was hoped all evacuees could attend these celebrations, which typically consisted of tea, followed by games and then organisers had high hopes of giving each child a small present.

They went on record with the aim to give these children a treat and leave them with a happy memory of their first Christmas in Lancaster. A notice was placed in the Lancaster Guardian asking for, “as many people as possible to contribute one shilling to this fund. Every person contributing one shilling to his fund will enable one child to come to this party.”

The response was terrific with close to £15,000 - equivalent to £500,000 today - raised so the young visitors could be entertained over the festive period.

Meanwhile, in Preston the evacuees enjoyed a great party as this report in the Lancashire Post confirms, “The young evacuees at Fulwood had a rollicking time at the Garstang Constitutional School, and their fun was undoubtedly increased because some of their mothers were able to be present. “Father Christmas there, and, joy of joys, there was a cinema show!”

Inevitably the dark shadow of war meant many of the traditional festivities had to be scaled back as the war took its toll with restrictions on goods and shortages. Presents were often homemade out of recycled material and then put under a tree due left unlit to the black-out regulations. This affected stores too, as extravagant shop displays were obstructed by anti-blast tape across the windows.

The limited amount of decorations available in shops meant that the children who were still in school were able to create their own decorations by painting old newspapers and using scraps of paper. Many gifts were topical, Armed Forces uniforms were popular among children, and so were card games like ‘Vacuation’ and ‘Blackout’, many books were also available including ‘Blackout Book’.

Gifts were slightly different for adults, with popular presents including leather or Rexine gas masks and steel or Bakelite helmets. Food supplies in 1939 were yet to be rationed although the Minister of Food announced a shortage of butter and bacon which would lead to them being limited in the new year and so everyone was determined to enjoy the festive season knowing it may be a while before they would do so again. As a result many hotels and restaurants across Lancashire were fully booked over the period.