London 1939: A City Without Children

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Just after 500,000 young people were evacuated from London, an Atlantic correspondent roamed the streets of the city, reporting on the weirdness of a metropolis suddenly missing a generation.

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BBC

In 1939, visions of a darkening Europe began to fill the pages of The Atlantic. Reading these pieces now is like watching dark clouds gather, but with full knowledge of the destruction that is about to unfold.


"City Without Children," by the novelist Storm Jameson, describes the early days of Britain's war with Germany when, in anticipation of bombings and gassings, more than half a million children were evacuated from London. In the days following the exodus, Jameson explored the neighborhoods that once brimmed with children playing, interviewing the few children who remained and the families who had sent theirs away. Her piece blended observations of life proceeding as usual with the new macabre reality of the war:     

Over half a million children were hurried out of the city. Some further hundreds of thousands went independently, packed off to relatives and boarding schools in the country. On Wednesday, September 6, London looked as it would look if some fantastic death pinched off the heads under fifteen. It was an exquisite day; we have had a poor summer, much rain and low gray skies; today, and all this first week, sunlight, the wind mild and fitful, the sky clear. In this light, London is extremely handsome. Very early in the morning the balloon barrage looks unreal and very frail. As the light strengthens, the balloons become clear and hard, oversize stars in a perfectly blue sky. A pity there are no children to point at them.

The balloon barrage was a string of blimp-like vessels connected to ground by steel cables. It acted like a barbed-wire fence around the city, making it difficult for enemy aircraft to maneuver into the city and attack. But these, Jameson illuminates, were only superficial changes to London. The loss of the children ran much deeper. "Overnight, London has become what it will look like in another half century -- war or no war, bombs or no bombs -- when fewer and fewer children are being born," Jameson writes. "Half a million grown men could be moved out of the city and it wouldn't make any serious change. But without children, an essential part of the picture has been wiped out."

The most striking passages in the piece are about mothers who either regretted sending their children away, or had an uneasy time justifying why they let them stay. One sobbed over the thought of the war preventing her from ever having a family. She and her husband had built a nice home for themselves, but what was that worth if they couldn't have children?

No. We didn't send a child away because we haven't one to send. ... Oh, can you understand this war? Tell me why it had to come, spoiling our lives, tell me! Perhaps we shall never have a child now, never; it's all been wasted. Excuse me, I feel ashamed of crying, but when I look at my nice things over two pounds we paid for that carpet -- and he has a shelf for his books, and we were going to have, to have, we were going.

In 1939, the future of the Britain was in question and no one knew the answers. Would the evacuated children have homes to come back to? "Even a well meaning government cannot evacuate the thoughts of its citizens," Jameson writes. One woman she spoke with refused to believe the Germans would bomb London. Her words eerie now, foreshadow the death toll that the war would take across the continent and around the globe:

How could anyone, even Germans, bring themselves to murder thousands and thousands of people in cold blood? Why, you can't believe it; it would be the end of all things. They'll never do it. Never

Read "City Without Children" in its entirety.
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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