City Without Children

A correspondent describes the early days of Britain's war with Germany when, in anticipation of bombings and gassings, more than half a million children were sent away from London.
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The children were sent out of London over the week-end. On Friday and Saturday, with the roads and railways cleared of ordinary travelers to make room, it was a little like an unexpected picnic. The picnickers carried knapsacks, gas masks, and packets of food which became unpalatable in the hours of a long hot day. On Sunday morning we were at war with Germany. Everything changed. The helpers at main-line stations no longer found it amusing when a mother nursing one baby and dragging the other hung back at the last minute, looking over her shoulder at the husband standing by helplessly. 'D' you know, miss, I think I won't go after all. Y' see, I never left him before; how's he to manage?'

'Get in, get in. You can't go back. Quickly. There are others to come still.'

How long before the first air raid? Hours? Minutes? Remembering that Hitler had promised to darken the sky with his aeroplanes, people told each other that Chamberlain had wanted to get the children away before declaring war. Now was it too late? The days passed, the nights passed. A week after the beginning of war, London -- childless London -- has not been bombed.

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.

There are some. Kensington Gardens are for middle-class and wealthy children. 'Young society mothers wheel their own baby carriages.' The photograph shows the Honorable Mrs. Campaspe in short fur coat and short skirt, smiling across the hood of the carriage on one of the asphalted paths. But it is usually a gray-clad nurse or a governess who watches the children from the edge of the grass. This morning there are exactly five children and three nurses on a lawn-smooth space as wide as Piccadilly Circus. Even in wartime these nurses do not talk to strangers; opening my newspaper, I listen to two who must know each other very well.

'I thought you said you were leaving on Saturday, Mrs. Lowrie.'

'I thought so. But at the last minute her Ladyship said, "No, we'll wait. I don't believe there's so much danger as people think," she said. "Besides, why have I spent over five hundred pounds preparing bombproof rooms if we're going to run away?" "It's not the bombs I'm afraid of for them," I said; "it's gas." "Surely you're not afraid, Mrs. Lowrie?" she said. She laughed. I'm not afraid for myself; it's for them. However, this morning her secretary told me she had been writing off to Scotland, to ask if the house was ready, so I dare say we shall go soon. But what about yours?'

The other woman frowned. 'He doesn't want them to leave. She won't let me take the child away without her -- as if she made any difference! -- and she won't leave him unless he tells her to go. So here we are.'

'Perhaps he knows something -- in his position.'

'Know or not know, when even slum children are going, why keep ours here?'

Regent's Park, with its ring of elegant houses, is an easy walking distance from two of the more squalid warrens of London -- Camden Town and the slums behind Paddington Station. That is why the charming lawns on the canal are noisy half the year with agile dirty infants in the charge of matriarchs of eight or nine. The well-to-do Civil Servants, BBC officials, a novelist or two, who live elegantly on the edge, find the Park pleasanter in winter. They have it this bright day to themselves. Or almost. Two little girls, faces striped with dust and responsibility, have fetched here a bare-bottomed infant and a brace apiece of little filthy boys. Two of the now familiar cardboard boxes are lying with a baby's bottle and a ragged shawl.

'I see you've got your gas masks.'

'Well, we had to fetch them. One's mine and one's hers. Of course we haven't any masks for them,' -- she waved a hand at her brothers, -- 'they're too young, see? A nice sight I should look, me in my gas mask, running home with all this lot if a German comes hittling about here.' She giggled.

'Why didn't you go with the other children?'

'Mother wouldn't let us.'

'Why not?'

She had no idea and didn't care. She was not disappointed that they had had to stay behind; it was unlikely that anything in 'the country,' that place as blank in her mind as the Antarctic on old maps, was better than this; wherever she went she would have the baby and the rest on her hands. It struck me that the last time I saw her and her hands, rough and too old for her eight years, she was squatting on the edge of a pavement in Madrid. But she had no gas mask there.

London south of the Thames is a crazy quilt of swollen spoiled towns and villages; decent, squalid; old, bleakly new; with parks and commons, without. Stretched tight between a shopping street and the railway line, a dozen rows of scabrous little houses, two families to a house. The streets between the houses are asphalted wide gutters, on any holiday alive and running with children. All now as empty as though they had been upended and shaken. The silence was deafening. In a few of the houses women had seized the chance to clean up, but the women down here are slatterns compared with the women in the smoke-infected industrial towns of the north. There was a woman idle in most doorways or lounging with an elbow on the windowsill. And now that they could have clacked without raising their voices over the shrieking voices of the children they had nothing to say. Further on, a long street of shabby houses with ragged ends of garden, unnaturally tidy. A lorry-load of Anderson shelters had been sent here, and obediently and skeptically planted. 'I don't mind standing in one myself,' a woman said, 'but could I have squeezed in five children? I saw photos in the newspaper of bombproof rooms, but they say it costs a fortune.'

'Aren't there any children left in this street?'

'Yes, there are. The people in the end house kept theirs. Risky, I call it.'

In the end house three blond children, a girl and two boys, were playing in the kitchen: they had been into the street, their mother said, and had run in again because it was strange. She offered with a little defiance to show me the dugout her husband had made in the garden: he used the Anderson shelter and revetted the rest with boards. It took up the whole of that narrow space. He was there working on it, a middle-aged man, with that look of extreme patience and gentleness many English workingmen have. He was a young soldier in the war, the last war. He had been married twelve years, and for the last seven he had been unemployed. 'My sister offered me years ago to go to her with the little girl,' his wife said, 'and let the boys go to a home, and him do what he could. But I said, "No, we'll stick together, thank you," and my husband said the same. So when their teacher came here telling me to let them go with the others I wouldn't. God knows what it's taken us to keep together all these years; we're not going to break up now. I reckon if it's bombs we'll be safe enough in there. Anyhow we'll be smashed up together. I don't know why the government is so anxious about us. You wouldn't have thought it these last years.'

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