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.

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.

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In