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.

In the early evening, white fleecy clouds covered the sky, like a woman's shawl. The sun dropped to the level of the balloons; they became incandescent. The Thames filled with light. Two little boys hung over the parapet of the embankment, watching. Someone had carefully labeled the cases of their gas masks in large black letters. Harry. John.

The elderly woman looked what she was, a schoolmistress. She had that impersonal kindness for children which comes of seeing them as so many unformed fidgeting bodies and reluctant brains. 'I blame women who won't part with their children. But I've no patience with the nonsense running out of the tap now, about their being happier living with strangers, and better-educated in their half days in village schools. Why they've had to be sent away is because no proper air-raid shelters were built while there was time to build them. That's why. Nothing else. The only thing the government could do now was push the children out of the way, quickly, billet them, and hope for the best. Some mothers came on the Wednesday asking, "Need we send them? Is it serious?" That was the BBC cooing at us it was only a precaution. But I knew. I remembered last September before Munich, when they sent a few trainloads of children into the country. They weren't serious then. The instructions I got then, if by accident anything had happened, couldn't have been carried out. Every schoolteacher knew they were eyewash; I knew. So when these plans came through, complete down to a bar of chocolate, I said, "So it's come; it's war." And I told all my mothers, Precaution or not," I said, "send them; you send them; you wouldn't forgive yourself if anything happened and it was like Spain, or China." It's queer isn't it? The people seem stunned. They keep on saying, "London, it's London." As if children could be smashed into pieces in Madrid and Guernica and Shanghai, but not in London. Or not in New York. I suppose the Americans think their children are safe. As we used to.'

III

London has become middle-aged, suddenly. It is because London children had the habit of wandering. They would walk miles, dragging still smaller children, to reach the Embankment, the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the Round Pond at the top of Hampstead. You fell over them in Bond Street and St. James's. Last summer a policeman threatened an infant who was trying to bathe in the Trafalgar Square fountain. He said he was three years old. 'Where d'you live?'

'Hackney Marsh. And I got to be off back, see?'

Three hours' hard walking through the jungle of traffic.

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. 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. There are gaps in the composition where a nurse should have been seated watching a child on the grass; or a harassed little girl, wheeling an infant past the shops, with two gripping her dress, should have pushed between the bodies of grown-ups. The gap made by one note dropped out of the scale is shocking. The ear listens for it in an impatient growing anguish.

If there is no raid next week, or the week after, the mothers will want their children back. A slatternly young woman with a baby, sent to a village near London, returned the next day. She preferred danger to the appalling boredom of a life without door-to-door gossip, streets of shops, and the comforting sense of the swarm of bodies near hers. 'Buried alive I was down there, so I've come home for Hitler to do the job proper.'

The woman reading the newspaper in the sunlight crumpled it up suddenly. 'Have you a son?' she said in a hard voice.

'Yes.'

'How old is he? Mine's eighteen. War age. That's what they call it. War age. If he was only eight, if I'd only waited ten years to have him, he'd be safely in the country now. There's four in my street whose children have been evacuated, missing them all day long,. grumbling, anxious - - yet they know they're safe. Safe. If I could send mine into safety! If there were anywhere on earth where I could hide him!'

Parts of Soho are like some shabby French town, like Bayonne. The flat shabby houses face each other in narrow streets, and the children sit on doorstep and chatter, chatter; the sound under the noise of traffic like water under a bridge. As soon as they left, this sound ceased, not only in these streets, but in every quarter of the city, exactly as though a fountain had been turned off at the source. Rooms, yards, playgrounds, the streets of poor districts, quiet suburban streets, parks, the banks of the canal, the river, have been silenced overnight. Goodness knows how often a woman, climbing the stairs of her house at night, listens for some sound; then remembers that no one is there. Or she will remember it in the street with its nagging emptiness. The legend of the first-born who had to die for what was not his mistake or guilt, and the other legend of the fortunate youngest brother, have returned to life as certain legends perpetually do, being truer than most facts. But each rehearsal differs from all the others. This silence, unnoticed as a whole but noticed at a million separate moments during the day, is new. It is disconcerting and harsh, like the silence after an air-raid warning or like the Armistice silence. Even a well-meaning government cannot evacuate the thoughts of its citizens.

Presented by

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

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

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In