Past Talks

Evacuation to Bicester and Local Villages 1939-45

Date: 16th October 2017
Speaker: Martin Greenwood

Evacuation to Bicester and Local Villages 1939-45 ~ Martin Greenwood

In early 1939, the realisation that war was likely lead to ‘frenzied experimentation’ with evacuation arrangements.  Local authorities were surveyed to establish their capacity for accommodating children, mothers with young babies and the infirm.   The first wave of evacuees arrived in Bicester on 1st September 1939. They totalled around eight hundred children and teachers.  This was fewer than expected, as it was anticipated that whole classes would arrive.  One hundred and sixty-eight individuals were billeted in Bicester with the remainder being accommodated in the surrounding villages. Six hundred mothers and babies arrived the following day.  A packing list was issued by the government which included a gas mask in a case, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat.  In reality, urban poverty meant that many families struggled to provide these essentials.  Fred Smith, a Special Constable, was the Billeting officer for Bicester. 

The stables behind Bicester County School were used by fifty-four students and four masters from the London School of Photo Engraving.  This group included actor Kenneth Williams, who was billeted with Mr Chisholm, the vet, in Sheep Street.

Country life was a culture shock to many of the evacuees and relationships in homes, now housing additional women, were not always easy.  The Rendezvous Café, set up by Mrs Cannon, and suggested by Joe Leach as a suitable venue for evacuees, provided some respite. 

The ‘phoney war’ saw as much as half of the evacuated children return home, despite a government poster campaign to discourage this.  Some evacuees stayed long-term and never returned to their city homes.

A small number of children were regarded as ‘unbilletable’ and accommodated in Bicester in Market End House, the former workhouse.  Conditions were harsh and little or no education was provided for these children.  Most establishments of this sort were eventually closed by the Ministry of Health.

Additional rounds of official evacuation occurred nationwide in the summer and autumn of 1940, following the German invasion of France in May-June and the beginning of the Blitz in September.  One hundred and eighty evacuees came to settle in Bicester at this time, followed by a further group of a similar number.

Evacuees allocated to local villages had a significant impact on village schools.  In June 1940, the number on roll at Fringford School increased from ninety to one-hundred-and-forty when a party of children arrived from Walthamstow.  By October of that year, this was further augmented by a group from Tottenham and Stoke Newington.  A logbook entry reveals the headteacher’s view that “evacuees are constantly changing …. classes are by no means settled.” 

Cottisford House was used to house several dozen children who were under five years of age. 

Host families were paid an allowance and in 1946 received a certificate from the Queen in recognition of their work.

Generally, children had mixed experiences of evacuation and the work done to support them lead to the development of children’s services over the succeeding fifty years.