Evacuation – From Catford to the Surrey Countryside

Large numbers of children were evacuated from London and other major towns and cities just before the declaration of war in September 1939. This post tells the story of one group from some schools on the Catford/Hither Green borders.

The bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in Spain by planes of the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 made British politicians expect an aerial onslaught on London within days of any war breaking out with Germany with likely large scale damage. In trying to mitigate the impact of this, a lot of the focus went on air defences,  but a big chunk involved  planning for the evacuation children and some mothers with infants from London and  other British cities and towns felt to be at risk.

The massive logistical plans for evacuation were put into practice on 1 September 1939 – the day Poland was invaded by Germany and a couple of days before war with Germany was declared. Thousands of people were involved and included teachers, local authority officials, railway staff, and 17,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). One of these seems to have been Olive Llewhellin, twenty five years before she was a militant suffragette living in Lee.

Over the course of three days, 1.5 million people were evacuated. Evacuation was initially voluntary, but a combination of the closure of many urban schools and a fear that bombing would start almost as soon as war was declared persuaded large numbers to allow their children to live with and be cared for by strangers. The taking in of evacuees was compulsory if the household had room.

There were a trio of schools be located by the Brownhill Road entrance to Mountsfield ParkCatford Central Boys School, Brownhill Road Boys School which was split into infants and juniors. The site is now a mixture of housing and a petrol station, the schools having been demolished in the early 1990s.

The parents will have been given a list of things that the children should take with them when evacuated. These items included a ‘gas mask in case (which had already been issued), a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat.’   These were things that in the poor areas of London, such as Hither Green that many families struggled to provide.

The Senior Boys snaked down Brownhill Road to Catford Station on Saturday 2 September with the Juniors making the same journey on the Monday. Their the initial destination was Ashford in Kent where they were taken to a school or theatre to await being billeted.  The quality of the accommodation and how well the children were looked after was understandably hit and miss.

Schooling in Ashford was limited, with teaching resources in short supply – it included the use of a Salvation Army Hall, heated with a stove that belched out fumes requiring the building to be periodically evacuated to allow the smoke to disperse.

The expected air attacks on London didn’t materialise as soon as expected and there was a drift of children back to their parents, the return journeys were against the advice of the Government as the poster shows. The children from Catford Central and Brownhill Road were no different in this respect with around a half of the children having returned to south east London- a temporary school was set up for them.

Germany invaded Holland and Belgium in May 1940 and it was no longer felt that Ashford was safe so the children from the Catford/Hither Green border were moved to Sayers Croft near Ewhurst in Surrey later that month.

In April 1939 the National Camps Corporation was set up through the Camps Act to fund and construct camps that in peace-time would be used as educational holiday centres for children during but in war-time for evacuees. Eight of these were built, including Sayers Croft – it cost £25,968 and was designed to accommodate

348 children in six dormitories, together with a hall, a very large dining room with kitchens attached, 4 classrooms, a hospital block for 7 patients and quarters for camp staff, the camp superintendent, and the Headmaster

Things were difficult for teachers too – there were no school holidays and children had to be looked after at the weekends. While there was some help from locals in Ewhurst, the teachers worked 11 days a fortnight with no holidays.  Lessons were fairly standard fayre for the era but in craft the lessons included boot repairs – important in a period when clothing was rationed and a being able to make do and mend was vital.  When the weather allowed it, lessons were taught outside – reminiscent of the McMillan sisters’ theories on early years teaching, Rachel and Margaret lived at the opposite end of Mountsfield Park for a while.

As was the case in the park next to the school, Mountsfield Park, some of the land belonging to the camp was turned into allotments as the children from Catford were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’.

There were a couple of murals (155 cm²) painted in 1942 of activities at the camp – one showing summer lessons and pursuits and the one pictured for the winter.

The children went to the pictures in nearby Cranleigh and some films were shown in the hall, the staff did pantamines at Christmas. Unlike those chidlren who were evacuated well away from London, the children from Catford, still being relatively close to home, had monthly visits from their parents on the last Sunday of the month.

As we saw with the post on the bombing of Sandhurst Road School many of the children who had been initially evacuated from London during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, returned to the capital after the end of the bombing in May 1941. Some of the children then back at Brownhill Road were shot at during the same raid in which Sandhurst Road was bombed .

There was a further wave of evacuations from Lewisham and elsewhere when the V-1 flying bombs started hitting the area in June 1944 – including on the second day of attacks a hit on Lewisham Hill and included in the following days attacks on Lenham Road, Lewisham High Street, Fernbrook Road and the area around Hither Green Station.   Some children remained away from their homes throughout the war.

After the end of the War, Sayers Croft was intitally used to rehabilitate a group of Dutch children following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, but then went back tot its secondary purpose as an educational holiday centres. It was transferred to the Greater London Council and eventually to the Sayers Croft Trust, an educational and environmental charity.

As for the School, maybe more on that another day but it continued until the late 1980s, when it was demolished for housing and a petrol station.

Notes and Thanks

  • The postcard of the camp is undated and comes from eBay in November 2016
  • The two posters come from the Imperial War Museum archives and are used here on a non-commercial licence, they remain the copyright of the IWM.
  • The photograph of the evacuees comes from the collection of Olive Llewhellin, a suffragette who had lived in Lee, but in 1939 was living in Poole – the picture is owned by Ruth Knapton – Olive’s adopted niece and is used with her permission but remains her copyright.
  • The school photograph is part of the collection of Lewisham Archives, it is used with their permission but remains their copyright.
  • The external teaching photograph is from the Sayers Croft Trust website, and the mural from their Twitter feed.
  • There is a lot more on Sayers Croft in a booklet produced, probably in the early 1990s but is available on line – via the University of Greenwich Memories of War site – the photograph of the children outside the block come from this booklet.



10 thoughts on “Evacuation – From Catford to the Surrey Countryside

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