University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Putting a positive spin on war-time evacuation

In this blog post, second-year history student Alex Symonds looks at a diary from World War II, now in the Imperial War museum.  The diary, apparently a joint effort by three girl guides, was probably intended for public consumption, and thus downplays the negative impact of war-time life for evacuees.

The evacuation of British children in World War II is often depicted as a negative experience for everyone involved.  Children who had never even left their home towns suddenly had to adapt to life in the countryside and living with strangers, while their host families were confronted with dirty, disease-riddled children who were nothing like they had ever seen before.[1]  There is a plethora of primary sources that reflect this, including letters from hosts complaining to officials about the state of their child, and official statistics on how many children were relocated to different households.[2]  However, not all sources reflect this evacuation horror story; an alternative, more positive experience is reflected in the diary kept by three girl guides who ran an evacuee hostel in Perthshire, Scotland.  The diary is now held by the Imperial War Museum.[3]

The two pages discussed here cover what life was like in the Balendoch hostel in April, May and June of an unspecified year between 1941-1944 during World War Two.[4]  Each entry in the diary covers one or two months (May and June are covered together), with brief descriptions of any events that occurred, such as an air raid in April, and is accompanied by photographs.[5]  The entries are overwhelmingly positive, which is abnormal for diaries from this period, and the reasons for this are touched upon further on.  While it is not stated which of the three girl guides wrote each entry, it is not unreasonable to assume that it was a collective process.

This leads us to the first thing to consider when analysing this source: unlike many other examples of diaries, this was not intended to be private, instead showcasing what life was like at the hostel, and keeping track of how they were affected by the war.  Historian Harriet Blodgett is of the view that the greater the explicit purpose of a diary, the less likely it is to be honest and critical, and this can certainly be applied to this source.[6] While the purpose of the diary is not stated in the web-accessible pages, the presentable layout and lack of detail on less positive aspects of life speaks for itself: this is certainly not a diary used for writing down the author’s deepest and darkest thoughts. In addition, the authors would have been well aware that they were contributing to the war effort with their hostel; it was even acknowledged by the Girl Guides’ founder Baden Powell in letters to the girls, so the likelihood of them writing the diary expecting no-one to ever read it is slim.  While there are other cases of diaries being kept with the knowledge that it could be read, this is uncommon.[8]

While serving this purpose, the authors (intentionally or not) constructed a positive narrative of what life was like at the hostel, no doubt because they were aware that their experience was being discussed.[9] They perhaps did not foresee their diary becoming a museum exhibit, but the letters from Baden Powell made it clear that their efforts were being noticed.  Also, making monthly entries would have given the authors time to consider what should be entered, which John Tosh argues can vastly affect how genuine diary entries are, as it is easier to construct a narrative when writing with hindsight.[10]  In addition, there is evidence of them constructing a positive narrative with their wording, with the May and June entry stating “before very long quite a lot of people will be able to swim quite well.”.[11] This only touches upon the progress that a vague number of people have made, ignoring any negative incidents, and every other activity that occurred over the two months, focusing on what they saw as worthy of documentation. The April entry also features the only mention of bombings and warfare in these two entries, which presents an air raid as a positive experience because they drank cocoa afterwards, completely ignoring any fear that most likely the children experienced.[12]  There is undeniably a narrative present here, especially when you consider that they likely knew that this would be read by others after the war was over.

These points do not render this source useless though, they just change the viewpoint from which you should study the diary.  While the diary may ignore any negativity, having a record of positive experiences of evacuation presents an alternative to the stereotypes mentioned at the start of this blog. Travis L Crosby writes heavily about the negative experiences of evacuees, reporting high levels of arguments between the children and their hosts, along with 750 cases of relocating evacuees to different homes just in three months in Maidenhead.[13] Arthur Marwick has similar findings, stating that nearly a million evacuees had already returned home by 1940 due to failing to adapt to countryside life and their hosts being unwilling to house them due to their filthy conditions.[14]  Clearly, the Balendoch hostel was not a standard host, resembling more of a summer camp with fun activities designed to distract children from the war, aiming to take away a lot of the fear experienced elsewhere.[15]

This diary has value because of everything that it is not, it is a positive example of evacuation that can be used as a valid comparison to the negative narratives that are portrayed by historians like Crosby and Marwick.  It has value as a personal source due to its intentional narrative, multiple authors, and planned entries.  By some definitions, such as Ralf Wuthenow’s, it lacks so many key characteristics of a diary that it perhaps should not be considered as one.[16] Used alone, it portrays a misleadingly positive image of evacuation, but without sources like this one you would be lead to believe that evacuation was entirely negative for everyone involved.

[1] Arthur Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 265

[2] Travis L. Crosby, The Impact of Civilian Evacuation in the Second World War. (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 31-32

[3] Unknown, “Evacuation Hostel Diary, Balendoch, 1940-1945.” https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030013451, last accessed 04 March 2020

[4] It was between 1941-1944 due to the hostel opening in June 1940, and the diary finishing in January 1945.

[5] “Evacuation Hostel Diary, Balendoch, 1940-1945.”

[6] Penny Summerfield, Histories of the Self: Personal Narratives and Historical Practices. (London: Routledge, 2008): 52

[7] “Evacuation Hostel Diary, Balendoch, 1940-1945.”

[8] Christa Hämmerle, “Diaries” in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History, edited by Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann. (London: Routledge, 2008), 141-142.

[9] Kaspar von Greyerz, “Ego-Documents: The Last Word?” German History 28, no.3 (2010): 275.

[10] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History 6th ed. (Florence: Routledge, 2015), 106.

[11] Unknown, “Evacuation Hostel Diary, Balendoch, 1940-1945.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Crosby, Impact, 32.

[14] Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War, 265.

[15] Maggie Andrews, Women and Evacuation in the Second World War, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 136.

[16] Christa Hämmerle, “Diaries.”, 142.

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