Roughly two million British children were displaced during the Second World War, shipped from London to Commonwealth countries where they would be safe from bombings. As part of Operation Pied Piper, the first wave of evacuations saw 660,000 children, mothers and hospital patients, as well as 100,000 teachers, moved in just three to four days. By the war’s end, the population of Greater London dropped from 8.7 million to 6.7 million.
For many of the evacuees, there are no records, no stories, no narratives to assign following the evacuations. It was a hectic time and the wartime exodus is largely regarded simply as a historical event, said Claire Halstead, a PhD student studying History at Western.
But Halstead is working to change that, at least on the Canadian front. Her thesis work, by its completion, will account for more than 3,000 children who came to Canada as part of Operation Pied Piper, of which 1,500 came by way of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB).
Halstead spent four years looking through files from the CORB. In these files, she found stories – details of displaced children’s lives, including everything from their new addresses to medical treatments they might have received.
“I found those (files) and thought, ‘How come no one has looked at these before?’ Someone must have, because we have a general number of how many of the state children had (migrated). But no one has actually compiled them, and I thought, ‘This is gold,’” Halstead said.
Over the last few years, she complied a comprehensive database of evacuees – the first of its kind.
“These statistics have meaning. The impact of this is, when someone writes to me and says, ‘My grandmother was this (evacuated) person,’ they’re no longer abstract people,” Halstead continued. “Their stories have meaning because I can put their name into my database and pull them up. I know where they went, how long they stayed there, who they lived with, the address, if they moved, had any health issues, their schooling, and, sometimes, what they did later in life.”
Halstead is still working on the database and it is not yet public. When completed, she would like to share it and see it in the British national archives.
“They’re no longer a broad movement of people, who we don’t know and just live in our imaginations. These are people, and as a historian, I’m very much reminded I’m speaking about people’s lives, not just historical subjects. These are people’s stories I’m telling,” Halstead said.
People have already contacted her, she added, and she was able to help one woman trace the story of her mother.
“Hopefully, it will make a good contribution to Canadian history, too. But it’s truly a transnational project in that I’ve had to do my research in Britain and in Canada – no one’s been able to create that marriage before,” she explained.
In her work, Halstead has likewise uncovered hundreds of children’s letters. History has few sources created by children, she noted, so the letters are especially important as they give a glimpse into history from their perspective.
“In history, we often have to look at childhood from the adult’s perspective. But that negates and neglects the child’s voice. We don’t know what it was like to be a child in war; we know what it’s like for an adult remembering that,” Halstead said.
“By getting these children’s letters together and reading them, we get to hear the child’s voice and how they perceived that separation and those different stories.”
She hopes she can engage the Canadian community in her project as well, added Halstead, who appreciates the support of her supervisor, History professor Jonathan Vance.
“It’s not just about the British children. It’s hugely about Canadians who stood up and said, ‘I’m willing to take a child for no pay.’ They got a small tax break, took a child they’ve never met and cared for them as their own for 4-5 years. This is a big part of our history. It’s about philanthropy; it’s about the war effort and it’s about nationalism and regionalism.”
SEARCHING FOR NAMES. Claire Halstead, a PhD student studying History at Western, is searching for anyone who knew a child evacuee as part of Operation Pied Piper. Contact her at email@example.com.