British Evacuees in America during World War II

Keith A Parker. Journal of American Culture. Volume 17, Issue 4. Winter 1994.

In the Spring of 1940, as the Battle of Britain intensified, the images of war became more vivid to the American public. A prominent East coast newspaper called on its readers to open their hearts and homes to the children of that beleaguered island. The idea was that these innocent babes could find safety and refuge in their then neutral nation. Despite the isolationists and historical anti-Anglo sentiment in certain parts of the nation, there still existed a pervasive sympathy and admiration for their cousins across the sea. Many offspring of wealthier British families, those who could afford the fare or who had connections on this side of the Atlantic, had already been sent over the ocean in a private and entirely unorganized manner. This was slow, cumbersome, and limited in scope. A coordinated body of voluntary organizations and individuals, assisted by government agencies, was desperately needed so that the outpouring of concern could be channeled into effective and speedy action.

In June 1940 a group of prominent and socially concerned men and women met in response to this problem in New York City. They established the United States Committee for the Care of European Children, with Eleanor Roosevelt as its honorary president, Marshall Field III as its chairman, and Eric Biddle as its executive director. Its charge was to arrange for transportation and temporary care of the children evacuated from the war zone. Its Board also included representatives from the three major religious communities to emphasize its nonsectarian nature, as it set up shop in the old Gramercy Park Hotel on Fourth Avenue. Although it was a purely private organization—the public figures acted in their individual capacities—almost immediate liaison was established with the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, the Department of State, the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice (the Attorney General was Francis Biddle) the British Embassy in Washington, the Red Cross, and the Save the Children Fund.

The State Department became at once involved because Committee proposals clearly skirted or undercut the Neutrality Laws. The Immigration and Naturalization Service would soon be called upon to modify the Immigration laws and the Attorney General would be involved. The Children’s Bureau had the job of coordinating and establishing standards for several state departments of welfare and private agencies which would be responsible for welfare and private agencies who would e responsible for monitoring the foster care of the children. The British Embassy, which was technically and legally responsible for these young British subjects, was much more concerned with the propaganda value to be milked from the presence of the children among a sympathetic public.

In the first flush of enthusiasm there was talk of bringing thousands of evacuees to this country. In actuality, only 861 British children came to the United States between June and August 1940 under the Committee’s auspices before the sinking of an evacuee ship by a German submarine caused the program to be halted. That ship, bound for Canada under a British government sponsored scheme, in August 1940 resulted in the death of 77 children. This caused the suspension of all evacuation programs, the authorities concluding that the danger to the children was greater at sea rather than from bombs at home. No American ship was ever used in the program and the Committee’s hope of chartering ships came to naught. The number of individual and completely unorganized voyagers was never accurately tabulated but estimates indicate that there may have been as many as 1,600. The halt in evacuation left the Committee with an intricate volunteer organization, a large staff processing 1,600 affidavits of support from families still awaiting children, thousands of inquires from families interested in offering their homes, and a nationwide fundraising program. They had already solicited a total of $97,494. The staff was immediately cut in size but the Committee did not conclude operations until 1953. Its attention in the post-war world was directed to continental European refugees.

As the news from Europe worsened, the American public indicated a willingness to receive the sons and daughters of Allied countries into their homes for the duration of the war. Gallup polls indicated that as many as five million families supported the idea. In typical American fashion, groups and individuals immediately swung into action. Friends and relatives contacted parents in England. Business firms with branches in Britain offered to house evacuees with their employees in the United States. University faculties extended hospitality to the children of English dons. Some of the more affluent and influential managed to get their children off quickly through their own efforts. Even before Dunkirk, ships had begun discharging little travelers in American ports. By June, inquiries by mail, phone, and in person mounted to nearly 2,000 a day. Some 170 welfare committees, scattered throughout the country, were recruited to assist in setting up the program on a local level. Minimum standards of child care to be adopted by state departments of welfare were established. These were to be maintained by periodic visits to the foster homes by professional social workers.

In response to charges that the evacuees up to that time had tended to come from the wealthier and upper classes, the British authorities created their own evacuation scheme. The Conservative dominated government, stung by the reputation it had received during the Depression years, and aware that it seemed to be approving of those who could afford to buy safety, wanted the war effort to be seen as a classless struggle. It had therefore set up a Children’s Overseas Reception Board. This body was charged with sending children to the British overseas dominions at government expense and was to be targeted at working-class families from industrial areas. On announcing the program in June, C.O.R.B. was swamped with over 200,000 applications in the next two weeks and had to cease taking any more. Although the New York Committee would have liked to have joined in this venture it was prevented from doing so by the Neutrality Laws. Consequently, it was necessary to work through the American Consul in London, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, and a related American Committee for the Evacuation of British Children.

In the meantime the New York Committee faced a host of other problems. Clearly many prospective foster parents were not aware of the distinctions between temporary foster children and adoptees. Some envisioned another hand on the farm, some wanted a companion for their own child, while others simply wanted a monthly check. If Catholic and Jewish organizations were to be approved as placement agencies, why could not Lutheran? And if not, why not? Did children who landed in Boston but were bound for Montreal need a visa or could they be transported in bond? Incidentally, the Committee maintained contact will the Canadian authorities to coordinate with similar programs in that country.

There were 36 different interstate standards for child placements, many requiring the posting of bonds for temporary adoptions. Some of these were as high as $1,000. Who was responsible for this? Was it the foster parents, or the Committee, the Embassy, or the natural parents? Did those natural parents retain legal title to the children, and what would happen if the parents were killed? Were support payments to be made, and if so, who would make them? Many practical, legal, and even humorous details had to be ironed out.

A major initial impediment to the Committee’s work was the immigration laws. In 1940 the quota for British immigrants allowed into the United States was 6,500 a month. This was a high figure but it did not provide for unaccompanied minors. Not only was there no provision for evacuees but the quotas were designed for permanent residency. Mrs. Roosevelt personally got involved and used her influence to modify these restrictions. Soon a plan was devised jointly by the State Department and the Attorney General to issue 13,000 extended visitor’s visas to children. Shortly afterward, blanket or corporate visas were issued to the Committee for the use of any and all evacuees rather than specific individuals. The President himself insisted that the immigration laws were not responsible for any delays in arrivals. The real problem lay in the lack of British shipping to transport the children.

Other citizens groups, such as Mercy Ships for Children, lobbied Congress for passage of the Henning Bill. This would revise the Neutrality Acts to allow for American ships to enter the War Zone to assist in the evacuation. The legislation passed by huge majorities in both the House and Senate, receiving the presidential signature within days. The Mercy Ships committee actually inquired into the costs of transoceanic transportation once the Neutrality Laws had been modified. The Maritime Commission advised that a medium-sized passenger ship, specifically the SS Manhattan, would cost $250,000 per roundtrip. This would carry about 2,000 children. Smaller boats would carry proportionately less. But fortunately, it was too late to save the program. Despite the requirement that the ships be clearly marked, if it had indeed happened it would not have been long before naval protection was required and all the pretense of neutrality abandoned. Earlier incidents involving the Robin Moor and the Reuben James suggested the inevitability of attack, especially since U-boat commanders had already said they would not respect this type of neutrality. Nonetheless, 63 percent of the American public said they supported this measure if the Axis would agree to leave the ships alone.

The Attorney General’s office had made it possible for the Committee to issue corporate affidavits for organizations in America to guarantee the support of specific numbers of children. They would then receive an equal number of blank visas in which the names of specific evacuees awaiting exit could hen be entered. Prior to this, a child bound for the U.S. needed a visa issued by a Consul who, on receipt of a guarantee of support from a citizen in the U.S., would ten be required to deposit $50 in a trust fund to assist with he Committee’s work. Anyone desiring to obtain a quota visa had to contact the nearest consulate with notarized statements of relationships, reason, interest, and financial responsibility (supported by statements of employers, bankers, brokers, and tax assessor). These could be wired through Western Union and passage costs would be paid in the U.S. handled through Thomas Cook or American Express. Another cumbersome red-tape delay as removed.

The Committee determined that no child coming to the United States under the Committee’s auspices should be placed in home where his or her happiness was likely to be questionable. This meant that each family offering to take a child would have to be investigated, not only for its finances but for its nurturing environment. On one occasion, social workers found a little boy alone on a huge Long Island estate with only the butler for company. The owners were away on a social occasion! Child welfare agencies were charged with investigating prospective homes and then providing continual supervision of the evacuees according to approved standards. The Committee’s relationship to the Children’s Bureau of the Labor Department was close and inevitable. The State Department required that the children coming into this country on a corporate visa do so in conformity with Children’s Bureau standards. Both the Bureau and the Committee took this requirement seriously and set up a Child Care Advisory composed of specialists in all relevant areas from both voluntary and government agencies. They ensured that the organizations, policies and procedures were designed as fast as possible and in the best interest of the children.

As the young travelers trooped down the gangplanks, wonder, curiosity, and anticipation mingled with homesickness, apprehension, and fear. Candy was plentiful, holidays were long, and the lights never dimmed. Of the 861 boys and girls, most of them between ten and fourteen years old, the eat majority came from the London suburbs and the south. Generally, they came from middle-class professional or white-collar families.

Only 89 children were “unspecified”—not intended to go to any particular home. The Committee would choose one for them. Most specified children went to people who had asked for them not by name but by group identification. Thus 84 children of employees of the Hoover Company in England went to Hoover employees in Canton, Ohio, 165 children of workers at Kodak in Harrow, England, went to headquarters in Rochester, New York. Forty-seven children from Warner Brothers in London were divided between their operations in New York and California. One hundred and ten children of Oxford and Cambridge professors went to New Haven to live with faculty members at Yale. The Heinz Company had invited thousands of children from their British establishments to the Pennsylvania area (but none actually went). Former Rhodes scholars were asked to help out and the American Association of University Women agreed to find homes for thousands of children of British university graduates. It has been implied that there was an element of social darwinism in this—that here was an opportunity to save Britain’s brightest and best. Of course, this was only speculation, but some on both sides of the Atlantic still half-believed in these ideas.

Few of these children were very young, although there were a few exceptions. The media and propagandists however, loved these innocents for the emotional effect that they produced. Generally though, the Committee followed the British government’s policy of establishing six-to-fifteen age limits. This was on the theory that the separation of infants from their parents could be more dangerous to their development than the hazards of war. They came in groups of 82 to 138. Their homes and ships had been blacked out and the lights of their new surroundings were a constant source of amazement. To some the voyage had been a nightmare of seasickness and boredom. The few escorts provided by the American Committee in London had their hands full trying to control, care for, and entertain them. For most, their first glimpse of the New World was the skyscrapers of New York. Others landed in Boston and Montreal.

On arrival the children were taken to one of the Committee’s reception centers. Some, such as the Long Island home of the Guggenheims, were suitable only for small groups. But because of the erratic way in which the ships arrived—two arrived in two days carrying 220 children and then no more came for another month—larger accommodations had to be secured. Two New York facilities made their space and personnel available. The Gould Foundation for Underprivileged Children in the Bronx put their dietary and supervisory staff at the Committee’s disposal along with its swimming pool and other recreational facilities. The Bronx building could handle as many as 160 children at once. The Seamen’s Church Institute in Lower Manhattan, while usually a hostel for adults, was even bigger and could sustain as many as 300 evacuees.

However, what really injected warmth into the reception period was the attention received from countless New Yorkers who donated large amounts of their time and efforts to the children. Doctors and nurses volunteered their care, teachers aided in acclimatization and orientation. Ordinary people provided transportation and sightseeing. Scores of others donated toys and clothing. A veritable wealth of special events, parties, and other festivities characterized a genuine outpouring of goodwill by Americans impressed with what they saw as brave, well-mannered, disciplined refugees from unspeakable terror. The children destined for individual sponsors spent only enough time in reception to receive physical examinations prior to the next leg of their journeys. Often they were met in New York by their sponsors, who were eager to take them to their homes immediately. This was allowed only if the homes had already been approved by the designated local welfare agencies; Sometimes sponsors living at a distance had arranged for the Committee to identity an escort who would accompany the child to his/her new home. The Committee paid overland transportation costs only for unspecified evacuees.

Those specified to groups usually spent a longer time in reception because they might have arrived before the local community was certified ready to accept them. In some instances this was occasioned by the group’s resistance to the local welfare agency—a reluctance to have official snoopers in their homes.

In spite of this resistance the Committee stood firmly on its policy of allowing placements to be made only when the home had been certified by a designated child care agency. Thoughtful reasoning dictated that child care professionals were equipped by training and experience to sense whether the offer of hospitality was genuine, or rather a need for admiration and prestige in the community. The offers of socially prominent families could not easily be refused, even when it seemed evident that their motivation was not necessarily in the interests of the child. Some of the sponsoring groups evinced initial skepticism of the value of social workers, but time and observation made firm converts. For example, the Hoover Company eventually paid the entire salary of a social worker on the staff of a Canton, Ohio, child care agency for service to their young guests.

The Committee adopted a pattern of allocating groups of unspecified children to communities that had produced several home offers. In this way the children could travel together to their new families and also develop a sort of group identity to soften the jolt of moving into a new culture. But at the same time these lack of ties to the United States freed the agency to put a stronger emphasis on finding the right homes. Often an otherwise proper family might end up with a child of quite different character or background and the results could be disastrous. Not all English children were charming and well-behaved, some could be downright annoying. As a result, the unspecified child often received the most careful placement. Proportionately fewer of them had to be resituated in the future because of their own or the foster families’ unhappiness.

All but 85 of the evacuees eventually became part of an American family group. Scattered from Maine to California, they went to American schools, played with American children, learned American mannerisms, and gradually lost their British ways. Not all became immediately happy. Their native reserve was often misunderstood as aloofness. They resented sticking out like sore thumbs in well-intentioned but curious communities. Some found their first days particularly painful and only gradually learned to distinguish between warm-hearted friendliness and offhanded acceptance.

Generally, younger children, when placed with foster parents of warmth and sensitivity, fitted in quickly with American life. Older ones tended to be more resistant to assimilation. In the first year many replacements had to be made for specified children. In many cases foster parents had sent for them only out of a sense of obligation to a friend or relative. Some had the notion that to have a little English child in one’s home was the thing to do. They soon began to regret their impulsive hospitality and began to look for ways to get rid of their new responsibilities. One could cite the case of Daphne. She was a 15-year-old whose unforgivable sin in the eyes of her socially ambitious foster mother was her failure to be intellectually and artistically talented, gifts that could be shown off in college faculty social circles. When Daphne began to sulk and act aggrieved, the foster mother not only verbalized her disappointment but wrote to the family in England to take the child back, despite the obvious dangers. In this case, the Committee fortunately was able to arrange for another foster home.

The Committee was faced with replacement problems not only for children for whom they had a responsibility, but also for those who had been brought to the United States privately on consular visas. There was, for instance, the woman who had taken an English acquaintance’s child to pay off an old obligation. After six months she thought that the debt had been discharged and there was no longer any necessity to extend support. Although the Committee had no responsibility in this case—or any other involving privately evacuated children—they did intervene and rendered their services for the child’s sake.

Certainly, all blame for placement breakdowns should not be placed solely on the foster parents. Sometimes the behavior of an unhappy child could be hard to take. If Ronny, the only child of over-anxious parents, wet the bed, disobeyed, and sulked because he couldn’t stand the competition for his sponsor’s husky and popular natural son, potential for all kinds of trouble existed The foster parents could hardly be expected to jeopardize their own family relationships for Ronny and the special attention and favor that his chronic problems and insecurities demanded. He was obviously better off when the Committee stepped in and placed him with a childless couple who could provide a much different atmosphere.

Some of the placement difficulties might have been prevented if the recommendations of the social worker had been heeded before problems became magnified. But, in the climate of the time, people often regarded them as being of only minimal use and having the same social standing as laundresses. Their intrusions were often resented and their advice resisted. In these cases the social worker could do little more than look on until trouble mounted and reached such a level that the foster parents demanded action—usually too late to prevent another problem of replacement. Records indicate that, except in cases of deeply disturbed children, second placements tended to be successful. This strong emphasis on foster family placement, occasioned by the Committee’s conviction that children flourish best in a family setting, was supported by the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. The Bureau determined that the program should not be used to reverse the growing trend of not institutionalizing children. Consequently, the Committee resisted efforts to bring large groups of children to this country to be placed in group homes. It insisted on preserving the family-oriented nature of the program despite a British tradition of corporate living. The feeling also existed that group homes would foster identification in the children, heightening the resistance to Americanization. The Committee did, however, relax its antigroup policy when a number of boarding schools offered special rates for British children. Both group and educational standards were monitored. This policy, along with the fact that many evacuees were sent to private day schools by their foster parents, gave rise to the charge that the British children received greater advantages than their American counterparts. There was some truth to this—or so it appeared.

Christopher Eatough was privately evacuated to his aunt in New York and then sent on to the Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts where he was quickly drafted to play soccer. He remembered that the captain of the team was a skinny senior with a crooked smile called George Bush.

Another, Alistar Horne, now a prominent British historian, was taken in by Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York. During the school year he attended Millbrook, an exclusive upstate academy. His roommate was a boy named William F. Buckley. Claire Bloom, prominent actress of stage and screen, remembered her adolescence as a youngster on the Gold Coast of Florida. Even as a child she must have been talented as she was taken around the social scene and shown off as being typical of the pretty, well-mannered, and cultured youngsters who were at risk.

Shirley Williams, later to become a major force in British politics, thought that perhaps her liberal-democratic ideas were the result of her sojourn in America during the war. Many years later she would return to become a professor at the John E Kennedy School of Politics.

In some instances the Committee allowed existing groups to be kept together. They had existed as such in England and had been evacuated together. The largest, the British Actors Orphanage, consisted of 54 children of destitute British actors. They were brought to this country by a committee of expatriate British actors led by Noel Coward with the idea of settling them in the Hollywood movie colony. These glamorous plans evaporated on the orphans’ arrival in New York. While alternative arrangements were being considered, the children adjusted so well to life at the Gould Foundation that it was decided to leave them there.

However, there were some private evacuees to Hollywood. Peter Isaac recalled five idyllic years spent with his sister at the home of Hal Wallis, the movie producer. An endless parade of stars and celebrities visited. One day Ronald Reagan stopped by the pool and taught them how to swim. Peter himself later became a maker of documentary films.

Another institutional group consisted of 15 young offspring of British civil servants serving in Africa and other far-flung outposts of the Empire. They had left their children in England to be educated at home. In allowing these children to remain in an institutional setting, the Committee was swayed by the argument that this was what the parents had originally wanted and wished to continue.

The difference in educational systems and standards between Britain and the United States was a worry for the parents. But they were a source of both delight and difficulty for the children. The younger ones reveled in the lack of discipline, while the older ones worried about the poverty of math, languages, and other subjects necessary for further study once they returned home.

No comprehensive study was ever made of good and bad adjustment rates. However, impressionistic evidence from social workers suggests that those who came from happy homes in England tended to adjust easily and happily to life in America. Conversely, those who came from an atmosphere of friction and anxiety tended to develop problems in the new setting. In general, the younger children seemed to have had an easier time of it. Some of them even showed signs of becoming exactly what their parents feared most—developing into little Americans, transferring their affections to their foster parents and gradually forgetting about their natural ties. Some of the older children, however, showed signs of feeling guilty about their comfort and safety compared with that of their family and friends back home. They expressed the desire to reach the age of 17 when they would be allowed to return home and “do their bit.”

On a visit to this country, the Committee’s London representative found that some of the older children had never wanted to come in the first place and were somewhat resentful at having been sent to safety. At the same time, others, usually from less well-to-do backgrounds, expressed an admiration for the educational and social advantages available in the United States. Those from more privileged settings tended to be more critical of American institutions. Many were perplexed over the duality of their lives and families. One said that he was going to solve the problem by getting a job when the war was over on a trans-Atlantic airline so that he would still have both his English American mummy and daddy.

After some initial difficulties, the children on the whole settled down happily. This was due to a growing familiarity with their surroundings and a corresponding decline in homesickness. Overwhelming credit must be given to those hundreds of foster parents who opened their homes, hearts, and pocketbooks to give these youngsters hope and security. Life, even in the best of faster homes, was apt to have its bad moments. Cultural differences caused many misunderstandings. Clothing and styles were strange. Preference in foods was marked. Forms of discipline became a problem. Demonstrable affection was looked at as unusual.

Probably few families suspected in the beginning that their new charges would be with them for more than a year. As it turned out, most of the children stayed for nearly five years; This was a long time to bear the responsibility for guiding someone else’s child through the hazards of growing up. Families had to assume the parents’ role without displacing them and provide a loving atmosphere without alienating affections. All of this had to take place in a wartime context. Higher prices, higher taxes, the lack of domestic help, the housing shortage, etc., all added to the problems of feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating, and generally caring for an extra child. Most accepted these responsibilities, although a few had to go to the Committee for financial help. (British parents were prevented by law from sending more than 12 pounds a month out of the country during wartime).

On the last day of July in 1940, the SS Vollendam, a Dutch ship sailing under the British flag and carrying a group of CORB evacuees bound for Canada, was torpedoed. Fortunately the vessel did not sink and there was no loss of life. But on Friday, August 13, the City of Benares, also destined for Canada, went down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Seventy-seven children perished, and under the pressure of public opinion the British government suspended further sailing of evacuee ships of any groups to any destination. This spelled the end of the program. Although some clung to the hope that it might be restarted sometime in the future, this was not to be. With a few exceptions the only children to return to England during the war years were those who had reached an age making them liable for military service. After the immediate danger had receded, a few private evacuees made their way home on neutral ships via Lisbon. The high cost—L220—restricted this option to the very wealthy and influential, as the last leg of the journey had to be completed by civilian aircraft. In 1944, with the danger almost gone, the British government began to let alder children return. By VE Day about half of the children who had gone to America had returned. With the end of the war in Europe, repatriation became an evacuation in reverse. During the summer and fall of 1945, ships bound for England carried large number of the Committee’s children. By the following spring only 66 remained on their rolls. These were transferred to private sponsors and the Committee’s work in respect to British children had come to an end. The evacuees’ departure involved the staff in one last frenzy of activity. Arrangements had to be made for shipping space and ground travel. Parents had to be notified about arrivals, foster parents about departure arrangements. Care and escorts in transit had to be arranged.

The Committee’s London representative saw most of the children within a few months of their reunion. There had been some moments of concern. Parents were horrified at their children’s American speech patterns, while some of the more mischievous children couldn’t resist using the slang they had learned. They found many children had embraced the most distressing habit of all, chewing gum. “Wash that paint off your face” and “Be in by 10 o’clock” were unwelcome demands on returned teenagers. There was difficulty in what seemed to be voracious appetites and luxurious tastes, especially in times of austerity.

By and large, however, reports back to the United States spoke of the delight of both parents and children at being together again. Although some of the youth found their way back to America later, the vast majority reintegrated into English life. When the Committee closed its operations they had received hundreds of thank-you letters from parents expressing their gratitude and joy at having their children safely home.

The complete records of the Committee have been either destroyed or lost. Some were duplicated and kept by the Children’s Bureau. Official British statistics reveal that, while 7,736 children under 16 were killed as the result of enemy action during World War II, only one evacuated child lost a parent to bombing. This suggests that the vast majority of the children would have had excellent chances of survival even if they had stayed at home. Perhaps the most that can be said was that 861 children were given an unforgettable experience and unwittingly became emissaries of goodwill that influenced British/American relations at a crucial point of the war.