Eighty years ago this month the cities and towns of Merseyside sent thousands of their children on train journeys into the unknown. At the start of the Second World War in September 1939, a government scheme had infants with their mothers and schoolchildren with their teachers massed at railway stations. Fleeing the perceived threat from German bombers, they were identified by luggage labels attached to coats and hurriedly-packed suitcases. Many of them from Liverpool, Bootle, Birkenhead and Widnes were transported to north Wales, and their difficulties with settling in have been written about extensively: the language, the religion, their accommodation, culture and class differences all made for an experience that was rather uncomfortable for many.
Those evacuees who ended up in Herefordshire seem to have had more positive experiences, and this may be reflected in the happy faces in this photograph from summer 1942. Perhaps you will be able to identify parents or grandparents among the 44 children and the handful of teachers or adult helpers pictured with Father Francis Harvey.
It isn’t clear how many of the children had been there since 1939, when St John’s parish in Kirkdale had provided the bulk of the evacuees to the Leominster area. That first evacuation was seen as a failure, partly because the absence of German bombers over English skies during the ‘Phoney War’ period meant that many parents reclaimed their children and returned them to the parental home. However, after the May Blitz of 1941, another evacuation was ordered.
By the time Father Harvey arrived in Leominster in autumn 1941 there were about 170 children and 12 teachers from a variety of parishes in Bootle and Liverpool. Fr Harvey was naturally very concerned for the spiritual welfare of his charges, scattered as they were in small groups throughout the county. He ensured that they were supplied with prayer books, and made great efforts to get them to weekly Mass, hiring taxis or buses or driving them himself in his 1936 Standard 10. One of his superiors visited and wrote afterwards, ‘I wish there were thousands like him. I have met many in evacuation work, but only one Father Harvey.’
It isn’t known precisely where in Herefordshire the photograph was taken, but Merseyside children known to be in the area were the Gordon and Swanson sisters from St Alexander’s, Bootle, four Hughes children from St Winefride’s, and Patricia Laverty and Joan Gannon from the Liverpool suburbs. The children were away from home so long that there were concerns ‘that the parents were losing the affection of their children’. As the threat of air raids diminished the children gradually started to return home, and by November 1943, when only 13 evacuated children remained around Leominster, Father Harvey was recalled to Liverpool.