Interview: Monica Morris

We meet Monica Morris, who has written about those who, like her, were evacuated ahead of the Blitz

By Simon Round, September 9, 2009
Monica Morris as a young evacuee

Monica Morris as a young evacuee

Over the past week, the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War have been hard to ignore.

Among all the discussion of Germany’s invasion of Poland, the Phoney War and the Battle of Britain, there is one operation which has been recalled with extra poignancy — one that did not involve military action but rather the movement of hundreds of thousands of children.

The removal of minors from the cities and towns which were predicted to be the likely targets for Hitler’s bombs was a mission without parallel. Children were put on buses and trains, taken to villages and towns in the country and billeted with whoever had room to put them up.

Monica Morris was one of those children. Seventy years on, she has written Goodnight Children, Everywhere — a memoir of her own experiences and those of other evacuees like her.

Morris, a writer and broadcaster who has lived in Los Angeles since 1963, was 10 when the evacuation took place. She says: “It was terribly traumatic for children and parents. The parents weren’t told where their children were going and for many there was no contact — it was considered unsettling for the children. I wrote about two little girls whose mother cycled behind the bus for as long as she could until it disappeared into the distance.

Monica Morris as she is today

Monica Morris as she is today

“Some evacuees were made to clean floors on their hands and knees, some were starved and others, including me, were subjected to antisemitism, which we knew all about but had never experienced personally.”

Morris was probably untypical of the evacuees in that she had both good and bad experiences. In September 1939 she was billeted with the Browns, a kindly Northamptonshire family who accepted her as if she was their own child. However, Morris was terribly homesick and persuaded her parents to bring her back to London.

When the blitz began she was again billeted. This time, she was abused for her Jewishness and ran away after only a couple of weeks.

Her third and last experience was a positive one. “This time, my mother found me a family to stay with. They were Cambridge graduates and their house was full of books. They encourage me to read.”

However, Morris’s education was badly affected by the disruption — a pattern she noticed when interviewing for her book.

“I was bright but I was unable to matriculate from school because there were huge gaps in my knowledge. I felt it was my fault but of course it wasn’t. One man I spoke to had been in 13 different schools in the two or three years he was away.”

There were other consequences of the evacuation. One of Morris’s subjects has been affected profoundly. “He has reached late adulthood and he still feels completely dislocated — he still doesn’t really know where home is.”

Yet others thrived. Morris spoke to one man, Bill Reed, who had come from a working-class background but had gone on to be successful in business — much of which he attributed to his time as an evacuee. “He learned how to be competitive and ambitious while he was an evacuee and he gave full credit to the family who billeted him.”

Rosemary Beard and her twin sister, whose desperate mother had followed their bus on her bicycle, had an idyllic war. They spent five years with a childless couple, in Maesteg, Wales, and cried when they were told they had to return home to London at the end of the war. Three years later at the age of 17, they returned to live with their Welsh family.

“Some evacuees experienced great kindness, while others suffered cruelty and brutality. In a way, that is understandable. People were compelled to take in children against their wishes. Some children felt humiliated by being left until last to be picked. Strangely, almost everyone said they were taken in last — surely someone must have been first.”

‘Goodnight Children, Everywhere: Voices of Evacuees’, by Monica B Morris, is published by The History Press at £12.99

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014