Reports from New Directions in Active History: Digitising Childhood Evacuation: A Serendipitous Pursuit of Active History

By Claire L. Halstead

As historians, we are increasingly under pressure to make our research “active” and relate to a public audience. This spurs us to discover new methods of engagement and innovative ways to present our findings. The digital revolution or “turn” has encouraged historians not only to use sources available online, but also to adopt digital tools and methods to analyse traditional sources and, in some cases, create entirely new digital sources for research. Using digital methods allows us to extract more from our sources, while increasing the potential of appealing to and engaging with the wider public. Using the study of the evacuation of British children to Canada in the Second World War as an example, this post is intended to be a source of encouragement; while digital history can appear daunting, the rewards can far outweigh the costs.

The Roots of Evacuation

With the clouds of war looming in early 1939, Canadians began to propose that, in the event Britain declared war, Canada should openly accept a minimum of 10,000 British children to shelter them from the physical, psychological, and emotional dangers of conflict. It was not until the Fall of France in the spring of 1940, however, that the British and Canadian governments finally proceeded with overseas evacuation. With heightened risk of invasion and aerial bombardment in Britain during the summer of 1940, these little “war guests” arrived in Canada and were sent to live with distant relatives or unpaid foster families. The tragedy of the torpedoing and sinking of the City of Benares which killed 77 of 90 evacuee children aboard halted overseas evacuation. Those evacuees who had safely arrived remained within Canada’s shores for the remainder of the war. While evacuees’ experiences varied, all had to acclimatise to Canadian culture and contend with familial separation. A short but very valuable sound clip held at the Imperial War Museum features a British evacuee child, “Bill”, speaking to his mother in Scotland over CBC radio at Christmas 1940, a few months after he had left Britain. The exchange reveals elements of the evacuee experience such as how quickly his accent had “turned Canadian” and his mother’s insistence on thanking his foster family. Listen to the exchange (starting at 12:40 mins) courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Identifying Issues in the Study of Evacuees

In the past, the study of evacuation has been plagued by three major issues: the inconsistency in estimates of the number of evacuees who arrived in Canada, the difficulty of including children’s perspectives of evacuation, and the challenge of identifying individual evacuees and understanding their family backgrounds.

  1. Numbers – It is universally agreed that 1,532 evacuees arrived in Canada with the assistance of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), a government sponsored British-Canadian evacuation program. However, there is disagreement in estimates of the number of children evacuated “privately” without government assistance, with some approximations being as high as 10,000.
  2. Perspectives – The study of evacuation has traditionally relied on adult-created sources. A methodological barrier in studying childhood; children do not often leave a great deal of source material. Instead, historians have used former evacuees’ recollections recorded in such retrospective documents as memoirs and autobiographies. Relying upon oral history and memoirs to tell the story of evacuation inevitably preferences the recollections of the few. It is estimated that less than five percent of evacuees have had their experiences incorporated into such works. In an effort to circumvent this methodological barrier and capture the children’s own perceptions of the war and their evacuation, I used letters written by children to their parents as a unique and major source base for my work to supplement organisational and government records.
  3. Identification – Previously, we only knew that evacuee children came to Canada on a broad scale; we knew very little about them, particularly beyond a small number of individuals’ postwar recollections. This made it nearly impossible to identify individual evacuees and understand their family background and experience in Canada.

Building the Database

In an effort to rectify these issues and track evacuees as they appeared in primary sources, I began compiling a database. This began simply by recording evacuees’ names and any accompanying information I could unearth. Uncovering two significant record groups at the British National Archives and Library and Archives Canada allowed me to marry sources from both sides of the Atlantic. Although the process of transcribing the information from the paper sources to the database was laborious, the database quickly burgeoned from only a few categories to fifty-two fields of data including such information as evacuees’ names, ages, religious denomination, and hometown. While the discovery of these sources was important in and of itself, without combining them into a database they would have remained only as small pieces to a larger puzzle. While each record had individual value in providing a greater understanding of that evacuee, the key to databasing is in the collation of the many small pieces of information to paint a larger picture.

New Perspectives of Evacuation

Combining government records with passenger lists yielded a much more accurate number of evacuees who arrived in Canada, taking previous estimates from 10,000 down to just under 4,000. The database has also provided a fuller view of evacuees and their lives – both before and during their evacuation and, in some cases, even after their return to Britain. For instance, we can identify what schooling and medical care evacuees received while in Canada. We even know how many times children were moved between foster homes and the reasons for those moves. By analysing the database categorically, previously invisible patterns appear. For instance, by sorting evacuees by age, it becomes clear that the majority arrived in Canada between the ages of 8 and 13 years old. British wartime regulations mandated that children over sixteen could not leave Britain and CORB required all state-sponsored evacuees to be between 5 and 15 years of age. That 8-13 were the predominant ages suggests that British parents may have been more hesitant to send their younger children away and that British authorities may have been less willing to select children who would soon be of age to contribute to the war effort.

Mapping Evacuation 

It is widely perceived that most evacuees originated from London, the city most at risk of bombings. However, the database reveals that almost an equal amount of evacuees originated from the North East of England. While there was speculation over where evacuees originated, little was known about where evacuees lived in Canada. The database again helps settle this question, revealing that while private evacuees were most likely to end up in homes in Ontario, CORB evacuees were proportionally distributed across the provinces. Indeed, once this data was compiled, it was possible to use digital tools like GIS and Google Maps to plot the data on maps and provide visual representations of the evacuation.

Mapping further reveals new trends that would be difficult to examine otherwise. For instance, a map of London shows that no evacuees were taken from the East End of London, an area that was comprised of mostly working class and poverty-stricken homes. Being unlikely that East End parents wanted to hold on to their children, it is more likely that this quietly points towards the rigorous selection process for evacuees which ensured that only children of the best physical, mental, and intellectual health were sent to Canada. Mapping evacuees in Canada also reveals the proportion of children sent to urban and rural homes. This begins to combat the assumption that evacuees were treated similarly to Home Children, being sent to farms as free labour. Interacting with the database in this manner provides us with deeper access to the sources and allows us to ask bigger questions of evacuation.

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Halstead, Claire. “From Lion to Leaf: The Evacuation of British Children to Canada During the Second World War.” PhD diss., University of Western Ontario, 2015. (map)

An Active History Tool

Although it was not initially expected that the database could become a tool for engaging with the public, it serendipitously has done just that. The strong organisation of the database means that it is very easy to search. Evacuees can be searched and sorted by name, origin, destination, foster family, school, etc. This has helped some Canadians who attended school with evacuees identify their former friends. It is from these interactions that even more information has been uncovered about evacuees’ experiences in Canada, as well as the experiences of Canadian children who grew up alongside evacuees during the war. The database can also be of use to the families of evacuees who may be interested to learn more about the evacuation and their relatives’ experience during that time. In even a few cases, the database has revealed new information to former evacuees themselves. Although most evacuees were told why they were being sent away, some were not fully aware of the circumstances and organisation of evacuation. One former evacuee was sent to rural British Columbia to live with his uncle and, except for traveling with a group of children from Britain, was wholly unaware of his “evacuee status”. As children, most would never have been shown the government sources that recorded their evacuation. It is my hope that the database can continue to grow and serve such individuals who are looking to trace or remember the experiences of evacuees, their foster families, and Canadian communities.

While being a tool to serve and engage with a wider audience, the database can also continue to work for historians, enabling other record groups to be incorporated. It is now possible to cross reference sources such as letters that evacuees wrote home and recollections from Canadian children to see how both recorded each other’s presence. This would certainly be effective at, for example, the macro-level of a school or town. It even allows us to see if evacuees from certain towns, such as Manchester and Glasgow, crossed paths with each other during their journey to Canada or years later, on their voyage back home. Most of all, the database allows us to identify evacuees who appear in other sources like newspapers or film clips.

Let us return then to the Imperial War Museum radio clip. Although the announcer identifies the boy as “Bill Welsh”, we originally knew very little else. The database now reveals that Bill was known as William Welsh, a Roman Catholic who arrived in Canada at the age of 13 from Dundee, Scotland. At the time of the Christmas radio broadcast, Bill was living with his aunt in Toronto. Records show however, that by September 1941, his aunt had asked Canadian authorities to move him. He was subsequently moved twice more because he “caused too much trouble”. Records ultimately record that “William became difficult to handle and unwilling to be guided”; his parents agreed for him to return to Scotland in 1943 at the age of sixteen.


“Refugees Here”. Calgary Herald, August 23, 1940.

While preparing a database and using digital methods in projects that rely heavily on traditional archival sources may seem tedious, the results can transform our view of history. For the study of evacuation, the database has proved incredibly valuable. It has allowed us to uncover a new layer of evacuees’ experiences in Canada, rather than continuing to rely on recollections of evacuations or sources that do not incorporate the child’s own voice. Each and every evacuee now has a presence in this research. While their experiences were varied and dynamic, each are worthy of being included in this research and it is my hope that this project may be able to serve a larger public audience.

Claire Halstead recently completed her PhD at the University of Western Ontario under the guidance of Dr. Jonathan Vance. Her work has been profiled on CBC radio and in Canadian newspapers and magazines. She is the author of “‘Dangers Behind, Pleasures Ahead” in the British Journal of Canadian Studies and “Dear Mummy and Daddy: Reading Evacuees’ Wartime Letters” in Children, Childhood and Youth in the British World. While continuing to expand her evacuee database, she is currently working on a book-length treatment of this work. Twitter: @ClaireLHalstead

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