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London Evacuees Bore A Painful Cost Of War


Seventy-five years ago, as World War II raged, the British government ordered millions of children to be evacuated from their homes. Operation Pied Piper was designed to try to keep children safe beyond German bombing. Most children were sent to the British countryside. But thousands were sent as far away as America and Australia, with no more than a sign hung around their necks. Pam Hobbs was one of those children. She was put on a train when she was 10 years old and she would not see her family again for a number of years. Pam Hobbs, who is an author and she's written about her experiences, joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks very much for being with us.

PAM HOBBS: Thank you.

SIMON: I'll bet you'll remember that morning you were put on the train.

HOBBS: I do, yes. I lived on the southeast coast. And so after Dunkirk, we thought we would be visited by the enemy, who were just 60 miles away, across the channel.

SIMON: What to do your parents say to you?

HOBBS: I don't remember them saying very much. My sister Iris was 11. She came with me. And she brought a note home on Friday afternoon, saying that schools were closing and we were going to be evacuated. But she looked after me. And our parents just didn't know where we were going. My mother thought I was going to Wales, but we went to Derbyshire and we sent this - wrote on this postcard that I'm living with a miner and his wife and they're very nice. And she got it three days later. So I can only imagine how she waited for the postman for three days. You know? They just didn't know where we were. And it was the luck of the draw, you know, which train you got on, where you ended up for the next five years.

SIMON: Do you have any idea how you wound up in which family?

HOBBS: They took us to this one-room school and we were all lined up. And then the proposed foster parents came. And you know, if you've ever been the last one chosen for a team sport, you'll know how wretched we felt because they'd ask a kid to stand up and turn round and look at them and then shake their heads and he sat down and he was a reject. And the pretty little girls who look like Shirley Temple went first and the strong boys to work on the farms. And the Simpson couple came in and she took the two of us. And they had no children and I don't know if they ever wanted any. They were very strict.

SIMON: Pam, what were those years like for you?

HOBBS: A very religious family where the couple read their Bibles nearly all the time. But I really wasn't unhappy. I loved the countryside.

SIMON: Was there much communication with your parents?

HOBBS: Yeah, they weren't allowed to visit. There was no petrol for the cars and train tickets were hard to come by. So we were simply told they couldn't visit. So she wrote me a letter every week. And that's really where I started writing. I wrote very long, descriptive letters.

SIMON: Given your own experience and that of your sister and the study you have done over the years and talked to a lot of the evacuees...


SIMON: ...Was - with the advantage of hindsight - was this a good idea?

HOBBS: Well, it did keep us safe. There was, you know, a lot of people - a lot of kids were ill-treated. I mean, it's more difficult to adopt a puppy these days. You know, there was no vetting of the suitability of the foster parents. If you had a bed, you took a child. And you know, this is a situation ripe for abuse.

SIMON: And that happened, I gather?

HOBBS: Oh, there was a lot of it. There was a lot of it. And the kids didn't like to speak up. A lot of children were used as servants. You know, you didn't have anyone on your side. I felt very alone and very hungry, all the time. I used to go and wash the dishes in the teachers' lunchroom so I could eat their leftovers.

And so in the end, we went home. But you know, once you've been away for two years, as I was, you go back and you're alienated. Nothing's the same any way. It was very positive for me because I learned to write. I learned to travel. I learned that there was a world outside the little area that I lived in. But, it was very difficult.

SIMON: Pam Hobbs is the author of "Don't Forget To Write," the true story of an evacuee and her family. She joined us from the CBC in Toronto.

Thanks very much for telling us your story and for being with us.

HOBBS: Oh, thanks so much. It was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.