Living through the Blitz

Volunteers prepare to distribute tea to people taking shelter in North London.

Imperial War Museum

A young boy places a Union flag into the remains of his home, which was destroyed in an air raid on London in 1940.

Imperial War Museum

Lesson to be learnt

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the ominous threat of large-scale attacks by German bombers, one of the issues facing the British government was ensuring the safety of the children whilst also trying to ensure they still received an education.

The government prepared preparations for the removal of all children from Britain's major cities. In command of the plan, Sir John Anderson chose to divide the nation into three sections: evacuation (those residing in metropolitan areas where intense bombing raids may be anticipated); neutral (regions that would neither send nor receive evacuees); and reception (rural areas where evacuees would be sent).

Most schools in towns were shut down since all of the kids and teachers who lived in urban areas were expected to relocate to rural areas. About two thirds of these were taken by the government on requisition and given to the Civil Defence Services.

Children play in the playground of Moorside Road School in Southeast London. The school has been badly damaged by an air raid, with windows missing, tiles missing from the roof and planks of wood being stored inside the windowless shell of the building.

Imperial War Museum

However, only around 50% of the kids in the communities had to be evacuated. As a result, about a million kids were left without access to education. Soon, there were indications of an increase in hooliganism. They frequently attacked public air raid shelters, and in many places the authorities were compelled to keep them sealed.

Children from low-income households not only lost their schooling, but also their access to free milk and school lunches. Medical checks in schools were also discontinued, which led to a sharp rise in the number of kids with headlice and scabies.

Children playing with Gas Masks.


Rural schools continued to operate, but frequently had to accommodate evacuees in their buildings. This resulted in the double shift system's implementation. In order to accomplish this, neighbourhood kids used the classrooms in the morning while the evacuees went to school in the afternoon.

Local government officials made every effort to provide a full-time education by locating alternate buildings to house the displaced students and teachers. Churches, town halls, and warehouses were all utilised as classrooms at this time. Later, Berwick Sayers penned: "for weeks in some cases, teachers and children assembled at some agreed point and walked the country lanes until they could be housed in some suitable hall."

Teachers and students would sometimes gather at a predetermined location for weeks at a time before walking through the countryside until they could be accommodated in a suitable venue. A wide variety of structures were used: a Salvation Army citadel, a Church of England building, a building behind a bar, two St. John Ambulance buildings, as well as a number of abandoned schools and village halls, were all taken. One of these 'schools' was once a family mansion with a minstrel gallery over the baronial hall.

Children, supervised by a female teacher, play in the playground at Lombard Wall School in Southeast London. In the foreground, a large pile of rubble can be seen, indicating that the school had suffered from some kind of air raid. 

Imperial War Museum

At some point, the administration acknowledged that the evacuation had had a significant negative impact on schooling. Neville Chamberlain declared in November 1939 that some industrial city schools will reopen so that pupils who had not become evacuees might continue their education.

Young male teachers were drafted into the military as the war dragged on. As a result, there were not enough teachers, which inevitably resulted in larger class sizes.

On Monday, 15th December 1940, 18 elementary schools in East London were reopened. There were 2,680 school-age children still in Stepney and Whitechapel and 2,800 in Poplar and Bow.  After deciding to open the schools, it became necessary to locate those that were still in a usable condition. But some schools were still being used by civil defence units, others had been completely demolished or severely damaged by German bombs. There were very few schools that were undamaged, and those that could reopen after minor repairs needed to have sufficient shelters installed. 

Although only a small portion of youngsters had not attended school at all for a whole year, the bulk have been attending only since the start of September.

Throughout the Second World War, the universities remained open. Due to the war effort, there were significantly fewer tutors and students. Due to the early conscription of young men into the armed forces, there were more women attending universities. However, the situation was altered when the National Service Act was passed on December 18, 1941. This legislation mobilised unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30.

Despite the utter destruction surrounding him, the post still has to be collected and delivered by the postman.

An East End mother weeps outside her home after a night of heavy bombing in September 1940.


Mrs. Mary Couchman, a 24-year-old warden of a small Kentish Village, shields three little children, among them her son, as bombs fall during a Luftwaffe air attack on October 18, 1940. 

The three children were playing in the street when the siren suddenly sounded. Bombs began to fall as she ran to them and gathered the three in her arms, protecting them with her body.

When complimented on her bravery, she modestly replied, "Oh, it was nothing. Someone had look after the children."

AP Photo

Through bombs and sirens, the Windmill Theatre carried on providing music, revue, and ballet performances for the people of wartime London. The artists sleep on mattresses in their dressing rooms, living and eating on the premises. Here, a scene behind the scenes shows one of the girls having a wash while the others sleep soundly surrounded by their picturesque costumes, after the show on September 24, 1940, in London.

AP Photo

Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. One of photographer Lee Miller’s most famous war shots, this was taken during the blitz, and was published in American Vogue as part of a feature that aimed to show how British women were able to “take” the conflict, hence its slightly humorous feel. The women sit on the steps of Miller’s own air-raid shelter, modelling the masks worn by those who did ARP (Air Raid Precautions) work.

The German bombing frequently cut off the electricity to the Vogue studio, so Lee Miller often used exterior locations for her fashion shots. This location is the entrance to the air raid shelter in the garden of Roland Penrose’s house in Hampstead. The masks were issued by Air Raid Protection wardens (Penrose was one) to protect them from incendiary bombs. Lee Miller often returned to her surrealist past with her work for Vogue, lending her fashion spreads an at times pervasive artistry. Sometimes, though, she went a little bit too far for the commercial fashion world… Fire Masks is one of Lee’s first war photographs and was considered perhaps too macabre for publication. The models, demonstrating masks worn to protect against incendiary bombs, pose by the air-raid shelter at 21 Downshire Hill. One model rather casually clutches an air-raid warden’s whistle in her hand. A shelter, a mask, and a whistle – the sum total of civilian defence during the Blitz. The Photography historian Mark Haworth-Booth says of this image: ‘No other photographer of the Phoney War and the Blitz seems to have produced an image quite like this portrait of the double deformity of war.’ Published in US Vogue, 15 July 1941, page 60. Captioned as: Mask and eye-shield worn by British women as protection from incendiary bombs. One holds an air-raid warden's whistle.

Despite the immense damage after a raid, a Milkman still has his round to complete....

Royston Leonard /

Further reading