For 5 years Gill Mawson has been interviewing evacuees who fled Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, to England, just before the Germans occupied the islands in June 1940. 17,000 children and adults left Guernsey, which was British territory, with the majority arriving in England with just the clothes on their backs. Whole schools were evacuated with their teachers, and some reopened in England during the war as ‘Guernsey schools’ so that the evacuated teachers and pupils could remain together. One school was financially supported by Americans, with one child being sponsored by the President’s wife, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt. The only communication between England and Guernsey was through 25 word Red Cross letters. The evacuees remained in England for five years until the war ended. Some evacuees chose not return to Guernsey but to remain in England where they had settled into their local communities.
Interviews with the evacuees, together with surviving wartime records, show there were certain individuals and organisations that made a huge difference to the lives of these penniless evacuees, not just financially, but also emotionally. Amongst these were the Canadian Channel Islander‘s Societies.When news of the Channel Islands evacuation and occupation reached the 500 Channel Islanders living in the Vancouver area, a sense of shock swept through the community. They quickly realised that the evacuees would need clothing, shoes, cash and medical supplies, and a writer, Philippe William Luce, formed the Vancouver Channel Islanders Society. Some of their newsletters have survived, and the society noted at one meeting,
“Thousands of old folks, women and children urgently need help, and every dollar counts. It costs about $1000 a week for shoe repairs and dental attention alone. Every letter from the kiddies to their parents in the Islands costs one shilling and families building homes in England need stoves, furniture, bedding etc.” [i]
The society’s newsletters give details of the fund raising efforts they made. They sold Christmas cards and Jersey seed potatoes, and held raffles – with one prize being a prize Jersey calf which raised $3,000. Local people donated clothing, shoes, socks, quilts and books to the society, which were sent to Victory Hall, 535 Homer Street, Vancouver, for packaging on Thursday afternoons. The society organised lunches for which admission was $25 per person, together with musical evenings, concerts, film shows and picnics. In October 1941 the Vancouver Lion’s Club donated all the proceeds of its annual charity concert to the society, which featured an appearance by Lansing Hatfield, a star of the New York Opera. By February 1942, the Vancouver society had sent $3,254 to London for the evacuees together with 119 crates of clothing, and letters of thanks began to arrive from Channel Island evacuees in England,
“More and more letters of thanks are coming from the recipients;some exceedingly touching scribblings from little children.”
Some of the Canadians who donated clothing to the society placed little notes in the pockets of coats and jackets. A Guernsey evacuee at the Forest School in Cheshire found the following note in the pocket of his coat,
“To the little boy who receives this parcel. Please write to me at the above address and let me know how you like it. May God Bless you, and keep you safe from harm. Sincerely yours, Mrs C J Collett.”
Another society was established in Victoria,Vancouver Island, containing around 100 members. At their first meeting in August 1941, the committee decided to arrange a Channel Islands Arts and Crafts event, to arouse interest in the islands, and between 1941 and 1945, the Victoria society raised $4,992 for the evacuees. They used the Women’s Institute rooms on Fort Street for the collection and packaging of clothing, before sending the crates to the Vancouver society, or directly to London.4
It is not known exactly how many more Channel Islanders in Canada carried out this wonderful work, but their efforts clearly went a long way in helping hundreds of unfortunate evacuees in England who had been torn from their homes.
Guest post by Gillian Mawsom. For more information on Guernsey Evacuees, please visit http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com/evacuation/
[i] Martel, Diary, Vancouver Channel Islanders Society Minutes, February 1942
4 The Daily Colonist, Channel Islanders in Victoria, 3 May 1979, p.4