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Children's Overseas Reception Board

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Now available through the National Archives Catalogue - and thanks largely to the Friends of The National Archives - are the detailed descriptions of the 2,664 children who were evacuated from Britain in 1940 to embark on new lives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The descriptions relate to history cards (available in the series DO 131) which provide a fascinating insight into the lives of these children including their names, dates of birth, details of their parents names, addresses and employment, details of where they were placed on arrival overseas and how they fared heathwise and at school and in employment. The cards also reveal if they returned to the UK after the war ended or whether they decided to stay in their adopted country. Some withdrew from the scheme and eight unfortunately died whilst in placement.

The Scheme which transported them was a government sponsored scheme known as the CORB Scheme (Children of the Overseas Reception Board). It was not set up until June 1940, a few years after private schemes had evacuated some 14,000 children from Britain to new lives overseas as war neared.

It was a unique period in British history. In May 1940 the threat to the UK from German air attacks grew and the possibility of invasion heightened, leading to spontaneous offers of hospitality and refuge for British children from overseas governments. These began with Canada on 31 May, where the government forwarded offers from private households to the United Kingdom government. In a few days similar offers were received from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. To co-ordinate the British response to these offers, an interdepartmental committee was established, chaired by the Parliamentary under-secretary of State for the Dominions, Geoffrey Shakespeare, and including representatives from the Ministries of Health, Labour, and Pensions, the Dominions, Home, Foreign and Scottish Offices, the Treasury and the Board of Education. The committee established a Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB). Its terms of reference were:- 'To consider offers from overseas to house and care for children, whether accompanied, from the European war zone, residing in Great Britain, including children orphaned by the war and to make recommendations thereon'.

An Advisory Council consisting of representatives of various societies interested in migration and Youth Organisations was also appointed by the Chairman of the Board to advise him on the various aspects of selection, welfare and reception overseas.

A special Board for Scotland with its own Advisory Council was also set up. It followed the policy laid down by the Board in London, and a Scottish Liaison Officer was appointed to keep the Scottish Board informed of the daily decisions and progress.

The Boards dealt with applications for settlement (both for British children and those resettled in Britain from occupied Europe, North Africa and Asia), sorting, selecting and approving the children, contacting the parents, arranging parties at the ports, and seeing them off, and also corresponding with the Dominions authorities about reception and care overseas and the eventual return of the children after the war.

The boards, and their advisory councils, were disbanded in 1944 once the perceived threat from German aggression had diminished.

Unlike those children sent abroad by institutions such as orphanages, for CORB children theirs was a temporary exile, at least in theory; they had homes and families to return to after the war. From the very start of the operation between June and August 1940, the popularity of CORB was assured. Parents were prepared to endure indefinite separation to know that their children were living in safety, and the Board was inundated with over 200,000 applications before deciding to suspend further entries in early July. Most of the chosen children lived in areas deemed more vulnerable to air attack; some also came from families already split up by evacuation within Britain. The authorities agreed to provide a proportion of accommodation for Scottish applicants, and each sailing party was selected with care to represent a cross-section of society. In total, CORB despatched 2,664 children, who became known as ‘Seaevacuees’, over a period of three months. Canada received the bulk of them – 1,532 in nine parties. Three parties sailed for Australia, with a total of 577 children, while 353 went to South Africa in two parties and 202 to New Zealand, again in two parties. A further 24,000 children had been approved for sailing in that time and over 1,000 escorts, including doctors and nurses, enrolled. At its height, CORB employed some 620 staff.

In all Dominions (with the exception of Canada), the children received an official welcome at the port of arrival. They were sent on as soon as possible to their final destinations, though a stay in central hostels for two or three days was often necessary and New Zealand deliberately gave the evacuees a breathing space after their long journey. In some Dominions, the escorts who had accompanied the children to their new country would also go with them to their new homes, which must have been a great comfort in a strange and distant land. Foster homes were available in plenty, as sympathetic parents sought to assist youngsters so far from home, but many children were placed with relatives already resident overseas.

Between 21 July and 20 September 1940, 16 voyages were made carrying 2,664 children to new lives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many more would have travelled overseas had it not been for the disastrous events on 17 September, when the SS City of Benares – packed with 197 passengers including 90 children – was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic. The ship, sailing from Liverpool to Canada, was struck down at 10 pm, when it was 600 miles from land. Many later claimed such an event was bound to happen, and that shipping children overseas had been an extremely perilous course. The consequences of the attack were devastating, even by wartime standards, and it marked the effective end of all overseas evacuation from Britain, both public and private. Seventy CORB children were among 134 passengers killed, along with 131 of the 200-strong crew; loss of life was exacerbated by severe weather in the night, including gale-force winds, storms, rain and hail. The ship, built in 1936 and weighing 11,000 tons, had been fitted with up-to-date facilities for carrying passengers, with special provision for children. One of the last CORB vessels to sail, it had passed safety checks from Ministry of Shipping representatives prior to sailing. It left Liverpool in convoy on 13 September, with lifeboat accommodation for 494 people and additional buoyancy apparatus for another 452; regular boat drills were held on the voyage. Yet the combination of weather, darkness and isolation was to result in a death toll that shook Britain and its allies, and became one of the war’s most notorious events.

But what happened to the children evacuated before the City of Benares tragedy?

The history cards (TNA references DO 131/106-112) reveal some happy and sad stories. Some children settled well with the placements whilst others didn’t. John Parry had five different placements in Canada between September 1940 and January 1943 and withdrew from the Scheme, returning to the UK in August 1944. Meanwhile, fourteen year old John Doughty was placed with his grandmother in Hobart, Tasmania and settled extremely well, taking a junior post at the Mercury newspaper in 1942 and joined the Australian Imperial Forces in 1944, eventually settling in Australia with his parents joining him soon after the war ended.

The CORB children ranged in age from five to fifteen. Up to 10% stayed onto higher education beyond the age of fourteen, some embarking on University. Many of the boys placed in New Zealand and Australia learned agricultural skills and boys across all dominions joined the Imperial forces, be it the Army, Navy or Air Force. Four such CORB boys went on to lose their lives, two in Canadian Air Force and two in the New Zealand Air Force. Of the other four children that died, one boy died in a shooting accident in Canada and another boy in a climbing accident in New Zealand. In Canada, a boy died from TB and in New Zealand sixteen-year old Ursula Edwards died after undergoing three operations to remove a cancerous tumour of the face. She had been placed at St Albans in Canterbury with her two siblings at the age of 12 in 1940. Originally from Hanwell, west London, she attended St Mary’s Convent school and was employed as a typist at Ballantyre Department store when she was 15.

In the Health reports, children’s illnesses ranged from standard submissions such as rheumatism, laryngitis, shingles, mumps, whooping cough, and diphtheria to the more unusual such as “cricket ball has injured tooth”, “broken leg” and “fell off bicycle and broke wrist”

Under the terms of CORB, children were due to return only ’as soon as practicable’ after the end of the war, and many were away for four or five years. In that time they forged new family ties and were shaped by a country outside their parents’ experience.

Ronald Daw remained permanently. His mother had died in February 1941 when he was seven and Mr and Mrs Mayhill his placement applied for guardianship. Violet Oades stayed for other reasons. She was one of the oldest CORB children, evacuating to New Zealand at the age of fifteen in 1940. By the time the war had ended she was engaged to be married and did so in 1946.

Some children did return before the war ended, but they were in a minority. From 1942 it was agreed that any boy approaching military age could return provided he had his parents’ consent and that a form of authority and release from responsibility had been signed. Inevitably, some children did not behave well and the uncertainties of their situation – dispatched in wartime to an unknown country with no idea of when they might return (or what they would find if they did) – exacerbated the problem. Take the case of 13-year-old William C. from Glasgow, for example, who arrived in Canada in September 1940 and was placed with relations in Welland. Described as a ‘difficult boy’, his history cards in the National Archives reveal that he was imprisoned for three months for being in possession of – and driving – a car without the owner’s consent. William did in fact return to Britain, but not until December 1943.

Michael Fethney, author of The Absurd and the Brave, The Book Guild Limited, 1990, was evacuated from Bradford to Australia aged nine, with his older brother John, thirteen. Like the majority of CORB children, Michael returned to England shortly after the end of the war. He and his brother had endured three placements since arriving in New South Wales in 1940, including one at a Senator’s house. His brother had joined the Indian Army after leaving school.

Although evacuation ceased when the SS City of Benares was torpedoed in September 1940, CORB remained active. It was only disbanded, along with the advisory councils, four years later, at which point the perceived German military threat had diminished.

[edit] Taking it further

The records in the series DO 131 at TNA consist of administrative files relating to CORB, together with a small selection of case files relating to both CORB children (DO 131/94–105) and their escorts (DO 131/71–87) - the majority of these files having been destroyed under statute in 1959. The series also contains child history cards for some 2,664 children (DO 131/106–13), all searchable on the catalogue by name of child, date of birth and place of residence. Dominions Office policy files relating to the activities of the Board are in the series DO 35.

Details of CORB children can also be found on outwards Board of Trade passenger lists in the series BT 27. Through its website, TNA in partnership with has digitized the details of some 30 million people leaving ports in the United Kingdom and Ireland for final destinations outside Europe and the Mediterranean between 1890 and 1960. The site contains details of migrants bound for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, such as their full name, age and UK address, and you can carry out a person search using the first and last name. You can also refine your search by departure port, destination country, destination port and name of ship; there is a fee to download transcriptions and images. Until a record has been digitized, access to the original manifests in the series BT 27 is still permitted.

[edit] Further reading

There are also published works chronicling the story of CORB and child evacuees during the Second World War including:

  • R Kershaw & J Sacks, New Lives for Old – the story of Britain’s Child Migrants (TNA, 2008)
  • G Wagner, Children of the Empire (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1982)
  • M Fethney, The Absurd and the Brave: CORB – the true account of the British Government’s World War II Evacuation of Children (The Book Guild, 1990)
  • T Nagorski, Miracle on the Water (Robinson, 2006)