On September 1, 1939, in anticipation of the imminent German bombing of British cities, 150,000 children were assembled at the railway stations of London and sent throughout the day to "'destinations unknown'" in the English countryside. Mothers and children under five were evacuated together but school-age children were shipped out to rural billets in school groups, accompanied only by their teachers and civil defense volunteers. Forty years later, an observer remembered the day vividly:
[T]he mothers [were] trying to hold back their tears as they marched these little boys and girls in their gas masks into the centre …. The children were wild with excitement but most mums were pale and drawn, no doubt wondering when they'd see their sons and daughters again. It was certainly the first time the mothers had been parted from their schoolchildren.
By the end of the week, the Times described London as a "Childless City.” By the end of the month, over half a million children were boarding with foster families.
The evacuations during the Blitz – bands of children marching away from sobbing mothers – establish a baseline of sorts for how we think generally about separations between mothers and children. Separating from one's child is understood as an extraordinary measure, not lightly undertaken. It represents the greatest of maternal sacrifices: this is the very lesson of the two harlots before King Solomon. Little short of a child's anticipated death could compel a loving mother to part from her child, though if his life or welfare were on the line no good mother would fail to do so. Thus in the days following the initial wartime evacuations, mothers who refused to separate from their children were socially censured: "My neighbors blame me for keeping him; one woman this morning said I was wicked. ... 'Downright wicked,' she said, 'making him wait to be murdered. Didn't you see the Spanish pictures?'”
Family Law | Law | Law and Gender | Law and Society
Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
Separating from Children,
Colum. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/177