How Britain's children helped the war effort

09 May 2011

The remarkable and little told story of how thousands of Britain's children helped in the war effort is revealed in a new book from the Institute of Education.

The Second World War swept aside many of the boundaries between combatants and civilians and had a remarkable impact on the lives of children – re-shaping family life, education and attitudes, and – most profoundly – requiring thousands to get involved in the war effort in a range of dramatic ways. Thousands worked on the land, many others in factories and in other key ways that actively helped embattled Britain. It also redefined key ways of thinking about childhood and the role of children.

"You Can Help Your Country: English children's work during the Second World War" by Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow is a detailed examination of the educational and social attitudes to children of the era. The central topic of the book is what children did for the war effort and how their work was understood by them, by their teachers, by parents and by government. This is mixed with powerful first person accounts of their experiences, accompanied by photographs and other contemporary material, including war posters, leaflets, cartoons and diary entries.

School histories provided valuable material. M. Phillips, an agricultural volunteer, contributed this reminiscence to St Edmund's College, Liverpool's history: "I remember volunteers were needed for two weeks potato picking at Formby. I volunteered … but would live to regret the rash decision! It turned out to be two weeks of sheer misery – up and out at 7am – icy cold hands trying to pick potatoes – gloves became soggy and heavy as the day drew on."

Many children volunteered their services. The former Labour Minister Roy Hattersley, who was 11 in 1944, volunteered to work on a ward for shell-shocked soldiers from the Normandy landings, sitting with them, listening to their stories, writing letters for them; until the head of the ward said he was too young for such work.

The book examines life in the country and the cities where schools got heavily involved. Susan Sawtell, seven in 1939, remembers: "The school grounds were dug up and we had little plots of land, 'digging for victory.' We knitted scarves, adopted a British prisoner of war in Germany and sent him Red Cross parcels and wrote to him. We collected waste paper and scrap metal."

But some schools played a more active role - in the armaments business. For example, three senior schools in Cambridge worked in collaboration with Pye Radio making components for radios, during school hours and after hours. Boys from Wrekin College, a private boys' boarding school, worked as packers in a nearby Ordnance depot and at Twickenham County Grammar School for Girls during the Easter holidays 1944, the local ordnance factories took over the school hall and turned it into a factory. About 160 staff and senior girls came each day to pack small metal objects into cardboard boxes. The work was voluntary but they were paid the rate for an eight-hour day.

And at Oundle in Northamptonshire the school possessed a foundry, a machine shop and a woodworking shop - facilities pressed into service for the war effort, with boys volunteering to work through the holidays. The machine shop produced shell casings and firing pins for rifles and guns, while the woodworkers made thousands of boxes for hand grenades.

The authors say: "We address a neglected topic in this book – children's work and especially their work for the war effort. Until now evacuation, and children as victims have dominated the discourse. Though recently some books have given space to children's work alongside evacuation, none have offered analysis or contextualisation in social policy, history or sociology for these descriptions. Our book focuses on how children were encouraged to contribute to the war effort and on what they did.

"The fact that English children were encouraged, and indeed urged, to help suggests a different set of ideas about what childhood should consist of and did consist of, in contrast to ideas and practices fashionable nowadays."

Any Journalist wanting more information, interviews or photos please contact the IOE press office:
Diane Hofkins on 0207 911 5423 / or James Russell on 0207 911 5556 /

Editor's notes:

• "You Can Help Your Country: English children's work during the Second World War" by Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow, Paperback, ISBN 978-0-85473-889-2, 329 pages, £25.99 is published by IOE Publications.

• The authors: Berry Mayall is Professor of Childhood Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London (IOE). She has worked for many years on research projects studying the daily lives of children and their parents. In the last 25 years she has participated in the development of the sociology of childhood, contributing many books and papers to this process, including Towards a Sociology for Childhood (Open University Press, 2002). Virginia Morrow was Reader in Childhood Studies at the IOE until 2010. She is currently Senior Research Officer in the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Her main research interests are sociology and history of childhood; child labour and children's work; children's rights; methods and ethics of social research with children; and children's understandings of family and other social environments. She is the author of numerous papers and reports and co-edits Childhood: A journal of global child research.

• The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.