Bedwetting was not seen to be a major problem

One of the major problems which were not foreseen by the evacuation authorities when evacuating children from the cities was the problem of enuresis. Most parents will remember the time when their children were small and there were “accidents” at night meaning the need to change the sheet and to use a mattress cover so that the accident did not seep into the mattress. Enuresis was the term used for older children who despite being trained to be dry at night could not help wetting their beds. There was evidence available before the war of the problems caused by enuresis, even the army  had problems with young recruits and church and council homes could easily testify to the large amounts of older children and teenagers who regularly wet their beds.

Only uinder 5's wet their beds!

The Ministry of Health decided that the majority of children who wet their beds would be under 5 years old and ordered mattress overlays for 60% of the estimated population of Under 5’s.  However most of these overlays were still awaited at the start of the war.  In the early weeks of the evacuation the issue of Enuresis became a serious problem. The Lancet of 7th October 1939 led with an article that “enuresis has proved to be one of the major menaces to the comfortable disposition of evacuated urban children”. The article goes on to mention how “every morning every window is filled with bedding, hung out to air in the sunshine”.

Why did so many evacuated children wet their beds?

The country was quite shocked by this, it was unexpected and foster parents had not been forewarned- it added greatly to the task of keeping a child in an era without washing machines and with winter fast approaching, drying sheets and mattresses would become a serious issue. In many children enuresis is a mental health issue caused by feelings of insecurity. Children forced to move away from their family and familiar surroundings were reverting to babyhood and regressing so that they lost control of their bladders at night. An article in the British Journal of Psychology in 1940 by Professor Burt noted the increase in night-time enuresis and stated that the government had under estimated the psychological effect of evacuation on the children of the cities. Thank fully most foster parents found that as the children became more comfortable and familiar with them the number of dry nights increased until bed wetting became unusual. What a burden for the foster families who had been selected for the availability of bed space rather than a caring nature which was absent in some.

A mangle-still in use in many homes during the war

Feral children

However there were some children who could not function as independent beings simply because they had not been brought up with the same lifestyles as others- there were those who had never seen toilet paper, those who fouled curtains and furniture or used the corner of the room for defecation.  A report by the Medical Officer of the Health of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright quoted one mother speaking to her six year old son “You dirty thing, messing the lady’s carpet;……. .go and do it in the corner”! There were views prevalent at the time that some parents had very low standards of behaviour and cleanliness and had not taught their children the basics of hygiene perhaps what the modern press would describe as “feral children”. Those children that proved too difficult for foster parents to deal with were removed to hostels early in the next year.

Some children came from poor backgrounds

It may have been the case that quite simply children did not know how to use the facilities provided, for some it would be their first introduction to more primitive sanitary arrangements such as the toilet in the garden whilst for others it may have been an improvement that took some getting used to.…..Children came from deprived backgrounds- an enquiry into the origins of children from Shoreditch  showed that (Growing up in Shoreditch 1938)

  • only 25% had access to an indoor WC
  • 50% of children shared a WC with at least 8 to 30 others
  • 33% of children lived in houses without an indoor water supply.
  • 68% could not have a bath at home
  • 15% of children shared their water supply with three or more families

Children from poor homes placed in middle class comfortabe homes would be unsure how to react and raised standards of hygiene.

Finally, the scandal of bedwetting was managed

Subsequent evacuations of children were more controlled with less emphasis on mass movement and more on a planned movement; where children knew where and when they were being moved. Children were seen by doctors and any problems were communicated in advance to sympathetic, caring and prepared foster parents. Added to this was the late provision of mackintosh overlays which reduced the wear and tear on the mattress and the payment of a small allowance to cover the extra washing costs. This helped the problem to fade from the newspaper headlines and become a personal issue which was treated generally with kindness and coped with until the child settled and the bed wetting stopped.


I was at a church function when an elderly lady was recalling the days that her mother gave a home to some evacuees. She said that she could remember them arriving with only the clothes they stood up  in and their gas masks. They wet the beds nearly every night and after coping as long as she could the foster mother gave up and one of the boys went to live in council accommodation