The Second World War was fought on a different basis to previous wars, the battle was not on some foreign soil but was brought to the British Isles by the Axis Bombers, whom it was believed (and to some extent it did  happen) would destroy many British cities. We only need to look at the devastation caused in cities such as London, Plymouth and Coventry to understand the damage done and the threat that it was to the general population.

If you were the parent of a child under 16 years of age the Local Authority asked if you wanted to have your child evacuated from the town to the relative safety of the countryside. Many parents took advantage of this free service and children were transported all over the country at no cost to their parents.  The decision had to be made quickly on the outbreak of war and parents were given just two or three days to decide. Whilst transportation was free for all the children that wanted to go, the actual living costs of the child were not.

On 28TH October 1939 the Government started a scheme to reclaim the billeting costs of each evacuated child. The amount to be reclaimed equalled the amount paid out in billeting allowances by Local Authorities, namely 10s 6d for one child and 8s 6d for each additional child. Obviously the government must have decided that there were economies of scale in having children, though where the savings could be made is questionable. The fees were viewed by different foster parents in different lights, a well off family considered the amount unacceptable as it did not cover much towards what they saw as the necessary costs for children.  In contrast a poor agricultural labourer welcomed the payment as he was unlikely to spend anything like that amount in bringing up his children. Actual fees to be recovered from the parents amounted to around 6s per week as the government recognised that parents would be meeting other costs (clothing, toys and books) that were not included in the billeting allowance.

Who was liable to pay the fees due? Liability did not stop with the parents but continued into the next generation with grandparents being liable, although older siblings were not liable for their younger siblings boarding costs. Thus grandparents were expected to pay towards the upkeep of the child if the child's parents could not pay.  A formula was devised to decide how much parents could contribute. Those on a good wage would obviously pay the full amount and those on unemployment assistance or poor relief would pay nothing – but there were a large amount of families somewhere in the middle and the amount they needed to pay needed to be assessed. Many families on low wages were paying more in child support than they spent on their child when they were at home. Some parents who were more wealthy reimbursed the state and then paid the foster carers an additional allowance to cover what they saw as the extra costs of looking after a child.

The administration of the scheme was undertaken by the evacuating local authorities or London Boroughs. They had to transfer staff from other duties to do this work and with male workers enlisting it would create opportunities for women in the work force to take more responsible jobs other than typing.  It was estimated that the amount collected in the scheme would be about £3,600,000 per year with administration charges amounting to about 20 per cent of the amount raised.

A bomb site in London
Credit: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having worked in the DSS/ Benefits Agency of the 1980’s to 00’s I can only guess on the burden of this extra administration at a time when skilled  and experienced members of staff were going off to fight in the war. As with all schemes the Government produced a number of circulars to enable the staff to make the correct calculations.  The circulars advised how the income of the parent should be calculated taking into account monies received from lodgers and capital investments and money spent on mortgage payments. As the scheme became more used the rules became more complex as cases seemed to pose more questions.  What happened if a parent moved, changed their job, earned more or less or paid more in mortgage interest all of these problems needed to be addressed. This called for many assessments to be reassessed to take into account changes in the parents circumstances and all this administrative labour cost money.

The record keeping was a nightmare ,records had to be kept of where the child was and where the parents were often at more than one address and often on the move; especially if on active service. Sometimes children returned for a few weeks and adjustments had to be made other times children left the countryside permanent end dates had to be established that the parent and the foster parent agreed.  Thousands of cases were referred for legal proceedings where parents refused to pay perhaps the calculations did not take into account their specific circumstances and they simply could not pay. By 1942 there were arrears outstanding of over £2, 000,000 and additional costs were incurred in trying to recover this money.  In the financial year 1939-1940 which was not a full year expenditure on unaccompanied evacuated children amounted to £6,700,00 whilst collections from parents amounted to £559,950- less than 10 per cent of the amount due! It was not that parents would not pay many parents just could not pay and the means testing unmasked the large levels of families who were just above the public assistance threshold but could not afford to pay for their children’s care. Administrative costs rose   with the associated difficulties of finding liable relatives., that is those parents or grandparents that the state decided should pay.


It was a never ending task and vast quantities of money were "written off" at the end of the war as administrative costs were just too high to justify the recovery action.