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Caring on the Home Front - Volunteer memories from World War Two

Stories » Welfare work » Helen Owen

Helen Owen

helen1They arrived, tired and lousy Helen Owen presided over the provision of first aid in Boston upon the arrival of young evacuees from Hull. Expecting knee scrapes, she found herself scrubbing down the children, the carriers of many louse. Helen’s task was repeated all over England, an initiation that evacuees still remember today.

What did you do ?

helen2“I was a member of Lincoln [Red Cross] all of whom were nurses. We were expected to fill whatever space was vacant at the time, hence my flirtation with the evacuation programme.”

Any special memories?

helen3“In 1939 children were evacuated from the cities. Arrangements were made for children from Hull to be billeted in Lincolnshire. They would travel in two buses.
There was no Humber Bridge at that time and the ferry crossing was mined, so the buses had to journey inland to cross at the nearest bridge.

The Staniland School at Boston was the reception centre, manned by the billeting officer, the WVS, the Council with a list of names, and me with my first aid box.

helen4We were told buses would arrive about 11 o’clock. At twelve a policeman arrived on bicycle to say there was a delay, owing to an overnight stop at a village hall, there was some trouble but they were now on their way.

Around three o’clock they arrived, angry, tired, hysterical and lousy. Many of the children had been ‘sewn up for the winter’ (rubbed with goose grease or whale oil, their flannel underwear sewn on until Spring) and were hosts to infection, which they happily passed on! The Red Cross manual did not appear to cover this.

helen5After much consultation it was decided to move everyone to the local Casual Wards, well equipped and used by the local police for vagrants. Sadly, the infestation was so great that Derbak soap and hot water were of no use.
It was decided to cut off the children’s hair, bandage their heads and apply chloroform. Before this could be done a doctor had to be found to accept responsibility. Dr. Snow, a very elderly retired GP agreed to sit in.

helen6helen7He managed to re-assure the mothers that cutting them out of their clothes would not be fatal; [and] soothed, as far as anyone could, the mothers.
We got on with the bandaging and killing the fleas that staggered out from under them.
Within six months most had returned to Hull. Perhaps it was quieter there than being surrounded by fighter and bomber stations.”

What else did you do?

helen8“I worked with the local Ministry of Health at village clinics, with the food executive officer at the Milk Marketing Board (National Dried Milk and vitamins), and escorted vagrant ladies out of the county (with the police, of course). In fact, any job no-one else wanted!
I am still serving with the Red Cross (72 years, not bad).”


3,750,000 British people were evacuated during the Second World War. Those evacuated included school-age children, mothers and young children, pregnant women, disabled people, teachers and ‘helpers’. Not all were evacuated to the country. Some London children were sent to Brighton and had to be re-evacuated during the 1940 bombing scare. Find out more about the evacuation.


Large-scale evacuation highlighted the social differences between the children who were sent away and the people willing and able to house them. A study showed that five per cent of evacuated children were not toilet trained, whilst 25 per cent were infested with head lice.


In 1941 the Minister of Health asked the Joint War Organisation to convert some of its convalescent homes into nurseries for the under-fives. They ran twenty-two nurseries, looking after children injured during the Blitz and the children of mothers who were doing war-work. Read A Tale About Toddlers written during the War.