What Can Art Tell Us About the Lives of Evacuated Children in the Second World War?
Sayers Croft Field Centre: dining hall and kitchen block
NHLE entry: Listing details for Sayers Croft
As part of the Government's programme in 1939 to protect vulnerable civilian populations, it was proposed that children living in cities at risk from expected bombing should be moved to rural purpose-built camps.
The National Camps Corporation constructed 33 camps across England, to the designs of architect T S Tait. Initially they were used as educational bases, to address the longer-term social problem of urban poverty, but from 1940 onwards whole schools were relocated to these camps as part of the evacuation plan.
Exceptional level of survival
In April 1940 hundreds of boys from two schools - Catford Central and Brownhill Boys - said goodbye to their families in London and journeyed to Surrey by train. Their destination was Sayers Croft Centre in Surrey. In 2007, we listed its dining hall and kitchen block at Grade II for their exceptional level of survival, as of the nine camps that still exist today, only the plan of Sayers Croft reflects Tait's original intentions.
The prefabricated huts, constructed of Canadian Red cedar wood and corrugated sheets, are arranged on either side of a brook. Staff, administration and dining hall blocks lie on one side of it, and the boys' accommodation, assembly hall and play areas lie on the other, connected by a bridge.
So how does this particular camp offer insights into the activities of the children billeted there in the early 1940s?
Swimming, outdoor lessons and Father Christmas
Hanging on the walls of the dining hall are two vivid examples of war art. Painted by the senior art class in 1942, the murals depict aspects of life at the camp in different seasons. One shows boys taking outdoor lessons, enjoying swimming and playing basketball in summer, and the other portrays them watching films and plays in winter.
Years later, when former Sayers Croft evacuees were interviewed, it soon became apparent that many of the boys had thrived in the rural environment. They had been able to participate in sports, gardening (to help the war effort) and other outdoor activities that had been unavailable at their inner-city schools.
Touchingly, the murals also reveal the boys' vulnerability as evacuees, with depictions of children leaving their parents at the train station, war planes flying over London at night and Father Christmas handing out presents.
War art on the National Inventory
After the war, Sayers Croft continued offering residential visits for schools, and today still operates as a field centre for children's outdoor activities. The surviving huts and the creative murals offer historians a visual insight into the daily lives of boys who experienced a unique wartime childhood - so close to the air raids but safe in an environment that one evacuee described as being like a 'holiday all the time'.
The murals are included on the United Kingdom's National Inventory of War Memorials, a poignant reminder during this centenary period that acts of remembrance materialise in all forms and contexts.