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Between 1939 and 1944, over two million children were evacuated from British towns and cities. But “rather than being placed in camps, they were mostly accommodated in private homes, and many stayed with their foster families for several years.”

The author and philosopher Roman Krznaric describes this remarkable story as the “greatest meeting of strangers in history” – one which would have profound consequences for our national life:

  • “Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of homes in small towns and villages were filled with scrawny children from the slums of London, Liverpool and other cities, who were malnourished, suffering from rickets and lice, and lacking shoes or decent underwear. The nation was shocked by the destitution thrust into its living rooms.”

Neville Chamberlain, still Prime Minister at the time, was among those whose eyes were opened. In a letter to his wife, he confessed:

  • “I never knew that such conditions existed, and I feel ashamed of having been so ignorant of my neighbours. For the rest of my life I mean to try to make amends by helping such people to live cleaner and healthier lives.”

Krznaric reminds us that the roots of the welfare state run deeper and wider than some would have us believe:

  • “The history books often say that the welfare state was born out of the Beveridge Report of 1942, which led to the establishment of the National Health Service by the post-war Labour government. But the most significant social provisions for children emerged from a more unlikely source: the surge in empathic understanding that took place when evacuees met their foster families in the living rooms and kitchens of rural England.”

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