On 1st September 1939, a mass evacuation scheme began across Great Britain. The Westminster Government-led initiative did not affect Northern Ireland. Authorities at Stormont, Northern Ireland's seat of Government chose not to follow the example set in London. For most schoolchildren across Ulster, life remained unchanged throughout 1939 and 1940. The carrying of gas masks and occasional drills on their use was among the only notable changes.
In Northern Ireland as early as June 1939, authorities had begun to think about the evacuation of Belfast. An estimate of around 70,000 schoolchildren lived in the city and attended schools there. By the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939, accommodation was only available for around 1/5th of this number.
Some larger schools took matters into their own hands. Establishments such as Richmond Lodge School for Girls on Malone Road, Victoria College off University Avenue, and Ashleigh House School set up remote branches. These would come into effect should the evacuation of the city occur. Campbell College in East Belfast was one forward-thinking example. The War Office made use of many of the school buildings, in particular as a Military Hospital. Therefore, as part of the aptly named ‘Operation Seachange’, many boarding pupils of Campbell College relocated to Portrush, Co. Londonderry between 1940-1946.
The appointment of John Clarke MacDermott as Minister of Public Security led to some form of direct action from 25th June 1940. At his first Cabinet meeting on 1st July 1940, he won approval for the immediate evacuation of all Belfast’s schoolchildren. While he received Government backing, there was little support from the residents of the city.
Of an estimated total of 70,000 children, only 17,000 registered for the scheme. Evacuation day was set as 7th July 1940 but only around 1,000 children turned up at the designated departure schools.
The local press reports an improved response to the second Belfast evacuation scheme, the first having been a complete flop with less than ten percent even registering.
A further 5,000 children had registered by the second attempt 6 weeks later. However, once again only 1,700 turned up on the day.
Words used by authorities at the time included; “a flop”, “a fiasco”, “an absurdity”, and “an embarrassment”. There were several reasons for the scheme’s failure, including the belief that Belfast would not be a target for Luftwaffe bombs. Parents were reluctant to send their children off to the countryside. At the time, few working-class people traveled beyond the city except for perhaps a day trip to the seaside at Bangor.
In the countryside, those who had signed up for the scheme complained that they had to clothe the evacuees. City-dwelling children did not adapt to country life and within weeks, some had returned to Belfast.