25 June: Children in Tower Hamlets and across London have put aside their computer games and discovered first-hand the simple fun that their grandparents made for themselves, in a ground breaking project which has bridged the generational divide.
Last week children from St John’s Primary School in Bethnal Green brought to life the experiences – both sad and joyful – of people who were evacuated from London as children during World War II. Their musical performance for parents and staff was the culmination of six week’s work, during which the children were brought face to face with former evacuees to learn about the experience of being uprooted from London and sent off to live with families in the countryside.
Drama-based workshops run by London Play and Half Moon Theatre during the project, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, also saw pupils explore the realities of life for children in 1940s London – how they lived and how they played. They learned about carbolic soap and mothballs; sang songs and played games such as ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’ and ‘Jacks’. The children were encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of former evacuees, imagining the fear of bombing raids, re-enacting tearful goodbyes at the train station and writing letters home to their parents from their billets in rural England.
Those letters were used by Half Moon Theatre to develop songs and music for the final performance, which saw the children, clutching dog-eared teddy bears and dressed in 1940s clothes, acting out the evacuee experience. “Even though, I love to play, I hope that we’ll make it, and I’ll see you again.” The poignant words and music and the vision of their children leaving had many parents in the audience wiping away tears.
One child said that the most interesting thing that they learnt about the past was “that they had lots more cooler games (sic).” A parent said that her son was now playing outside more often as a result: “I really enjoyed working with my son finding out games and toys from the 40s – he has learnt new games that he now plays outside with his friends.”
A grandparent who attended said she had valued the opportunity to play out the evacuee experience and games with her granddaughter. “The past shapes the present,” she said. “It is important to understand that.”
Former evacuee Stella was at the St John’s performance and said: “It’s nice being with children again, and seeing how the schools have changed since I was a child. The children are just lovely.”
St John’s head teacher Terry Bennett said that he knew some of the children would find it difficult to believe that he was not yet born when World War II began. But he said that his parents were “and a lot of the things that you brought up in your show would have happened to my father.”