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Plimsolls, Poverty, and Policy

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By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

John Welshman, author of Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain, blogs about how everyday items like children’s plimsolls can actually say a great deal about the wider issues of poverty and policy during World War II.

You can read John Welshman’s previous OUPblog post here.


Getting friends to read a book manuscript is an interesting process, for often they highlight themes that you are only subconsciously aware of yourself. One who read mine commented that he was struck how much there was about the everyday, including shoes.

And it is true that one of the interesting aspects of the evacuation of September 1939 is the way that it shone a light on aspects of people’s lifestyles that had been ignored in the 1930s. Occasionally commentators such as the Labour MP, Churchills ChildrenFenner Brockway, in the book Hungry England, had noted that poor children wore the plimsolls that were sold in street markets. But more often this was ignored. But the theme of footwear cropped up right at the start of the evacuation process. In May 1939, for example, civil servants realised that the clothing and footwear of some children would pose problems. It was thought that while there were unlikely to be problems in London, or in towns in Kent and Hampshire, there would be in cities in the Midlands and the North. A circular issued that month informed parents about the amount and type of luggage to be taken. Each child was to carry a gas mask, change of underclothing, night clothes, slippers or plimsolls, spare socks or stockings, toothbrush, comb, towel and handkerchief, warm coat or mackintosh, rucksack, and food for the day. Parents were told the children were to be sent in their thickest clothing and warmest footwear. Moreover the evacuation practices held in the summer of 1939 confirmed that many children had neither warm clothing nor strong footwear. In Leeds, for instance, while the equipment brought was generally good, and all the children had come with gas masks, ‘the greatest weakness is in the supply of footwear’.

The civil servants realised that the success of evacuation would depend on the weather, since many parents waited for the winter before buying their children new shoes. And footwear was certainly a problem in some of the Reception Areas. In Lancaster in the North West, for example, the Billeting Officer advised parents that the money spent on their frequent visits would be better spent on footwear and clothing for their children. He wrote that:

It is very desirable to give the children every opportunity to settle down happily in their new surroundings; and for this reason parents will be wise not to visit their children too frequently. The money spent in such visits would be better spent on thick country footwear, raincoats, overcoats, or warm underclothing for the children.

The Ministry of Health responded on 2 October 1939 with a circular on footwear and clothing. This announced that £7,500 was to be distributed in the Evacuation Areas as contributions to boot and clothing funds. Moreover while the circular continued to encourage voluntary effort, there were some important shifts as time went on. In November 1939, the London Clothing Scheme was set up, along with clothing depots run by the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in the Reception Areas. These were stocked with materials, especially from the American Red Cross, and clothing was now issued from the depots according to the means of the parents. With the arrival of American clothing supplies, civil servants felt that the time had arrived when greater use should be made of the gift clothing without enquiring too closely whether the parents could afford to pay.

As it came to be accepted that the state needed to do more, the theme of footwear also came into debates about reconstruction. In July 1941, for example, Edgar Wilkins, a school doctor in Birmingham, argued that foot problems were common, and were bound up with well-being and the standard of living rather than medical treatment; the remedy lay with economics and not with medicine. People could be sorted into the different social classes according to the state of their feet, so that ‘bad feet’ were typically an attribute of poverty, and a result of poor quality footwear. Wilkins argued that school medical inspections revealed the poor state of children’s footwear, showing that the children of the poor rarely bought new shoes, but wore the cast-offs of their older brothers and sisters, or second-hand shoes bought cheaply at street markets. The problem would not be solved by an extension of medical treatment, but by improved nutrition and a rise in living standards.

So perhaps that is one difference between the 1940s and today. Whereas plimsolls then were an emblem of poverty, today’s designer trainer is a flaunting of affluence. Or is the wearing of traditional leather shoes (laced and brown or black) still a marker of social class for both boys and girls?

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