There has recently been much debate about social policy in Britain during the Second World War. This article takes up Jose Harris's suggestion that historians should look not at large-scale forces, but at ‘those minuscule roots of idiosyncratic private culture’. As a way into the complex amalgam that comprised ideas on social policy in the 1940s, we look in particular at the report on the evacuation of schoolchildren entitled Our towns: a close up, published by the Women's Group on Public Welfare in March 1943. Of course it is undeniable that one report is unrepresentative of all the many surveys that were produced on the evacuation experience. However, the initial wave of evacuation in September 1939 was the most significant, and the Our towns survey, along with a famous leader article in The Economist, has already received some selective attention from historians. Here we subject the survey to a more intensive examination, looking at the backgrounds of its authors, its content, and its reception by various professional groups. The article argues that it was the apparently contradictory nature of the report that explains its powerful appeal – it echoed interwar debates about behaviour and citizenship, but also reflected the ideas that would shape the welfare state in the post-war years.
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