Easter 1944: A children’s tea party to remember

When a set of old photographs were donated to the Essex Records Office in the UK, it unearthed a fascinating insight into the early days of Plan International’s work helping children caught up in the horrors of the Second World War. Now, 80 years on, we look back at a children’s tea party to remember.

A black and white photo from 1944 of girls and boys sitting around a bench table eating cake.
The children enjoyed special treats such as tinned fruit and cake that would have been a rarity in the war years.

In April 1944, a tea party was held in Lindsell village hall, hosted by members of the 9th US Air Force who were stationed at the nearby Wethersfield air base. Invited to this special day were orphaned and refugee children living in New Barn, one of the Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children (‘Plan’) nurseries established by Anna Freud in 1941.

Shelter for children made homeless by the war

A young girl sitting on a grass verge.
A girl living at New Barn nursery in 1944.

Following the death of her father Sigmund Freud, and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Anna Freud threw herself into work. Recognising the need to provide shelters for children and their families who were rendered refugees or made homeless by the war, she opened a shelter in London, in January 1941, with funding from Plan.

In the summer of 1941, 2 additional buildings were equipped and opened: a large residential nursery in Hampstead for babies and young children, caring for up to 50 children; and a country house in Essex, called New Barn, which was an evacuation residence for 30 older children. The 3 houses were financially supported by Plan as the ‘Hampstead War Nurseries’.

New Barn provided refugee children from across Europe with food, shelter, psychosocial care and education. The country environment offered its own learning experience, with the children encouraged to plant and care for vegetable plots. Local landmarks were used for history and geography lessons while science was learnt through practical fieldwork.

American culture and tasty treats

The arrival of large numbers of American soldiers and airmen in 1942 was an exciting development and brought American culture to British children in person for the first time. American servicemen were generous with their off-ration chocolate and chewing gum, and they enjoyed organising children’s parties and dances.

Located 7 miles from New Barn, RAF Wethersfield was used by the US Air Force from December 1943 and more than 2,000 US servicemen were stationed there as they prepared for the D-Day invasion of France the following year.

To mark the Easter weekend in 1944, the airmen decided to hold a tea party for children at the New Barn nursery, laying on special treats such as tinned fruit and cake that would have been a rarity in the war years, and taking the excited children for rides in one of their big army trucks.

A carefree day amidst the upheaval of war

Eighty years on we salute the servicemen who shared their time and rations with the children of the New Barn nursery, giving them a day of carefree happiness amidst the upheaval of war. Just a few months later, these airmen had a key role to play in the D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944, supporting ground forces as they landed on the beaches in Normandy.

These photos capturing this day of celebration were donated to the Essex Record Office by a resident of Lindsell, who was living in the village when the party was given.

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