Englishness, identity and refugee children in Britain, 1937-1945

  • Kevin Patrick Finbar Myers

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The twentieth century has been called the century of the refugee. The sheer size, scope and persistence of refugee movements was a defining feature of that century because at no other time in history have people so regularly been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. The plight of refugees - both in their flight from home and in their search for a place of exile - is suggestive of the power of ideas about identity in deciding who belongs and who is displaced, stateless and alien.

This study explores the significance of these ideas about identity through a case study of the arrival, settlement and experiences of two groups of Spanish and central European refugee children in Britain between 1937 and 1945. It begins by tracing a discourse on Englishness that betrays a contemporary concern for the future survival of the English nation and goes on to investigate how these concerns shaped negotiations for the arrival of refugee children. The principal aim of these negotiations, it is argued, was to ensure the protection of English national identity.

The specific form of protection required varied according to the specific group of children under discussion and was based on stereotypical representations of the two groups of children. These representations of the children inscribed them with identities, measured them against the qualities of Englishness and justified the intervention of government in order to guarantee the continued health, peace and prosperity of England. For the Spanish/Basque children the government priority was to protect national health and the political stability of national life. For the Jewish children the aim of government policy was not to stimulate anti-Semitism by exceeding the national 'absorptive capacity'. The resulting carefully controlled settlement of the children, drawn up with various refugee agencies and covering housing, health and education, is analysed in detail throughout this study.

In this study attention is also given to the role that the children's cultural and educational capital played in their adaptation to exile. It analyses how children were able to adapt to their experiences in exile by drawing on their own cultural and educational agency. In doing so it questions accounts of migration that focus on assimilation and explores instead the hybrid identities that were developed by refugee children who became adept at negotiating with the culture of Englishness.
Date of Award2000
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
  • Newman University College
SponsorsNewman University College
SupervisorIan Grosvenor (Supervisor)


  • world war 2
  • Englishness
  • Spanish civil war
  • child refugees
  • Jewish refugees
  • Basque refugees
  • exile
  • migration
  • assimilation
  • national identity

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