Chapter 10: The Hitch-hiking Revolution 1939-45
This quaint conversation printed ten days after the declaration of war against Hitler would have been unthinkable at any time in the previous 20 years. During the Six Years War hitch-hiking became a nationwide habit—at various times people from almost every class did it. Lift giving was elevated into a patriotic duty. Whereas before the war car drivers who regularly gave lifts were the exception, a climate grew up between 1939 and '42 which made it psychologically very difficult for a driver with spare seats not to pick people up.
Mass hitch-hiking was one of the many forces that brought the wealthy and the poor out of their respective peace-time shells and into willy-nilly personal contact. Lift-giving, the evacuation, huddled nights in air-raid shelters and cooperation in the Home Guard etc.... brought the two Englands temporarily together. Did this really produce a more democratic society? The superficial answer might seem to be yes, but in fact one of the major results of the enforced, cross-class 'comradeship' of the Second World War was that the elite classes had a chance to gauge the feelings of the 'other ranks' and subtly bring themselves up-to-date, thus ensuring their continued dominance of post- war society. Obviously this adjustment to modern conditions by the establishment class was largely subconscious, but none the less power effective for that. This genius of the governing minority for self-renewal and not too tardy adjustment to the climate of the times goes a long way towards explaining the absence of revolution in the history of Britain.
Wartime hitching fell broadly into two categories: civilian and military. The first large scale civilian lift soliciting was triggered off by the evacuation from the main cities of a large part of their child population. Nearly a million and a quarter people were evacuated in the first 3 days of September 1939. 12,000 of these were pregnant women, half a million mothers with young children, and the rest, three quarters of a million, were unaccompanied school-agers. War was declared on Sunday September 3rd and the first week-end following this naturally brought an exodus from the cities into the rural reception areas of parents anxious to see how their offspring were faring. This was also one of the last weekends before the onset of petrol rationing. Under the headline MOTORISTS HELPED the Daily Herald of September 11th reported:
The problem of getting visiting parents home was not so difficult. Motorists out for the last Sunday excursion before the petrol rationing entered into the spirit and offered their services to take people back.
One of the parents' problems was how to get from the nearest railway station to the small town or village where their children happened to be billeted. A typical case was that of Mr E.R. Tuck who lived in Ilford and whose 11 year old daughter had been evacuated to the hamlet of Winston. Winston had no bus service linking it to Ipswich, the nearest town with a railway station. On Sunday, December 3rd, Tuck got a train to Ipswich and from there set out to walk to the village. A motorist stopped and offered him a lift without even being thumbed and detoured to take him where he wanted to go.
In some parts of the country the German air offensive of 1940-41 created night-time conditions of near panic and people used hitch-hiking as a means of fleeing the burning towns. In January and February 1941 the Luftwaffe gave Bristol a particularly severe pasting. In certain areas of the town as much as a quarter of the population were too terrified to stay in their own beds and either slept in shelters or rushed out into the countryside. One eye witness reported that the roads leading out of Bristol at bedtime in January and February 1941 reminded him of 'Piccadilly in rush hour'. How did they go? The more fortunate went in their own cars or those of their friends. But according to C. Maclnnes's Bristol at War:
Outgoing lorries carried hundreds of refugees for nothing, while some lorry drivers charged a shilling a head and with luck these passengers might be allowed to remain in the vehicle all night, parked in a country lane. More often they were dumped on the roadside and left to shift for themselves as best they could. As it often happened that no shelter could be found, many remained in the open through the dreary hours of the long winter's night, appalled by the distant spectacle of havoc that was being wrought on the city they had left. Sometimes they crept into barns and outhouses, but frequently they slept in ditches and under hedges. When dawn came they were cold, stiff and hungry, and perplexed about the difficult task of returning.
News of the bombing of their home places brought the most unlikely people onto the road hitch-hiking. Miss Macmanus, who had lorry-hopped in the First War once gave a lift to an elderly woman along the Old Kent Road. She was told:
Up from the country I've come, they say our street 'as been bombed and I want ter see what's left of me 'ouse.
There must have been many other anxious evacuees hitching back into the towns with the same fears as this old lady.
June 1940, with the Dunkirk fiasco, the collapse of France and the Italian declaration of war brought an end to the phoney period. This point was soon to be rammed home for Londoners by German air-raids. With the bombing came dislocation of public transport. Craters appeared overnight in main roads, key sections of suburban railways were blasted to bits and when enemy action cut off power supplies tube trains were immobilised. But this second, real beginning to the war, with the enemy literally on the front door step, made for a new feeling of solidarity among people that it is hard for those of my generation (born 1940) to understand. It was in this atmosphere of togetherness and intense nationalism that civilian hitch-hiking reached its peak. The Daily Herald of September 18th 1940 carries three pictures of Londoners getting lifts; the accompanying captions read:
IN THE SAME DIRECTION—city workers living in suburban districts are becoming experts in hitch-hiking home owing to transport difficulties. Some hold up signs showing their destinations to motorists. Others get a lift on a passing lorry, while a baker on his way home stops to lend a helping hand.
Lift-giving was blessed by the Ministry of Transport and there were official appeals to motorists not to travel with seats unoccupied. By October 11th 1940, with the bombs coming down thick and fast, Autocar wrote editorially:
Motorists—private owners—are not doing all they could de to help. It is a nuisance, this continual answering of appeals for lifts .... But this is not the right attitude to adopt .... Everything the car owner can do to aid fellow travellers—even if he gets nothing but thanks for it—is a real help to the national effort—every empty seat involves a waste of time, fuel and effort on someone else's part. Motorists go to it!
Though the Government had appealed to motorists to pick up hitch-hikers they had also asked them to avoid taking their cars into central London. There was protracted debate in the country at large whether or not people who continued to use their cars, despite strict petrol rationing, were being unpatriotic.
On October 28th 1940 the wartime Government came down on the side of the London bourgeois who had kept their cars on the road. The Ministry of Transport offered an extra petrol allowance to anyone within a twenty mile radius of central London who would bring a full car-load of neighbours into the centre each morning and take them home again at night. The 'Help your Neighbour' scheme was welcomed with open arms by the motoring press who claimed the Government had now at last recognised the private motorist's contribution to the war effort. By the end of November 1940, a month after the start of the scheme, about 20,000 drivers had enrolled for the extra petrol allowance. They had to have special stickers on their windscreens to show they were 'neighbour helpers' which meant they became liable to prosecution if caught by the police going in or out of London at rush hour with empty seats. Theoretically the sanction was a £100 fine or three months imprisonment. In fact people caught cheating paid fines ranging from £20 to £50.
The scheme lasted from the end of October 1940 until March 1941. It applied only to the London area. Its net result was that some 20,000 plus motorists (not many new people enrolled after the first month) transported between 60,000 and 80,000 Londoners from their homes to work and back each week-day. In the strict sense this scheme did not involve lift-giving to hitch-hikers, as the driver had a permanent arrangement with the passengers he took into town each morning. It must therefore be regarded as a separate phenomenon from the spontaneous picking up of people from bus queues which was also very widespread at this period.
The scheme was dropped partly because as the war progressed the State was less and less able to dish out extra petrol to private people and partly because of the outcry against the favouring of the motoring classes. The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Herald and the Sunday Chronicle joined forces in attacking the 'help your neighbour' scheme. In November 1940 the London Trades Council said:
We consider with some alarm this very generous throwing out of petrol coupons to all sorts of people who give a few lifts now and again.
They agreed with the Times in calling for more buses to be put into service.
The winter of 1940/41 saw a wave of hitch-hiking by civilians all over the country, not just in the capital. In the Birmingham area people willing to give lifts stuck a geranium badge on their windscreens, while prospective hitchers wore identical badges on their coat lapels. This improved the efficiency of the lift giving machinery and did away with situations like this one reported from the South- East: a woman driver seeing a queue asked each person in turn if they required a lift. It wasn't till she had worked her way right to the end that she was told:
This is the fish queue, lady.
People did not simply hitch in and out of towns to and from their work. They would, for instance, get lifts from home to the allotments where they were growing vegetables as part of the war effort. People hitched across country at week-ends to see their relatives and sweethearts. The social image of hitch-hiking had completely changed: before the war you might see a lone working man down on his luck thumbing in the open countryside. By late 1940 hitch-hiking had become a normal habit of the suburbanite.
As the war dragged on into its third year great numbers of people still needed lifts but the number of private cars on the roads had declined precipitously as a result of stricter and stricter petrol rationing. What's more by 1942 a kind of motorists' backlash against lift giving was beginning to make itself felt. On January 14th 1942 the Motor complained that lifts are:
...increasingly regarded as a right. Possibly this is attributable to the wave of Socialism which is sweeping the country, a repercussion of a war for democracy and the rights of the underdog.
The same columns sounded an even more shrill note on April 22nd:
Private cars are not fare-free taxi cabs, and it would be a very serious abrogation of the rights of the private motorist if the reverse were established as a principle by a war time precedent.
An indication that lifts were becoming more difficult to get is reflected in a parliamentary question of the day. In April 1942 it was suggested to the Secretary for Petroleum that, since he was curtailing the petrol ration still further, he should make the giving of free lifts to service personnel a condition of issuing petrol coupons to owner drivers. He dismissed the suggestion on administrative grounds.
As the war moved into its fourth year the situation for hitch-hikers continued difficult. On February 3rd 1943 the Motor felt the need to print an article entitled:
LIFTS MAY STILL BE GIVEN
This lessened readiness to pick up hitch-hikers in the second half of the war was in no way due to Governmental attitudes. As late as November 1944 the Ministry of Fuel and Power was still issuing statements encouraging motorists to give lifts.
So far we have mainly considered commuter hitch-hiking and various other civilian forms of the habit. But what of Services thumbing? In the early part of the war a large slice of the RAF was fighting with Britain as its operational base. At the time of Dunkirk and in the months leading up to D Day in 1944 there were heavy troop concentrations all over the country. All through the war the Navy was coming and going from the major ports. In other words at any one time there were always large numbers of fighting men in camps, airfields and ports scattered over and round the edge of Britain. These men's hitch-hiking took two major forms: the first was the short haul lift from camp into the nearest town for an evening on the beer—the second was the hitch home from camp on a 24 or 48 hour leave.
This is what an airman stationed 'somewhere in East Anglia' had to say about local lifting in 1941:
Our camp is some fifteen miles from the nearest town, and we are almost entirely dependent upon lifts from passing vehicles when we have the opportunity of getting away from our station for a few hours.
He goes on to say that he and his mates were always able to get back within their allotted time, which speaks well for local car and lorry drivers.
A letter in Motor (April 23rd 1941) deals with the problem of 48 hour leaves on next to no money:
We are only allowed two railway warrants a year and the lift given by the motorist alters 48 hours' leave wandering about camp into a couple of days spent at home.
But it would be wrong to imagine all Servicemen in Britain hitching feverishly back and forth across the island for the duration of the war. The military authorities made every effort to provide troop trains to get the men home and some clearly preferred to go by rail which in many cases was the quickest way. Hitching came into its own when a cross country journey was involved and trains or coach impossible to manage in the time available. Hitching was also useful to men who did the bulk of their journey by train and then had to get from the station to their home, perhaps late at night. In some areas this form of lifting became organised and local motorists ran a free 'get you home' service between the station and the servicemen's local destinations.
For anybody who drives today it is almost impossible to realise or to recall how empty of traffic the roads were during the 1939-45 war. To begin with there were only 2 million private cars in Britain in 1939, less than an eighth of the number today. As more and more people laid their cars up the roads became lonelier and lonelier. A Punch cartoon in March 1941 catches this feeling well: a deserted road running over hill and dale— two servicemen playing cards in the shelter of a haystack—a glove with a thumb protruding stuck on a sapling by the roadside—their bid for a lift.
By 1944 the war was already beginning to look half won. The fascists were no longer on the doorstep as in the grim years of 1940-41. During the Battle of Britain few would have dared to refuse an airman a lift. By February 1944 it was possible for a correspondent in Autocar to write:
Certain diminutions in the friendly habit (of lift giving) have arisen within the last year or two. For one thing the police news makes nearly all women and many non- athletic males a little shy of picking up strange men, even those in uniform.
More than a year later, in June 1945 Autocar was writing:
...the nastier and more numerous our foes the nicer we tend to be to our friends. Hence the unprecedented wartime boom in hitch-hiking, which reached its zenith in the 'Island Fortress' days.... Recently, if my experiences is any criterion, the decline in hitch-hiking has been more than proportionate to the reduction in our forces population. Nowadays one can drive for a couple of hours along a main road and not be thumbed. And the response to the signals of surviving thumbsters, according to a Canadian airman who road with me last week, is not what it used to be either.
In November 1945 an airman hopefully thumbed a large Buick saloon—the driver cowed down and shouted through the window:
Don't you chaps realise the war is over?