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When the Siren Wailed

When the Siren Wailed was first published in 1974, with a US edition (under the title When the Sirens Wailed) in 1976. It is now out of print, although the recent (2000) Collins paperback may still be available in shops.

Story | Thoughts | Editions and Availability


It is 1939, and the Clark family (Nobby and Rosie, and the children Laura, Andy and Tim) lives in South London. Although they are poor - and often hungry - they have a happy home.

There is talk that there may be a war with the Germans, and one Saturday morning the children are taken to the Town Hall to be given gas masks, which they must carry with them at all times. Then evacuation rehearsals begin: the war is probably going to happen, and when it does, all children in danger areas like London are to be sent to the country. All the children practice going to school with a suitcase, pillowcase or carrier bag, plus their gas mask and a piece of paper (pinned on with a safety pin) with their name, address and the name of their school on it.

The evacuation takes place on September 1st, 1939. Laura, Andy and Tim are taken to a village called Charnbury in Dorset. They are billeted with Colonel Launcelot Stranger Stranger and his servants, Mr and Mrs Elk. A new life begins for the Clark children - one in which they must take a bath every day, help the Elks, and go to bed early. They also get new clothes, and regular meals. The war is also changing the village - signs are taken down, the Colonel joins the Home Guard, and food rationing is introduced. In letters from their mother, they learn that Nobby has joined the Navy, and Rosie is working at a munitions factory in London.


(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

When the Siren Wailed is one of Noel's few books focussed on working class, Cockney chldren. It gives a far more believable picture than the token gestures made in The Children of Primrose Lane: as Angela Bull says, there is "no need now for pussy-footing hints about cream buns and tinned lobster to convey working class culture; the reader is introduced directly into a world of slums and searing poverty. The young Clarks are the sort of children Noel remembered from her Care Committee days, and she shows exactly how their home regime of treats, threats, and casual hours, hinders their adjustment when ... they are billeted on a retired Colonel" (1984:239).

The other significant difference from The Children of Primrose Lane is that there was no need to introduce an artificial adventure onto the wartime setting. Unlike the books she was writing during the war, for readers of a new generation she could assume that the setting was interesting in and of itself, and could "tell a pleasant story [and] give her readers a rudimentary understanding of conditions that existed at the time" (Cadogan and Craig, 1978:248).

The downside of this is that, in painting a picture of the war, Noel ran the risk of losing touch with the story of her characters. This had happened in her earlier work, Lisa Goes to Russia, in which any sense of personal story is lost in the mass of detail about Russia. In this case, the greater depth of personal knowledge Noel had about the war, coupled with the perspective of distance, let her avoid the pitfall of an "information dump" story. This was helped by the tighter narrative thread, and a more even handed treatment of the cultural clash between the evacuees and the families billeting them. Nevertheless, the children's characters are fairly lightly sketched in, and we are told about their growth rather than seeing it.

Her story is also sanitized to a certain extent. There are brief examples of looting and the black market, and the reader is told that many of the evacuees and their foster parents are unhappy with the arrangements. The Clark children, however, have been brought up in a happy home, with firm moral standards, and they are billeted in an equally happy home with firm moral standards, despite the cultural differences. Even when they are being looked after by Miss Justworthy, the children are not mistreated: like Cecil Docksay in Ballet Shoes for Anna, Miss Justworthy is unsympathetic, but not actively unkind. The period with the Seecoms provides a non-threatening window into another side of the war.

In Women and Children First, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig criticise this aspect of the book, saying that it "establishes an undertow of conservatism" and enables Noel to "affirm without priggishness the value of old-fashioned virtues like order, respect for elders and self control. ... The story is located firmly and comfortably in the past" (1978:248)

In spite of its flaws, however, When the Siren Wailed gives an evocative picture, grounded in reality, of a unique period in England's history.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

When the Siren Wailed was first published in 1974, with illustrations by Margery Gill. It was reprinted in 1977 and 1984.

Paperback editions were released by Fontana and Collins Lions in the 1970s and 1980s.

The most recent release seems to have been a Collins Paperback edition, in 2000.

US Editions

In 1976, a slightly retitled edition - When the Sirens Wailed - was released in the United States by Random House.

It was republished in the late 1980s as a Dell Yearling paperback.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Out of Print

The Collins paperback edition of When the Siren Wailed may still be available in shops. However, it is no longer listed on the HarperCollins website, and can therefore be assumed to be out of print.

In February 2004, second hand copies through online booksellers start in price at around 1.50. (Source: Addall Used and Out of Print Book Search.)


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© 1974 Noel Streatfeild

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