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"
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
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
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
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.
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
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.)