THE evacuation of 125 Oxford children to Yale in the Second World War when the German threat of invasion was at its height has long been viewed as one of Oxford’s more heart-warming wartime tales.

But an author has now raised the prospect that the offer by Yale to take in the sons and daughters of Oxford University dons may not have been as altruistic as it seemed.

Political columnist Jonathan Freedland presents an altogether more disturbing motive in his book Pantheon – that the leaders of the eugenics movement were anxious to extract the children of Britain’s cleverest academics with a view to eventually repopulate Britain with “a superior” breed of human.

The theory is explored in an admittedly fictional tale but the author, who used his pseudonym Sam Bourne, insists that story is “rooted in extraordinary facts”, arguing that serious questions remain to be answered about the Oxford-Yale episode.

Freedland lays his suspicions bare at the end of the novel in an author’s note, where he writes: “Some of those who were rescued have long wondered about the motives, not of their hosts, but the effort’s organisers: why were they singled out, was it perhaps their status as the offspring of the academic elite that made their plight particularly pressing?”

The 1930s fascination with eugenics is what lies behind his suspicions. This involved the belief that society should encourage the strongest, fittest and brightest to have more children, while pushing, or even forcing, those deemed inferior or weak to produce fewer children, or none at all.

A new history of Yale suggests that at the time of the evacuation eugenics was “red hot” at the famous American university.

Mr Freedland recognised that people like the former Oxford Lord Mayor Ann Spokes Symonds, who was among the 125 who went to Yale, would be shocked.

He said: “It is important to say that I am certain that almost all the American families who opened their doors to the Oxford children did so out of the most altruistic motives. But I’m questioning the motives of the people who set the scheme in motion.

“Tellingly, Dr John Fulton of Yale Medical School, a prime mover behind the effort, said that the Yale Faculty Committee for Receiving Oxford and Cambridge University Children hoped to save ‘at least some of the children of intellectuals before the storm breaks.’”

Mrs Spokes Symonds, 86, of Davenant Road, in North Oxford, whose book Havens Across The Sea chronicles the journey she and the other Oxford children took in 1940, has no truck with the idea.

She dedicated her own book to the transatlantic foster-parents and their families “who had opened their doors and their hearts to us”.

“I am a bit sad about it all,” Mrs Spokes Symonds said. “It was really about the comradeship between academics. Even if someone was a member of a eugenics society, it does not mean there was this ulterior motive.

“People hearing about this master race idea, should remember it is a novel.”

Eugenics advocated practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population.

Its supporters believed it built on the work of Charles Darwin.

Enthusiasts argued society should encourage the strongest and brightest to have more children, while pushing or even forcing those deemed inferior or weak to produce fewer children or none at all.

As a social movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century.

Enthusiasts included some of Britain’s leading intellectuals, including George Bernard Shaw and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

In the US, eugenics found supporters on university campuses, seduced by its promise of a quick end to social ills. Its most infamous proponent was Adolf Hitler. Its popularity faded as it became associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

  • Jonathan Freedland will be talking about Pantheon at the The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival (March 24-April 1) on March 26.

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