VE Day - Reflections on King's High during World War 2
This weekend we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of V.E. Day, when the Second World War came to an end in Europe. But what was life like for the King’s High community during the War?
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, King’s High’s headmistress was Miss Doorly. She was a widely-travelled award-winning author who spoke several European languages. She had friends of many nationalities, including artists, musicians and writers who would regularly give talks and recitals at school.
Although school life in wartime tried to continue as normal, even peaceful little Midlands towns like Warwick were touched by the horrors of war. Two of the prominent members of staff experienced personal tragedies. Miss Whittlesey, who had taught Biology at the school since 1938, and later became Deputy Headmistress, lost her fiancé during the War. It also claimed the life of Baron Peter Soren, husband of Art teacher Mrs Soren (née Struan Robinson). Mrs Soren had only been married for a few years when she was widowed, and returned to teach at the school after her husband’s death, until her own untimely death in 1965. In those days, it was unusual for female teachers to continue teaching after they had married.
During the Second World War, with the threat of aerial bombardment by Nazi planes, King’s High shared its school buildings with another girls’ school. King Edward VI School, Camp Hill was situated twenty or so miles from Warwick, in the industrial metropolis of Birmingham. This was part of the worryingly-named government initiative ‘Operation Pied Piper’. King’s High had its lessons in the morning, and the Camp Hill evacuees in the afternoon.
Just before the start of term, on 1 September 1939, two days before war was declared with Germany, the senior girls came into school a few days early to prepare for the evacuees. Miss Naish (KHS 1923 – 1958), the Deputy Head, explained that they were from Birmingham, and that none of the rations they were to prepare for their guests could be touched until 10 a.m. Barbara Ansell (KHS 1930 – 1941) after whom our Ansell Laboratory is named, recalled that the girls spent the time ‘discussing the international situation and the holidays’. Three hundred ration pack carrier bags were prepared under Miss Garry’s supervision, including the iron rations for the first forty-eight hours of the evacuees’ stay in Warwick. These included
One tin of corned beef
One tin of unsweetened milk
One tin of sweetened milk
¼ lb milk chocolate
1 lb biscuits
The latter had to be counted out!
A cup of tea, prepared under the direction of Miss Thickett in the Cookery School, was prepared to welcome the guests, and blankets were sorted out for the evacuees before their eventual arrival at 3.00 p.m. Tea was served in the Gymnasium, but the school ran out of milk and sugar, necessitating a mad dash to the shops by the King’s High girls. The Camp Hill girls were then taken into Warwick to meet with the Billeting Officer, who told the girls to pair up with friends, to reduce the feeling of homesickness. The Billeting Officer then visited every house in the area where a family had offered to accept a pair of evacuees, to check that this was still convenient. Mrs Coltart of the English staff followed in her car full of blankets, offering extra blankets to the families if needed.
By 7.00 p.m. this unusual war work was over, and the King’s High girls returned home, some finding that their families had increased by two!
The morning after the Coventry Blitz, in November 1940, the girls in assembly, many of whom would have heard the bombardment the night before, noticed that their numbers were seriously depleted. One by one, the girls realised that none of the Coventry girls were present that morning. It was a worrying time, but thankfully there had been no casualties among the Coventrian pupils.
During the early 1940s, the national mantra was ‘Dig for Victory’ and patriotic Britons were encouraged to grow their own food to help the war effort during the days of food shortages and rationing. The games field was ploughed up to grow potatoes for the school meals. Biology teacher Miss Whittlesey remembered that ‘the first year’s crop was disastrous, as it always is on old pastures, when the potatoes attracted all kinds of pests – leather jackets, wire-worm and so on. We tried to eat them but it was not easy to find the healthy bits. Later crops were much improved, but it did not make games easier.’ Miss Doorly planted apple trees along the playground bank, but it was future generations who reaped the benefit. As fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to obtain, the country girls brought in their unrationed garden produce to sell.
Great economy measures were taken; exercise books were constructed from the insides of envelopes, the Ilex magazine was printed on flimsier ‘war economy’ paper, and uniforms were worn until they were absolutely threadbare. Jean Webb 1933 – 1946 (later Dr Constantine) suggested that slates could be reinstated to save paper. Miss Whittlesey was not happy. ’This was agony to the staff; imagine the clicks and squeaks of a class working fast!’
The boarders recalled, in their pre-shower days, having to have a bath in only an inch of water. A line was painted around the bath to effect this.
The girls helped the War Effort with each House adopting a ship. Girls were encouraged to knit socks for the sailors. Jennifer Watts 1942 – 1951 remembered in ‘High Times’, ‘this was the first time most of us had used four needles, so each morning one of us would bring a heel to be turned by Miss Garry. There were 32 of us in the class! What a great job she did for the war effort. We also knitted scarves. 54 stitches wide and five feet long. I was lucky enough to be taken to visit our ship.’ In 1941, a sailor wrote to thank the school for its efforts, and his letter was published in the Ilex magazine.
Members of staff also helped out during the Second World War. English and Scripture mistress Miss Wilson, although not actually teaching at King’s High until 1950, had served in the War as a Chaplain’s Assistant to the British Forces. Mathematics teacher Miss Dobney 1946 – 1987 has a staff record that speaks of ‘war service’ between Cambridge and Training College.
Old girls also helped with the war effort. Pamela Henchman (1930 – 1934) volunteered for the Land Army, and when that worthy body asked for ‘men who could ride horses’ to act as dispatch riders, Pamela had to argue that although she was not a man, she could certainly ride. Eventually, after much consternation, she was allowed to join their ranks.
The school had four air raid shelters constructed. Two were adjacent to the Red House Garden, along the Butts, and two were at the far end of the playground near the Kindergarten. Miss Whittlesey said ‘these places were no protection from a direct hit, only from blast, but they helped morale’.
King’s High had had its own Boarding House in Landor and the Cottages since about 1900, but the Boarding House really came into its own during the Second World War. The multilingual traveller Miss Doorly knew people across the continent, and may well have persuaded them to send their daughters to the relative tranquillity of Warwick, away from the threat of aerial bombardment on major cities. Thus we had many foreign boarders at King’s High, including Norwegians, German Jews, Czechs and Swedes. A group of Norwegian and Swedish girls were persuaded to attend King’s High as a finishing school. Miss Doorly knew many foreign ministers who would send their girls to England to polish up their English. Miss Doorly also spoke Swedish and Norwegian herself. Apart from Miss Doorly’s personality, and the peace of Warwick in wartime, others were attracted to King’s High’s boarding house because of the school’s high academic standards and comparatively reasonable fees.
One such boarder was a German Jewish refugee, Gerda Levy (KHS 1939 – 1943), who wrote a moving account of her journey from Germany via Holland to Warwick; the sailors on board their ship attempted to teach the children English.
During the Second World War, Patricia Stoney 1937 – 1950 remembers eating meals at the British Restaurant in Jury Street; British Restaurants had been set up across the land to assist people who had been bombed out of their homes by offering cheap and nutritious meals. A well-known school pudding at the time was ’stodge’, a sponge served with custard. All wartime food tended towards blandness owing to food shortages and rationing; part of the school games field had been ploughed up to enable the school to help the war effort by ‘digging for victory’! Wartime school food only cost 6d (2 1/2 p), perhaps an indication of how its quality had declined since the previous decade, and Frederica Spencer 1942 - 1950, whose sister Sheila 1935 -1943 was an Old Girl who returned to teach Cookery at the school, can only recall that the food was ‘horrible’ (although not, of course, anything that her sister had cooked).
Strangely the Ilex of 1945 is silent on the subject of V.E. Day, but there had been a lot going on in the school to concern its pupils at the time. Miss Doorly the long-serving headmistress had been asked to retire by the Local Education Authority as she approached her 65th birthday. As the school was then under Local Authority control, she had to abide by its rules. Therefore by January 1945, the month of Miss Doorly’s 65th birthday, the school was getting used to a new young headmistress, Miss Wiseman. Miss Wiseman had to contend with the aftermath of the 1944 Education Act which had demanded the immediate closure of our Boarding House, requiring the rehousing of the boarders, and the ‘divorce’ from the Kindergarten, which became a separate school, firstly as St Mary’s Hall Preparatory School, and later as Warwick Preparatory School. Then there was the matter of a third form of girls that the Authorities asked the school to add to its year groups from then onwards. Accommodation needed to be found for them, as the school became a three- rather than two-form entry school. The Ilex was full of tales of school concerts and the departure of the boarders, but only an article on the Ship Adoption scheme made any reference to the War.
With the Ilex going to press a few weeks after V.E. Day, perhaps the teenage Warwickians did not fully appreciate the global enormity of what they were living through. Miss Burton, who taught English at King’s High from 1949 to 1977, was up at Cambridge for most of the War; she told me that she had felt fairly ‘cloistered’ from the outside world in the groves of academe. Might it have been so for the King’s High girls, in the days before 24-hour rolling news channels and the immediacy of the internet? News took a while to permeate, and ordinary life did not resume straight away. Televisions were not commonplace, and families would have to wait for an hourly BBC news bulletin on the radio.
To sum up the impact of the War on a King’s High girl’s life, we can look back to the Ilex of Summer 1940. Upper Vth (Year 11) pupil Blye Menet (KHS 1934 – 1940) penned her Ilex poem on ‘This War!’
In these hectic war-days
Everything we do
Must be National Service
Must be something new.
Saving all our paper
At home, in school, in digs,
Saving all our kitchen scraps
Just to feed more pigs.
The knitting craze has got us
Blind, and dumb, and deaf;
Woolies for the Navy
And the B.E.F.
Socks too large by sizes
A helmet like a sack
And poor old Tommy Atkins
Just can’t send it back.
And sticking to the windows
In train, and tube, and ’bus,
Warnings by the hundred!
It seems a lot of fuss.
But it’s our right to grumble,
And we should realise
That our news is true news
Not propagandist lies.
‘Fuss’ or not, King’s High returned to the relative normality of post-war life after V.E. Day, and by 1948, with the newly-married Miss Wiseman having made way for Miss Hare, the war was but a distant memory.