WORLD WAR II; EVACUATION AND AFTERWARDS
SCHOOL life, for the most part, ran its normal course during immediately preceding the war, most people hoping for the best though fearing the worst as the sands obviously ran out. It is very difficult to determine the impact of worldly affairs on the minds of schoolboys. Probably the juniors lived in their customary state of blissful ignorance, but some of the seniors in Mr. Marston's lessons were beginning to realise that history was really becoming a lively topic.
Generally speaking, however, the well-organised and recently re-named Grammar School for Boys proceeded with its appointed task and even survived a general inspection by H.M's Inspectors In May 1939. They remarked: "It would be difficult to find such totally unsatisfactory premises in any maintained Secondary School; re-building on a more suitable site as soon as circumstances permit is strongly recommended. ... The boys are keen and intelligent and work hard. They are well-mannered and orderly. The School is doing notably good work in many directions under very difficult conditions."
Those were the days of a medium-sized and stable Staff - men who had established themselves as competent teachers: R. H. Gillender, H. H. Green, W. E. Hanson, F. Haslam, W. H. Lock, A. F. Pain, and J. A. Stubbs, to mention a few of an older generation of men.
Soccer and cricket were played at the Rectory Field and Flanders Road; also with more informality at Barking Rec. and Gooseleys. Athletics flourished under the stem but self-denying ordinance of the late Charles Hockley, who in 1938 and 1939 trained teams which won the Champion B. Russell Cup, competed for by Extra-Metropolitan Essex Grammar Schools. 1939 also saw the introduction into the School Sports of the system of standard Points. Purcell House were the winners. (Consult Alderman Dixon.)
In those pre-war days the custom of Christmas parties had grown up. Strange and hilarious affairs they were; one for the juniors, one for the Seniors, under the general direction of Mr. E. D. Griffiths, Senior Chemistry in his more normal moods. There were game, in the so-called gym - across the yard and up the steps - followed by tea in the gaily-decorated but totally inadequate dining-room. The atmosphere may be recaptured by reading Charles Lamb's account of the annual feast in Smithfield Market given by one of his friends to the young Chimney-sweeps of London! (No offence meant.)
The crisis over the Sudeten Land of Czechoslovakia, and the brief patched-up peace following the so-called Munich Agreement with Hitler, really opened the eyes of the Authorities, who now began to prepare for the wholesale transfer of population groups in the event of war. Throughout the summer term of 1939 work and play went on much as usual, with frequent interruptions necessitated by rehearsals for "operation evacuation". Still, that summer term ran its appointed course, and all at School breathed a sigh of relief - how short a one they little knew then.
On the evening of St. Bartholomew's Day, radio instructions recalled Staff and pupils to await the order to leave London for the "reception areas". Detailed printed instructions were sent to parents (evacuation was voluntary), identification labels were secured to button-holes, gas-masks in cardboard boxes were slung at the "ready".
Instruction, to evacuate were issued by radio at mid-day, Thursday, 31st August. At 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 208 boys went down the steps and assembled in the yard on the Barking Road. We heard that Hitler's planes were bombing Warsaw. There is a photograph of that line-up taken by one of the Staff; it shows an orderly, waiting column, waiting, possibly, for a summer outing to the seaside.
Up the back streets to the station - to Paddington - our first clue. Soon we arrived at Swindon, to the consternation of the local reception authorities, who talked helplessly of expecting juniors from somewhere or other. Maybe we should have gone to Weston-super-Mare, as rumoured. This consternation was soon shared by householders up on the hill in Old Town; they also were expecting small boys.
"Billeting" proceeded until late evening, with Lethbridge Road School as the 'control centre'. Before the task had been completed, cheerful seniors, out for a stroll around, having eaten and rested, met exhausted members of the Staff sitting on pavements, wondering if they themselves would find a bed that night. Messrs. Barton and Griffiths, who had remained in London, were envied.
The "black-out" of that first night was a phenomenon to be remembered by all who ventured out in strange surroundings. On Sunday the Prime Minister told the nation that it was at war. We heard of the false air-raid alarm in London, and wondered! Later, during the period of the "phoney war", people asked themselves why they had been uprooted.
After the "East-Enders" had made their first impressions on the natives, it was realised, at any rate, that they were well organised, well-behaved Grammar School boys, who soon settled into the routine of many households, who, in turn quickly discovered that their "guests" could be usefully employed as errand boys, etc. Complaints, however, began to be voiced about the inadequacy of the weekly Government billeting money to feed strapping Upper School boys.
Three weeks passed before the local schools re-assembled after the summer holidays. Our School met at various times for short periods for administrative purposes, and sometimes for outings to such places as Savernake Forest.
On 22nd September work was started in three Swindon Grammar Schools: Fifth and Sixth Formers in the College, in Victoria Road; the Fourths in Euclid Street Secondary School; the juniors in the comparatively new building named the Commonweal School.
From that moment, the School, in a sense, lost its unity, for the three groups worked independently and tended to isolate themselves into separate entities. Some members of Staff worked in only one of the three schools, whilst others spent much of their time walking from school to school between lessons. (Here it may be mentioned that December, 1939, saw the last pre-war edition of The Esthameian, the next being published in spring, 1944.) Schoolboys, however, tend to move in their own age-groups. What do the juniors know of or care for the lofty Fifth and Sixth?
Senior boys, who were likely to be engaged on active military service in a few years, began to develop, prematurely, a certain maturity of outlook, especially when the "phoney war" ended and when the bombing of London began - the nightly battering. Many pupils and Staff made week-end journeys to their homes. Somehow it had the effect on senior boys of making them seem very willing to work and learn. Here a tribute must be paid to the parents, who insisted that their sons should remain with the School and so qualify for better positions in life - though life itself was uncertain enough in those days. A tribute also is due to the Swindonians, officials, teachers and householders, who were kindness and consideration personified.
The seniors at the College worked hard in E.3, in spite of constant interruptions by natives "en route" to the gymnasium, though the presence of schoolgirls of their own age gave opportunities for distraction, something which had not happened since the sexes had been segregated in E.H.G.S. in 1932. Swindonians were astonished by our examination results in 1939, 1940 and 1941. During the years 1940-42 only three pupils failed the G.S.C. Out of 134 entered, and 101 passed with Matriculation exemption. These acts are only mentioned to indicate the general efficiency of the School in those difficult days, and the manner in which it ignored all obstacles - and they were many.
Sport was not forgotten by the late Charles Hockley. The School won the Senior Shield of the Swindon Schools' Athletic Association, and the School "league" football team was undefeated one season.
Those were strange times - Staff bleary-eyed after all-night duty with Home Guard or A.F.S - boys in the Swindon squadron of the A.T.C., commanded by Henry Lovett of Euclid Street School, himself on Old E. (1919-1924) - glows in the night-sky in the direction of London, Gloucester or Birmingham - hedgehopping lone German raiders swooping over schoolboys' heads - news of trouble at home and abroad; pleasant times also - the attractions of Coate Water with memories of Richard Jefreries - concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with borrowed instruments, their own having been destroyed in a blitz - the lure of Marlborough Downs, Savernake Forest and prehistoric White-Horse Hill and Avebury for cyclists and hikers. Never before had so many East Ham schoolboys walked so far! Then there was that tremendous winter of 1939, followed by the Dunkirk summer of 1940, when the hand of Destiny moved, whilst Wiltshire and all England basked in sunshine.
This comparatively brief but momentous period in the history of the School began to alter again in 1942. The Emergency Grammar School for Boys and Girls had been opened in 1940 in the Girls' Grammar School, East Ham, eventually under the Deputy-Headship of Mr. W. H. Lock, recalled from Swindon. One September evening the building suffered a direct bomb hit - but it was a Saturday. In 1942 the Grammar School for Boys re-opened in East Ham with Mr. Andrews in charge, the Swindon juniors remaining evacuated until January, 1943, when the whole School was eventually re-united.
The war wore its weary way along. The list of Old E's in H.M's Forces grew ever longer, as did the list of casualties. It was inevitable that so many Old Boys of this Grammar School entered the R.A.F.; the Roll of Honour tells the story so eloquently.
The years 1943-45 were chiefly notable for two things - the interruptions of school life by V. bomb attacks and the retirement of Mr. E. T. Andrews, followed by the appointment of Dr. J. L. Whiteley. It was remarkable that the schoolboys of those days, and their parents, escaped at least with their lives throughout the attack, by the deadly yet fascinating buzzers, the V1s, and later by V2s, whose unheralded assaults bred an ever-present awareness of imminent death and destruction, tempered by the feeling that it could not happen to you. The School spent much of its time in the basement and in the playground shelters; whilst in class, they were busy trying to count the vast number of planes bound for the Continent.
Before the war had ended, the School lost Mr. Andrews through retirement. This is not the place for a lengthy tribute to be paid to his work. Let it be sufficient to say that he had firmly established a well-mannered school, one in which high standards of academic work were apparent. His successor, Dr. J. L. Whiteley, taking full advantage of the new educational opportunities which the nation was to provide, soon created the multi-department Sixth Form. How successful the School has been in this work since 1944 can be seen by a glance at the lists of University successes.
E. J. S.