RECOLLECTIONS OF THE EMERGENCY GRAMMAR SCHOOL, 1939-43
In the 1953 Spring number of the School Magazine, Mr. Payton gave us some memories of the first 25 years of the life of this School. The present article deals with that unusual period when a large number of boys spent three years at the girls' school because their own school was being used as a Food Office.
The summer of 1939 changed the outlook in the lives of our boys. Their holidays had been marred by the threat of war and the possibility of disturbance in home and family life. On 1st September evacuation began in earnest. The B.B.C. had issued warnings and instructions to parents and scholars on the previous day. All intending evacuees were instructed to report at School with the necessary equipment. Cutting summer "hols." short was the greatest offence the enemy could give to healthy English boys and girls. Still, the call had come! At 10.30 a.m. boys of all ages, carrying a great variety of bags and packages, many anxiously gripping the hands of little brothers and sisters, moved off to East Ham Station followed by even more worried parents. Curiously there seemed to be little tear- shedding. The evacuation had still the air of a rather large Sunday School outing except for those teachers who had left homes locked up and were wondering what the future really held for them. An electric train bore them to Ealing, where a train for the West Country was waiting. They had just missed the Weston-Super-Mare train and fate decided that Swindon should be their destination. There, willing hands welcomed them at the station; refreshment was provided before they were dispersed to their new homes. Later they were marched round by the billeting officer; and two by two they disappeared into their new homes. Many remained for a very long time, but a large number could not overcome the desire to be with Mum and Dad again. Too often the early spirit of welcome died down when foster parents began to realize the onerous duties they had assumed. Before Christmas, 1939, very many children had returned and a flood of homesick evacuees was moving back to London. The East Ham Education Committee now had to face the danger of an increasing "unemployed" child population. It was decided to open emergency schools, and the grammar school boys and girls were grouped together at the Girls' School in Plashet Grove. Once more there was a mixed school after a lapse of seven years. Education seemed a matter of secondary consideration and the "Food Office" at the Boys' School had entrenched itself too well to be moved.
From January onwards the youngsters and Staff were to live in the atmosphere of black-out and air-raid warnings. The boys and girls settled down rather quickly. Boys and mistresses eyed one another for a time with a degree of suspicion, and maybe some of the ladies never felt quite safe with the boisterous males who had descended on their school. We who spent our days there, will not forget the members of the Staff who faced the difficult job of carrying on. Dr. Bright was placed in charge and among those there to help her were the Misses Andrews, Bubbers, Benn, Houghton, Wright, Bishop, Nicholson, Langman, Mather, Galloway, Steeds and Strohmenger, Robinson and Cartwright; also Messrs. Stubbs, Barton, Monkcom, Griffiths, Tarran and Payton. Dr. Bright later was appointed head of a girls' county school near Stoke-on-Trent and Mr. Lock took charge until the boys returned to the old school for good in 1944.
When the air-raid siren wailed, the School moved rapidly to shelters built below ground level. They were shaped like cylinders with an entrance by steps at one end and an escape hatch at the other, reached by a small ladder. Wooden bunks had been fitted. These were occupied during the night by civilians whose sense of possession and anxiety to "stake a claim" for the following evening caused them to leave all their bedding behind. It would be difficult to describe the awful state of the atmosphere, especially if the warning had sounded just after School had assembled in the morning. We often found that the "night" tenants had not departed and then most of us willingly faced the bombs rather than endure the indescribable stench rising from the shelter. At dinnertime it was quite usual to carry the tureens down to the shelter and serve the food rather than let it spoil or become cold.
Nevertheless school life went on very seriously. The boys enjoyed their geography lesson in a well equipped room, so much better than the miserable room at the Boys' School. Science was taken in bright laboratories by Mr. Stubbs and Miss Langman. Miss Bishop, one of the original pupils of the school and Mr. Barton kept boys and girls well down to mathematical studies. English was in the capable hands of Miss Andrews and Miss Wright. Even art was not neglected and much use was made of the bright room available. Under the care of Mr. Payton, the boys produced many posters advertising the London War Weapons Week. They exhibited about 100 posters on the school railings. Mr. Charles Wheeler, R.A., the eminent sculptor, and Mr. Quarmby, H.M.I., came to judge the work and complimented the School upon the effort. As a result four large posters were sent to the main exhibition. Sometimes it was quite amusing to note the enjoyment and keenness of all boys to have P.T. and folk dancing under the charming instruction of Miss Cartwright. Miss Steeds, Miss Nathan, and Mr. Monkcom took charge of language study. Miss Nicholson, today a possible candidate for Parliament, was in charge of History. The feeding department was splendidly handled by Miss Robertson. Often we were entertained by singing and pipe playing from Miss Galloway's pupils.
Then came the morning when School became a forbidden place. Bombs had fallen before breakfast. There was the possibility of the unexploded bomb, and the public was prevented from approaching the School. We heard that the School had been hit. Yes! It was true! The west wing, including the library, was destroyed and the hall badly damaged. After the usual inspection by the Air Raid Wardens, the Staff went to the School. Curiously the chief worry at the time appeared to be whether the goldfish in the biology "lab." could be fed. By carefully scrambling over much debris they were reached and their wants satisfied. For many weeks the School was closed to the children, who were very anxious to return. The Staff attended daily and never was there such a waste of teaching power, and never such little imagination on the part of the Authority to deal with this emergency. Finally the teachers decided to call in small groups and give some tutorial work to the children, to prevent the inevitable rot setting in properly. This resulted in school being started again and the children set about their work with much earnestness. The result of School "Cert." proved that English boys and girls were not easily deterred. Those examination days were not easy and the sheltered child of today cannot imagine the nerve-racking experiences of these children.
On one occasion the gas main in Plashet Grove was cracked during the night by a bomb which had fallen a short distance away. The candidates who had to use the Art room, owing to the damage in the hall, suffered all day from the appalling noise of mechanical excavators. When the main Boys' School resumed occupation of its own premises near the Town Hall, the first year boys remained at the Girls' School. Considerable care had to be taken to keep many of these imps from showing off their prowess for mischief before their relatively gentler sisters. One young man decided to swing on the end of a large steel girder that had been taken from the bombed section of the school. It is hardly possible that he will ever forget the fact that steel is a very elastic body. The increasing oscillation of the girder made it impossible for him to release his grip. Finally he was thrown well into the air and landed head first on the rubble with a badly damaged face. All the warnings of danger had proved worthless; nothing would satisfy him but experience.
Boys and girls were obliged to sit at dinner together. Many of them had found a new experience. There was no excuse for dodging a wash before meals. Hands came under the critical eyes of the young ladies. Knives and forks had to remain on the table and spoons could no longer be used as drumsticks. There were promising signs of a revival of excellent table manners, so often neglected. Unfortunately the boys had to join their older brothers. The good work was put back. Shortage of cutlery led to the idea that it was safer to grab spoons and conceal them as only schoolboys can. As this article is being published the boys are occupying a splendid dining-room, and once more hopes of reformation rise high.
Before closing we must not forget some of those teachers who helped to fill the gap and who have passed on. Mr. E. T. Andrews, the Headmaster during those days, Mr. Barton, Mr. Griffiths, have left us happy memories and we are grateful that they walked beside us during those difficult days.