Our January speaker gave us a fascinating look at how girls at a Kent school were educated in underground tunnels during the Second World War, writes Deanne Rhodes
(Photographs courtesy of Maidstone Girls Grammar School and Mary Smith)
In January we were all treated to a really interesting account by Mary Smith of how girls attending Maidstone Girls Grammar School had to deal with the challenges of their schooling during the Second World War.
Mary was headteacher at the school between 2006 and 2014 and also an English teacher; she recounted the story of how Helen Keen, art teacher at that time, made sketches in paint and pencil of the lives of schoolgirls and their teachers as the war unfolded, vividly bringing to life conditions they had to endure and how they were taught.
The grammar school was built in the 1930s but unfortunately, with the outbreak of war, girls were not able to attend school in September 1939 until underground shelters had been built. Trawling through dusty artefacts in the school Mary came across an old cardboard box which contained, amongst other things, the ‘War Diary’ of the school during this time and a scrapbook of sketches done by Helen Keen which essentially detailed a record of the school on a day-to-day basis in wartime. From these sketches, as well as carrying out extensive research from many other places such as the Imperial War Museum, Mary was able to create a book of those times. From her research she was also able to track down several ‘old girls’ – 53 in total – whom she interviewed. They were all in their 80s and 90s and consequently were able to give her first-hand knowledge of their experiences and how they were educated.
At the outbreak of war, as the girls were getting ready to attend their new school, their parents were sent postcards informing them that they couldn’t start full time school until the air-raid shelters had been built although they were still given homework in maths and English! Some girls were able to attend occasionally – those living in the country in the mornings and those from the town in the afternoons – however, this was very sporadic and often there would be three weeks between sessions. Part-time schooling therefore continued for many months.
Underground shelters were built at the front and back of the school and these were finally completed in February 1940. Also, some of the cloakrooms were reinforced early on to provide relatively safe refuge. At the same time girls were evacuated from Kings Warren School in Plumstead, south-east London, to this grammar school which swelled the number of pupils from 500 to 840.
Many other children in those days were evacuated from London to Maidstone, and we have all seen pictures of children with their little cases and gas masks around their necks waiting for a family to select them to take home, and the older girls from the grammar school were able to help with these arrivals. Sadly, though, those who weren’t picked were sent to local children’s homes.
When the school finally opened in February 1940, Helen drew pictures of the staff and girls trying to protect the school windows with sheets of sticky paper as well as pictures of men building baffle walls to protect these windows. Mary showed a photo of three girls in the branches of a tree with their gas mask boxes hanging from the branches – if you didn’t have your gas mask with you, you were fined a penny. When the air-raid siren was heard the girls would rush down to the shelters, and one sketch showed teachers running to the shelters with rolls of sticky paper and scissors in their hands which very graphically illustrated the mad rush there would have been to get to safety through one of the three entrances.
The concrete bunkers at the back of the school, which had six zigzagged tunnels and three doors for exit and entrance as well as two escape hatches, were built like this to prevent a blast from travelling through the complex; but it also meant that teachers had their own ‘space’ to teach. The shelters had plain concrete walls and were very cold. They were lined with a dado rail, presumably to stop the girls leaning against cold concrete. The dirt floors would have been very muddy as the shelters weren’t waterproof. Teaching in cramped conditions and poor lighting presented teachers with a supreme challenge.
There are sketches of girls huddled together and two teachers, presumably in a lunch break, sitting on the bench with their backs to each other while one was doing some knitting and the other was reading and a cup of tea was seen on the ground.
Another picture showed some girls serving soup during one lunchtime. We really got the feel of what it would have been like to have been stuck down there until the all-clear sounded. One picture showed a wall with an algebra sum chalked on it – naturally, the teachers wanted to continue the girls’ education in all the main subject such as maths, English, science, etc, even though they were up against many obstacles.
During 1940 and ’41 the Battle of Britain was being fought overhead, and when the all-clear was signalled the girls would rush out and collect bits of shrapnel. They would also have witnessed evidence of these battles from the smoke trails in the sky. In 1941, apparently, members of London County Council visited the school and decided that their Plumstead girls were in a highly dangerous part of England and they were then re-evacuated to Bedford! Their school in Plumstead was subsequently bombed.
Also at this time, as some of us can remember, children were given bottles of milk at break, but later the milk was provided as powder which had to be made up by the teachers. We were shown a sketch of a long snake of girls queueing up for their milk while teachers were hopelessly trying to accurately measure out the one-third pints.
During 1944 ‘doodlebugs’ (V1 flying bombs) took to the skies and teachers and the senior girls were sent out on ‘look out and listen’ duty before rushing into school to sound the bell for everyone to go to the shelters. After that though girls were told to get under their desks, and one sketch shows a girl in that position with her head completely under the desk but with her bottom sticking out (see book cover, above)!
Another sketch showed staff, in anticipation of VE Day, pulling the sticky netting off the windows; and then another one, after VE Day, showed the windows being cleaned by the girls and the protective walls, erected all those years before, being demolished brick by brick by some of the girls’ dads.
In 1948 the tunnels at the front of the school were demolished but a recent survey has shown that one set of tunnels is still intact. As a matter of interest, in 2013 a group of primary school children were taken to one of the tunnels at the back of the school and experienced a lesson down there. They also were given a WW2 lunch and heard a recording of the sirens, which would have brought history alive for them.
Mary was a very engaging speaker and certainly brought to life the experiences of those girls and their teachers during this period of their lives. Mary’s book, entitled A Schoolgirl’s War, is available to buy. Half the profits from these sales will help to fund a project to open up the wartime tunnels.
For a copy of Mary’s book (£10, plus £2 p&p) contact Maidstone Girls Grammar School (firstname.lastname@example.org or 01622 752103).