At School And At War

Early in 1939 two independent schools in Eastbourne in Sussex merged, and knitted their names together to become the Saint Helena West Hill School. The headmistress was the redoubtable Miss Phyllis Reeve, who was a schoolmistress all her working life, and at the time of her retirement in 1957, aged sixty, she was a Freeman of the City of London, held both silver and bronze medals for the Royal Academy of Music, was a Licentiate and Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.

Late in 1939 a new gymnasium was planned for the school, and with war having been declared it was wisely decided to build an air raid shelter for pupils and staff underneath the new gymnasium. Towards the end of the following year though German bombing campaigns had been even fiercer than expected, and the vulnerable and easily-reach south coast was deemed to be too dangerous. Country house owners were volunteering their homes for all kinds of wartime use – and in come cases being slightly more than persuaded – and the school moved en masse to a house in Shropshire called Wykey, and then to Hatton Grange, near Shifnal in Shropshire (a red brick Georgian house built by the Slaney family in 1764). This arrangement only lasted for a term or so as the house was wanted as a hospital, and at the end of 1940 it was decided that Combermere Abbey would be a safe place to which the school could re-locate.

As one ex-pupil, Marion Walter recalls,“We knew for quite a while that we were going to be an evacuated because everyone had a little suitcase packed . As it happened the seniors were told the night before the evacuation date and the juniors were told in the morning. For some reason my little dormitory was not told at all and when I came into the bathroom I saw everyone had on their dresses, which we only wore in the afternoons, and not their usual tunics. I asked why and everyone said we are evacuating.

“First we went to a big country house owned by a friend of the head mistress, Miss Reeves. This friend was Mrs Broughall, who lived at Wykey House near Ruyton-XI-Towns in Shropshire. Originally only a few parents wanted their children to be evacuated, but when the time came many more wanted their children to go.

“It turned out that the house was not nearly big enough. Mrs Broughall owned a big kennel for cocker spaniels, and she took all of her forty dogs out of the kennels and put them elsewhere. She whitewashed the kennels, bought Li-lo blow-up mattresses, and that’s where we spent the summer of 1940.

“Mrs Broughall became almost like a foster parent to my sister, who was to remain at Wykey when the school moved on.

“We could not stay in the kennels without heat once the summer was over, and we had to evacuate again. The next place we moved to was Hatton Grange, and from there we went on to Combermere Abbey, which was where the school remained until peace came in 1945.”

Comb school 008Combermere Abbey in the 1940s, photographed by one of the schoolgirls. The east range – to the right in the photo – has been demolished since then, and there is no evidence of the (cast iron?) gazebo on the extreme right. Photo by Marion Walter.
An aerial photograph of the Abbey taken not long after the war. This is the building exactly as the girls would have known it.

More than fifty pupils arrived at the Abbey immediately after the Christmas holiday in January 1941. It was a particularly fierce winter (the previous winter had been a bad one too; there was fourteen inches of ice on the mere and it was possible to walk right across), and the deep snow was a source of great excitement to the pupils – and great inconvenience to everyone else.While the staff were creating some semblance of a school inside the buildings, the girls built “wondrous” snowmen outdoors. The older children had been despatched to Combermere on their own, usually by train, but the younger pupils arrived accompanied by their mothers. They often stayed over in the Abbey for a night and then there were tearful farewells in the morning.

Life at the Abbey was rather different from what they had been used to under wartime privations. One girl described how they were amazing at the produce in the “enormous kitchens”. She noted “Large bowls of creamy-rich Jersey milk sitting alongside dishes of home-made cheeses. The shelves were filled with bottles of preserved fruits and the cupboards full of jams made from the home-grown fruits”. When food was rationed for the rest of the country the schoolgirls at Combermere had more strawberries and apples than even they could eat. Favourite dessert included the cook’s jam roly-poly, and chocolate blancmange set into a large rabbit-shaped mould. Another old girl remembered, above everything else, the glorious artichokes – which, like all the food, came from the Abbey gardens.

Comb school 006 Outdoors Physical Exercise (just north of the north wing of the Abbey). (Marion Walter)

Lessons got under way directly, with rooms having been designated to the different roles required. The ballroom became the gymnasium by day, but in the evening is returned to its original purpose and the girls were taught ballroom dancing, accompanied by dance band music on a wind-up gramophone. On occasion, when the wind blew in the wrong direction, the dancing teacher and deputy head mistress, Miss Russell-Leonard, had to abandon the lessons as the open fire filled the room with wood smoke. On another occasion a Divinity lesson was abandoned and Miss Leonard-Russell lectured the girls on paratrooper raids and the Arnhem landings instead.

The girls had to do their own housekeeping, and they were organised into three teams, and a competitive spirit was encouraged between them. The best team at washing up, shoe-cleaning and dusting was rewarded week by week. They took pride in being able to carry ten plates, cups and saucers each when clearing the dining table, without mishap. One old girl, Matilda Mills (nee Hayes) said many decades later, “I never shone at anything until I was made head of one of the washing-up teams. Care and attention to detail, dining room duties, punctuality, hygienic methods, and quiet organisation brought my team top marks for a whole term”.

Two land girls lived in one of the stable cottages, and they had been hairdressers before the war, so every weekend they would wash and cut the girls’ hair, which was always considered to be a real treat.

Comb school 010 001Hay-making in front of the Abbey. Photo by Marion Walter.

One girl remembered Fidelia Crossley coming back to her home on leave. She flew planes for the war effort, and the schoolgirls were amazed to hear that she was delivering bombers to the USA; flying solo across the Atlantic. (There’s much more on Fidelia’s adventures here).

Comb school 009What could be more lovely than lessons outdoors on a summer’s day? A teacher with her class of girls – and two boys – all in sun hats. The single storey structure to the right of the tree in the centre of the photo is the long entrance hall and armoury built by the first Viscount Combermere. At the time of this picture, in 1943, it contained Sir Kenneth’s hunting trophies. After the war it was truncated, and it now ends at the buttress behind the second child from the right. The writing on the blackboard tells us that the children were being taught about vultures, pelicans and flamingos.

Many girls remembered exploring the nooks and crannies in the house, going on unofficial tours of the furthest corners, and finding endless stuffed animals and even exquisite ivory carvings in disused rooms. Because the girls slept in bedrooms rather than one huge dormitory the sleeping arrangements were recalled as being “cosy” (though in the winter months the ice in their tumblers had to be broken before they could drink), and there were plenty of opportunities for midnight feasts. One girl remembered the fare for these illicit meals including “sardines on Ryvita garnished with cream, properly arranged on a plate”. Punishments for such offences were not onerous. One girl, Valerie Bennett, who was found guilty of being out of the dormitory after lights out was sentenced to not having any sayrup in her morning porage for a whole week.

Marion Walter says, “The upstairs rooms we slept in at Combermere had no heating and the winters were very cold. One of the problems of the cold was that many of us got chilblains on our toes and fingers. We got them because we would come in from the freezing cold and immediately put hands and feet in front of the fire to warm them. I had the worst of them. My chilblains got infected and I had to have my fingers bandaged sometimes. It was very painful.

“The rooms downstairs were heated with wood in open fireplaces – I know because I was the lighter of the fires in these fireplaces. That was my job. Once we were allowed into the library and saw the mantelpiece and the panels behind it. We were also told the rumours about a secret passage under the lake.”

The estate was to be a wonderful school in its own right. The tennis courts were popular and weekly tournaments were part of the curriculum. Hockey and cricket pitches were established at the front (east) of the house, about which Sir Kenneth was less than enthusiastic. The girls swam in the lake – often cutting their feet on the razor-sharp mussels on the lake floor – and always with a rowing boat ready to set off to rescue anyone struggling. Often they would row across the lake with a picnic to be enjoyed on the far bank. One old girl, writing many years later, remembered these picnics in high summer, when they had large home-made blackberry pies with them. The Biology mistress, Miss Scott, organised nature walks in the woodland and parkland; the girls followed animal tracks, noted the calls of many different birds, and collected specimens of flora.

Comb school 012Girls swan in the Abbey’s lake but had to take care; the mussels on the bed of the lake could lacerate the feet. Photo by Marion Walter.
Comb school 013The figure in the foreground is Miss Reeves, the headmistress (known by the girls as PR). In the background, behind the swimmer, is Miss Leonard-Russell.

As well as lessons, the girls were organised into a cycling club, and they rode far and wine around north Shropshire and southern Cheshire. Whist drives and dances were laid on by way of evening and weekend entertainment. End of term and Christmas parties were also attended by Sir Kenneth and Lady Crossley, and their daughters, Pamela and Delia (Fidelia). The girls often undertook to perform short plays – comedies and historical dramas – and they performed them in local village halls in Burleydam, Wrenbury, Audlem and Aston.

The war did intrude on life at Combermere from time to time: “We often saw barrage balloons, put up to impede the path of German bombers, usually very high up,” Marion says, “One day when we were on a walk we were astonished to see that a balloon was coming down. We were about to try to catch the cable hanging from it when Miss Scott (I think it was) shouted to us not to do it; we would’ve been carried up into the air if it rose, she said. I have a very vivid memory of this. Also I remember there were some nights when we saw flashing lights from across the lake. There were rumours that a German airman had parachuted out over the fields.”

Comb school 007A group of younger pupils about to set out on a cycle ride. Photo by Marion Walter.

The older girls also walked to Burleydam to go to communion at the small church on the road to Audlem. This expedition was called ‘croc’ as they walked crocodile fashion. In the Abbey’s hall they were told ‘umbrellas’ or ‘no umbrellas’ according to the teachers’ opinion of the weather. When they got to the Lodge at the top of the drive they were more than half way to church. Valerie Bennett recalls having the honour – and the terror – of singing the solo part in Good King Wenceslas at a Christmas carol service at Burleydam.

Comb school 005A party of girls at the gates to the Abbey; on their way to church perhaps? Interestingly the gates and the piers are already in poor repair. Photo by Marion Walter.

They took turns to ring the church bell, which must have been great fun, and they increased the size of the congregation many times over. Miss Reeves played the ancient organ, while Miss Russell-Leonard turned the handle which pumped air into the pipes. This expedition took them as far as they went from the Abbey; as one girl recalls, “For the whole term we saw no shops, no buses, crowds – and heard only faraway air raid sirens. Miss Reeves took lessons on ‘Civics’, covering local and national government, and current affairs. She saw that the peace of life at Combermere might give us the impression that the war was almost on another planet; we had to realise how fortunate we were, and her lessons, and The Daily Telegraph, kept us fully informed of the dark days we were living through”.

Comb school 004Sir Kenneth Crossley’s secretary, Joyce, holding a whippet, to the west of the house, facing the lake. After Lady Crossley died in 1956 Joyce married Sir Kenneth (in 1957), but he died soon after that.

There were less conventional subjects on the curriculum: Sir Kenneth delighted in lecturing the pupils on modern farming techniques, especially his favourite subjects of keeping Jersey cattle, and breeding pedigree dogs. He encouraged the girls to undertake farm work, though they got the rather less than glamorous jobs such as carting silage or picking potatoes. The schoolgirls delighted in watching tadpoles grow into frogs – only to see them then devoured by a heron. Coming home from church the girls would go in search of the warren full of black rabbits near the main gates, and on more than one occasion girls were reprimanded for freeing rabbits from snares.

Marion Walter, recalls, “I remember hours of mowing the grass in front of the Abbey with a non-electric hand mowing machine, and of collecting the hay. I will never forget the day, while loading hay, when I had to be led into the Abbey with my eyes closed because they were itching so, and I could not keep them open. That was a day when I got a fever – which I still have”.

untitledMowing the grass in front of the Abbey. (Marion Walter)

Matilda Mills (Hayes) recalled that Sir Kenneth paid volunteers among the schoolgirls six pence an hour to load turnips, stack corn, and spread sugar-beet tops. It was good money, but Sir Kenneth would withhold the pay of any girl who, in his opinion, wasn’t pulling her weight. Matilda described it as great preparation for a career in business.

Comb school 002Sir Kenneth, photographed on a Box Brownie by one of the girls, on his boat on the Abbey’s 150-acre lake.

Sir Kenneth would take a number of girls with him when he went shooting vermin, which they didn’t always relish, and on one occasion they were enlisted to help when a cow needed to be dragged out of a swamp (chains and the tractor eventually did the job). He would also take girls for rides on his beloved tractor, indeed in the winter, if the snow was too deep, he would use his tractor as a taxi to and from the railway station. Sir Kenneth also offered prizes for competitions, such as writing a sonnet or painting a poster (usually with a military theme; one had to be titled ‘Wings For Victory’). On the last day of every term the girls had to assemble before him in The Library. One girl remembers him offering them cigarettes for the journey home; an offer which none of them ever dared to accept. Later in life girls recalled that Sir Kenneth was often away on business, as was to be expected, and they would see him coming and going in his car. He always waved, they remembered.

While Sir Kenneth seemed to relish the occupation of his home by the school, and stayed on in the Abbey, Lady Crossley was less welcoming. She moved out completely and spent the war years living in one of the estate cottages (which had been re-decorated and exquisitely furnished for her). She did invite her favourite girls in for afternoon tea though, which was considered a great honour. Lady Crossley had bowls of flowers on low tables, and the girls were delighted to hear her Ladyship’s Portuguese parrot swearing in its native tongue. Jean MacKay (nee Meakins) says that at one of these teas Lady Crossley assured her that Sir Kenneth loved his cows more than he did her.

Comb school 003  Lady Crossley on the estate, again photographed by Marion Walter.

There seems to have been about eight teachers at Combermere, two of whom were refugees. One, Miss Venn-Walters, had fled from France just ahead of the invading Germans. It was said that while at the Abbey she communicated with the Resistance in France, and with secret agents in Algiers. Another teacher was Mrs Clement-Davies, who had been sent back to Britain by her husband to escape the Japanese. Her husband was missing, she had a young son at school in Wales, and her daughter was with her at Combermere. Another teacher who had children with her at the Abbey was Mrs Littler. She was the daughter of a baronet, and her son and daughter, Jim and Mary, boarded at the Abbey and were taught there (there was always a small number of boys among the girls). Mrs Littler’s husband was a doctor in an area of Manchester considered too dangerous for families.

untitled2The headmistress, Miss Reeves (on right) with Miss Russell-Leonard (Marion Walter): Both looking very glamorous despite the war.

One pupil became a teacher: Marion Walter, who had come to Britain as a Jewish refugee on the Kindertransport scheme took and passed her School Certificate in December 1944, and left  the school. That Christmas however, Mrs Littler, who was the maths teacher, unexpectedly left her post. Miss Reeves did not think she could find a qualified maths teacher in the middle of the war – nor in the middle of winter – so because Marion was good at maths, Miss Reeves asked her  to come  back  and teach the subject to the older students. She did this until the war ended, on a salary of ten shillings a week.

Marion was allowed to use the staff room, but had to sleep in one of the dormitories with the older girls, her pupils. She also taught nature studies to the younger girls. She remembers sometimes bicycling to Whitchurch on her weekly afternoon off to buy fish and chips. After the war Marion emigrated to the USA and pursued a life-long career in mathematics teaching.

Comb school 1 001Mrs Littler’s son and daughter on the lakeside lawn, to the west of the Abbey.

One day the American Army arrived, but only in small numbers. As part of an educational programme a small group of GIs visited the Abbey, and delighted the girls by photographing everything they saw – and because one of them was a real-life cowboy from Texas.

Despite the small number of privations – the lack of external contact, the beetles in the wellington boots, the brown water that came out of the taps, and the terrible cold of the winter of 1942 – all the teachers and pupils remembered their time at Combermere with great affection. The school returned to Eastbourne when the war came to an end, but for four years the Abbey had provided continuity and safety for them all.