A Schoolgirl’s War

Wednesday 6 February 2019          by Mary Smith

This talk became possible, following the discovery of a cardboard box containing a wartime diary, 1939/1946, illustrated with sketches in vibrant colour, fine detail, and a sense of movement, produced by Helen Keen, art mistress at Maidstone Girls’ Grammar School [MGGS], this visual record being enhanced by the oral testimony of 53 MGGS Old Girls located and interviewed several decades afterwards.

In September 1938, the school, now 50 years old, moved into its brand new building, having just left cramped Victorian premises in Maidstone town centre. The new school was a thing of beauty, built for ‘peace, happiness, and sunshine’, yet, twelve months later, war was to come, when its older girls would be assisting with the subdued, frightened evacuees arriving from London, and those who were Girl Guides helping mothers arriving with babies. One sad aspect of the ‘selection process’ of the evacuees was that those left unbilleted at the end were placed in children’s homes.

King’s Warren School, from Plumstead, was evacuated to Maidstone, its 240 girls augmenting the total roll to 740 girls, but everyone was ordered to stay away from school until the shelters were ready. Postcards were issued, notifying girls of a rolling programme of morning and afternoon lesson ‘shifts’, with home working also required; the shelters reached completion in February 1940, at which time full-time schooling could recommence.

An intact underground air raid shelter was discovered at the school in 2013: during the war, lessons were held in its tunnels once the air raid siren was heard. Girls formed up silently, entering to take their places on benches in the shelter, where lessons continued and lunch could be served.

Every girl had to carry her respirator [gas mask] at all times, subject to a 1d fine for non-compliance! Sticky netting was applied to the school windows as a precaution against blast damage, while trenches dug in the open were configured in a zigzag format, since blast travels in a straight line. Electricity was installed in the shelters eighteen months into the war, four lanterns to each tunnel having previously provided the light.

Teachers had to bellow, rather than speak normally, this resulting in every class hearing every other class, which, combined with the noise of bombing and anti-aircraft guns above, must have been a considerable trial. In the absence of a blackboard, teachers wrote in chalk on the wooden walls.  The tunnels were so narrow that not every girl was visible to her teacher, and, in order for a teacher to move through the class, the command “legs left!” was given. With all legs carefully facing in the same direction, a veritable path appeared in the centre.

The first two winters of the war were very cold, so girls were required to wear boots, hats, overcoats, and scarves at all times in the uncomfortable, cold, wet, and cramped environment of these tunnels constituting their classrooms. Maidstone was hardly a safe place to be, and one hobby of the girls was to go shrapnel hunting, collecting those hot, jagged pieces of metal which had fallen from the skies. It was grimly thought by some girls that taking up the opportunity to learn German may prove handy if Britain were defeated.

At that time, it was the law that female teachers should be unmarried, so it is remarkable that women, some young, others middle-aged, had such dedication both to their career and their girls in a way which may not be understood today. Given that there was a war being waged, it is not an exaggeration to say that there was something heroic about these ladies. One of the teachers was a ‘Mrs’, she having had the misfortune to lose her husband earlier in the war. In 1941, the London County Council [LCC] came to re-evacuate the Plumstead contingent to Bedford.

In November 1941, no manpower existed for supplying school milk in the ⅓ pint bottles, so it fell to the teachers to measure out milk, which was also available in powder form. Girls and teachers engaged in knitting, sewing, gardening, tending allotments, and, during evenings and weekends, taking on fire-watching duties. By June 1944, the V1 [doodlebug] was bringing terror to southern England, so teachers with free teaching periods were called upon to undertake doodlebug-watch and ring a warning bell as necessary.

During the early May days of 1945, VE Day falling on 8th, girls and teachers happily pulled off the sticky netting from the windows, and, in later months, with their fathers’ help (and possibly that of prisoners of war), broke down the baffle walls; the trenches were demolished in 1948.

Some 50 years after this time of discomfort and uncertainty, several MGGS Old Girls returned to the school (many meeting former class mates for the first time in all those years) to share, once again, that air raid shelter experience, complete with a tea party. Those Old Girls now living in the USA and Australia were not present, although their important oral testimony lives on.

Mary Smith was the headmistress of Maidstone Girls’ Grammar School in recent times, and has produced a book entitled ” A Schoolgirl’s War”, the subject of this talk, combining Helen Keen’s artwork with the 53 Old Girls’ oral testimony, supported by research through the archives of the Kent Messenger, and historical records of both the local library and the Imperial War Museum.

Sadly, Helen Keen (1912-2005) died before she could be contacted for her oral contribution, so her art work has to speak for her, and speak most eloquently of those years when MGGS carried on in the county town of Kent, so close to continental Europe, and on the very flight path of the bombers bringing destruction and misery to our land.

An interesting footnote here is that Miss R. Bartels, headmistress from 1930 to 1951, by all accounts a tartar reputedly alien to the giving of praise, regularly drove into ravaged parts of Maidstone, in order to ascertain whether any girl had lost home or family, and so avoid her enduring sudden unimaginable trauma on returning home. Such compassion and humanity speaks volumes for the school, its headmistress, and the unmarried women who continued offering a grammar school education to their girls during the Second World War.

Stefan Gatward