St Mary's Wantage
World War Two Memories
I arrived in the middle of term in 1940 or 1941 as the day school I was at in Basingstoke was bombed.
As there was no petrol, we used to come back to school on the train from Reading to Wantage Road Station. When my parents visited me they had to come by bus to Newbury and then another to Wantage, and back. What a trek and sometimes in Parents’ Day clothes. The gym was taken over, I think, as a canteen and the swimming pool as a biscuit store. We were allowed out on bicycles in threes and used to go to Harwell to buy cherries. Life at school was quiet and away from it all – which was what my parents wanted. Most of the good teachers were called up – the best of the rest was Miss Beck who was a brilliant history teacher. From time to time, we heard news of war casualties, brothers or fathers of fellow pupils. We all longed to leave school and join the WRNS. As there was little or no social life even at home we were all very unsophisticated and by today’s standards, young for our age. It was a happy time and I made good friends who have remained friends to this day. I am now 76.
Elizabeth Young (Potter)
1942 At the age of only seven I was accepted as a boarder at St. Gabriel’s House, the junior house of St. Mary’s School, Wantage. Teresa Ransom (Smith) and I thus spent two years in the first form. Because of rationing it took contributions of clothing coupons from my entire family to have enough for my uniform. My cloak reached almost to the floor and I believe I used it until I left St. Mary’s nine years later.
Arriving as a new girl the day after the school year began, my mother and I took the little tram (shortly to be condemned as scrap iron for the war effort) which connected Wantage Road station with the town centre. The regular school train from Paddington was usually met by double-decker buses. No Horseless Carriages for us such as the students have at Hogwart’s School!
1943 Bedtime routine included setting out white sweater, wellies and gasmask on a chair at the end of your bed. I only remember one middle-of-the-night air raid drill. We were awakened by a clanging bell, quickly donned items from the chair, all filed downstairs, and out into formation in the garden at St. Gabriel’s. We were quite disappointed that Sister Norah-Mary was in her full habit – we still did not discover what sisters’ night attire might be!
The swimming bath was emptied of water for the duration of the war and was then filled with boxes of dog-biscuit-like hard tack, which we were told was to feed the entire town in case of emergency. There were many icy-cold days in winter when it was decided that we should run ‘swimming-bath and back’ before breakfast – occasionally the nice custodian used to give us bits of these things – actually quite tasty!
Double-Summer Time was instituted which meant that we younger girls were still given bedtime around 8 p.m. as usual, although it was daylight until around 11 p.m. We used to watch the lucky St. Mary’s girls outside playing tennis till all hours. Of course, blackout rules were enforced after dark – one memory of this was the major reaction of matron when rude words were discovered scratched into the black paint of a curtain-less window – some naughty girl had climbed via the loo-tank on to the windowsill and done the deed. We never heard who had done it!
It was notable that I was never aware of any food shortage, thanks I imagine to dedicated kitchen staff, although the menus of necessity were pretty basic ! We always had warm buildings and even three ‘two-inches of water bath-nights’ each week and one ‘hair-washing’ per fortnight.
1944 My most memorable experience took place during a weekend when my parents visited. After Sunday lunch at the Bear Hotel, we set off for a walk to the Aerodrome, which was out beyond the convent as I recollect. We were watching planes take off towing gliders, and one headed directly for our vantage point where I was standing on a stile for a better view. In retrospect, I realize that it must have been loaded with soldiers on their way to the Normandy Invasion. It rumbled aloft barely above that stile, and our heads. Amid panicked shouts, I jumped down and lay flat on the ground – phew!
1945 A final memory is of picnicking on strawberries at teatime of Parents’ Day – while listening to the totally unfamiliar but wonderful sound of church bells ringing across the town. The war in Europe had ended.
Diana Moriarty (Blackburn, 1953)
I left SMS in December l939 and the Cheshire Regiment was stationed in Wantage. The School felt that we should, in some way, entertain the men...and so, as Prefects, we went down to the Victoria Cross Gallery in Wantage to help run a canteen on a roster until such time as we had converted the gym into a canteen. On Wednesday nights the Staff, Maids and Prefects would dance in the hall with the men. I did a drawing for the School magazine of the various boots and shoes of types that were seen on the floor on Wednesday nights. On Saturday nights, we had E.N.S.A. shows in the hall and on the back of each seat we supplied the men with packets of five Woodbines, which cost 2d. a pack.
I used to sing in the choir until I got little notes from Sister Irene saying "Don't sing too loud because you're singing flat" so I resigned from the choir and became the Verger and near the beginning of term I was walking round the school with Sister Rachael and some of the men. Sister said, "Jane, I'm sure these boys would like to have a look at the Chapel" to which I replied, "I don't think we can do that Sister, because there are no blackouts in the Chapel." She then replied with "I'm sure it won't matter for a few minutes." At the Chapel, Sister Rachael said, "I'm sure some of the boys would like to come to Mass on Sunday, wouldn't you?" to which there was a deathly hush. But, on Sunday, a lot of them did appear and I had to find some way of fitting them in!
Those are my main reminiscences of that time. I was taking my School Certificate and had I had three more marks in either History or Divinity, I would have passed, so I put my failure down to the Cheshire Regiment!
I keep in touch with Sister Denzil Onslow, Elisabeth Brown (Driver) and Elizabeth Gorst (Cross).
Not really connected with the war, but another memory of my last term, was that the Art Mistress had to leave due to sickness and I was put in charge of the weaving Room, which was at St. Katherine's. One day Sister Catherine came round with Bishop Sheddon, who used to take Mass on Monday mornings to relieve Father Gardner, and Sister said that the Bishop was very anxious to have one of our tweeds, which he told me was to replace his brother's old shooting Ulster. I showed him a swatch of tweeds and he chose a nice check one. I asked him how many yards he'd want and he replied that he would have to ask his tailor and come back to me. The answer was 16 yards and so I started. Occasionally the Bishop would come and take an interest on the Monday and he'd want to try his hand at weaving which was disastrous!! His checks, instead of being half an inch square, were beaten down to half the size. I had to unpick all his work when he had gone. I spent many hours trying to get it finished before the end of term and did so. I took it to Sister Catherine rolled up on a stick and she said I should take it down to the Vicarage to present it myself. The Bishop wasn't immediately available so his two Curates and Housekeeper undid it and it hung in festoons in the hall. And that was the last I heard of it.
My only claim to fame was that I played tennis for the School at Queen's Club my last three years which meant that each year I had a different partner - they were Mary Manson-Bahr, Diana Crewe-Read (Robins) and Diana Hett (Boden).
Jane Kenyon (Bennett-Evans, 1939)
Britain had been at war with Germany for a year when, at the age of eleven, I arrived for my first term at St. Mary’s in the autumn of 1940.
The country had survived the trauma and miracle of Dunkirk that June; the Battle of Britain raged during September, to be followed by the Blitz, in which most of our big cities were bombed nightly. Thousands of people lost their lives, and thousands of buildings were flattened, at this most crucial time, when England was unprepared, at its most vulnerable, and expecting a German invasion. The extraordinary thing was, though, that with the war raging round us in a most dramatic and often horrifying way, Wantage seemed entirely untouched by it; we never heard an air raid siren, let alone a bomb for the entire length of the war. We lived in the green cocoon of the Downs with neither sight nor sound of the war until one June day, in 1944, when suddenly wave after wave of English and American planes, their undersides painted with black and white stripes, flew over us, on their way, as we later discovered, to the D Day invasion of France.
When I think about it now, I realise that for the staff and the nuns these were incredibly anxious times, and I am sure that they must have decided that their job was to make our lives as unworried and free from fear as was possible at that time. I think they mostly succeeded; the downside being that although we were probably neither particularly shallow nor heartless, we were undoubtedly fairly ignorant in the matter of war. But then I must say that the teaching at the school at that time was altogether pretty uninspiring; it was as though being passionate or even excited about something was a little vulgar and dangerous, which I suppose precluded any proper discussion about the war, for I don’t remember there ever being any; what I learned about the war and the reasons for it I learned at home. But many of the girls had fathers and brothers who were fighting, and some whose fathers or brothers were killed, wounded or imprisoned; for them the war was very real indeed, and when someone went home because of a family tragedy, the rest of the school mourned with them.
But I think, and I am being subjective of course, that St. Mary’s at war was more or less the same as it would have been had there been no war. There was rationing, naturally, but we never went hungry, and our culinary expectations were fairly low; Elizabeth David was not yet part of English culture, and most English food was notoriously dull anyway. St. Mary’s contribution to the war effort was to empty the swimming pool and fill it with biscuits. I had visions of graciously handing out packets of Rich Tea to the starving populace of Wantage, and was slightly disappointed that the need never arose. I think we all had pieces of knitting which we were doing to keep our men at the front warm; balaclava helmets, socks and mittens, mostly. All were cast off so tightly that any poor chap who had survived so far would almost certainly have died of gangrene had he been the unfortunate recipient of one of our garments.
We lived in a way that would be unthinkable now; two baths a week; our hair washed every three weeks and our clothes changed not nearly often enough. Our stockings (Fawn Sylkester) were so thick that they came back from the laundry ironed.
I have made it sound drab, which is unfair, because I remember most of it with great affection, and any drabness that there may have been in the day to day teaching was more than made up for by the services in Chapel which were wonderfully full of life and light and incense and plainsong and vestments and the scent of Arum Lilies. I adored it. It appealed to my sense of drama, fulfilled a huge spiritual need, and gave me a sense of the numinous, which has never left me.
The nuns were at the heart of the school, of course; they had a great sense of occasion and they liked to celebrate, whether it was Corpus Christi, Ascension Day, one’s Confirmation and First Communion, Easter (for which we remained at school, unless it came very late), or, one year, the fact that a horse belonging to the father of one of the girls had won the Gold Cup (a whole holiday). Now I come to think of it, though, I don’t remember celebrating the end of the war. I expect we had High Mass and a picnic up at the Monument………...
Evangeline Evans (Banks, 1946)
My mother, Philippa Cunliffe-Owen, and I were delighted to receive the SMS Chronicle. My mother was at St Mary’s during the war and we both read Evangeline Evans’ account of the war years with delight. The father who won the Gold Cup was my grandfather, Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen. It was Parents’ Day and he was at SMS with my Mum, but he did not expect his horse, Finis, to win (his wife also had a horse running which was favourite). Someone asked him during the afternoon if he knew who’d won the Gold Cup, he replied that he didn’t. They said ‘You have!’ He was so delighted; he stood up and announced his victory and a day’s holiday for the whole school. Apparently he paid for the whole school to go for a trip down the river on a boat! My brother still has the Gold Cup in his house.
Xandie Butler (Burke, 1963)
The first thing we noticed on returning to school in September 1939 was the closing of the swimming pool; apparently, it was being used as a food store. Then gradually the maids left and we had to lay tables and clear away – also we had to fill our own cans of hot water for our rooms (only the room in the then new block, Willow, had running water). Maids in brown uniforms with beige caps & aprons used to put a can of hot water outside the door when the ‘Rising Bell’ was rung. In the evening, the can was put on the washstand. At breakfast & tea, the butter was marked into seven portions (there were seven at each table) and then there was a bigger plate with the communal margarine. Due to sugar rationing the jam or marmalade didn’t go far but we were allowed to have our own jam or marmite or most enviable, a carton of Fry’s chocolate spread. On the whole the food was good (children weren’t so fussy then) and there was always enough, the only meal some of us disliked was scrambled egg made with dried egg powder (eggs were very much rationed).
There was one air-raid scare early on in the war. We all had to go down to the ground floor (I think in Willow) in the middle of the night taking our gas masks and an eiderdown or blanket and sat in rows with our backs against opposite walls. I don’t remember what we did and I don’t think we were in the least afraid, the whole episode was rather fun.
There was no going home during term time and there was no such thing as Half Term. Parents could come on a Saturday or Sunday, mostly mothers as I suppose the majority of fathers were in the services. Some managed to come by car but I think most people came by train. There was no possibility of going anywhere very far, but in those days, we didn’t expect it. It was a great treat to have Sunday lunch at The Bear Hotel, the Blue Boar was second choice.
All the form rooms had ‘blackout boards’ for the window and even the glass 'port hole’ windows in the doors were boarded up, there was no more peeping through to see what was going on from the passages. Sweets were given out on Saturdays after lunch. We had to queue up by the dispensary and a matron would let us help ourselves from our termly store (brought back at the beginning of term – about 5\- worth from the local village shop) and these we put into a small paper bag. Some people had rather super sweets such as a Mars Bar or Kit Kat.
The uniform changed for the 1939 intake from navy blue tunics, white shirts & tie to a heathery coloured tunic and blue round collared blouses. However due to clothes rationing, those with the old uniforms were not obliged to have the new ones. This gave a rather motley appearance to the girls en masse, but it was considered rather superior to have the old uniform.