Old Uffingtonians Association (1994)

   Willesden County Grammar School                         Ex-Pupils 1924-1967                    


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The Day Before War Broke Out

Saturday September 2nd 1939 was the day when the school was evacuated to Northampton.  This bald statement describes the end of weeks and days of planning and rehearsals that preceded this exercise.  Those who were going - it was entirely voluntary - had several rehearsals of collecting at the school and then marching to Willesden Junction station from which they would be entrained and sent to .... no one knew where.  Not even on the actual day, nor even on the journey.

They were destined for Northampton as was Kilburn Grammar, Brondesbury and Kilburn High School.  At 9.30 am the long crocodiles of evacuees, ranked according to size and equipped with carrier bags containing an orange, apple, biscuits, lemonade and sweets walked to Willesden Junction.  J. McGrath wrote that he had never enjoyed such luxury before, and had never been on a train.  He had with him 5 younger brothers and sisters for whom this 13 year old was to be responsible.  At the station they were entrained, arriving at Northampton at 2 pm.  One of the trains with KGS evacuees leaving from Queens Park station went to Market Harborough by mistake.  It took several weeks before they rejoined the main school.

On arrival they were taken to the Barry Road School, given some food and then the "Meat Market" began.  The luckier ones were chosen with some enthusiasm, but as the day wore on more reluctant foster parents were being found.  Eventually, late at night, the remainder were billeted on less than enthusiastic townsfolk.  McGrath remembered his little brother and himself crying themselves to sleep.  Strong, loving and lifelong relationships were sometimes formed between evacuees and foster parents.  Arthur Revitt from Northampton wrote to enquire for two girls who had been billeted on and cherished by his mother.  Others experienced indifference, or even violence at the hands of their landlords and ladies.  The host parents themselves found the Grammar school children "different" from what they had expected.  Some could relate to them as they might have done to their own children.  Others thought them stuck up.  Some of them only took them in for the 7/- a week they were paid.  While some of the poorer evacuees found themselves in unaccustomed luxury, others were surprised to find that their billets had no bathrooms.

Housing for the schools themselves wasn't easy, but the solution was to divide all the evacuated schools' pupils by sex, and split the school day into two, in order to use existing buildings.  The boys had the afternoon shift from 1.55-5.50 pm at the Town and County, the host school getting the morning shift, while the girls similarly shared the Derngate School, a Georgian Building.  In the morning the school met at a Church Hall for sports, art, music and in this way very little was lost from the syllabus.  At first Miss Jarvie headed the girls school and Mr. Wallis the boys, but this changed latterly, with staff travelling between Northampton and London to meet the fluctuating demands of staffing two schools.  There was also a club, the Youth House, established and run by Don Woodman of KGS, and a Hostel staffed by Mr. and Mrs Parker which offered accommodation for visiting parents and staff, as well as a haven for pupils.

There was a shifting round between billets, and also home to Willesden.  Some youngsters went home for a holiday, others permanently when homesickness got too much.  The end of the "Phoney War" period brought a lot of the evacuees home again, and with the Blitz a second wave descended on Northampton.  Yet the whole story of the Evacuation is not of the school being there for the duration.  Not all left with the school in the first place.  There were some who had their education prematurely curtailed by the evacuation of the school.  Others lost a lot of schooling while the authorities caught up with the problem.  Then there was those returning, and after a year, a whole new intake of first-years with nowhere to go.  Initially those at home were offered education in the safety of Wembley schools not evacuated because they were deemed to be out of the likely Blitz area.  By 1940 the school re-started in Willesden, with those electing to stay in Northampton continuing till 1944 in a joint evacuated, coeducational school entitled "Middlesex Secondary School in Northampton".

Like all War experiences, for some it was a time of misery and others a great adventure.  Staff and pupils were drawn much closer together, and some learnt to enjoy self reliance and independence at an earlier age than usual.  In a newspaper interview Miss Jarvie talked of the spirit of the time as being "making the best of it".  This sounds a little like the sound of one hand clapping, but the school emerged stronger than ever from what was initially a rather Heath Robinson exercise in moving school populations to safety.

Thanks to Evelyn Walker and the late J. McGrath who wrote essays on their experiences.  Also thanks to M.W.K., who wrote an account in the School Magazine Silver Jubilee Edition 1949/50, and to Michael Brilliant of KGS, who provided an account of his school's wartime history.  Also thanks to Tony Cobb (Bell), Grahame Smith, Eric Sklar and Arthur Revitt of Northampton.

Sue Bartlet
Ex Editor Old Uffs Magazine