Text by Annette Hughes
Whyteleafe is a village situated in East Surrey in a valley on the North Downs close to the villages of Warlingham and Woldingham which were both home to army camps during The Great War. Nearby is Kenley Aerodrome which was a Royal Flying Corps base from 1917.
The little school in Whyteleafe was established in 1892 in Maple Road just off the main London to Eastbourne Road (now the A22). On the other side of the school, running parallel with the main road, was the Croydon, Oxted and East Grinstead Railway Line with Upper Warlingham Station a short walk away.
The headmaster of the school at the start of the Great War was Mr George Waterson. He had taken over the school from a rather disgruntled Mr Honey in 1905. Mr Waterson quickly made vast improvements to the school including extending the school buildings and creating a school garden which was described by the Agricultural Economist and Horticultural Review as ‘Not merely a credit to the school and district, but the entire county’. In November 1913 there were 256 children on the books but this number varied considerably. The headmaster put this down to ‘the itinerant or shifting population’. Meanwhile, through a railway arch close to the school and up a hill (known locally as ‘The Dobbin’), Mr Hinton was enjoying the fruits of his pleasure garden business. Families would travel down from London by rail, alighting at Upper Warlingham station, and trek up The Dobbin to enjoy a day out in the Surrey countryside and sample the refreshments and fairground rides at Warlingham Court Farm. It wasn’t so enjoyable for Mr Waterson: shortly before the start of the war, on 10th July 1914 he wrote in his log book “London children visiting Court Farm a real nuisance, half bushel of large stones thrown onto the playground. wrote to Court Farm.”
Just a couple of months later Warlingham Court Farm was commandeered as an army camp and training ground. In September 1914 the 17th Empire Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers arrived at the farm. Mr Waterson now had more than stones on his playground to worry about. The log book entry for 16th October 1914 states “Children are very restless and disinclined to pay attention to work – to concentrate, they are obsessed by war excitement. 1200 Empire Fusiliers are quartered at Court Farm and who throng the village at night have absorbed their attention for some weeks past.” On October 23rd he wrote “Children restless – novelty of military in their midst and many calls for little jobs of work”. Then on the 26th October he wrote “Fusiliers – a good many passing, they are very happy in their marching and tactics but rather distracting to 1st Class.”
The ‘little jobs of work’ were to become another bugbear for Mr Waterson. On November 6th he wrote “There is much child labour here and many of them go to bed so late they come into school half asleep. So many half and whole day absences. This habit is strongly forming – advantage taken of war.”. He returned to the theme on 5th February 1915 “Some children absent on the plea of illness carry washing to and from the army camp at Woldingham.” The increase in work meant that Whyteleafe families had more money. This didn’t help matters at the beginning of the school year in September when he remarked: “After the summer holidays quite a lot of children are taken from home by their parents for another long holiday. This year the no. is much greater, perhaps because people are much better off owing to the war.”
Wartime and its distractions had now become the norm. Comments such as “Zeppelin raids” and “Economies, shorter working hours, trying times” were noted in the log. Bomb and fire drills were organized and due to the shortage of paper old exam papers and exercise books were recycled. The headmaster mentioned several times that he was short staffed due to the war, exacerbated by an increase in the number of children which he put down to “children who have left London owing to raids.” On 8th May 1918 he stated there should be no more than 60 children in each class.
The school did all it could to help the war effort. Shortly after the war started the children made up shirts for soldiers. On 18th January 1917 the school received 3lbs of khaki wool for comforts for the troops. The children made nine pairs of mittens and five mufflers from the wool. On 22nd of June the same year 240 new laid eggs and flowers were sent to the Red Cross Hospitals at Burntwood Lane in Caterham and Purley. In September 1917 entertainment was put on to raise funds for cigarettes for old boys and £12 12s was raised, after which Mr Jonas of Portley Wood wrote a kind letter and donated another 10 shillings. That autumn the children also collected 3/4 of a ton of horse chestnuts which were sent to Kings Lynn for the extraction of acetone which was used in the manufacture of cordite, an explosive. The following September the children collected blackberries which were sent to Kingston to be made into jam for the troops. They sent 50lbs on the 12th and another 43lbs on the 18th and on the 24th the headmaster wrote “Obliged to stop blackberrying owing to teacher shortage”.
Charities were not forgotten. In July 1916 the children were addressed on the hardship suffered by Belgian children and were invited to contribute to the relief fund. On the 10th of that month it was Belgian Children’s Day, £1 2s 6d was collected and the Belgian flag raised. The children were also told of the bravery of Jack Cornwell, a 16 year old boy who, although he had been wounded, stood by his gun on his ship while everyone around him had been killed. He later died from his wounds and was posthumously awarded the VC. A charity had been set up to raise funds for a ward dedicated to him at the new Star and Garter Home in Richmond and Jack Cornwell fund stamps were sold to the children to raise funds for the charity.
On 25th June 1915 the Royal Fusiliers left Court Farm to move on to Clipstone training camp in Nottinghamshire. The headmaster wrote “Royal Fusiliers left Court Farm, assembly in the playground, flags to cheer two train loads as they passed. The soldiers responded. Excellent conduct.” A few weeks later the 16th (Public Schools) Battalion Middlesex Regiment who had arrived at Court Farm in December 1914 also departed for Clipstone Camp. Again there were two train loads, the children assembled in the playground to wave flags at them and the soldiers responded. The headmaster also commented that the Blue Admiral Canadian and French flags were hoisted.
There are mentions in the log book of Scouts being absent from school ‘on duty’, the first being at the start of the war on 28th August 1914. In Peter Skuse’s History of Whyteleafe published in 1987, Mr Haynes recalled being taken out of school by the Scoutmaster Mr Mackness. The Scouts were required to erect tents at the top of the hill around the edge of a lime pit to allow a watch on the railway at the bottom of the hill. On 22nd March 1916 the headmaster wrote “Miss Barralet took 14 Scouts to the station to give a hearty send off to Lieut. Mackness who was going to the front. Time taken 20 mins – route march instead of physical exercise at school.” The Scoutmaster was Douglas Mackness, twin brother of Lieutenant Claud Mackness. Sadly Claud was injured and spent a year in hospital in Bournemouth before he died. The log book states on 17th Dec 1917 “Funeral of Lieut. Claude Mackness, organist of this parish”.
The school welcomed visits from old boys who had returned from the front. Some, such as Albert Killick, had brought souvenirs to show the children. The headmaster wrote on 6th December 1915, “Rifleman Albert Killick home from the ‘front’ visited, he showed us some German missiles and his gas respirator which he put on the head of one of the boys.” Many other old boys visited, notably Private Martin who brought things for the museum, Albert Palmer who was wounded, George Prosperi from HMS Sorceress and Edwin Barden from HMS Clive. Sadly Albert Killick of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps was killed in action on 30th September 1917 aged 21.
In July 1918 the influenza pandemic hit the school and by 26th of that month attendance had dropped to 85 representing only 37.9% attendance. When the school reopened in September numbers present had improved but dropped again in November, the headmaster commenting that influenza was bad in Oxted (about 8 miles away).
On 11th November 1918 the headmaster wrote “Heard just after 11 that the armistice has been signed. Children assembled in the hall, short address, cheers, patriotic songs and National Anthem.” The next day the pupils and teachers enjoyed a half day holiday to celebrate.
Slowly the school returned to normal. War was no longer a reason for absence: Sangers Circus in Purley, a jumble sale in the parish hall and that British favourite ‘the weather’ were now being blamed, including some very unseasonable deep snow on 28th April 1919 making the roads almost impassable!
This article was compiled from notes taken from the log books of Whyteleafe Primary School which were kindly loaned to the author by the late Mr Richard Collins, headmaster, 2005. [The logbooks and other papers relating to the school have now been deposited at Surrey History Centre ref CC1243]
The Surrey Mirror.
A History of Whyteleafe by Peter Skuse (1987 The Bourne Society).