St Nicolas’ School Guildford in World War I

Text researched and written by Mark Marsden



St Nicolas’ Church Primary School came into existence in April 1851, when it was founded by W.H. Pearson, the Rector at that time.

The initial aim of the school was to educate poor, working class children and adults in the ancient Norman parish of Saint Nicolas. The catchment area, which had evolved since the boundaries had first been created around 1086, was reasonably large. In the Victorian period the bounds of the parish extended into the countryside, up to St Catherine’s Chapel.   Even at the beginning of the school’s history, the connection with the local church of St Nicolas was firmly established.  This is highlighted by the numerous references in the school log books to the religious life of the school at different periods of its history, including the successive visits and annual inspections of the school, by the Rector during World War One.  Having a Christian belief had always been an important part of the School’s admission criteria, to the extent that even the modern day school prospectus still favours children who belong to the congregation at St Nicolas’ Church, and a termly Church Service is held.

Patriotism (at least until the end of the First World War period) was a key element instilled in the children. This is evidenced by several events including, on the 22nd June 1911, where the children celebrated the Coronation of George V by wearing Coronation medals and watching marching processions pass through Guildford. The school continued to celebrate such events during the Great War period, including the ever-popular annual Empire Day celebration.

The school expanded on several occasions. The first successful expansion was in 1894, in order to combat sub-standard accommodation. On completion of the works the main school building was divided into two sections: boys aged between seven and twelve were taught downstairs separately from the girls, who were based upstairs. To ensure the division between the two sections, each half of their school had separate head teachers (a Headmaster and a Headmistress). In 1967 the School was extended for a second time.

In 1922 the school responded to the death of Miss Ranger (the Headmistress at the Girls’ School), by merging two departments together to form a mixed- sex Primary School. This set up continued until 1976, when the school became a First School, meaning it now took children aged from five to eight. Subsequently, in 1993 the institution became a Voluntary Aided Infant School, after which only children between four and seven were accepted.  This potted history demonstrates that the school has taken on many different identities in many eras.

The school log books have been important in the exploration of the state of St Nicolas’ School in Guildford during the Great War. All the entries in this period were made by head teacher Butcher (appointed to the school in 1881, and leaving in 1924).  As his position was one of authority, this source provides an important and vital insight into the daily running of and the events in the school. The variety and number of log entries that have been examined during this research should assist in constructing an accurate image of the school during the War period.

This article explores the ways in which the school actively participated in, was affected by, and survived, the Great War and reveals that some aspects of school life in World War One seemed to continue operating as if it were still peace time.

The effect of wartime events

Guildford’s first and only Zeppelin raid occurred on the 13th October 1915, yet the raid was mainly focused over London. Residents of Guildford were clearly shocked by the raid, this being typified by Mrs Law (a pupil at St Nicolas’ Girls school at the time) who described how her parents ran out “in their night clothes”. Although few would have seen the flashes of the bombs, many more would have heard the blasts. Five days later the Surrey Advertiser reported that there were forty one civilian casualties in the Eastern Counties and London. In contrast, the German reporting of the event almost exclusively focused on targeting military sites over London, such as Woolwich Arsenal.  This German claim can be partially justified as there were no casualties in Guildford itself, yet there were one hundred and ninety nine casualties overall many of those outside of London. Also Guildford took a fair amount of damage, including that to the main railway line, Shalford Park and the area near the school on Portsmouth Road.  Five days after the raid the chairman of London County Council visited St Nicolas’ School. Although the exact purpose of his visit was unknown, it may have been to attempt to raise the children’s morale after such a terrifying and shocking experience, especially as bombs from the Zeppelins were dropped at such a low altitude, estimated to be 9,600 feet by Mr Jacob, a Guildford resident.

These raids clearly had a longer term impact on the school as even two years later (July 6th 1917) the school office ordered that if air raids occurred the children needed to be sent home. This was similar to an air raid circular that was issued in July 1917 by the Surrey Board of Education.  This demanded that children were to leave school during an air raid.  Interestingly in the same month, the school managers took a different stance on the issue. They stated that if an air raid happened during the school hours, girls should be removed from the bottom and top floors, but they should not be sent home.  The first approach was actually implemented, as on the 2nd November 1917 the Surrey Education Committee sent the children home, as an official warning of the air raid had been issued.

St Nicolas’ school was even graced with Royalty during the war. This special occasion was in February 1915, when Belgian Princess Clementine visited St Nicolas’ School. This was her second visit to Guildford: in the previous month she had spoken to Belgian refugees assembled at Wycliffe Hall, near St Nicolas’ School on Portsmouth Road. At the first meeting she showed her sincerest gratitude to the town, by profusely thanking the Mayor of Guildford and the Belgian Relief Committee (formed in October 1914) for the care that they had given to the Belgian refugees.

The war heavily influenced and affected education at St Nicolas’ School. Two specific examples from the Boys School highlight this. Firstly, on the 6th December 1917, six paper boys were absent from the school that morning, because a train carrying newspapers from London to Guildford was late. This was due to an air raid over London the previous night. As the boys could not deliver their newspapers in the morning; their education was in turn affected, as they missed morning lessons. Secondly, on the 8th March 1918, Councillor Philips came to speak to the boys about War Saving Week. Although it is unclear exactly what this week was, this event served to highlight how important external figures could influence the boys’ attitude to war.


Participation in the War

The first direct mention of how the Boys’ School participated in the Great War comes from a log book entry on the 22nd of February 1915. Three schoolboys were absent that afternoon, as they joined their 9th Guildford Troop Scout Group to help billet troops in the town. These boys may well have been preparing to help billet troops on the 23rd February at Guildford Park Infant school. Such actions were not just acts of generosity but also had financial incentives, as the military would compensate schools for their services. For example, £4 6s 3d was paid to Guildford Park Infant School for their help.  However, this only marked the start of the scouts’ activities, as in May 1915, a similar group of boys were absent from school for the whole day, to undertake yet more billeting of troops.

Some children and their parents made their support for the War very visible. For example, on the 22nd June 1915, some girls had obtained permission from their parents to be absent from school because soldiers were marching through Guildford. Although this march could be argued to be disruptive to the girls’ education, the children may have believed that it was more important to attend in order to keep up the troops’ morale.   Similarly in February 1915 a photograph of King Albert V of Belgium was presented to the school by a refugee. This highlighted how refugees, such as Julieaue Legue, appreciated being allowed to attend school.  Arguably the school needed to help with the education of refugees, as some fifty Belgian refugee families had arrived in October 1915.

From 1914 onwards, many sources indicated that the War became the main focus for schools, meaning that associated sites became venues for school trips. For instance, on Ascension Day (June 15th 1916), Mr Ansell took some boys to visit some ammunition works. Despite no mention of a specific destination, they may well have visited the gunpowder mills at Chilworth, as the site was only four miles south-east of Guildford. The site’s history of manufacturing gunpowder had started in 1885, with the twenty-four hour a day production of Brown Prismatic Powder- an explosive propellant for weapons. The factory also created a heavy demand for barges bringing supplies in and out of the site during the War. For the boys, this flurry of river activity must have been a visual reminder of the war effort and must have emphasized how important certain sites could be towards ultimate victory.

Some schoolboys were members of the Guildford Rifle Club, or the local Boy Scout group; a few may have been part of both. The members of these groups fulfilled an important wartime function which was to defend Guildford’s logistics network. Arguably this reflected the attitude of St Nicolas’ Headmaster Butcher, as he believed that the local Rifle Club (part of the National Civilian Rifle Club movement) was good for the boys’ education and their future lives as citizens, as such an activity would focus their minds. Members from both of these groups were involved in guarding local train tunnels, used by their fellow pupils and the public; therefore this role was considered to offer vital protection to these people. There was concern that German sympathisers in the area could sabotage tunnels, such as the one that ran beneath St Martha’s Hill in order to disrupt vital war-time communication between London and Portsmouth. This paranoia was escalated by false press reports of German spies laying explosives in the main train tunnel beside Guildford Station.

Pupils’ participation also affected the War overseas. In the winter of 1915, girls from the school had raised ten shillings for the Secretary of the Overseas Club. The result of this fundraising was that gifts such as wool and mittens could be sent at Christmas time to British soldiers and sailors being held as prisoners of war in Germany. The Headmaster’s appreciation to the girls was clearly evident as, on May 24th 1916, certificates were awarded to all who had helped in this enterprise. Overall, elementary schools in Guildford produced some two thousand blankets to assist British soldiers during the War.

It is just as important to investigate how the school celebrated the end of the War, as understanding the relief and jubilation of victory is vital when assessing how the school remembered the War.   On Armistice Day in 1918 Butcher recorded how both the boys’ and girls’ sections of the school went to church for a thanksgiving service to celebrate the Allies great victory. At eleven o’clock in the morning there was a two minute silence, followed by the national anthem, before work resumed.  On the one hand, this showed how school life needed to carry on as normal. Yet conversely, as this log book entry for this event was poignantly underlined by Butcher, a gesture which exhibited how people must have felt that this triumph was worth celebrating and remembering. As Armistice Day had meant so much to the Borough, many schools in the Guildford area were closed as the day had been announced as a Public Holiday.


School life during War time

It is important to remember that many peace-time traditions continued at the school despite the War. For example, the school did not deviate from its proud imperialist heritage, as it celebrated Empire Day on the 24th May 1916. This was a date designated annually to celebrate the glory of the British Empire through activities such as singing patriotic songs including “Jerusalem”.  St Nicolas’ School followed similar celebrations of this tradition together with other schools in the local area.  One such other school was mentioned in the Surrey Advertiser on the 27th May 1916: the newspaper reported that Empire Day had also been celebrated at Chertsey Stepgates School, and other schools, such as Abinger Hammer and West Clandon also followed suit in marking such occasions. The power of Britain’s imperial legacy was reflected in several different ways through this event. Firstly, the importance of Empire to local communities is evident, as local papers reported every set of imperialistic celebrations at school. Secondly, how Britain as an imperialist power still made a lasting impression on young children, despite wartime propaganda. The very fact that Empire Day ran from 1902 right up until 1958 demonstrated the enduring popular appeal of Empire, even to youngsters.

Sometimes the notions of Empire and patriotism combined to make school children even more resolute in the face of war. A teacher’s journal in September 1914 portrayed Germany as an old imperial enemy that needed defeating again. In order to promote a common bond against the enemy, the journal recommended that schools needed to instil patriotic values into the children of all ages, including self-discipline, obedience and sacrifice. St Nicolas certainly achieved this through imperially-themed lessons and Empire Day.

Teachers at St Nicolas’ still wanted to have their salaries increased from 1914 to 1918 for seemingly non war-related reasons. Even the Headmaster, Mr. Butcher, on 13th December 1916 asked for an increase in salary from the Finance and General Purpose Sub Committee of the Surrey County Council.  Although his specific reason for such a demand is not clear, this request was approved so his salary was raised to £180 per annum.  Perhaps his request was allowed, because Butcher participated at county-wide meetings coupled with the fact that he was an influential senior figure. Possibly a combination of these factors made his request appear more reasonable.

Non war- related maintenance problems in the school continued over the War. A constant issue seemed to be the school’s lack of coal for fires, as this problem is mentioned five times in the school records from September 1915 to May 1916, rarely seeming to get fixed. Towards the end of the War, on 15th October 1918, the Headmistress of the Infant School stated that the children needed more dual desks. This was in order to cope with eighty extra pupils regularly turning up to school. This request was approved by the managers of the Surrey County Council Elementary Education Sub Committee. Thus even at this late stage of the war, the Headmistress still remained focused on the daily running of the school.



Surrey Advertiser 16th October 1915- Saturday edition, p4

Surrey Advertiser 18th October 1915

Surrey Advertiser 27th May 1916

SHC 6094/2/1- Teacher’s journal – Sep 1914 edition

SHC 6151/2 Surrey Education Conference 1915 onwards

SHC BR/CTM/ED/2 Surrey County Council Educational Minutes 1915-18

SHC BR/CTM/ED/11x Surrey County Council Educational Minutes 1914-5

SHC C/EM/95/2 St Nicolas’ School Management

SHC C/ES School Records for St Nicolas’ Church of England Infant School

SHC CC1045/1/3 Log book of St Nicolas’ Girls School Apr 1903 -Jul 1922

SHC CC1045/1/4 Log book of St Nicolas’ Boys School (mixed from 1922): April 1907 –September 1937

SHC CC1045/1/11- St Nicolas First School prospectus – 1989

SHC CC1045/1/13 Letters from old pupils containing reminiscences of their time at the school.

SHC CC1045/1/15   St Nicolas’ school Celebrations – on the 150th Anniversary

SHC CC1139/5/2 Surrey Education Committee correspondence

SHC CC78/ box 9/16 Abinger Hammer Inspection

Chamberlin, E.R. Guildford (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1970)

Grant, R.G. History of Modern Britain (London: Carlton Books Limited, 2010)

Oakley, William H. Guildford in the Great War: The Record of a Surrey Town (Worcester, Billings & Sons, Limited, 1934)

Rose, David, Guildford Remembering 1914-18, (Briscombe Port UK: The History Press, 2014) (accessed 15th July 2014)

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4 Responses to “St Nicolas’ School Guildford in World War I”

  1. Judi Ranson

    My great-grandfather was the Headmaster, Herbert Butcher, and I am researching the history of his time in Guildford. I have personal information about him and his family should this be of interest.

    • Imogen Middleton, Surrey Heritage

      Hi Judi,
      Your research sounds fascinating, and would definitely be of interest to our project! When you have written up any stories about your great-grandfather in Guildford during WW1, we would be delighted if you would consider sharing it with us. You can do this by registering as a user via the ‘Add Your Story’ link in the top right hand corner of our website. If you have any questions, please do get in touch: [email protected]

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