Sutton High School for Girls and the Great War

Sutton High School old frontage

Title: Sutton High School old frontage
Description: Reproduced by permission of Sutton High School by-nc

Written by Sue James, Sutton High School for Girls

When Sutton High School celebrated its 30th birthday on 17 January 1914 the headmistress, Miss Margaret Bell, had no idea of the momentous changes she would be faced with before the year was out. The school magazine of summer 1914 gives no intimation of the war clouds gathering over Europe. Instead “the news of the term” is full of positive contributions about school visits, plays and competitions of many kinds. By the time the school reassembled after the summer break, the war had been under way for over a month and Miss Bell was faced with preparing the school for a war footing; joining the Girls’ Patriotic Union of Secondary Schools and setting up a “war committee”. The other major initiative came in 1916 when Miss Bell set up a branch of the National War Savings Association as “to save is a patriotic action”. She was very keen on promoting this and noted in each magazine how the numbers of those submitting their savings, which could be as small as a sixpence, had grown. She confidently predicted that 15/6d (about 77 pence) would become £1 within five years.

We tend to think of total war as a feature of World War II but there was a Home Front in the Great War and economies had to be made and black-outs sewn. Prizes were reduced from a book to a certificate, programmes were usually hand-made rather than printed, with some large ones at sports days being attached to trees. Students were required to write on both sides of the paper in their examination scripts and fancy-dress costumes were made rather than bought. Parts of the school grounds were dug up to grow vegetables. Although their early efforts were met with some degree of failure the girls improved on their gardening skills as time went on and managed to supply the senior service with vegetables.

Miss Bell led the way in providing mittens, helmets, semmits and socks for the soldiers by insisting that each child should learn to knit. She too was believed to have knitting in most rooms which she would pick up when an opportunity presented itself. A call came out for women to take over men’s jobs so Miss Bell put herself forward for Sutton Urban District Council in 1915; she, plus two others were returned unopposed. Her article in the Spring 1915 magazine explaining her decision to do this is very much an illustration of her belief in duty.

Miss Bell, headmistress of Sutton High School for Girls (reproduced by permission of the school)

News of the war trickled through; the bombardment of Scarborough in 1914 was met with outrage and the school welcomed Belgian refugees as pupils. Belgium, especially Ypres, became a key sphere of conflict in the Great War and the national propaganda about the “Kaiser’s ruffian hordes” led to some very patriotic poetry by the girls. Even the prizegiving addresses included references to the war; possibly the strangest one was in 1917 when the guest speaker alluded to the discovery of a fish in Zanzibar with Arabic looking “markings … which may be taken to foretell the downfall of Prussianism”!

Girls were always expected to take part in charity work but the war increased this aspect of school life ten-fold. Usual charities benefited, such as a hospital in Sierra Leone and Queen Mary’s Hospital in Carshalton but the girls raised money for over forty different charitable appeals as well as collecting kid gloves to make waistcoats for soldiers and “old clothes” to send to displaced people in France. Miss Hunt, who taught science, sold silkworms to raise money for the French Red Cross. Lady Smith-Dorrien, the wife of a prominent general, sent out an appeal in 1916 for bags to be made for use by injured soldiers and every form had to sew these; by the end of the war somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 had been made. Probably the element of competition introduced through form rivalry contributed to the total. The accounts were meticulously recorded in the magazines, down to the last penny.

The archive has many examples of letters sent to “lonely soldiers” and these letters were often accompanied by a parcel. Replies were printed in the magazines and there are intimations of very bad conditions in the trenches although, as one soldier remarked, they had to be careful of the censors, which is probably why the letters appear somewhat sanitised. Sometimes the recipients met a sad end; one sapper in the Royal Engineers was described as having been killed by “76 pieces of shrapnel”.

There were boys in the kindergarten at Sutton High School until the 1950s and the school lost four Old Boys. Sidney Price was probably the most valued as a paragraph sent by his commanding officer appeared in the Autumn 1916 magazine. Sidney is one of over 72,000 names on the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme; he has no known grave. News of casualties must have been a fairly common occurrence as the girls’ brothers tended to be the junior officer class straight from public school. There is no record of the deaths, other than the four Old Boys, except for a remark about the hushed tones when the armistice was announced and the French teacher who wept for her father and brothers “morts pour la France”. It has been quite easy to connect some of the girls to dead soldiers, particularly if they had an unusual name. Margaret Gashion’s brother, Stanley, was killed but his body was never found. ‘The Past on Glass’ project in Sutton Library has found that Stanley’s father took a long time to accept his son’s death and we can only imagine what this must have done to the rest of the family. Margaret went on to train as a doctor and we are left to wonder whether the news of her brother had any effect on her rather innovative choice of career at a time when few women became medics.

Sutton High School hall (reproduced by permission of the school)

There had been a strong Old Girls’ Association since 1905. Musical members put on free patriotic concerts as fundraisers at Sutton Public Hall and many put themselves forward for war work. A teacher, Miss P.M.Tayton, made contact with as many alumnae as she could in 1934 and noted down what each of them had done in the war. It is not exhaustive but it gives a good idea of the variety of tasks they undertook. Old Girls were encouraged to write in the magazines about their work and some did respond. Elsa Chambers Smith wrote about her work with the YMCA “somewhere in France”; Sybil Read, also worked for the YMCA, “canteening” and her sister, Joyce, worked in a shell shop in the Vickers munitions works in Kent. Dora Black used her language skills in the Women’s Emergency Corps and a gymnastics teacher, Hilda Collins, “caused quite a stir” when she left to work in a National Projectile factory in Lancaster. Many of the Old Girls were VADs volunteering as nurses in Benfleet Hall, a large, local house which, like hundreds of others, was transformed into a military hospital. In 1916 the Benfleet Hall VADs arranged for 40 of the injured men to visit the school for tea and games; they called it their “blue letter day”, probably due to the colour of the hospital uniform. The account of this references the hall “ringing with the deep-toned voices of the British Tommy”. Perhaps the most unusual contribution came from Rose Catchpole who found herself stranded in Austria at the start of the war; her account of enemy propaganda combined with the rather tolerant way in which she was treated are quite illuminating. She may have found life uncomfortable as she had to keep her opinions to herself but she was not interned as an enemy alien and the privations she endured were also suffered by the Austrians.

There was some normality in school life and, although one girl recorded being sent home due to an air-raid, this must have been a rare occurrence. Sports matches were never stopped although girls played more local teams, the staff or mothers. Expeditions continued, not to London but out into leafy Surrey. Examinations continued to be taken and successes recorded. Numbers stayed fairly stable, except for the older girls who left school to take up war work. The number of girls who left to help the war effort must have caused concern as an appeal went out from the Chairman of the Council of the Trust, in Spring 1918, encouraging girls to stay at school as “for the sake of England … girls ought to be thoroughly educated”. Miss Bell began an expansion of the school as soon as the war finished which must indicate that numbers were more than viable when the war was over.

The school was given two days’ holiday when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919. The “war to end all wars” did not have the desired effect that many of them expected. Sybil Read, who wrote about “canteening”, married Valentine Searles-Wood in 1918. Their son, John Valentine Searles-Wood was born a few months after the Treaty; he would be killed, aged 21, in the conflagration that was World War II. The school itself had come through relatively unscathed although the teaching of Home Economics to older girls, begun enthusiastically in 1911, was discontinued in 1916, due to falling numbers and was not reinstated for the foreseeable future. The school motto, fortiter (bravely), fideliter (loyally) and feliciter (happily) was proudly adhered to, at least in the formal accounts of the school magazines, although feliciter must have been increasingly hard to achieve as the news of the casualties came in.

The magazines of Sutton High School for Girls for the war years have been published on line.  Click here.

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