Fay’s Story

Wartime schools


At a very young age I was sent out 'in the country' supposedly away from the bombs being dropped on London. My Father was a Major in the Army and my Mother was involved in secret work for the war effort. The country retreat was the home of a distant cousin of my mother and there were several other children there. The first place that I was shown was the bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden, but we never got to go down inside it. We all walked to school each day clutching our empty, clean glass milk bottles.

One day I dropped mine, and it broke. It had been so impressed upon us that we had to take these bottles back, that I picked up the jagged pieces and took them with me. Needless to say there was blood dripping all over the place by the time we reached school, and all these years later there is a scar in the palm of my right hand to prove it!

The 'school' was one room with all ages together, but at different tables, for each age group. We learnt to count on an abacus with rows of little coloured beads. When the school closed we were each given one to keep.I had mine for many years afterwards.

We all sat at several tables for our meals, and one particular memory is of wondering if the little girl sitting next to me could hear the noise of my toast being crunched in my mouth, as we were all told to eat quietly.

The most impressive memory I have is that of one morning being woken by a terrible noise, and when I got out of bed to walk to the door had to find may way through lumps of plaster on the floor, because the ceiling had fallen in! The house next door had had a direct hit by a bomb. That was the end of my 'retreat'. Back to London with my Mother I went.

My next school was a boarding one. Ascot Priory in Berkshire. There was much bartering and exchange of clothing coupons among Uncles and Aunts in order to get my uniform together. Also much traipsing from shop to shop to get my panama hat. Not that they were scarce but my size was just not available in the usual school stockists, John Lewis etc. Finally we bought one in a Gentlemen's Outfitters and had it reblocked. What a big head!

At Ascot we had duck eggs and goats milk from the ones kept in the large grounds. Everyone had the opportunity to learn to ride as there were horses as well. Until we were old enough we had to be content with rides on a donkey! We walked to the local cinema to see the Pathe newsreel of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip. We were given to understand that this was a treat indeed.

I seemed to spend a lot of time in the Sanatorium with chicken pox or in a little room next to the Sister in charge, of our house, St. Christopher's, Sister Florence,, who prayed over my bed every day, nursing me through pneumonia, or having my wounded knees bandaged because of falling down often. Everyone was afraid of Sister Florence, but one supposes because I was such a weakling she favoured me a bit more than the others. I adored her.

Every year, in the Summer holidays, those who could not go home were taken to a big house on Hayling Island. This was St. Margaret's Mead, donated by a wealthy patron. A horse and trap and the donkey went with us. Some of sat in the back of the horsebox and thought it enormous fun. We took the donkey with us to the beach and let other children have rides on him. We had to learn to swim and always keep together in our group.There was a fair near the beach We were each given a portion of our pocket money to go. We learnt a song called 'As I was going to Strawberry Fair'.

Back at school at Christmas we were all involved in a concert about 'Teddy Bears Picnic'. Every Sunday we dressed in our blue frocks and white veils and processed into Church.

At the end of the war I was all of six years old and my mother and I went to Africa aboard the 'Arundel Castle'. We were very privileged to have our own cabin because one of my Uncles worked for the shipping company. Everyone else were still using the bunks that had been installed for the troops when it had carried them to war.

Often in the following years my thoughts would go back to those halcyon days at Ascot. Remembering the lovely trees and the huge grounds where we were free to wander, was a panacea. On arrival in Africa almost the first thing we did was send a 'food parcel' back home, just like the ones we'd had sent by an Aunt who preceded us. Lots of dried fruit mostly. Our first trip back was not until 1954 and people in Britain still had rationing for sweets and other luxuries.

Fay Gotting
June 2002

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