Early days of the Second World War

Last week marked 80 years since the beginning of World War Two on 3 September 1939.  This tumultuous time was partly recorded in the school log book but also remembered in several oral histories recorded for the CXXV project.  As there is so much to share, we’ll cover this period in a couple of posts from the outbreak of the war and the immediate impact on North School in 1939, to school life during the war and ultimately the peace. If you have any memories to share to help us tell this story please do contact us. 

Headteacher Edwin Chisnell reveals some of the plans that were already in place at North School a year before war started in September 1938.  While British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with leaders of France, Germany and Italy at the Munich Conference, North School was designated a first aid post with two classrooms cleared and allocated for Air Raid Precautions (ARP).  On 30 September, when Chamberlain returned from Munich and assured the public of “peace for our time”, work continued at school with wardens measuring the windows in readiness for blacking out.  Elsewhere in Colchester trenches were dug in parks and recreation grounds. 

In fact, the national Air Raid Precautions and evacuation plans had been drawn up from 1936.  The country had been divided into three zones: evacuation, neutral or reception areas and there were four categories of evacuee – blind and disabled people, pregnant women, mothers with babies and/or pre-schoolers, and school children.

In 1939 Colchester was designated a reception area, although this would change in 1940, and on September 3rd 1939, Mr Chisnell records that the evacuation of London children and mothers had been underway since 1st September.   According to Hervey Benham, local newspaper proprietor, 14,000 evacuees arrived in the area:

“trains began to arrive as per schedule; the unaccompanied children first in charge of their teachers, and later mothers and young children in hastily organised trainloads. Before being despatched by bus to their new rural homes all were “watered and fed” at one of three schools and issued with 48 hours’ emergency rations. The staffs of these three reception schools, Wilson Marriage, St. John’s Green and Canterbury Road, had a very strenuous time. …”  (Benham, 1945)

North School teachers were assigned to Canterbury Road school to help welcome and process the evacuees and to issue their rations.

The fear of an immediate attack from the air was heightened when the first air raid warning sounded at lunchtime on 17th October.    No planes came over and the all clear was sounded just after 2pm.  Mr Chisnell doesn’t say what action was taken during this warning and its not clear if the shelters at the bottom of the playground were yet built, although St Helena’s shelters had been started in September.

Holland family group with Robert and Ronald Holland wearing their North School caps

The war effort at North was underway straight away.  Miss Rowland’s top junior class started knitting in October 1939.  Wool and patterns were sent to schools during the war for children to knit gloves, scarves and balaclavas for the forces and from 1941 when wool was rationed along with clothing, knitters were encouraged to recycle old jumpers.  It seems that North got in just in time before this rationing with new berets and caps, in a cherry colour with a black embroidered N on the front arriving on 8 December 1939.

1940 would see the introduction of food rationing, digging up the playground, evacuation from Colchester and increasing air raids.

Benham, H. (1945). Essex at War, The Essex County Standard Story