On 2nd September 1939, the day before the start of World War 2, a total of 216 girls and 33 staff left Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, in Acton, West London for destinations unknown. Secrecy was everything. The girls’ lives were at stake. Early in 2016, the Historical Society received a letter, via our website, from Joyce Squire living in Surrey, who had discovered some fascinating information in an old letter:
My name is Joyce Squire and I live in Bookham, Surrey. I have recently been sorting through interesting letters and documents which I have collected over many years. In the early 1990’s, when dealing with the affairs of Dorothy Read, an elderly relative, I came across a letter written to her by her great friend, Jeanie Parker.
They were both teachers and Jeanie, who I believe taught at Haberdashers’ at Acton, had been evacuated, along with 60 pupils and five staff, to Giant View at Cerne Abbas. Jeanie describes the very basic conditions , the kindness of the local people and the imminent removal of the whole group to Dorchester.
Although the children were content in dormitories and enjoyed being together, Jeanie was not keen to face winter in such Spartan conditions. You will probably know Giant View – Jeanie said it had been a workhouse and had become a youth hostel before opening its doors to the evacuees.Everyone who sees Jeanie’s letter finds it fascinating so I am sure it will be of great interest to Cerne Historical Society.
If you would like to provide me with a postal address, I would be pleased to send you a photocopy of the letter. Once you have seen the copy, you may like to suggest what I might do with the original. My sister in law lives in Somerset and we often visit Dorset while staying with her. If the original letter could find a wider readership by coming to you or a local museum, I would happily arrange to deliver it in due course.
I look forward to hearing from you.
The 14 page insightful, moving and memorable letter pictured below, therefore came into the possession of the Historical Society. It was sent by a young teacher, Jeanie Parker, to her friend Miss Read, in which she describes her experiences of being evacuated, along with 60 pupils and 4 colleagues, to the former workhouse in Cerne Abbas in September 1939. They came from Haberdasher’s Aske School in Acton, West London. A copy has now been lodged with Casterbridge Manor care home, being the new name for the old building on Acreman Street. The original letter has been gratefully received by the School for their own archives.
Transcription Note: A few words were difficult to decipher, so where there is doubt, these are in bold. A few others may be ‘in’ words and therefore only have a meaning to the intended reader of the letter. These are also in bold. In a few instances a ? replaces a word which could not be understood.
Address: Giant View, Cerne Abbas Date: September 7th 1939
This is the first moment I have had time to put pen to paper and even so it is 10.15. I can’t begin to tell you about the discomfort and trials of my present life. I really feel like I ought not to grumble but at the same time civilisation has its compensations. To go back to the beginning, tho’ I haven’t time to tell you everything because so many people have already written to me that I shall take days before I catch up. We left school last Saturday, what centuries ago it seems.
At 1 o’clock and in crocodile plus banners and a couple of cars, 2 maids and matron, walked to Acton station, viewed by the sympathetic eyes of the residents. Stella Wattean as P.T. [Physical Training] organiser for Acton was at the station and told me of some of her horrors – our chief concern was corridor or non-corridor train? However, we travelled in absolute comfort in the former and arrived in Dorchester at about 6.10.
From the station we walked in rain to a nearby elementary school where we were given a bun and a cup of tea – absolute nectar, believe me!! For the first time we all felt the complete refugee – people were so very kind and sympathetic that we began to feel a little droopy. The kids were getting very tired and the rain was coming down in torrents!!
We were next ushered into buses and en route presented with a carrier bag containing 48 hours rations, bully beef, tinned nestles milk, biscuits and chocolate.
Another day gone and I haven’t had time to put pen to paper – now it is 10.30 and I really feel only fit for bed. Well anyway, where was I? After receipt of rations we got into buses and came on to Cerne.
Oh my dear, such weariness, we waited and waited and at last 60 of us plus 5 staff were billeted on ‘Giant View’ – my dear, the dormitories seen by the light of one candle were a positive haven of rest and we were too weary to look into things.
I began very well by putting my hand through a window in an effort to get more air into a dormitory – I mean the window was stuck!! It wasn’t very badly cut, only the little finger on my left hand, but I had to go down to the doctor – anyhow it is practically alright now.
Yet another day and I am nowhere near the end of this! Sunday morning following more extensive investigations the place proved ghastly. It used to be a workhouse, is now a youth hostel and has a reform school attached with an ex-policeman plus many large relatives (known locally as the colony or rabbit warren because of their numerous children!!) as caretaker.
The sanitary arrangements are appalling – we have 1 tap, the only water supply for the entire house and a sink to which all slops have to go – my poor infants. Lower IVs [likely to be 11 or 12 year olds] have to carry all their pails and jugs down one flight of very dark stairs. I have a dormitory for my 11 something of a picnic when they are all in, especially when they are just at the age when they can’t keep a thing tidy for 5 minutes.
My babe aged 7 is the joy of my heart. I am becoming most maternal believe me! We are with the brats morning, noon and night. The day begins at 7.30 a.m. when I trot into the dorm in pyjamas and dressing gown! We have prayers at 8.30 followed by breakfast – back to the days of serving porridge and tea. Up to the dormitories afterwards to clean up.
The caretakers are the most slothful set of people you ever met, they hardly do a thing for us, other than prepare the meals. We do all our own housework and have arranged that one diearchy [sic] (diarchy?) should do the preparing and clearing of meals, including washing up in turn for the whole of one day. It’s hellish there’s no other word for it, in fact our vocabulary consists almost entirely of ‘hellish,’ ‘my God’ and I regret to say at times even ‘bloody.’
The only compensation is that the 5 of us get on together exceedingly well. Whelan is not with me – she is in Charminster a nearby village living in the lap of luxury having been billeted with a rather ‘county family,’ the eldest daughter being a member of the West Lax team. She and the rest of the Lower School have about 4 kids each to care for and here are we with 60 in the house!! In fact we are the martyrs of the evacuees – I suppose we should be grateful for living in such a lovely village – Cerne Abbas is really beautiful, lovely hills around it and the most attractive cottages.
It is full of interest and historical treasures. In fact we feel so utterly remote from the rest of the world as to give us a certain feeling of unreality. Just to see these glorious downs with cattle quietly grazing and to be able to exchange friendly greetings with the villagers all adds to the strangeness of everything. The people in the village cannot do enough for us – we have offers of baths from all and sundry and every door is an open door. All the staff and children billeted in the village are very happy and comfortable.
It is the primitiveness of our dwelling that gets us down – one indoor lavatory ‘plus flush’ one ghastly prehistoric contraption and 2 outdoor conveniences – we eat off American cloth covered tables, haven’t seen a saucer since we arrived, and regularly share plates and cutlery.
Hot water is minus, though we have agitated to such an extent that we now get a very limited amount each evening when by arrangement the kids in ? have a warm wash down. Mine have had theirs tonight which means that from 6 to 7.30 I stripped and tubbed them (using 2 zinc wash tubs for the process.) I have to supervise their washing each night which has to be as we say from A to Z in cold water.
The ‘babe’ I put to bed at 7. She has her supper and 1st sleep in my bed in order to get a few hours undisturbed whilst the others are getting ready – about 9.30 each night. I carry her, asleep, she never wakes, into her own bed in the dormitory. Forgive more tonight, it’s nearly midnight, good night sleep tight!
Williams is taking a hymn practice with the infants, preparatory to this afternoon’s service to which Arrowsmith and I are taking them!!!
So much for this morning’s effort!! Spent the rest of the time interviewing parents and washing children’s socks – what a life! I have now helped to clear away the luncheon things, hung my children’s newly washed clothes on the line to air in the sun, given them each a 1d bar of chocolate and sent them up to the dormitory ‘till church time.
We leave here next Saturday for billets in Dorchester as we are to be attached to the Girls County School and for that it is necessary to move us into the town – the children don’t want to go, but the thought of living in these barracks in the event of bad weather and in winter, just terrifies us from the point of view of their health. I am afraid they may be homesick when we move as they are so contented at present and thrilled with living in dormitories but we couldn’t stick it much longer we are all rather weary.
Tomorrow, Arrowsmith and I are being freed to go into Dorchester to look for our own billets, we can do that providing we let the billeting officer know where we have arranged to go. The others from here have already been, in fact we fear we may not have much choice. We hear most awful stories of billeting, the mothers seem to be behaving very badly – going about with soldiers and drinking etc. the result is, naturally, so nobody wants to have grown-ups.
The Cerne Abbas people are very sad about us going because they too had expected Elementary children. I must say the kids are behaving very well and look exceedingly nice as they only wear uniform. As soon as I know any new address I’ll let you have it.
This is all about myself and even now I would tell you much more but I daren’t ramble on any more or I shall never answer my numerous correspondents.
I have only sent PCs [postcards] to Phil and I must write him a decent letter. We are all in a mess aren’t we? Our H.M. [headmaster] is terribly anxious about the future of the school and ‘Bones’ must be quite shattered – we had a private interview with the H.M. all about our commitments etc. and keeping our posts open should we do voluntary work. Without doubt some of us will have to go, and I should say one of us three P.T’ites in particular, goodness knows what we are going to do.
You poor darling what an ending to your holiday – I think it must have been all too terrible I can’t think how you did it – and I thought you said you were sure you would lose your head in an emergency – what about it now? Am sorry to be so egotistical but there was so much to tell you. Thanks just tons for your 2 letters, you don’t know how I look forward to the post. I shall want some things soon, meaning clothes etc, but I think I’ll wait till I get to Dorchester. I must fly and I’ll post this in the village. Give my love to all your family. Thanks for housing all my things –
Tons of love
After an exchange of messages, Joyce was able to visit Cerne a few weeks later to hand over the letter. It was felt appropriate for this to take place at Casterbridge Manor, the current successor to Giant View. We invited one of Cerne’s oldest residents, Mione Fox to be present as she was in Cerne at the time the party of girls and teachers from London were briefly billeted here. We were supplied with tea and chocolate cake and Mione is shown in the accompanying photographs receiving a bunch of flowers and the original of the letter.
As the following correspondence shows, written by George Mortimer, our archivist, with a reply from Haberdasher’s Aske School, the original letter has now been returned to the School for its archive. The Historical Society has retained a copy which appears here and a further copy has been given to Casterbridge Manor.