During 1939, the political situation in Europe was becoming increasingly unstable. After Germany occupied Prague in March 1939, Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, declared that “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence....His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.” The French Government supported his pledge (What’s the Context? 31 March 1939: the British Guarantee to Poland).
So it was that less than a year after Prime Minister Chamberlain came back from Munich declaring “peace for our time” the United Kingdom, alongside France, declared war on Germany in response to the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939.
It was no secret that war was on the horizon. When the College broke up on 26th July for the summer holidays, staff were requested to leave holiday addresses so they could be recalled at any notice (Bray, 1947, p.12). This recall was enacted and by 26th August all staff had arrived at the College to prepare and send letters of instruction to parents regarding evacuation.
The instructions were for school children to come to the College prepared for an evacuation. Every day, from the 28th August, children were to bring a suitcase with spare clothes, a gas mask and food for a possible trip to a yet unknown part of the country. Finally, amid rising suspense, the order to begin evacuation was received on Thursday 31st August 1939. The following day, a procession of students and staff (armed with a large pole banner with the College name) left the College down Forest Road and Shernhall Street for the station (Bray,1947, p.13). They would be leaving for Kettering.
When Patricia Heath visited the College and spoke to staff in 2019, she was asked about her role as Head Girl. Patricia recalled, “I was never able to take up the role because in September, of course, war broke out and the College [day school] was evacuated to Kettering. So, although I was nominated and it’s in print in the diaries...I never took up the role, unfortunately. I always loved to know who got the job of Head Girl. But I had a very very happy time here. That year I think was such fun.”
Principal Lowery (1941, p.12) reported on the Day Schools, which were under the care of Miss Hall and Mr Wilkinson. He recognises that thanks to the “facilities placed at their disposal by Mr. Scott, Headmaster of the Grammar School, and Mr. Russell, Headmaster of the Central School, they were able to carry out first-class educational work, and obtained many successes in technical and commercial examinations.”
Not every Day School student evacuated, those who stayed behind found they were transferred from the College campus to the two former buildings on Hoe Street. From the College being almost empty at the end of 1939, space began to run out in 1940 once classes recommenced and the military began to arrive.
To round off 1939, Principal, Lowery wrote to Mr J. Hewett, “At the end of this important year in the history of the College and at the end of what has been a most searching term, I feel I must express on behalf of the staff and the students our deep appreciation of all you have done to support us in our work. We can never forget the vast amount of time and energy you have expended in the establishment of the College and the active interest you continue to take in the technical and general educational facilities of the South West Region of the County; we are indeed grateful. The whole College joins in wishing you a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.”
First published: 12/02/2021
Bray, W.R., (1947). The Country Should be Grateful - The War-time History of the South-West Essex Technical College and School of Art. Walthamstow: The Walthamstow Press Ltd.
Lowery, H., (1941). South-West Essex Technical College and School of Art Annual Report Session 1940-41.
What’s the Context? 31 March 1939: the British Guarantee to Poland. Available at: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2019/03/28/whats-the-context-31-march-1939-the-british-guarantee-to-poland/ (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
Researched and written by Thomas Barden