27 May, 2020
Despite current circumstances, the 75th anniversary of VE day was still honoured and enjoyed this month as we reflected on the bravery of those involved in the war effort then and those tackling the pandemic now. It has been a privilege to hear in person sisters’ experiences of the Second World War from Pamela Hussey’s hazardous voyage from Argentina and role transcribing German communications to Oona Mohan’s memories of working the land. This article gives other examples of the SHCJ sisters’ war effort as well as accounts of how they cared for their pupils and each other as life became very different.
Some SHCJ, such as Laura Charlton at St Leonards and Marie Cecile Bouffandeau at Mayfield, were trained as Air Raid Precaution wardens for their schools and communities. They would help arrange adequate shelters within convent buildings, ensure gas masks were available and sound the whistle to warn of an oncoming raid. At the SHCJ Generalate in Rome, the wardens were Genevieve, Aloysius, St Luke and Amadeo. The four wardens ‘on hearing bombing or anti-aircraft guns, went to the terrazza to cope with any incendiary bombs on the roof’.
In 1995, Jane Davies recollected the air attacks on Mayfield she experienced after starting as a pupil at the Old Palace in May 1939. Initially, the passage under the concert hall was used as a night shelter for the pupils, but after October 1940 the seniors slept in the gym while the juniors were in rooms nearby. After a bomb had hit a nearby farm, ‘a group woke to find the ceiling down on top of them and windows blown in’. Jane witnessed a dramatic sight while on a walk as ‘a doodlebug [a V1] came over pursued by one of our fighter planes which was trying to shoot it down – so flat in the field we went.’
The St Leonards-on-Sea and Combe Bank Holy Child schools hoped to find a safe haven in Torquay, Devon away from the heavily targeted South East. Hotels and houses provided accommodation and classrooms for the St Leonards girls in June 1940. The Combe Bank evacuees found buildings there in January 1941. However, by 1942, the town was subject to ‘tip and run’ raids by the Luftwaffe. In 1942 girls walking between the SHCJ’s rented buildings were caught in machine gun fire. Fortunately, they were left uninjured. On another occasion, Colette Dwyer sat admiring the sea view with her superior, when a plane fired bullets over the area. The superior ‘with great presence of mind dived with Colette under the bench’.
The sisters and girls of Combe Bank were moved to Coughton Court where they had a good relationship with the owner Lady Throckmorton. The annalist praised Coughton village which ‘stretched out its little motherly arms towards us’. Other evacuated SHCJ schools were less lucky. The owner of Hedsor proved difficult, refusing at one point to renew the lease. Girls from the Holy Rosary Parish School, Homer Row, Marylebone were taken by M Dunstan and M Hilda to Lanner, Cornwall in 1939. In this mainly Methodist area, there was some hostility to the arrival of the Catholic sisters and children. The local Catholic Church was three miles away in Redruth and the premises used to teach the girls did not permit denominational religious teaching.
Northern SHCJ communities were involved in receiving evacuated children. In preparation for 65,000 evacuees that were to arrive in Blackpool, SHCJ from Layton Hill, Talbot Road and St Kentigern’s helped organise suitable houses to billet them. When the children arrived, the nuns mostly worked by arranging them into groups to be taken to their billets with some joining the teachers and VIth Form girls who took groups of fifty to their temporary homes. As Preston received refugee families from Belgium, HCJ schools collected toys and clothes for the children.
Despite food shortages, lack of winter fuel and the continuing threat of air raids, customs of SHCJ school life went on. Woollens made for servicemen were presented at Reverend Mother’s Feasts, concerts were organised and plays performed. The Tempest, put on by the St Leonards girls, raised £50 for the Red Cross and St John’s War Organisation. Communities continued to look out for one another. The American Province sent parcels to England and Rome with sardines, tea, sugar and other treasures in short supply. When the Combe Bank children at Vane Tower in Torquay suffered a terrifying bomb attack – none were injured but glass shards fell on juniors lying in bed – the nearby St Leonards girls sent cakes and ice creams to lift their spirits.
Once Rome was liberated by the allies, the plaster over the Generalate’s SHCJ sign was removed. Servicemen and women with Holy Child connections recognised it and came to visit the community. The annalist described how the happiness of this time was like nothing else experienced because ‘what we have been through is different from anything we have known before’.
When VE Day came, SHCJ Sisters and pupils celebrated across Britain. At Cavendish Square the sisters watched from their roof ‘the peace-time rockets and bonfires, while the students sallied forth to join the crowds outside the palace’. At Mayfield the school sang and danced around a bonfire after Benediction with Te Deum in the chapel. Even the curmudgeonly landlord of Hedsor Park allowed the St Leonards community to have their own victory bonfire.
One especially meaningful contribution made by the SHCJ was their attentive support for children during and after the war. In 1995, Maureen Crook shared her memories of being a boarder at Layton Hill where she started as an 11-year-old in 1942. She remembered the kindness shown by S M Frideswide Helm to pupils separated from both parents:
The headmistress, busy with a school of some 500 girls (100 of them boarders) and the responsibility of providing for them in war-time, still found time to take under her own wing those girls, both of whose parents were involved in war-work. She took them shopping for clothes and herself adjusted the purchases.
A report of 1949 by the SHCJ Convent School in Cavendish Square describes the education given during and after the war. Most children were taken out of London during the war years, but the prep school reopened in 1942 after requests from parents. M. Ignatius and Audrey Hemelryk ran the school and there was no second closure. The report reflects upon the work required of the SHCJ as the war ended and more pupils returned to Cavendish Square:
Meeting the wants of the post-war London child has proved no easy exercise in educational practice. The most important task has seemed to us the education of happy stable persons because so many obstacles to this normal state seem to face our children.
This emphasis on children’s happiness is also evidenced by Laura Davies’ observation that the nuns at Mayfield ‘communicated to us that life was to be enjoyed as well as taken seriously’. In the hardest of times, the importance of this simple goal is brought into even sharper relief.