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St Swithun's during the two world wars

St Swithun's during the two world wars
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This year the Royal British Legion are remembering the service and sacrifices made by the many people, communities and nations 75 years ago, and of the service and sacrifice of many today.

We don’t have a Roll of Honour to remember the fallen by, but there are items within our collection that illustrate the school's contribution to both wars and its unfailing support for the servicemen who fought during those conflicts.

During the First World War the school, then called Winchester High School for Girls and located in the City centre, was taken over by the 19th men of the Royal Fusiliers and the East Surrey Regiment. According to the 1914-1915 school chronicle:

The Sixth Form was the guardroom; the Upper Third, with a notice on its door declaring “3rd Batt. Royal Fusiliers. Sick Parade, 8a.m. daily” was the Medical Inspection Room; round the Games Room hung harness; the Hall was used for meals, and the Studio and Kindergarten were officers’ dormitories. The men content themselves with the Form rooms, passages and staircases as sleeping apartments, and positions next to hot water pipes were in great demand. The regimental barber set up his shop on the North Walls staircase, while the cooks took possession of the bicycle shed. Not an inch of ground was wasted; on the lawns horses were picketed, and waggons and water carts occupied the remaining space. The hall and passages were lined with baggage and equipment; a sentry with fixed bayonet at the North Walls door added the last touch to the transformation.

























Despite being overrun with soldiers the school continued to operate, using the boarding houses as classrooms and even challenging Canadian officers from the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry to a game of Lacrosse on 12th December 1914. According to an Old Girl:

Only two or three of the Canadians had ever held a crosse before, and to my remembrance the game was remarkable for the number of times they  managed to fall to the ground.

The match was also recorded in the Earlsdown Boarding House diary who described the match as ‘Very amusing.’

 Earlsdown Diary 1907-1917, entry 12th Dec 1914:

Very amusing match between the first XII & the Canadian Officers, resulting in a victory for the School 8 goals to 2.

Afterwards the team went to have tea in the camp.

Played from here:
E Caldecott. R.D.W
E Turner III home
E Siddall I home
O Lemprière L.D.W

In the evening several of the Houses & some of High House went up to the San[itorium] to give a musical entertainment to the Sergeants Club.

Not only did the school lend its premises as a camp for soldiers but it was heavily involved in the rehabilitation of Belgian refugees in England. So significant was the school’s work that our founder Anna Bramston and her lifelong friend Amèlie LeRoy were awarded the Order of the Crown by the King of Belgium for their efforts in caring for Belgian Refugees in Winchester.

Each boarding house also supported British Prisoners of War and maintained regular correspondence with these soldiers who in turn sent postcards, letters and magazines from their POW camps. C.S. Major Read of the Suffolk Regiment was supported by Earlsdown and he sent them his picture along with magazines and letters from the German POW camp, Dobertiz.













In the Second World War, St. Swithun’s (at its new site on Alresford Road) was once again occupied by armed forces, this time by the Royal Army Medical Corps and then subsequently the American Medical Corps in 1942. The School buildings including High House and Hyde Abbey were turned into a military hospital and the pupils and staff decamped to the boarding houses on St. Giles Hill. Life at St. Swithun’s during this period has been recorded in the School Chronicles and many Old Girls have recounted their own experiences.

Now the school only had use of the playing fields and even those were on occasion invaded by military vehicles and equipment, involving Miss Watts in much correspondence with the officers in charge. Members of the school remember going to the swimming pool in strict crocodile under military escort, past sunbathing convalescent troops. and being told under no circumstances to look at them or peer in at the windows. The G.I.s were very intrigued and mystified by cricket. When they asked to handle a ball and felt its hardness they could not get over the fact that everyone except the wicket keeper fielded such a hard ball with bare hands.

I was in Hillcroft during the war years when conditions were Spartan, by today's standards quite ghastly; but we all survived and I am quite sure it did me no harm whatever and probably much good, as I am very immune to all common ailments.

All fuels were desperately short, more and more economies had to be made as the war progressed. Our bedrooms had no heating whatever and during cold spells it was not unknown for those sleeping on the top floor to wake up in the morning and find a sheet of ice on top of our jug of water.

In many ways school life was more diversified and less restrictive, the school’s contributions to the war effort occupied a lot of their time. Almost everyone in the school joined the War savings group and contributed a regular amount each week. All through the war everyone knitted scarves, socks, balaclava helmets, operation stockings and pullovers for the Forces. Regular help was given by the senior girls at a war nursery established  in Winchester, and other pupils grew vegetables and went to farming camps over the school holidays. Staff were drafted by the Council for fire watching duties on the Hilltop and the girls were tasked with walking round the boarding houses at night to check for chinks of light during the blackout. 

When the war was over, the US Army presented the school with a plaque (right) as a token of gratitude for their use of the school premises as a Station Hospital.

Fast-forwarding to more current times some of our pupils have pursued careers in the armed forces such as Captain Rosanna Baker who joined the Royal Artillery and was one of six women, known as the Ice Maidens who broke the Atlantic record in 2018 by becoming the first all-female group to ski across the continent using only muscle-power. Our own Bursar Martyn Gamble served in the British Army for 34 years and many in our St. Swithun’s community will have family members that are currently serving. 

So despite not having always been directly involved in the fighting St. Swithun’s has always been part of a network of communities on the home front that has supported the armed forces and understood the significance of sacrifices made by those not only in past wars but in more recent conflicts. It’s comforting to think that back in 1914, our pupils provided some light relief to the soldiers staying at St. Swithun’s facing an uncertain future, by engaging them in a good old game of lacrosse and cricket.

We have many more records in the school archive relating to the school’s involvement in both wars and I invite anyone interested to learn more to get in touch. There is lots of information on the archive twitter page so please follow @StSwithunsArch

I’d like to finish with an account from the Earlsdown boarders when they found out the Armistice had been signed in 1918:

We were working when about 11 o’clock Miss Alvey came up and told us that the Cathedral bells were pealing. We went out into the drive & listened…When we heard the joyful news we rang all the bells in the house, then when all had assembled in the big room…Mr Allan…read some prayers & the whole house including the maids and the gardener sang the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘God Save the King’ accompanied by Miss Alvey.

The house gave up all attempt to work anymore that day and ransacked the acting boxes for material to make flags.

This page was written by our school archivist, Elly Crookes.

Learn more about the history of St Swithun's here.

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