Memories of Chichester during World War Two – Ron Thurston (1940-1946)

Before I tell you about my early days at Henry Thornton School (HTS) I think I should explain how I came to be there in the first place.  When I was 11, my class at junior school (in Stockwell, South West London) were bundled onto a steam train with one of the teachers and sent to the relative safety of Devon, ending up at Coombe in Teignhead.  There, a classmate, George Leslie, and I were handed over into the care of a middle-aged couple, Mr and Mrs White.  They had a grown-up daughter who ran the Post Office in the village.  My wife and I visited the village a couple of years ago and the bungalow where we were billeted and the Post Office are still there, both private dwellings.

We London boys quite enjoyed our time in the country.  Mr White had been a baker but was then a farm labourer.  We picked mushrooms, learnt a little about farm animals and looking after chickens (also enjoying the fresh eggs!), and discovered that honeycomb is a lovely chewy alternative to the sweets we couldn’t get at the time. I think I might have stayed in Devon had my parents not been contacted by the education authorities and informed that I’d been allocated a place at Henry Thornton School.  So I came back to London, but owing to the Battle of Britain I couldn’t travel down to Chichester and start school at the evacuated HTS until October 1940.  In London, meanwhile, there was a lot of bombing, injuries and loss of life, and damage to property.  Our house lost windows, and Mum and I experienced the effects oblast associated with the bombing.

Eventually, I reached Chichester. As there were airfields and military bases it was still quite a dangerous place.  In fact, whilst I was at my first billet – with Mar and Mrs Swan and their son and daughter, in Grosvenor Road – an RAF plane crashed in the field at the bottom of the road by the canal; the young pilot was killed. A lady living nearby came out with a blanket to cover him.  A sobering event for us youngsters. However, I got on well with the Swans’ children, John and Daphne; he was a little older than me.  Daphne tutored me with my school work, and I learned to play chess and also how to ride a bike. Mum and Dad bought me a bicycle and sent it down to Chichester by train. It was great being able to ride around the area.  Then disaster struck:  I had left my machine outside the local library – and it was stolen.  Apart from that unfortunate incident, I was very happy staying with the Swans.  Returning to Chichester after Easter I was surprised to learn that the family had moved.  I was assured that it was because of Mr Swan’s work, and nothing to do with me.

My next billet was with Mr and Mrs Waters and their grown-up son. They lived in an Edwardian terraced house in Cawley Road (still there, just outside the roman wall). Again, I was very fortunate in having found a second home from home.  I had my own room with a proper bed – luxury!  The family kept chickens, and I earned myself 1s 6d a week pocket money looking after them.  We had lovely fresh eggs, with any spares being preserved in isinglass. I also remember Mrs White taking homegrown or surplus fruit and vegetables round to the local Women’s Institute, where you could have produce canned: extra goodies for the store cupboard.

So, what was it like to be at HTS in Chichester in the 1940s?  Well, a tad cramped, for a start. We shared premises with Chichester High School for Boys, and space was at such a premium that we worked a split system:  one school worked a three-session morning, whilst the other worked four sessions and vice versa.  We had lessons wherever we could be fitted in:  the assembly hall, the science labs (along with the resident skeletons!) and the library, to name a few.  The split periods system meant that we didn’t all go into town at the same time. We had an occasional lunch at the assembly Rooms in North Street, costing a couple of shillings a week.  The food was very good, as far as I can remember, and we certainly never went hungry.

Mr Read, our science master, also spent some time teaching us aircraft recognition.  I can still spot the odd Spitfire, etc, flying along the coast. He and another CHSB master were official air spotters.  They would dash out of their classes when the sirens blared and run down to the observers’ hut on the school playing field to watch out for and identify approaching enemy aircraft.

We played quite a lot of sport, and I think this was when the [HTS] Houses were set up.  There were three initially:  Stephen & Macaulay (mine), Cook & Pepys, and Cavendish & Wilberforce.

I joined my first Scout Group and ended up being involved with the scouting movement in South London for the next 40 years.

I remember the lack of traffic.  It was of course wartime, with areas being fenced off and out of bounds.  For some reason – which I couldn’t fathom – we weren’t allowed to go into Bognor.  On one occasion a group of us cycled up to Goodwood (Dad had built me a replacement bike).  The Canadian Army were stationed there and had a firing range. We got in somehow and to our delight found piles of shells lying around some still containing cordite.  We discovered that you could prise the cases apart and extract the cordite, then use it to make fireworks.  Brilliant – in more ways than one! Surprisingly, no one was hurt or caught by the authorities, military or otherwise.

Reverting to my earlier reference to the playing fields, we were encouraged to contribute to the “Dig for Victory” effort by maintaining small allotments.  However, I don’t think this idea was greatly appreciated by us boys in Years 1 and 2, as there were other, far more interesting things going on.

In addition to Mr Read, the staff I recall from my stay at Chichester were:

  • Mr Evans – our Head Master.
  • Mr Gribble – Deputy Head.
  • Mr Dix – Year 1 form master.  He ruled us with a rod of iron (and probably needed to do so!) Coincidentally, he lived in Grosvenor Road when I was there with the Swans.
  • Mr Bramble – Sport.
  • Mr Jeremy – History; also our Billeting Officer.  He survived the experience and returned later to London.
  • Mr Cooper – tried to teach us Latin in Year 2.
  • Mr Bacon – Maths.
  • Mr Cundall – Geography.
  • The two Mr Collins – one [initials A H] was called up whilst we were at Chichester.  As he taught French and German the rumour was that he had left to train as a secret agent…or possibly not.

In conclusion, going to school in wartime had its good and bad moments. We muddled along as best we could and had many great memories and experiences, but I can never forget the pals who didn’t make it to adulthood.  Some of us have been lucky.

Ron Thurston, Old Thorntonian (1940-1946)

Worthing, February 2017