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Great Torrington School during the Second World War

A fascinating archive exists at Great Torrington School: a Log Book hand-written by the first four headmasters from 1939, when the school opened (built at a cost of £25,582) until it became a comprehensive in 1974.  Especially interesting are the first entries which record life at the school during the Second World War.

Written in ink in large, bold handwriting, the first headmaster, Thomas Nancekievill, records the opening of the Great Torrington Senior Council School on 13th September 1939.  There were five men and five women members of staff together with a woman from the Agricultural Department who was to teach two lessons a week, a cook, a kitchen maid and a caretaker.  Pupils came from 17 contributory primary schools, many of which no longer exist, such as Roborough, St Giles in the Wood, Weare Giffard, Frithelstock, Alverdiscott and Yarnscombe, and they travelled in seven buses and two cars with prefects ‘appointed to each conveyance’.  At the end of the first week, 15th September, there were 296 pupils which, by the following week, had increased to 303 because of the admission of evacuees.

By 13th October attendance was down to 60% because of an outbreak of measles.  This epidemic continued into 1940 which caused a lot of staff and pupil absence.  This, together with the call-up of several male members of staff for military duties and harsh winter weather, which prevented the buses from running, prompted Mr Nancekievill to write, on 21st February, ‘It is most difficult to carry on’.

Activities at the school were necessarily of a practical nature to ensure survival during this period and treats were few, except around Christmas time when there might be a concert by pupils in school or an outing to the cinema in Church Lane which leads from Whites Lane to the parish church.  The mayor, Mr Lampard Vachell, and his wife often put on entertainment for the pupils of the senior school together with the children from both the Torrington primary schools and Weare Giffard.  On 10th January 1940 Mr Nancekievill writes, ‘A conjuring display was enjoyed and oranges were distributed to the children.  Nearly 500 children were present.’  

May Fair didn’t take place during the war but on 31st May 1941 it is noted that the ‘School took part in Folk Dancing on Old Bowling Green at 7pm’.  School sports are mentioned from 1942 onwards between the four houses, Drake, Kingsley, Raleigh and Walpole.

By 9th September 1940 the number of pupils had risen to 620 including evacuees, mainly from London, and by 28th November there were 645.  School buses had to make double journeys and it was difficult to accommodate everyone in the canteen.  At first, a double lunch shift was impossible, owing to a lack of equipment, until plates were received from the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company.  Everyone rallied round.  Gifts of apples, rhubarb, vegetables, jam and, on one occasion, two gallons of ice-cream were sent into school by local people for use in the canteen.

To help food supplies during the Second World War, potatoes were planted in the school garden and at the end of the football pitch.  30 chicks were put in the garden shed in March 1940 and poultry houses were set up in April.  On 9th October 1940 ‘Mr Popham gave the school a swarm of bees and installed them’.  

In the summer holidays the school was unofficially opened for the voluntary attendance of children engaged on work of National Service which consisted of gardening, salvage of paper and iron, stripping tin at the milk factory, mending and making clothes, and fixing lace on the school windows for air raid protection.  Staff took it in turns to be on duty and were only excused if they were occupied with work of national importance.  Groups of boys were employed ‘potato dropping’ in the locality in March and ‘potato picking’ in October.

Doctors and nurses regularly visited the school for nutrition surveys, psychiatric tests, examinations for cleanliness (sometimes children had to be re-examined or were sent home), inoculation against diphtheria, eye tests, and dental inspection and treatment.

On 24th May 1940 the school held ‘a Special Service in Commemoration of Empire Day.  Children contributed the sum of £2 7s 9d to the Over-Seas League Tobacco Fund’.

Several male members of staff were called up for military duty, including Mr Pearse the caretaker.  Women teachers were allowed days off if their husbands were home on leave.  Staff who had come from London with the evacuees were often called away because relatives had died or their houses were destroyed.  Other teachers obtained jobs elsewhere.  By 22nd April 1941, Mr Nancekievill notes in the Log Book, ’62 teachers have done duty in this School since the opening’.

On 19th November 1941 there is an entry reading, ‘Attended the birching of Hunter and Heath at the Police Station.’  Mr Browning, the headmaster of the Croydon school from where some of the evacuees had come, was also present so perhaps it was evacuees rather than local lads who were being punished.

The school was inspected in February 1944 by HMI Arnold Platts.  He writes:

‘The building is perhaps the best of its kind in the county and much hard work has been carried out to put it to good use, whilst the land for gardening has been put into production.  Under an enterprising, painstaking and kindly Headmaster the school has not only been established but has in the national emergency made a definite contribution to educational progress in a rural area and has played a prominent and successful part in the evacuation scheme’.

On 16th April 1945 the school reopened after the Easter holiday with the new name of Great Torrington Modern Secondary School.  On 8th and 9th May the school was closed ‘for Celebration of Victory over the Germans’ and reopened on the 10th with a ‘Special opening Service for Victory’.  Following this were entries about the results of football matches against local teams.

Mr Nancekievill’s final entry is on 29th April 1946.  The next entry isn’t until February 1950 when a Mr Hinchley writes, ‘Commenced duties as Headmaster of this school’.