Dr. Worsnop prepares for war
Winston Churchill visited Germany in 1932 to do research for the book he was writing about John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough who had fought a battle there in the seventeenth century. He became horribly aware of the “new and ominous force” posed by that country. On the other side was the pacifist Neville Chamberlain who returned from a visit to Adolf Hitler on 30th September 1938 declaring “Peace for our time”. The country was divided; Churchill was considered a warmonger. Whether my father was persuaded one way another by politicians I will never know but I do know that he was very much influenced by H. T. Flint who had been father’s good friend for a long time and close colleague at King’s College, London, from 1919 until father came to the Poly in 1932. Dr. Flint was known to me as “Uncle Harry” because he was my godfather and visited us often in our house in Teddington, Middlesex, before WW2. For many years he took long summer holidays in Germany staying with his German wife’s family. Thus, like Churchill, he saw the extent of what was happening and developing in that country in greater depth than by someone casually passing through.
Being convinced that there would be a war in which London and the suburbs would be terribly bombed father looked for a house further away. The family had lived in a comfortable and adequate house since 1928 but moved us to New Haw, near Weybridge in Surrey. He was so certain that war would come very soon that he bought the house knowing that the London Ringway was planned to go right through the property but gambled that the new road would be postponed because of the coming war. Indeed the road, now known as M25 was not built until the 70s by which time he had moved to a retirement house in Devonshire.
And yet with all the forethought the move was delayed to sometime in late July 1939 or maybe early August by which time it was almost certain that war was imminent. An indication of this was that tens of millions of gas masks had been distributed to the general public before the end of August. The New Haw house needed a lot of work to make it habitable which father wanted to do or supervise himself and yet he wanted the school to be ready for possible evacuation. He had the school registrar, Mr. A. A. Parsons, come to this “new” house and together they planned for every eventuality. Sometimes Parsons stayed overnight. After each visit Parsons returned to London with a case full of lists. I was not told at the time but presumably these were lists of which boys went into which classes in every conceivable circumstance of war and evacuation. He had to foresee what staff would go with which boys in case an evacuation was ordered that involved only a part of the school. All this preparation seemed to have been worthwhile in that some 440 boys moved from 309 Regent Street to Somerset without serious incident.
On the weekend before war was declared, about 26th August, father packed a large suitcase and said “goodbye” to us. He said he did not know when he would be back. One day that week he came back to pack another suitcase and collect a few other things. He was home briefly and was gone again. He said he had been sleeping on a cot in his office to be ready for an evacuation. On 3rd September my mother called me to listen to the wireless and at 11:15 AM heard Chamberlain say that “a state of war now exists”. I don’t think I knew too much about where father was. I did not know that he had left with the school on 1st September to the villages around Wedmore. Nor did I know of his efforts to move the school to Minehead until in later years when I read the accounts in the Quintinian. I had been destined to continue my schooling elsewhere and had started the year there as planned. The only time I saw my father was when my mother and I travelled to Minehead to celebrate Christmas with him in 1939.
It seems that as summer 1940 approached that many of the Minehead people who had billeted Poly boys did not want to be their proxy parents any more. After all, the extensive bombing of London that had been expected had not yet started, so why, they were asking, can the boys not go permanently back to London. The government (and my father) thought otherwise so he devised a scheme to have boys domiciled in large houses that could be run as hostels. Indeed he eventually had a quarter of the school so housed. Who was to run them? Late in the 1939-1940 school year, as I was leaving for my school one day, a telegram arrived telling my mother that we were going to Minehead and that we should be ready to leave in two days. Mother seemed to not understand. I went to school as usual. On returning from school on the second day my father was there and was most upset that nothing had been done for our departure. Father explained that he wanted mother to go to Minehead to run a hostel for some forty boys. After some discussion mother agreed that it would be her contribution to the war effort. Other staff wives were already helping to run the domestic side of evacuation by mothering homesick boys doing such things as darning socks! Father wanted mother to do that and much more.
The following day father took me to my school where he met with my headmaster and explained that I was to be taken out of that school. I was told to go and turn in my books. I entered my class room. The master said “Worsnop you are late”! “I am leaving school, sir, and the headmaster says that I am to turn in my books to you”. “You are leaving today”? “Yes Sir”. “Then you better get your things”. With that I turned to my class mates of five years, gave them a wave and never ever saw them again.
The next stop was Bentalls the department store in Kingston-on-Thames. We walked directly to the bedding department where father asked for beds: “no not that expensive bed I want cheap old fashioned iron bedsteads” he said. We were ushered into a store room and shown an iron bedstead “do you have forty of them” he asked. After some paper shuffling it was agreed they could find forty. That included the bedding: mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets etc. He took out his personal checkbook and paid for them with instructions to deliver them to Minehead. As we were leaving the bedding department someone ran after us to say they could not deliver that far away because of the petrol rationing. He took out his wallet, produced some petrol coupons and said “here are enough for the trip out, you find enough for the return”. We left them speechless and proceeded to the kitchen department where he selected a number of pans large enough to feed an army of kids with instructions to be sure that they were on the same lorry as the beds. He paid with another personal check.
After a few days some of our personal furniture was picked up by a moving company. We set off for Minehead in the Austin 16 which became such a familiar sight parked outside the County School. There we were introduced to the property know as The Dene on the eastern edge of Alcombe. (Alcombe is the village contiguous with Minehead, on the east side). This was a large house with four large bedrooms on the first floor and another four that had been servant’s quarters on the second. [For Americans reading this: those were the second and third floors].It came with beautiful paddocks that the school used for cricket practice in the summer, soccer in the winter. There was nearly an acre of kitchen garden. A gardener came with the house. He kept us supplied with vegetables and fruit, when ripe, most of the year. The outhouses were used for school extra-curricular activities such as scouts, model airplane club and air cadet corps. By this time the Poly school year was ending and many boys were heading to other parts of the country to be with their parents for the summer. Mother was busy employing staff and improving the kitchen facilities which, until then, had only been sufficient for a family with a coal fired stove on one side and a small electric cooker on the other. I was given many jobs during that summer to ready The Dene for the boys return. There was only room for thirty six of the beds most of which I took up the narrow stairs myself. I was entrusted with the wiring of the outhouse that previously did not have electric lights. I started a chicken house to provide eggs for the boys and looked after geese.
I have tried to present, from my ageing memory, what I believe to be factual information about my father, known just as “BLW” to his staff or “Nobby” to the boys (when out of hearing). The exception is the first paragraph which has been derived from Churchill’s books also Wikipedia and the TV series “Churchill” presented on the Public Broadcasting Service in America. At the beginning of the 40-41 school-year, after the move, I was expecting to be schooled by the Minehead County School. Apparently when my father broached this with their headmaster, Mr. Gibbs, it was learnt that Gibb’s son, Douglas, was to be at the Minehead County School so why couldn’t I be at father’s school? I became a Poly boy and made many new friends who kindly helped me adjust to the school in spite of me being the headmasterís son. What a great education I had!
For the rest of the story see the copies of the Quintinian and The Quintin School 1886-1956; a brief history by Mr. L. C. B. Seaman. Copies of these have been digitized by Harold Beck and may be found elsewhere on this site.
As a supplement to the story: When the first atom bomb was dropped on Japan father jumped up with his arms above his head and exclaimed: “Thank God: we got there first”. I asked what he meant but he hurriedly left the room with tears in his eyes. I had never seen him like that before, he would not explain. After a few weeks I broke my mother down to tell me that father had been on a committee to inform the government (Churchill?) whether an atom bomb was feasible. Furthermore he had been kept informed in general terms of some of the progress. He had been afraid that the Germans would create their atom bomb first. That also explained another lesser outburst from him when it was announced earlier that the Allies had bombed the heavy water separation plant in Norway. Father’s research had been on the forefront of the physics of the atom while at King’s College, London 1919-1932. Perhaps it was that knowledge that had spurred him on into moving us away and to the west (upwind) from London in 1939 and had been so insistent that the school should remain in the country “for the duration”. We shall never know.
U. S. A.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010