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The Hemel Hempstead School during WWII


War had a major impact on schools throughout the country.  Teachers joined up to fight, evacuees arrived in many places, and schools took part in military training. 

The reminiscences of people who were pupils at what was then called Hemel Hempstead Grammar School are detailed on this page

Highlights include fund-raising for a mine sweeper here, memories of refugee children here, here and here, staff who served here, and how petrol shortages affected the journey to school here.  Read of how children sheltered from a German aeroplane here.



The school opened in 1931, so was still relatively new when the war began in 1939. It was a two form entry grammar school (HHGS) with approximately 330 pupils aged 11 to 16. There was no Sixth Form at this time. Children had to pass an exam in order to come to the school. Some won a scholarship and were awarded a free place by the County Council but others paid a small fee for tuition, books and sports.   The catchment area was large with children coming from Kings Langley, Berkhamsted and even from Harpenden via the Nicky Line, a railway line that ran between Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead via Redbourn.

Pupils were divided into four houses - Salisbury, Halsey, Tudor and Dacorum. The houses competed against each other in sports and chess competitions.  The Head Teacher was Mr N.H. Screeton.

The Buildings
There was just one building, now called the main block, with the ‘old gym’ at the back. There were separate playgrounds and entrances for boys and girls. The boys’ playground was where the Sixth Form block is now situated and the girls’ was in the area near to the Heath Lane entrance to the school, outside the food technology rooms. The main assembly Hall was in what is now PA1 and there were separate staffrooms for men and women. There was no dining room, so meals were taken in ‘the back corridor’ with the kitchen in the room we now call Resources. General classrooms were off the upstairs corridor with the big room under the tower (now IT2) being the Art Room. There were three Science labs, a Domestic Science (Food Technology) room and a workshop in the back or Science corridor.

Wartime precautions
Every child was issued with a gas mask which had to be carried everywhere and indeed, you were sent home if you forgot to bring it to school. The school tower was painted grey as it was considered too much of a landmark for the German Luftwaffe, and the windows of the school were taped up to prevent flying glass. Trenches were dug by the Anchor Lane entrance as part of the defensive air raid precautions but as far as anyone can recall, were never used. They quickly filled up with water and were soon abandoned.

Members of the Royal Artillery used the Gym and lecture room after school hours for training purposes, though what exactly they were doing is not made clear. They also used the showers and the school charged them 2d a man for the privilege! But relations between themselves and the school could not have been bad as several friendly football matches were played.

The air raid shelter
The girls’ cycle sheds were sandbagged and turned into an air raid shelter. They proved to be big enough to accommodate most of the school and indeed, they were even divided into smaller units and some sort of lessons were held there until the all-clear sounded. Staff would practise herding everyone into this makeshift shelter and could move everyone in under three minutes! Modern readers will be wondering where the shelter was as we don’t have any girls’ cycle sheds today. They were situated where the Food Technology rooms are now. The sheds were an underground area that stretched all along that elevation of the school past the former girls’ toilets, now used by the staff, up to M16. You can still see the bricked up arches there. It was dark, dingy and badly lit and must have been a nightmare for the staff to cope with, although you can’t help thinking that some of the pupils at least would have enjoyed the drama of it all.

The school took in many refugees and evacuated children and became overcrowded as the war progressed. One entire school, the Roman Catholic St Ignatius College from Tottenham, London, moved to HHGS. The boys were billeted with local families.

[The above description includes extracts from A Brief History of Hemel Hempstead School, Celebrating 75 Years 1931 – 2006 by Colin Hollick.]

Following his display on the history of the school, Colin Hollick received a letter from an ex-pupil who attended Hemel Hempstead Grammar School between 1939 and 1943. It has provided some valuable additional information.

Many evacuated children were in attendance, including foreign refugees who had escaped from Europe. Their stories exist still in archived school magazines. In 1943 the Roman Catholic St Ignatius College from Tottenham, London was evacuated to Hemel Hempstead. At this stage our main school building designed to hold 300 pupils was already coping with 410. Somehow education continued, the St Ignatius pupils sharing a condemned school building at Piccotts End, a rented Gents Outfitters in Marlowes and, in the afternoon, using five classrooms and one laboratory in the main school. They lunched at St John’s Hall, played cricket by the canal at Boxmoor, football at Jarman’s Fields (where Tesco and the ski-slope are now) and had to come to school on Saturday morning but they coped admirably in spite of adversity.

The girls’ cycle shed, now a dingy cellar store room down by the staff toilets was sandbagged, lit and used as an air- raid shelter on the not infrequent times when the Luftwaffe either got lost or passed over to other targets. Fortunately, no bombs fell on the school, perhaps because navigators knew it and used it as a landmark. To frustrate this, the bell tower was painted battleship grey to match the roof. The bells were removed early in the war for re-cycling.

Some teachers, such as the woodwork teacher, Mr Jack Boucher, joined up for service and this limited available lessons but many new activities sprung up such as ‘digging for victory’, growing crops in the school garden and the School Army Cadets who drilled, marched and visited the USAF at Bovingdon airfield. The school adopted a minesweeper, the HMS Lord Keith, sending gifts to the crew and receiving letters from the captain every week. The crew also donated a model of the ship to the school but its whereabouts is now unknown.




Sari Marko-Thaler

(Information sent by individual, February 2011.)

Sari Marko-Thaler was a Jewish refugee from Belgium who was a pupil at the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School from 1943 to 1946. She wrote this account in November 2010 with the help of a diary kept at the time. Sari now lives in Israel.

In all I missed over 2 years schooling till in 1943 we moved to Kings Langley, Herts. It was then that my 24 year old sister took things into her own hands and went to see Mr Screeton, the Headmaster of the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School. Kind as he was, he must have taken pity on this young woman and her little refugee sister. He agreed to test me in English and Maths; and he did so personally. In the English test I did particularly well but the maths with its deviance from the decimal system was a real puzzle to me. Nevertheless, Mr Screaton decided to give me a chance in a form one year back from my age group. I am eternally grateful to him for the all too few precious years I was able to be in school.

In retrospect I think I ENJOYED my years in school too much. Forgetting that the purpose was not only fun but some education as well!! As a Jewish refugee child I felt absolutely no discrimination and have only the fondest memories of so many wonderful, dedicated teachers. The school was swollen in numbers by evacuee children and as a result a few forms did not have permanent classrooms but wandered about the school into any free room. This caused disruption because, accidently or on purpose, we did not always have the relevant books with us and it meant going to the locker room to get them.

Sometimes there were air raid warnings and we trooped down to the shelter. How happy we were when these coincided with a test! The shelter was crowded and, I think now, ill-prepared for longer stays.

The school had adopted a destroyer, ‘Lord Keith’, in 1940. There was a Farthings Fund and every week classes competed to raise the most money. The results were read out weekly at morning assembly. In January 1943 an officer serving on the ship came and talked to the school and presented a silver cup on which could be engraved the name of an outstanding boy or girl for the year. There was also a fund called ‘Wings for Victory’. This was a collection of silver paper all for the war effort.

A pen friend connection was begun between pupils at the HHGS and Russia organised by Miss Reading. I was asked to put the rather stilted and often incorrect English into a more coherent form and the letters were then sent to pen friends in England. I had such a friend in Leningrad and it was a most interesting, informative correspondence.

A funny incident: at assembly the Headmaster complained that pupils staying for school lunch were insulting the cooks by playing with their food and leaving it uneaten. We were asked to remember that sailors were risking their lives bringing it. ‘And we risk our lives eating it’, piped up a voice from within our ranks.

Read more from Sari Marko-Thaler here.


Sonia Waterton (formerly Sully)

(Information sent by individual, November 2009.)

Sonia did not arrive in Hemel Hempstead until Easter 1944, so she missed all but one of the daytime air raids, which meant that lessons were held in the use of the shelter at the girls’ end of the building. However, she writes,


I may have missed the experience of lessons being conducted in the shelter, but, until I left years after the war ended, I did derive some personal benefit from the blast walls. A constant cause of annoyance to me was the staff’s tendency to harass me out of the cloakrooms before I was ready and lock the door. I developed a ploy to defy their authority. I would hide behind a coat on a peg, by crouching on the lockers. Undetected by the cursory inspection of the member of staff, I was locked in. When I was ready to leave, I climbed through the window onto the flat parapetted roof of the girls’ toilet block. From there it was an easy route to the ground, using the blast wall adjacent to the entrance to the block, by supporting my weight with a hand on either side of the narrow entrance. I hope that after 60 years, there is an amnesty for my crime. I was never caught!

The distribution of school milk in the Grammar School was more casual than the round the class handing out experienced at junior school. Unadvertised, two or three crates of bottles were left on the table next to the kitchen hatch, in the back corridor behind the stage. Very few found their way there to drink the milk. I can never remember more than three of us. Regularly, I knocked back three bottles, making one pint. A fine and nutritious supplement to the war time diet.

Read more from Sonia Waterton here.


John Wexler

(Information sent by individual, November 2009.)

Evacuated from London with his parents who were both teachers, John came to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School at the age of 12:

Right from the start it was a transforming experience. Not just because it was my first ever school with girls in it, but chiefly because of its teacher abilities far surpassing anything provided at my previous expensive private schools. We had Mr Harrison for English, Taffy Evans for French (and German?), Quarrie for chemistry, Miss Dale for history, Shackley for physics. There was also geography and maths, can't remember who taught them. The kids were great, friendly and welcoming, and I was assigned a girlfriend first day.

In the boy's playground we had "Kingy" and 'Jimmy Knacker", two great games, I wonder if they are still current. Assembly every morning started with the Lord's prayer, followed by a hymn, announcements, and then an inspirational device of the then Princpal Screeton, playing a 78 rpm record of classical music. I can still remember a bunch of those pieces we learned. The long wartime lunch layouts down the back corridor have been mentioned by others. I'll just add one more memory not so familiar, but nevertheless notorious.

In a chemistry class on organic amines Mr Quarrie happened to inadvisedly mention the extraordinary vile odour of a substance called phenyl isocyanide, a reaction product of that group of chemicals being studied. Not long after class an incredibly foul smell seeped into that back corridor and wafted therefrom with revolting consequence sufficient to drive the entire school population out into the playing field. The culprits (not including me!!) were never identified.

Read more from John Wexler here.

Patricia Daniels

(Interview by Lynda Abbott and Katie Towse, April 2012.)

Patricia Daniels recalls school life and those from the school who served:

At first the war had little effect on us except that we had to bring our gas masks. We had to practise going down to the air raid shelter. It was only later that they went down there for hours on end having lessons. We had one or two evacuees whilst I was there. In 1938 we had two Jewish boys who had managed to get out of Austria but they didn’t stay very long.

At first the war had little effect on us except that we had to bring our gas masks. We had to practise going down to the air raid shelter. It was only later that they went down there for hours on end having lessons. We had one or two evacuees whilst I was there. In 1938 we had two Jewish boys who had managed to get out of Austria but they didn’t stay very long.

At home we had two young teachers billeted on us – 2 young Welsh girls. But some of the children they looked after went back after a couple of months and they went back with them. That was the Phoney War. I had no sense of fear because of the war, just maybe a bit worried on the day war was actually declared. My father was in the Territorial Army and he had been called up before war was declared. They’d been at their annual fortnight camp and he came home and had about 3 days to sort out his business and then he was off. That was the last we saw of him for 6 years. He went out to the Middle East in 1941. He came back on leave but by then I was away in the air force.

I left school at 16. There was virtually no Sixth form then. I had been destined for the Civil Service and the war was my saving grace as there were no exams for entry. I worked in the post office for a little while as I wasn’t quite old enough to join up and then joined the WAAF.

Most of the boys in my year joined up. By 1942 we were all 18. You saw them drifting around town in uniform. Three of the boys whose names are on the war memorial were in my year. Bob Duke and Con McGarry were in my form and Brian Slade was in the parallel form. He left school at the same time as me and within weeks I saw him walking round town in uniform. I thought how did he manage that? The story is that he got his father to sign the form (and thus was able to join up though under age). I met him in 1942 when we were both stationed in Norfolk. He was a serving pilot by then and half way through his tour of duty so he must have done 15-20 tours already. He was flying Wellingtons then.

Read more from Patricia Daniels about school life here.

John Stanbridge

(Interview by Lynda Abbott and Fay Breed, November 2011.)

John Stanbridge, who was part of the school's second intake in 1932 remembers school staff who served in the war:

One interesting fact that we didn’t know about until sometime after the war when the conditions of the Official Secrets Act were partially lifted. Mr Robinson, the school’s second Head Master, had as a fluent German speaker, been stationed at Bletchley Park code breaking station. He used to fly into Bovingdon airport and as a RAF officer was doing liason work with the Polish code breakers based in Felden. He told us that he formed a liking for this area and was delighted to apply for the Headship.

The younger members of the male staff were called to colours: Mr Doggett (Geography) served in the army in Yugoslavia.  Mr Boucher (woodwork and PE) in the RAF.  Mr Prior (French) in a French medical unit. I believe that he was a Quaker and Conscientious Objector, unwilling to fight; but he acted so bravely that the French Government awarded him the Croix du Guerre. He was a lovely gentleman.

Read more from John Stanbridge about school life here.


David Stevens

(Interview by Polly Taylor and Harriet Bullock, October 2008.)

David Stevens started at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in September 1940.   He told us how pupils did their best to support the war effort:

The school adopted a mine sweeper called the Lord Keith and there was a model of the ship in a glass case at the back of the assembly hall (now PA1). A “farthing fund” was set up to buy comforts for the crew and there was competition between the forms as to how much was contributed.

House competitions were very popular. One was linked to the “Dig for Victory” campaign. Each house had a plot of land and we had to grow our own vegetables.

The war brought much closer to home on one occasion:

We had an art teacher whose husband was killed while on duty with the navy. We were messing around that day, not realising what had happened. She came in and we were severely reprimanded and given 500 lines, “Manners maketh man”. It was a lesson we never forgot.

More memories from David Stevens are here.


Jean Stevens

(Interview by Polly Taylor and Harriet Bullock, October 2008.)

Jean Stevens was Jean Baxter when she started at Hemel School in September 1939.  She remembers how the outbreak of war made an immediate impact on the school:

The start of school was postponed for 3 weeks that year whilst the girls’ cycle sheds were made into an air raid shelter. Sticky tape was criss-crossed over the windows to prevent damage in case of a bomb blast. Parents were concerned that the school might be a target for bombing as the tower was painted white and stood out so it was painted grey. We had to carry a gas mask in a box and a box of rations in case we were kept at school for any length of time. Mine contained nuts, raisins and chocolate.

With many materials in great shortage during the war, school life could be affected in the most basic ways:

Paper was rationed and we had a rough book to do some of our work. We went through it with pencil first and then with ink. When it was full you had to take it to the school secretary who signed and stamped it before you could get another. If there was even a quarter page that was unused you had to take it back.

Jean Stevens also remembers new pupils from across Europe:

There were many refugees from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the school. One girl had long hair, despite the school rule that hair should not touch the collar of your blouse. She was gently asked to wear it shorter but she said that her father, who had been left behind in Germany wanted her to have long hair. She was allowed to keep it long but wear it tied back in a bow. The staff were very understanding and sympathetic.

More memories from Jean Stevens are here.


Jill McLeod

(Interview by Lucy Hughes and Samantha Rees, October 2008)

As Jill Gledhow, Jill McLeod came to Hemel School in 1941, while living in Kings Langley.  The war had an effect on her journey to school: "I had to travel by bus and as petrol was in short supply it was powered by a contraption on the back."

It also had an effect on school uniforms:

The girls wore uniforms of light navy blue gym slips, cream shantung silk blouses, black stockings and sensible lace up shoes. Silk blouses were later replaced by cotton blouses. Silk, which is a very strong, light fabric, was being used by the forces for parachutes etc. and also maps were printed onto squares to help men escape capture behind enemy lines if they were shot down.

More memories from Jill McLeod are here.


Mary Horton

(Interview by Lucy Hughes and Samantha Rees, October 2008.)

Mary Letto (as Mary Horton then was) had already been at Hemel School for a year when the war began.  Like Jean Stevens, she remembers refugee children attending the school:

These European children were mostly Jewish. One or two came with their parents but some came by themselves. Their parents went to great lengths to help them escape. They didn’t want to talk about their experiences at first but opened up later and had earth shattering stories to tell. They were wonderful students. They began the school year not speaking English but learned very rapidly. It was a lesson to the English pupils.

Mary also remembers the shelter:

There was an air-raid shelter in the school in the girls cycle shed which ran under the cloakrooms. The arches in the cycle shed were filled with sandbags and the area was divided into sections for classrooms, one for each form. When the air raid siren went pupils went the correct place in the shelter and were registered. We had to bring a stool and a tin of iron rations (my tin had barley sugar in it). We were not a bit scared. We did not think of the danger and it made a change from routine. The teachers must have felt terribly responsible. The shelter was not used often because most of the air raids were at night. Teaching carried on in the shelter.

On one occasion, the pupils were in real danger:

I remember one bright, blue February day we were playing house matches when two masters rushed out to warn us. A German plane was emptying its guns along the Boxmoor Valley and the children had to get to the shelter. The warning siren went quickly followed by the all clear. It was an incident I remember well.

Read more from Mary Horton here.


Hazel Wilkinson

(Interview by Sarah Kay and Amelia Wright, February 2009.)

The Air Raid Shelter

After being evacuated from Hemel to Wales at the beginning of the war, Hazel Wilkinson attended a grammar school in Wales before she returned to Hemel where she enrolled at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School.  One of her strongest memories is of going down to the air raid shelter: “The shelter felt like a deep dark place. The air raids often seemed to happen at lunch time and we carried our dinner down the stairs. We often had dried peas and I remember that they would drop off the plate and bounce on the stairs as we were walking down.”

Make Do and Mend

Inevitably the war caused shortages and there was a great deal of “make do and mend”.  Hazel remembers: “I could not get a proper uniform. I had a tunic and blazer but should have had a black bathing suit for swimming lessons. You couldn’t get hold of them. My mother knew someone who had a bright orange wool bathing suit and she dyed it black. It was brand new but it had moth holes in it. I remember that when I went swimming, the dye ran down my legs.

Read more about Hazel Wilkinson at Hemel Hempstead School here.


Tony Horton

(Interview by Zoe Wills, January 2009.)

Tony remembers getting up to some schoolboy mischief:

I had a great friend called Len Cruise who could be a real devil. There were swimming baths where the sports centre is now and the car park next to it was empty because you couldn’t get petrol. A custom grew up that if a German plane had been shot down that wasn’t too knocked about they used to drag the plane round the country and put it on display. People would pay 6 pence to go and have a look at it and the money would go to make another Spitfire. They had a Dornier or Heinkel bomber in the car park and Len and I saw that there was an oxygen cylinder that was loose, so we decided to nick it. It must have been small, otherwise I don’t know how we got it home. Three or four days later, Mr Taffy Evans, my German master, took me to one side and said, Fritz (the name I was given in German lessons), a certain Mr Whittle would like a word with you. He may be interested in something you have. Mr Whittle was the superintendent of the swimming baths. I had to go and say sorry. It was just a school boy prank and I was forgiven.’

Other incidents could have had a more serious outcome.

We used to have house matches on the playing fields and we were playing cricket. This would be summer time in 1940 and we heard a rat-tat-tat in the sky. My imagination tells me I saw a German bomber. There was no air raid warning or we would not have been out playing. We boys dashed for the toilets as it was the nearest place for cover. But our (boys) playground doubled up as tennis court in summer the girls, who had been playing tennis, were much nearer to our toilets and were already sheltering there so we boys were crowded out of our own toilets.’

Like many of his fellow pupils, Tony corresponded with a member of the crew of the Lord Keith.

The school adopted a ship called the Lord Keith. It was a Suffolk trawler, chosen, I believe, because Mr Screeton’s wife was a Suffolk lady. I used to write to a fellow called Jimmy who was a member of the crew. I can still see his writing now, it was long and thin and he couldn’t spell at all. With all the arrogance of a reasonably bright boy of 15 I sometimes felt it was a waste of time writing to a man who was only just literate, but later, after going to sea myself I realized what a hard time Jimmy and his shipmates must have had during those war years when I was just a school boy. War is a great leveller, bringing out the best and worst in mankind.

Read more from Tony Horton here.


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