Newquay – Way Out West

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Remembering the Evacuation of Gresham’s to Newquay on 25th June 1940

In May 1940 the governors decided that in the light of the worsening situation in Europe evacuation of the School should be considered. The following advert appeared in The Times on 27th May …

“Required for Boys’ Boarding School ACCOMMODATION in safe area in West of England or Wales. Hotel, School, or group of buildings considered…”

Two hotels in Newquay, the Bay and Pentire, were found to be suitable and on 13th June a letter was sent to parents advising them of the decision to evacuate the entire School of 244 boys to Newquay on 25th June.

“With the many natural advantages that Newquay offers and the goodwill of parents and boys, we feel confidant that the essential spirit and traditions of Gresham’s School will be maintained and flourish in the new surroundings.”

The History Society commemorated the 70th anniversary of the evacuation with an event on 25th June 2010 which included a mini-evacuation by Simon Kinder and a special wartime lunch. An exhibition used sources from the School Archives – including photographs, house books, newsletters and pupil diaries – to tell the story. The resourceful School authorities strove to make life as normal as possible, recreating many of the facilities and opportunities offered in Holt. From the pupil’s point of view, despite often cramped conditions, food rationing and the blackout, it was an enjoyable adventure with swimming in the sea, sports on the golf course, and endless opportunities for boyish mischief!

From housemaster L.A.M. Parsons’ booklet Woodlands at War we get a detailed account of the build up to the evacuation when gas masks were issued to the entire population, air-raid shelters dug and wardens trained as Local Defence Volunteers. Every member of the School had their own gas mask and each house its own shelter dug mainly in the evenings or on Sundays. “Every boy was required to have by his bed each night a pair of gum boots, an overcoat and his respirator.” Night practices were popular as Mrs Parsons had hot soup and biscuits ready when the boys returned! The government ordered that all windows and skylights should be blacked out at night.

On Sunday 2nd June 1940 Mr Parsons told the boys at breakfast that School was to be sent home for three weeks when a decision would be made. Remaining boys were told of the move to Newquay on Thursday 13th and immediately began packing up the School and house equipment. In six days many loads of desks and books were taken to the station and packed onto a special train. Woodlands boys set off in three cars, spending a night at Taunton where they heard their first bombs. They had until 24th June to get ready for the arrival of the rest of the house.

Woodlands occupied The Bay Hotel with a wonderful view over Fistral Bay and a beach ideal for hockey and football, not to mention the excellent surfing. Form rooms were made in both hotels and garages made into a gym, carpentry shop and armoury. Arrangements were soon made for examinations. In the Autumn, part of the golf course was hired and made into three rugby pitches, with a hockey pitch soon to follow.

Saturday night games evenings took place in the dining hall in Winter and on the tennis courts in Summer. A very rough game called ‘Crash’ was played on the beach, a mixture of basketball, rugby and all-in wrestling that took place both on the sand and in the water. Plays took place in the dining hall and the Newquay Theatre. ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ was performed in 1941 in aid of the Newquay War Weapons Week.

‘Works’ were organised for the whole School – book-binding, printing, bicycle repair, plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, gardening, even road sweeping. There was a large potato plot to dig and plenty of grass to cut. Boys also carried out decorating and repairs on the hotels, as well as maintaining the games grounds.

Headmaster Philip Newell had the daunting task of overseeing the evacuation and of reinstating the School in Holt on its return in 1944. His account Gresham’s at Wartime provides another excellent source from which the following insights are taken –

Farfield was allocated the top floor of the Pentire Hotel. The new occupants soon discovered that their floor had previously housed the hotel’s bar, and got to work sharing the beer! A bottle of crème de menthe was spotted by matron dangling outside her bedroom window and the revelry ceased. No-one told the headmaster of this escapade for the next half century! 

Food such as eggs and milk were plentiful, but crafty Farfield boys supplemented rations of cheese by making their own by straining soured milk through handkerchiefs. “The product, when matured, needed no sniffer dogs to detect its presence.” In assembly one morning, an unfortunate cheesemaker forgot what was hidden in his hankie and the cottage cheese industry ended with a huge sneeze! 

Farfield came off worst through poor living conditions by being on the top floor of the Pentire Hotel. The hotel had a flat roof, and in hot summers seams would open up allowing rainwater to drip through, the wind whistled through half-inch gaps in the walls, and doors were hard to open because of sagging beams. Electric fires were eventually commissioned for the study bedrooms, making life more bearable for the occupants.

When not at lessons, boys were kept busy with surfing, swimming, beach soccer, tennis, rounders and golf. If housemaster Bruce Douglas was called on to umpire a hockey match, on days of bad weather, he could be seen sitting in his car using its indicators and a whistle to issue instructions. South Cornwall’s early new potatoes formed an important contribution to the nation’s food supplies, and boys often helped out at potato camps. 

The Howson’s House books (1925-1971) recently acquired by the Archives, are another informative source for the Newquay period. As well as giving a daily record of activities such as house matches, concerts, plays, lectures, debates, chapel services, etc, they also provide us with a detailed report by the housemaster for June 1940 to December 1944 as well as plans of the Bay Hotel and the following quotations –

“Returning to Holt, members of the school take with them vivid memories of Newquay; memories of the jerry-built Pentire Hotel, of fierce winds all round the calendar, of ‘horizontal’ rain, particularly ferocious during our last term; they will remember, from bitter experience, the muddy and precipitous path from the Pentire to the Bay, and the long journey to and from the games grounds.”

A resolution was passed at a meeting of the local council that “In the view of the impending departure from Newquay of Gresham’s School, this Council wishes to place on record its keen appreciation of the many ways in which the School, masters and pupils, have entered into the corporate life of the community. During the five years’ residence in our midst occasioned by the war, many acts of public service have been rendered which will not be forgotten …”

An incomplete copy of the schoolboy diary of M.W.S. Hitchcock (Woodlands 1932-41) in the Archives shows the relative normality and variety of everyday life in exile. ‘Witgar’ went on to make some observations on Newquay in general, remembering the pride he felt in still being part of his house and the excellent food including creamy milk and plentiful free-range eggs. One regret was losing many of the younger staff to the forces. In conclusion he says “The evacuation was unavoidable, but in retrospect, unnecessary. It was harder on the masters than on the boys. For those who had been at Holt for eight years, it made a superb final year, provided one was at the Bay. For younger boys who did not stay on for the return to Holt, Newquay must have been increasingly unrewarding.”

To return to Mr Parsons’ account, the housemaster sums up the experience of evacuation in the following lines – “It is often supposed that the life of the School in evacuation must lack the discipline that is centred in the atmosphere of its historic buildings. It is further imagined that all the stories, legends and even fairy tales that grow in the telling, are sober truth.”

“It would be true to say that we learnt from our exile, a certain freedom of life which we have been able to bring back with us to Holt and the effect of this freedom has been wholly good.”