Life at the Maidstone Girls’ Grammar School during the Second World War was described by Mary Smith, the latest speaker to address the Rotary Club of Dover this week. Mary Smith, who retired as Head of the school in 2014 after eight years, last year produced a book called “A Schoolgirl’s War” which had its origins in two discoveries made at the school. The first was the accessing of an underground purpose-built shelter at the rear of the school after removal of debris blocking its entrance and the revelation that the shelter was a time capsule as a classroom used during air raids, complete with the original school benches on either side of the long, narrow shelter. The second discovery was a large and comprehensive diary of wartime school life, beautifully illustrated by the then Art teacher, Helen Keen, which was supplemented by Mary Smith interviewing 53 “old girls” about their experiences of school during the war.
Helen Keen’s sketches and paintings included much humour but brought into vivid focus the challenges the school faced during the period of the Battle of Britain and subsequently towards the end of the War with the arrival of Doodlebugs. Now the shelter has been opened primary school children are invited to experience the wartime challenges faced by girls at the school and are also given a wartime lunch. The school takes visitors around the underground shelters and makes the book of original paintings available to visiting historians.
In an informative and amusing talk Mary read some reminiscences from the Old Girls she had interviewed and showed contemporary pictures of girls in the shelter demonstrating how confined the space was for the wartime pupils in what she described as “uncomfortable, cold and wet” conditions. Uncomfortable because of the cramped nature of the shelter, cold because two of the winters during the war were severe, and wet because although solid concrete structures leakage of water was inevitable being underground. She indicated Maidstone was a Garrison town, a railway junction, at the confluence of two rivers and on the direct flight path from Germany to London and so was heavily influenced by the Battle of Britain raging in the skies above it.
Some Rotarians who were children during the war contributed their reminiscences of experiences of wartime schooldays, including evacuations.
The book is on sale at £10 from the school website
and at Maidstone Museum. One copy is also kept in the research room at the Imperial War Museum Museum. Mary is more than happy to offer to speak to any Clubs or Societies who wish to hear an articulate and entertaining description of wartime educational life.