During September 1939, over 1.5 million children, mothers and babies, elderly and disabled people were evacuated from the major cities into safer zones. However, many returned during the ‘phoney’ war only to return later. As described below, Radley played its own part in taking in evacuees.
Evacuees at Radley Church of England Primary School and other preparations
Two days after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, Miss Cross, the recently appointed head teacher, was informed by Shire Hall at Reading (Radley was in Berkshire at that time) that the school should be closed as it would be needed that day for evacuated children and that all staff were to be present. Presumably this was so that the evacuees could assemble there and be allocated homes to go to. No evacuees arrived, as there were none in the village at that time and so Miss Cross reopened the school.
The school holiday in May 1940 was extended because a large evacuation was expected from London and, on 7 June, 34 evacuees arrived by train from Upper Hornsey Road School, in Holloway and made the village hall their schoolroom. The older boys from the village school took stock down to the village hall. There was a generous ratio of staff to children at the evacuee school and Miss Cross tried to negotiate being able to employ some of them in return for taking some of the infant pupils. There was some cooperation. In December 1941 children at the evacuee school joined the village school children for school dinners. Trestle tables were used for this in one of the classrooms. The school was overcrowded and these tables were also used as classroom desks.
The evacuee school closed at the end of April 1942 and most of the evacuee children appeared to return home. Any children who were left, attended the village school. It was hoped that one class could occupy an annex room at the vicarage but Eastbourne College, which had been evacuated to Radley College (see below), was using it. The infant class eventually moved there in October 1945.
Damien C was born in 1940 in Radley. His mother and brother Carl were evacuated and lived in New Road. His mother arrived six months pregnant in June 1940 and Carl was enrolled at the village school; he was probably one of the infant children Miss Cross took in. Damien’s mother often spoke to him about the blitz and recalled that she was a witness to one dramatic event in Paddington. His father at the time was helping to build runways on airfields in the area. The family left in May 1941.
When the county scholarship exam was taken in March 1941, the remainder of the school had to go out on a nature walk or sit in the church to leave space for the 11+ children who were taking the examination. In 1945 children not taking the examination went to Bigwood Camp, where the evacuated units were until 24 July 1945 when the camp was no longer needed. The equipment and supplies were transferred from Bigwood to the school. The camp is now Bigwood Mobile Home Park off Sugworth Lane in the north of Radley.
The village school took in four new children in May 1941. Three of them had come as evacuees from Walthamstow and had been to nursery school there. The other was from a family who had left London as their father had a job at Didcot. The school also admitted Donald and David Betteridge who had come to stay with the Pontings until they returned to New Marston in Oxford in July.
During the war, Radley School was earmarked as a suitable reception centre for Oxford citizens in case the city should receive a severe bombing. Miss Cross agreed that blankets and food could be stored in the school provided they were in a box or chest. She informed the officials who were dealing with the situation that the school key was kept in her house, but should she be away, they had better break the lock of the infants’ door. In March 1941 the equipment for the rest centre arrived and caused more congestion for storage space.
This was even more noticeable when further stock was delivered in May and again in August. A hanging cupboard and 40 chairs for the rest centre were sent. Eventually Mr Greening agreed to store the equipment at the farm across the road. It was decided that the cycle shed could be used for extra toilets and the Public Assistance Department would supply hessian and Elsan closets in the event of a blitz on Oxford. The school was given two sand bags, which, together with the three they had made, meant they had a grand total of five for the school and house. The rest centre requisites were removed in February 1945.
More about the evacuees in the village
Members of Radley WI entertained the village children, the evacuee children from the school and their teachers to tea and games at Wick Hall after school in July 1940. The children, numbering 77 in all, sat down on the grass and had tea, and afterwards the grown-ups had theirs. One of the evacuees gave a vote of thanks to the WI for giving them a happy time.
There is evidence that some of the adult evacuees integrated themselves into the Radley community when they were present at a public meeting in the village to arrange a committee for the Radley War Distressed Fund.
Many of the evacuees appeared to be living at Bigwood Camp. The WI had set up a canteen there. It was reported in January 1941 that the WI committee had decided to close the evacuee’s canteen on Sundays, as there was insufficient support. However, it did decide to hold a dance at Bigwood Camp in aid of the District Nursing Association, which would be entertainment for those living there.
A family of refugees from London was living in the attic flat at Lower Farm during part of the war. The accommodation was very basic with water and toilet facilities outside. On one occasion a bombing raid was taking place over RAF Abingdon and the siren went. The family dashed downstairs from their flat and frantically asked the Frearson family where the air raid shelter was. The refugees were astonished that the Frearsons did not have a shelter and that they could calmly continue eating their meal while the air raid was taking place. This was the difference between living in an isolated farming community and living in inner London.
Francis Levetus and his wife, Ellen Enid Jean, the daughter of William Dockar-Drysdale, came to Wick Hall at the start of the war to escape the blitz. Their two daughters were born in Abingdon. In an interview made as part of Radley History Club’s ‘Radley Remembered’ oral history series, Josephine, the eldest, talked of her idyllic childhood at Wick during the war. She remembers her grandfather, William, as being rather a gloomy person, but her grandmother was the most delightful, charming person it was possible to know.
Evacuees at Radley College
About the time war broke out, the Warden of Radley College allowed children and expectant mothers from East London to occupy one of the dormitories. He had found them to be homeless and had escorted them to this temporary accommodation. Perhaps the evacuees had been sent to Radley College instead of the village school. In his book, The History of Radley College 1847–1947, A.K. Boyd does not say what happened to these people and it has not been possible to find any evidence so far as to where they went.
In September 1939 there were 399 boys on roll at Radley College and this was expanded when 100 came from Colet Court Preparatory School (a preparatory school for St Paul’s School in Richmond), and 30 from Davies Laing and Dick’s (DLD) ‘cramming establishment’ in Holland Park in London. Colet Court occupied the Pavilion, the Music School, one of the shop’s tea rooms, several private houses and Radley Vicarage. DLD occupied the Warden’s house. The visitors played games in the morning and had lessons in the afternoon while Radley followed the usual routine.
Both groups of evacuees had left by the time the College term started in January 1940. Following the departure of the visiting schools, however, Radley College was worried that it might be taken over by a military establishment. It was saved from this by the arrival of Eastbourne College in June 1940; two-thirds of their school arrived with its junior school taking temporary refuge in Nuneham Courtenay. The College was then accommodating about 600 pupils and was very squashed. Extra accommodation at Wick Hall, the Vicarage and Park End Farm was used. Eastbourne College did not return until after the summer holiday of 1945.
In Radley College’s Chapel Cloister there is a plaque commemorating the sympathy and easy friendship between Eastbourne College and Radley College during World War Two.
In 2002 it was decided that Eastbourne College should have a similar plaque and a short ceremony was held attended by the headmasters of the two schools, Charles Bush and Angus McPhail. The inscription reads ‘In memory of those who made it possible to survive the Second World War by taking us to Radley College and, when peace returned, bringing us safely home, under the leadership of the Headmaster Francis John Nugee MA’. In celebration of the occasion, the Radley versus Eastbourne cricket match was revived.
Radley Remembered tales recorded by Radley History Club
The History of Radley College 1847–1947 by A.K. Boyd, 1948