Saturday, 2 April 2011

'Old Girl' Shirley Williams re-opens school's air raid shelter

By Victoria Hutton and Samantha Watt

The founder of the Social Democrat Party was one of around 400 people to come together at Talbot Heath School to mark its 125th anniversary on Friday.
The eighty-year-old Baroness was joined by a number of fellow ex-pupils who gathered to remember their wartime school experiences.
Speaking to the current alumni, Shirley Williams said, “This will go down in the history of my life as a very special day.”
She stood on a platform on the edge of the School’s woodlands, in which there were more than half a dozen replicas of World War Two vehicles.
Behind her, the Union Jack flag was draped across the archway to the air-raid shelter. The atmosphere was set with low drone of blitz sirens.
“I have opened many things… “ she said. “A railway station, a scientific laboratory and several other things, but I have never, ever, re-opened an air raid shelter.”
Talbot Heath has to this day a number of shelters built in to its grounds, created to safeguard the children from potential air strikes and bombings in World War Two.
Former pupil Mary Key remembers running for cover.
She and a small number of others were evacuated from the building after an exam – when they were shot at with machine guns.
“That was pretty terrifying, actually” she recalls.  The Upper 5th girls had hidden under the bushes between the exam room exit and the shelter’s doors until the attack had subsided.
A number of the current Sixth Formers, including the two Head Girls, attended Friday’s event alongside the past pupils – even venturing into the newly restored air-raid shelter with Baroness Shirley Williams. All wore sprigs of heather for brooches as a symbol of their time at Talbot Heath.
The school had avoided disaster once before – in 1940 – thanks to the kindness of a Pilot Officer from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Cecil Henry Hight had deliberately redirected his plummeting air-craft towards open ground in order to spare the lives of the civilians beneath. A minutes silence was dedicated to his memory by Headmistress Angharad Holloway before the afternoon’s celebrations began.
The afternoon included a unique fashion-show of period costumes and the school’s old uniforms from the last 125 years.
During the war, the Old Girls remember that the limits of fabric tokens meant they couldn’t have pleats in their skirts.
And strict rations were the reason that Barbara Sutton, now seventy-nine, fondly remembers countless trips to her local shop to buy young boarders supplies for their midnight snacks.
Such wartime treats as Carrot Fudge were on Friday’s menu, with tasting sessions of past food favourites.
Meanwhile, students put on the school’s debut performance of former pupil Louise Garcia’s play ‘The Mischling’, which is based on the true story of the Jewish children who came to Talbot Heath following evacuation from Nazi Germany.
The celebrations also saw the reveal of a huge commemorative quilt hand-made by pupils, parents and staff, tours of the former boarding house and displays of World War Two memorabilia.
Ms. Holloway said that seeing the Old Girls back celebrating with the current alumni had made it a “fantastic day”, with “125 years of history coming together.”
“I think there’s a very special feel about this school,” she continued. “People have a real love and pride for it.”
“I didn’t realise that when I came here. I knew people said it was special but it’s only since being here that I start to understand what they really mean.”

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