Headmaster George Heslop and the First World War

In November 2014 the school rededicated its First and Second World War Honour Boards. Among the names of the dead is that of Old Sennockian George Heslop, son of another George Heslop, our Headmaster 1898-1919.

George Heslop had been Headmaster of Sevenoaks School for 16 years when war broke out in August 1914. Among the boys he was a popular teacher, known as the ‘Old Man’. One pupil, EJ King-Farlow (OS 1908), described him as ‘quite a stern disciplinarian but he had a very keen sense of humour and was absolutely just’.

He had arrived from Sandbach School, Cheshire in 1898 with his wife, Gertrude, three daughters, Gertrude, Evelyn and Faith, and his only son, George. In 1904, six-year-old George junior began lessons in his father’s school; his time here was only preparatory and in 1910 he entered Lancing College, Sussex. There he excelled at sport and according to Wisden was ‘the most promising young all-rounder who had yet to appear in a first-class match’. However, when war broke out in the summer that he left school, he enlisted in the Public Schools’ Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment instead of taking up his place at Cambridge. Rapidly promoted to Captain by May 1915 he first saw action on the Western Front in November of that year.

While the younger Heslop was on the battlefields, his father remained in Sevenoaks. There the effect on the Home Front was felt gradually, but by 1915 there was the real threat of external attack from Zeppelin raids and food shortages were commonplace. Leslie White (OS 1918) in a letter to his mother, observed that ‘the porridge itself is very nice but as they cannot get any other they put black sugar on it which rather spoils the taste... ‘. The boys remained well-fed, however. Norman Prince (OS 1918) noted that they received ‘three helpings of meat when the rest of the country was going short’.

One of the most immediate effects on the school had been the loss of the entire (all-male) teaching staff as they enlisted, even though teaching was a reserved occupation. Only two masters remained, one of whom, Mr French, was remembered by Norman Prince as ‘a very ill man’. They had to be supplemented by Heslop’s two unmarried daughters, Faith and Evelyn, joined in 1916 by a Mrs Collier who taught History. The headmaster’s eldest daughter, Gertrude, was already serving as a nurse in France.

The war was never far away: the Last Post and Reveille sounded daily by the fountain at the top of the High Street; soldiers en route to the continent were encamped in Knole Park, Solefields and Bligh’s Meadow; the distant sound of big guns on the Front reached the town on still summer evenings.

Over 300 Old Sennockians fought in the war with around 40 being killed. It would be hard to imagine that the pupils would not have been affected by the news of losses (both personal and of alumni) which reached the school regularly. However, the records documenting their lives in this period reveal that they were sheltered from the reality of the atrocities, some even finding the notion of war adventurous.

‘The news on the Western Front seems jolly exciting doesn’t it?’ wrote Leslie White in March 1917. ‘Miss Heslop usually shows us the news and explains where all the captured towns are situated…several of our old boys have won the military cross [so] there is an extra half-holiday this afternoon.’

However, the headmaster was beginning to feel the strain of seeing so many of his former pupils killed or wounded. In September 1917 Heslop wrote to a parent, ‘The War is very cruel. By our post yesterday I heard of the deaths of two more old boys. We schoolmasters have suffered. For though our boys are not of our blood they become very dear to us and something more than friends.’ It was an experience suffered by the majority of public school masters at the time, but Heslop had already suffered a more personal loss. On 6 July 1916 a telegraph from the War Office informed the headmaster of the death of his son George on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Heslop’s statement on the loss is poignant in its simplicity. ‘My boy was killed on the 1st July in the first ten minutes of the great push. There is nothing to say. He had a duty to do and it was done,’ he wrote to a parent. George junior had been leading a company of men towards the enemy lines at Beaumont-Hamel ‘not minding the shells and bullets’, according to one of his battalion, when he was hit by enemy fire. His comrade Sergeant Valentine remembered that he ‘went down without a cry and remained absolutely still’. He was 21 years old.

George Heslop, Headmaster of Sevenoaks 1898-1919
Captain George Henry Heslop OS. 1895-1916

Further discomfort hit the family when it took a further nine months before George’s body was found and buried: ‘I have just had a letter from the front giving me a full account of the finding and burial of my boy,’ wrote Heslop. ‘That ends long weary months of waiting and suspense.’

The effect of this family tragedy upon the school was disastrous. Numbers were already dropping as Sevenoaks suffered from the effects of poor teaching, physical privations and disrupted routine. George’s death broke his father’s spirit and health and by Michaelmas 1918 Heslop was no longer able to take lessons. His successor, Geoffrey Garrod, recalled that on his arrival in 1919 ‘the school had practically collapsed’.

Heslop retired in April 1919; he lived another 18 years with what NC Stenning (OS 1903) described as an ‘inconsolable sorrow…the loss in that war, of his only son, of whom he had such ambitious hopes’. Of his daughters, members of the generation of ‘Surplus Women’, two remained unmarried but had careers as a teacher and secretary in the civil service respectively. Evelyn married, but on her marriage certificate the Registrar ignored her wartime role and left the field of ‘profession’ blank.

George Heslop (Junior) is remembered on the Sevenoaks School Honour Board, the war memorials in Lancing College and Trinity College, Cambridge and on a simple plaque in St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks: Pro Patria Pro Deo. He is buried at Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No 1, Auchonvilliers.

Sally Robbins

More history from Sevenoaks