18 March 2022

Sevenoaks School and the Second World War

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The 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War is marked in September 2019. Almost 800 Old Sennockians fought in the War covering all branches of the Services (British and international forces) or in civilian roles, and in a variety of theatres. The 74 OS and 4 staff who were killed are commemorated on an Honour Board in the Johnson Library.

There are far more sources for the school in the Second War than for the First, both official and personal. In the collection of essays on the school’s history, At Honour’s Game, headmaster James Higgs Walker contributed a chapter vividly describing his recollections of leading the school during the period. “Though he put a brave face on it, it is clear that for Higgs Walker it was little short of agony to watch the rapid erosion of athletic, artistic and intellectual standards as many of his best staff and prefects went off to the War” [Brian Scragg, Sevenoaks School A History].

As with the rest of Europe, the school community in Sevenoaks was aware of the storm clouds of war gathering some time before the outbreak. In 1938 Higgs Walker and Lord Sackville “got hold of a friendly builder who…put up windows and gas barricades which at least comforted us”; at the same time several German Jewish refugee boys (one from the Kindertransport) joined the school roll.In the six years of warfare that followed, school routine was adhered to as much as possible – games matches were played (pitches had to be cleared of stray shrapnel from dog fights first); plays were put on (Julius Caesar in modern dress); the Sennockian was published (albeit inferior in size and paper quality); and the Higgs Walkers kept up domestic standards by dressing every night for dinner. Seven staff went off to fight, some staff stayed (Mr Groves, ‘Jockey’ White, Mr Page, Mr Rich) and some new staff were recruited (Mrs Shepherd, Mr Frizelle, the Robb brothers, Mr Williams, Mr Cole).

Sevenoaks was in the notorious ‘bomb alley’ pathway for the Luftwaffe; instead of the school being evacuated it itself became the refuge for Shooters Hill Grammar School (billeted in Kippington Grange) and, from 1940 the science students of Walthamstow Hall who used the laboratories after theirs were destroyed. Air raid shelters protected the pupils on Jockey’s Platch, in the basement dining room of School House and in the wine cellars of Johnsons. Bombs only fell to damage Solefields Pavilion, a chimney at Johnsons and windows in School House (from a parachute bomb lodged in a tree in Knole Park).

VE Day on 8 May 1945 was marked by the school’s stage-managing team lighting up the front of the school with the word VICTORY, a thanksgiving service in St Nicholas and ‘a roar of applause [heralding]…the lighting of the bonfire’ near the allotments. The first post war Sennockian observed that ‘the first summer term of peace…finds us seeking again those activities and characteristics of pre-war days….’. Higgs Walker now ‘after the exhausting, frustrating and grief laden years of the war… had to summon up all his reserves of courage to begin restoring his school to its pre-war state’ [Brian Scragg, Sevenoaks School A History].

It would be good to add more to the knowledge we already have of the school in the War and I would be grateful to receive memories (written, photographic or memorabilia) of Old Sennockians who can recollect their time either as pupils or whilst serving between 1939–1945. If you have any information to share please contact me in the school archives: SAR@sevenoaksschool.org.

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