WWI, from the pens of Wiltshire's school teachers

on Tuesday, 27 August 2013. Posted in Schools

Since Victorian times, schools across Wiltshire have kept a weekly or daily account in rather fancy log books. During our week working at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, we had the privilege of looking through a selection of the log books kept in the archives, some more battered than others.

Once we were able to read the copperplate handwriting used in these books, we were able to unlock the secrets of historical schools within these books. Focusing mainly on 1914-1918 (looking for any mention of The Great War) we read about children and teachers almost one hundred years ago.

Of course, there were some immediate differences that we noticed: fires in the classrooms, measuring and weighing at schools and excluding of pupils when there were epidemics of illnesses. However we also noticed some other things that have changed over time: we are no longer sent home for being dirty, nor are we caned but unfortunately, we no longer get granted holidays for blackberry picking, going sliding in icy weather or afternoons off for tea parties.

Despite initial excitement over the changes in education, we were looking for something far more specific: the effects of WWI on the children living in Swindon, Chippenham and other parts of Wiltshire. Looking through around twenty logbooks from different schools (all with spectacular marbled inside covers and edges of pages) we discovered that the amount of War mentioned in the logbook very much depended on the person writing it. Some authors stuck strictly to the attendance percentage, visitors to the school and illnesses going around the school whereas others decided to try their hand at story writing, writing in full any remarkable events of that day.

Thankfully, some writers took a keen interest in The Great War, so we managed to take some good notes from their entries. The headmaster of King William Street Boys School took a particular interest in all parts of school life, particularly the war, documenting details as small as the new posters received by the school and the exact time that he heard of the cessation of hostilities in the War. The pupils of this school were transformed into heroic characters in a thrilling story as they broke their legs in the playground and gained every deathly disease under the sun (but only the sun as when it was windy, raining or snowing, they stayed at home).

One particular ex-pupil gained a starring role in the tale of the school on the 25th of June 1916. Richard Slade, 16 years of age, served 3 months in the trenches as a 19 year old before, at the request of the child’s parents, his fearless head master verified his name and age and got him brought home from the trenches.

Other schools had a less exciting time during the war, the only effect of the war on their education being that they had to write in pencil. When their schools were taken over by the Military Authorities, the classes were held in the local church hall where ink wells were not allowed. Some pupils were also unable to continue swimming lessons as the local Swimming Baths were being used by the troops.

Common things that happened within the schools included: losing teachers due to them enlisting for the war resulting in the remaining teachers being regularly switched to the schools which needed them most; pupils fundraising, repairing garments and making 294 pairs of socks for the troops; rationing and days off while teachers distributed ration cards in the town (February 15th 1918 and March 8th 1918 were a couple of days off for several Swindon schools) and friends and family of pupils and teachers alike wounded and sometimes killed (often including graphical descriptions of which can be in the logbook from King William Street Boys School, available at the archives) whilst fighting.

Overall we both found the logbooks highly interesting. The effects of WWI on those left in England is neglected in the syllable of work for schools, life in the trenches and the German citizens being the main focus for our WWI topic. As a result, we were unaware of the rationing, shortage of teachers and air raid (Zeppelin) attacks which caused several families to flee their homes in London and Dover. We have acquired a new insight into the lives of children during WWI and have also developed a love for logbooks.

By Joanna and Eleanor, Work Experience Students


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