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Comments on Rugby School in wartime

I lived in the Wirral and went to a prep school known as the Leas in Hoylake. In 1940 , the year of Dunkirk, the school was taken over as an RAF convalescent Hospital and as a result I went up to the Glenridding Hotel on Lake Ullswater, which the school took over, for my last year.

My first term at Rugby School came at what must have been one of the lowest points of the war. The blackout was being strictly enforced; road signs had all been removed; every available space including most roundabouts was used for growing vegetables; in the country the fields had an array of obstacles to prevent gliders landing; gas masks and identity cards had to be carried everywhere; clothes rationing had recently been introduced and the so called Utility clothing which resulted  meant that there were no turn ups, double breasted jackets, buttons on sleeves or flaps on pockets; every town was ringed by barrage balloons; the battle of Britain had given way to a bombing campaign; since Dunkirk we had been expecting an invasion but instead Hitler had turned his attention to Russia and that country had been invaded and the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad; Tobruk in Libya was being besieged; we were in danger of being pushed out of all Mediterranean countries including Egypt and the submarine war was at its height; Pearl Harbour had not happened so America was still neutral.

Cars were almost non-existent and you had to have good reason to have an allowance for petrol coupons. If you were lucky enough to have one on the road, running boards were outlined with white paint and only one headlight was allowed and that was heavily screened and gave restricted light. You registered at different shops for food. A typical ration book covered butter (2oz, or 57 grams in modern parlance, a week) sugar (8oz), margarine (4oz), jam (8oz per month), etc. so unsurprisingly we were forever hungry. I did not see any bananas until the war was over and meatless sausages were the norm. Obesity was unheard of.

Against this background I found myself travelling to Rugby by train, to a town I had never visited and to a House I knew nothing about for a term which without a break was to go on for approximately 12-13 weeks. The railways had suffered from bombing and as a result timings were up the spout. After reaching Rugby we queued for taxis to take us to our respective destinations. The queue was inevitably broken by older boys who pushed in front of the less demanding new boys and the waiting seemed interminable.

When we got to our houses we were shown to our studies and introduced to the person with whom we were to share the accommodation. The only form of heating was an electric fire and power cuts were frequent. In almost every study there would be maps of the theatres of war filled with flags which were moved depressingly in the wrong direction as retreat followed retreat.

The dormitories of which School Field with a total number of about 60 boys had 2 to which our luggage had hopefully preceded us, having been sent on by rail a few days earlier, were divided into upper for the senior boys and lower for the juniors in T shapes and a warning was given throughout the house at 9.25 pm when all the lights would blink and it was time for the lower dorm to go up and prepare for bed. 10 minutes later the lights would blink again and the upper dorm followed. After a short interval the lights to all studies would go out. Sixth formers had tollies, as they were called, consisting of candles in sprung holders with reflectors at the top by which they could continue to read. Earlier all those who were not “in hall”, ie with less than two years house membership, would have done their prep in the Hall before the whole house had “dicks” which consisted of evening prayers conducted by the Housemaster every night except Saturday, I think. Every morning we had to take cold baths. Being “in hall” meant that you could walk across the house quad and included other privileges of which one of the most important related to hands in pockets.(After 1 year you were permitted to put one hand in your pocket and after 2 years you could put both).

Sport was compulsory and on up to 3 days each week you would be required to participate. A farming rota was also prepared so that teams of people would go to outlying farms to pick potatoes. This required a bicycle and in the first few winters of the war, which were particularly cold, sometimes involved a long journey. In the summer we visited the same farms to do the hoeing between the actual potatoes. We were paid a pittance. In the centre of the town we were forbidden to ride round corners and had to get off the bikes and walk round. If we saw a master we were required to tick him, which involved raising a hand in recognition, or in the case of a master’s wife remove our caps. Every boy was required to wear a cap to show which house he was in and whether he had any sporting achievements on the Rugby field. Members of the XV or of the Cricket XI with their colours wore their own special caps.

Between School Field and what was then Town House a concrete basin containing an emergency water supply had been erected and the Fire Brigade gave instructions to the senior boys on how to deal with any fires arising from enemy action. A fire watching schedule was drawn up which meant that when it was your turn, sleep was somewhat interrupted. There was a cupboard outside the hall in which the house butler had placed the rations of butter sugar and jam for the next week or in the case of jam the next month. There was a limited amount of marmalade available and the butler selected who was to have it at random. Afterwards there was a fair amount of trading. None of this was locked up and I never heard of any pilfering. Fish paste, peanut butter and a mixture of cocoa and water replaced jam towards the end of every month.

There were no half terms, exeats or speech days, but a parent came to see me once a term. Fagging was still part of the Rugby life and for the first year you had a fag master and were also subject to general fag calls. Beating was still prevalent. Everyone had at least 2 gym lessons a week and at a later stage after D Day, I think, we had to paint ammunition boxes below the gym.

When the war in Europe ended a short holiday was declared when we all went home to celebrate. In my last term in 1945 Winston Churchill came to Rugby to support the Conservative candidate and I heard him cheered all the way and then speak in the Market Place. Unfortunately neither he nor the Conservatives got in, but those moments were magical and I shall always treasure them.

In the Summer all boys tended to go to supervised agricultural camps. School Field had an enterprising boy who persuaded the Warwickshire Agricultural Board to lend us a couple of bell tents and we went plum picking in the Evesham valley without supervision. On VJ night I can remember dancing in the Evesham streets with a girl called Lois who attended a coeducational school and so was less inhibited than I was. We had a great time.

Michael Walker