When War was officially declared on 3rd September 1939, all teaching in our London buildings ceased and, for the first ten days of the war, classes were cancelled. However, certain decisions had already been taken with regard to the Polytechnic Secondary School, the Craft School and the administrative headquarters of the Polytechnic.
On 1st and 2nd of September the Secondary School was evacuated to Minehead, Somerset, the Craft School to Winscombe, Somerset. The headquarters was relocated to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.
The Polytechnic Magazine of Sept 1939 states that ‘the headquarters of the Polytechnic, with all account books and documents, has been transferred to Beaconsfield, where a skeleton staff operates’.
Immediately before the war broke out, the Poly had the foresight to lease a house called Foley Cottage, in case of such an event. However, by December 1939 the threat of air raids had not materialised. The Poly decided not to renew the lease and moved the headquarters back to central London.
After a week of arriving at the Polytechnic each day ready for possible evacuation, it finally took place on Friday 1 September 1939.
‘At about 10:30 we had the order to get ready; then a few minutes later, the order to GO. Everything went like clockwork. We marched out of that so familiar building, and the two police constables outside stopped the traffic for us to cross over Regent Street and proceed to Oxford Circus station… Here we re-assembled on the platform… The train pulled into the tunnel and we sped off on our way to Ealing Broadway. Here the job of re-assembling took place again. All along the line of boys, prefects could be heard calling the roll…everyone waited patiently and quietly for the next move. We started off again (on a Great Western train) after a long wait, still in doubt as to where we were going. It wasn’t until we were about ten miles out that the guard came to tell us that our destination was Cheddar.’ (The Polytechnic Magazine, Sept 1939)
The pupils were initially billeted in various villages throughout Somerset, reliant on the kindness of the locals who took them in. After a couple of chaotic weeks, the headmaster Dr Worsnop, succeeded in transferring everyone (around 400 boys) to Minehead where the Minehead County School became their educational base. Accommodation was provided in several hostels and houses in the town, including a large house known as ‘The Dene’ where Mrs Worsnop took charge, caring for some fifty boys at a time there. The County School had classes in the mornings, with the Poly School using their premises each afternoon from 1:15-5:15. The school boys thrived in their new environment, entering fully into Minehead’s wartime communal life. The School’s dramatic society put on plays and concerts which also raised funds for charitable and other causes related to the war effort, and frequent talks were given to local clubs and societies. School work continued as usual, with boys taking the General School and Higher School Certificate examinations throughout the war, with a pass rate of 82%.
The Craft School consisted of four sections – the Preliminary School of Architecture and Engineering, the Motor Body Building School, the Hairdressing School, and the Tailoring School. The entire school (around 350 boys aged 14-17) was evacuated to the town of Winscombe in Somerset on 2 September 1939. Some younger brothers also came with some of the evacuees.
A mixture of facilities were provided for them in Winscombe and the surrounding area. Some lessons took place in standard facilities such as Winscombe Elementary School and Sidcot School. Others were less typical – the hairdressing salon was in a converted garage, the headmaster’s office was in a former shop and a country mansion was used both as a billet for 50 boys and for some lessons.
Whilst evacuated the school tried to do its bit for the local area. The Hairdressing School cut locals’ hair. The Engineering School helped construct air raid shelters, filed sand bags and carried out other jobs for Axbridge Rural District Council.
In these clips from our Oral History Project, Polytechnic Secondary School alumnus Harold Beck remembers how the school ran in Somerset and his feelings about being evacuated.
In this clip, Polytechnic Secondary School alumnus Lionel Price remembers being evacuated in September 1939.