Robert Cole’s memories of his wartime evacuation to Penzance awakened memories of my own. He and I have complementary stories. He and I were initiated into life at the Mounts bay Hotel on the same day having travelled from Plymouth on the same train on 9 September 1943. I had passed the obstacle of the ’11 plus’ examination and had reluctantly chosen to go to Devonport High School. I say ‘reluctantly’ because my choice necessitated being plucked at a tender age from the bosom of my family and being despatched to a strange and distant town. The need for evacuation was to avoid the heavy bombing endured by Plymouth. The irony was that by the time I was eligible for evacuation I had survived the worst of the blitzes and the intensity of the bombardment had passed!
Strangely, in view of my tender years, I did not suffer more than a brief few days of home-sickness. Neither was there an outward display among the 40 or 50 pupils with whom I shared the hotel. We had no time to dwell on our separation from family. We were the third annual intake so the routine had been established. There were similarities to life in the traditional boarding school; there were some marked differences. Our housemaster was Mr. Hutchings (“Hutch”) who taught during the day and maintained order at the hotel during the rest of the day. His wife was housekeeper, overseeing the small staff and the running of the domestic life of the establishment. Looking back on those days I now realise what an immense task they undertook. They were entrusted with the welfare of almost 50 boisterous 11-year-olds. In this task they were assisted by an Assistant housemaster Donavan Clark (inevitably nick-named Nobby) and two six-form prefects. One prefect, Adams, known amicably, even to his face, as Abner, was a somewhat overweight jovial character who achieved discipline by gentle friendliness. His partner was Peter Taylor, an athletic Adonis who sported a fetching moustache who was inclined to enforce a more robust kind of discipline. Looking back I think Abner was responsible for patrolling the top floor where I resided, and Peter the floor below as I saw Abner more frequently than the other.
Immediately after our introductory assembly in the dining room we were allocated our rooms. I found myself in room 33 at the rear of the top floor and therefore furthest from the front door. For the whole of my year at the Mounts Bay Hotel I shared the room with three others. Despite living with them for so long I can only recall the name of one of them, Sharp. The room was sparsely furnished; four iron-framed single beds, a chest of drawers containing a drawer for each of us, a wall cupboard which I cannot remember using and a wash basin by the single window. Our suitcases were stowed under the beds. Under one of the beds of the adjoining room which shared with mine the distinction of being farthest from the front door, was a coiled rope ladder. This was supposed to be the means by which we were to escape in the event of fire. Happily we never had to put an escape into practice. We would have had a choice; almost certainly falling 30-feet or being roasted alive!
Life was ruled by a very large brass gong which hung from a frame on the first-floor landing. Woe betide anyone caught leaving their bed before the first signal of the day. Getting four boys through their ablutions in half-an-hour was difficult; being first was a triumph. We used to sit poised at the foot of our beds in the total darkness behind the blackout curtains waiting for the strike of the gong and then pounce on the wash basin. As my bed was farthest from it I rarely succeeded in being other than last. Fortunately the two adjoining rooms contained two boys and one boy respectively and when they had washed, one of the laggardly boys in my room was allowed to use their basin. The second beat of the gong summoned us to the dining room for breakfast, usually a bowl of cereal, a mug of tea and plenty of bread and jam. The trickle of pupils proceeded along each corridor the trickle became a flood on the staircase. Breakfast over, we returned briefly to our rooms to collect coats, caps and books before leaving the hotel and making our way individually or in small groups to our classrooms in the town.
There was one formidable obstacle to overcome before some of us could leave the premises On the notice board in the foyer was posted a room number (sometimes more than one) selected at random. The occupants of that room had to present themselves to Nobby Clark in the dining-room. Shoes, clothes, face, hands, nails and teeth were inspected and if found to be wanting the culprit was sent back to rectify the defect. All the occupants of the room were recalled the following day. The punishment was communal. If a room-number appeared on consecutive days then the entire hotel knew that someone had been declared ‘scruffy’!
At the end of the morning’s lessons we returned to the hotel for lunch, summoned by the gong. The food was good even if the menu was repetitive. It was invariably well cooked by employed kitchen staff and adequate to satisfy growing boys. Lunch consumed, we then walked back to our classrooms for afternoon lessons. Wednesday afternoons were dedicated for sport, and we attended lessons on Saturday mornings. At the end of the school day we returned to the hotel for tea, summoned from our rooms by the imperious gong. I believe that was our hot meal of the day after which we could go to our rooms or engage in gentle pursuits in the common room on the ground floor to the east of the front door. Considering as many as two dozen boys were often assembled in the common room the atmosphere was noticeably placid. At the prescribed time the gong sounded and we congregated in the dining-room for ‘prep’; that is, preparation or homework. This lasted for an hour-and-a-half which was supervised by a member of staff and was conducted in total silence. Afterwards we were dismissed to prepare for bed. The gong sounded “lights out”.
If one finished one’s prep early, one could volunteer to peel potatoes for the following day. This was not the altruistic act it appeared. In the basement of the building where the potatoes were stored there was also a huge coke-fired furnace. Some potatoes we peeled, others were put in the furnace for a few minutes and retrieved burning-hot and blackened on the outside but baked and floury when opened. This was a delectable.
addition to our diet. If either of the prefects came to ensure we were properly at work, he joined in the feast.
One of the first tasks after being initiated into life at the Mounts Bay Hotel was to write to our parents to inform them of our safe arrival and give them our new address. Furthermore we were expected to write home each week thereafter. I set aside part of Sunday for the purpose. It was a habit which I pursued years later when national service separated me from my parents and in later life too when I moved to Scotland. I once forgot to write. My parents phoned the hotel to find out why. I received a stern dressing down from Hutch and a command not to let it happen again. Letters from home were treasured. Even more so were the tuck parcels of home-made sweets and cake which my parents sent occasionally. They must have depleted their rations considerably. My popularity among my room-mates increased enormously when a parcel arrived!
When Devonport High School descended so precipitously on Penzance in 1941 the town’s civic administration was called upon to cope. Accommodation was probably not a serious problem as the war would devastate the tourist industry and there would have been plenty of unoccupied hotels. Finding school accommodation would have been a bigger problem; education committees don’t carry surplus capacity. The school was allocated buildings scattered throughout the town. Chemistry and physics were taught in dark, antiquated laboratories vacated by the School of Mines. Art was taught in a small hall at the end of a corridor off the main street; music was allocated a room in the Great Western Railway terminus building. We were fortunate to have a group of classrooms in a building at the foot of the main street and the school’s administrative offices, including the headmaster’s office, were at a Methodist church in Tolver Place. The church itself was used for school assemblies. The gymnasium at the girls’ grammar school was put at our school’s disposal on week-day afternoons and they kindly restricted their activities to mornings. Similar sports grounds were shared with other local schools. By the time I arrived two years later the rhythm of life for the evacuated school was established. The inhabitants of Penzance had grown used to seeing boys in DHS uniforms criss-crossing the town on their way to their next lesson or returning to their hostels.
My own classroom deserves attention. The four first-forms, imaginatively named 1a, 1b, 1c and 1d, were housed in a four-room terraced house in Pendarves Road and backed onto a lane which divided the house from the Methodist church. I, in 1b, shared an upstairs bedroom with about 27 others. It bore no resemblance to a bedroom and I sometimes wonder how the structure survived the weight of about 27 iron-framed desks with their occupants. The desks were crammed in, the only floor-space was a narrow aisle from the door to the far wall and a narrow aisle allowing the master to reach the blackboard propped on the fireplace mantelshelf. To reach the desks at the window the pupil had to crawl over the intervening desks. Requests to ‘leave the room’ caused near chaos and were discouraged. At playtime all four classes disgorged into the back garden which had been trampled into bare hard earth. In these uncomfortable surroundings we were introduced to the mysteries of geometry, algebra and French. The latter was a totally new subject to most of us and after our first lesson we filled the air at playtime with new words rendered in high pitched voices.
Two events impacted on our routine: the arrival of American forces, and a potentially serious illness. Robert Coles’ account of his stay at the Mounts bay Hotel details his removal from the hostel to an isolation ward in Truro. Late in 1943 he was found to be a carrier of the seriously infectious diphtheria. This had an immediate effect on the rest of us. All the inhabitants were quarantined while throat swabs were taken for analysis. Those who had been in close contact with Coles were asked to identify themselves. I sensed there might be a benefit to be gained and I stepped forward, along with three or four others, even though I hardly knew him. My prescience paid off. We were separated from the herd and accommodated in the best room in the place, the large, airy room at the front of the hotel with a magnificent view of the bay. Here we were quarantined within the quarantine. We were not to leave the room; our meals were brought to us and we were free to lounge and entertain ourselves in solitary splendour.
The staff had a problem – how to control four dozen or so boisterous eleven-year-olds who were not to come in contact with anyone else. ‘Cultural’ walks were devised. On most days in a column of two, a crocodile of boys, lead by Nobby Clark, emerged from the hotel to set off to some educational destination (there were plenty of archaeological and historical sites dotted round the town), sent on their way with gleeful calls from us exempt ones from the window above. Our privileged life was short-lived as some days later all the swabs proved negative and we were evicted from our delightful room. However, to ensure there was no lingering likelihood of a gestating case of diphtheria appearing the general quarantine continued for a while longer. The educational sorties then included me and when the weather was so bad we could not venture out Nobby Clark instructed us in concert to recite Robert Browning’s “Epilogue to Asolando”. I was not, and am not, a fan of poetry having difficulty in learning anything by rote. I found it turgid and incomprehensible. How I loathed those sessions. I was glad when the quarantine was lifted and normal lessons resumed. However my interest in archaeology was kindled and remained with me for the rest of my life.
At about the same time as we were confined, the American army arrived. It was a large contingent for such a small town and their presence was all-pervading. The Pavilion, a little way along the seafront from our hostel was converted into a temporary barracks. Squads of soldiers marched past the hostel frequently. A PX store was opened in Causeway and we schoolboys used to haunt the entrance to cadge ‘candies’ and chewing gum (remember, sweets were rationed for the civil population) as the Yanks emerged. But what was a real prize was to acquire a ball-point pen. These were an innovation, previously unseen by us. These marvels were supposed to write underwater though I never put one to the test. They hardly wrote above water; the ink was uneven and smeared. We were forbidden to use them for school-work. What overwhelmed the local populace was the abundance of jeeps. Americans did not walk anywhere if they could help it. The apparent laxity of discipline was demonstrated by the Americans painting fancy names prominently under the windscreens of their vehicles. From collecting locomotive names and numbers, a hobby of many of the boys, they now collected jeep names.
In late May the troops were assembled on the disused Mannaye park, the home ground of Penzance-Newlyn rugby club. Attracted by the noise we gathered to watch a large body of American troops paraded in companies. They were addressed briefly by a party of senior officers before marching away. Was it our collective imagination; was one of those officers General Eisenhower? At about the same time we saw strange vessels moored in Mounts Bay. They rode high in the water and were devoid of superstructure. We realised later we had seen sections of the Mulberry harbour being readied for towing to the Normandy. D-Day came and we raced to the reading room at the library to digest the news. How soon would the war be over? How soon would our evacuation end? And the American troops were suddenly gone, as if they had been nothing more than ghosts.
Our pleasures were simple. Some like me, collected stamps, other collected train numbers or jeep names. In the common room were the customary board games, including chess. One game became an obsession. Cocky-fivers. Everyone played it. One carefully selected five small, round, flat pebbles slightly larger than a ten-pence piece. The opening move was to place four cockies on the floor and throw the fifth lightly in the air. Whilst it was airborne one of the four cockies was plucked up; then both were thrown up and another cocky picked from the floor. And so on. Then more sophisticated variations were introduced, such as catching the airborne pebbles on the back of the hand. It was competitive in that one person led (usually the most dexterous) and the others copied, each person dropping out if they failed a particular challenge.
The game absorbed us for hours. As Robert Coles mentioned for those who could afford the treat, there were a number of cinemas in Penzance and Newlyn. Programmes often changed mid-week so there was plenty of choice. There was no ‘prep’ on Wednesdays so we were free to go out for the evening – provided we returned by 9p.m. Like Robert I too occasionally frequented the quaint little cinema, the Gaiety, at Newlyn. One frequently missed the end of the performance as one had to race the one mile (it seemed longer!) back to the hotel (no public transport) to beat the 9 o’clock deadline.
Discipline was maintained usually with a sharp word, sometimes by writing a correcting sentence many times, known as ‘lines’. Another punishment was ‘cubes’; that is, squaring a three-digit number and then squaring it again, then reversing the process to arrive at the original number. It was an exhausting business, especially if an error had been made which had to be corrected. More severe infringements were punished more severely. Once, my roommates and I were playing a variation of ‘touch’. One boy pursued the others to touch one and the one touched then did the pursuing. Our variation was that we did not touch the floor but leapt from bed to bed, a practice which tested the bedsprings to near breaking point. In the midst of this Hutch entered the room. The others must have got some premonition as I was the only boy in flight at that moment. Very little was said, just “Wait here” while Hutch went away to come back a minute or so later with a cane. I was bent over the foot of the bed to get several strokes on my posterior, protected only by thin pyjama trousers. On another occasion the headmaster himself caught me making inordinate noise in an unattended class. I was marched across the back lane to his office and given six strokes on my outstretched hands. My misdemeanors pale into insignificance compared with Nicholson’s. He hung from his fingertips to the sill of a second-floor bedroom window for a dare and climbed back unscathed. Unfortunately his death-defying act was witnessed by a passerby and reported. Nicholson did not return at commencement of the next term.
At the end of the school year, July 1944, the war had another year to run though we did not know it. Our hopes that we would not have to return to Penzance were dashed. I would have preferred to have been reunited with my family but the prospect of starting my second year as an evacuee did not sadden me. Life in a boarding school had much to commend it. As a second-former my address would change. I had been allocated to Raleigh House and it resided at the Mount Prospect Hotel, a relatively small establishment formed by knocking two large semi-detached, stone-built houses together. The elements of community life were much the same as at the Mounts Bay Hotel but as the ages of the inhabitants spanned from 12 years to 19 years, the atmosphere was more relaxed. As a second-former I, along with a dozen others, was one of the lowest forms of life in the institution. But life was good. There was much banter but never bullying. We were fed well; we had more freedom than at our previous address, but we were expected to be responsible. A new chapter in my life commenced.
Devonport High School’s evacuation to Penzance in 1941 was a unique period in its history. Although hundreds of boys participated the intervening 70 years have taken their toll. Very few of its participants survive. It is sensible that those remaining should put their memories on paper so that subsequent generations can read of that momentous period.