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Early Days of the County School for Girls

Written by the Headmistress, Miss Vobes for the 1934 School Chronicle.

I have been asked to write for girls now in the School some reminiscences of our earlier years. My mind goes back to the rather feverish days of September, 1913, when the building, though completed, lacked much of the equipment needed before it could be ready for the formal opening, already fixed for the middle of the month. By dint, however, of late night working by laboratory fitters and much eleventh hour scrubbing, it was sufficiently in order for the Chairman of the County Council, Major Thornton, to perform the opening ceremony on Monday, 15th September.

We began work next day with fifty-nine girls, Miss Henry, Miss Pratt (Mrs. Shewell), Miss Byles and myself. It seems strange now to look back to a time when the two Second Form rooms were not needed as class-rooms and could be used as one big play-room, and when everybody could have two or three cloakroom pegs apiece ! However, numbers increased rapidly ; in January there were 93 girls, and in May 102, and Mr. Georges and Miss Greenwood ( Mrs. Maude) had joined the Staff. It is on record that "netball was energetically played in the winter, and the one outside match attempted was won." Conditions were less easy in those days with no hard court and a Winterbourne stream which overflowed persistently during our first two years. In the spring of 1914 it converted us into a peninsula, and it seemed as though we should be forced to practise swimming in self defence. In the Christmas holidays of the next year came the memorable flooding, when the School rose above a waste of waters which stretched from beyond the Course (traversed in boats) to Southovcr Grange. I was hastily summoned to move any important documents upstairs to safety, since the water was then just below the window sills of my room. The wooden bridge which at that time spanned the Winterbourne, at the end of the field, was swept away and, for long, we were unable to use that entrance.

Sir John Bromley was the first Chairman of the School Governors and gave us much encouragement. After his death in 1915, Colonel Sutherland-Harris became our Chairman, and to him, for the interest and help given to us, especially in those early days, the School has always been deeply indebted.

Our first Speech Day fell on the 29th July, 1914, and we broke up on the same afternoon-so busy with our own affairs that we had not realized how ominous were the clouds then gathering over Europe.

Before another week had passed England was at war. That holiday was an anxious one, for the Red Cross had the school on its list as a possible hospital. I remember the Comandant's saying, as I took him through the rooms, that the Art Room would make a splendid operating theatre ! We knew that all the available buildings in Brighton-the new Grammar School, opened in the same week as our own, the Day Training College, the Boys' and Girls' Secondary Schools, etc., had been taken for the accommodation of the wounded, and we wondered all through August what would happen to our new building. However, since Newhaven was used for the transport of war material and not of troops, we were left undisturbed. But it was a strange Lewes to which we returned in September! Fifteen thousand troops of Kitchener's Army were billeted in the town, and its resources in accommodation and food were taxed to the utmost. We were, for some time, very busy in providing socks and changes of clothing for the recruits, whose uniforms were not yet ready for them.

From then on to November, 1918, there was a steady call for service from all, even the youngest, in School. We carried on our ordinary work, but every spare minute was given to sewing and knitting to satisfy the many demands which reached us from all quarters. The Girls' Patriotic Union of Secondary Schools, which we joined and of which the Princess Mary was the President, put us in touch with the various organizations needing help. Nearly 1,000 knitted comforts were sent away, and over 300 children's garments and over 300 hospital treasure bags were made.

When, in 1917, the country was faced with a serious food shortage, we dug up the ground facing the School, where the hard court and the "Downs" now are, and planted it with potatoes. This was a back-aching task, for the docks were of an abnormal length and stubbornness-but we had beginners' luck and our crop was a large one-over a ton ! We all learned a respect for the potato, which I have never quite lost. The presence of our two little Belgian refugees, Lidwine and Godelieve, was a reminder to us, always, of what some children had had to face. In August, 1916, the War Savings Association was formed, one of the first in the county and, during the next three years, the School as a whole contributed £868 to it.

Train services were greatly curtailed towards the latter part of the war. Owing to the intense darkness of those winter afternoons, when no outside lighting was allowed, we used to send the Crowborough girls home by the 2 o'clock train. They bore this with equanimity. We had also to start our holidays earlier than now, as, especially at Christmas time, civilians were asked to leave the day trains available for soldiers returning home on leave.

11th November, 1918, was an unforgettable day, though the details of what we did after the news of the armistice came through in the dinner hour are blurred in my memory, lost in the recollection of the intense relief and thankfulness we all felt. I know, that we abandoned lessons in the afternoon and rejoiced together in the Hall, until the time came to go home through streets where, for the first time for four years, lights could be freely shown.

The cessation of war was followed by much industrial strife at home, and we were considerably affected by the coal strike in 1920 and 1921, which caused greatly restricted rail services, and by the train strike of January, 1924. Newhaven and Seaford girls of that period will recollect being packed into lorries on a cold, rainy night in January, and I remember the relief with which we saw them off in Lewes High Street, with instructions not to venture to school again until a train could be relied upon to take them back. It was, however, the General Strike of 1926, two days after the start of the Summer Term, which showed us how much rail transport then meant to the School. On the first morning one hundred girls were unable to attend, and many Old Girls will remember the varied conveyances in which on subsequent mornings, or afternoons, they reached School, and the odd times at which they arrived or departed. They enjoyed the novelty, but it was an anxious ten days.

In January, 1922, the Dining Hut was erected, and this eased our accommodation problem-for, until then, the present 111a class-room was the dining room and had to seat one hundred girls, while the present stock room was the only available kitchen.

The near future will probably see an enlargement of our borders, and the writer of reminiscences twenty-one years hence may wonder how we fitted in to our present quarters. Perhaps someone now in School will go to an O.G.S. meeting in 1955, even as the girls of 1913 come to our O.G.S. meetings to-day. Then she can say that, though a little cramped in space, we managed to be very happy, and she can pass on the good wishes which, after this glance back into the past, we send forward to our successors in the future.