King Edward Grammar School for Girls Camp Hill, Vicarage Road, Birmingham In Pirton 1942-45
July 1943 saw a group of school girls from King Edward Grammar School for Girls, Camp Hill, Birmingham packing their bicycles and a miscellany of old cases and paper carrier bags on to a train bound for Bedford station and from thence by road to Pirton. Some of them had made a similar journey, a year earlier but I was considered old enough only in the summer of 1943 to join the excursion.
Our beloved French mistress was Freda Weedon, daughter of Fred Weedon, farmer of Cromwell Farm, Pirton. Freda, along with the Classics teacher, Mary Lester, helped by other members of staff, had organised a three week camp so that we schoolgirls could assist in gathering in the harvest, presumably there being a shortage of young male labour at Cromwell Farm. I refer to camp but we were not under canvas. The village school was the focus of our leisure hours, I suppose there must have been twenty-five to thirty of us sleeping on straw filled paillasses on the floor of the school hall
Plan of the primary school
To the road end of the hall, a door opened on to a row of little hand basins and nearby was a classroom in which the staff slept. One evening, I recall, my carrying out some thorough oblutions, dunking my foot in the basin so that it went through. One broken hand basin to which I admitted rather nervously. After all it did not sound a very likely story. Hadn’t there been only feminine toilette after a day in the fields and this was accepted. I wonder if these little basins still exist and whether there is one that does not match the others.
1938 A photo showing the two entrances to the building, boys entrance on the right and girls on the left
Our day began at 7am when we were awoken and summoned to the building across the playground which served as a domestic science centre. There hot tea and a slice of bread and butter awaited us. Then we collected our bicycles, propped up overnight against the school house walls, unlocked and with no danger of their being taken away in the night. There were some morning when an early start was inadvisable because cutting the wheat or barley had not been done owing to overnight or early morning rain. But nearly always, 7.30am saw us engaged in the vital work of ‘stooking’ or ‘shocking’. This work was
truly vital since corn, we were told, left on damp ground was not good husbandry. I think the terms ‘rotting’ and ‘misting’ were used and we knew Mr Weedon would not like that for after all, a crop was very valuable. Early morning saw us in skirts or shorts, blouses (usually our school uniform blouses) socks and shoes (the universal jeans were years off). As the day wore on, socks were rolled down and sleeves rolled up for the summers of 1943, 1944, 1945, I recall as scorching. I remember wearing a pair of Billy Quaifte cricket boots, then too small for my brothers, which gave good protection against the sharp stubble which really did slash the ankles. There was no know defence against “the harvesters” which took particular delight in biting us wherever we were hot and perspiring. Round the waist and thighs were the harvesters happiest hunting ground.
.Stooks in West Lane
With an hour and a half work behind us, we returned to the ‘cook house’ at 9am and partook of breakfast, cooked by two duty members of staff and two duty girls. I think in a three week stay “duty” came round only once. Food seemed to occupy a great deal of thought in those wartime days. We were adolescent, working hard with very limited opportunity to fill up with sweets or chocolate, as many confectionery foods were strictly rationed. But whatever the shortages, breakfasts were good, filling and very welcome after an early start. We were in the most part fairly unfamiliar with farming procedures but we learned quickly. Most of the carts were drawn by splendid huge horses with one of us girls holding leather strapping and leading it from stook to stook. Some of the men would be up in the cart while we girls pitched up the sheaves to them. It was hard work for schoolgirls and I think we were glad that regular physical education at school had developed our back and arm muscles enough to make us useful.
At the horse’s head, we felt mighty powerful. I remember one horse defying me and refusing, in spite of my blandishments, to move on. I appealed to the farm men who I discovered had been enjoying my discomfort and embarrassment. I had to be educated that a horse stands still to pass water and that is what he wanted to do. A large horse produces a veritable torrent. I thought it would never end and meanwhile the farm men shook their heads at my ignorance and the horse’s bewilderment.
Horses were used until the end of the war and then tractors really took over. The first tractor in the village was a titan bought 1919 for Burge End Farm
There were two tractors, I recall, a Fordson and an International and these also hauled carts. I don’t think our driving involved any more than steering and applying the brake but we all waited our turn to be in the driving seat with some delight.
Lunch was from one o’clock until two pm. Again, another feast – two courses, a cup of tea with an obligatory rest on the paillasses. I believe we really did work hard. We were aware of our role in the war – effort, and that members of staff were working along side us. The line of the prayer ‘To give and not to count the cost’ and another from the school song, ‘Die of service not of rust.’ were almost engraved on our hearts and we took them seriously. We were paid of course. I have no recollection of how much. Fred Weedon paid us at the end of each week. That pay, along with money earned in delivering the Christmas post in Birmingham, went a long way to financing me through college.
August 15th 1945 VJ day The girls are loading peas near the pond to take to Borough Market in London. Fred Weeden, the farmer, stands by the lorry. The girls are: Marion Jones, Lavinia Darry and Frances Gilbert (with the sack.) The girls were recruited from King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham, where Fred Weedon’s daughter, Freda, was a French teacher. They camped on straw-filled palliasses on the floor of the old school hall. About 25 girls helped at Fred Weedon’s Cromwell Farm
All the fields had names but these have escaped from my memory. I do remember the pride we had in chatting to the farm men about this or that field and commenting on its acreage. Of the farmers and men, memories remain sharp. Mr Weedon wore jodhpurs, a tweed jacket and a cap from which silver hair was glanced. Mrs Weedon seemed never to emerge from the cool low ceilinged kitchen at the rear of the farm, overlooking a pretty garden. Another farmer, Fred’s brother, George, we came to know and his very handsome son, Ted, I think that’s accurate. Two farm workers, not too much older than we, and so receiving of our scrutiny were Johnny, a dark haired, handsome hulk, of fairly wild behaviour, and, Douglas, Doug, sunny and fair haired. Some of the girls were pretty and attractive which I certainly was not; fairly plump, homely of face and bespectacled but it was me whom Doug kissed on V.J. night 1945 when a huge fire was lit, somewhere near the school. It would be absurd to believe I was attractive. I think I was the nearest girl to hand on that night of euphoria in the west when it looked certain that all hostilities would come to an end; we were too young to countenance what slaughter and despair reigned in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in turn leading to this village celebration. We had also witnessed great formations of bomber aeroplanes ploughing the skies in the summer of 1944; a thrilling sight but mercifully we gave no thought to where these would drop their loads and no thought to how many would not return.
These days of ‘fresh air, in the rain and the sun’ were days of unalloyed pleasure. We were young, healthy, doing our bit and the sun seemed to shine most days, or so it seems, from dawn till very nearly midnight. Double summer time meant that tea, sandwiches and biscuits served in the field at 4.30pm could be followed by at least another four hours work if it was important to make the stooks or complete the carting that evening. For city girls who knew little of the ravages of the rabbit population, the completion of the field signalled cruelty. I refer to the setting fire to the last remaining area of uncut corn to which the rabbits had retreated. Terrified by the flames, the rabbits finally broke to find refuge in the thick hedgerows. The lads gave chase and usually captured and despatched quite a bag; a useful source of meat in those days of shortages but most of us thought it was unspeakably cruel and in our eyes, the lads were diminished by such behaviour.
There was not much spare time but if it rained, we sat around and chatted in the hall and for some unaccountable reason one morning acted out a wedding ceremony. We saw nothing untoward in the bride and groom’s being female. The ceremony was conducted by the then Head Girl, Joyce Sugg, who went on to read English at Somerville. Later she taught in an RC training college in Birmingham and gained some fame from editing the letters of Cardinal Newman. Perhaps this wedding ceremony arose from the wedding of a Weedon cousin while we were there. There was a good deal of excitement in a village grocery shop that morning and I was privileged to see the table set out for the wedding breakfast in the rear of the domestic science centre. I’d never seen such a dazzling display of white napery and glass ware before. Asked by Freda what I thought about it, I wondered if I was going beyond the boundary of courtesy when I replied, “I think it’s lovely but I think the HP sauce bottles look a little out of place.”
No offence was taken but familiarity with members of staff was not accepted. I felt a real devil when I asked Miss Lester whether she had her hair permanently waved. When she and others retired up to thirty years later, we remembered them not only for their learning but because we had been evacuated together and because we had trod the fields of Pirton together. The school was evacuated to Warwick and then Lichfield from 1939-1943.
Whether there was a post box somewhere along the Shillington Road, I can’t remember but very clear to me is a lone cycle ride out of the village one glorious summer evening. One is very vulnerable, aged seventeen years, to one’s own emotions ., Muriel Marchville, intoning ‘I love England with every fibre of my being’ and so did I that evening. I thought I had discovered beauty in the same way that Adam had seen the unsullied newly created world. Words poured through my mind in an abortive attempt to capture the rapture of it all I think I wrote to the Headmistress rather tamely, something like, “The countryside is a veritable patchwork of colour” I hadn’t read Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity’ then. Otherwise I might have done better.
It is clear to me as I write now, fifty five years on, that those experiences at a very formative age, were vital in shaping our future. We worked together, played together, swam together (there was an open air lido at Hitchin, frequented by members of the Fleet Air Arm) in harmony and with purpose I don’t think anyone of us, and I’m still in touch with many of these school friends, regretted one minute of it and realise that it gave our school days a very special dimension.
Standing in the hole half way up the rick
I know Pirton is still a thriving village but I suppose it would be foolish to imagine that were a magic carpet to whisk me there this very evening as I write, that I woiuld have any kind of re-run of my adolescent feelings, as distinct now as they were all those years ago.
It was a late golden evening. Two of us rode back astride two great horses, whose backs were so wide we couldn’t bend our knees to let our legs fall down the side. The elevator was clacking away in the yard at Cromwell Farm, or nearby. We started to unload the cart and pitch up to the men building a rick.
An elevator taking stooks up to the top of the rick.
“Don’t stand on the sheaf, you’re trying to pick up on your fork,” shouted one of them. Clever little grammar school girl, as I thought I was, had not thought of that. Later I had to stand in “hole” part way up the rick, receive from the cart and then pitch up to the men above. We finished at ten thirty as the sun went down. Totally exhausted, but with life before me, I’d never felt so happy.
Different farms had their own shape of rick. These ricks at Elmtree Farm were thatched.
In July 1945 Freda Weedon moved on to another teaching post in Liverpool our school days were over, the wars in Europe and the Far East were mercifully concluded. The Government changed, church bells could be rung; we, the Nation, was optimistic but exhausted. We never ever seemed to capture again that sense of pulling together for a common and good purpose but I feel privileged to have found that wonderful sense of camaraderie so perfectly worked out in the fields of your lovely Pirton and those memories are woven into the person I am now.