Wartime in the Dorm

Evacuees from Portsmouth High School for Girls © National Trust

Evacuees from Portsmouth High School for Girls

Latest update 28.07.2014 12:16

In 1939 the peaceful world of Hinton Ampner was turned upside down when it became the wartime home for Portsmouth High School for Girls. 75 years on, the girls have returned to tell their story.

A new family exhibition brings to life the girls’ experiences and memories, with wartime beds, clothing, school magazines and diaries, photographs and vivid personal accounts. Younger visitors, issued with their own evacuee label and wartime quiz trail, can try on clothing and gas masks, and handle 1940s food and ration books.

The exhibition, told in the girls’ own words, reveals an existence of great contrasts. Friendships blossomed in this rural idyll where they played PE on lawns overlooking the South Downs, tucked into midnight feasts (albeit of toothpaste sandwiches), enjoyed nature walks, and even went hay making.

A darker side
Yet beneath the jollity lay an undercurrent of fear; when the German bombs rained down on Portsmouth, the girls could see the burning glow from Hinton Ampner but had no way of knowing if their families were alive or dead.

During bombing raids on Portsmouth and nearby Southampton, the girls trooped down to the basements, which doubled as air raid shelters, singing their own special song to keep their spirits up. Raids were frequent and on some nights the girls were brought downstairs to sleep on mattresses on the ground floor. ‘One memorable night a bomber flew very close overhead,’ says former pupil Thelma Wield. ‘The sound of the plane terrified me and I ran from my bed, mercifully into the comforting arms of Miss Smith our matron. We were never hit, but a stray bomb landed quite closely I think and a plane crashed into a field nearby.’

Hinton’s boarding school transformation
At this time, Hinton Ampner was the private home of Ralph Dutton, the 8th Baron Sherborne. To accommodate the school, Dutton had to pack away his treasured possessions and allow significant changes to the layout of his beautiful rooms. The dining room was soon packed with trestle tables which served as desks and dining tables and large bedrooms became dormitories.

‘There were about eight in my dormitory and we were not allowed to talk after lights out or get out of bed, even to go to the loo’ explains the baby of the group,Trisha Ferris, who was six when she came to Hinton. ‘If this rule was broken we were sent to the kitchen to peel potatoes or tidy the cloakroom which was down in the spooky cellar; we were very aware of the legend of Hinton’s terrifying ghost.'

‘Sweets were rare treats, so things like Ovaltine tablets were prized. We also ate the beech nuts that fell onto the drive. I remember having a jar of Marmite that I passed around each night and into which we dipped our fingers.’

Close bonds to this day
Many of the girls have remained in contact to this day. Thelma is a volunteer room steward at the house, whilst Trisha lives in nearby Cheriton: ‘I am very lucky to live just six miles from Hinton Ampner and I frequently walk the same paths and fields I did as an evacuee,’ she says. ‘These are the tracks where I heard my first yellowhammer, and saw my first fairy slippers in the flower of a dead nettle. This period had a profound influence on my life.’

‘These women are inspirational, and their stories, are a fascinating insight into a little known piece of World War Two history,’ says Hinton Ampner’s visitor experience and events officer, Louise Washington. ‘I call them the Band of Sisters because of the incredible bond they developed from all the uncertainty of those years during the war.’

The school remained at the house until 1945 when it returned to its present site in Kent Road, Southsea. ‘It is wonderful that we still have links with Hinton Ampner 75 years after the girls were evacuated there; we hold the same values today and we did then,’ says Jane Prescott, the school’s current headmistress.

Wartime in the Dorm runs until 31 August.