The wartime school at Hatchlands Park
Hatchlands Park has filled a number of different roles over its long lifespan. Chiefly it has been a family home but, in the final few years of Hal Goodhart-Rendel’s ownership, it became a shelter for a group of young women to escape from the dangers of city life in wartime. Between 1939 and 1945, as London experienced daily bombing, Hatchlands provided a safe haven for the girls of St Anne’s Convent School.
When war broke out Hal swiftly arranged for approximately 90 children to be evacuated from their convent school near Croydon. The girls, aged from 7 to 13, started to arrive on 1 September. War was declared just two days later.
Each pupil had to bring bedding and cutlery from home as there was little at Hatchlands to equip a school. Lessons were held in the house and the girls slept in the East Wing, formerly the servants’ quarters. Meals were taken in the hall at the foot of the grand staircase and the Music Room was converted into a chapel.
They were accompanied by the teachers and nuns from the convent whilst Mr Brewster, the butler, assisted with the running of the house. Over the war years the school grew bigger and lesson were taken in other local buildings.
A number of the girls have been back to visit and tell us about their experiences, including Clare Brookes:
'I was 5 when the war broke out. We lived near Croydon and so my parents decided that I’d go to boarding school at Hatchlands rather than to Dunblane in Scotland, where many other pupils were sent. My mother travelled with me by bus. The journey seemed to me to take all day, although it was actually only a couple of hours.
After being interviewed by Mother Felicie, the headmistress, my mother returned home. With other small children I was then confronted by a woman shrouded in black who I assumed was a witch. Later I learnt that the sisters who did domestic work wore black and the nuns who taught wore a black habit with a royal blue scapula. Both the nuns and the sisters were Ladies of Mary, part of the Josephites, a Belgian order.
On a few occasions, Captain Goodhart-Rendel, whom we knew as ‘Major’, came to the school and all the pupils had to be clean, tidy and on their best behaviour. We were allowed to bathe once a week but using just two inches of water.
Throughout the blitz we slept in the cellars every night and again when doodlebugs were fired towards the end of the war. During air raids we had to grab a blanket and our gasmasks, before heading down to the cellars until the ‘All Clear’ sounded. We never heard sounds of gunfire or bombs falling, although on one occasion a German plane flew over and we waved to the pilot who waved back. After this the nuns made us practise lying flat if we heard a plane.
Every Sunday afternoon we were taken for long walks in the park and through the gates at Horsley. We were allowed to play in the park and spent a lot of time climbing the yew trees near the stables. In winter, the nuns would test the ice on the pond to see if it was thick enough for us to slide on.
There were wild strawberries that we picked for jam, a few of which we were allowed to eat. To this day no strawberry tastes as good as those wild ones. We picked rose hips, to be made into syrup for vitamin C, and we gathered strands of silver foil that were strewn when bombs were dropped to jam the radar. Long strips were great treasures, as were pieces of shrapnel and bits of bombs.
All our meals were taken in the servants' hall where we sat on benches at a long table. Each morning we drank our free half-pint of milk but the food was often terrible necessitating removal through the nearest window. The meals were meagre and disgusting and I learnt to loathe all cooked vegetables. On reflection it must’ve been very hard to feed anyone sufficiently and I’m certain we were luckier than many.
I was so young that it took me a long time to adjust and I resented the nuns and the discipline. It was only years later that I understood what a difficult time it must have been for them too. I met some of them at a 25 year reunion and was surprised to find that they were only middle-aged. During my schooling they must’ve been young women themselves, without any experience of caring for children.
Overall I remember these as happy days, my experiences at Hatchlands in those formative years were very beneficial. I’m sure the pupils evacuated here were better off than most wartime children living near London.'
You can still see a little of how the girls of St Anne's Convent school lived. See the spaces where they slept and sheltered from the blitz on one of our regular cellar tours.