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Days before the summer holidays began at the end of July 1939, Sellincourt Road School in Tooting opened its doors to parents and friends of the Junior and Senior Mixed School departments to see the pupils at work and play, then listen as staff explained the school’s modern teaching methods which encouraged children to use their imagination[i]. All three Mayhew children attended the school and may have taken part in the day’s programme of songs and physical training, plus an exhibition of pupils’ work when boys demonstrated metalwork and woodwork, while girls demonstrated needlework and embroidery.
Just four weeks later, schools in cities across the UK held evacuation rehearsals as the political crisis in Europe intensified. Sellincourt’s headmaster, Mr Maunder, called an assembly of the whole school in the playground to give his final words of instruction to his charges[ii], but only about half of his pupils attended. It’s likely that Peter and his siblings were present as, a couple of days later, on Friday 1st September 1939, they joined the first wave of children to leave the area.
Britain was not yet at war and the evacuation scheme was voluntary. A huge government campaign to encourage parents to send their children from urban ‘target’ areas to the relative safety of the countryside was launched. Despite the fear of air attacks, the decision to send their children off into the unknown before the outbreak of hostilities, or to put their lives at risk by staying put, could not have been an easy one.
How the children felt is hard to imagine: was this a terrifying experience or the start of a big adventure? Many children would likely have experienced a mixture of emotions, and it would only be later when they arrived at their – as yet unknown – destination that the reality of their new situation would begin to sink in.
When they left their home in the early morning, each child carried hand luggage containing their gas mask, a change of underwear, night clothes, slippers or plimsolls, a toothbrush, towel, soap and a face cloth, handkerchiefs and hopefully a warm coat or mackintosh. They should also have been provided with sandwiches or some food for the journey. As the eldest, thirteen-year-old Arthur would have been told to take his younger sister and brother with him and keep them close to him all day. The children assembled at their school early in the morning, where a luggage label was pinned to each child’s coat on which was written their name, school and evacuation authority. The children walked to Tooting Junction station where they were loaded onto a train to Chichester, then bused to their destination village of Funtington in rural West Sussex.
Violet Wilkins, whose husband was the Head of Funtington Village School, recalled “The newcomers came by train to Chichester and were quickly transferred to coaches to be taken to the surrounding villages as well as the city itself. Three coach loads arrived in our parish, which was really made up of three villages and a few hamlets. Unfortunately although the London schools had left complete, they were separated on arrival at Chichester and we received children from three different schools – Ensham Central Girls School, Sellincourt Junior School and a Roman Catholic school. This made for difficulties for the London schools and I remember that Ensham were scattered into four different local schools, which was not too satisfactory. However ours were soon billeted with all kinds of families usually in pairs. One of the big houses (owned by Mr Booth of a well known shipping line) had five children and a teacher from the junior school and it was a very happy billet.”[iii]
Finding homes was often traumatic: generally, billeting officials would line the newly arrived children up against a wall or on a stage in the village hall, and invite potential hosts to take their pick. The phrase, “I’ll take that one” became a statement indelibly etched in countless children’s memories[iv]. We can never know why the Mayhew children were chosen by the Booths, but we can be certain that, from that moment, their lives would never be the same again.
George Macaulay Booth, son of the social reformer Charles Booth, was a successful businessman and owner of Funtington Lodge, a detached house with a music room large enough for 60 guests, ¾ acre of grounds and even an outdoor swimming pool. George and his wife Margaret had raised six children of their own and had previous experience of welcoming other children to their home, including a young Jewish musician Natasha Litvin, later Lady Natasha Spender, when they took care of her and encouraged her musical gifts[v]. In a biography of his parents, Natasha’s son wrote “Funtington was full of the Booth children, although they were slightly older than Natasha. There are photographs. She is with them. They are in a magnificent tree-house in a chestnut tree. The joy was to be allowed to join them there among the dark foliage, pulling the ladder up after us, impregnable in our leafy hideaway.”[vi]
On Monday 1st September 1939 Britain declared war on German, just three days after the children’s departure from London, but this announcement may have taken second stage to the excitement of settling into their new home with the freedom to explore fields and woods around the tiny village with its 12th century church on the edge of the South Downs. Despite being a large house, their billet would have been full of activity as the Booths had four of their children staying, a student guest, eight evacuees and their teacher, plus a housemaid and cook[vii].
The following day, Funtington Village School, which is actually located in the village of West Ashling just over a mile away, was opened for use by the evacuated schools, then on 11th September all scholars were assembled for grouping into their new classes[viii]. When term started on 13th September, there were 112 evacuees and 109 local children attending and the local teachers were assisted by seven additional staff from London[ix], including Miss Keene, who was also billeted at Funtington Lodge.
Peter and the other children would walk to and from school along Watery Lane, a narrow and sometimes muddy track lined with hedgerows, fields, ponds and watercress beds. There were four classrooms in the main school where local children and evacuees worked side by side in classes arranged according to the age and ability of the pupils. One additional class was held in the Women’s Institute Hall for older girls taking lessons in commercial subjects including bookkeeping, shorthand and French[x]. Somehow the school managed to maintain normal school hours and did not find it necessary to employ a double shift system to accommodate the new arrivals[xi].
When term ended on 22nd December 1939, it was noted in the School Log “in spite of difficulties a good term’s work has been done. Progress has been made in all departments. The local and evacuated children are working and playing well together and it is felt that the merging of schools has met with success”[xii].
Meantime, the Booths had quickly become involved in organising extra-curricular activities for all the evacuees in the village including a cinema show at the Women’s Institute organised by their youngest son Zac Booth which “was enthusiastically enjoyed by the evacuees” followed by “physical exercise and expression work conducted by Miss Booth”[xiii]. By Christmas 1939 “A very unique entertainment was prepared by Mr and Mrs Booth and family of Funtington Hall. A party of seven evacuees from Selincourt School are billeted here and a delightful sketch entitled “Snow White and the Five Dwarfs” was presented on many occasions in the beautifully equipped theatre at Funtington Hall. It was received with the greatest admiration by young and old who all expressed their appreciation of what had been done by the Booth family”[xiv].
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[i] Norwood News 28 Jul 1939 p10
[iii] Norwood News 1 Sep 1939 p12
[iii] Funtington Archive https://sites.google.com/site/funtingtonarchive/General-history/sidney-wilkins last accessed 25 Nov 2021
[iv] Operation Pied Piper: The Evacuation of English Children During World War II by Dwight Jon Zimmerman last accessed 10 Nov 2021
[v] Guardian Obituary of Natasha Spender 22 Oct 2010
[vi] A house in St John’s Wood: in search of my parents by Matthew Spender https://archive.org/details/houseinstjohnswo0000spen last accessed 04 Oct 2021
[vii] 1939 Register G101/2615E/010/41 Letter Code: ENCK © Findmypast Ltd
[viii] West Sussex County Records Office: Funtington School Log Book (part of Accession 17429)
[xi] Chichester Observer 2 Dec 1939
[xii]West Sussex County Records Office: Funtington School Log Book (part of Accession 17429)
[xiii]Chichester Observer 21 Oct 1939
[xiv] Chichester Observer 6 Jan 1940