Resilience and Adaptability Through the Years, Part II

As promised, we’re back in the School archives this week for another look at how St Mary’s fared during past times of crisis.

The language of war is often used in the media in relation to the current situation, and of course they routinely do the same in many other areas of life – sport in particular springs to mind. While I understand the desire to get across a sense of urgency and significance, I think we need to be careful to avoid metaphor turning into hyperbole. This also holds true for the tendency to describe every negative event as ‘tragic’: without getting into a technical debate on the meaning of that term in classical drama, to overuse any kind of originally emphatic or extreme language ultimately devalues it and – more importantly – the experience of those who have genuine first-hand experience of war, or of other genuinely tragic events.

With that in mind, I wanted to share with you in this blog some material from the archives at the time of the Second World War, from the annual news sheet dated September 1942. The news sheet starts poignantly: “That we have had another full, happy and undisturbed School year will be gathered from the news that follows”, it begins – but then this is immediately followed for almost two pages by the ‘third list’ of the ‘St Mary’s Roll of Honour’, capturing all too clearly the direct effect on the School community of the conflict. The list is divided into three categories that themselves have the power to shock: ‘Killed in action’; ‘Missing’; and ‘Prisoners of War’; and by each name are given the names of the St Mary’s pupils or alumnae whose relative the person is. As the new sheet says: “May we assure all those who are suffering such loss, or such anxiety, that the School never forgets them”. I hope that this blog helps to refresh that collective memory.

It’s telling that there is no mention of battles or tragedy, and the language used by the Headmistress, Miss Matthews, in her letter to the Old Girls’ Association at the end of the news sheet is also moving, but measured: “While war wages, and life grows more and more difficult, we are still wonderfully blessed in that St Mary’s carries on so normally… I feel more than ever how extraordinarily fortunate we are in a Staff that is daunted by nothing, a Staff whose ‘teamwork’ is so outstandingly helpful in all we are trying to do here to fit the present generation for conditions so different from those we once expected for them… And that the Old Girls are rising to their responsibilities is happily most evident. We are very proud of you. Whether you are a pilot in the A.T.A. (Air Transport Auxiliary)*, or helping to ‘hold the fort’ in Malta, or merely typing, or even scrubbing, to orders, or carrying on your homes under endless difficulties, it is all the same. It is the spirit you put into it that matters…”.

Finally, another part of the news sheet, at what we know was an extremely difficult time in the War, the School was already looking to the future with an initiative called ‘Housing Week’. As the news sheet states: “If the aim of education is to make good citizens, every school should have a ‘housing week’. In our ‘housing week’ almost every lecture stressed the importance of creating an informed and interested public opinion about housing and town planning. The progress of reconstruction after the war will be greatly endangered unless large sections of the public are roused from their present state of apathy, and a strong body of enthusiasts must be formed to resist defeatism. This can be done most effectively through the schools”.

What an inspiring attitude at such a difficult time, and what a reminder of the importance of the School’s role in recovery. Although the threats are entirely different in their nature and scale, I feel a real connection with Miss Matthews as she talks about how the School is preparing the pupils for a world that has changed. I hope that we can show such spirit and wisdom in the face of the challenges that lie ahead.

Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne

*Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), founded at the outbreak of World War II, was a civilian organisation which made an enormous contribution to victory by taking over from service pilots the task of ferrying RAF and RN warplanes between factories, maintenance units and front-line squadrons.

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