Alleyn’s in the 1940s

  • What was it like taking school exams during an air-raid?
  • What happened to the schooling of those London secondary school pupils who weren’t sent away on an evacuation scheme?
  • How did the school children and teachers cope in the post-war austerity years with the scarcity of books, equipment and kit?

Answers to these questions - and many more - can be found in ‘Alleyn’s in the 1940’s. This is the fruit of Alleyn’s School’s oral history series whereby pupils interview Alleyn Old Boys (AOBs) about their childhood memories of Alleyn’s. The first report, ‘Alleyn’s in the 1930’s was published last year.

Using the transcripts of the pupil-led interviews, author and Alleyn’s Head of Alumni Relations Susannah Schofield, delved into the School’s Archives to dig out other documentation of the time. One of the gems she discovered were the handwritten notes of the then Headmaster Ralph Allison for a briefing to his staff about the benefits of the proposed School’s evacuation to Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire in 1941. He scribbled that the evacuation is ‘a piece of positive and creative educational work in a world given over to destruction. It has some of the refreshing qualities of the irrelevant and the eccentric. It is I believe something of an adventure and will demand certain of the pioneering and frontier virtues in its accomplishment: loyalty to a common cause and a zest for improvisation.’

Alleyn’s had quite an improvised and peripatetic existence in the Second World War. Along with many other London schools, Alleyn’s was first evacuated to Kent where they had ‘first-row seats’ for the Battle of Britain - and indeed, many of the AOBs described what it was like watching dog- fights in the skies above Pilgrims’ Way. One remembered that ‘up on the cliffs at Kingsdown, we’d throw stones at the Heinkels as they skimmed over!’ The younger boys were then evacuated to Rogerstone in Wales - and more bombs targeting the steel and aluminium works. There, some of the boys experienced ‘hot-bedding’, where they would sleep in the bed of their steelworker-host during the night only to give up the bed to them in the morning on their host’s return from the night shift for him to sleep in. Finally the boys moved to Rossall where they stayed from January 1941 to March 1945. One of the memories of Rossall most mentioned by AOBs was the football match Alleyn’s played against the RAF team based in Blackpool: a team whose captain was none other than football legend Sir Stanley Matthews; Matthews was the RAF station’s Physical Training Instructor. (Alleyn’s lost.)

Meanwhile, back in SE22, the Townley Road buildings were not gathering dust and cobwebs. On 18 March 1940, the staff opened the School’s doors to boys whose families had not sent them on an official evacuation scheme. Boys from nearby schools, such as St Dunstan’s College, Strand, Wilson’s Grammar, continued their education at the South London Emergency Secondary School (SLESS). Over 1,200 boys from 24 local schools were on the roll during the emergency school’s existence from 1940-March 1945. It is these boys who give unbelievable - and comic if it weren’t so chilling - accounts of taking their School Certificate exams whilst cowering under their desks as the Luftwaffe raged overhead.

After the war, rationing and shortages continued and the AOBs remember the awful food, the war damage to the area, the paucity of books and kit. One of the AOBs described the communal approach to PE: ‘I remember how in the gym they had a stack of plimsolls and you just put on two plimsolls that fitted your feet.’

The 1940s decade at Alleyn’s finished with the School fighting for its survival. Following the war, the cash-strapped governors had to find ways to fund repairs to war-damaged buildings on the Estate, and they accepted an offer from the London County Council to purchase Alleyn’s and to convert it into a ‘multilateral’ [comprehensive] school for up to 2,000 boys. ‘Alleyn’s in the 1940s’ describes the combined efforts of staff, parents and AOBs in their campaign to save the school. Their campaign succeeded. Thirteen years after the Education Act, Alleyn’s was granted Direct Grant Status in 1957.

Headmaster Dr Gary Savage says: ‘The Alleyn’s oral history series is a fascinating and hugely worthwhile project for the School and our pupils. As an historian myself, I have relished the way our AOBs’ memories have given a local flavour to national events which happened in our relatively recent past. Like its predecessor (‘Alleyn’s in the 1930s’), ‘Alleyn’s in the 1940s’ is an eminently-readable synthesis of first-hand testimony, archive documentation, images and official evidence, all beautifully put together by the School’s Head of Alumni Relations. I have received many letters of appreciation about it from our AOBs who have enjoyed remembering their Alleyn’s school-boy days; and I hope that other Dulwich residents might also enjoy this insight into Dulwich days gone by.

There are a small number of copies available and if you would like a copy, please send a cheque made payable to ‘Alleyn’s School’ for £5 (£15 for overseas). Alternatively you can download a copy here