SA/CA/JHN    2011.158.07

Some recollections of an evacuation from Mote House near Maidstone in Kent, by the Caldecott Community in July 1940 - John Hansen (1937-1947).

Although the ‘blitz’ on London didn’t commence until September in 1940, the German bombers had been targeting the airfields in Kent from the beginning of the year and Maidstone was located at the centre of these targets. So we had become accustomed to watching the ‘dog-fights’ with our own aircraft during daylight, and even to the sound of an occasional bomb. However we would only leave our classroom, in the old stable yard, and retire to the relative safety of the cellars, when the air raid siren sounded in the nearby town. Even so, our books and equipment would be carried with us, and the morning lesson used to continue as though nothing unusual had occurred.

Life was more difficult at night. We slept in the cellars on camp beds and mattresses supported by wooden boards, to provide insulation from the cold stone floor. Furthermore, in order to avoid interrupting those who most needed sleep, we all settled down together at the same time, after supper. Toilets and washing arrangements needed to be improvised, and the member of staff whose turn it was to remain awake all night, would read stories when the gunfire echoed through our subterranean cavern and prevented us from sleeping. But there were quiet spells, even during the day, and we were aware that we could rest on rugs in the afternoon when we needed to.

At the beginning of July, two bombs landed close by, and it was deemed unsafe for us to remain where we were. It so happened, that two of our staff had ‘connections’ with colleges in Oxford, and due to the fact that the students were about to ‘go down’, it was agreed that some of us would be able to utilise their accommodation The few children who had relatives living in ‘safe’ areas were sent to live with them, and the Nursery, which included my five year old brother, was re-established at Wycombe Abbey Girls’ School in Buckinghamshire; a building that had also been vacated for the duration. I also recall that several of those in my age group, Matias Landshoff being one of them, were taken in by the de Selincourt family at their stately home near Chipping Norton.

The remainder headed for Oxford in two coaches; one for the boys and another for the girls. We were given individual lunch packs for a picnic, but what I recall most clearly about the journey, as a ten year old, is that we weren’t supposed to arrive early. In fact it soon became necessary to ‘kill’ time, which was accomplished by visiting Windsor Castle, the Magna Carta commemorative stone at Runny mead, and just about every public toilet between Maidstone and the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’.

When we did finally arrive, we were still ‘too early’, so were taken to a park by the river Cherwell for some exercise. But eventually we were able to enter Somerville College, which was a Ladies college and where Marjory Seaver had studied before graduating in History. Permission had already been granted for the girls to remain here until the start of the Michaelmas term, but unfortunately the boys’ accommodation at St Peter’s Hall was not yet ready, so we were obliged to sleep on the Dining Room floor at Somerville for several nights, surrounded by our possessions.The Principal of St Peter’s Hall was Mary Stocks, later to become Lady Stocks, and the mother of Helen who had recently joined our staff. Whereas the student accommodation consisted of study-bedrooms intended for a single person, three of us were assigned to each room, with two sleeping ‘head to tail’ in the bed and a third on a mattress on the floor. Nevertheless, despite the cramped conditions, the rooms were more comfortable than the cellars had been, and we took turns to wear the long black gown and academic hood, that was discovered in the wardrobe.

The month of August was mostly warm and dry, so a local park became our classroom during the morning, and the afternoons were spent playing games, visiting historic buildings, or watching a film at the cinema if it happened to be raining. But at the beginning of September we were required to vacate these premises, as arrangements were taking place for the start of the new term, and we were all boarded out elsewhere. My mother had joined the Women’s Land Army, and lived in WLA accommodation, so my sister and I went to Welwyn Garden City to stay with a family of Quakers, Members of the Society of Friends, who would begin to pray loudly as soon as the air raid siren sounded at night. September marked the beginning of the ‘blitz’ and their house was only a mile from the de Haviland aircraft factory on the Great North Road; so we were in greater potential danger than we had been at The Mote! But the Home Office had found us a place in Dorset, and when the Caldecott Community was re-established at Hyde House near Wareham, in January, we all felt a great deal safer.