1939 – 1945

Olive Willis was determined that her girls should be encouraged to take an adult interest in world affairs; parochialism always irked her. Accordingly, when the Second World War started, she ensured that they were kept abreast of news of the war by being allowed to listen to the radio news every day, and when invasion seemed imminent, she ensured that every pupil had a bag containing iron rations and a little money. The spectacular white of the buildings was camouflaged, and Miss Nickel built a long dank tunnel to act as an air raid shelter. The war was not allowed to disrupt musical and theatrical performances. The ‘Spees’ were another distraction; pupils of Queen’s Gate school in London, evacuated from dangerous London to Downe owing to the friendship between Miss Willis and their Headmistress, Miss Spalding. Elizabeth Jackson (Hall DH 1943) writes, ‘The Air Ministry decreed that the crisscross paving between the Cloisters was being used by the Luftwaffe as a night point of reference, as it stood out for miles around in the moonlight so the whole school turned out and dragged pine branches cut from the surrounding woods to cover all the paving. A week later, we were told that the ruse had not been successful and the whole lot had to be dragged away again.” Sue Woodroffe (Farrer, DH 1948) wrote to her mother about the VE Day celebrations, “After breakfast, we went to watch the St George’s Cross being hoisted on the Chapel tower, we had picnic lunches and at three came in to listen to the Prime Minister. When that was over, we went out to Field and gave sports to the village children, said goodbye to them at half past four, had tea and then we had chapel during which we listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury and then the King at nine. After supper we all went out to St Peter’s Hill where our beacon was going to be lit and gradually we saw other beacons lighting up, some over thirty miles away. Then as the flames died down we sang a few more songs and were then shooed to bed by miss Willis. It was after eleven before we were in bed.”

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The best way to find out more about Downe House is to experience it for yourself. Book a personal tour or join us at one of our Open Mornings, available throughout the year.

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