1939 students with harvest

Nonington College during World War II by Stephen Burke, who has kindly allowed me to publish the following article which was originally published on the Nonington College Facebook Page.

Although the United Kingdom and France both declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, to begin with not a huge amount happened on the western front and the period was dubbed the Phoney War. Gladys and her students must have carried on as normal hopeful that the war would not touch them. To begin with not a lot did change, the Dover Express reported on 10 May that the annual prize-giving of the Nonington (Aylesham) Evening Institute had taken place and that 18 students from the College had passed the First Aid Certificate.  And on Whit Monday 13 May the College held an open day in aid of the District Nursing Association, with a demonstration of gymnastics and dancing, and “the opportunity of seeing the old-world mansion” and gardens, all for 1/-, a cup of tea was 1/- extra. However by this date the Phoney War had turned hot when on 10 May the Germans invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Then just two weeks later Kent went from sleepy backwater to frontline evacuation centre for the troops rescued from Dunkirk. Nonington College was now just 29 miles away from the enemy, albeit with a handy body of water in the way, but within reach of bombers, long range guns and later in the War V1 flying bombs.

There now follows a dark age in the history of the College. The booklet Nonington College 1938 – 1986 A Short History in Photographs devotes just one short paragraph to the College in wartime. Hopefully when the lockdown lifts and Kent Local History Archives become accessible again we will be able to discover more. In the meantime contemporary newspaper reports do provide some insight. What is clear is that Kent became a fortified county, the beaches were mined, pill-boxes built and crocodile teeth deployed, anti-glider obstacles erected, and tens of thousands of Royal Navy, Army and RAF personnel were stationed in the area. People were evacuated from the frontline coastal areas, and strict exclusion zones set up. It was illegal to be found within five miles of the coastline without a permit, as one hapless motorcyclist discovered to his cost when he was fined £1 for being caught in Wingham, this seems a bit mean as the village appears to be seven miles from the nearest sea. The armed forces and the civilian administrations could and did requisition whatever they wanted for the war effort and the College was no exception. On 5 July 1940 it was reported that “it has been found necessary to remove the offices of the council to St Alban’s Court.” The council being Eastry and District Rural District Council which had been based at new offices in Sandwich.  The Council was paying a “reduced rent of £400 a year” for St Alban’s Court, plus paying for the gardening staff. It was noted that the Council officers in St Alban’s were surrounded by portraits of the Hammond family, and some rather fine fixtures and furnishings. Some of the council members moved into the house with their families, and a small cinema was set up for the staff. In September 1940 the Council ordered 350 yards of anti-splinter netting at 9 ½ a yard (to protect against flying glass in the event of a bomb), had paid for new telephone lines to the house, and had purchased a new duplicator at £40.

Other buildings on the College site were also given over to the war effort. The stable block was used by the Army pay officer for the area, while Old St Alban’s Court was taken over by the local YMCA. The YMCA was delivering tea, refreshments and books to the troops based in Dover and other coastal areas throughout the War.  We learn a little more from the 17 Dec 1940 edition of the Mid-Sussex Times which reported that Mr HF Forwood, in charge of the YMCA work in Dover, was looking for a cook for him and Mr HC Freeland his helper to: “cook for we two, and it would be very simple cooking – plain, English home fare. The domestic quarters are not large, and they are extremely comfortable, and the house is set amidst some of the most beautiful scenery in the country”.

A salary was not mentioned. In the 1939 Register Mr Horace Forwood was listed as the local secretary of the YMCA and was running its Dover hostel assisted by Mr Horace Freeland, both were Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens.

What had become of Nonington College its students and staff? First an important achievement, on 19 September 1941 the Dover Express reported that the College had been granted official recognition by the University of London, and students would henceforth be trained for the diploma in Physical Education of the University. This was quite an accomplishment for Gladys, Stina and their staff given the College was only two years old. The Express further reported that the College had recently moved from Avoncroft to Grafton Manor, but would continue to use the Worcestershire Education Committee model gymnasia and school teaching practice in the area. Avoncroft College was founded by George Cadbury as an adult education centre for the benefit of agricultural workers. So far I have not found out why Nonington College moved into and then out of Avoncroft so quickly, perhaps it did not have suitable playing fields. Avoncroft became a training centre for Jewish refugees later in the War.

Having left Avoncroft Gladys and her college moved into Grafton Manor, an impressive looking house with an equally impressive history. Today it is a restaurant, hotel and wedding venue. In 1939 Grafton Manor was owned by Alfred Willis, a stockbroker, and his wife Grace Murray Willis. From various newspaper advertisements of the time the Willis family appear to have operated it as a sort of hotel cum upmarket boarding house. All this came to an end when Nonington College descended on them!  No rent is mentioned, so I have no idea what the arrangement was with the Willis family. We get some insights into College life at Grafton from the local newspapers. For example in October 1941 the “principal”, presumably Gladys, advertised her five-seater Morris-Cowley 6 1934 model 14/15 h.p. for sale, it had “small mileage”, and was in “good condition”. There was petrol rationing at this time, and it was probably proving impossible to run the car. In March 1943 the College was recruiting an Under-Matron “capable of supervising maids and daily women in the  household cleaning and able to undertake the nursing of minor ailments of the students” and two maids. Around the same time the College was looking for an experienced groundsman to look after a playing field for winter and summer games. And then in June 1944 an experienced cook was sought to start in September, the person had to be able to cater for 50. This last advertisement gives us some idea of the size of the College at the time, perhaps 30 students, 10 staff, and a further 10 domestic and grounds staff.

On the education front newspapers reported that in 1941 Miss Bennett of Nonington College joined the staff of Donington Grammar School as girls’ gym and games mistress. While in May 1942 Miss E Ewan, who had trained at Nonington, became the new gym instructress of North Shields Youth Centre taking over the girls’ and married women’s sections, she was going to teach country dancing, basketball, gym and summer sports. Miss Ewan had been come from a Social Service work post at Durham. In June 1944 a youth leaders’ course was organised by the County Youth Committee at Grafton Manor which was attended by 14 men and 20 women. The lecturers included Professor Moses Williams, Mr AJ Luss, Mr Bernard de Bunsen (who had a noted career in education both in the UK and abroad), Mr Duncan Jones of the Ministry of Information Films Department, and Mr Mackenzie of the Central Council of Recreative Physical Training. The course was designed to help those working as youth workers and included sessions in music, art drama, dance, crafts and physical training. This course reminds me a little of the summer schools Gladys and Stina had organised, and clearly they must have been involved, so it appears odd they did not get a mention.

By the early spring of 1945 the war in Europe was in its final phases, and it appears that Gladys and Stina decided to hold an event at Grafton Manor to celebrate. According to the 12 May edition of the Evesham Standard Grafton’s gardens would be open on 12 and 13 May, and there would be a demonstration of Greek and National Dancing by the students, all for an admission price of 1/-. How odd then that in the very same edition of the paper this appeared: “In error this garden was stated on hand bills advertising the opening of Worcestershire Gardens in aid of District Nursing as being owned by Nonington College of Physical Education. Mrs Murray Willis wishes it to be understood that she is the owner and that Nonington College are wartime tenants who had to evacuate from Kent”.

No mention of who had ordered the hand bills and made this mistake, did Gladys perhaps toy with the idea of buying the Manor? The Wikipedia entry for Grafton Manor has this to say for its use during World War II “The building was certainly used as a hotel during the war years”, Nonington College has been written out of its history.

With the War in Europe over on 18 May 1945 the Dover Express reported this from a meeting of Eastry Rural District Council: “Subject to the playing field being restored and the YMCA vacating the Lodge the directors of the College were happy to terminate the lease on 1 August 1945”.

The lease being the rental agreement between the Council and the directors of Nonington College. Clearly all was in order as on 6 July 1945 the Express ran an advertisement for an: “experienced gardener, with expert knowledge of playing field upkeep essential, modern house available if wife or daughter can undertake cooking or domestic work in College. Apply …to the Principal, Nonington College, at Grafton Manor

Just one day later Mrs Murray Willis put Grafton Manor up for sale.

After five years in the Midlands Nonington College was about to return to Kent, but things were no longer the same as we will see in the next instalment.

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