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Friday, 24 October 2014

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Poignant last reunion

THIS year marks the 70th anniversary of the wartime evacuation from London to St Bees of Mill Hill School.

A re-union of the Old Millhillians Association has once again been held at the seaside village but was a more poignant affair than usual as it happened to be the last.

The Old Millhillians are now in their 70s and 80s, decades away from those wartime years when they were all evacuated as schoolboys to St Bees, to avoid the German bombing of London.

Though mainly boys, there were a couple of girls amongst them, the daughters of teachers, one of them being the well-known author and Guardian columnist Katharine Whitehorn, who is now 80, and attended the event.

It was in September 1939 that a young Katharine, the 11-year-old daughter of housemaster Alan Whitehorn arrived on strange soil and had struck up an improvised “Chopsticks’’ as the school pianos from Mill Hill were being unloaded from the train at St Bees station.

The famous public school of Mill Hill in London was to become an Emergency Hospital run by army nurses and the children all had to move away from the capital to a safer environment for the duration of the war.

The main school’s ‘prep’ school, Belmont, joined its seniors into exile, from an equally lovely site in north-west London’s green-belt, to occupy the empty buildings of St Helens School, in Cockermouth, staying on there until July 1946.

This last reunion weekend in Cumbria saw a gathering for the Old Boys at the Queens Hotel in St Bees, whose bar was mischievously dubbed the Masters Common Room. And there were nostalgic visits to St Bees School and some old haunts, including the Seacote Hotel, where many of the 256 pupils were billeted and taught in make-shift classrooms.

Sometimes referred to as the band of pilgrims or the bicycling legions, the boys had to find their bearings in their new abode pretty quickly. Classrooms, masters’ homes and boarding accommodation all had to be hurriedly improvised.

Samuel West’s Seacote Hotel was the social hub, with central catering, and where morning assembly was held, before breakfast. The set-up made national news with a Daily Mirror headline of the time reading The School in a Pub.

Mrs Midd’s tuck shop at 38 Main Street was a popular draw and there were improvised rugger pitches on Tomlin Field, while West’s Field was used for cricket. The St Bees sands, at low tide, provided a wide open space for cycling, running and generally keeping fit.

Though pupils were told there would be no fusion of Mill Hill with St Bees school, from the outset a two-way co-operation prevailed. One St Beghian wrote of the southerners: “They were a source of constant fascination to us in their smart grey suits and carrying umbrellas’’ yet rivalry was endemic with derby matches on the village fields.

The Londoners, though used to the spartan existence of public school, found conditions on the beautiful but cold and windswept Cumbrian coast pretty tough.

The Mill Hill boys were instructed that talking to girls was forbidden. When the head Dr John Whale arrived in 1944 his daughter Margaret found it all very lonely. She is now Lady Margaret Elliott and was amongst those attending the weekend final reunion.

In October 1945 only 150 pupils were to return to London.

The St Bees Old Millhillians Association was started in 1986/87 by David Smith and Lakes hotelier Michael Berry, both now deceased. Last weekend there was an overnight stay at Low Wood, Windermere, run by Simon Berry, Michael’s son.

Re-union organiser Jean Clarkson said: “It is fitting that they stayed there. After dinner there was a special firing of Michael’s cannon on the jetty in their honour. Michael died in June 2004.

“In 1989 they celebrated the 50 year anniversary. And at this month’s 70th anniversary there 25 people attended, including wives. One Old Boy travelled from New Zealand to be there and another from Italy.

“They all had a wonderful weekend. It was very nostalgic for them, especially being the last, and very moving for the rest of us.

“Richard Stout even took them up to the lighthouse to see the scenes of their youthful cross country runs!

“They had all appreciated how welcome they were made to feel when they descended as children on an unfamiliar part of the country within the ‘safety zone’ of Cumberland, all those years ago,’’ said Jean. “It’s the end of an era, really.’’

There was a traditional signing of “the visitors’ book’’ at Richard Stout’s garage and a look around the school (Jeffrey Evans, currently head of English at St Bees School was formerly a master at Mill Hill).

The Old Millhillians have in the past contributed to the Priory Paddock project and funded memorial seats in the village.

In November, 2006 author Roderick Braithwaite, brought out a book about the school’s history entitled “Strikingly alive... the History of the Mill Hill School Foundation 1807-2007’’ published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, West Sussex ISBN 1 86077 330 3. (See Michael Moon Bookshop to obtain a copy of the book).

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