The day the war came to Long Marston (part 1)

It seems extraordinary that Long Marston School should have been destroyed by a German bomb in January 1941. Eunice Hall, five years old at the time, recalls her own memories of that fateful day and we discuss the impact on village life

This is the second interview with long term residents of our villages, carried out as part of the launch of the new ‘Tring Rural History’ website, initiated by our Parish Council. We were delighted to be able to visit Eunice Hall at her home in Long Marston, the last house on the left as you head towards Gubblecote.

We were particularly interested to meet Eunice because, during a prior telephone call, she told us that she was a five year old pupil at Long Marston School when it was destroyed by a bomb in 1941. We were also interested in building on our previous interview with the Winfields which described village life in the 1950s, to see how different things were in the previous decade when the country was at war.

One of the things we have noticed about the history of Long Marston is how a number of families seemed to dominate village life and were the drivers of change, almost always for the better; for example the Gregorys, Winfields, Deans, Southernwoods and Chandlers. Eunice told us right away that she was from the Chandler family though the name is no longer seen in the village after most of the recent descendants were female. Her father Cyril Chandler, in addition to running a building business, was a member of Berkhamsted Rural District Council and a keen local historian.

We had previously accessed all the public information about the bombing of the school but it was far more valuable to hear about it from someone who was there, even if only five years old at the time. But Eunice’s memories are very clear. It was around 4pm in the afternoon, soon after the children had finished lessons. Eunice was in the coal shed behind the family’s bungalow in Gubblecote when she heard an enormous bang that shook the building and all those around it. Some children were still playing in the road near the school and one of the evacuee pupils – Eunice even remembers that her name was Jean Frost – had a severe leg injury to which the Headmaster applied a splint. Apparently the child’s mother later complained bitterly that her daughter had come to the country to avoid injury, not to suffer it.

The tragedy of that day was the death of the Infant Mistress Ruth Whelan who lived in the School House which was totally destroyed. Eunice told us that two adult evacuees who lived in the same house were also killed, though other accounts suggest that they may have survived and returned to London. Two other bombs were dropped – Eunice remembers hearing the further explosions – but caused no damage, one in a pond in Puttenham and one in Marsworth.

It was never established why the bomb was dropped in such a quiet country area; it was thought to be connected to Long Marston Airfield though at that time it was still only at the construction stage. There was even a rumour that it was an RAF plane discarding bombs on its way home.

The children may have had hopes that they would avoid school for a while but it was not long before lessons were organised. A new infant teacher was quickly brought in and the pupils were spread between three different locations; infants to the Baptist Chapel, Juniors to the Old Parish Room in Puttenham and Seniors to Long Marston Parish Hall. Eunice recalls being spanked by the new infant teacher for the crime of being unable to find pencils in the stationery cupboard, something that thankfully could not happen today. Another unpleasant memory was that the Sunday School, which was held at the school, was discontinued after the vicar, Reverend Anthony, decided that children should attend Church instead. The very formal ‘High Church’ service did not go down well with the little ones!

Our conversation then moved on to life in general during the wartime and immediate post war period. Eunice’s memories of the remainder of the war are generally pleasant ones, in particular watching the airfield as it developed, first for the RAF and later for the American Air Force. Despite the bomb disaster, there was no fear, more excitement as they saw planes come and go, taking their numbers as they flew by. The other memory is of the roads being completely deserted because of wartime travel restrictions and petrol rationing so the children could play hopscotch and spinning top on the main road, only disturbed by the odd military convoy.

Eunice also remembers the May Day celebrations after the war and recalls the day when she was crowned May Queen, wearing her mother’s wedding dress, suitably adapted to her size, and old sandals painted silver by her father. In her teenage years she enjoyed the regular Saturday Night Dance in the new Victory Hall, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the notorious ‘Stewkley Boys’.

Eunice remembers the village as an integrated and self-contained community. Many residents worked on nearby farms or in local businesses so rarely did people have to leave to work or do their shopping. In addition to the enterprises mentioned in last month’s article, there was also a builders yard, a haircutter, a sweet shop and milk delivered by horse and cart. Eunice’s memories of the butchers’ slaughterhouse are rather more pleasant than the Winfields (who recalled children being asked to stand on dead animals to drain the blood); she remembers her father returning on his bike from the slaughterhouse with pigs’ chitterlins to help her mother feed the family.

This interview revealed to us the true extent of the tragedy that befell Long Marston during that fatal day on 13th January 1941. We think we have it tough with Covid, Climate Change and all the other things we worry about but how does that compare with a school destroyed in seconds and a teacher killed? From everything we have heard from Eunice and elsewhere, Long Marston people just carried on calmly, getting on with things and doing what was necessary to survive. Maybe that determination was something to do with the strength of the village as a self- contained community where everyone knew each other and pulled together in the common interest. Would we cope so well today?

Sadly, Eunice Hall passed away on 6th October 2021 and we were grateful to be able to record her memories at that time.

By Jenny Warner

Read Part 2 of “The day the war came to Long Marston” here.

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