May 2018 Group Meeting Media Report
What must it have been like to be a child of school age during World War 2 in Britain? Mary Smith, our speaker at our May meeting, enlightened us through the illustrated diary of Miss Helen Keen, Art Teacher at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls during this conflict.
Mary, former Head Teacher at this school, told an intriguing story of how this very special diary was discovered. One of the school’s underground shelters, used to protect pupils and staff during air-raids and left undisturbed for decades, was recently located. Although providing protection, these shelters made uncomfortable classrooms – cramped, dingy and damp with concrete walls and narrow wooden benches. Fierce head teacher, Miss Bartles, ensured that all lessons continued – including the sitting of examination papers.
Wanting to find out more Mary examined the school archives. It is not hard to imagine her excitement on finding a box labelled ‘War Diary 1939 – 1946’ which contained a number of evocative paintings! Fascinating minutiae of school life during WW2 was captured in a playful and colourful way by art teacher Helen Keen, yet the paintings and sketches did not disguise difficulties, such as tears on young faces worried about their families at home during the battles in the air and pupils doing school work under school desks.
One year before the start of war in 1939, pupils were celebrating their Golden Jubilee year and proud to have a brand new building, Just one year later the older pupils were helping with the arrival of evacuees, including girls from a school in Plumstead and even acting as fire wardens.
Mary researched other archive material and succeeded in locating 53 of the ‘old girls’ who were at the school during that time who were able to provide first-hand recollections. Along with the pictorial diary, these are now contained in her book ‘A Schoolgirl’s War – The Story of a Kent School in World War Two’.
Helen Keen was born in 1912 and died in 2005, unfortunately before the publication of this book celebrating her work. The air-raid shelter now provides an opportunity for organised groups of children to experience what school life during WW2 was like.
Christina Tyler, Programme Organiser