Memories of The Hall, 1941 – 1945
George Summerfield recollects the extraordinary time at THe Hall during the 2nd World War and the generosity of the Headmaster Mr Wathen.
'I think that is important for future generations at The Hall, Hampstead to have a record of what life was like at the school during the 2nd World War. Now, even at the age of 83, my recollections of the years at The Hall are still vivid – especially as those years played such a vital part in my life. In producing this summary I have the advantage to call upon my identical twin brother, Peter, who shared these important years with me.
The story really begins earlier in Berlin. Born in 1933, the year Adolph Hitler took power with the rise of the fascist Nazi Party, our family found life as Jews increasingly difficult. Fortunately we were able to escape with our parents in late August 1939, a week before the beginning of the 2nd World War, and found refuge in England. All of a sudden we were penniless refugees speaking only German. Soon however we went to a small school in Chiswick where we quickly learnt English. The early years were difficult, and for 8 months we had to sleep in the Underground Station at Tottenham Court Road, to escape the nightly bombing called the Blitz. We then went to a number of schools including one in Camden Town which was destroyed in an air raid.
By January 1941 we lived in Chalk Farm and were enrolled in the local primary school. Because of our German origin we had a most unhappy time there. The children thought of us as German and most of the fathers were away fighting the Germans. My original name of Gunter did not help! My twin brother Peter was the same in either language. Our parents were keen to find a different school.
We moved to Belsize Park and by chance our mother was walking with us in Crossfield Road when she saw the sign for The Hall School. She rang the bell and asked to speak to the Headmaster. Fortunately Mr Wathen was able to meet her and our mother explained the situation in her broken English. In the meantime we were sent into the playground to play with the tyres. Mr Wathen then met us and as a result offered to enrol the two of us for the cost of one. This was a real stroke of luck even though the cost was still very high. We were living in a two room flat, our mother worked as a dressmaker and our father at that time kept records for a clothing company.
As I type this on the computer, I have in front of me my first Report from The Hall for the Summer Term 1941. There were 7 boys in the class, average age 7.6, and I was age 8.1. Final Place was 3rd. Mr Wathen wrote “Keen to get on” at the bottom. I have all my Reports up to Summer Term 1945 aged 12.1. I was placed 10 out of 16 boys average age 12.3. Mr Wathen wrote “Lively and keen on many school interests”. It was during that Term that the war in Europe ended.
The four years at The Hall gave me the grounding needed to compete on equal terms in spite of my German background. One of my friends at school was Bruce Cryer and it was his mother who first suggested to my parents to consider moving to a Grammar School. Life was still tough for my parents and the prospect of free tuition rather than a move to the expense of a Public School would prove beneficial.
That is why Peter and I left The Hall at the age of 12 years after passing the 11plus exam for William Ellis School in Highgate.
The small classes at the Hall provided virtually individual tuition. Mr Wathen took the older boys for French lessons and I still remember that in order to learn conjugations he led us in singing. There was great excitement among us all one year when Mr Baron decided to get engaged and then married Miss Wilkins! From time to time at Assembly Mr Wathen would talk about developments in the war against the Nazis. When the invasion of France took place on what is now called “D Day” – 6th June 1944 – Mr Wathen announced the news and we all sang “For Those in Peril on the Sea”.
During those four years we still had to take cover from time to time whenever the air raid siren sounded. In spite of the food shortage I remember the lunches, held on rectangular tables in the main hall, were of a high standard. For a few days however lunch could not be served in the school and we had to cross the road, to what I believe was called a British Restaurant in Adamson Road. There were some boarders but the majority were day boys. Discipline was quite strict and more than once I was sent to the Headmasters study to get what we called the “whack”. Quite painful!
Towards the end of the war Hitler unleashed his two secret weapons. First we suffered the Flying Bomb – the “doodlebug” or V1. This was a pilotless aircraft with a loud droning noise. Some were shot down before arriving in London but still many got through. An air raid siren would sound. You could take shelter – especially getting away from the danger of flying glass – or wait until you heard the drone. You knew you were only in danger if the drone stopped. You then had a few seconds to take shelter, mostly by diving under a desk or table.
The second secret weapon was the Rocket or V2. I remember walking towards the school in Crossfield Road when, without any warning, I heard the most almighty explosion. This was one of the first Rockets to hit London and fell between Swiss Cottage and Kilburn. There was no warning and no chance to take shelter or any evasive action. The fact that you could be blown up without any warning was very scary and for about 2 months during the Summer Holidays in 1944, Peter and I were evacuated to Disley, near Stockport.
At the last Parents Assembly in July 1945 before leaving The Hall, all the boys lined up on the balcony above the main hall. On our way to the school that day I was given a bar of chocolate when I told a lady who lived in Lambolle Road that we were passing her house for the last time. That was a luxury when all sweets were strictly rationed. I placed the chocolate bar into the inside pocket of my blazer. By the end of Assembly I found that my shirt was soaked in chocolate. It was really embarrassing saying goodbye to all the teachers when dripping all over in chocolate. That was my last memory of the school until recently attending an Anniversary Dinner.
Since leaving the Hall, Peter and I completed A levels at William Ellis Grammar School. We then won full scholarships to read Law at Pembroke College, Oxford. As we had been naturalised British in 1948, we first spent two years on National Service in the Army with postings in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt and in Malta. At Oxford we both achieved identical Second Class Honours Degrees. Peter became an International Solicitor and I moved into Occupational Psychology and started my Vocational Guidance Consultancy called Career Analysts in Central London. We are both married each with five children and numerous grandchildren.
We both feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Mr Wathen and The Hall School for giving us the start in life and the basic educational opportunity which has proved so valuable throughout our lives. '
7th October 2016