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The College during the Interwar Years and World War Two

The interwar years

The interwar years saw much change.  Father Manning oversaw the transition from the Oxford Local Examinations to Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board Examinations, to compete with the top public schools - the tendency of the brightest students to leave the College at 15 or 16 in favour of the more established Catholic schools was broadly quelled by this.   The House system was introduced in 1921, with three initial houses: Fisher, More and Campion.  Southwell would be added later.  The House System led to an expansion in extra-curricular activities, and the inter-house competitions stimulated students greatly.

Additionally, drama increased in popularity amongst the students.  The annual Shrovetide Plays were produced by Father Manning and took place in the College Hall.  A proper removable stage was installed and paid for by the proceeds of tickets sold.  Productions were very popular and included Theodore de Banville’s ‘Gringoire’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.

In 1933, Donhead Lodge, the new preparatory school, was established.  The 72 pupils from Lower Preparatory, Preparatory and Elements moved to the new site.

Sport remained an important part of the College identity.  Eight acres of field off Coombe Lane was bought in 1929 for sporting purposes, lime trees were planted around the vicinity to try and prevent rugby balls landing in neighbours’ gardens.  The rugby fixture list expanded to include the likes of Tiffin School, KCS and Haberdashers Askes.  Cricket also thrived, with a score of 326 against St. Ignatius’ College in one innings in 1927 proving the main highlight.

Father John Sinnott S.J became Prefect of Studies and Headmaster in 1937.  He was an old boy of the college, knowing the College’s strengths and weaknesses like no other.

The new headmaster soon set to work trying to obtain recognition of the College as an efficient school from the Board of Education, which would allow it to take on scholarship students from elementary schools.  Following a favourable inspection in 1938, the headmaster set about acting on suggested improvements.  Inter-house competitions took on a more academic character, with prizes in all the main subjects as well as elocution competitions being organized.  Boys were encouraged to learn the violin and a Careers Bureau was established.

Most notably, Father Sinnott wanted to develop the school site further, with new classrooms, school laboratories, and the creation of a northern entrance accessible from the Ridgway.  These plans were abandoned after the outbreak of World War Two, which saw tight restrictions on the sale of steel and timber for all but the most essential construction projects.

The College during WW2

The Second World War was much more disruptive to the functioning of the College than the Great War.  The prospect of enemy aerial bombardment necessitated the creation of bomb shelters - a visit from Air Raid Wardens determined that the cellars of Wimbledon College and Donhead were sufficient, with minor modifications.  Sandbags were brought in and ceilings reinforced with timber beams.  Wimbledon College was situated in the non-evacuation area and so it was decided that school should go on.  War broke out on 3rd September 1939, and the school term began three weeks later.

The school day was changed.  Games had to be cancelled as the games field was too far away from any bomb shelters.  Break was shortened and generally the academic side of the school took precedence over extra-curricular activities.

In 1940, the German bombing of the UK intensified, with 71 air raids over London between September 1940 and May 1941.  The German bombers frequently passed over Wimbledon, even when headed for targets in the Midlands.  The disruption to classes was so great that it was decided that students should take their books down with them to the cellars where lessons would continue, accompanied by the noise of bombs exploding and anti-aircraft fire.

The College played its part in the war effort as an emergency feeding post and first aid centre.  The swimming pool was a valuable source of water for the local fire brigade.

Following a lull in German air raids, 1944 saw the era of V2 raids.  On 18th February 1944, a bomb exploded on the Convent of the Sisters of Mary in the Downs.  Five nuns were killed, with several others wounded.  The shockwaves were so great that several of the College’s windows were shattered, doors were broken, and the ceiling of the swimming pool caved in.  In Summer 1944, therefore, it was arranged that candidates for the Higher Certificate and School Certificate would take their exams in Mount St Mary’s College, Derbyshire.

Throughout the war period, Father Sinnott continued to look ahead to the long term future of the school and concluded that the independent model was not sustainable.  In January 1942 he applied to Surrey County Council for Deficiency Aided School status, which the College was granted in 1942.  This gave the College financial support from the Local Education Authority whilst retaining the School’s religious character.  Then, in March 1945, fees were abolished at the request of the Surrey Educational Committee and the College began the process of becoming a  Voluntary Aided Grammar School, formally recognised in July 1948.  This astute act by Father Sinnott safeguarded the College’s future, and opened up the College to Catholic children from all backgrounds.

58 former members of Wimbledon College were killed fighting in World War 2, including Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde, who died in February 1942 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  They are commemorated on the College Chapel memorial.

For more information about life at the College during World War 2, see the BBC WW2 People's War archives.