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News > OP updates > Regeneration

Regeneration

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the school - like the country - sought to build back better. In this article, John Sadden reflects on the resilience of nature and of PGS.
17 Nov 2021
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
A group of pupils just back from wartime evacuation, January 1945
A group of pupils just back from wartime evacuation, January 1945

On the 1st March 1945, three months after pupils had returned from war-time evacuation in Southbourne, the President of The Field Club, Mr McCarthy, delivered a short talk on “The loss and gain of British Birds”.  During the war, members had fully taken advantage of the opportunities to explore the natural history of the Dorset and Hampshire countryside, but now they were back home in old Pompey. Members heard how, “although civilisation, with its machines and massacres” had “driven away kites, corncrakes, quails and swallows”, there had been “a very notable increase in the number of swifts, goldfinches, fulmar petrels and black redstarts which relish bombed ruins”.

Kings Road, just a few hundred yards from the school, was one of the most heavily blitzed areas of the city. Once a bustling shopping area it was now silent and in ruins with familiar landmarks turned to rubble and shop and house interiors rudely exposed. But it was with some excitement that several members of the club, equipped with eight-inch binoculars, reported having spotted a solitary sparrowhawk soaring high in the skies above. Not long before it been large numbers of Heinkels that had darkened the skies, their heavy, ominous drone resonating across the city, putting fear into the hearts of the population. There had been 67 air raids on Portsmouth. 930 civilians were killed and 2,837 injured. Over 6,000 properties were destroyed. But now the skies were bright and clear and the silence that had followed the bombing was being gently interrupted by birdsong.  A pupil observed that HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays), a prime target for those Heinkels, had attracted at least nine families of sparrows taking shelter.   

Flora, too, flourished amid the ruins. Lucerne was found by one member on the bombsite opposite the school and large quantities of biting stonecrop were reported growing in the bombed-out, roofless Garrison Church. A strange, unidentified ragwort was found near the Cathedral and surprise was expressed at the profusion with which ivy-leaved toadflex grew in the city’s ruins. Butterflies and moths found on one bombsite in a short space of time included a clouded yellow, a red admiral, a cabbage white, comma and peacock butterflies, small tortoiseshell, a painted lady, a hummingbird moth, a hawksmoth and a large dragonfly. In the Solent, one pupil reported seeing a shoal of porpoises leaping from the water quite close to Southsea beach.

News of the victory against fascism was greeted by the church bells of those churches that had survived. In Portsmouth Harbour, ships’ sirens and hooters joined in a chorus of celebration.  The residents of the city decked their battered, narrow terraced streets with bunting and Union Jacks. Spontaneous street parties took off with singing and dancing. Effigies of Hitler were burned. One immediate and very welcome benefit for pupils, announced by Headmaster Donald Lindsay, was a two-day school holiday enabling pupils to join the street parties and, later, a crowd of 25,000 celebrating in the Guildhall Square. They cheered as sailors climbed the burned-out shell of the Guildhall tower to ring the Pompey Chimes - Play up Pompey, Pompey Play Up!

Across the country the people responded to the call to build back better. A Labour Government was voted in and poverty, homelessness and ill-health were seriously addressed as a priority for the first time in the country’s history. The National Health Service and welfare state were established and a mass house-building programme launched. Meanwhile, the Portmuthian reported that the school “is rising Phoenix-like from its own ashes”. The school site, occupied by the Royal Navy for five years, had been bombed. Incendiaries had badly damaged the Lower School (now the Upper Junior) and an explosive bomb made a large crater in the Quad, taking out many windows. The Memorial Library had also been trashed, though the First World War memorial itself had survived.

The woodwork teacher, Mr Asher, recruited a group of enthusiastic senior boys to help with repairs. Sleeves were rolled up and classrooms reinstated. One job was to remove the air-raid shelters and huge water tanks which occupied a large part of the Quad.

The Hilsea playing fields were in a terrible state following army use and arrangements were made for athletic sports to take place at the Royal Naval ground at Pitt Street. Meanwhile, the Field Club members identified 17 different birds at Hilsea, including goldfinches, greenfinches, willow warblers, whitethroats and a cuckoo.

While nature reclaimed the bombed-out city, pupils reclaimed their school. Temporary wartime staff left, pre-war staff returned and new staff were taken on. Confidence was growing. The number of pupil admissions increased dramatically. “Already, the school is regaining its former vigour”, it was reported, “enthusiasm grows apace”. The school was “on the threshold of a new age“.

A renaissance in school music began in 1945 with the appointment of John Davison as Cathedral organist and choirmaster. He “browbeat and cajoled 700 initially reluctant teenagers”, whose only experience of singing was often Ten Green Bottles in an air-raid shelter, to give inspired, whole school renderings of Brahms Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Mass in B minor. These massed choral events led to PGS voices filling venues from the Cathedral to the Royal Albert Hall.

A Lower School play for Christmas, 1946 looked beyond the post-war dreams and into the far and distant future, that of the new millennium. “The Goblin” depicted the world in the year 2000, with pupils depicting “realistic robots”. Science and technology was the future and, over the next decade, the school rose to the challenge of massively increasing opportunities and provision, with the building of new laboratories and lecture rooms. The Field Club acquired an epidiascope. Debating Society motions proposing that “Ignorance is bliss”, that “scientific progress has gone far enough” and that “a free health service is undesirable” were roundly defeated. 

But amid the optimism and the looking forward, there was need and a duty to remember and to reflect. The school launched an appeal to the school community to finance the restoration of the library and a new war memorial. The unveiling ceremony was attended by many from the school community, including the parents of many of those former pupils whose names appear on it.  

John Sadden, School Archivist

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