A short survey of the particular position Salisbury held in this county between 1914 and 1919 will help towards an understanding of the War work undertaken by those learning, teaching, and engaged on the Domestic Staff at the Godolphin School.
The city was the headquarters of the Southern Command, and the nearest town to Salisbury Plain with its large, permanent camps. This peace-time military district was enlarged as the War went on, till the valleys within a ten and fifteen miles radius seemed one great camp, and the downs above one vast training ground.
Very soon every spare hall, house and room in Salisbury was required for direct or indirect military use. There was no space left for the housing of outsiders imported to help in the local work brought about by this condition.
To add to this congestion the Southern Area, R.A.F., commandeered Mr. Whytehead’s School, established headquarters there, and instantly demanded fifty women clerks. The Military Staff began to require women clerks at the Fisherton War Office, women to replace drivers of their cars, women to work large laundries. Then came the call of the W.A.A.C.’s and W.R.N.S. The local demand for women grew apace, and there was a choice of many interesting and exciting jobs, both within the city and in the large camps nearby. Added to that, more urgent and constant calls from across the Channel.
The Head Mistress of the Godolphin School was brought face to face with these conditions. She realised that to all of us the War came first, and yet that her school must go on, and therefore that her staff must work in their free time and holidays, and that the children sent to this school must take their share as well or be sent to a less congested area.
There were four centres of hospital War work. The Salisbury General Infirmary, the Red Cross Hospital of eighty beds, Longford Castle and Wilton House, both hospitals for officers. Part of the work of Salisbury and Wilts V.A.D.s was to provide personnel for soldiers’ hospitals and soldiers’ wards in the infirmary. These were worked with a minimum of trained sisters and nurses, for these were, indeed, precious people in those days and all too few. Probationers, nurses, cooks, women orderlies had to be found and put into what might be called intensive training. Salisbury Infirmary, though staffed, required more and more help as time went on, and as nurses and ward maids left in response to other urgent calls. It was therefore imperative that the official strength of the V.A.D.s should be augmented in every direction. The Godolphin Sarum House Old Girls joined up, and mistresses as part-timers, the domestic staffs in turns, the upper school forms for Saturday and Sunday duty all joined in the work and there was work for all. On a typical Saturday or Sunday afternoon to evening the kitchen and scullery staff at the Red Cross Hospital would be composed as follows: One of the Head Teachers from the City Schools, a mistress from Godolphin and two or three girls from the Upper School. They would be off to the hospital at one p.m. and back to school at 8.45 p.m.
Longford Castle: As the boarders left school for good some went straight to work at Longford, either in the kitchen or as ward maids or V.A.D.s. The age of the worker was considered in 1914 and 1915, but all such considerations vanished with the growing scarcity of available women. There were three Old Girls in the kitchen at Longford, and I think Flo Burnett (Fawcett House) must have put in three years at it. Upstairs the sister-in-charge did her best to teach and train her very young and ignorant V.A.D.s.
Wilton House: One particular summer holidays several parents gave leave for their daughters to take on the work of scullery maids in shifts of three weeks instead of going home. The pots and pans were very big and heavy, but the cooks were kind and the maids came through with good characters and a clear understanding as to really hard work.
On one occasion the Matron of Salisbury Infirmary rang up the V.A.D. Commandant late one evening to say she had no cook-kitchen maids were a pre-War luxury. Miss Ashford, the domestic training mistress from the Wilderness, was willingly lent by Miss Douglas, and at eight a.m. next morning took over that infirmary kitchen for patients (soldiers and civilians), staff and house doctors, with the assistance of “daily helps,” who came and went as they could manage. In those days it was no use to say you “couldn’t.” Several of the Old Girls became so keen on their nursing work that they left the V.A.D. and put in for a three years’ training in the infirmary.
Then the “Guest House.” – A delightful combined restaurant and reading-room organised and carried on by local ladies. Down to that went the staff to help to amuse, to play, to sing, wash up, cut up, clean up.
The Women Patrols – Miss L. Douglas, Miss White and Miss G. Bagnall and others spent many evenings, wet or fine, at this most difficult and exacting work.
Miss H. Bagnall and Mr. Douglas started a school branch of the National War Savings Association. The library seemed full of blue pinafored people at certain hours in the week, each bringing a valuable contribution towards their country’s great need for thrift. The Association’s money saved by organisation and care was available for the stern necessity of carrying on the War.
The Bags: Lady Smith-Dorrien’s bags. – No dancing on Saturday evenings, or free half-hours after dinner. At first it was wondered if all the bags were really valued and used. Such idle thoughts flew to the winds one wet and cold night when one of the House Mistresses was “warned” for station duty. A convoy was expected. It was easy to see at once as the stretchers were taken from the ambulance train and laid in waiting-rooms and on the platform that many in this convoy were terribly wounded and ill-too ill even to welcome cigarettes and hot milk. But there were those little bags-discoloured now and faded, precious possessions held fast which carried just those few things that meant to each man home and remembrance.
Parties: The school gave parties on some Saturdays to such delightful guests who came in ambulances, often in charge of an “Old Girl” V.A.D. An entertainment, tea, and cigarette ashes on the new hall floor! Miss Prosser and some of the staff managed some really lovely dresses for a serious and allegorical War pageant. It was thought best not to invite the men to this, but they heard about it and sent a request, saying they wanted to see it. That settled the question, and the school never had or will again have an audience that moved the players as that audience did. Rows of blue-coated men quite silent, as England, her Dominions and Allies moved slowly up the hall to take their places and speak their parts in that solemn pageant.
Carpenter’s Shop: That was kept very busy indeed. Trays, crutches, splints and much-approved-of narrow bed-tables which stood on the floor across the beds, were constantly despatched as fast as made.
The Ration Difficulty: The food cards, the call which came repeatedly to the domestic staffs to leave Godolphin and go off to serve in camp canteens, made the housekeepers sometimes wonder if they and the Houses could carry on. One small school venture came into its own: The Wilderness. It was a surprise to many that three weeks only of cooking and housework could produce such marked results. The Wilderness girls knew how to “get at it” – a priceless asset in those days when no one had time to show and to teach. The school houses got quick help from them in emergencies, and more than once the local hospitals asked for girls who had been to that place called “The Wilderness.”
After ten years it is possible to see clearly and think truthfully on a question that was in the minds of several people.
Could it be good for children to live during the War in the necessarily overcharged atmosphere of Salisbury? Emphatically yes! School work was carried on with little change in the staff because the mistresses could share in the work at their very doors and did not therefore feel the imperative call “to go” which was felt in so many places removed from local War activities. So the children were safeguarded from the untrained, the unsuitable, those left over, after the boys’ schools-still more important-had been supplied by women teachers, and after the W.A.A.C.S. and W.R.N.S. had seized upon women officers ready trained by school discipline. Ask the children themselves, now grown up, what they think about it. They know those years gave them an insight and a training that will be at their side for the rest of their lives. Can more be said? And one other point, was it not a God-send to the girls at the Godolphin School to be so close to that other greater training school on the Plain, and so again and again be able to see their fathers, brothers, relations, friends who came back to those training camps for a few short weeks before they were allowed to take their share in the only thing that mattered to every man, woman and child in the Empire – The Great Adventure?
(Signed) Commandant VIII V.A.D. Wilts, 1914-1919,
House Mistress, Godolphin School.