Happy Memories of the Royal School at Longleat

on Friday, 19 June 2020. Posted in Schools, Wiltshire Places

Since 1994 I have organised an annual village reunion in Horningsham, attended by residents past and present. Each year has a theme and an accompanying display, using material lent to me by the people who attend. In 2008 I was lucky enough to be given a photograph taken in 1947 showing all the pupils, teachers and those employed to look after the school. I was also fortunate enough to be put in touch with a lady living in Warminster who was a pupil there. Along with seven friends, she was able to give me a lot of help and they all came to the reunion. Here are some memories of Elizabeth Fosbroke-Hobbes and Vivienne Bateman-Champain (maiden names).

The Royal School for daughters of officers of the army was founded in 1864 at Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath. The school's mission was to provide practical and religious education for the daughters of army officers who might otherwise be unable to afford it. In 1939 the school was warned that it might be requisitioned, and in early September the Admiralty's Hydrographic Department took over the Lansdown premises. Fortunately, Lord Bath had heard that the school was looking for a temporary home and offered them Longleat. On 29th September, the pupils boarded a train to Frome, not knowing that it would be eight years before they returned to Bath.

Royal School pupils at Longleat

Elizabeth takes up the story: “The new girls arrived at Frome station. Those of us who were aged 14 or over had to walk to Longleat. I remember it was a very wet night and we were faced with a five-mile walk! The younger girls and the ‘first night’ suitcases went to Longleat in a bus.”

Many of the girls in the bus did not know what Longleat looked like. As they passed through the stone archway and between the double avenue of trees they fell silent for a moment. There before them stood Longleat, rectangular, symmetrical and immensely dignified, looming up in the dusk. When they trooped into the hall and up the front stairs they were abashed by the imposing portraits; they found themselves whispering. They followed large cardboard arrows painted in House colours and sorted themselves out into dormitories. Every available room upstairs was filled with beds, from the thirty ranged under the painted ceiling of the Salon to the six or seven in the smaller bedrooms. 1

Elizabeth’s bed was underneath the enormous Adam fireplace in the Salon, overshadowed by a very large statue of Hercules in marble. It was very scary in the moonlight! She remembers that in the beginning, Longleat was not on the main electricity grid, and had its own generator. The supply became weak in the afternoons and evenings. When the girls had lessons and prep the candles were lit down the dining room table. They sat round the table and the teachers read from text books as the pupils tried to write in semi-darkness.

Elizabeth was one of a team of girls who were fire fighters. “Sixteen girls were chosen for this task (I was one of them), who it was considered were not likely to become hysterical. When the ‘Green Alert’ went up in Bath, the two ARP wardens on the roof of the House rang a bell. The school all went down to the cellars except us, who had to stand at our fire stations in the various corridors in the House. We were in pairs and had a water cart and a stirrup pump, waiting for the bombs and the incendiary bombs! Although we had several ‘dog fights’ over the House and grounds fortunately there were no bombs.

“We had training sessions with the stirrup pumps and one day I hit the PE mistress (who was in charge of the firefighting gang) with the hose water. She was not amused and allocated me the spookiest area as my station. This was the south corridor at the top of the House, which was supposedly haunted. This was my punishment!”

Food was of course very important to growing girls and Vivienne vividly remembers what they were given! “Our main cooked meal was at lunch time and was eaten in one of the three dining rooms. I still remember the menu, which never changed! Sunday was a roast, Monday grated vegetables. On Tuesday we had shepherd’s pie and Wednesday was stew. I don’t remember Thursday, but Friday was fish and Saturday cold meat.

“Every day we had a pudding, usually treacle or currant. Each dining room also had an extra rice pudding. Unfortunately, there was only enough for one table, so your turn didn’t come around very often! Saturday tea was eaten in the cellars and we were served by the senior girls. We had bread and margarine with pilchards, followed by bread and treacle – all on the same plate!”

The arrival of the School also brought change for the village of Horningsham, as there were opportunities for employment, particularly women. Lionel Marsh and his mother both found work at the school. “I can remember singing in the church choir when the Royal School girls used to attend the church morning service in Horningsham. The church always seemed to be full of them. From what I can remember, they used to walk to and from church along the footpath from just above the Longleat Lodge gates, past the front of Mill Farm, and joined the main road above the almshouses.

“My mother used to work for the School. Most of the time she rode her bicycle, but sometimes she would walk there and back, along White St and across the Park. Sometimes she would carry home a fire wood limb on her head.

“I also worked at the School in the evenings. My job was to load the dirty crockery on to a four-wheeled trolley and to take it in the lift down to the washing up room. Here the women from the village used to load the crockery into metal containers which were then passed through a washing machine. Six school girls did the drying up. I then took the crockery back upstairs to the maids, who returned it to the dining rooms. I was paid 2s 6d for around two hours work each evening. I did this job until I was called up for National Service in August 1946.”

Lord Bath enjoyed sharing his home. Only a couple of months after the School’s arrival he wrote to the headmistress: “I am quite honest that I am enjoying every moment. It is twenty-five years since I had children running about the house. I have enjoyed my life even when alone, but I never realised how lonely I have been, and I love hearing the children all over the place – in fact I keep my door open on purpose.”  When a girl celebrated her birthday, a slice of cake was always given to Lord Bath. It was therefore a huge shock when he died suddenly on 9th June 1946. For two days he lay in state in the Great Hall. The day of his funeral the girls in their blue capes with red-lined hoods formed a guard of honour on the steps while men from the Estate carried the cedar coffin down between their ranks.2

The Royal School remained at Longleat for another year, finally leaving on 30th July 1947. It was time to return home to Bath, leaving the 6th Marquess of Bath able to take full possession of his home.

Helen Taylor, Senior Community History Advisor

1 and 2. H Osborne,  A History of the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army 1864-1965.

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