Girls Discover Wartime Artefacts in Boarding House Exploration

Girls present artefacts

Pupils recently explored a cupboard in the School’s main 19th century building – and discovered an array of artefacts dating back to the war.

Inquisitive pupils found an array of chocolate wrappers and other packaging from the 1940s as well as letters to Second World War soldiers. The School’s main building, Hemsted, dates back to the 1860s ­­and was used as a military hospital during the war.

More than 70 years on, a group of four Benenden girls made their fascinating discovery while exploring a study room at the very top of the building.

During a study session in a room in which the layout had recently been remodelled, the Year 10 pupils – Olivia Boyce, Ella Gouriet, Izzy McLean and Hailey McNally – spotted a hatch almost entirely hidden by a wardrobe. They pulled the wardrobe out and found the hatchway gave access to a small portion of the eaves.

Izzy, 14, who crawled in to retrieve the items, said: “We saw there was a cupboard and wanted to see what was in there!”

Ella, 15, said: “We didn’t know what we were going to find. We found some other things in a cupboard a while ago, like some sewing from the 1980s, so we thought we might find something. There were spiders so I chickened out and Izzy went in!”

Girl at school

The items retrieved included Bourneville, Aero and Milky Way wrappers, a Lux soap packet and packaging from Player’s Weights Cigarettes and Swan Vesta matches.

The most intriguing finds were fragments of two letters presumed to have been written by hospital staff who would have been stationed at the School during the war. One, addressed to Bill, is dated 2 July 1942. The other, from 26 June 1941, is more complete. Written by Betty, she updates her “sweetheart” Bobby on the welfare of his family and shares highlights of her recent life, including having been “to the pictures to see Spring Parade”, a musical comedy first released in 1940.

The girls have now created a display of some of their discoveries in this area of the boarding house and included a typed transcription of the letter.

Ella said of the letter: “It was really nice writing, but it was hard to piece together. We thought it can’t just stay hidden in that cupboard.”

Hailey, 14, said: “We were trying to piece the letter together. It was like it was a mystery from the war!

Old letter

The girls’ find is the latest wartime link for Benenden. The most poignant was on 3 August 1944 when French pilot Capitaine Jean Maridor died while successfully preventing a flying bomb from hitting the School while it was being used as a military hospital.

Ella said: “We have been taught about the pilot who saved the School during the war and we are taught in assembly and lessons about the war and people’s experiences but finding these pieces has really brought it home. It’s amazing.”

Hailey said: “It’s really cool because we are living in the modern day but you hear stories of what happened in the war and this has really brought it to life.

“We are living in history. As it’s the time of coronavirus so we thought about leaving a face mask inside the cupboard and in 30 years’ time some other girls will say ‘hey, look what I found!’”

Needless to say, the girls have now been seeing what else they can discover. Ella said: “We went round all the cupboards that can be opened – but didn’t find anything!”

Benenden School has a fascinating history. It was established by three former Wycombe Abbey teachers in 1923 and temporarily operated from Bickley, Bromley, before moving to its current site in 1924. It is now one of the leading boarding schools in the UK. Benenden School has a fascinating history.

Old Milky Way wrapper

Lord Cranbrook acquired what is now the Benenden School estate in 1857. Following the demolition of the existing Elizabethan house in 1860 he commissioned David Brandon, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects to design a new mansion on a site a little to the east.

Lord Cranbrook also rebuilt much of the village of Benenden, restoring the church and clearing the village green of houses to create one of the earliest village cricket pitches.

Sir Harold Harmsworth, later Lord Rothermere, purchased the estate and in 1912 called in Herbert Cescinsky to remodel the house into the Tudor-cum-Jacobean style we see today. As well as introducing old panelling from the original house and elsewhere he substituted crenellations for balustrading.