A School Exercise Book

By Dr Jonathan Oates, Ealing Local History Centre Historian


Education and school life in Southall during the Great War


Are school exercise books of interest to anyone except the writer, their parents and the teacher who has to mark them? But what if the book in question was written a century ago in a time of world war? And if the book contains insights into life at that time?

Recently we were sent an exercise book that had belonged to a H. King, Form IVa of Southall County School, which I thought was of some interest.

School Exercise Book Cover

                                 Above: Cover of Exercise Book belonging to
                                              Southall County School pupil Mstr H. King

Southall County School is now Villiers High School. It was founded in 1907 as ‘A Public Secondary School for Boys and Girls’ and was for that minority of academically bright pupils who went onto secondary school. The Headmaster at the time was Samuel Pollitt and he had eighteen teachers, over half of whom had university degrees.

Villiers High School poscard

                                 Above: Picture of Southall County School (circ. 1910),
                                              now Villiers High School (Boyd Avenue entrance).
                                Below: Portrait of Headmaster Samuel Pollitt Esq BSc

Samuel Pollitt portrait

Who was H. King, the pupil whose book this was, however? Reading through a letter in the exercise book, we learn that the writer has had one of his brothers killed in the War and another written piece discusses his travel from Hanwell to Southall. The local history database of local World War One combatants includes several of the name of King, but there are fewer who were from Hanwell and fewer who were killed. Mervyn King seems a possible candidate and a search of the 1911 census on ancestry reveals one living with his family in Hanwell and with a younger brother, Harold.

So the lad is Harold Lionel King, born in London in 1902. His father, John, is a railway guard and his mother Marian Alice is his wife. There are five other children living and three live at home. Harold is the youngest and Mervyn is a clerk. They live at the newly built 51 Cowper Road in north Hanwell and have done so since about 1910.

Cowper Road postcard

                                  Above: Postcard picture of Cowper Road, Hanwell

 But what of the book? There are a number of interesting essays within it. One is ‘A letter describing my journey to school’. It reads as follows:

‘Dear Miss Whitehouse,

My home is at Hanwell and I come to school by the Great Western Railway.

After leaving Hanwell Station, I pass over a large viaduct, built by the great engineer, Brunell. This viaduct is said to be one of the largest in England. At certain points along it are sentries on guard. After passing the asylum which may be seen some distance to the left of the railway, I cross a large bridge built completely of iron, called the “Iron Bridge”. The other side if this, engines are continually at work shunting goods tracks.

Just before reaching Southall station, I pass the G.W.R. Goods Depot and the Maypole Margarine Factory.

I then pass under a foot-bridge and enter the station this bringing my journey to an end.

Yours truly


Hanwell Arch
Hanwell Viaduct
                                       Above Top: Original gatehouse entrance to
                                                            St Bernard's Hospital (1904)
                                       Above: Hanwell Viaduct & River Bent (1914)

He also had to write ‘The journey of a snail from Villiers Road to the school’. It has to avoid being stood on but is later briefly captured by a boy with a glass jar.

They also had to write, in September 1916, a letter to their school teacher about how the war had affected them personally. So Harold wrote:

‘Dear Miss Thomas,

The present war has not affected me a great deal, at least not so much as it has affected some people. Three of my brothers have joined up in the forces, one of whom was killed in France last summer [Mervyn, a corporal in the Canadian army]. Another one is at present in France, and the third is about to go there in a week or two. I naturally hope they will both come out of this war quite safe and sound [Albert and Frank; both were wounded in 1917 but survived the war].

Since the war has been on, I have gained more knowledge of the different regiments of the British army, and I have also taken an interest in military matters to a certain extent.

Such things as war souvenirs etc. have also interested me, as I have one or two.

I do not think that the war has affected me in many other ways’.

Letter to Miss ThomasLetter to Miss Thomas page 2 

Above Left & Right: Pages from King's exercise book showing letter about WW1

Another letter concerns applying for a fictional office job and explaining why he should be employed.

There are various essays. One is about Utopia, that fictional paradise. Harold writes that a Utopia for England would take the following format. There would be no slums of ‘wretched hovels’ for the sale of all alcoholic drinks except for medicinal use, would be banned. Roads would always be in a good condition. There would always be a strong army and navy. The House of Lords would be abolished and the lords sit in the Commons ‘so that the rich and the poor should be always treated alike’.

An essay about invisibility considers that to be invisible would bring about problems. People would run into the invisible man. When travelling on trams, heavy people would sit on the invisible man. He would cry out and then the would be sitter hurries away, quite frightened. The only advantage is that he can help the police catch a German spy who is hiding in a house by creeping inside, unseen.

There are essays on Shakespeare, possibly because 1916 was the tercentenary of his death. The Bard is certainly put on a pedestal, ‘Shakespeare was above all criticism. When he was asked any question he could answer it readily and people could never trip him up in anything he said. He is compared to a high mountain which reaches high into the heavens and only its base may be reached by people on the Earth’.

He describes the celebration at the school on Shakespeare’s birthday. The children assembled in the school hall and the headmaster gave a short account of Shakespeare’s life. Two sixth form girls sang a duet, with other of the older girls singing the chorus. The whole school joined in with other songs (presumably these were taken from Shakespeare’s writings). A sixth former gave a painoforte solo. After break, the upper school had a lantern lecture about Shakespeare and the school was closed in the afternoon. Harold wrote, ‘There was great applause at this’. There is an essay on As You Like it and some commentary on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

There are a number of other writings on contemporary subjects, such as America and the war, Dialogue between Napoleon and General Joffre (a leading French soldier of the First World War), Heroes of the British Navy and Extracts from a soldiers’ diary for seven days.

Other subjects were more esoteric. One was an essay on Ghosts. Harold writes that belief in the supernatural has diminished as educational levels have risen, except in Devon and Cornwall. ‘But my opinion is that there are no such things as real ghosts’. Another was about a village in Devonshire and another was about waiting at Waterloo Railway Station for a train whilst observing others, including soldiers arriving and departing, at the station.

There are several precises of other texts, one taken from one of Kipling’s stories and others were about fighting in eighteenth and nineteenth century India.  

Harold kept the book after he left school, and used the spare pages at the back for his gardening notes. It seems he married in 1939 and died at Eastbourne in 1952.

The significance of the book is that it allows the reader to see a glimpse of life a century ago. It enables us to see some of the work that pupils undertook, and the subjects that they were asked to deal with. It also gives an insight into the matter of fact way in which even children dealt with the impact of a devastating world war; Harold notes the war having minimal effect on him whilst immediately stating that one of his brothers has been killed in it. This stoicism was one reason why Britain was able to endure the war and help lead it to victory. 

School Life

Southall County School, now Villiers High School, was founded in 1907 as a mixed grammar school for pupils aged 11-18. In 1908 a school magazine was founded, titled Recess, with the school coat of arms and motto (Labor Omnia Vincit – Work Conquers all) emblazoned on the front cover. It was published bi-annually and in the Local History collection of Ealing Central Library we have an incomplete set of these from 1908-1936. They shed light on some of the activities of the school and some of its former pupils (not Harold King, however).

Recess Magazine Contents Page

                                 Above: Contents page of "Recess" magazine (1917)

The first edition noted that the magazine’s aims were:

‘to compile a record of the School’s history which will become interesting reading as time passes, to form a link to connect past and present events; to enable old pupils, by becoming regular subscribers to the “Recess” to keep in touch with the School, and so be enabled in leisure hours to live their School life over again; to encourage the pupils of Southall County School to literary effort; and to keep the various organisations of the School in touch with each other’.

The magazine, like many school magazines, has two main types of information included. Firstly there are accounts of events which take place at the school. These include the annual speech day and presentation of school prizes to those select few who excel in certain subjects. They also include the results and accounts of the school sports day and matches played by the school’s various teams against those of other schools, often listing those team players who score. Other school news includes lists of those who pass external exams or win scholarships or gain places at university, as well as information about new or departing members of staff.

School Sport ReportObituary & School Governors

Above Left: Recess Magazine (page 12) describing sporting prowess of school
Above Right: Recess Magazine (page 30) detailing School Governors details
                        and obituaries for school staff and old boys in WW1

The second type of material in the magazine is that contributed by a handful of pupils. These may include accounts of school visits, which included in the early years, to the nearby Margarine Factory of Otto Monsted and to Cambridge.  There are also pieces of fiction; poems and short stories.

Later journals included information from former pupils about their careers and lives subsequent to leaving the school. During the First World War there would be information about former pupils who were serving in the armed forces, the medals they gained and the promotions they received, and also in some case, obituaries. There were also letters published from former pupils about their experiences in various parts of the world.

Originally the journal only had 16 pages but by the 1920s it had doubled in size and by 1936 it was over 50 pages long. There were generally few illustrations, but there was additional news about school activities, and about the non-sports clubs.

Anyone whose ancestor went to the school might find a reference to them in these journals, and anyone interested in the first three decades of the school’s history would also find much of use herein. 

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