Robert Putt, who attended Woodbridge High School 80 years ago, is collaborating with the school’s History Department to document his memories of the area. In the first of a series of articles, Robert talks to Headteacher Steven Hogan about World War Two.
We were so excited and privileged to receive a visit from an ex-student at the end of last year who attended the school during the Second World War. Robert Putt, now an incredibly young-looking 90 years of age, was a student here from September 1940 to December 1943, when the school was known as St Barnabas School for Boys.
Robert emailed us to ask if we had any records dating back to those times. Sadly, we don’t have many at all, but we invited him in to see what we do have and to share some of his memories. Happily for us, Robert agreed and came to meet with staff, governors and students. It was a wonderful couple of hours, although we could easily have listened to him all day.
When Robert joined the school in 1940, it had only been open for three years and was located in the brand new Mallards building, which was split into separate boys’ and girls’ schools. As we walked with Robert around the site, he recalled the 17-foot chain-link fences that divided the grounds at the front and back into two schools. He clearly remembered how it was forbidden for the boys and girls to have any contact with one another whatsoever. He laughed that there was even a demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two schools! Punishment for breaking this rule was the cane for the boys and usually detention for the girls. Robert explained that: “The boys preferred the cane as our parents didn’t get to find out about it, whereas the girls’ parents would be informed about the detention as they had to be kept after school.” Talking to the girls was a most serious offence, the punishment being the same as that for getting caught playing on the railway line!
One of the records we do have from the time is the school punishment book. This log recorded when a child was given the cane, how many strokes, whether on the hand or on the ‘seat’ and the reason why. We couldn’t find Robert in there, although he does remember receiving the cane on a regular basis, but we did find one of his close friends, George, who received two strokes on the hand for fighting in the playground; Robert was not surprised!
Some other reasons recorded for receiving the cane include ‘stealing garden lettuces and selling them’, ‘riding other boys’ cycles in the playground’, ‘gambling with coins’, ‘misuse of telephone box’ as well as the more familiar ‘truanting’, ‘fighting’ and ‘talking in lesson’; some things never change.
Robert remained close friends with George and with three other students for very many years after they left school, but sadly, the others have now passed on. His sister, three years younger, attended the girls’ school and, like Robert, is still going strong.
It was fascinating to hear Robert describe his experience of being at school during the war. He talked about the almost daily trips to the basement during the air raids, hearing the planes overhead, the machine guns firing and the bombs dropping. He explained how the boys were all experts at identifying the different aeroplanes and loved to look up and watch the dog fights between the Spitfires and Hurricanes and the Luftwaffe.
At night, they could see the glow in the sky from the docks which were regularly bombed. When asked by one of our current students if it was very difficult, he said: “Not really, because we were young, we just adapted to it. I was born 11 years after the First World War and 10 years before the Second World War. I lost four uncles in the first war, and when the second happened, we were evacuated and I went to four different schools in a year. Then we came to Woodford and I started here in 1940.” Robert was asked if he ever got scared and he said: “Yes, of course, the whistling sound the bombs made was terrifying.”