There can be surely no more fitting subject for my 135th blog post about The Newcastle Church High School and its fascinating history than a new entry to mark the School’s 135th birthday: 21st January. Today is that day. And Church High is still with us, albeit now only embedded in the baseline legacy of Newcastle High School for Girls. I haven’t forgotten it. And won’t ever. Nor, I am sure, have/will you. And what a history our great School has. Plenty to celebrate there.
I find it’s always worth keeping an eye on eBay if you love history. In recent years, I’ve stumbled across one or two real NCHS gems on it. Eagle eyes are often necessary. However, even with good eyesight, if I hadn’t already been aware of the existence of postcards of Alnwick such as the example at the head of this post, I’d easily have mistaken it for a generic example of an aerial castle view (as above). As always, the devil is in the detail: the text proclaims this is not Alnwick Castle, but Newcastle Church High School, Alnwick Castle.
It is a proud part of Church High’s history, that for the duration of the Second World War, Alnwick Castle WAS Church High School after the whole school was evacuated there on the invitation of the Duchess of Northumberland. Always a fact worthy of celebration. Although there has been an Alumnae visit to Alnwick Garden in the last 20 years (to mark the addition of a bench on which a memorial dedication to Church High Evacuees had been carved), the last full reunion for NCHS evacuee Old Girls was in 1985, Centenary year. However, in the Spring of this year, the evacuation of the School to Alnwick Castle is going to be celebrated in grand style on May 7th.
I first came into contact with Gemma McGuirk, one of the Castle’s archivists, a year and a half ago when I was looking for more detailed documentation on the School’s time at Alnwick. I felt sure the Castle itself was the best place to start here and I wasn’t wrong. Gemma compiled a Research Report for me, which I shared with NHSG. Thanks to her, I learned the Girls and Staff had used the long underground Kitchen Tunnel as an air-raid shelter. Thanks to me, the Castle now have a copy of the Centenary Book in their archive. Because of this connection, Gemma emailed me unexpectedly last week to ask for my help. The Castle wanted to contact as many Old Girls who had been evacuated to Alnwick as possible before May. I immediately passed this information on to Amy Rodway, who manages the Church High Alumnae Facebook page for NHSG, and Rachel Gill, our archivist at Tyne & Wear Archives. Castle Opening at Alnwick had requested permission to use the famous ‘girls on the castle walls’ image in press releases. The first articles highlighting the Castle’s search for Evacuees to contact them appeared in The Northumberland Gazette and The Northern Echo on January 19th .
Gemma also hoped that I could spread the word amongst the Church High online family too and I promised her a blog post. So, if you are a Church High evacuee yourself or know someone who was evacuated to Alnwick during the war, please get in touch with Daniel Watkins, State Rooms Manager at Alnwick, to join the celebrations. Gemma told me that: ‘the Castle Opening side of Alnwick are currently planning a special day-long event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Thursday 7th May. They will be planning special activities and school visits, but what they would really love to be able to do is invite as many of the former evacuees as possible to return to the Castle for a special day out. As 2020 also marks 80 years since the first evacuees arrived at the Castle, it’s a doubly significant occasion, and they would provide afternoon teas and do as much as they can to make it special for them. It would also be wonderful to give today’s schools the opportunity to hear first-hand what it was like to be evacuated to a castle’. Thanks to photographs from The Daily Mail in 1940, we know there was snow on the ground when the first evacuees arrived at the Castle.
Despite the frosty arrival, all the accounts of the Alnwick Years I have read describe the School adapting well to its new home. Dr Yates, the Headmistress who took Church High to Alnwick and whom I had the great fortune to hear speak at my first Prizegiving as a newly-qualified teacher in 1985, may have written about staff fears of little ones slipping on the snow-covered battlements, but there are plenty of photographs showing sunnier times as below:
I am really looking forward to the day already, not least of all because May 7th is my birthday! What better way to celebrate one’s birthday than amongst ‘family’ and like-minded people? I hope to meet as many of you who can make it up to Alnwick too, work permitting, because this has the makings of a wonderful – and high profile – celebration of all that was great about Church High School and the type of person it produced. Who knows? I might even get to meet Janet, the NCHS evacuee who bought the postcard I bought online for one shilling and six pence in the School Shop at the Castle. If this card did reach home, it must have been in an envelope, as she completely filled the back with all of her news. I will think of Janet as we visit Percy Tower during our special tour of the Castle in May. She sounds fun. But that ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? Frankly, very weird!
To find out more about the VE Celebration/CH Reunion at Alnwick, contact Daniel Watkins, state rooms manager at Alnwick Castle on 01665 511114 or email firstname.lastname@example.org