An entry in the school diary for 26th September 1938 reads:
‘This was a week of intense anxiety. Everyone felt that we were on the verge of war. We listened in to every broadcast and on Wednesday our own men with five others, started digging trenches over at St Prisca’s as a precaution. The staff are also learning how to assemble gas masks’.
Sixth-former, Heather Blackadder, remembered:
‘The first sign of the crisis that we saw at St Mary’s was when we went out to the lacrosse pitch and found Miss Freke (the gardening mistress), and several men digging a trench in the corner. After days of hard digging, this trench became five or six feet deep and large enough to hold a good many of us’.
A letter went home to parents explaining the measures being taken and explained, ‘we are most anxious as far as possible to eliminate all fear. The fact that we are lending to a London school the empty hospital appears to be of far more interest to the girls than the digging of trenches’.
This period, known as ‘The September Crisis’, when there was a possibility of war with Germany, lasted only a few days, but was a forerunner of actual war the following year. However, unease remained and in December 1938 Calne began to make preparations for black-outs. Within St Mary’s all rallied to black out any light source: the Domestic Science teacher, the Sister, the Matron, the Headmistress and her sister and ‘an army of willing workers’ and ‘curtains were lined with newspaper, chinks stuffed with rags and candles provided for dormitories’. Queen Mary, who visited Calne and the school in 1943, commented on the quality of wooden shutters in the hall windows.
When war was declared the following September, the school was ready, with reinforced cellars under the boarding houses, each with two exits. The girls could be safely underground within three minutes of a warning. The first air-raid warning was welcomed by the school as it meant they could try out the shelters, while the girls were delighted they could have a lie-in to make up for one-and-a-half hours of lost sleep.
In May 1940, the Headmistress wrote to the parents, ‘I think it is advisable that we should fall in with the suggestion that everyone should wear an identification disk. Can you therefore send one, in bracelet form, for your daughter bearing her name, home address and registration number’. Those walking to St Bridget’s, one of the boarding houses in Calne at that time, were issued with white stripes to sew on their cloaks to help make them more visible.
Throughout the war, despite food rationing and restricted travel, school life at St Mary’s continued surprisingly smoothly. The girls were enthusiastic in their contribution towards the war effort. They made pyjamas for the Red Cross, knitted socks for the merchant navy, sent a large parcel of clothes for the Finns and distributed food ration books in Calne. One games time a week they bound paperback books for the RAF hospital at Yatesbury, and once became willing casualties for a North Wiltshire Invasion Exercise, two girls ‘acting as corpses’. The girls collected and dried nettles, helped with the hay harvest and picked a plague of caterpillars from crops.
Sometimes the outside world intruded more visibly such as when the iron railings were removed for scrap from the garden walls of School House and St Prisca’s. The gas supply was interrupted in 1942 and the air-raids in Bath were reported as having, ‘a cramping effect on the studies in the lab’. Military victories were celebrated with a half-day holiday. Always, girls’ relatives who had been lost to the war were remembered and in 1940 Miss Matthews wrote to the alumnae, ‘Day by day, in our Five-Minute Silence, we have prayed for those of you burdened by fresh responsibilities’.
The girls undertook their twenty minutes of strenuous exercises before breakfast each day, and in 1940 we see that, ‘with the perseverance of Sister Cathrow and Dr Ede with their chocolate-coated anti-cold pill, we have managed to keep free from all colds and infectious germs.’