It was realised with the onset of war that the city, the most important naval base in the country, would be a prime target for German air raids. Since the world had already been shaken by the massive destruction that took place from the air during the Spanish Civil War, the authorities were understandably anxious about the implications of the war for cities like Portsmouth.
In response to this anxiety, the girls were evacuated on 1 September 1939 to share facilities with the South Wilts Secondary School and to use other accommodation in the city of Salisbury. This episode is extensively documented in the school archives, particularly because two of the pupils concerned worked in the school library after the war and filed notes, photographs and newspaper cuttings relating to the period. While the girls were being evacuated to Salisbury, the boys from the adjacent school were evacuated to Brockenhurst in the New Forest with some also going to Salisbury at the Bishop Wordsworth’s School. Secondary age pupils not evacuated were housed in the Emergency Secondary School in the St Mary’s Institute building in the early part of the war.
In the absence of the pupils, the girls’ school building was used in part for official purposes. These included providing accommodation for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, a WVS depot for furniture, bedding and clothing and a Red Cross distribution centre for prisoner-of-war parcels. The school also housed the Co-operative Home Guard and was a base for the girls’ Air Training Corps cadets. After the bombing of the Guildhall, the school provided committee rooms and offices for the Lady Mayoress.
Much could be quoted from the school archives to describe this traumatic period. The following extract from an article written by a sixth-form girl in an issue of the school magazine gives some flavour of the time:
“No one knew what lay ahead of it or how long we should be away from Portsmouth. No one knew the answers to hundreds of questions that crowded through my brain. When I went to bed that night, after an evening of last farewells and last minute packing, my mind was still full of hopes and fears and prayers for the future and regrets for the past of Portsmouth which was soon to be left behind. Thus, with the last day of August came the last day in Portsmouth for me till all men shall stand together in a common bond – peace.”
The fears of the authorities were, of course, fully justified. Portsmouth was one of the most heavily bombed cities in the United Kingdom and it is interesting to see, on walking down almost any one of the terraces of houses in the city today, isolated clusters of relatively new housing built upon the sites occupied by houses destroyed by German bombs. Careful observation can also reveal shrapnel marks on buildings still standing from that period.
The school site did not escape. On 10 January 1941 an air raid largely destroyed the boys’ school and caused substantial damage to St Andrew’s House, as well as destroying the 1934 annexe to the girls’ school. It also set fire to the adjacent builders’ yard, which naturally contained substantial quantities of inflammable materials.
St Andrew’s House was closed for the duration of the war and re-opened afterwards with very few students.
The girls returned to Fawcett Road in January 1945, except for the fifth form (Year 11), who remained at Salisbury until Easter to prepare for their examinations. The boys were unable to do so because of the destruction of their school. Instead, they occupied the St Ronan’s Road School, displacing the elementary school, which moved to Francis Avenue in combination with Highland Road elementary school, later to become a primary school and the Southsea Secondary Modern Schools.
The boys’ secondary school in Fawcett Road was left standing for nearly 20 years as a burnt-out shell, apart from a classroom on each floor which was used by the girls’ school.