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Heritage: Gidea Park schoolboys gather harvest for war effort

PUBLISHED: 15:00 27 October 2019

The boys were pupils at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears

The boys were pupils at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears

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The story of local boys who spent the summer of 1941 camping in an Essex village is told by Prof Ged Martin

In August 1941, sixty boys from Gidea Park's Royal Liberty School lived under canvas in rural Essex, working for local farmers.

Many agricultural labourers had joined the armed forces. Extra hands were needed for the harvest. Women became Land Girls. Why not use schoolboys too?

The Royal Liberty boys were sent to Radwinter, in glorious country, near the historic towns of Thaxted and Saffron Walden. Picture-postcard Finchingfield is just down the road.

But Radwinter is different - thanks to the central event in its history, the 1874 Fire.

A little girl playing with matches set fire to straw in a thatched barn. In hot, dry weather, the village was soon ablaze.

The rector, who was also the squire, hired architects from the Arts and Crafts Movement to rebuild Radwinter as the Victorian ideal of a village. It sounds fake, but it's quietly charming.

The war disrupted schooling for the Royal Liberty boys, as their teachers were called up to join the Forces.

"Before we have properly had time to settle down with a master he has had to go," Year 10 reported in the school magazine.

They'd just lost their form master, Mr Brooks. The boys hoped "he will come back with a few VCs and MCs and looking like Goering" - a Nazi leader who festooned himself with medals.

Humour masked tragedy. There had been months of terrifying air raids. Most were aimed at central London but, on April 19, 1941, parachute mines had fallen locally, killing 55 people.

Outsiders called it the Romford Blitz. Locals talked of Essex Road Night. In the quiet street north of Eastern Avenue, 38 people had died. In Hillfoot Avenue, Collier Row, and Brentwood Road, whole families were wiped out.

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Normal seaside holidays were impossible. Sending youngsters to the country was a good idea. Even so, one boy was called back to Romford as his father had died, probably a casualty.

The Essex skies were quiet that summer. Hitler had invaded Russia, switching the Luftwaffe to the Eastern Front.

The boys arrived to find eleven large tents pitched on a sloping hillside. The ground was covered with nettles, which they partly cleared.

Two tents were moved down to a stream. One, located near an open-air fireplace - let's hope not too close - became a kitchen. The other was probably a wash-house.

Three teachers took turns to help, wives in tow, but for their final week, the boys were left to their own devices. Some parents also visited. The local rector, the Reverend Cecil Brigley, kept careful watch.

The boys slept six or seven to a tent, each with a scratchy straw mattress, a ground sheet and a blanket. Basic supplies were officially rationed, but in the country food was "plentiful". Meals were washed down with cider: it was an urban myth that boys couldn't get drunk on fermented apple juice!

A friendly farmer allowed access to a meadow where, being Romford lads, they played football, as well as cricket and rounders.

The Royal Liberty boys were proud that they undertook 3707 hours and thirty minutes of farm work. In reality, that wasn't very much - maybe about 15 hours a week each.

The problem was the weather - weeks of constant rain. Only in their last few days at Radwinter did the sun break through, and the boys did some "real" harvesting, giving them a feeling of achievement.

Farmers paid them six pence (2 and a half p) per hour, cash which went into a central kitty and roughly covered the cost of the camp.

More than one hundred Royal Liberty former pupils would be killed in the Second World War.

But Year 10 form master Mr Brooks did return for a postwar classroom career. Like many others of his generation, he never talked of his experiences.

But he was one of two brilliant masters who taught me geography, and he didn't look like Goering at all.

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