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As we are a School with over 450 years of heritage, it’s fascinating to discover the ways Highgate has celebrated Victory of Europe Day since its beginning in 1945. This 75th anniversary has stirred our memories of the many OCs who fought and died in the Second World War, and  the staff and boys who kept Highgate going through the war years despite disruption.

An excerpt from The Cholmeleian (July 1945)

The first big feature of this term was VE Day which not only gave us two days’ holiday, but relieved us of the anxieties which have clouded our horizon so long. Work, games and sleep are alike uninterrupted, and we are gradually getting rid of the black-out, a joyful toil indeed!

In 1939, the outbreak of Second World War meant that most of the Seniors boys belonged to the corps. They wore battledress and cadets had to clean their own rifles and equipment. Everyone was called on to operate at high pressure. Extra drills and lectures took place, and day and night operations kept the ranks busy.

Our Combined Cadet Force, marching at Westward Ho! (1939)

The School’s evacuation to Devon is well-documented. What is not so well-known is the experience of ‘the rear-guard’, the c.100 boys and schoolmasters who remained behind in Highgate. They have been immortalised in just one photograph in the archive collection, taken in the Summer of 1940.

When the Michaelmas term started in 1939, the evacuees were already in lessons, but back in London, Thomas Twidell (headteacher from 1922-62) was waiting for permission to open from the Board of Education. While this was being established, the boys stayed at home ‘listening to the latest Bing Crosby records and amusing themselves, expecting daily that the Luftwaffe would be unleashed on London’. Finally, he was given the go-ahead and a summons was sent out to parents. Term started a day late.

Letter from Highgate parent, (11 September 1939)

Running a school in wartime London was no easy task. Twidell had to contend with members of his staff being called up for service, and from September 1940, lessons and exams were disrupted by constant air raid warnings. The military also requisitioned most of the School’s buildings.

Twidell’s wife, Gay, catered and shopped for the School, and acted as matron. She overcame all difficulties presented by rationing, but at times had to call on the services of the ‘British Restaurants’ when the School ran out of coupons or needed help feeding the growing number of boys. The Pioneers were a support to her too, ensuring a steady flow of vegetables from the Junior Field allotment.

Head Thomas Twidell and wife Gay Twidell

Many decades later, the School’s C.C.F. continues to go from strength to strength. It is still based on the ethos of the Armed Forces, but its focus is on helping young people to develop and reach their full potential by providing challenging, adventurous and fun activities.

In 2004, since becoming co-educational, Highgate’s C.C.F also introduced females, and we celebrated our first female WO2 Sergeant Major’s appointment in 2014.

Beth Bellin, Highgate’s first female WO2 Sergeant Major

Read more on our Highgate School Museum Pinterest page that features an exhibition about Highgate in the Second World War:


A gas mask from Highgate School, now stored at our Museum

If you have any additional memories or photographs from the earlier VE Day commemorations at Highgate, we would be most interested to hear from OCs. Please do get in touch via communications@highgateschool.org.uk