Monday 21 July 1919 was a red letter day as an estimated 40,000 school children in Cardiff were treated to a celebration tea as part of the Peace Celebrations held across the county over a 4 day period. Although the Armistice had been signed in November 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war, was not concluded until June 1919. To mark this event it was determined that a bank holiday be granted on 19 July and local authorities be asked to organise a series of celebrations across the country.
It might have been thought that the celebrations at the Ninian Park Schools were a little special in that they were attended by Sir J Herbert Cory, a local MP and son of one of Cardiff’s coal and shipping barons, John Cory of John Cory and Sons. However, the staff and pupils had much more to celebrate for 21st July marked the first day that they had returned to their school since May 1915. The story of the Ninian Park Boys’ and Girl’s Schools and their four year exile from their school during the Great War can be traced through records held at Glamorgan Archives, in particular the records of the City of Cardiff Education Committee and the log books kept by the head teachers of both schools.
The story starts in 13 May 1915 when W H Nettleton, the head teacher of Ninian Park Boys’ school, recorded in the school log book:
Holiday in the afternoon, Thursday and Friday 14th to enable the men to remove the furniture and stock to Court Road School as this school, Ninian Park, has been requisitioned by the War Office for a temporary Military Hospital during the War [EC42/1/1, 13 May 1915, p 122].
With the establishment of the 3rd Western General Hospital in Cardiff to receive wounded from France there was a desperate need for suitable hospital accommodation. Ninian Park School, occupied by both the Girls’ School and the Boys’ School, was one of seven school buildings pressed into service as a hospital for the duration of the war under the control of the military. Both schools were relocated to Court Road School. It would have been no simple matter for the two schools, each with approximately 10 staff and 350 pupils, to make the move. Yet remarkably the schools were up and running the following Monday, 17 May. For the next 4 years the Ninian Park Schools shared premises with Court Road School with each school operating a one session timetable. As Margaret Ferguson, the head teacher of the Ninian Park Girls’ School noted, this meant that one week the Ninian Park Schools had the premises from the 8.45 to 12.30 and Court Road from 1.30 to 5.15. The following week the arrangement was reversed with Court Road taking the morning session (ref. ED42/3/1, 17 May 1915, p277).
In the meantime the military had set about converting Ninian Park School into a hospital. This required significant alterations to the interior to provide hospital wards and operating theatres along with improvements to the water supply, lighting and heating. We are fortunate in having two photographs of Ninian Park military hospital taken in 1917 in the records of Glamorgan Archives. One shows a converted classroom being used as hospital ward (ref.: DX486/1/1). The second is a photograph of the operating theatre (ref.: DX486/1/2).
It would have been a difficult time for staff and pupils but they would have accepted that, along with others, there was a need to make war time sacrifices. However, it might have been expected that, with the signing of Armistice on 11 November 1918, they would soon return to their school. As the records of the City of Cardiff Education Committee show it was a long time before the military was able to pass the schools back to the local authority. There were still a significant number of wounded in Cardiff to be cared for and it was not until 11 May 1919 – six months after the signing of the Armistice – that Colonel Hepburn, Commanding Officer of the 3rd Western General Hospital, was able to return Ninian Park School to the local authority. Ninian Park was the third of the hospital schools to be returned to the education authority. No time was lost in setting work in hand so that it could be used as a school again with a start being made on 19 May.
The list of work required to make the building fit for use as a school was formidable. The records of the Building and Sites Sub Committee confirm that a complete overhaul was required of the heating, lighting and water systems. In addition it was ordered that the schools be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. In some cases the changes made by the military were welcomed. For example, the improvements to the water supply were retained. However, there was significant debate as to whether to keep the temporary electrical lighting and the changes made to the school’s heating system. At Ninian Park a low pressure steam heating system had been installed in September 1915 running pipes and radiators to each room. The committee minutes noted that the heating system (in Ninian Park and Lansdowne Road Schools):
…is not one that we would have advocated for schools but as both installations have to be completed with all possible speed and all necessary structural damage avoided, it was the only system which could have been used (BC/E/1/19, 13 May 1919, page 165).
It was therefore recommended that it be kept subject to adding radiators where required to all class rooms and dismantling and servicing the boiler. The electric lighting system, however, was not retained, with the local authority electing to refurbish the existing gas lighting in the school (ref.: BC/E/1/19, 17 June 1919, page 203).
The exterior was evidently in poor condition with a need to repair and paint the windows and resurface the playground. Finally, the furniture had to be returned. Again this was no easy matter and the committee minutes record that:
The whole of the furniture has been returned after some difficulty as it was scattered in various part of the City, it having been loaned to other schools during the war period.
The work on Ninian Park and Lansdowne Road schools proceeded almost in tandem, drawing on a pool of 80 men hired by the Council for reconversion work, including 25 former soldiers. The cost for both schools was estimated at £4000 to be met by the military, with allowance made for equipment taken over for use by the schools. For example, the steam heating system at Ninian Park was valued at £315 with this sum deducted from the bill sent to the military. On the other side of the equation it was clear that the local authority was keen to cover its costs and the final bill included not just structural work but costs for clearing unwanted military material from the schools and the repair of equipment, including pianos, left at the schools and found to be damaged.
21 July 1919 was, therefore, a very special day. Although the school was not due to reopen until the beginning of the autumn term, the head teachers of both the girls’ and boys’ schools decided that the celebratory tea be held not at Court Road but at Ninian Park. The planning for the day had been ongoing for some time with the Education Committee allocating 1 shilling and 3 pence per pupil for schools to provide a tea and a sports afternoon. Where schools did not have facilities to make tea the authority hired and distributed 50 water boilers (ref.: BC/E/1/19, 3 July 1919, page 211).
As early as 23 May 1918 Margaret Ferguson noted in her log book:
I sent my numbers to Ed Office for which tea was to be provided for Peace celebration – 360+12=372 [EC42/3/2, 13 May 1919, p32].
It is not clear when the decision was made to provide the tea at Ninian Park but there is no doubt that the Education Committee was keen to show case its refurbished schools. Managing the celebration alongside the move must have been quite a feat of organisation. On 16 July Margaret Ferguson noted:
School closes today in order to have Thursday 17th and 18th inst for removal of all stock to Ninian Park School. On Monday 21st inst the Peace tea will be given to the scholars in Ninian Park School. The building is not quite ready but we can have the tea in the hall. After the Peace Tea our summer vacation begins [Ninian Park Girls’ School, log book, EC/42/3/2, 16 July 1919, p34].
Although on the day rain curtailed many of the outdoor festivities nothing could dampen the pupils’ enthusiasm and Margaret Ferguson recorded:
The Peace Tea given to the scholars on 21 July passed off very successfully; sports could not be held owing to the rain; but there were games in the central hall. They all enjoyed themselves very much and I had some difficulty to get them home. Sir Herbert and Lady Cory visited this Department and each of them addressed the children who thanked them for their liberality [EC42/3/2, 29 August 1919, p36].
Photographs of the celebrations across Cardiff show children in costume for the occasion as soldiers, sailors and nurses. Some schools staged a ‘Peace Tableau’ with pupils dressed as patriotic figures including Britannia. There was clearly plenty of everything and it was reported that most opted for ginger beer rather than tea. Margaret Ferguson noted in the school log on 12 September that she was still distributing …sweets left over from Peace Tea… (ref.: EC42/3/2, 12 Sep 1919, p36).
As one final treat, at the beginning of the new term in August, the pupils received:
…mugs given by Councillor J C Gould MP in commemoration of the signing of the Armistice between the Allies and the Central Powers, 11 November 1918… [EC42/3/2, 26 August 1919, p35].
School was once more in session at Ninian Park. The war and the four year exile were over.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer
Records of Ninian Park Boys’ School and Ninian Park Girls’ School for this period can be viewed at Glamorgan Archive, ref. EC/42/1/1 and EC/42/3/1-2. The photographs of Ninian Park hospital in 1917 can be found at DX486/1/1-2. The records of the City of Cardiff Education Committee and its subcommittees are at BC/E/1/19.