On August 12 1940 there was a daylight bombing raid on the Radar Station which stood high on the Downs above Ventnor Senior School in St Boniface Road. A wave of bombers dived in over the town dropping high explosive bombs on the Station, leaving what was described as an inferno covered with clouds of smoke. Amazingly only one person was injured in the raid, but when there was a second raid the next week it was clear that, although the school was closed for the summer holidays, the pupils should be transferred to a safer part of the town when they came back in the autumn.
On November 1st 1940 the Mercury reported: For the duration of the war the County Education Committee have made arrangements for the lease of the well-known Castle in which to carry on the education of the 200 senior scholars from the School in St Boniface Road. The changeover has involved a vast amount of paper work for the Education Committee’s staff and all is now ready for the opening of the newly acquired premises on November 4th.
And so began a new period of life for Steephill Castle, once home to wealthy landed gentry and captains of industry, but latterly being used as a guest house. All the school furniture, desks and chairs, books and pencils, science and art equipment, was moved along the road to Steephill and the children re-assembled for the new term in novel surroundings.
On the whole these strange premises were approved of by staff and pupils – the building provided plenty of room, and there were exciting corridors and staircases, although these were soon put out of bounds. There was enough room for all the teaching to take place under one roof, with the ground and first floors devoted to classrooms, while the old swimming pool building was used for the teaching of woodwork and metalwork. The Castle also had proper accommodation for the cooking and serving of school meals, and hot dinners were available for a shilling a week per pupil, or ‘casual’ meals at 4 pence a day. In the past most children had gone home in the middle of the day for their meal, but many parents now preferred their children to stay at school to eat, rather than risking being caught in an air raid during the lunch hour going from or to school.
The Mercury commented that The large and unusually lofty rooms give a dignified setting to the school equipment and here and there peep out a few specimens of authentic furniture which look like having been there for centuries. A regiment of soldiers could be billeted in the rooms underground. In fact, the old wine cellars in the basement with their three foot thick walls, vaulted roofs and well preserved stone slab floors made excellent air raid shelters, which, the Mercury added, might have been especially designed for a refuge from the horrors of these days.
Marigold Harding, a schoolgirl at that time, remembers: The cookery classes were in rooms six floors up at the top of the turret. When the siren went we had to (I quote) ‘put out all the gas ovens and proceed in an orderly fashion to the basement and shelter’. As the staircase was a metal spiral staircase, I think there were more children injured on the stairs than Hitler’s bombings on the town.
The school remained at Steephill Castle until towards the end of the war in Europe, returning to its more humdrum premises in St Boniface Road at Easter 1945.
Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Sources: Fay Brown’s Indexes, Isle of Wight Mercury; thanks to Marigold Harding for her memories. The photograph shows pupils at Steephill Castle in 1941.