Letters Home in WW2 by Bronwen Pugh (Viscountess Astor)

Janet Bronwen Alun Pugh - known as ‘Pug’ at school – now Viscountess Astor – recalls life at DWS during WW2 through the letters she wrote home which were carefully preserved and dated by her father, Judge Alun Pugh.

I went to DWS, when I was 9 years old. My older sister Gwyneth was a senior girl at the school, my eldest sister Ann had also been there. Each of us became Head Girls.

I was allowed to sleep in the same dormy as Gwyneth (Cader House) for the first few nights. Then I went to Trem (the Junior House). The dormies had beds for six or seven girls, and we were regularly moved round (to prevent school girl ‘crushes’).

First letter: September 1939

“We’ve arrived. Here is a picture of our dormy. I can’t think of anything else to say but I’ll write soon”. Although my father had drilled his Welsh roots into us we had little experience of Wales. The school seemed cold and the food barely adequate. Wartime shortages meant a restricted and meagre diet. I remember a dreadful kind of bread and butter pudding that we called ‘Lucky Dip’ which had all sorts of left-overs added to it. Sometimes it was just marrow or carrot jam on stale bread for tea. We changed seats and tables in the dining room every day, under strict supervision, to ensure we all mixed.

There was no nonsense about minor sickness- a good gargle of Dettol was deemed to sort most things out. We woke up to a bell at 7 am and had a morning wash in cold water, baths were by rota once a week.

At the time parental visits were permitted just once a term, and during the war years even these dried up.

For summer the uniform was a navy tunic, green and white striped blazer, with green poplin blouse and straw hat. For winter, the same blazer with green viyella blouse and navy blue velour hat. For weekends we had a thick velvet or shantung green dress, depending on season. Only fawn socks allowed, flat shoes, no garters, no fur trimmings and coats must be navy gabardine, lined and waterproof to withstand the local climate. Our parents were advised that no magazines or comics could be sent to school - with the exception of the Girls’ Own Paper, Riding and Zoo.

My parents tried to provide me with a link from home by letting me take Thomas and Doreen, two rabbits, as a substitute for the family cat I had to leave behind. Alas, they only survived a few weeks, not entirely due to the climate. I wrote to tell my parents: “This is, I think the reason for Doreen’s dying. Last weekend it was absolutely pouring with rain and I hadn’t got an umbrella, so I didn’t go to feed them. And on Monday at break when I went to see Thomas and Doreen, she was dead”. Thomas followed soon afterwards.

I was at DWS with three headmistresses. For the first few months it was Miss Nightingale, who had established a regime of encouragement rather than force. We didn’t have ‘positions’ at the end of term to note the cleverest in the form.

May 1940

When Miss Orford took over, my sister Gwyneth wrote home “There’s no nonsense about her. She knows what she wants and she’s getting it. She scares me stiff. She comes into prayers in the morning and swooshes round the door so that her gown, which she wears all day, flies right out. Then she strides across the stage and stares round and everyone feels sure that she is going to pounce on them for something. At last she says ‘Good-morning’. With a question mark at the end and everyone sort of breathes a sigh of relief”.

The curriculum ranged from science to scripture, Welsh to gardening. We had talks by local ‘worthies’, occasional plays and on special occasions gatherings in the headmistress’s room to listen to the wireless. Sports included netball, hockey, tennis and rounders. There were Guide camps, walks, bicycle rides and letter- writing on Sunday evenings.

I think my greatest nightmare of the war was the thought of getting lost whilst travelling to and from school because all signs had been removed from the stations. At first I had Gwyneth with me, but there were journeys I made on my own, changing two or three times, with no signs, clutching my gas mask, and lots of smog. I was petrified of getting lost and never being found again.

June l940

DWS girls took part in an air-raid practice. In my weekly letter home I wrote: ‘We had to go down into the basement in single file and in silence from our forms and the Head said we had to get down in four minutes - the whole school of 300 girls. It was an awfully queer siren”.

Later there were air-raid practices for boarders in the middle of the night. The drills were a sensible precaution, though predictably, given Dolgellau’s location it escaped the attention of German bombers. The nearest to an air raid was when an American plane crashed several miles to the north. Sometimes the preparations for eventualities that were unlikely to befall Dolgellau, left my friends and I fearful but bemused.

(Recommended story: Note from the editor: you can read Bronwen's other letters and the rest of her DWS story in the Related Story: Associated Story Upload)

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