The bombs must have seemed a long way away for the 25 children from England who made Stanstead and the College their home for much of World War II. And thankfully so. For the students of Oldfeld School at Swanage, Dorset, Stanstead College was a welcome refuge that more than 60 years later remains in the hearts of many who came here.
“Stanstead is a most marvelous memory for me and my family,” says Lister Hickson.
Lister was the second youngest of the five Hickson children, the offspring of Oldfeld’s headmaster and his wife. He was 8 when his family arrived in Stanstead with the school’s matron and 20 students in the fall of 1940.
Located on the English Channel, Oldfeld was taken over by the British military shortly after the war began. But what to do with the children? A plan was devised to evacuate them to Canada. Headmaster Arthur Hickson’s aunt had been Hannah Beck, a former teacher at Stanstead. Although she was by then deceased, it was through her connections that contact was made with the College.
At the end of 1939, Stanstead agreed to accept 40 children. By July 1940 when the Duchess of Richmond sailed out of Liverpool bound for Montreal, the number of students still in need of placement had dwindled to 20 plus the Hickson family.
The community, on campus and off, rallied behind the British evacuees when they arrived in October. Members of the local IODE supplied socks and warm clothing. Lister Hickson remembers waking up on that first Thanksgiving morning and finding skis, toboggans, skates and other winter gear left anonymously outside their door at “Little Oldfeld”– the name given to the infirmary once the Hicksons moved in.
“By the end of term, all the children were taken in by local families for the Christmas holidays and every subsequent holiday,” he says. “The hospitality was such that I was not aware of any of the children being sad.”
Ian Spofforth was only 6 when he came to Stanstead with his mother in 1943, following his brothers Michael and Jeremy who had arrived in 1940. Mother and the younger Spofforths boarded with a family in Rock Island and made the daily trek up the hill to the College, where Ian remembers attending Miss Libby’s class in the Model School.
“I can remember snow, the terrible business of getting dressed 20 minutes every morning to slush to school on skis, and another 20 minutes getting undressed,” he recalls.
Adapting to Canada
Like Canadians, the British children learned to embrace the snow rather than fight it, learning to ski and play hockey.
“My brother Michael made the ski team, even though he had never seen snow in his life,” recalls Ian Spofforth.
Although the school does not have any yearbooks from the years 1943 to 1945, entries in the first two years of the students’ stay indicates that they became involved in most aspects of student life. In his Junior Matriculation yearbook listing, for example, Bryan Rawson’s activities included rugby, skiing, dramatics and the magazine board. His “pet peeve” was “Being asked how he likes Canada.”
During their last summer here, the Hicksons enjoyed the quintessential Canadian adventure: paddling by canoe down the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston.
“We know how Canada was settled so fast: they were trying to outrace the mosquitos!” he says of that trip.
Mosquitos and all, Lister describes his four years in Canada as a “magical” time.
“It was a complete, separate chunk out of my life, which I can fully recall and can’t confuse with other things in other places,” he says.
Upon returning home, there was a year or so of readjustment, making new friends, settling back in.
“With my Stanstead training and a bit more math, I was able to get into the Royal Navy at Dartmouth, which says something about the education I received,” he says.
After the war, Oldfeld became a boarding house for the Swanage Grammar School and for service people and others abroad. Today it is an international language school. [Update: The school closed in 2020; there is currently a proposal to turn the property into a housing development.]
As for Mr. and Mrs. Hickson, they took up farming.
In 1948, Stanley Spofforth, father of the three Spofforth boys, donated the Spofforth Trophy for Excellence in Science and Mathematics in gratitude for Stanstead’s hospitality. In June 2006, Ian Spofforth himself presented the trophy at Baccalaureate. Prior to the presentation, he made a brief speech recalling Stanstead’s generosity to the children of Oldfeld School. “You should be immensely proud of what you did for us,” he said.Visit our Stanstead 150 page