Pupils from Lawfield Primary were transported back in time in drama workshops to uncover the special wartime history of Newbattle Abbey College.
After spending a day at the college as undercover agents, P6 and P7 pupils from the Mayfield school made a return visit to recreate how life was for the thousands of men and women who attended the college when it was requisitioned for use as a training camp in the Second World War.
The work is part of a year-long project, Sharing Our Heritage, supported by a Heritage Lottery Grant, which tasked project leader Charlotte Johnson with piecing together the story of Newbattle’s wartime history.
“Before we started the project, the role of Newbattle in World War Two wasn’t particularly well known,” said Ms Johnson. “Local people have no idea of the scale of the operation that went on. We had literally thousands of ladies from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (women’s army) as well as the Royal Army Medical Corps and it is really useful to share this with young people so that they are aware of their history.”
Ms Johnson’s work took her to the Imperial War Museum in London, National Records of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland and newspaper archives as well as local libraries and a variety of museums.
Former trainees from the college, housed in a former Cistercian monastery, were tracked down and interviewed by Ms Johnson. “I have interviewed nine veterans, aged between 89 and 97 and from across the UK, for their memories of Newbattle,” she said. “It was great to hear them reminisce and bring back to life what is largely a forgotten story.”
This story has been turned into a booklet and DVD – launched at the college’s recent Putting on the Blitz celebration – and is now being shared with local youngsters from Lawfield.
After pretending to be secret agents to discover as much information as possible about the wartime history of the college, they returned to school to write stories about their findings.
On the second visit to the college, the pupils brought these stories to life through drama workshops carried out by Ms Johnson and drama and heritage specialists Ailis Paterson and John Baxter.
Ms Paterson said: “We have uncovered a wealth of information from veterans who spent time at Newbattle during World War Two, and these findings have been preserved for future generations. We have run a series of workshops with Lawfield Primary School and worked with pupils to allow them to discover the wartime history through photographs, objects and the oral history interviews with veterans.
“Based on what they have learned about life at Newbattle during the war, the pupils created characters and crafted them into puppets; wrote postcards and diary entries about their time at Newbattle and created short scenes about their characters’ experiences.
“The pupils’ genuine enthusiasm for the project was really exciting to see and they really engaged with the objects and interviews in discussions.”
Newbattle Abbey College had been open for less than three years when it was requisitioned as a training camp on the outbreak of war in 1939. After providing training for the Royal Army Medical Corps and Auxiliary Territorial Service, the college spent three years as the No 1 Army Formation College, providing training to demobbed military personnel who were taught new skills to resettle them into civilian life.
Now the Lawfield pupils will be able to keep history alive and it is hoped that they will work with the school’s resident storyteller to share historic stories with the wider school community.
Lawfield headteacher Zena Richardson said: “It has been a pleasure for Lawfield Primary School to be involved with the Sharing Our Heritage project. I have been involved with the project from its beginnings and have worked closely with Charlotte to develop a programme of workshops for our P6 and P7 pupils to discover more about the World War Two history on our doorstep.
“They have used the information gathered to inspire creative writing and this has had a positive impact on their achievements in all aspects of literacy in school. The pupils have enjoyed their visits to Newbattle to learn about life at the military training base that once stood in its grounds and discover the memories that veterans have shared about their experiences 70 years ago. This has provided real inspiration for the pupils.”