Remembering a dark day of youth

Cynthia Batten, former Head of History and now archivist at Queen Margaret's School, with material from the archive relating to Winifred Holtby and the 1914 bombardment of Scarborough. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
Cynthia Batten, former Head of History and now archivist at Queen Margaret's School, with material from the archive relating to Winifred Holtby and the 1914 bombardment of Scarborough. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
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Bombardment recalled: Long before her best-known novel, South Riding, was published, Winifred Holtby was a Scarborough schoolgirl writing poignantly about the day war cast its shadow over the resort. Jeanmi Swales reports.

“Over the town hung a mantle of heavy smoke, yellow, unreal, which made the place look like a dream city, far, far, away… I heard the roar of a gun and in the next instant there was a crash, and a thick cloud of smoke enveloped one of the houses…

Authoress Winifred Holtby

Authoress Winifred Holtby

“I saw one great brute, young and strong, mounted on a cart horse, striking it with a heavy whip, tearing at full gallop down the road, caring nothing for the women and children who scrambled piteously out of his path, with the fear of death in his craven face… then with a warning honk! honk! a splendid car swept by with one occupant – a woman wrapped in costly furs, alone in that great car, yet she would not stop to take up one of the poor old women who staggered on weary to death, yet fleeing for their lives.”

This was Scarborough on December 16, 1914: a vivid description of the Bombardment of the town by German battlecruisers written by a Yorkshire schoolgirl who went on to become one of the county’s favourite novelists, and which will form part of a major new exhibition about the event, Remember Scarborough, at Scarborough Art Gallery this summer.

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, East Yorkshire, 1898. She grew up to be an activist whose friendship with fellow pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain (a blue plaque on a house the pair shared in London describes them simply as ‘reformers’) was the subject of the second of Brittain’s famous ‘testament’ trilogy, Testament of Friendship.

Holtby is best known today as the author of the posthumously published South Riding, in which the new headmistress of the girls’ school at Kiplington, the independent and progressive Sarah Burton, shakes up the town’s establishment. The South Riding, of course, never existed – Riding means ‘third’ – and the novel is a lively portrait of local politics and passions in a town based on an amalgam of Hornsea and Withernsea in the East Riding.

It has been constantly in print since its publication in 1936, became a film starring Edna Best and Ralph Richardson in 1938, and has been the subject of several TV and radio adaptations including a BBC version by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey, three years ago.

Holtby died in London in 1935, aged just 37, from a kidney ailment then known as Bright’s disease, now called nephritis. She is buried in Rudston churchyard, not far from where she was born.

But in 1914, Holtby was a high-spirited and bookish 16-year-old schoolgirl attending Queen Margaret’s School in Scarborough. The school had been founded in 1901 by the Woodard Foundation, which established Christian boarding schools. The grey building was nestled at the foot of Oliver’s Mount, on what’s now known as Queen Margaret’s Road; in Testament of Friendship, Brittain caustically comments: “Like all girls’ public schools of the period, Queen Margaret’s beauty was not, during Winifred’s childhood, its outstanding quality.”

In 1914, the headmistress was Rosalind Fowler. Miss Fowler had been head of the school for just a year, replacing the much-loved founding head, Agnes Body. It seems that Miss Fowler already had her worries about the safety of the East Coast and her girls. On November 24, 1914, she had written a letter to the parents of all her boarders in which she warned: “It is plain that the Government are making preparations against an attempted invasion which presumably they expect soon… If once invasion comes at any point near here we shall all be under military orders and have to do what we are told. It might not then be possible to get the girls away, and any coup that is attempted will probably come without warning. If parents wish therefore to have their girls home it would be better to do so at once, while transport is possible.”

The parents clearly took Miss Fowler’s warning to heart: Brittain tells us that “the attack had been so accurately predicted that more than half the school… had already departed in anticipation. Winifred remained because, living so close to Bridlington, her home was as much within the range of German shells as Scarborough itself.”

By early December, some 130 of the 170 girls had gone home, leaving around 50 pupils and staff in residence. Holtby’s vivid description of the now infamous events of December 16 was originally a letter, written several days afterwards to the head girl of the school, one of those who had gone home. In Brittain’s words, it was subsequently ‘extracted’ (one can only imagine!) from her by Holtby’s mother, and “the Bridlington Chronicle not only published it, but arranged for its syndication in Australia. Prints of it were taken and sold by Winifred and her mother at threepence each for the Red Cross, which made a useful little sum”.

Holtby describes sitting down to a breakfast of porridge which she ‘never tasted’, because, as the first spoon was on its way to her mouth, she heard crashes and bangs which she at first thought was someone falling over.

“Then someone whispered ‘guns’. The word, like magic, passed from mouth to mouth as we sat whitefaced but undismayed, with the uneaten food before us.”

The girls are instructed to put on their outdoor things: “…we are going for a walk into the country till it is over”. Then, as they leave the building, a shell bursts nearby, and “‘Run!’ Came the order – and we ran.”

Girls and staff hurtle down Queen Margaret’s Road, past the Mere and onto Seamer Road, where they’re met by the sight of a “stream of refugees… I think I shall never forget them – these people of the Dream that was Real”.

Sweeping up “four tiny mites, half-dressed and almost mad with fear” the girls continue towards Seamer, eventually finding the children’s mother, who was “almost wild with joy when she saw her ‘bairns’ safe and sound”.

Eventually, they reach Seamer, a village on the outskirts of Scarborough a couple of miles from the school and stop for a rest, and the redoubtable Miss Fowler provides a breakfast of chocolate, dates and biscuits, which, with great prescience, she had packed days before in case of emergency.

The girls finally find refuge in the Vicarage, where they spend the day singing songs and playing games with the Vicar and his wife. Peppered as it is with jolly-hockey-sticks slang and bristling exclamation marks, Holtby’s story may seem like the fevered ramblings of a teenager with an over-active imagination.

Esther Graham is the Project Officer for the Remember Scarborough exhibition. She has cross-referenced Holtby’s story with many other first-hand accounts, and believes that it’s accurate.

“It’s hard for us to imagine now what panic there was,” she says. “It was early in the day, and no one knew what was really happening – many believed the Germans were actually invading. The town was alive with rumour, and people were trying to leave by any means they could.”

For the relatively privileged Holtby and her friends, the day ended happily. They returned to school to find a meal waiting for them, and then “walked around the town to see the havoc”.

For many other people in Scarborough, it wasn’t such an adventure. In just a few minutes, 18 people were killed, including several children, one only 14 months old. Numerous others were injured, and there was extensive damage to property around the town. The German battlecruisers sailed on up the coast to Whitby, and others attacked Hartlepool – in total that day, 137 died and nearly 600 were injured.

The dead were the first civilian casualties on UK soil of the war, and the event prompted a huge recruiting drive under the banner ‘Remember Scarborough!’

It was, as Vera Brittain so memorably puts it, “an event which Yorkshire history is unlikely to forget”.

• The exhibition Remember Scarborough! can be seen at Scarborough Art Gallery from July 20 to January 4. Visit for more information on this and other events.