Playground Time Machine

"The Home Front in Britain during the Second World War HU36196" by Press Agency photographer - is photograph HU 36196 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“The Home Front in Britain during the Second World War HU36196” by Press Agency photographer – is photograph HU 36196 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

This is the story of what happens when a schoolboy goes exploring with an enquiring mind.

The Hoo Peninsula: a hooked nose of land separating the two great Kent estuaries, the Thames and the Medway. It has that end-of-the-world feel; the light changes, out there on the almost-island of Hoo.

During World War II, the skies above Kent were filled with war, the airborne kind. Stories of crashes and bewildered German pilots, of breathtaking airborne Spitfire-Messerschmidt duels, of wrecks and wounded, were not unusual back then. The aerodromes peppered across the county ensured the Kentish skies were war zones all their own.

The people who lived under them, those in the Kentish villages, stayed put for much of the time. They evacuated children in Dover: but many villages seemed to make do with a decent warning system and enough subterranean shelters for everyone.

Hoo was then, and is now, a barren coastscape, a sandy light-pallette, with sandy clay hills in the centre hemmed in by marshland.

Stoke Community School sits towards the seaward end of the peninsula, equidistant from each estuary. 140 years old, it has around 100 pupils.

And one of them was out on the playgrounds at playtime when he noticed what, to everyone else, has become so much part of the schoolscape that they never thought twice about it.

It was a concrete block, right at the back of what used to be an orchard in the school grounds.

Most boys would stop there, and just wonder. Maybe tell a few mates. But 10 year old Harvey Cotton was not most boys. He went to fetch the school caretaker, and badgered him until they had cleared the lush vegetation away.

What they found was a school air raid shelter.

And every detail in it was perfectly preserved: crates of old milk bottles included. The place was a capsule which, after the war, the schoolchildren must just have wanted to shut up and forget forever.

The most extraordinary detail: when the caretaker took an electricity extension cord into the shelter, the shelter’s light bulb still worked.

Time has worn away the horror of those days, and now this is just perceived as a fabulous piece of treasure trove, a perfectly preserved heritage time capsule, there at the back of the school orchard. It will be used to educate schoolchildren across the county, and pensioners who used it are being invited back to tell their stories: life in that cramped little life-preserver.

Something tells me that, thanks to Harvey Cotton, the little school of Stoke will never be quite the same again.

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You can read about Stoke School and Harvey Cotton’s amazing find here


7 thoughts on “Playground Time Machine

  1. Fascinating, Kate. I hope that there are some locals who will be willing to speak of their time in this shelter as part of the historical recordings and commemorations and such that are likely to take place. Bless the like of Harvey Cotton who had the tenacity to dig a bit deeper and call for help. I can only imagine the “ahas” as that light bulb went on.

  2. I got lost (again) in Schama’s Landscape and Memory, looking for his recollection about playing in an abandoned shelter in suburban London as a child. This is the kind of experience that makes one a historian. Lucky kid, Harvey Cotton. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a small world! I knew the Hundred of Hoo from sailing the Thames and Medway and one of the sailing crowd went on to teach at that school! He’ll be sick to know what he missed!

  4. This is quite amazing, Kate. This is another of those “I wish I were there” moments. I wonder if Harvey had any idea what he’d discovered! But the headmaster/mistress undoubtedly understood perfectly and appreciated the time capsule that it was. I always enjoy the artifacts and locations you share that date back hundreds of years, but somehow this little find, in our more recent history, really interests me. 🙂

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