Historic archive film from top girls’ school in Denbigh goes to the nation

Historic archive film of life at a top girls independent school is to be presented to the National Library of Wales.

The footage from the archives of Howells School, Denbigh, spans the momentous years from 1933 to 1952 and takes in the Depression, World War Two and the accession of the Queen.

It was shot in 16mm film, much of it in black and white and mainly by former teacher Miss Elizabeth Henley, known as ‘Hen’ who died, aged 97, only three years ago. She was assisted by a friend and fellow teacher, the late Miss Nancy Hughes.

It’s a remarkable archive, according to the school’s Education Principal Emma Jones who said: “These are more than just glimpses of a bygone age, the films were really detailed recordings of life at the school in momentous times.

“They also show that many of the traditions of the school have been maintained through to the present day and that the success of Howells School comes from our long-standing tradition of high standards of education and care.

“Much has sadly changed since these films were recorded . A large contingent of boarding girls used to board a special carriage at London Euston, and the train brought them to Denbigh station where they walked up to school – while the porters brought their boarding trunks to school from the station by pony and cart.

“Sadly the Denbigh rail line was removed in the 1960’s as part of the “Beeching cuts” – now our girls arrive at Manchester Airport and travel to school by minibus or car.

“A long standing end of term tradition was lost, where the girls would unravel their straw boaters on the train and hang them out as streamers to celebrate leaving Denbigh to spend their summer at home.”

The donation of the recordings was greeted with enthusiasm by Iola Baines, Film Development Officer for the National Library of Wales, who said: “We are always grateful to receive old film from Wales, they are an important historic resource.

“Many of them have been lost forever because of the fragile nature of early film so we are delighted to have this recording of life at the school over such an extended period.

“But even very old film is worth consulting us about because we have the skills and equipment to salvage much of what is becoming an increasingly rare resource.”

The Howells film begins with the 1933 Speech Day and the then headmistress, Miss Cicely Robinson, greeting the chairman of the school governors, the Archbishop of Wales, a governor of the school for 40 years.

It also includes the first Walk Down, the ceremonial procession carried out by the girls every year since though once there was a Walk Up, much to Miss Henley’s horror: “All those wobbling bottoms,” she complained.

It also offers a record of the fashions of the time, both among the pupils and their parents, and of the school activities which in the 1930s and 1940s included weaving and basketry.

Picnics were also popular even though they often only meant going as far as the school playing fields though that made life easier for maids who carried jugs of refreshing lemonade down from the school.

But there were trips further afield, to the Chester Pageant by Crosville bus in 1937 and to the Swiss ski resort of Wengen in 1949, while two Old Howellians were in the Wales lacrosse team which took on Ireland in an international match at the school in 1938.

The girls also did their bit in the war years with gymnastic displays on Denbigh’s High Street for War Weapons Week in 1941 and a Wings For Victory event in 1943 and there were wartime sports days and snowy days too.

Among the girls there then was Catherine Martineau, now 82, who later became a member of staff at the school and is still going strong commuting regularly from her Devon home as curator of the School Museum which she set up.

Miss Martineau, originally from Wolverhampton, who edited the contents of the dvd, was a pupil from 1941 to 1948, said: “My cousin, who was ten years older than me, had been to Howells and my father wanted to get me away from the Midlands with the blitz on.

“I really enjoyed it right from the start even though not everyone does to begin with because it can be lonely and many girls got homesick but I loved it.

“There was lots of company and you made so many friends for life while it was just so well run that you couldn’t do anything else but enjoy it and I certainly did.

“Denbigh was somewhere quite new and most of the girls were boarders. There were day girls and some of them spoke Welsh but you never heard it in school.

“It was also strange not seeing your parents for a whole term – these days the youngsters seem to go home at the drop of a hat.

“I was privileged to take part in sports and I went on to qualify as a PE teacher at Dartford College in Kent and I taught all my working life, first PE and then RE, religious education.”

Howells Trustee Nicola Locke said: “It’s wonderful to see Catherine with the girls today, watching the old film of the school when she was their age and telling them about her days here.

“It’s a real link with the past and it brings history alive for them, not just the history of the school, but the history of the country and what it was like to grow up in those war years.”

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