1939 – 1945

Newbattle Abbey College was about to enter into its third year as a residential centre for adult learning when the war broke out in 1939.

With war imminent, an emergency meeting of the trustees was called by the Warden of the College, the Reverend A.G. Fraser, to plan for the future. The building and grounds were to be requisitioned by the War Office for use as a military training base. Students were informed to remain at home and staff were dismissed.

Newspaper clipping showing a domestic class at the No 1 Army Formation College. (Courtesy of the Adjutant's Generals Corps Museum)

Newspaper clipping showing a domestic class at the No 1 Army Formation College
Courtesy of the Adjutant’s Generals Corps Museum

By October 1939, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS – Women’s Army) and the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) had moved into Newbattle, using the site as an administration centre and training facility. The senior command occupied the building itself, which was also used as an administration office. The grounds were primarily used as accommodation and training space for new recruits for both the ATS and the RAMC.

The recruits were housed in numerous wooden purpose-built huts erected on the land opposite the college, which is now Newbattle Abbey Crescent. Each hut could accommodate up to 26 people and comprised rows of beds and a central stove. Communal toilet and washing facilities were in separate huts close by.

The huts within the grounds of Newbattle Abbey itself were brick-built and provided recreational space, a dining hall and classrooms for the base. Some of the names remain legible above the hut entrances today, including that of the ‘Gymnasium’, ‘Dining Hall’ and ‘Games and Reading Room’. These brick huts were painted green and brown in order to be camouflaged against the surrounding woodland. The huts which remain standing today make up Newbattle Abbey Business Park.

Upon arrival at Newbattle, every recruit was first given a health check, named the ‘Free From Infection’ inspection, and inoculations. They were also checked by the Nit Nurse for the presence of lice and treated as needed.

No 1 Army Staff of the No 1 Army Formation College (Courtesy of the Adjutant's Generals Corps Museum)

No 1 Army Staff of the No 1 Army Formation College (Courtesy of the Adjutant’s Generals Corps Museum)

Recruits were then issued with an army uniform and kit. The uniform included shirts, ties, skirts or trousers, underwear, a great coat and shoes or boots. Uniforms were distributed on arrival and not measured for. However, there was a tailoress onsite if alterations were needed. The kit consisted of necessities like cutlery, a mug, and a ‘housewife’, which was a small sewing and repair kit. It was expected that all recruits would keep their uniform in good condition at all times, including the darning of socks, before asking for replacements.

Following these initial procedures, recruits were likely to spend between three to six weeks at Newbattle. It was here they received their introductions to army life, including lectures and practical training, before being posted to their first job.

Being introduced to military discipline was an important part of the initial training. Every morning, each recruit had to ‘barrack’ their bed and lay out their kit for inspection. Uniform was expected to be well maintained and huts kept tidy. Part of their training was also to recognise the different military ranks to ensure that superiors were properly addressed and treated with appropriate respect. Lectures were given on army discipline. As many of the young people were away from home for the first time, lectures on health and sexual health were also a part of the curriculum.

However, the biggest emphasis in military training was put on marching. Marching drills and lectures were an important part of the daily routine as preparation for joining a military unit, in order that the army always looked organised when moving. Marching practice took place on the parade ground and in the surrounding area.

Time at Newbattle was also used to determine which military career each recruit would be posted to when their training was complete. In the majority of cases, this was decided by a selection of tests aimed to measure IQ, combined with individuals’ previous experiences and education. The recruits who trained at Newbattle went on to have a wide number of different careers, including drivers, wireless operators and hairdressers.

As their three weeks’ training drew to a close, the recruits were considered fully-fledged members of the forces. From here they were posted across the UK to whichever role they had been assigned. In some instances, first postings were not ready to receive them and so there were some recruits who had to spend further time at Newbattle. This additional time was known as being in ‘holding’, and during this period the young people pursued menial tasks and odd jobs given to them by the superior officers. These were intended to keep them occupied until their posts were ready to receive them and they were required to do whatever was asked of them, which was often housekeeping tasks.

Newbattle continued to be used as a training base until 1945. After six years, it became apparent that the war would be ending shortly and therefore recruitment for the forces ceased. The Trustees and Governors of Newbattle Abbey College began to hope that the War Office would shortly hand the building back and the function of the college would return to adult education, but this was not to be so.

1945 – 1948

It was the intention of the War Office to establish an education scheme following the end of the war, in order to provide education for demobilised men and women and equip them for careers outwith military service. Newbattle Abbey College was to be the first of these institutions and thus became the No.1 Army Formation College in the aftermath of the war.

Men and women returning from war met a different society from that of their pre-war lives. Many of them discovered great potential within them during their military service and were not content with their old lives. As the former Sub-Warden of Newbattle Abbey College, John Mack, wrote, it was proposed that the adult education colleges were to become places of education for such people. The colleges would provide demobilised men and women with the skills and qualifications necessary to begin new careers.

The initiative was well received by both the attendees and public alike, as the college was finally brought back to its original intended purpose of adult education. The quality of education has been commended as almost on a par with university education, and subjects included: Science and Mathematics, Commerce, Arts, Modern Studies, Artistic Crafts, Trades and Domestic Science. All students took part in daily lectures and discussions about History, Literature, Economics, Psychology and Philosophy. They then split into smaller groups for individual tuition and more specific courses on subjects of their choosing. Each course lasted one month and required 100 hours of tuition plus students’ personal study time. The aim was to provide vocational training, which would lead to a career post-demobilisation.

Formation Colleges were open to applicants of all ranks, but favour was given to those whose studying had been disrupted by the outbreak of war, those who were eligible for early release, or anyone with a particular talent for a subject. Almost 1000 students per month would be based at the No 1 Army Formation College, and like their counterparts from the ATS and RAMC, earlier in the decade, they lived and studied in the huts around the grounds.

Each department was supervised by an Army Major, one of whom was Major Charles Kemp, a former lecturer at Newbattle Abbey College, who had returned from his career in Army Education Corps to teach at Newbattle again.

Amongst many distinguished visitors the No.1 Army Formation College received were Princess Mary, The Princes Royal; Queen Elizabeth, wife to George VI; the General Officer Commanding Scottish Command, Neil Ritchie; and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery.

The No.1 Army Formation College closed in 1948, when it was decided that the building and grounds would be returned to the Trustees. Newbattle Abbey College was soon to be re-opened. In 1950 the first intake of residential students arrived under the leadership of the renowned Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, as Warden.