Hoots from the Archive - Refugees at MGS

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 03 Nov 2022

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 22 Nov 2022

Prefects 1923

The perennial topic of refugees is of particular relevance presently, with the topic often in the news and the government running formal schemes to accept refugees from the Ukraine and Hong Kong.

Manchester has long been a destination for successive generations of refugees, from the Huguenots of the seventeenth century, Jewish refugees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through to the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the nineteenth century and the waves of refugees escaping the war torn continent in the twentieth century.

Manchester Grammar School has played its part by welcoming successive generations of refugees to study at the School. The earliest example documented in the archive dates from the early months of the Great War, when the German invasion of Belgium led ultimately to over a million people escaping the country. Around 250,000 came to the UK, including many children.

At MGS, the governors were keen to help refugees from Belgium. It was reported in Ulula in 1914 that the CDT department had refitted a house in Broughton specifically for refugees:

Some weeks ago a number of Newton Heath ladies applied to the High Master for assistance in furnishing a house for Belgian families, their funds having been exhausted in previous efforts of the same kind. Mr. Ogden's workshop classes immediately embarked on a new trade, and within a week had made and painted a dressing-table, a wash-stand, a cupboard, a kitchen table, curtain-rods, shelves, and other articles of furniture, as if to the manner born. Miss A. E. Evans sent a letter of thanks which was much prized in the workshop.

1914 also saw the temporary appointment of Mr. Alle Blockeel, himself a refugee from Belgium, as a French Assistant  at the School. The Christmas concert that year included renditions of the British and Belgian national anthems.

The Governors also offered school places to refugees, including those from Belgium and Serbia. In 1916 the School awarded foundation scholarships to four Serbian boys who had "alien" parents. This provoked some controversy amongst parents, and led to the Governors deciding to formulate a policy on whether such boys would be eligible. In the end, the Governors minutes record "Resolved on the motion of Mr. Councillor S. Woollam and seconded by the Dean of Manchester that during the continuance of the War, no Foundation Scholarships be awarded to the sons of Aliens who are not naturalised British subjects." One of the four Serbian boys appears to not have been a British subject, but the Governors decided to waive the requirement in his case and confirm his scholarship regardless, along with the three other boys who had already been naturalised. 

In 1917, the Governors' minutes record that "The High Master stated that he had received a visit from Dr. Seton-Watson with reference to the education of the Serbian boys in Manchester and he suggested that if it was proposed that any of the boys should attend the Grammar School, the same arrangements should be made for them as the Governors had made with regard to Belgian boys. The Governors agreed." So, despite the tightening of the eligibility for foundation scholarships, the School was still open to receiving boys for general admission who were refugees.

                 Photograph of the School prefects, 1923. Raphael Black, one the four Serbian refugees to join MGS is middle row, 5th from left

In the 1930s, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the increase in anti-Semitic laws and persecution led to many families fleeing Germany. The first boys to come to MGS started arriving in 1936, many changing their names to assimilate. Otto Lowenstein became Roger Kingsley, and Peter Schwarzenberger became Peter Sheldon. The Bodmer family left Germany in 1938 and educated their three sons at MGS - Walter, Arnold and Gerald. Their original name had been Billigheimer, but their father changed the family name to his wife's maiden name. One Old Mancunian who had come from Germany during the 1930s later remembered "I will never forget the equality of treatment and the complete absence of national prejudice I experienced at MGS."

In 1938, soon after Kristallnacht, a group of Jewish and Quaker leaders lobbied Neville Chamberlain's government to allow unaccompanied children from Germany to come to the UK, to escape the Nazi regime. The School was approached to admit boys who had come over on what became known as the  Kindertransport scheme. The minutes of the Governors read:

"A letter from Dr. William Chadwick of Prestwich was read asking if the Governors would be willing to offer facilities for the admission to the School of refugee children on the lines agreed upon by the Manchester Education Committee and certain Secondary Schools in the district. Resolved that Dr. Chadwick be informed that 6 refugee children have already been admitted to the School and that any subsequent applications will be given sympathetic consideration."

In 2019, the School received a gift of 2500 Euros from Old Mancunian Manfred Brod (1945 - 52). He wrote the following letter:

"I came to England as a refugee under the Kindertransport scheme in 1939, was fostered, and attended MGS on a foundation scholarship from 1945 to 1952.

The German government has now made a gift of 2500 Euros to remaining survivors of the Kindertransport. I am herewith passing the equivalent of this on to MGS for its bursary fund, and would like to think it can be used to help an academically able boy of the present generation of refugees"

The present-day MGS continues to educate the present generation of refugees. We currently have boys from the Ukraine, Hong Kong and Iraq.


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