The Woodlands Centre is situated in Tilley Green just outside Wem in Shropshire. Part of the centre is located in Trench Hall which was built in the late 1800’s and was home to wealthy farm land owners. Before it became the Woodlands Centre it first became a school back in 1939, known then as Trench Hall School.
Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s changed education in Germany. He decreed that Jewish people could not be teachers and Jewish children could not sit any exams or get any qualifications. In 1933 Anna Essinger, a German Jewish educator planned to escape this regime with all of her pupils and with the permission of all of the children’s parents, set up a school trip to England.
Arriving in Kent, Anna Essinger setup a boarding school at Bunce Court with 70+ children and staff. However numbers soon doubled and with the start of World War 2 in 1939, a school full of German children and staff was not looked upon favourably. Pressures of mistrust and the Battle of Britain forced Anna Essinger to relocate the school with all 140 pupils. The relocation chosen was here at the then empty Trench Hall. Being much smaller than Bunce Court the younger children were temporarily moved to a school in Surrey.
“We set to work immediately at putting into shape a private house that had been vacant for a number of years. In order to make a school and a home for us for the second time, repairs of all kinds had to be done. Walls had to be distempered, schoolrooms prepared, bedrooms made out of garages and stables…”
– Anna Essinger.
There was still terrible overcrowding and after a year, the chicken coop and the stables were converted into dormitories, creating enough room to allow the younger children to return. Even so, some bedrooms doubled as classrooms and had to be rearranged for use every morning. More time consuming, however, was having to cover every window in the evening to comply with the orders for a complete blackout, a task which had to be carried out for years.
“At Trench Hall I remember the stinging nettle forest around the Cottage. Being washed in a bucket three at a time with water heated in a copper. taking it in strict turn to lick the big spoon of cod liver oil and malt and going to Wem to buy your sweet ration.”
– Bettina Cole an ex pupil remembering her time at Trench Hall School.
Although much too small to accomodate the 140 pupils who moved here, enrollment dropped after the Nazis banned Jewish emigration in 1941. Also, the school could no longer keep its chickens, pigs or bee hives. While the school was evacuated here Trench Hall, the buildings and grounds of Bunce Court were used by the military and were much changed and required restoration work before the school could return. Not until after the war was over, was the school finally able to return to Bunce Court in 1946.
Many of Essinger’s 900 pupils over the period of time at Trench Hall, became leading figures in their professions, a remarkable record for an institution which seldom had two pennies to rub together.
“Before I came to the school I was barely alive, withdrawn, frightened, with no sense of others or of myself. Even during the first two years I existed inside a shell, with just moments during which I seemed to be alive and aware of what was going on around me. My own survival as a human being I owe to the school, to its teachers, its staff and to all my fellow students, even those with whom I did not get along and who may well have found me difficult, if not insufferable.”
– Michael Roemer, ex pupil at Trench Hall School and now a Professor of Art at Yale University.
Trench Hall however reopened in 1949 and remained a boarding school all the way until 1990 where it then became a day school.
In 2003 after an investment of £2.2million Trench Hall School became the purpose built Woodlands Centre as we know today, acommodating the Woodlands School.
In May 2007 some of the surviving pupils from Trench Hall School visited. It was covered by BBC News and was an eventful day for all involved.