loader image

Letters of Jenifer Myrtle Palmer

From Southover Manor School at Firle Place, Sussex, aged 14

Southover Manor School was founded in 1924 at Lewes by Wilfried Ponsonby. Initially a convent school, based at Southover Manor in Southover High Street, Lewes, which later became a Grade II listed building, ran as an independent boarding school for girls until it closed in 1984. As the theatre of war began to intensify in Britain, early in the war, it was anticipated that the Germans would land at Cuckmere Haven, so defenses were increased and larger towns such as Lewes were considered vulnerable targets. Thus, a decision was made to evacuate the girls’ school to nearby Firle Place in 1939. After the fall of France the German offensive took a more serious turn, the Luftwaffe started tip-and run raids on the South Coast, Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton were regularly targeted, and the Messerschmitts followed the course of the River Cuckmere carrying their deadly bombs for the regular night raids through the blitz of London. Given the German offensive escalation in Southern England, the decision was made to move Southover Manor School again, this time to Holt Castle in Worcestershire in September 1940.

Hugh Bullock has kindly shared the letters written home by his mother, Jenifer, in 1940, aged 14, when Southover Manor School were housed at Firle Place. Clearly the whole school was ill with German measles, Jenifer too was struck down, followed by a bout of ‘flu, so that her first term was a disaster and her exam preparation non-existent. She was clearly very homesick, Hugh speculates, presumably because she had been previously educated at home.

Jenifer was evacuated in the summer of 1940 with her mother, Lady Palmer and sister, Virginia, to America on Laurentic II, a White Star armed merchant cruiser. The ship was sunk by a U-boat on her return trip to the UK in November 1940.

When Jenifer turned 18, she returned to the UK and joined the Intelligence Services working at Blenheim Palace until the end of the War.

We are grateful to Hugh Bullock and his sister, Rosalind Sanderson, for their permission to reproduce their mother’s letters, as follows:

Sunday, 4th January 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My dearest Mummy,

Thank you for your letter, you answered my questions very well. I am glad my pen is coming shortly as I need it very badly.

I am also very glad that I am not at Downe (1) in this cold winter weather; it must be freezing there. It is really very warm here on the whole. The sitting room in the evening is rather chilly but we always have a fire in our form-room and my dormitory is about the warmest in the school. I have a radiator right next my bed.

I hope that you are not too cold at Langham (2). I gather from Delia’s (3) letter that the snow is very deep. I am green with envy at your having such lovely weather. Here we had one day when the snow was about 9” deep, but ever since then, there has just been thawing, slushy muck which I hate. It rained all last night and this morning there is hardly any snow left. Everything is green which I don’t like at all; I much prefer snow and a white countryside. Of course we don’t get out much to enjoy it. One of the things I dislike most about school is the lack of fresh air. I get frightfully yawny. We are supposed to go out from 2.20 to 3.20 in the afternoon which is far too little, but actually we never get out till 2.30 and generally get in about 3.15. It seems such a waste because we don’t start lessons till 4.15 and no-one can want an hour to change in.

When we play games, we do it in two shifts, 1st game 2.20 – 3.0, 2nd game, 3 – 3.40. When we are not playing games, we just seem to sit indoors. As we can’t play lacrosse in the snow, we play football which is great fun, much nicer than lacrosse. It is a pity about Sunday afternoons too, but as we are only allowed to walk round the park by ourselves and not in the fields or on the Downs, I can quite understand people not wanting to do it much; it must get a bit boring, but I would do anything for some fresh air.

We stop lessons at 12.0 and have mending then, but I expect they would let me off that if you were coming. They did Pamela (4) and Cynthia (5) when Uncle Reggie and Aunt Betty (6) came down and took them out. It would be lovely too, if we could all go over the Ponsonby’s on Sunday.

The blazer has come but no stockings. Bunny, the matron, is getting a little fussed and so am I as, at the moment, I have only two pairs of stockings so I can’t send any to the wash.

This morning Mollie Abel Smith nearly fainted in church and had to come out. The singing is very bad there as we are practically the only people who go and no-one seems to sing. We had two of my favourite hymns which was nice and quite a nice sermon. Last week it was very dull!

Please give my love to Daddy,

Heaps of love and kisses,


1. Downe House
2. Langham Old Hall, Rutland – the home of the Hughes Smith family, cousins and friends
3. Abel Smith, Jenifer’s first cousin
4. Abel Smith
5. Pamela’s and Delia’s sister; Jenifer’s first cousins
6. Reginald and Beatrice Able Smith – parents of Pamela, Cynthia and Delia. Reginald was Jenifer’s mother’s brother

Wednesday, 24th January 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My dearest Mummy,

I gave in the ration-book etc. But there was no identity card and apparently there ought to be, so I was told to write home at once for it.

I have hardly seen anything of the grounds so far as we have been out for ¾ hour this afternoon. We unpacked from 9 – 11 and then had a very dull form meeting. We did prep from 4.15 till 7.15 with a break for tea from 5.45 till 6.15.

Miss Aspden seems very nice. She is much younger than Miss Willis and I like the look of her much better. Mrs Aspden looks nice too. Nurse is very nice but very inefficient I gather, not like Sister. There are two matrons, Bunny (we’re under her) and Miss Ellis. Bunny is very nice but rather fussy and unreasonable; she helped me about where to put my things quite a lot. We have very little room really.

Pamela sleeps in a longish dormitory of seven next door. Cynthia is looking after me very well: I sit next her at meals and I go with her whenever I am not in my form room. It would be easier if we were both Juniors but as I am two forms higher than her (it is not two standards higher but one big form), the one above hers which has split into 2 forms, A and B. I’m in A. I am a Senior.

Several people skated today on a little pond in the park. Cynthia skated and said that the ice was very bad but it was fun. I walked with Pamela round the park. It is a lovely place this. The house much more homely than Downe but the garden is ridiculously small for such a big house, much smaller than Woodhill’s garden (7)!

We have fires in the form rooms and our dormitory is supposed to be the warmest in the school.

I wish I could see you,


7. One of the Abel Smith family homes

Wednesday, 11th November 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My dearest Mummy,

Thank you very much for your letter. As you can see, my pen has arrived, complete with a beautiful fine nib. It is a joy to write with!

Your weather does not sound of the best. Ours is dull: cloudy, sometimes rain, occasionally sun and bitter, east wind! I have not been out for four days as I have in the San. with a cold. It arrived with a raging sore throat and I and my belongings went to the San. on Thursday morning. There are four beds in the room where I am. Only three were occupied: my companions were Rosemary Clay and another girl, Edith Curry. They are both frightfully nice and Edith is very amusing and giggles a great deal like Delia. We used to laugh and laugh sometimes about nothing.

I had a headache and felt rather sick the first day, so I did not enjoy it much. I slept during the afternoon and felt better afterwards. We had lovely things to eat: chicken and fruit salade which I enjoyed frightfully (we never have chicken here). It was lovely being lazy and just lying and thinking for hours with no lessons!

It was even better the next morning to hear everyone getting up and all the gongs going while I lay warm and snug in bed. Another child arrived that morning, Constance Bruce. She is 12 but not quite as tall as Virginia! (8) Edith got up but Rosemary and I stayed in bed. I felt perfectly all right and read book after book (I think I read 5 while I was in the San.) My pillow case, wool and bathmats arrived so I could knit. (I’ve done about 1 ft).

In the evening I had a bath, the nicest since I’ve been here! It was beautifully hot and I lay for hours basking in it! Altogether I enjoyed Friday very much especially as it was ¼ term!

On Saturday, Edith left us which was a great pity as she is so amusing. Rosemary and I got up at 12.30 and had lunch downstairs. We rested on our beds all the afternoon (I had a good story) and had tea downstairs. Most of the school went to a lecture and film about Poland (pre-present war) but we did not go as we went to bed at 6.0.

On the whole I enjoyed myself very much there and have liked having a cold as except for the first day, it has not been bad enough to make me feel ill. The only tiresome thing is that it has given my cough a new lease of life…

I am afraid that you won’t be able to come over and see me on the 17th as I don’t think the quarantine is over till about Feb 23rd but I am not sure. It is very tiresome but of course you could possibly come down and carry it back to the Twinnies.

I had a music lesson last Tuesday. Miss Bristol (not Bishop) seems very nice but I don’t know how she teaches because last time she was finding out how I played and deciding what music to get etc. I don’t have an hour’s practice a day. At the moment I have 4 practices of 30 min. each a week, but I am going to try and get one more. I don’t see how I can manage any more really, but it does seem awfully little, less than I would have had had I been at Downe!

Mollie Chaplain is much better but very weak and limp with no appetite. You know she had a nose-complication and one day her nose bled practically all day from 9.30 am! She lost 2 ½ pints of blood. Since then her nose had been all plugged up but it is better now.  Nurse says she won’t be good for much for ages. Her mother came down yesterday which was nice for her!

I am longing to see you; the German Measles are a bore: I hope no-one else gets them.

I can’t think of anything else to say so Goodbye and please give my love to Daddy,

Heaps of love and kisses, Jenifer

8. Jenifer’s sister – 5 years younger

Sunday, 25th November 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My dearest Mummy,

Thank you for all your letters. I have lost count of them, so I can’t say how many.

I will now try to answer everything. … Miss Aspden has not mentioned the Maths or practices and nothing has happened about them so far. I try to get an extra practice or two in the evenings and I would do so in the evenings but I am usually too tired to do anything but sit and read or knit.

I can hardly believe that it is a whole week since I saw you. The time has gone so fast. We did have such fun that weekend, it was really perfect. I do wish the Ponsonby’s weren’t moving, we shall miss them terribly.

I wish you would have come down again this Sunday and done the same sort of thing. I think you would have enjoyed it better because the weather is such a contrast: warm, sunny with a tiny breeze and very spring-like. The birds are all singing and there are snowdrops out in the garden. I would love to go for a nice walk with you, not in a biting wind and on a slippery road. I do wish I was at home, but still, it is half term on Wednesday and we go home for five weeks on Thursday. How I long for it: it does seem ages away when I think of it, although the beginning of term does not seem so far.

I was very lucky and went out yesterday! Cousin Peace came down and took out June, Mollie, Rosemary Renner and me.

We caught the 2.30 bus to Lewes and walked to Shelley’s where we were supposed to meet Cousin Peace. She was coming on the 2.55 train from London, so we had to wait for her for a bit. When she arrived, we went and bought some cakes for tea, as we thought that perhaps Shelley’s would have simplified their teas because of the war, and then went up and saw the old castle. It was very interesting and we got a lovely view from the top of the barbican. Cousin Peace had bought a box of chocolates and we all guzzled. Between the four of us, we finished a largish box of two layers, they were very good!

Then we had tea at Shelley’s: sandwiches, scones, bread and butter and cakes. We had it in a drawing room at the back. There was one other party of five grown-ups and two sweet little dogs, but they did not bother us much. We sat and talked for a bit after tea and caught the 5.35 to Firle.

We have done no work at all, this week. The scripture and English mistresses, Cherry and Margiana have got ’flu. Poor Mrs Chanda has had an accident. She stepped off the platform in the blackout in front of a stationary train and hurt her spine or something. Anyhow she won’t be back for weeks. So we have no scripture, English or German lessons. Then on Monday, as some the maids are ill, we had to wash-up. We missed a whole French lesson and most of an Algebra.

Asp has got a fresh air campaign because I think she is afraid of a ‘flu epidemic next week. We have been having longer games or walks in the afternoon. I like the long walks but loath the games.

On Thursday and Friday we stopped lessons at 11.0 and went out for long walks. It was marvellous and Thursday: very sunny but with quite a wind, the sort of day I love. I only wore a couture coat and was boiled. We went up onto the Downs and it was perfect. The ground was so springy and the wind blew right through me giving me a lovely fresh feeling inside. I did so enjoy it.

It was not so nice on Friday because it rained. We went up on the Downs and got in a cloud. I could hardly see 20 yds ahead, but when we went down to the valley, it was quite clear and we could see the cloud resting on top of the Downs. It was great fun in spite of the weather.

Exams have been put off for a week as we missed so much last week, so we will have the torture on March 11th, a fortnight tomorrow, I wish we did not have exams, I do hate them so. If only I could get German measles just that week, it would be lovely.

There are only five more Sundays, thank goodness. Sundays are always the day I feel most homesick, I hardly ever do during the week as there is so much to do.

Heaps of love and kisses


Friday, 8th March 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My dearest Mummy,

Thank you very much for your two letters which I got yesterday.

I have had a very nice time in the San. on the whole. On Sunday morning, I woke up with a very sore throat and a headache: I thought I’d got a cold and told Miss Ellis when she came in to haul us out of bed. She took my temperature and told me to stay in bed until Nurse was ready for me to go to the San.

I was put in room No. 4 (see plan of San.) There were four beds: the occupants were Pamela, who had had a cold but was about to return to the world, Josephine Lomax-Simson and June Harley.

Pamela and Josephine got up before lunch for lunch and tea and I was left with June Harley. I made a few efforts of conversation but as she did not respond and I had a bit of a headache; anyhow, I gave it up.

There was a film in the evening which I was very annoyed at missing, as I think it was rather good, ” The Passing of the Third Floor Back”. Pamela and Josephine went and came up rather late. They went down to wash and then Josephine came rushing up saying that she must see Nurse. Of course it turned out that she had German measles! She and all her bedding etc. were moved into room No. 2.

The next morning, who should appear in the San. but Cynthia, beautifully spotty and full of beans. I still had a temp: and a headache (I had had a rotten night) and Nurse got suspicious and came in and found a few, curious, isolated spots on my back. She was rather in a dilemma because I had not a proper German measley rash but I certainly had something. She did not want to leave me in with Pamela and June in case I had G.M. and gave it to them but equally she did not want to put me with Josephine and Cynthia who were in room No. 2, if I had not got it.

Mary Mitchell was in room No. 3 having been sick the day before. Nurse had thought she had ‘flu, but she seemed much better, so she was moved into No.4 and I was put in room No. 3.

I spent most of the day sleeping and lying doing nothing or knitting as I had an awful headache. I enjoyed being in that little room by myself. It was such a change to a big dormitory and so nice to lie still and hear everything going on around me. There were some lovely daffodils there to, the first I had seen this year.

Sometimes Cynthia used to come into my room and make herself comfortable at the end of my bed and talk, to get away from Josephine. Nurse did not mind her doing it as long as she kept warm as she had quite a temp: but old Elly (Miss Ellis) would not allow her to, which was very hard luck. She still used to come in sometimes when Elly was at supper or busy downstairs. When she was at supper we used to go into Nurse’s room and look at our Temperature Charts which was most amusing. Mine went up to 101o on Monday, but on Tuesday and Friday it was miles below normal, 97.4o . Cynthia’s was below normal nearly all the time. We had to be very careful and post someone as look-out because if we had got caught, we would have got into an awful row!

On Thursday, I got up before tea. Cynthia and Josephine did too and we had quite fun wandering about the landing and visiting the other German Measley people in No. 4.

On Friday, we got up again for tea and helped Nurse wash up after as everything had to be washed up in the San. because of infection.

Saturday March 9th

By then, there were several other people with G.M. who were in a room downstairs. Nurse decided to bring those newer people up to the San. and send us convalescent ones down to the other room.

We all moved our beds down after breakfast: six of us, Cynthia, Yury, Josephine, Rosemary Renner and a cousin of Yury’s who is also a new girl, Ann Fleming, and I. It is really quite a nice dormitory, except for Josephine, but she is not too bad when there are a lot of other people as well.

Sunday March 10th

It will be fun your going to Munden for Easter. I wish I could go and see it again; I used to love it there.

The weather is very spring-like now. This morning as I lay in bed, I heard a lovely chorus of birds singing spring songs. There are snowdrops and aconites out in the garden and catkins and pussy-willow in the woods. I wish I were home. Somehow, we seem to notice and enjoy the spring much more at home, going out for walks and riding. There is not the same thrill here over the first flowers and picking buds and palm (?), it all seems like any other season and one sees so little of it, cooped up at hateful lessons. How I envy Delia and Virginia doing lessons at home.

Do you know we left Cyprus a year ago next Friday? It seems much longer than that doesn’t it? I wish I could put the time back a year or two years! Please give my love to everyone,

Heaps of love and kisses


Monday, 17th March 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

Dearest Mummy,

Thank you so much for your letter and the Easter Card: it is so pretty and sweet. This letter is just to wish you a very Happy Easter. O, how I wish I was having it with you: it does not seem like Easter here, it was all so different last year at Woodhill.

I am just getting to the stage when I can think of nothing but home unless I’m reading or talking to someone. I don’t want to but I can’t help it. Whatever I do, I find myself thinking about it. The minute I wake up in the morning I start, I go on all day, and even dream about it at night. Literally I have dreamed about nothing but home or people like you, Virginia and Marjorie, for ages, several weeks.

I feel that nothing matters except going home: I must go home soon. I don’t care what happens at exams. I know I shalln’t be able to do them, so why bother and worry? I can’t possibly do them having missed so much. I shall have missed three weeks, two weeks work and on week revision which is much more important, and of course last term’s work which we are being examined on too. It is hopeless. It seems silly to do them. I wish I could go home now.

I got up to tea for the first time yesterday. I felt awfully wobbly and my legs seemed to be made of lead going up and down stairs. I was quite glad to get up. It is rather boring being in bed. I get tired of reading and lying knitting is pretty dull. I am getting up at 12.30 today, going down for lunch, resting all afternoon, getting up again at 4.0, going down for tea and coming to bed directly afterwards at 6.15. I expect I shall do more or less the same tomorrow only I might get up a bit earlier. I hope to go out a bit soon too. I have not been out for ages and feel so stuffy and shut in.

Half the school is down with the G.M. now. The San. is full and so are two other big dormitories. Three of the staff have got it too: the science mistress, the music mistress and the scripture mistress. Poor Nurse has an awful lot of work, an extra Nurse is coming in this morning, I think.

Nurse was so busy this morning that she forgot all about my breakfast. It did not appear at 7.45 as it usually does and I was a bit surprised but thought that as everyone was very busy, I knew it would just a bit late. However at 8.0 and then at 9.0, it was still not here. I was getting hungry by this time. I waited till 9.20 and then got up and went along the find someone. I met Nurse right along the passage. She said “Good morning” and looked a bit surprised to see me there in my dressing gown; I said “Nurse, I have not had my breakfast yet and I’m very hungry”. She was most surprised and said “Good heavens, I forgot all about you. Get back to bed and I’ll produce some breakfast”, which she did. It was a very good one; I was very glad to see it!

Heaps of love and kisses,


Sunday, 24th March 1940

Firle Place, Lewes, Sussex

My darling Mummy,

Am I going home early and if so, when? I will tell you why I ask.

Yesterday afternoon, I was resting as usual and at about 3.30, Miss Goodchild poked her head round the door and said “Oh, are you resting? Can we come in?” I said “Yes”, of course and she and another lady came in. Miss Goodchild was obviously showing her round the school and said “This is one of the dormitories”, or something to the same effect. The lady made some polite remarks and they went out. Just as she was closing the door, Do-Tell-Me said “Have you been out yet?” I said “no”. Then she said “I believe you are going home early, aren’t you?”. I said “Am I?” in a rather surprised voice and told her I had heard nothing about it. She said that she did not think she was mistaken or had muddled me up with anyone else. Then she went out. I am thrilled, of course, and could not believe that it was true. I still can’t, it seems so marvellous, although I suppose she must have had some foundation for telling me.

What is rather funny is that on Friday might, I dreamed something like that. I dreamed that I was in bed and Asp or someone came and told me that I was going home early, next Thursday. I remember counting the days in my dream. I do hope it will come true: it ought to because I told Cynthia next morning and –
Friday’s dream
On a Saturday told
Will surely come true
Be it every so old.

Although I told Cynthia on purpose, I never thought there was a chance of it happening. Do write and tell me if it is. I hate this suspense of not knowing, it makes me so restless.

I do hope you are having a happy Easter. I could not go the Early Service which was a pity but I am going to the Morning Service. It will be the first time I’ve been out for a fortnight, I’m longing to.

Last night there were three films: one long one and two. The long one was “The Story of Captain Scott” and the two short ones were “Shakespeare” and one about Switzerland. I only saw the long one as I had to come to bed early. It was quite good: a real film of the Antarctic and an introduction by the man who went on the Expedition. It was rather sad and I nearly cried. There were some very interesting bits about seals and penguins: there were both very human in behaviour. The baby seals were sweet.

There does not seem to be any other news that I can think of. I’m still having breakfast in bed and going to bed early, but I feel more or less all right though I feel tired at night although I do practically nothing all day. I have hardly revised at all for the Exams and I know I shall do very badly having missed so much but I’m so excited thinking of home that I don’t bother about them and aren’t at all worried. Nothing seems to matter now except going home. Oh, I do hope that what Do-Tell-Me told me is true. I don’t know what I shall do if it isn’t, go mad I expect! I don’t think I’m going to do exams with the form as Diana Lindsay told me that when they were arranging places for the exams in the form-room, someone asked about my place and Cherry said: “Jenifer will probably be doing the exams in retirement” which sounds very queer to me. I do hope I am going home early, it will be marvellous. Please write and tell me soon. Please give my love to Daddy and Virginia,

Heaps of love


PS when are you going back to Langham?