Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Helbert/Brymer Era, 1897-1922

Extracts from the 1957 West Downs Magazine

West Downs Fifty Years Ago

West Downs in 1907 – what an exciting place it was! Perhaps a community of over seventy is bound to be exciting to any small boy fresh from home but over and above this there was the electrical atmosphere created by Lionel Helbert, with its suggestion that the unexpected might happen at any moment. The other masters too, headed by Walter Kirby, D.L. Rose and Claude Hayward, appeared to be a glorious and splendid team, as in fact they were. There were other great figures too; Miss Hills (Squilly), who taught the Junior Form in Domum Room, above the present Drawing-room, and produced the parchment still to be seen in the Upper Hall; Dr. Richards (Punch), who appeared daily on the elevated driving-seat of a primeval motorcar, to see if a red flag was flying from the sickroom window; Russell, the groundsman and cricket-coach, who mowed the field with the help of a pony called Raspberry; the redoubtable and bearded Bo’sun, who looked after our boots and had memories of the Bombardment of Alexandria in 1882; Sago the drill-instructor, a man of many wiles, whom L.H. used to send vast distances on a push-bike with messages that would now be telephoned; or Mrs. Hudson, the very type of a substantial cook, who appeared dramatically in the hatch half way through lunch every day, often behind steaming battery of West Downs Puddings. And so one might go on.

As instances of the exciting or unexpected might be mentioned the varying celebrations of L.H.’s birthday, with the chance of getting lost in the New Forest on a hired bicycle, or the sudden installation of an electric fan (with a long air-duct running down the main passage) to ventilate the classrooms, or the giving of an impulsive whole holiday on lovely March morning. Then there were the house-telephones, which appeared one day in every classroom but were only used once as far as I know, and the festoons of coloured lights which formed part of the Christmas festivities.

But these things were only the pinnacles of a remarkably solid structure, and in many ways the School remains singularly unchanged in spite of two wars and the vicissitudes of half a century. The buildings have been little altered since 1913, when the present Chapel and Shakespeare were added, and the field still looks much the same as it did in 1907, though actually a large chunk of solid chalk bank was transferred (also in 1913) from the upper to the lower side, with the result that the 1st XI football-field now occupies the site of what used to be called the Wilderness, a happy haunt for dreamers or bug-hunters on Sunday afternoons. Melbury indeed was a private house, but in the absence of Scouting and with the help of the Wilderness it was scarcely needed in those days.

In 1907 the Chapel (which had once been in the Chapel dormitory) occupied part of A, B and C classrooms, first at one end and then at the other, but next year increasing numbers made it necessary to build a tin one on what was then a raised lawn behind the Lodge: this is now N Room. The services were accompanied by a large harmonium and the organist was always a boy or boys. One difference from the present time is that we sang regularly in four parts with alto supplied by certain authorised boys. One of my more painful recollections is of having my foot stamped on by neighbour when I started singing alto without being invited.

We wore knickerbocker suits on weekdays in winter, with grey flannels in summer, but on Sundays we blossomed out into Etons and top-hats. L.H. always took a walk after morning chapel, wearing a morning-coat, and we linked arms with him, sprawling across the almost deserted roads. On Sunday afternoons in the summer he read exciting books to us, out of doors after lunch, while we ate bananas and ginger biscuits.

The school cap and the games uniform were very much as at present, with the three white arm-rings for the 1st XI at cricket, etc. Under Walter Kirby the teams often did exceedingly well. We played Horris Hill, Twyford and the now-defunct Winton House regularly with two XIs, but the 3rd XI was something of a myth and there were no Colts or Eastacre matches. In the autumn of 1906 the 1st Football XI won all its six games and this made a great impression on me, especially as I did not get beyond the 2nd XI myself There was an occasional special cricket match against Sparsholt or other village teams, in which one or two masters would take part.

Scouting started at West Downs in 1914 and before that the place of Patrol Leaders and Seconds was supplied by about a dozen Prefects. They held occasional tribunals called Prefects’ Meetings, which inspired more terror than most adult reprimands, their nearest competitor being the prospect of a challenge by another boy on some point of honour; this involved a duel with boxing gloves in the Gym. and in the Headmaster’s presence.

There were 65 boys in the School at the beginning of 1907; two years later the number was over 80, this increase being made possible by adding a third storey to what had once been the private wing at the west end. Before this the top floor ended with a small dormitory called the Crow’s Nest which was very popular with its occupants.

Beyond the School to the west there was nothing but open country. The Sarum Road was a rough lane, with only two small houses in it. The white and often dusty, Romsey Road was also uninhabited from Sleepers Hill onwards, and Oliver’s Battery was a stretch of open down, which made a good walk. Sometimes we had war-games with wooden dummy rifles there or over the golf course. But on the town side there is little change to record over the years, except that there were no buses and the street-lamps were lit by gas.

West Downs, with its swimming-bath, electric light and other novelties, was considered a very up-to-date place in those days, as it would be inevitably with L.H. as its Headmaster.

Alan Rannie