I enclose some recollections of West Downs. Perhaps I should add that I was very happy there, and count myself lucky to have gone to such an excellent school. I thought I would leave the eulogies to others, and if my sketches seem a little critical, they are meant as no more than a little gentle ribbing of an old friend.
About 1930, the school was given a lecture on health by a Dr Murray Levick. He had at one time been attached to an expedition to the Arctic, Antarctic, or some other frigid waste, in the course of which he noticed that no one was suffering from measles, mumps, whooping cough or ’flu.
Unfortunately he concluded that this was solely due to the extreme cold, and from that moment on most of the inhabitants of West Downs were doomed. I write “most,” because the Tindalls, throughout the Ice Age which descended upon us following the lecture, maintained roaring fires in their private apartments, whence Mrs Tindall ventured forth in fur coat and fur gloves, the general effect being not unlike the well-known picture of Captain Oates setting out on his last walk. Indeed, such was the severity of the weather in the lower passage that on one occasion a lady’s hat was torn from its anchorage upon her head, and sailed a considerable distance down to leeward.
Mr Rose and Mr Ledgard, veterans of WWI, may have compared their classrooms unfavourably with the trenches of the Somme, where they were at least allowed to light braziers to offset hypothermia. However, as no one at the school was trying to shoot them, they probably concluded that, by and large, West Downs was just preferable to winter on the western front.
Madame conducted her classes wearing an overcoat, gloves, and, as I remember, some sort of head cover. Her aspect suggested that her comments on the temperature, in whatever language they had been expressed, would have been unsuitable for the ears of her pupils.
The junior masters wore their ’varsity scarves, and turned various shades of purple and blue.
In spite of mittens, I got chilblains on my hands, which broke and went septic, and I arrived home for Christmas with my fingers swathed in bandages and hot fomentations. The Georgian vicarage in which we lived was far from cosy by modern standards, but compared to West Downs was as Aden to Murmansk. My hands healed rapidly, only to revert to square one when exposed to the rigours of the spring term. I can honestly say that I suffered far more from the cold at West Downs than I ever did watch-keeping on the open bridge of a destroyer in the Barents sea. And, alas for Dr. Levick’s theory, little boys, blue and miserable with cold, fell prey to any passing germ far more rapidly than if they had been luxuriating in a thoroughly unhealthy fug.
When I was at West Downs, constipation was considered to be a terminal ailment. There was a rumour amongst the boys that if you failed to open your bowels for three days, your rectum would seal itself up – and then where would you be? Anyway, I was suspected of being constipated, and was given frequent doses of Prunol, Syrup of Figs, and other nostrums, none of which, luckily, had the slightest effect upon my good natured and imperturbable digestive system.
So that the throughput, so to speak, could be monitored, I was not permitted at Sanitary Prep to ‘take a number’ in the ordinary way, but had to retire upstairs to some far-distant bathroom, where a commode awaited me. As there was no way of flushing it, the results or non-results of my labours were clear for Sister to see. Overshadowing this situation, as the atom bomb was later to overshadow civilisation, was the ultimate horror weapon of the time – the enema. I am happy to record that a combination of innate good health, plus an occasional economy with the truth saved me from this fate worse than death.
Eventually Sister called off the hunt, I was permitted to excrete unsupervised, and my bowels and I lived happily ever after.
Occasionally, beyond the perimeter fence there would congregate some children of much the same age as ourselves. They came from families trying to cope with low wages, unemployment, the dole, and various other problems of the great depression. From our immaculately kept playing field, we looked down upon them, literally and metaphorically; we called them the guttergrubs.
Perhaps someone should have explained to us that, although we were well privileged, and they certainly were not, there was no reason to suppose that we represented some superior form of human life; or told us a little more about life outside our own cosy existence; but no one ever did.
Additional thoughts for a Follow-up to Mark Hichens’ book
I think that the book was very well written, and remarkably comprehensive. It be that the following thoughts have already been considered and rejected for various reasons, with which I wouldn’t argue. Mark achieves the aims that he sets out in the Preface. I like the layout and the use of footnotes.
The only error that I have found is the statement on page 51 that Beany Broadhurst gave the new chapel electric organ in the mid-twenties. I was at West Downs from 1930 to 1935, and the new organ was installed during one holiday when I was there. I would put its installation as 1932.
On page 56 it is not strictly accurate to say that nothing was done in Sanitary Prep on Sunday except learn scripture verses. A fairly senior boys was chapel verger. I was so appointed and sat in front of the others near KBT, so that if he wanted anything during the service he only had to ask the verger. The verger’s other duties related to special hymn sheets and putting up the hymn numbers on the display board. For Sunday services there was a “scheme” or hymn sheet. These were produced in Sunday Sanitary Prep like a chain letter. The verger produced the first and made about six copies, which were distributed to other senior boys who made another six copies each. This was quite time consuming, and difficult to fit in to the half-hour prep. It was some time before I thought of making the first six copies on Saturday evening, thus allowing ample time for the six copiers in Sunday Sanitary Prep.
I think too that Mark slightly underestimates the role of Rachel Tindall in the School before she married Keith Gaskell. She regularly played the organ in chapel, and I believe helped quite a lot in other ways. Ann Bass was my contemporary at West Downs and so we saw a lot of her then.
She was a terror on the football field!
I like Lord Sherfield’s reference to the “Little Ice Age.” Ink pots in N Room froze every winter in the early thirties, and I thought it “sissy” to wear an overcoat until I was well over thirty!
Boys learned many things outside school hours, like chess, to which full reference is made. For games there was soccer in the autumn, rugger and hockey in the spring term, and cricket in the summer. Then, of course there was scouting! Mark covers the care that the Tindalls and staff exercised over the safety of boys. I wonder if they realised the dangers involved in getting the Scouts Electrical badge: one of the tests was mending a domestic fuse. This was done in the foricas by the balcony in Shakespeare, where there was a small fused distribution board. But first the fuse had to be blown. This was achieved by inserting silver paper between the bulb and its holder, to cause a short-circuit when the light was switched on in the foricas. I don’t think any boy was ever given an electric shock, but I doubt that today’s authorities would approve the practice!
In the early thirties one event we enjoyed was the annual cricket match between the Police and the Bar, which was held on the second pitch. The Police team always included a huge superintendent who was so fat that he couldn’t stoop. He always fielded at mid-off, and got his shins in the way of any barrister’s off drive. He was a brave police officer, but Sister Vera Guy was kept very busy with the vaseline!
On Sundays there was letter-writing. Every boy had to write home. I was not a good letter writer, and found it a chore. One had to get over onto the second page. This, with the envelope and its address, would be checked by the master in charge, usually Howell Griffith. On the envelope every line had to end with a comma. I am not sure why but I was also expected to write to my sister at Sherborne School for Girls. I started with an octavo sheet 8 x 5 inches (200 x 130 mm), but then thought of halving it, and was surprised that this was accepted. I didn’t know when to stop and tried halving it again, and to my surprise this was also accepted. When I tried again halving it to 2 x 1¼ inches (50 x 30 mm), this was rejected and I went right back to octavo!
I enjoyed being a member of the photographic Society. Unfortunately I don’t now have any of the prints that I produced, but I believe that some quite good work was produced by others.
I am surprised that no one else has recalled the “pempe.” This was a joke that everyone from KBT down inflicted on new boys, especially those going home on the “mush” train. Half way through his first term, he would be told that he would need a pempe to get home. The pempe was a white card measuring 2¼ x 4 inches (60 x 100 mm). On the short side was written the boy’s name, and on the long side:
Pempe mwron proteron.
which can be translated “Send the fool first,” or “Give the fool priority.”
It was to be presented to all in authority especially porters and ticket collectors, who of course had no idea what it was, and occasionally clipped it like a ticket.