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

About Christopher Tennant, 1909-1912

This is an extract from a book about Christopher Tennant, 2nd Lieut. Welsh Guards, Killed in action September 3rd 1917. The book was loaned by Brigadier Coombe Tennant. Copyright.

West Downs

“Thus encircled by the mystery of Existence; under the deep heavenly fundament: waited on by the four golden Seasons, with their vicissitudes of contribution ... did the Child sit and learn.

“Nevertheless I were but a vain dreamer to say that even then my felicity was perfect. I had, once for all, come down from Heaven into the Earth. Among the rainbow colours that glowed on my horizon, lay even in childhood a dark ring of Care, as yet no thicker than a thread, and often quite over-shone. ... It was the ring of Necessity whereby we are all begirt; happy he for whom a kind heavenly Sun brightens it into a ring of Duty, and plays round it with beautiful prismatic diffractions; yet ever, as basis and bourne of our whole being; it is there.”

Carlyle, “Sartor Resartus.”

In May, 1907, Christopher’s school life began. He went in that month to West Downs (Mr. Helbert), a preparatory school, which lies high above the ancient city of Winchester and looks out over a wide stretch of rolling country. Here he was to remain for the next four years. At the time there were between fifty and sixty boys in the school. I am indebted to his parents for these and all other details.

West Downs, May, 1907.

My Dear Mum, — I drink tea for tea and tea for breakfast! It is difficult to get time to write to you, because there is such a lot of changing for cricket, and then I have to go out, and lessons, etc.

The Matron puts my bath ready. There are many boys younger than me here: I like my Pater [an elder boy charged with the duty of showing a new boy the ropes and generally befriending him] very well. My Pater just arrived when I did, so he does not know much himself. We go to chapel every morning and evening. The lark woke me up this morning, and is still singing beautifully. Well, dear Mum, please give my love to Daphne.

God bless you. I am your loving First-born son.

Christopher Tennant.

P.S. — When you come for the Sports I shall have to call you “Mother.”

October, 1907.

There is a probable match on the 20th of this month against a school near here called Winton House. The watch you sent me keeps perfect time. In the mornings when we are dressed, we learn one verse. I have learned the 46th Psalm, and am learning them both. We say our verses to the prefects.

It is a very cold day today, and raining hard. The wind is howling through the trees and I cannot describe its force. I hope that “Daphne is quite well and sleeps well and enjoys her food.” [The formula used by his old nurse to signify “All well” when writing to his parents when they were abroad.] I am fourth in my class; and hope to get on well in this school. The German servant Carl has gone yesterday (to be a soldier) back to Germany.

Another of my teeth has come out, which I enclose. ... I give most hearty love to you, Deedooge, and Daphne:

October, 1908.

I am getting on well with my work. I think of The Darling, [his only sister, Daphne, who had died in the previous July] and know she is helping me. It was very cold this morning, although the sun was shining: I hope you like Florence. I am doing well in Greek. The boy whom I like best in the school is Browning ... all the boys in the school are playing with “Diabolo.”

June 13th, 1909.

Dear Mum, — Today is Mr. Helbert’s birthday, and we have just had an enormous cake, with 1909 B.C., which stands for birthday cake; it was in the middle of the hall upon a stand. We all had two big helpings, and even afterwards some small boys came and looked longingly at it. We all tried to guess how old Mr. Helbert was, but he would not tell us then. I myself think he is about 40 or 41. I did very well in the half term exams and was second; but in everything, exams and work during the term, I was top! ...

West Downs, June 20th, 1909

Dear Mum, — On Friday the Fire Brigade came up, and the St. Gross dormitory was cut off, and the fire was supposed to have burned the stairs. They had a huge ladder and the firemen climbed up it and rescued us: the ladder was two long ladders joined together, and one man turned a handle round and round and it gradually went up. Then the real engine itself came up; and sparks flew in every direction, and they squirted water on to the house. I enjoyed it so much.

Yesterday we had a Paters’ match. We made 82, and then they went in and made 67. We went in again and made 66 for no wickets. So we beat them, and afterwards went down the bank and had a picnic; we threw buns and things at each other, but towards the end it began to rain, and we rushed about with hot tea under a sort of awning.

I don’t know what my prize is going to be, but I think it will be very grand. Winchester and Reading were going in for it, but I was first of them all. [The first prize in a competition organised by the Alliance Francaise. Christopher could speak both French and German readily, through his home training.]

I sit top of my class, and am getting on very well: The summer holidays are very near now. Much love.

September 19th, 1909.

I am getting on quite well. We are now playing footer, and I play left half: Mr. Rose gave a lecture last night upon aeroplanes; and I am sending you some notes that I made at the time. There are two “sections” of the top class, and I am head of the second. I am also appointed by Mr. Helbert to look after the whole top dormitory when (as often happens) the prefects are out of the room. I like it very much.

God bless The Darling. [Daphne, his only sister, obiit July 21st, 1908.] I am sure Fred [F.W.H. Myers, obiit January 17th, 1901] and she are often with us both.

October 31st, 1909.

Dear Mum, — I am writing to wish you very many happy returns of your birthday. Well, I hope you will have a very happy birthday, Mum, with the dear Darling, God bless her, watching over you and with you.

The time is drawing near when you give away our prizes at the Cadoxton schools. Have you got another of Oliver Lodge’s books to read together in the holidays?

I have determined to try and support the Prefects, but I don’t seem to quite know how to do it? but there, I will do my best and cannot do more. Well, dear Mum, again wishing you a most exquisite and joyful Birthday, and warm and sunny: Let it be “the day that the Lord hath made.” Your loving and adoring son,


November 21st, 1909

Dear Mum, — All is well here. This morning Mr. Helbert gave us a New Testament all in Greek; at first I could not find anything at all, but at last I recognised some words. I received during the match an extremely mysterious and interesting looking telegram! I could not open it in the middle of the match, which I must tell you we won (score: W.D. 3, other side 2), but I opened it at the end! I could hardly speak with joy!!! When I read the contents! So dear Alexander has arrived! [His brother, born November 20th, 1909.] Well, I have written to him to tell him how much I love him. We have great things to thank God and The Darling for. Words cannot express my excitement, but I shall soon see Alexander; may he be indeed Alexander “the Great!”

All is well here: There is no news. Much love. — Your adoring Cruffer.

January 29th, 1910.

All is well. The Doctor says my knee is decidedly I on the mend, and I think it is nearly well now. ... Several of the Masters come to see me regularly, and Mr. Helbert comes over and reads to me every day, which I think very kind of him. The real pleasures I enjoy here are the evenings, when I recall fragments of poetry such as “Aye, note that potter’s wheel,” [“Rabbi Ben Ezra,” Browning.] “O to mount again where erst I haunted, where the old red hills are bird enchanted” [“In the Highlands,” Stevenson] Again, “Say not the struggle naught availeth.” [Clough] I simply delight in them; they are companions to me. Well, dear Mum, God bless you.

February 4th, 1909.

Dear Mum, — I am charmed with the poem of Rossetti’s: I should like to know who Rossetti is? He is not a person I know, like Browning or Clough. I suppose he is a person like Dante. At any rate, he wrote wonderful poetry: Did he not write “Does the road wind up hill all the way?” [Christina Rossetti] I read that poem often: When one has read it once or twice it suddenly dawns upon you, and every time you read it you get more out of it each time. It is so vast! It is more than simple poetry! I shall be very pleased to have “The old plain men have rosy faces.” [“In the Highlands,” Stevenson.] Doctor says my knee all right again. Am just going down to dinner, and shall do lessons as usual.

June 5th, 1910.

Today the match-cards are given out by the captain of the eleven. There is a second-eleven match next Saturday. I am getting on very well with my music, also with my cricket. Well, dear Mum, I long to be with you. I often imagine you sitting in the drawing room with Clytie [a cast of the bust in the British Museum] and the Icon. [An ancient Russian icon given to his sister Daphne by her godfather, Dr. Hagberg Wright, brought back by him from Russia, where he had gone to visit Tolstoi at Yasnaya Polyana.] The Darling must be often passing between us.

All is well here.

June 19th, 1910.

The sports are drawing near, and I hope to see you on the 23rd. There will be another “Hesperid” for the sports, of which I am one of the editors. It goes to be printed early tomorrow morning. I think it is going to be very good indeed. I and Tennant minor have written a long account of Mr. Helbert’s birthday. You will see an account of my day there. At the end of our account we put

“Long live Mr. Helbert!”

but he would not put it in. The “Hesperid” is, as you know, our school paper.

The editors are: Tennant major; Tennant minor; Goff, assisting; Ramsay, assisting.

We have each done a lot of it: I think you will like it immensely: I am keeping my reputation up as a prefect, and will do so all through the end of the term.

September 18th, 1910.

There is going to be a French play at the end of this term called Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It is by Moliere. You no doubt know it. Tennant minor is acting the part of M. Jourdain, the bourgeois; I am acting the part of Madame Jourdain, who is supposed to be very sensible! The play is frightfully amusing; I roared with laughter as we went through it. There is no news. I am getting on very well indeed.

December 4th 1910

Yesterday evening the long dormitory acted Hamlet; it was very amusing in parts, especially when the ghost came in wrapped in a sheet! But it was nothing compared to The Taming of the Shrew. [In which he had acted recently, taking the part of Petruchio.] I shall be able to make sure of my French play in the holidays; as it is definitely postponed to next term. I sent you an Order in which I came out head boy, so I am still retaining my position as top of the school.

The Christmas holidays this year were spent at Hubborn, a pleasant old house near Highcliffe which his parents had taken for the winter. It was within easy reach of Christchurch with its fine Priory, of Barton Cliffs famous for their fossils, and of the New Forest, which the family party explored in many directions by motor.

The beauty of the country lying round Burley, Picketts Post, and Lyndhurst was a joy to the boy. More than once he visited Rufus Stone — a memorial marking the spot where William Rufus was slain whilst hunting in the New Forest in 1100. The stone is surrounded by magnificent beech woods, then in all the loveliness of their winter state, bare branch and spray rising from the russet carpet of their fallen leaves.

A small incident recorded at this time in his Mother’s diary gives an insight into one side of the boy’s nature. He had been promoted during these holidays to joining his parents at dinner on two evenings in the week. This was a welcome change from the “early to bed” regime, precious too as a sign of emancipation from childish things. But after a week or two he suddenly gave it up and reverted to the early supper arrangement. Perfect freedom — in so far as it is compatible with a child’s safety and the give-and-take of family life — being the law of his upbringing, the change was accepted by his parents without comment, and it was not until a few weeks later that the cause became known to his Mother, who noted it in her diary as follows:-

“Much touched yesterday to find Christopher had voluntarily abandoned his two late dinners a week with us because on the nights he stays up I did not read the Bible and pray with him as my custom is on other nights. Rather than miss this he went to bed at 7.15 p.m. instead of dining with us. Arranged in consequence that he should stay up once a week, and that I would read to him as usual on that night.”

To the end of his days the things which are unseen and eternal remained very real to him. Free from the least trace of priggishness, his attitude to this side of his life was entirely natural and entirely unconventional. He accepted the outward forms of Anglicanism but he never found in them the natural expression of his religious sense. Dogma had no meaning for him, still less the idea of religion seen as a useful kind of police force to restrain the young and adventurous — a view secretly held by many adults. He was on the side of the rebels on this as on many other questions, but it was the rebellion of one lit by an inner vision, who found in the official system little that satisfied his sense of the immensities with which his individual life was hedged.

He did not return to West Downs at the beginning of 1911. During the past term there had been a number of cases of Hoffman’s bacillus (a more or less harmless germ often found in the throat) in the school, and the order had gone forth that each boy’s throat was to be swabbed before his return from the Christmas holidays. Bacteriological examination showed that the bacillus was present in Christopher’s throat, and there was nothing for it but to keep him at home and give him such help with his work as a tutor who came three times a week from Winchester could provide.

He was already keen to try for a scholarship at Eton (which his grandfather had entered in 1841) or at Winchester; and the loss of the regular term’s work was a set back which made the prospects of his getting one rather remote. By the end of March he was passed free from germs and returned to West Downs. Early in April a chance vacancy, due to the ploughing of a candidate, occurred in K house at Winchester College: This was offered to Christopher through Mr. Helbert, and it was decided that he should accept it and try for a scholarship in the following July. He left West Downs in April and went in May, 1911, to Kingsgate House, Winchester (Mr. R. D. Beloe), where he was to remain for the next five years.