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

From Group Captain C.J. Collingwood, 1909-14

When I went there it was very much smaller than the final building finished up like. Shakespeare and the chapel were added on during my time at W.D. and bricks bearing the initials of all the boys then at the school were used on parts of the south wall. I expect all the initials will have been weathered away by now. Most of the spectator events like plays took place in the gym.

At the end of each term a French play took place, produced by ‘Madame’, the French mistress, one of the ugliest women that I have ever seen. I was not a great French scholar, but once had a non-speaking part as a tailor’s assistant, holding a piece of clothing.

It was typical of L.H., the well-beloved founder and the headmaster of the school, managing to bring everybody into the various activities.

There was a master, part-time, called Mr. Barrett, who came two or three times a week, who taught handwriting to the younger boys – although you wouldn’t think so reading this scrawl – and simple woodwork known as Sloyd.

Scouting had not started during my time at W.D.

Sister Brough, the matron, used to stalk the dormitories just before lights out, with a large spoon and a bottle of syrup of figs. She would arrive in the dormitory and sniff loudly, announce “what a smell of the human boy,” administer a dose to her selected victims, and wish us good night before repeating the performance in the next dormitory. She was an expert in repairing cuts and bruises, scrapes etc and supervised the ritual weighing in and measuring us all at the beginning and end of each term.

There were naturally great changes after August 1914, but I did not see them as I had left to become a naval cadet at Osborne. All the younger masters went off to join the army. The P.T. instructor known as Sage left the school as an army reservist, and ‘Bowson’ the handyman, a Navy reservist, was also called up. Ted Russell, L.H.’s secretary also went to the war.

C.J. Collingwood

In Reply To A Letter From Mark Hichens

You asked me two specific questions. The first, was there any special celebration after the building of the chapel, etc. I cannot remember anything of significance to mark the occasion.

Secondly you wanted to know how it was that Lionel Helbert was so universally loved. I cannot put my finger on any one attribute. The secret may lie in the fact that West Downs was his creation, and every aspect was of tremendous importance to him, combined with his personal interest in everybody, pupils, parents, masters and staff.

There were 2 annual events looked forward to by the pupils. Lionel Helbert’s birthday was celebrated by the whole school going on a day out in the New Forest. A fleet of waggons transported the pupils and masters to the selected spot where we could follow our individual interests. Birds nesting, butterfly collecting, rounders etc. The picnic lunch also came from the school with a party of helpers. At about 3.00 p.m. we climbed back into the transport and returned to the school to normal routine. I never remember a wet L.H.’s birthday, but no doubt alternative arrangements would have been made.

The other special occasion was Trafalgar Day, when we had our firework and bonfire celebration instead of 5th November.

Some of the masters that I remember were Mr Kirby, number 2 to L.H., said to have been a double Cambridge Blue. A small friendly man, rather older than the other masters. Mr Brymer was very short sighted and wore very thick spectacles. He was filling in time until an uncle died and he inherited the family estate in Dorset. The happy event took place after I had left, but I once visited him at his home and was taken to inspect his stretch of trout fishing on the river Piddle at the bottom of his garden. I remember there was great excitement when a fish was spotted, and plans were put in hand to catch it, snare it or shoot it. Mr Bulley was a very enthusiastic Territorial officer. The other pre-1914 Territorial was Mr Rose, who was married and lived in a house near to the school.

The housekeeper, Miss Dix, and the cook, Mrs Hudson, with a fine crop of white hair, I also remember. Miss Hills (Squilly) taught the new boys during their first term or so. She was a kind, rather controlled person.

Finally there was Russell the groundsman, who was in charge of the horse that used to pull the mower and roller. It used to be shod in large leather boots over its feet and metal shoes. He also owned a friendly bulldog bitch. He was a retired Hampshire cricket pro, and did coaching in the nets in his spare time. He was, as I mentioned in my last letter, the father of Ted Russell, the school secretary.

One of my memories was of Lent when we gave up sugar in our breakfast porridge, and I think in other things too. The money saved was given by L.H. to some local person in need.

C.J. Collingwood