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

History of the School known since 1897 as West Downs

Prior to 1870 Schools were financed by the Churches or in a few cases by Local Authorities (so called Grammar Schools) or by endowment e. g. such Independent Schools or Private Schools as Winchester College, Eton College, Shrewsbury, Rugby etc. In 1870 the Central Government passed a law under which it would contribute towards the establishment of a lot more Schools, partly because it was felt that the existing Schools concentrated too much on Religious Instruction, Latin and Greek. Schools teaching more useful subjects were needed.

So in 1877 a meeting of those interested in ‘Middle Class’ education was held in the Guildhall at the invitation of the Mayor, Thomas Stopher, who was an architect. It was then decided to buy 12 acres of land on the west hill outside Winchester for 3000 guineas, equally £3,300. Lord Northbrook, formerly a Viceroy of India, backed the scheme and offered to lend £10,000 at 4% interest. J. T. Clifton, the Mayor who succeeded Mr. Stopher, actively backed the proposal and obtained support from a number of Winchester citizens who promised to give £1600 and £500 a year for five years. Thomas Stopher was chosen as the Building’s architect and it opened in 1880, the main Governors on its Board being the Bishop and Dean of Winchester Cathedral, the Headmaster of Winchester College and the Mayor. It started in 1880 with 4 Masters, 6 Servants, 12 Boarders including some from Australia and New Zealand and 5 Day Boys. Sadly it did not attract local support.

As early as 1882 the Governing Body had to take stock of the financial position. Nearly £13,000 had been spent on the purchase of the site, the construction of the building and expenses over the running of the School, but the annual fees from those attending it were only just over £5000. It was a financial disaster since at that date there were only 47 Pupils [30 Boarders and 17 Day). Because of minimal local support, the School had to close though Lord Northbrook was still keenly concerned. It continued for a time but in 1887 was turned into a Prep. School, i. e. for boys aged 7 to 13, called Westfields. It went on, precariously, for 8 years under the same Headmaster. Due to lack of support it came to an end in 1895.

Under its original constitution the Winchester Modern School was to educate boys aged 10 to 17 at 13 to 17 guineas for Day boys and an additional 30 to 40 guineas for Boarders. There was an Entrance Examination and instruction was to be given in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic; English Grammar and Composition and Literature; Algebra and Geometry; French and German and Latin and Greek; Natural Science and Chemistry; History and Geography and Political Economy; Book-keeping, Mechanics, Navigation, Drawing and Music. The range of subjects was clearly too wide for 4 Masters, the fees may have been too high and in the Eighteen Eighties it may well have been considered too distant from the City for Day pupils.

In 1897, again with financial help from Lord Northbrook, Lionel Helbert bought the premises. It started as a Prep. School for boys aged 8 to 13 known as West Downs with 4 boys and 5 Teachers. Mr. Helbert, an Old Wykehamist, who after graduating from Oxford University had been a Clerk in the House of Commons, knew many of the Members of both Houses personally and he devoted himself to the welfare of the boys committed to his charge. So the number of pupils rose rapidly and included many sons of the aristocracy. Among the best known early pupils were the third Earl of Balfour who became the Director of the Scottish Gas Board; Sir Randle Baker- Wilbraham, later President of the Chartered Land Agents Society; Sir Malcolm Barclay-Harvey, later Governor of South Australia; the eighth Earl Beauchamp, later Private Secretary to Lord Hore-Belisha; Lord William Beresford, son of the Marquis of Waterford; Lt. General Sir Frederick Browning, best known for his part in the Arnhem landings; General G. C. Bucknall who commanded a Corps on D-Day; Sir Edward Collingwood who became Chairman of the Council of Durham University; Lt. General Sir George Collingwood who was at one time G. O. Commander in Chief Scottish Command; Sir John Colville, Private Secretary to three Prime Ministers; Sir John Crompton-Inglefield, later Chairman of the West Derbyshire Conservative Association; Major General Sir David Dawnay whose Army Career ended as Commander of the R.M.A. Sandhurst; Vice Admiral Sir Peter Dawnay, later Deputy Controller of the Navy; Lord Duncan Sandys, who was a Cabinet Minister in the fifties and sixties; Vice Admiral Sir Edward Evans-Lombe, later Commander, Allied Naval Forces in Northern Europe; Field Marshall Sir Francis Festing who later became C.I.G.S.; Sir Edward Ford, later Assistant Private Secretary to H.M. the Queen; Lord Glenconner; the 2nd Viscount Harcourt, later Managing Director of Morgan Grenfell; Rear Admiral Sir Joseph Henley; Lord Hazlerigg; Admiral Sir Deric Holland-Martin who was later Commander in Chief Allied Forces, Mediterranean; Lord Horder, son of Sir Winston Churchill’s doctor; the 6th Viscount Hood, later H.M. Minister in Washington, U S.A.; Sir Richard Keane, landowner and author; Lord Kennet, the author Wayland Young; Lord Kensington who emigrated to Zimbabwe; Lord McCorquodale of Newton, Chairman of the Printing Company; Lord Sherfield the British Ambassador to the United States; Major General Charles Miller, M.G.A. Southern Conmand during the last two years of World War II; the 6th Viscount Monck, later Vice-Chairman of the National Association of Boys’ Clubs; Victor Montague, formerly the Earl of Sandwich and Viscount Hinchingbrooke; Lord Mottistone, later Naval Adviser to our High Commissioner in Canada; Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascists; the 5th Earl of Normanton; Sir Mark Norman, Chairman Gallaher and Wiggins Teape; Sir Philip Payne- Gallwey; Sir Berkeley Pigott, later Chairman of the Nati onal Pony Society; Sir Hugh Rankin, author and traveller; Lord Rayleigh; Sir Peter Scott, author and artist and Director of the Wildlife Trust; Sir David Scott-Fox, British Ambassador to Finland; Major General Sir John Sinclair, who finished his Army Career as Colonel Conmandant Royal Artillery; the 2nd Viscount Simon, later Managing Director of P. & 0.; Lord Justice Sir John Stephenson; Major General Gerald Smallwood; the 7th Earl of Sefton, who was later Lord Mayor of Liverpool; Sir Rupert Speir, M. P.; The 8th Earl of Tankerville; The 15th Earl of Winchelsea; Major-General T.N.F. Wilson and Sir John Wrightson (1920).

This is a formidable and probably incomplete list of West Downs boys from the Aristocracy and/or who distinguished themselves in their later lives. It may suggest that all our pupils in the Helbert era became well known. This is not the case. There were many other pupils of less importance since the numbers in the School rapidly rose from 4 to about 80. It can, however, be said that virtually all the boys then here came from the professional or land-owning class. Many went on from here to Eton and Winchester Colleges but they also went to R.N.C. Dartmouth and to other Public Schools (now called Independent Secondary Schools) at the age of 12 or 13. And no less than 37 including Lords O’Neill and Chichester were killed or died of wounds in World War I. They are honoured in our War Memorial which was sculptured by Lady Kennet, the widow of the famous Robert Falcon Scott who died on his way back from the South Pole. It bears the inscription, from Isaiah Chapter 6, ‘Here am I, send me’.

80 was just about the maximum number since what we still call the Sanni block, now used by the Kindergarten and Pre-Prep., was a full blown Sanatorium, with a Night Nurse. It must be remembered that in those days diseases like Measles and typhoid were common and often fatal and so Mr. Helbert had to make sure that his charges were well looked after. And the wing above the Kitchen, later used for Boarding Girls, was entirely occupied by subordinate staff such as Cooks, Gardeners, Cleaners. Also, since there were no Day Boys, the School was little known locally except by Winchester College and the Winchester Scouting Movement. For from an early date in the first years of the reign of George V the School became the 6th Winchester Troop and there was an annual competition in our grounds for the Baker-Wilbraham Cup which all other Winchester Troops attended. ‘T he ‘Houses’ were called Patrols and the Monitors or Prefects were Patrol Leaders. Boys were later prepared for war by digging trenches. What can be said is that in Helbert’s time West Downs was locally regarded as a snob school, with the boys dressed up in Eton suits, and a School where patriotism and good were inculcated. Its academic record was good without being outstanding and socially it was in the top rank. With hindsight it must viewed in the light of the recent Television program Upstairs Downstairs.

Lionel Helbert, though of Jewish origin, was a committed Christian. Typically, therefore, when he could afford to build on to the School, he added a Chapel on the Upper floor and an equally large room below. He embellished the Chapel with the stained-glass windows and pictures which were popular early in this century, copies of the work of Italian painters of the Renaissance. The large room below was called Shakespeare because he felt that Shakespeare’s plays should be an inspiration to his pupils. He employed a then well-known architect, Simpson, for the purpose. During his Headmastership the Masters’ Lodge was also built. It is in the Lutyens style. Sadly there are few records of life at the School from 1897 to 1919 when Mr. Helbert died, since the School Magazines tell us very little. All we know is that he was much loved and that his Birthday in the summer term was a great occasion when the pupils went in open carriages to a heath near Stockbridge for an all-day picnic. Very few matches were played against other schools and we were not much good at cricket or football. Whenever a child was ill he wrote at length to the boy’s parents and he stayed with them in the holidays. He was a Bachelor and had no other interest except for music and acting. When he died in 1919 his Old Boys decided to form a Society to perpetuate his memory but it is notable that right from the start the Founders Day party in June has been sparsely attended. And very few of the boys who were at the School with him sent their sons to West Downs. Though the Key Assistant Masters like Mr. Rose and Mr. Ledgard stayed, people seemed to lose interest once Lionel Helbert departed this life.

On Mr. Helbert’s death the School was bought by Kenneth Tindall, who had been a House-master at Sherborne School. Prominent people who were at West Downs during his Headmastership include the 13th Earl of Antrim, a prominent figure in the Northern Ireland National Trust; Sir Jeremy Morse, Chairman of Lloyds Bank; Sir James Spooner; Sir William Staveley, Admiral of the Fleet; Lord Soames, our Ambassador in Paris and the Minister who solved the Central Africa problem; Richard Ingrams, later Editor and Founder of Private Eye; the Rt. Hon. Nicholas Ridley who is a Cabinet Minister; the 9th Viscount Falmouth; Lord Gainford; Lord Methuen; the 6th Marquis of Bute; Others who were educated at the School during his Headmastership were sometimes the sons or grandsons of distinguished people such as Lord Jellicoe and Lord Allenby. But, in general, the number of pupils who would later make their mark in the world diminished. It became a School more for County families.

Mr. Tindall had problems over financing the purchase of the School. He was helped by Lady Goodrich, Helbert’s sister, who had married a man who became an Admiral. She adored her brother and erected a Memorial to him which now stands across the Romsey Road. Mr. Tindall was also keen on the Theatre and he started the Open-Air Shakespeare Plays, which were performed each summer at what is now called Parents’ Weekend in the Dell south of the School, at that time called Melbury. There was a House there, since destroyed by fire, which was used by the School for various purposes. Since he was not well off and did not have much financial support he built very little, only the Squash Court.

Mr. Tindall’s headmastership, 1920 – 1954, was dominated by events far beyond his control, the rise of Mussolini and Hitler and World War II. In that War 87 former pupils were killed or died of wounds. By that time the number in the School had risen to close on a Hundred. In 1940, when there was every expectation of the Germans invading our country after Dunkirk, the parents of boys then here were asked ‘Shall we leave?’ The answer was ‘Yes’ and so from 1940 to 1946 Mr. Tindall was the Headmaster of a School with the same name in Glennapp and Blair Castles in Scotland. Amazingly, the number of pupils remained about the same, just short of a Hundred. The British and later American Army occupied West Downs. It was from here, as perhaps from other locales, that the D-Day landings were planned.

Mr. Helbert had concentrated on caring for his boys. Typically he made the School’s Motto ‘Honest, Brave and Pure’. He was concerned that they should become good citizens with a sense of service and devotion to duty. Mr. Tindall, a Schoolmaster throughout his working life, while also running the School in accordance with Christian ethics, was determined to raise the academic standards as well as the moral issues. In Mr. Helbert’s time the number of Scholarships gained was only 15. In Mr. Tindall’s era the number rose to 43, not withstanding the traumas of moving all the equipment to Scotland and back. He devised the system, which is still in force, of a syllabus in every subject for each Form up the ladder, with considerable emphasis on the Classics which were then academically important. His interest in the Theatre, especially Shakespeare plays already noted, brought him into close contact with Sir Fordham Flower, the son of the Founder of the Stratford Theatre; and he also wrote his own Detective Plays. Like Mr. Helbert he was a Wykehamist and he was devoted to their motto ‘Manners Nakyth Man’ i.e., if boys are to lead a good life they must acquire the right habits at an early age. Many Wykehamical so-called Notions were introduced to the West Downs vocabulary e.g. ‘Continent’ meant the Sick Bay and ‘Foricas’ meant the Loos or Toilets. Strict control was maintained over the opening of bowels early in the day and, to ensure Good Health, each boy’s temperature was taken each night. His wife, Theodora, was actively engaged in everything. She had some strange ideas, like hanging onions in the Changing Rooms to purify the atmosphere. Like Florence Nightingale she was also fixed on the idea that Fresh Air was the answer to most problems. It is said that West Downs at that time was the only Prep. School in which a lady visitor could have her hat blown off when inside.

Mr. Tindall was also a prominent figure in the fairly newly created I.A.P.S., the Association of Schools whose pupils would go to Public Schools (see above for definition.) He is a key figure in this History because of his contribution to the cause of Excellence in the Private (or Independent) system.

Mr. Tindall was nearing retirement age in 1946, when the School came back to its present site. They had two sons but both of them died during the war or shortly after. He was concerned about succession. He consulted Old Boys of the School and Parents of boys then there, but they would not put up the money to make it into a Charitable Trust. A solution to the problem came in 1953 when Mr. Cornes offered to buy and run the School. He had very little experience of teaching and looking after small boys, but he was the right age (44) and had four sons, aged 13 to 4 and it seemed to be a good arrangement. The then Chairman of the Old Boys Society agreed.

Mr. Cornes has been Headmaster since 1954, except for an interval of a year in 1980/81 when he appointed his godson on a Ten Year Contract. They fell out and as a result his godson resigned and he resumed the Headmastership, inviting his Second Master, Reg Severn, to become the Executive in command. During the last six years the School has been run in this way. It has been academically and in cricket and football very successful under Mr. Severn’s leadership, an example being 3 Scholarships to Winchester College, in 1986 including the top award.

Like Lionel Helbert Mr. Cornes came to the School from a totally different environnent, the Colonial Administrative Service. In 1954, despite the inevitable independence of India and Pakistan within the Commonwealth, there were still a number of British Colonies in Africa and Asia. The main force of the wind of change came in the early Sixties. Mr. Tindall’s decision proved to be a success for a generation in that during Mr. Cornes’s Headmastership no less than 90 Scholarships were won, mostly at Eton as well as many at Winchester.

Largely influenced by his wife Mr. Cornes ‘modernised’ West Downs firstly in the abolition of the pre-occupation with the health of the children which was a feature of the later Tindall era and secondly with the enlargement of their knowledge of the world around them. A Television Set was provided, Tennis Courts were introduced, there were more expeditions to the Theatre, Films and other Shows and Fetes then locally available. Uniforms had been abolished during, the late Forties and early Fifties because of clothes rationing and he approved of this, believing that each child should be treated as an individual. The Chapel was still the centre of the School Day, but more modern Hymns were sung. Instead of a School Play, in which only a few boys took part, One Act Plays began, Oral or Choral Speaking was encouraged and the boys were invited to participate in individual sports like Athletics, Golf, Riding, Fencing and Judo as well as Boxing. There was also an annual Opera Performance.

There was an immediate response from parents of boys growing up in the late Fifties and Sixties, such that the Dining Hall had to be enlarged and so-called Field Dormitory built to accommodate 150 Boarding boys. Another Changing Room was built and a Music School established. There was continuous progress during the first 26 years of his Headmastership. Over that period and since there has been less and less emphasis on the Classics and more and more on Science, Computer Studies and Art.

In 1980 Mr. Cornes was aged 70, high time that he left the stage, and this was why he appointed his godson on a Ten Year Contract. Sadly this failed and the last six years of the existence of West Downs on site has shown a decline in numbers. The reason is simply because in 1964 he turned the School into a Family Company in which he and his wife are minority share-holders. The owners are now not only his wife and him but also their four sons and ten grand-children. Neantime, over the two decades 1967 to 1987, Winchester City had expanded towards the west. The property, which as late as 1926 had been right on the edge of the City, is now in its very heart. It is already, and has long been, an exceptionally valuable site, corresponding a hundred years later to London’s Belgravia in the Victorian age.

In early 1987 the Company owning the School therefore decided that permissions should be sought for its developnent. They are still proceeding but it seems certain that the School on site will cease to exist in July, 1988. There are plans to re-locate or amalgamate with another School, which may or may not succeed. During its latter years in conformity with the general trend of Private Education there have been many changes. There were always one or two girls in the School, for example in 1954 Mr. Tindall’s grand-daughter and the daughter of an Assistant Master were pupils, and incidentally both Scholars. But in the mid-Seventies more girls were encouraged to come and at one time we had about 15 Girl Boarders. At about the same date Day Children were admitted for the first time and there are now more of them than Boarders at the School. In the early Eighties a Pre-Prep. Department was started for children aged 5 to 8 and later a Kindergarten for those even younger. The result has been that we are now much more of a Local School, catering for the needs of the citizens of Winchester and its environs. Our Scottish connection, caused by the moves during World War II, has been completely lost and, increasingly, very few Old Boys have sent their sons to us. This is only natural since today most parents wish their children to be educated at a School which is near their home.

Finally, throughout its history, West Downs has been fortunate in retaining the loyalty of its staff. Mention has already been made of Messrs Rose, Ledgard and Severn who have each served the School for 30 years. Others who qualify in long service are Maisie Richardson; Instructor Harry Risbridger and Jeff Samuel both of whom died this year; David Howell-Griffith who was Mr. Tindall’s right hand man for many years; Sister Guy; and Mlle Vati Carrere who is still teaching. It is basically due to this devotion that, throughout its vicissitudes, West Downs has always been and still is a Good School. Three Headmasters, other than two interregnums each of only a year, is an achievement over a period of 90 years. Greater still is the constant care and love which animates it, the legacy of our Founder.

J.F. Cornes