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

From W.H. Fellowes, 1912-16

At my time of life I get requests for reminiscences. One enjoys recalling the pleasant incidents in one’s life, but the trouble is that concurrently one reminds oneself about so many things which one had hoped to forget.

My father, E.H. Fellowes, intensely disliked the idea of the publication of various letters that Helbert had written. Nowell Smith was taking it in hand. Since George Blue had been a contemporary of Smith in College and was [more] intime with Smith than was my father, my father wrote to Blue to beg him to stop Smith. Blue answered that he was equally horrified, but that Smith had to be forgiven, because Lady Goodrich had so badgered Smith that, in the end, to his great dislike, he had eventually to accept the job.

My father had not known Helbert at Winchester, to any great extent, but they became fellow freshmen at Oriel, and that brought them very close. Naturally I heard from time to time from my father about many details of Helbert’s life, though not, of course, the whole story, apart from the fact of my father’s intimacy with Helbert. I am now 86 and must be amongst those with the longest memories of West Downs.

When I do accept the invitation to write reminiscences, I always make the condition that I shall need months rather than weeks to produce anything. You appreciate this when you remark that “memories come flooding back.” Nevertheless, at my age, the flood gradually reduces to a trickle.

Probably the story of the conversation at tea in Mrs Didi (Richardson) in the second master’s drawing room is common knowledge. “Helbert, you’re wasting your life and ought to start a private school. West Downs has failed and you could buy the building for a song.”

W.H. Fellowes

In reply to a letter from Mark Hichens

1. I do not think that anyone suggested to Helbert a prospectus. One can only imagine that setting up as a school master without any previous experience of teaching, he needed to be able to give prospective parents an idea of his views on education and of the way in which he was intending to run the school. I have no idea what the prospectus contained, other than the references given by his titled sponsors. My mother once asked to see a copy. He explained that there was only one prospectus, and he did not repeat it.

2. Lady Goodrich told the story that, close on the end of Helbert’s life, news was brought that West Downs had won a football match. Coincidentally there was a cheque which needed endorsement. This cheque was handed to him. He must have been in a delirium, and he wrote “Well done, West Downs.”

3. Helbert was buried in Brookwood in an area of ground not consecrated. He had left a hope, apparently transmitted by Lady Goodrich, that my father would read the burial service over him. That is first hand to me from my father.

Not very long before Helbert died, my father had a long talk with him. He said that he had worked his time on boys who almost certainly came from happy homes. He said he wished he had given his efforts to deprived boys. He also said on that occasion that he should like to be ordained.

To me and to my contemporaries, Helbert and West Downs were one and the same thing. Since you are writing a book, I felt that the manner of his death is some kind of background information. I have no wish to see the matter published, but if you should think otherwise it would not be of any concern to me.

What you tell me about C.G. Tennant interests me. We overlapped for the Easter Term in 1912, before he went to Osborne. We small boys looked on him as a nice kind person.

William H. Fellowes

A further letter from W.H. Fellowes

I would agree with you that Helbert may have been “always restless to be doing something different.” However I should not like to suggest that he was a rolling stone, after all he stuck to West Downs for all those years.

I met one of the young Nowell Smiths, but am not sure which, on one of the so-called Founder’s Days, but have never been sure how they fit in with John Nowell Smith, who was a year older than me in West Downs and afterwards at Winchester in Chamber. I got the benefit of his experience all along. He was my TJ [see note below] on entering Chamber. I am not sure of the dates of S.H.N-S at West Downs but am interested to hear that he has a somewhat blurred memory of West Downs. That fits in with what my younger brother, now dead, told me. He was at West Downs from 1917-22, and I have never been able to understand why my brother could not even remember Helbert.

C.W. Crawley entered Winchester in September 1911, not 1913. I take that information from my bound set of “short rolls.” He was born in April 1898. I cannot help feeling that, unless there is some unexpected evidence for his idea about Helbert working in Naval Intelligence, the story is nonsense. There is, of course, a story that Helbert, when his father was critically ill in London, used to take the train to London after “lights out” at WD and return before the boys woke up at WD. Further it was said that no one at West Downs knew about these nightly absences.

I have always had a deep suspicion about this. What responsible headmaster would have gone off without notifying one member of his staff? Only the matron was in the house. The masters were at the Lodge. What about fire, or any unexpected emergency? If there had been a serious fire, what would they have done to find out what had happened to him? In fact, Helbert was always very alive to the fire risk. He slept in the room between the Top and the St. Cross dormitories.

Early in this letter I have referred to “the so-called Founder’s Day.” It was of course the new name for Mr Helbert’s birthday.

I think it must have been in 1912. I am pretty sure that the Head Boy was named French. We had returned to school at the day’s end, and were standing around in the dining hall with milk and biscuits. The Head Boy stood on a chair and called for Three Cheers for Mr Helbert. Helbert leapt across and clapped his hand over the boy’s mouth.

The next day Helbert was overwhelmed with contrition, because, as he said, he had hit one of his boys.

The incident has always stuck in my memory because it seemed so strange. He apologised to the Head Boy, and apologised to the school. He evidently had disliked the idea of a formality in thanking him for the joys of the day.

When, years afterwards, I found that the annual day was being called “Founder’s Day,” I felt that Helbert would have disliked being called “a founder.” He would have felt an absurdity in sharing a name with William of Wykeham. He would have said “Oh! my,” characteristically.

W.H. Fellowes

Note: the Winchester Notion TJ is a corruption of “protegé,” and referred to a relationship similar to that of the pater at West Downs.

A further letter from W.H. Fellowes

I never heard any of this hearsay relating to the period between the time when Helbert left Oxford and when he abandoned his post in what my father always told me was the House of Lords. During that period he certainly kept some odd company. He used to tell leaving boys a little about it, and I always had the feeling that there was something he might have done that he would have preferred to forget. As I see it, that was of no concern to anyone but himself.

Only two facts are certain. He gave up his post in London, and shortly afterwards started West Downs. The rest cannot be credited as anything but hearsay, even if some of it may be true. It is now 90 years or more on, and we cannot reconstruct what may have gone on.

If he had done anything seriously wrong it would have got into London Society gossip, and parents would not have sent their boys to him.

You speak of Francis Festing. He was eleven months older than me, but I joined the school a little younger than most boys joined at that period. Consequently Festing and I were in the same “year “ and went up the school together. His own subject was “arms and armour,” while mine at that time was Heraldry, subjects with a lot of interesting overlap.

At that time I had formed some notion that I wanted to go into the Army. I was ready to listen to him, as long as he liked, on the army.

I think that I have already mentioned to you how Festing disliked Helbert’s idea of “running the school on naval lines.” We saluted masters and visitors with the naval salute, which Festing called “sloppy.” He used to tease Helbert by walking up to him and giving him the flat full hand army salute. We used to call him “Fussy Festing,” probably because of the alliteration, but I think he insisted on high standards.

He went to Winchester two halves before me and we exchanged letters for two terms until I went on there, but to a different house. Then we could be together very little until we got to the stage of Archaeological Society, where he gave interesting lectures on such subjects as “small arms” and “hand weapons” with illustrations from his own collection.

I am inclined to say that West Downs played very little part in the formation of his character. It was formed already in his home. Certainly Winchester did not, either.

Reference was made to his conversion to the Roman Church while at Winchester, but I can say that it was no sudden conversion. He had worked it out over long years. I cannot remember that he and I ever mentioned religion to one another. One day in the Easter term of 1913, I was present in the 2B classroom when Festing and another boy fought. Festing was laid on the ground, and it was then disclosed that he wore a gold chain around his neck and it bore a religious medallion. The rest of us thought it very odd. I have always wondered whether his mother was a Roman or whether she refrained, for some reason of her own, from going over in that way.

I only knew him as a young boy, but in spite of that am inclined to think that he never accepted any idea until he had worked it out himself.

W.H. Fellowes

A fourth letter from W.H. Fellows

Before going away, I had been clearing up old papers, and amongst them I found the enclosed programme of the Sports Day in 1912. It is a bit grubby, as one might expect. I have very nearly thrown it away more than once. I am not interested in its return.

William H. Fellowes