Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Cornes Era, 1954-1988

From Jerry Cornes to Kits Browning after Freddie Browning had fallen while roof-climbing and seriously injured his leg.

Dear Kits and Hacker

I am sorry that I missed you yesterday. I was in after Chapel until twenty past twelve, when I had to go out to lunch for a business meeting about West Downs. I looked in briefly to the Tennis Match against the Mothers at the Municipal Courts and got back to the school at five o’clock, but you had gone.

Ray told me that you were on the field for most of the afternoon and that you had a long talk with her about the roof climbing. You ask that Robbie should be moved from West Dormitory to be in a bed next to the Patrol Leader of the Owls and this has been done. I saw Robbie at breakfast and he admitted that he had told a lie to me before. On the night of the incident he told me that he had only been out once before with the EsSaid boy. At breakfast today he told me that he had been out alone on a third occasion. I believe that you spoke at some length about the general discipline at West Downs. The atmosphere is of course utterly different from that when you were at the school. I will never forget my first evening as Headmaster in April 1954 with the whole school herded like sheep into Shakespeare and even a Patrol Leader crying, to join all the new boys who were in tears. Thank God the school is nothing like that now. [See Editor’s note, below.] It is, and always has been, my policy to make West Downs a happy school because I do not think that children can work or make the best use of their talents unless they are happy. So there is strict discipline in the class room, but a very relaxed atmosphere outside it. It must always be remembered that the Headmaster of a prep school has almost absolute power. It is very easy for him to be feared and equally difficult for him to be loved. Thank God too, in the world outside our little world relations between parents and children are quite different today from those which obtained twenty-five years ago and this makes it more difficult to correct misbehaviour. The children are not so frightened of grown-ups as they used to be.

Turning now to the whole business of roof climbing, we know that it happened last Summer Term and that one of the favourite routes was down a gully between two sloping roofs to which there was access from two windows in West Dormitory. As a result these windows were screwed together so that they could not be opened, but later in 1977 the screws were taken out, I do not quite know why. It may have been in connection with a visit I had from the Fire Officers. Anyway, they have now been screwed shut again

The incident took place at about 9.20 p.m., when they knew that Ray and I were bedding the boys down in Melbury. Directly we got back I was on the telephone for half an hour with a parent who was arranging a visit to a German destroyer, which took place on Saturday. So it was Ray who heard the commotion and it was she who first dealt with the matter. I remember that she was continually putting her head around the door to see if I was off the ’phone. Directly I was disengaged, I went to her and slippered the Patrol Leader, Milward, who had given permission for Freddie and Robbie to go out. The only thing which can be said in his favour was that he was already half asleep. Murray Threipland, who is the Assistant Patrol Leader, was definitely asleep and so he was not slippered. I did not slipper Robbie at that time because he was naturally very upset.

Apart from these roof climbing escapades, West Dormitory has been very good this Term. We know this because our private sitting room and bedroom are immediately below it. I always telephone and write from about half past nine to about half past ten, but Ray nearly always goes upstairs to the sitting room at 9.30. I go up at about 10.30.

Murray-Threipland does try to keep order at his end of the Dormitory, when he is awake, and has sent Robbie down to me for talking or ragging around. The old custom of sending the boys down to the study still continues,

I understand that you suggested that I should give a talk to the whole school about this business of roof climbing but there is no point in my doing this now since of course I spoke to the whole school about it on the following morning in Chapel, I have the text of what I said:

“As most of you know, Freddie Browning is in hospital as a result of roof climbing. He will be there for perhaps as long as a fortnight, because he cut a tendon at the back of his leg (a tendon is a part of a muscle) and he got such a deep wound that he had to have a skin graft. That is, a piece of skin was taken from his thigh and sewn over the Wound. Miss Richardson had a similar skin graft as a result of a motor cycle accident and I think you know that she was in hospital for three months and is not yet fully recovered. Freddie is much younger and will recover more quickly, but it is still a serious business. He will miss a fortnight of school and may not be able to play games for some time. Also, just as Miss Richardson might have been killed by the motor cyclist, Freddie might have killed himself if he had slipped from a height or Robbie might have been killed. In some ways Miss Richardson and Freddie were lucky.

“These are not joking matters and in future anyone who goes roof climbing will be beaten automatically (I will be dealing shortly with a past offender) and Patrol Leaders and Assistant Patrol Leaders and all responsible boys must stop this practice. The windows giving access to the roof climbing will be screwed up; but what I say and do will have little effect unless everyone here remembers what happened to Freddie and realises that roof climbing is very dangerous. I repeat that it might result in Death. Freddie is sometimes in a lot of pain and no boy, even his brothers, may visit him unless and until he gets permission from Mrs. Cornes.”

I then slippered EsSaid and Robbie, and they did not enjoy it. Nor did Milward. I was very much aware that the boys might think that Freddie was a wounded hero and this is one reason I have not myself visited him at any time. He is, as you know, very popular and, after the first day or so, Ray had been allowing his friends to go and see him.

Yours ever, Jerry Cornes

Editor’s Note. I have always been extremely puzzled about this claim by JFC. There is no doubt that I and my contemporaries from Tindall’s time were extremely happy at the school. I should say that if there were tears on the occasion of Cornes’s first appearance in the School as Head Master, it was because some of the boys had realised that Tindall really had left them, and they wept. I do not blame them.

Some of the contributions from the Cornes Era to this collection of memories tell a very different tale to those I have included with this collection, so much so that they have not been published with the rest, as I consider them offensive to the memory of the School. I have shown these contributions to former pupils who were in the School at the time of those who wrote them, to see if they can be corroborrated. One comment I heard was, “Well, we didn’t complain because we thought that was what school was like.” But as one of “Tindall’s boys” I was quite horrified.

Nick Hodson, Editor of these OWD Memories