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

From Geoffrey Burge, 1922-26

Although I am 80 in August no one younger than me could have been at the school in the time of the Founder, Lionel Helbert. Sadly he died during my first term there. I would like to pay tribute to Brymer and of course Tindall who keep the high traditions going in the difficult times of 1919. At that time so many young men had been killed and the survivors were wanting to go to the University. Staff problems must have been great, yet I was amazed at the very high standards of the staff, and what very nice people they were. I would particularly like to mention the delightful Miss Quilley, the Rawson brothers, OWDs themselves, Miss Price who married one of them, Ranger and Stanton the games master, Also the other masters Benson, Rose and Ledgard.

Ledgard was a most charming man and presided over Melbury, where in my time you would go for a term or so. The smaller bedrooms and Ledgard himself provided a relaxed atmosphere, which were all greatly enjoyed and much looked forward to.

The medical care was tremendous in my time. Four trained nurses on the staff and doctors calling every day, but what was quite dreadful was a chamber of horrors called “puffing billy,” a tiled room in which we were cleansed after the holidays. Six at a time went into this small room filled with an awful vapour. I can see Ledgard now, peering through a small window in the door, presumably to see if we were still standing up and had not passed out. What good it did has always puzzled me, but thankfully it appears no harm.

Shakespeare, the chapel, the swimming pool and the lovely grounds were of course a great plus. Games, the Shakespeare plays, outings to the New Forest all produced happy times. Also cycle rides of the Itchen valley, which could never have been allowed now. On the debit side was the great austerity, as shown by the first hour of every day. Each morning at 6.30 an army of women slammed up the open windows and poured water into our basins. Then a bell rang and up we had to get and run to a cold bath, where no small boy was allowed to hesitate for long without being given assistance. Then back to the basins where we washed bare to the waist and duly gargled with the awful liquid provided. Then make up your bed for inspection, say your prayers, and out to a smart walk up the main road. Back at last to breakfast where the porridge and tea were already stone cold. No fun at all, especially in February. My other minus was the awful food. No jam with our margarine, only one or the other. In fairness it was 1919 and the first war had ended less than a year before.

How lovely in the summer term, when the cold bath changed to what was called “plunge,” a quick dip in the swimming pool. To “plunge” and “puffing billy” may I add “sloyd,” a form of carpentry using only a knife, “jun-jun” and “foricas” (Latin) as WD words. No boy with a nice home enjoys going back to school, and the traditional cheer that went up after we left Waterloo, after the holidays, was the smallest I have ever heard anywhere. But they did try so very hard to combine happiness with austerity and discipline. As to that all-important point, was it a good start in life? I am quite sure it was, proved by the many splendid lives I have witnessed of boys who went through West Downs. I have no doubt some of the austerity was due to the first war having only just ended. They were difficult times and I feel sure it would have mellowed later, but there were times when I wished it could have been like Ledgard’s Melbury.

Geoffrey Burge