Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Tindall Era, 1922-1954

From Joe Gainford, 1930-35 (as a follow-up to the Hichens book)


Salutation to Tom Pocock! Until I read his account of how he attempted to escape I was under the impression that during my years at West Downs, 1930-1935, no boy had tried to run away. But here was a story of how a new boy was brainy enough to formulate a plan and attempt to carry it out.

I knew just how C.J.B. Wood felt. My arrival at West Downs was after travelling from Waterloo with my father and joining up, en route, with the “Mush” party. We drove up to the school with K.T. and one or two other boys. There my father said a hurried good-bye and he was promptly driven back to the station. I was quickly taken under Tumpty’s wing and handed over to a temporary “Pater,” Oliver Mason. My real “Pater,” Jonathan Blow, did not arrive for a few days. I had been dumped in totally strange surroundings, away from everything that had meant security to me. I was terrified.

Yes, I wanted to run away, but even the £1/2/6d I had in my purse would not get me to my home 300 miles to the north.

It was soon evident that I must stick it out. But it took a while to settle down.

There was a vague story handed down among the boys that there had been an attempt to get away, but it was done more in the spirit of daring to see if it was possible. They were senior boys, privileged to have bicycles in the Summer Term. They got on their bikes and made off. A master set out in his car, caught them up, and escorted them back to West Downs to face the wrath to come.

I never heard of any boy making a “Home Run” from West Downs, to use POW parlance.

There was an occasion when some friends and myself tried to work out how it might be done. But (we) came to the conclusion that it was not possible without a vast amount of planning and co-operation from friends, particularly in keeping a sum of money hidden for food and train fares. Also there was the problem of how to escape notice by police or railway officials. A boy travelling on his own could cause people to ask questions. Even if one did make a “Home Run” the reception by parents was not likely to be sympathetic. We gave up the idea. It was not worth it.

It was not that life at West Downs was unpleasant but it was very enclosed. Even the walks were kept to recognised routes. The wire around the playing fields, to reduce the risk of balls going out of bounds, increased the enclosure feeling. To be able to get anywhere away from the school grounds and walk routes was a great relief.

Drama at West Downs

My acting experience at West Downs was Minimal. My speech defect was considered a handicap, and I was discouraged from taking anything other than a non-speaking part or one with hardly any lines. In later years therapists said that I ought to have been given lengthy parts. What proved them right was that I have never stammered on stage, in the pulpit or when speaking in Parliament.

The big drama event of the West Downs year was, as has been mentioned (p.67), the Masters’ Play. C.A.G. Campbell describes the plot of a play he gives as being titled “The Destroying Angel.” I remember it performed at the end of Short Half 1930, my forest term, with the title “The Great Unknown.” [They were different plays – Editor.]

I remember “Beany” or “Broady” as we knew him, Broadhurst, playing Chopin’s famous prelude, the Largo in C minor. But the real villain was a mad professor, played by S.H. Steadman, whose villainy was sabotaged by a cunning little engineer, played by R.E. Wheeler.

Other plays by the masters were in 1931 “The Workers in The Mist” an in 1932 “The Yellow Peril.” In Short Half 1933 it really did seem that there would be no Masters’ Play. However the staff did put on two one-act plays, “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” and “The Ghost of Jerry Bundler.”

The announcement of a play by Bassett Kendall would be a poster with an interesting picture displayed in Shakespeare. In Short Half 1934 the poster announced a Current Events Lecture by Bassett Kendall with a map of a county called Keinland. It would be given on the day when the King had requested all schools to have a holiday to celebrate the wedding of the Duke of Kent to Princess Marina.

Two days before this event KT called for silence in the Dining Hall near the end of lunch, as he was taking a phone call from Germany. We heard him speaking in German. George Corbett and Michael Christie-Miller, who were studying German with KT smiled knowingly to each other. Then KT switched to English, apparently talking to Bassett, who had been arrested by the Gestapo. From then on for a number of years, Bassett Kendall was supposed to be lingering in a Concentration Camp.

The Current Events lecture proved to be a play, “The President Elect,” depicting the rise of a Fascist-like party in the country of Keinland. A number of OWDs from Winchester College attended.

The two big production for the boys were the Open Air Shakespeare Comedy performed in the evening before Paters’ Day, and the French Play, for which the actors were usually recruited form the Senior Division, near the end of Short half.

Before the French Play Madame briefed all classes in the school about it at one of their convenient French periods according to the Time Table. The first I saw, 1930, was “Le Medecin Malgre Lui,” in which C.A.G. Campbell played the title role.

With the variety of entertainment of lectures and plays, plus the eventual preparations for Christmastide, Short Half was my favourite term of the year.

The Patrol plays were great fun. The way in which the players were able to ad lib the story could prove which of them were true actors. One patrol, the Wolves, nearly always put on a good show. It was an unfortunate patrol, and was disbanded in 1935, but they were good actors. When the final curtain came down on their Short Half 1934 production of “Othello” KT called out from the back of the audience “Well Done!”

The top patrol that term had to put on the first production. This could put them at a disadvantage. On the two consecutive years, when my patrol, Lions, were top, our first play was “Cymbeline” which we did not do very well. But it was better than the awful hash we made of “Hamlet” the following year. KT threatened any patrol with a Dormitory Point if they produced anything so bad in the future. The bottom patrol often had the advantage of having the stage to perform on as their play was likely to come on between the French and Masters’ Plays.

One of the most brilliant and amusing scenes involving slapstick was in 1931 when the Buffaloes performed “Merchant of Venice.” I cannot recall the character he was playing, but S.M. Howard as telling Shylock, Talents ma., of the loss of Antonio’s ships.

On hearing the news Shylock began to dance with joy round the sage saying “Now I’ll get my pound of flesh.” “You rat!” snarled Howard picking up the top book from a pile on the table, centre stage, representing Shylock’s ledgers He threw it at Shylock and chased him round and round the stage hurling more books. A tattered copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer landed in the audience.

When the pile was used up Howard left the stage, leaving Shylock amid the wreckage. He called his servant, Whyte, and a further slapstick episode occurred with the servant trying to clear the mess up.

It may not have been Shakespeare, but it was magnificent.

Another three years passed before “Merchant of Venice” was performed again. Boys who had been juniors in 1931 were disappointed that the much remembered book throwing incident was not included, even though it was, once again, the Buffaloes who were performing it.

In Short Half 1934 my patrol acted “Macbeth.” George Corbett playing Lady Macbeth, John Mainprice the doctor, and my brother George Pease as the maid, did a magnificent portrayal of the sleep walking scene. When asked by Mainprice what Lady Macbeth said and did, George answered “Dreadful things but I cannot tell you what they are.” It was a perfect paraphrasing of Shakespeare’s actual words.

Staff Mentioned in my Notes.

S.H. Steadman

A brilliant classic scholar who also taught English and History. He organised the studies for Starman’s Badge. But he was very irascible, and was subjected to a lot of ragging. Once, on a damp day, he had to take a walk during Break as it was too wet for soccer practice. He complained to KT about the ragging he got. KT sentenced the whole school to a bottom half change burberry walk, which he himself supervised. It was very frustrating to boys like myself who had been boxing during break or others who had been at music lessons or practising. (Short Half 1931). S.H.S. left in July 1932.

R.E. Wheeler

A cheery little man who taught classics, English and History, but his great speciality was French. He compiled the W.D.F.V.B. (West Downs French Verb Book). He had a beautiful tenor voice. He left in July 1933.

W.J. Tremellen

Reading these pages made me wish that I had known that Wilfred Tremellen was on the staff of West Downs when I made my first post-war visit to the school, for Founder’s Day 1948. I would have enjoyed meeting him as his flying stories had given me so much pleasure during my boyhood.

I read a number of his stories which appeared in a magazine “Air Stories,” edited by W.E. Johns, the creator of “Biggles.” This magazine first appeared in May 1935 and continued until early 1940.

The first item in each edition of the magazine was a story longer than the others, called a “novelette.” Wilfred Tremellen’s stories were often among these. When the reader noted the comment in the Contents “A Three Squadron Story,” the tale would involve this fictitious aerodrome in World War I France, the base for three squadrons. Two squadrons were fighter units equipped with SE5s and Sopwith Camels. The third was a “recce” unit equipped with RE8s, “Harry Tates,” as they were nicknamed.

The Foozle Board appeared in a novelette titled “The Macaroni Cup.” A rich Italian, whose restaurant had been destroyed in an air raid on London, had offered a prize for the member of the R.F.C. who could destroy the most German aircraft in a given period.

An observer in the RE8 squadron produced this device of a mirror mounted on his machine gun by which he could deflect the sun’s rays in the direction of the oncoming enemy aeroplane, so that the enemy pilot, aiming at him, would find his telescopic sight a mass of dazzling sunlight. He would be temporarily blinded, and become a victim to the R.F.C. observer’s fire. Enough German aircraft were lost by the Foozle Board to gain its inventor the Macaroni Cup.

I was delighted to read of how “Melly” was so successful teaching French. Clearly he gave the boys better ideas of the language than a predilection of an aunt for her pen.

Joe Gainford