West Downs was in my judgement a unique institution. Despite the fact that one only had to sneeze and one was either off games or in the sanatorium it combined what I now see as all the best virtues in life and within the confines of a highly efficient educational establishment an immense sense of family. In addition the patrol system taught one loyalty and provided an intensely competitive background.
I went there in 1946 when the school had just moved down from Blair Castle and there was consequently a strong Scottish contingent. It was a time when this country was hauling itself out of the carnage of World War II. Rationing was with us and what we today regard as the necessities of life were in many cases unavailable.
I was only 6¾ when I went and the circumstances of my despatch from the bosom of the family were not auspicious – the eagle eyes of my great aunt had spied me chasing a girl down the street. “High time that young boy learnt some discipline” was her comment and so the die was cast. Billings and Edmonds, Gladstone Bag, Tuck Box (not aptly named in my case), Trunk (bigger than me) and the dreaded train from Waterloo under the eagle eye of David Howell-Griffith. Waterloo station; tears; “Be good darling. I will write tomorrow,” and we were whisked away into the September gloom. D.H.G. kept a close watch in case any of us jumped ship at Woking, Basingstoke or Micheldever. Finally Winchester City and the journey up past the barracks, the prison, the hospital and the garden centre to this massive building of red brick and flint which was to by my “home” for the next six years.
D.H.G. handed over “the new squits” to the matronly like Mrs. Tindall or “Tumpty” as she was less reverently referred to out of earshot. A saintly woman who I once heard say to her husband “Kenneth please don’t hit him too hard this time” as Sam Cameron went up for his umpteenth beating of the term. Needless to say the first few days passed in a blur of Chapel, medical examination by Doctor Fuller and matron – including my hair being combed for lice – and an introduction to discipline both under Miss Richardson and Guy Brunker the patrol leader of the Hounds – which patrol I had been assigned to.
The three things I remember most vividly about my first term were being beaten with a hair brush by Guy Brunker for getting my second all rounder, having survived intact the Guzzer’s questioning; playing soccer for the Hounds patrol against 1st XI opposition including Scarth, Elliot Legg, Wilmot-Sitwell and Cameron; and my first show up from Madame. The latter was to be my downfall because I learnt to forge her signature perfectly and although it worked briefly I eventually folded under interrogation from the Guzzer who, to put it mildly, was not amused.
So came the end of term and packing trunks, the Scottish mush under Mr. Turner or Turntoes as his enormous feet were referred to and finally back home for the Christmas holidays. After the hurly burly of West Downs home seemed like a mortuary and I couldn’t wait to get back – that is until my report arrived which was the subject of two tear ridden sessions – first with my great aunt who had me in tears and then with my mother who wept uncontrollably.
Term recommenced in January and was little short of a nightmare – flu and chicken pox, and 90% of the school were affected by one or both problems. Hockey and rugby were almost nonexistent because there were no competitors, classrooms were deserted and dormitories looked like casualty stations after a major battle. The cold was intense and the snow lay thick on the ground. “Peg Leg” Tremellen, than whom there was no more accurate chucker of chalk, used to take us for walks up the Old Sarum Road. The throwing of snowballs at passing motorists was totally verboten but usually one or two found their mark, with disastrous results in the form of an all rounder from Peg Leg and a one way discussion with the Guzzer.
It was a great relief when term ended and we went home again having not had to take exams. A much better report this time round, probably due to having had little time in the classroom.
Then we came to the summer term – cricket under Mr. Baleine, scouting in Melbury under Mr. Baleine and Mr. Ricardo and the foul concoctions that were brewed on our fires on Sunday afternoons. My one and only selection as an extra for the Shakespeare play under the auspices of Mr. Tindall. West Hill versus St. Cross with every run scored by Mr. Baleine ardently cheered. The mothers’ match with Mrs. Dunlop (mother of Pat, David and the late John Donaldson) making a ton and the chagrin of not troubling the scorer caught of all things by my mother off the bowling of – yes – Mrs. Dunlop. Horris Hill, our deadly rivals bowling out West Downs for 13 – total ignominy. Winchester Scholarship and entrance. Common Entrance and exams. The cold of the swimming pool despite the heat outside, hay fever and finally the end of a long and arduous term which had resulted in my first taste of the Guzzer’s size ten idlers for telling a lie to, of all people, Miss Payne – who, as one of the matrons, performed miracles.
And so came the end of my first almost carefree year – five to go. From there on in, life got much tougher in every sense as regards both work and play.
I was fortunate in having a reasonable eye and jumped quickly into the first game – both soccer and cricket – thence into both XI’s. Everyone seemed so tall and in particular our arch rivals from Horris Hill. Johnny Kitchen – a marvellous striker of a golf ball – was in charge of the XI my last summer and after a disastrous start against a rotten side from West Hill I was lucky to make a lot of runs. Looking at a photograph of that side it is sad to see how many are no longer with us – victims of a Sniper’s bullet, car accidents or illness.
My last night at school is imprinted firmly on my mind and best summed up by the Guzzer in my report – I am sorry I had to send him home looking like a zebra. The crime was to have visited my best friend Anthony Ritson in his dormitory after lights out. Anthony was tragically killed far too young in Aden. Thence to Winchester College and starting on the bottom rung of the ladder yet again. Much more competition and harsh surroundings were my initial reactions. Nonetheless West Downs had prepared me well although I missed the family atmosphere.
I have deliberately thus far dwelt almost exclusively in an impressionist way with the school. Who were the principal characters that one remembers and why? In no way are they meant to be in order of importance – merely to help the author with what may prove to be alternative views.
K.B. Tindall: A great disciplinarian but a fair and kind man with a warm smile. Being tall he had great presence and demanded respect from one and all. His Easter lantern slide lectures were something I always looked forward to. (Even today his vision of what lies beyond far outshines most normal teaching).
Dr. Fuller: He used to arrive in a cloud of dust outside the main doors in a Standard car. He always gave one the impression of being under great duress. As far as I am aware he never killed anybody but neither can I recall him administering medicine that nature could not have bettered.
Night Sister: Otherwise knows as “Sour faced tiptoes,” this hatchet featured lady crept about at night and severely disrupted our telling of stories and illegal slide shows.
William Ledgard: A classical scholar and marvellous teacher, and largely responsible for getting me through Latin and Maths in the Winchester exam. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile, but then I don’t suppose my work ever gave him much of a chance. Responsible for checking our white money books which provided an elementary course in book keeping. Mine was usually quite simple – zero on both sides.
Instructor or Harry Riz: Responsible for P.T. and remedials, swimming and shooting. A wonderful man with whom I maintained contact for many years. The only grudge I harbour against him was that he made me box Bernard Granville who was not only bigger but also stronger. As a result of that encounter I ended up in the sick bay with concussion. I don’t believe he ever dished out anything worse than a nuisance point.
Mr. Jacques: than whom there was surely nobody more sourcaustic. A man with what I can only describe as an extremely short fuse. He taught me geography which subject I found exceptionally boring – need I say more. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to plunder his bowling in the nets.
Mr. Tremellen: I can still see him arriving on his motor bike with his flat hat at an angle and his moustache bristling. Enjoyed smoking cigarettes with a holder. Looking back he was probably one of the pioneers of visual methods of teaching – French being his subject. He wore only one tie – that of the R.F.C. I never found out how he got his “Peg Leg” but suspect it had to do with either airborne activities or possibly his dreaded motor bike.
D.H. Griffith: A lovely man for whom I believe my mother had a secret admiration – or something like that! West Downs’ outstanding record in pushing even the thickest individuals through Common Entrance was in no small measure down to him. He loved nothing more than to take a deck chair and his pipe to a position almost behind the bowler’s arm and watch the 1st XI whip the opposition at cricket.
Johnny Kitchen & Reg Severn: When they arrived they were something of a departure from the normal Tindall employee being almost fresh down from Oxford. J.K. had played golf for the university and R.S. had come down with a blue for boxing. Mademoiselle attracted their leary eyes and many was the occasion that I saw them emerge from the pub across the road of an evening in a somewhat unsteady fashion with her in tow!
Miss Payne: Responsible for seeing that we put on clean clothes on a Sunday and our dirty ones were laundered. She was nothing short of being a Saint.
Mr. Turner: A tall man with enormous feet, nose and hands. Noted for his accuracy with a piece of chalk. Responsible for playing the organ in Chapel and was normally at least a beat in front of the congregation.
Miss Richardson: Richiebum was part of the stonework and had the horrendous task of teaching the juniors. How she kept her sense of humour I do not know. During the holidays she used to come up to Scotland to give extra tuition to the Cameron family – commitment if ever I saw it!
Mr. Baleine: although I was never taught by Freddy Baleine he gave me great encouragement to play soccer. “Go in hard and you won’t get hurt” he told the diminutive Greenall. How right he was.
Mr. Ricardo: the first art teacher that I can recall – which was a subject that never attracted me apart from drawing war ships that looked more like houses turned upside down.
I have tried to encapsulate in a few words my thoughts on an enormous subject. I said at the beginning that the school was a unique institution and I don’t believe that statement can really be challenged. The very fact that so much has come back to me merely underlines what a marvellous place it was because it all happened over forty years ago and seems like yesterday. Maybe it is senility or is it the affection that I had for the place. In all sincerity I believe it is the latter and I look forward to renewing acquaintance with many of those characters and friends. I say many, because nothing is certain in this life – or the next!
Like you I remember K.B.T.’s performance as Caliban – actually I don’t think he had to make up in reality.
I am not entirely sure about the play box to tuck box transition, but I certainly recall it as such and maybe it was my misinterpretation to refer to “The Geyser” as “The Guzzer” but he was always known as such to me, behind his back of course.
As regards the games people played, I well recall French cricket – a total irrelevance as far as I was concerned, but nonetheless it was a cleeky game. There was a craze for tanks made out of pieces of candle stuck with cotton reels serrated at their raised edges, and an elastic band, and either a match or a piece of wood – some were more powerful than others and that was the real game; conkers which required immense accuracy on the part of the user. The most avidly read comics – which were illegal – were Beano and Dandy, but the Eagle, containing Dan Dare was an organ that hit the high spots as well. Maybe Richard Ingrams, who was a direct contemporary of mine, learned something from the title, bearing in mind that Dan Dire is now a regular feature in Private Eye.
One of the crazes that hit the school when I was there was to make butter, with Parker Quink bottles, out of some fairly moderate milk and salt, the potion being shaken vigorously until it was nothing other than a ball of rather foul smelling and tasting “butter.” Whatever else, it was better than the stuff we were given! The other principal craze in the food direction was fried bread, and with marmalade – the sausage and bacon that accompanied the fried bread was normally totally inedible.