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

From JAC Henley, 1922-26

I was at West Downs in the very early Tindall days. My elder brother was there with Helbert and my father had formed a great friendship with Helbert, having had him as his guest in HMS Emperor of India for two months during 1919, shortly before LH died. I have a few letters which LH wrote to my father from West Downs after his return, but I doubt if they would be of any value to you.

I wonder if you have a copy of a book “Memorials of Lionel Helbert” (Oxford University Press 1926) edited by Nowell-Smith. If you haven’t, I would be glad to lend you mine. I think you would find it helpful. I was told an interesting story about LH by the late Esmond Baring 30 years ago or more. Esmond’s father (Lord Ashburton) helped LH considerably over financial and business matters in the early stages of getting West Downs started.

Lord Ashburton told Esmond that the real reason why LH gave up a promising career in the House of Commons (involving an almost certain knighthood) was that one of his brothers had taken a boy out sailing on the Norfolk Broads after heavily insuring the boy’s life. The boy was drowned and Helbert’s brother claimed on the insurance company. The Company was not satisfied and took the case to court; they lost, but public opinion was against Helbert’s brother. LH gave up his career in the House of Commons – as he put it – “to repay the youth of this country the debt owed to them by my family.” I have asked a number of people – including such as Hugh Rawson and Mr. Rannie – whether they have heard of this story: none of them have. If the story is true, I suppose it could have been kept a secret between LH and Lord Ashburton. [Editor’s note: I have spent a great deal of time trying to find a reference to this in the volumes of The Times of the 1880s and 90s, but can find nothing. I did however find a rather strange parallel to the infamous James Bulger case, also taking place near Liverpool, where two boys tortured another boy and threw the body into a canal.]

LH must have been a very difficult man to follow, and Kenneth Tindall, in my time was struggling. He made a number of mistakes, one of which involved me. School pens in those days cost 2d and were of hollow tin. When the end was bitten, it collapsed and became jagged; it was then usually thrown away. Jack Richards, Bill Forbes and I made a great scientific discovery. We collected discarded pens and placed them in two lines with a torch battery at one end and a bulb at the other: the bulb lit up. A locker inspection took place, and it was my bad luck that 16 battered school pens were found in mine.

Tindall sent for me, and at great length and with great solemnity, accused me of stealing. He even mentioned it (although not me by name) in the Advent Sermon. It took me a couple of terms to recover my equilibrium. I think that Tindall would have handled that case differently in later years.

A stirring event which occurred at this time was the arrival and departure of a new master – Commander P. This erstwhile naval officer arrived and it was rumoured that he was “a frightfully nice chap.” On his first day, The Commander (which I’m sure he wasn’t) took 3 boys (I think it was 3 but they were certainly plural) out for a drive in his car. By breakfast time next morning the Commander was no longer with us!

I have always had a very strong feeling for West Downs; this I think may be partly because I did not go to a public school. Dartmouth was similar, yet different in many ways.

I have always felt that West Downs old boys figured with distinction in the public life of our country much more than those of other prep schools. I remember that in the very early 1960s West Downs dominated the Army: the Minister of Defence (Duncan Sandys), the Secretary of State for War (Christopher Soames) and the CIGS (Francis Festing) were all OWDs, and so for good measure was the Second Sea Lord (Deric Holland-Martin).

John Henley