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

Lionel Helbert, Scouting and the First World War

In this year (1957) Lionel Helbert, were he still alive, would be an old man of eighty-seven. It is unthinkable. He died when he was forty-nine. But in spite of early baldness and grey temples his appearance was young and vibrant. His shining personality is, at all events for some of us, immortal.

I first saw him in the Drawing-room at West Downs early in 1913. The impact of his personality was like spring water. There stood before one figure of extraordinary alertness, neat, scrupulously dressed in the conventional high stiff collar of the time and starched cuffs. Yet within these moved a vigorous wiry frame. The eyes, set in deep sockets, were irised with an unforgettable violet-blue. Those eyes noticed everything: they searched a boy through and through. Before their gaze and their owner’s laughing voice, shyness, embarrassment, deceit withered away. Life is merry and bold-so buck up, old chap! that is what those eyes seemed to say. He was so convinced that at the core of every living person lay a germ of goodness, that all that was required was to warm that germ with encouragement till it activated a full and splendid character.

But encouragement meant a judicious mixture of love and criticism. The just combination of these has always struck me as a sign of Christian greatness; and Lionel Helbert possessed their power to an outstanding degree. He was passionately interested in other people and intensely concerned for their true welfare. But his concern was never solemn at any time; it was always salted with humour and gaiety. This humour and gaiety vibrated in a man of unusual type. He was an entirely unconventional person born into a conventional age. But, except in his private disciplines, he never girded against the conventions; he chose to wear their yoke, to accept authority; and thereby gained a greater spiritual and intellectual freedom than that of the rebel who attracts opposition and wastes his strength in conflict. Yet his inner singularity enabled him to sympathise with rebels and to understand and help them. And this power was important at a time when the English governing class were beginning to feel the embarrassment of a new tide of social feeling washing up against their bulwarks of privilege and respectability. Looking back, as one who was a small boy in 1913, this situation seems be the background against which the figure of Lionel Helbert should be examined and remembered, sixty years after the founding of his school, West Downs.

In 1913 Disraeli’s Two Nations still existed, although the scrutiny and attack of the Fabian Society were beginning to riddle the Establishment with criticism. It would have been revealing to hear L.H.s’ views on Dizzy with whom he had perhaps a few traits in common: the capacity for looking at England from without, born of foreign ancestral ingredients, the prankish humour and witty repartee. But Disraeli would have been too egoistic and flamboyant a figure to be wholly attractive to L.H. who would have implicitly reproved him with his example of modesty and refusal to wear any sort of panache (except disguised in a charade). Moreover, his own bent was that of a priestly crusader, not of a politician. His ambitions were for others, not for himself. He wanted every human being to succeed according to the laws of his own destiny and character.

And it was the formation and strengthening of character which fascinated him and drew on his inexhaustible powers of encouragement.

He knew how to deal with rather conventional little boys, and he was delightful with their parents. His anxiety to cooperate with parents, his tender understanding of the bonds between them and their children, made him different from the average schoolmaster, to whom fathers, and particularly mothers, are a polite bore. He looked at children with a fatherly glint. But he possessed the secret of confidence, and so could sometimes explain a shy boy’s wishes or difficulties to a father or mother whose parental position made a child inarticulate. This understanding, and freedom from inward constriction, made such confidence of extraordinary usefulness. Most parents realised this and entrusted their sons to him with feelings of awe and gratitude.

Very little boys evoked his compassion. On Sunday walks to Oliver’s Battery they clung to his arms in a branchy row. His letters to anxious parents, written in the depths of the night, betray his sympathy, his humour, and are the most touching tokens of affection, bridging the distance between home and school with scraps of delightfully observed behaviour.

At Waterloo he appeared in morning dress and shining topper to receive boys travelling by the L.S.W.R. in a corridor coach called the mush, to Winchester: a station platform scene differently attired today. Fashionably-dressed mothers waved handkerchiefs and the train was off. At West Downs the careful, even overdrilled, domestic organisation overcame the ungainliness of buildings which he never really liked but which he improved and filled with his inventive powers of disciplinary form. Chapel and Shakespeare apart, the Dining Hall, Gym, Playing Fields and gardens, dormitories, changing rooms, classrooms and the Study, all had a well-defined atmosphere of their own, the atmosphere of activity, not of design or decoration.

The activity of the School was intense and alive. Slackness was the sin. L.H., one felt, was determined to prevent any sort of perfunctoriness or sleepy habit. Consequently he was always inventing surprises, events, pranks to keep us on our toes, to prevent anyone from getting into a rut of mere routine. Some boys felt this intense animation too highly pitched, and that on occasions his dramatic sense ran away with him. One remembers particularly a long-drawn-out court of honour, comprising the entire School, held when a boy (today one of the leading commanders-in-chief of Her Majesty’s Forces) and his friend were forced to admit plagiarism in a play ascribed to their authorship. The public confessional was not devoid of a little hysteria. Doing many things at the double, standing to attention, saluting, etc., in the military or naval cadet style, although they invoked smartness and esprit de corps, would today seem overdone. But they reflected L.H.’s own keen post-shower- bath briskness and toned-up vigour of mind and body. Life was a race to be run, not slouched through.

This briskness was at its very best in the chapel choir practices. L.H.’s musical gifts were, as everyone knows, quite brilliant. He made the pointing of the psalms, the intelligent singing of the hymns, a most joyous exercise; and nowhere was the beauty of the Anglican chant and indeed the grandeur of the Prayer Book brought home to one better than in Chapel, to thrill one for a lifetime.

The Birthday Outing in June 1913 was an occasion to remember. We awoke in the dormitories to find grey flannel suits laid out to meet the hotter weather. Horse-drawn brakes took us up the Stockbridge road to some open downland where today the Forestry Commission’s plantations of larch and beech are growing into woodlands on the chalk. Butterfly nets, and all the impedimenta of boyish outdoor enthusiasms were carried along, and eighty small creatures fanned out over the sunny landscape with its foaming hawthorn bushes, briar roses and downland orchids. At the end of this happy day of class-free liberty L.H. blew on a whistle, and we all strode in open order, a great line of boys, scavenging the turf for the last piece of sandwich paper, forgotten toy or lost camera, sweet or pocketknife.

As a boy who had been in a Scout troop long before going to school, a had found in Scouting an illimitable sense of opportunity and a cause, I noticed L.H.’s experiments in the direction of Scouting as well as kinship with its ethos. He introduced it into such things as Fire-drills, Sunday labouring parties, morning runs, bonfires and fireworks. He kept himself tuned fit and hardy by long-distance bicycling and by cross-country running long before the morning bell called us from our beds. The custom of allowing a boy who had a grudge against another to challenge him to a boxing-match before their equals in the Gym, was sometimes brutal, but it inculcated valour; while jumping off the high dive into the swimming bath before one could swim was another test of pluck. In Lent we more or less voluntarily abjured sugar or jam. The savings from this abstemiousness were reckoned up and the resultant sum was bestowed upon some impecunious person about whom L.H. guardedly told us. We never discovered who was this beneficiary of our self abnegation, except that he was surprised and grateful for the charity. It remained a mystery not to be probed.

In the summer of 1914 I plucked up courage and, persuading two of my contemporaries, Antony Knebworth and R.A.L. Balfour, to join me, started a troop of Scouts. We were boys well below the senior ranks of the School so the enterprise was not a little frowned on, and considered audacious. But we were determined to have our way. I remember leading our deputation to L.H. one day after the School parade had been dismissed in the Gym, and asking if we might wear badges and drill our patrols. He consented, I believe with doubt still in his mind. The reaction of some other masters was censorious. However, the time available for scouting did not amount to more than a few break periods. We passed Tenderfoot tests and procured badges from Buckingham Palace Road, which we wore in our buttonholes. Colonel de Burgh, father of an O.W.D., who was one of Baden-Powell’s chief commissioners, came down and inspected us in Shakespeare. He explained why the second-class badge had its particular shape. It was formed like a mouth in a grin: keeping cheerful at all times.

Towards the end of that Summer Term war loomed on the European horizons. School broke up with headlines and rumours shattering the established peace of a still Edwardian-feeling England. When we returned in September Britain was at war.

It was L.H.’s custom to announce the names of the Prefects in the Gym parade on the first night of term. On this occasion he broke a well-kept secret dramatically: From now on, he said, there are no Prefects. The School gasped. Instead there are Patrol-leaders and Seconds.

This was a brilliant stroke which brought West Downs into the forefront of Scouting schools. Some boys may have disliked the idea; but they regarded it as a junior form of war service. Assistant masters may have felt likewise. But to Wilfred Brymer, for whom cricket was a holy game, sanctified by generations on the village green, the scheme was a bitter blow. However, he took it well. He went to L.H. and said: Of course, I’ll back you up, whatever you do; even if you proposed tiddle-de-winks, I should be there to help you through. And so he did. As for work, Lionel’s own opinion should be quoted. The Scouting is not hindering, he wrote to his great friend Nowell C. Smith, on the contrary the boys are for the most part working harder than I have known them work for ever so long: and are also taking responsibility and working alone far more. This was certainly true, and the opportunities brought out qualities of self reliance and personal initiative which ball-games and the absorption with points of style and finesse in cricket and football never allowed.

Scouting brought colour and freedom to West Downs. It also linked the School with the Winchester countryside. This was a tremendous gain to a boy’s education. We grew to know the lanes and byroads, the woods and downs of a part of Hampshire, instead of being cloistered on a few acres of well-rolled lawn. We took part in scouting games and manoeuvres with other troops, joined in district parades, and went into camp. All this lit a candle of enthusiasm in our souls which time has never put out. One cannot be blasé at Scouting.

For those of us who had started the West Downs troop in May 1914 it was galling to become mere rank-and-file in patrols led by our newly levied seniors, even if we possessed proficiency badges which they were not entitled to wear. But these patrol-leaders accorded us a certain kind respect, and we donned the dark green shirts and khaki scarves of the 6th Winchester Troop with devotion, formed the drum and bugle band, and soon turned Melbury, recently acquired, into a minor Gilwell Park. What memories we stored: of embattled trek-carts in the lanes, of tail-grabbing combats on the rabbit-scraped combes outside Crab Wood, of stalking the enemy through tanglewood copses and hedgerows, and volleying ammunition, in the form of rubber balls, at assaulting troops on the downs.

In August 1915 we went into camp at Middle Hill, Broadway. That was an unforgettable experience. The beauty of the Cotswolds and the glory of Shakespeare’s countryside were combined with the new hope of Scouting, its outdoor skills and exercises. The Service we held in the otherwise empty older church, which stands by the wayside elms far outside Broadway village, has remained an inspiration for over forty years.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Scouting brought L.H. into contact with worlds with which he had sympathy, a world of conventional patriotic ex-soldiers and a world of more experimental, romantic minds. Here was a spearhead of changing England, a new England which might reconcile the two nations whose citizens, the privileged and the people, were now manning the trenches of a most bloody and muddy war. Baden-Powell knew that Scouting must be a brotherhood irrespective of race, class or religion. Moreover, it was his answer of genius to the threat of national decadence produced by industrialism and urbanised life.

With B.-P. L.H. must have had some fascinating discussions. But it was another Scouting hero, Captain the Hon. Roland Philipps, 9th Royal Fusiliers, and H.Q. Commissioner for Preparatory Schools, who made an especial impression on West Downs. In 1915-16 he paid West Downs two visits from the Front, and we young patrol leaders sat literally at his feet. By great luck I still have a letter of his written to me from the trenches:

You need never worry in the least about being ‘chaffed.’ Most of the men who do things in this world were chaffed a good deal when they were boys at school. I know that you are a real enthusiast about Scouting. Enthusiasm is what we want. Get it clear in your mind what you are going for. Be certain that what you are going for is the best and highest. And then go straight on, with all your might:

When I say ‘all your might’ I mean all the might that every scout in world is able to get if he will ask for it. And you will find, as you go through life, that the might that really counts is the might that you can only get by going down on your knees and asking for it.

I believe that you look upon me as a friend. So, at the risk of your resenting what I say as a ‘pi-jaw.’ I am writing to tell you something that will strengthen your whole life if you understand it. You want to serve your country, to help others, to be a fine leader, and later on a scoutmaster. This then is the great secret: By your own strength you can do very little, but with the strength of God there is nothing that you will be unable to do. The understanding of this secret makes the whole difference to the happiness of a scout’s life.

Remember that half the success of patrol leadership lies in getting as much as you can out of your scouts, and in not doing everything yourself. I am very glad indeed that you are all trying for Pathfinder’s Badge. It is one of the finest badges of the lot, and the key to the King’s Scout Badge. Only a really good scout can get it, so I wish your patrol the very best luck.

I am pleased that you say that ‘the very great majority of the scouts are very keen,’ and I am certain too that you are right. In fact the boys impressed me so much by their keenness that I have no doubt at all that West Downs patrols will soon set a magnificent example to other schools throughout the British Isles.

A few weeks later Roland Philipps was killed leading an attack on the German lines. The news of his having fallen created heartbreak in West Downs chapel. It was to some of us the most poignant grief of the war.

Scouting had now become an integral feature of West Downs. Its spirit permeated the School, and to some extent the West Downs spirit began to influence the Scout movement. Scouting could only grow out of being a movement for boys into a movement of youth by enlisting the outstanding members of the younger generation. Would that this could have happened. At all events, we felt pledged to become missioners of Scouting in our Public Schools. This succeeded at Eton and a few other places. With the help of masters we actually prepared the draft of a manual on Scouting for schools.

L.H. led our camp held at Goodwood Park in the summer holidays of 1916. But there was not the happy nor carefree mood which had reigned at Middle Hill the year before. The battles of Jutland and the Somme, and a local epidemic of diphtheria, darkened its brightness. I succumbed to an illness, diagnosed as tonsillitis, which affected my heart, and camp dispersed. While in bed with fever I shared a cottage with L.H. who used to come into my room to shave in the morning and discuss the situation or to read aloud to me. I felt that he was preoccupied by the increasing strain of things.

After that I saw him only a few times. I went to Rugby, and the war became ever more malignant. The old England was rent with the loss of her young aristocracy and by the threat of losing her standards and her soul. In those terrible, fateful years Lionel Helbert, with his leading assistants, Kirby, Rose and Ledgard serving abroad, had to carry a burden of impossible weight. He knew that England was, in any case, on the brink of fundamental change, that the structure of society must alter, and leadership recruit itself from different strata of the nation. The loss, in a few short years, of the flower of youth which he had done so much to train in basic values and ideals must have grieved him. But he was a Christian and a mystic too. He believed in the reality of lasting communion between Heaven and Earth. Writing in 1919 to school parents whose son had been reported missing and was now known to be dead, he says in a most moving gesture of the heart: “All is so very very well with the lad. I wonder was there ever a schoolmaster blessed with a more utterly staunch friend? Well, goodbye: and thank you both again for having sent him to us; he will be more of a help than ever now.”

L.H. was very practical, and mastered all the details of domestic organisation in running an establishment which included gardeners, odd-job men and nurses as well as teachers and taught (and their parents, some of the mighty in the land). He liked detail and was exact but never fussy: human beings came first always. His powers of observation were phenomenal and matched only by his feminine intuition. He secured the confidence and loyal affection of all sorts and types of people. Only a headmaster such as he could have introduced into a school such as West Downs an education radical à l’outrance of the stamp of Norman MacMunn, a teacher as different from the taciturn and reserved Walter Kirby as cuttlefish from cod. But he did so without fear. He knew that his own innate authority and the common sense of the boys would balance any ridiculousness of classroom experiment. And he loved taking risks. He was, however, also shrewd. Unique and daring as he himself was, he protected himself by the reactions of cheerful men of action such as Rose, or bottled-up ruminative doubters such as Kirby. I imagine that in private they thought him strange. But his shining goodness, integrity and dynamic spirit carried them along; and he had the irresistible gift of humour and leg-pulling which tickled their fancy.

How immensely he admired men of action, and how he envied craftsmen of all sorts. He was always learning, eager for new knowledge, new ideas, without sacrificing established and proven good. Like many other preparatory schoolmasters, he had a suspicious dread of Public Schools, the potential sinks of pubescent iniquity. It was to prepare boys for the testing time of their Public School years that he fought at West Downs to give them a moral foundation of unsullied purity. To him all life was a test, a series of tests of the soul’s armoury: character. And the first real tests came with adolescence in the herd-life of Public School society.

Sir Harold Nicolson, in his studies of changing civilities (Good Behaviour, London 1955), has a most trenchant chapter on the virtues and absurdities of Public School education. He tells the story of Dr. Arnold’s reforms with great discernment showing how his method forced boys to mature too early and turned them into moral prigs. But the effects of Thomas Hughes’ book Tom Brown’s School-days changed Arnold’s morally earnest prigs into hearty muscular Christians, while self discipline, and the teaching of boys how to obey and how to command tended to suppress all expressions of feeling whatsoever. The repression of natural feelings and of originality became a blight in Public Schools, from which far more boys than would admit it suffered. It was this too which led to a cult of blasé indifference, and the widespread idea that to show keenness, or any real enthusiasm, was bad form. Nothing has done more to hold back Englishmen of the upper classes than this. The examples of freer education, fostering individual bent and talent, introduced by Bedales, and later by Bryanston and Gordonstoun, have counteracted this stifling to some extent.

L.H.’s views were ahead of his time. He regarded the prevailing Public School customs as hard-bitten institutions which had somehow got to be endured, withstood, and passed through unscathed. So he sought to endow small boys with an inner fund of inextinguishable faith and fervour. In so doing, and in the concessions made to the expected demands of Public Schools on boys about to enter them, he may have pandered to the tendency of creating premature adults. West Downs boys seemed often (to one of them at any rate) rather like a lot of little old men. One could see the future grandfathers in many of their childish faces. But a number were drawn from the oldest families in the land, and sons of these were born with characters already inbred by generations of continuity. Scouting and the like loosened some of this rigidity of type and gave back to what were in fact still children something of the insouciance and innocent enthusiasms of boyhood.

It was in his final talks with individual boys, before they left West Downs, that L.H. put the finishing touches to his work. His anxiety for them to become their truest selves, to be steadfast, gleamed out of every admonishment. His sympathy, his warm and gay encouragement for good, were currents on which he launched the human vessels of his caring affection. On many boys he bestowed a little golden cross as a talisman for their journey. It was inscribed H.B.P. (Honest, Brave and Pure). Each boy, he knew, needed an individual approach. And when talking with anyone, he showed that great gift of making the person before him feel that he, L.H., was at that moment wholly and utterly there for them alone. He saw in boys the individual nature to be moulded into character and energized by God.

So we, in our impressionable youth, felt in L.H. something of the priest confessor: human, and rollicking with fun, full of chaff and teasing, but a being out of the ordinary, before whom we stood stripped of all self deception, all dishonesty, all evasions of truth. It was not guilt that he wished us to feel, but courage to be straight with ourselves. To many of us today post-Reformation Christianity has been interpreted too moralistically. Ethics have swamped worship. God has become a moral God instead of God Almighty, and the Puritan obsession with sin has got mixed up with the arbitrary laws and conventions of respectability.

Lionel Helbert was, probably to himself, a mocker of much of that Victorian respectability in which his generation was brought up to believe. But he was a real and most earnest Christian. He lived entirely for others. In his own life he followed the way of self denial, of self abnegation, perhaps even of repression of his rash and romantic self. His asceticism, his nocturnal work and early rising, his meagre eating, and the driving of himself without taking in fuel, led to his death. But he never imposed these harsh rules on others. His doctrine was the way of Christian affirmation and love, of endless encouragement of the good in the heart of people. And courage was to him the highest virtue: courage to be true, and courage to obey the Will of God.

Rolf Gardiner