No record of my husband’s life would be complete without attempting a brief survey of the fourteen years in which his educational work was deeply influenced by his friendship with Mr. Lionel Helbert of West Downs.
They became acquainted while they were both at Oriel College, Oxford, my husband being some years his senior. It was for Mr. Helbert’s sake, and with his approval, that we moved to West Hill, Winchester, when our son went to West Downs. The constant association with him when we began our educational work as his near neighbours and friends, and the tragedy of his illness and death made so deep an impression on our lives that I was only able to omit the following resume of his life because I feared to cut across the book “Memorials of Lionel Helbert” which was shortly to appear, edited by Mr. Nowell Smith (then Headmaster of Sherborne) and Lady Goodrich, Mr. Helbert’s only sister.
In the years during which my husband and I saw so much of him, I rashly used to say that I would like to be his biographer. But after his unexpectedly early death, when I felt I owed him a debt I could never repay for his influence and help, and I attempted to put into words what the impression of his life had been on us, I found the task difficult and elusive, and was heartily glad when I heard that it was undertaken by those so well suited to do it.
As many old friends of West Downs are still asking for more “lines left out” concerning Mr. Helbert, my son and I think it right to supplement the brief allusion which has been made in these pages by the following sketch, through which my husband’s interest in Preparatory School work will be better understood.
Though my husband had known Lionel Helbert at Oriel it was not until we spent a night at Winchester in order to put down our son’s name for Winchester College, that we came across him again. At Mr. Nowell Smith’s house, in speaking of Preparatory Schools, he said, “Have you seen Helbert’s place? He has a wonderful school on the top of West Hill, on the borders of Teg Down. I should like you to see it.” I was inclined to start off at once to see this school from Mr. Nowell Smith’s description, but my husband deferred the visit until the next morning, when he went alone to West Downs and brought back a glowing account of the school, saying, “I think Helbert is the man who would knock a boy into shape.” I spent a night in Winchester shortly after and went up to see West Downs just as the boys were coming out from tea. Mr. Helbert welcomed me and took me to the Drawing Room to see Miss Manton, a pleasing lady who acted as hostess. Mr. Helbert returned in a few minutes proposing to show me round. In the Dining Room we found a party of boys being rehearsed for a French play by Madame Calviou. We stayed listening and it was most amusing. The boys were delightful, Madame Calviou’s teaching remarkably artistic and clever, and Mr. Helbert’s comments full of insight and fun. The perfect order and scrupulous cleanliness of the house, with its up-to-date classrooms, reminded me of Dartmouth, but it was not until we got to the dormitories, where the little boys were going to bed, and I saw Mr. Helbert’s sympathy and gentleness when talking to a small boy who had some ill, that I had an insight into his quality of tenderness and perfect understanding of boys. I decided then and there that our boy and his friend John must go to West Downs.
Mr. Helbert asked me to come up to Chapel at 8.45 the next morning. The Chapel was then a room in the house, carefully furnished and with the spiritual atmosphere of a place of prayer.
There was a difficulty about a vacancy. There were no vacancies in the following September when Alan and his friend John must both start Preparatory School. Mr. Helbert was however sufficiently interested to propose a visit to us at the Briary, Freshwater, where we were then living. He arrived in the afternoon, when Mr. Benecke of Magdalen College Oxford, and a Master from Cheam were staying with us. Mr. Benecke played to us with his magical interpretation of Schubert. Mr. Helbert listened and appreciated, as only those who are truly musical can do. Mr. Benecke and he (so different in types of character) understood and liked each other. Mr. Helbert, full of bonhomie, especially to men and boys, with such sallies of wit, had also a curious power of withdrawing into himself, as though he was a spectator of the scene before him. His gift of reserved strength was perhaps one of his greatest.
After dinner we had a long tete-a-tete about the boys and about education generally. I found him expansive, full of original thought and in sympathy with our training of Alan and his little friend John. Next day he went to our schoolroom, then under Miss Marion Crook. He greatly approved the methods and listened to a lecture of hers on Caxton and the first printing press, while the boys were taking notes. He said “These boys have a very gifted teacher.”
The difficulty remained; there were no vacancies in September, but Mr. Helbert said that Alan and John were boys he would like to take and he could imagine no better preparation for the aims of his school than our home teaching at the Briary. It was just what he was always looking for.
My husband and I thought over his words and encouraged by his approval we decided to move to Winchester, to send the boys as day boys and to try to help him for his generosity in taking them by training any other little boys for West Downs that he cared to send us. Full of this hope (which so closely concerned our son and his future going to school at Winchester College) we took a house close to West Downs, approved by Mr. Helbert as being out of the town and free from the dangers of infection. Difficulties arose as to the adjustment of affairs and John was taken from us while things hung in the balance. Mr. Helbert visited us a second time at the Briary to inspect Alan’s work and to see where to place him at West Downs.
“I never quite knew Helbert at Oriel,” my husband said to me and I answered “He is a mixture of the practical and the spiritual; the dramatic and the go-ahead.” I think that this summary, so hastily given, was true.
When Alan first went to West Downs we seemed to know Mr. Helbert less than we did before. We naturally kept away, that Alan might settle down. He was amazingly busy and absorbed in his work. He asked us to come to Chapel on Sundays, and to come over on Saturdays to lectures or sing-songs and these were our only contacts with him until the holidays.
It is only possible in this sketch to give, as it were, a few imperfect pictures of the life at West Downs at this time. I remember the deep impression made on my son by his first Advent Sunday there, when the Chapel was beautifully decorated with white flowers, to commemorate Confirmation Day at Winchester College, and Mr. Helbert addressed all the boys of the school alone in Chapel on the Sunday morning. He spoke to them of the early Communion at Winchester College Chapel on the first Sunday after Confirmation, telling them some details of this event in his own life. He told them the wonderful story of Helen Keller, the gifted American girl who was deaf, dumb and blind so that her mind had no outlet and her eyes no vision until her wonderful instructress came into her life giving her the power of sight, hearing, and the power of expression through writing in Braille. He told how the instructress had striven to convey to Helen Keller the thought of God’s love for her, and that Helen had immediately replied, “Yes, I knew that all the time.” This fact Mr. Helbert asked the boys to grasp and to know that which this blind girl knew by instinct, and to remember it at every hour of their daily life. The singing of “Saviour, Blessed Saviour” completed the service, which was to West Downs boys the pivot of the year, fraught with deep solemnity.
The boys reverence in Chapel was marked and profound. If by any mischance or sudden call they were kept waiting in Chapel, they would sit in perfect silence for a period long or short. They were taught to love their Chapel, both while in the tin building and afterwards in the fine new building which was only finished a few years before Mr. Helbert’s death and was the gift of very grateful parents.
Mr. Helbert told us that when he first began school at West Downs with a very few boys, he was quite alarmed at having to take Chapel, feeling he had no credentials or pretensions to conduct Divine Service, yet all parents who went there with their boys would agree that the spirit of worship and the realities of a pure and simple religion were present in a marked degree, bringing ineffable joy to the parents that their boys were there. Perhaps this spirit of devotion was mostly shown at the morning and evening prayers when he was alone with the boys in Chapel. Finding the ordinary prayers beyond a boy’s grasp he wrote two prayers, one for the morning and one for the evening, beautiful in their simplicity and very dear to those who heard them. I give the words as he wrote them and before they were altered by critics.
Into Thy hands, O Lord, we commend ourselves this day: bestow, we pray Thee, Thy merciful blessing upon our School. Teach us to remember that as without Thee we cannot live, so with Thy help we cannot fail: give us strength to carry out our appointed tasks in work and in play, with all our might. Help us to do unto others as we would they should do unto us, and in all our thoughts, words, and actions keep us honest, brave and pure. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
O God, who didst bid children to be brought unto Thee, take us to Thyself this night: forgive us the sins which we have committed this day; accept our thanks for all the happiness and blessings which we have enjoyed by Thy good mercy. Guard us through the hours of darkness, bless and keep our dear ones at home, and teach us all to love one another for the sake of Him who so tenderly loves all of us, even Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament teaching bids children to be brought to God.
His words in Chapel fell on the attentive ear of a boy who said to us “I don’t think there is anyone like L.H. for putting great thoughts into simple language.”
The words at the end of the Morning Prayer “keep us honest, brave and pure” had a deep significance for him. He had been sent early to a Preparatory School at Brighton, the Second Master of which, Mr. Charles Harper, commanded his deep respect and affection. Separated as he was from his father, who was abroad, and by death from his mother, his hungry heart obtained great comfort from the fatherly care and high ideals of this master. While the teaching was good – good enough to enable Lionel Helbert to win a Winchester Scholarship before the age of 13 – this master cared supremely that the daily conduct of the boys should justify their religious teaching, and thus he asked the boys, whom he trusted for their sincerity, to put into his post box through his study door every night before going to bed a slip of paper with the letters H.B.P. whenever they felt justified in doing so. This pledge, acting on the sincere nature of this boy, made a lifelong impression and its effect on his own character made him desire to give this legacy to his boys at West Downs. No boy left West Downs without receiving from L.H. after the last confidential talks, a small gold cross engraved with the letters H.B.P. These crosses the boys cherished through many years, and some found their way to the trenches in France.
When Mr. Helbert first started School with only a handful of boys, he said to them, “Now boys this School is going to be what you yourselves make it. Will you join with me to make it the best Preparatory School in England?” The buildings of West Downs, before it got its new name under Mr. Helbert, had been an unsuccessful Secondary School called Westfields. Each classroom had a panel of glass in the door. “I suppose,” said a boy to Mr. Helbert, “you have those glass panels in the doors in order to peep in and see what we are doing?” “If you think that,” answered Mr. Helbert, “we will certainly have no glass panels here. I trust the boys.” The glass panels were straightway done away with. In response to this spirit of West Downs, he taught the boys to carry on with order and good conduct when he and the masters were called away. He had a prefect system for each room and was often delighted to find when he returned what trust had done for these boys in the silence observed, and in the amount of work conscientiously done in his absence.
In all he did he was original and this characteristic was never more amusingly shown than when he came to ask advice. Miss Dix, whose ministrations were wonderful in their single-minded and devoted service, said he would come and ask her advice. She would give answer of all she best knew and Mr. Helbert would listen gently and go away and do exactly the opposite. This was not from puck-like caprice (in which he did often indulge) but from the certainty in his own mind that he must trust himself and act in a particular way as his intuition urged him. He was nearly always right. He would take immense pains over details with the boys himself. A fine coin was one day missing from the Museum. Enquiries about it; painstaking questioning of the boys with a great desire to trust their word and avoid the pain of thinking there could be a thief among them or that they could lie to him. In spite of all efforts the mystery remained unsolved and months passed on.
Late one afternoon a Missionary arrived at West Downs asking to speak to Mr. Helbert. Might he address the boys in Chapel? He wished to give them the Christian message and Mr. Helbert demurred, struck by his earnestness but not wishing to upset the routine of work, but gave his consent to the Missionary taking morning Chapel instead of himself. The Missionary stayed the night. He journeyed from place to place relying on hospitality or putting up with its deficiency or loss. Next morning in Chapel he made an earnest appeal in true and simple language. He challenged them to follow the way of Christ, and having delivered his message he went on his way. Later in the morning there came a tap at Mr. Helbert’s door from a boy aged eleven who asked if he might speak to Mr. Helbert. The boy had evidently something on his mind but had not the courage to be quite straightforward. He said it was such a pity that the coin was missing from the School Museum and that he and his parents wished to give a coin to take its place. Mr. Helbert, knowing very well what the boy really wished to say, asked him where the coin was. The boy replied that it was at home. Mr. Helbert then said that it was very kind of the parents to wish to give him this coin and he would at once telephone to thank them while the boy remained in the room. He then walked to the telephone and was giving the number to the operator when the boy ran to him, begged him not to telephone, and then confessed to having stolen the coin but said he had left it at home and now longed to give it back. Need I relate that the boy was forgiven but he had received a lesson concerning the miseries that follow dishonesty that he could never forget.
As years went on we grew to know L.H. very well and I think of him as one of the greatest teachers I have ever known and one with the greatest social gift. If this had been all, the impression of his personality would have faded into the ordinary, and he would have taken his place, in the Gallery of Memory, among the many gifted people we have known. But this was not all. Kept out of sight, but underlying all he did, was his deep and spontaneous Christian faith and sense of God.
“That I may do everything as in my great Taskmaster’s sight;” from this sprang his tender conscience and fear to wound, his spiritual insight, his good nature, his pity and his tolerance. “A very feeling gentleman” as a servant of his once said whose wife had died, and who was surprised at the depth of sympathy Mr. Helbert gave him.
He rose at six o’clock all the year round. Known only to his Maker can be the lonely prayers and strivings that enabled him to master his natural qualities and to give him calm for the day’s work, and judgement with his boys, and the sustained effort for their good through the long days, ending as they sometimes did in the early morning. Those who saw his look of fatigue after 9.30 p.m. will have realised how dangerous to physical health were the vast demands he made upon his energy and brain power, but he was so gay, so boyish and so free in his forgetfulness of self, that he was indeed the most joyful of companions and time spent with him was a pleasure to remember. His unrivalled narration of common events, his convincing mimicry and sparkle none can forget. With this light-heartedness and joy in the present, and with the boys and their saying; and doings, there went an underlying sternness and an extraordinary knowledge of what a boy was capable of and ought to be. He had an unerring instinct about such things as how a boy should be trained, what his morals and conduct should be, how to put into the boy courage, endurance, hard work and a simple and workable religion. In such things his touch was certain. He noticed every detail of character and got to work to cure faults and insufficient home training. He knew how to turn out the courteous gentleman. “The Beatitudes,” he would say, “make the true gentleman.” This was his strength, his unerring knowledge of how to shape a boy into a fine noble manhood. No excuses were allowed; they were humorously torn to shred; by his wit or unmitigatingly condemned in himself first and afterwards in others around him and a high standard of untiring duty expected.
Of his talks with the boys before Confirmation, of his aid to the boys if they fell into trouble at their Public Schools, of his good-bye talks, and his letters to his boys in the trenches, no one but those whom they sustained can express the value. His kindness to boys other than his West Downs boys struck me as rare. A boy in the road playing round our step, the boys who came up to cricket at West Downs; in the holidays, a casual child in trouble, he was instantly there to help. The house boy at West Downs was a very familiar figure to us with his cheerful and reassuring smile as we came up to the front door. He developed heart trouble and lingered some weeks in the Hospital. After the early Celebration at the Hospital, when I went in to see the boy, I found that Mr. Helbert had already been sitting with him for half an hour before the 7.30 service, thus comforting his dying hours.
Of his talks to the boys in Chapel in Holy Week some will forever retain the impression. He allowed me to go and I can recall the intense reality with which he spoke of Christ’s sufferings on the Cross as if he himself had been at the scene. He attempted no theories of why Christ said, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” But after a pause of deep feeling he said, “To that question no answer was given.”
The intense truth of his nature did not admit of palliatives to the sufferings of Good Friday.
Mothers whose boys were at West Downs in 1907 and onwards will recall with me those delightful days there when Mr. Helbert was in his full vigour, cheerful, ready in wit, and a courteous host, considerate and full of intuitive sympathy for his guests. The high days and holidays the parents will remember as being like nothing else. Shall we recall the Christmas Concert with its programme of music and part songs arranged and conducted by himself? The amusing French plays produced by Madame Calviou who was a consummate artist: the little boy trying to play his piece of music, with the occasional wrong notes, which he would have given anything to avoid for Mr. Helbert’s sake, knowing that each was a bad prick to him. The efficiency of the whole performance, drawn forth by the firstrateness and high standard of its leader and alert conductor. How he was capable of restraining his power was shown in many ways, but not least in his conducting, and in his playing of accompaniments in which there was a subordination to the interest of the singers, shown in gentleness of touch and sympathetic helpfulness. His accompaniment was a rebuke for ever to loud self-assured accompanists. It was the artist.
With a certain psychological blindness toward womanhood, he did not understand the deep respect and admiration with which the mothers viewed him. I think what they admired in him was his boy nature, his cheerfulness, his lack of sentimentality, and his care for their most cherished possessions – their sons. Their gratitude showed itself in constant letters and sometimes gifts of thank-offering. Sometimes he mixed up gifts of game, etc, and thanked the wrong mother at Waterloo, and great was his glee in repeating this to us. He loved to score off the too fashionable mother, he could show harshness from lack of sympathy with them. One of these ladies, a really charming woman, said to me in a moment of confidence, “I have had a conversation with L.H. He made me feel a worm but he has promised to take the boy.” He was in reality thoroughly good-natured, but his penetrating eye and quick perceptive mind had made her fear his judgement. This lack of sympathy was perhaps caused by the too early death of his own mother. This mother – “a very saintly person” – was too dimly remembered, and he thought of her with deepest reverence. Her photograph always stood on his writing table and he told us that he had just one shadowy remembrance of her face, her glance, perhaps wistful, at her little sons who she was about to leave to the world’s mercy. She died beset with anxiety and sorrow, bequeathing the care of the children to her little daughter, who faithfully fulfilled the charge. This sister was very dear to him for her beauty and attraction, for her high breeding, her wit and wisdom and her unceasing faithfulness to him, for, in spite of many friends, he was a lonely soul gathered within himself with deep reserve, outgoing to his boys, but “having a life hid.”
Deprived as he was of home ties and of a real home, he tried to make West Downs nice for others during the holidays, giving a party on Christmas Day to his servants and asking us as neighbours. In the windows stood upright pieces of holly, there was a Christmas tree or other festive doings and he would preside at the Carols, and perhaps give one of his inimitable sketches of old Oxford days, such as Mark Twain’s description of Rubenstein’s playing. If boys stayed behind to convalesce in the sanatorium, he would buy a Christmas tree and deck it before their eyes, saying that nothing had ever given him such fun as he watched their delight.
For boys who were sick he had, as I have said, a most uncommon tenderness. His calm left him at once if there was an illness in the school and his anxiety was more than paternal. The most skilled doctors and nurses were called in, and once, when a boy had to be watched hour by hour lest an operation for mastoid abscess should become necessary he sat up with the boy all night persuading the doctor to go without his night’s rest also. The boy was saved, though death had hovered near and had seemed imminent.
The incident of his father’s serious illness in London has been alluded to in “Memorials of Lionel Helbert,” but only those who were his near neighbours can know what that occurrence took out of him. After a long exacting day which had begun at 6 a.m. he would take a train to Town as soon as the boys had gone to bed, and there hasten to the rooms near Victoria where his father lay dangerously ill. He would keep the night watch with him and catch the milk train to Winchester next morning, relying on sleep in the train, but fearful that he should be so overcome with sleep as to fail to get out at Winchester. Then the day’s work had to be done and the same train caught to London in the evening. This state of affairs lasted for about a fortnight; he did not heed his irritable nerves and was ready for the inevitable humour that sprang like a light even from these untoward circumstances.
He really enjoyed the little excitement of the strain he was putting on himself regardless of the penalty. He was too wilful to heed remonstrances or pleadings, and also too restless when any work was before him.
But if there were dark days at West Downs caused by illness and anxiety, there were also plenty of gay and merry ones. Which of us parents of West Downs boys can forget the weekend gatherings and the pleasant and inspiring talk from Sir John Simon, the Headmaster of Harrow and Mrs. Ford, Lord and Lady Shaftesbury, Admiral and Mrs. Hope, Lady Betty Balfour, Lord and Lady Lytton, Sir Robert Morant, Sir Edmund Phipps, Captain and Mrs. Wentworth, Mr. and Mrs. Holland-Martin and many others. Old boys from Winchester, Eton and the other Public Schools added a youthful sparkle to these gatherings and brought out the best of Mr. Helbert. On the day of the Pageant not only boys, but any parents who wished, were invited to join the party and sit with their sons. On Mr. Helbert’s birthday, the 13th of June, a selection of parents were invited to go to the New Forest with the whole School and Staff, starting early in the morning and having dinner and tea in the depths of the Forest. A day full of quiet, leisurely hours of sitting about and enjoying the beauty around us.
When Mr. Helbert took the boys who were studying Greek to Oxford for the day, to see the Greek play “The Frogs” in which he had himself acted the principal part when at Oxford, my husband and I were invited to the luncheon at Oriel before the play and afterwards went on to see the performance.
The reading of marks was always a magnificent occasion when Mr. Helbert sat in gown and hood, flanked by his Masters, also in gowns and hoods. Lady Goodrich, whose coming to West Downs was always hailed with delight, gave away the prizes, and Mr. Helbert seemed to characterise almost every boy in the School.
L.H. was not a cricketer, but he of course shared the Englishman’s point of view of the value of games – and the virtue of boxing – especially as a training of the temper. First rate games masters had good material to work with such boys as the Lionel Fords with their Lyttelton tradition.
He was fond of a game of football with the boys.
“You see, Mother,” said a boy, “L.H. is not any older than his boys really, or certainly not older than his seniors.”
His schoolmaster friends were amused at L.H. spending half his summer holiday in learning Swedish drill, by going three days a week to Osborne with the Sergeant to be personally taught in the latest approved method for the growing boy.
He was fearful of having too advanced a type of drill (as for the army) lest the young boy should be injured by what was too strenuous and he thought there was nothing like experiencing Swedish drill in his own person to know.
Sloyd was another of his pet methods of instruction, teaching the exactitude and patience so hard for a boy to acquire.
Mr. Helbert never forgot his friends and a telephone message would come over to West Hayes to say that Mr. Plunket Greene (whose son was at West Downs) would give a song recital or that Lady Waterford and her daughter were giving some violin music accompanied by the piano and Mr. Rose would sing. Would we come over?
Mr. Helbert would ask me to recite selections from “Enoch Arden,” or to lecture on General Gordon to a large and impressive audience of boys and their parents. Very occasionally he would act and sing with the Masters, but this rarely happened.
On Guy Fawkes night there was always a bonfire and singing of songs round the field, culminating in the moment when the “rotter” – the boy who would not work was thrown into the flames. This was a most satisfying bogey, made by Sergeant and dressed in old clothes.
But perhaps my clearest memory is of the “bread and water” feast on the summer evening just before my son was leaving West Downs for Winchester. The day had been very warm, and beginning with a luncheon, Mr. Helbert had entertained the parents of as many boys as had been able to come doom. There had been mark-reading, tests of swimming in the baths, tea and other festivities, and when the greater part of the company dispersed only the parents of leaving boys were left to enjoy, not a “bread and water” feast, but a goodly supper. I recall the failing light of the summer evening, the tables surrounded by boys and guests, the largely written motto at the end of the Hall reminding us that “Manners makyth Man.” There was some wistfulness and regret in the hearts of both parents and boys at their coming departure from West Downs. There were speeches from the leading boys, from Lord Shaftesbury and Sir Robert Morant, which last was of so enthusiastic and flattering a nature in its heart-felt thanks for what Mr. Helbert had done for his boy, and also so eulogistic about the success of the school, that Mr. Helbert rose to his feet, like one at bay, and said how little he deserved such a speech, and that though he could only say it in a company of friends such as those around him, and had never said it in a speech before, how entirely he knew that any success that he had had, had only come to him through the gift of the Giver of all Good. The words were simple; he had a goaded expression as of one who could not accept praise, but the moment was somehow very impressive.
When we all adjourned to the Chapel for the short evening service, I remembered the words of the prayer with which he had started at West Downs, “As without Thee we cannot live, so with Thy help we cannot fail.”
Mr. Helbert, so busy in Term, was glad of our company in the holidays when he had more leisure. On one occasion when we were going to the midnight service at St. Thomas’s on New Year’s Eve and he had hoped to come with us, he invited us to return to West Downs for a bread and milk supper. It was at such times as these, delightfully simple in themselves, that he would open out and tell us some of his secrets. He told us that when he threw up his work at the House of Commons and took to schoolmastering, many of his best friends thought that he was merely wasting his time, not knowing of the inspiration he had received from his Preparatory schoolmaster. The conviction that this was his true life’s work was so strong that when he went to Messrs. Gabbitas and Thring and asked if they had on their books a suitable house in which to begin a Preparatory School near Winchester, they told him they had nothing except a building which was utterly out of the question, which would take more than one hundred boys: he answered in a very humble voice that he thought that “might do.”
On a day of exceedingly high wind he and his sister visited the then empty building of the Secondary School called Westfields, afterwards to become celebrated throughout the Empire under the name of West Downs, a name he gave it as it actually stands on the confines of Teg Down, 360 feet above sea-level. It is a charming and favoured spot. There he began his labours with an Oxford friend and two boys, whose parents were his friends and who trusted him. My husband and I did not see the School until 1905 and by this time it was fully on its feet. Mr. Helbert had earned a reputation as a keen educationalist, fully up-to-date, with modern ideas, and much sought after for his personal influence and his capacity for turning out boys fit to take their place in their Public Schools, especially if that School should be Winchester, which he never failed to honour as the best of Schools.
During the years my son was at West Downs Mr. Helbert was at the zenith of his powers. At Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Sherborne and other Public Schools his work was known and his preparatory training valued. Boys of well-known families were brought to him to be accepted or rejected. He made it a rule never to take a boy until he had visited the parents and seen the boy at home. The north of Scotland, Land’s End, the west coast of Ireland were visited, with lightning speed, in the interest of a boy, if he could only see their homes by going thus far. This plan added power and insight to his work and he started with a new boy aware of his background and ready to help forward his best qualities and to seek to eradicate his faults and mistakes. The parents greatly valued this mark of devoted service to their boys. He was in fact an artist with a swift perception and a desire to give all that he had to the art of education. He was never a pedagogue, but always, towards those in his charge, a sympathetic fatherly and boyish friend, capable of great severity when that was required, yet succeeding in making West Downs a thoroughly happy and exciting place. Something was always happening there; the life was never dull and humdrum simply because of Mr. Helbert’s vitality and surprisingness.
What my son – and others of his old boys who have taken up education as their profession – owe to the inspiration of their years at West Downs can never be measured.
He used, at my husband’s request, to inspect West Hayes once a Term and he continued to do this after it became a Preparatory School for the Public Schools. The boys always tried to do their best on these occasions. Here is one of his reports after inspection.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Rannie,
I wish my visit could have been a longer one but I was with the boys long enough to feel that there had been a forward movement all along the line since we last met.
The Latin is more advanced, and the boys seem to be getting an idea of parsing and translating their inflections.
The German poetry was very well said, and they seem to be growing familiar with the sounds, if not all the meanings, of German words. All the boys entered with gusto into the French recitation. I did not see much of the Arithmetic. The teaching is keen and good, and at least one of the boys is considerably above the average.
The English maintains the reputation of West Hayes for that subject. The reading is very distinctly improved; the text-book of English Literature is a most useful as well as a most delightful one; and the recitations, “Young Lochinvar,” “The Method,” and “Mr. Nobody,” all bore witness to first-rate training.
The Examination papers were neatly done, and the standard of handwriting is higher than it was a year ago. Hubert Rankin, by the way, is amply repaying the care bestowed upon his writing; his examination here has been particularly neat and well written.
(Signed) Lionel Helbert.
P.S. I send these general impressions for what they are worth, in case I may not be able to get over again this Term. L.H.
Extracts of a speech made at Prize-giving at West Hayes. Mr. Helbert said:—
“It is my privilege to come in to West Hayes once a Term to examine the work done, and I must congratulate Mr. and Mrs. Rannie on the work here that I have seen and heard. My visit is often hurried, yet I carry away some very distinct impressions. I must congratulate you all on the teaching of the reading here and the progress in it, and also on the educational work generally, and especially on the way you boys are taught to enunciate your own language, and to speak out. I wish I could get our boys to do it as well.
“A boy at home, taught by a governess or tutor, soon finds out that he is himself the centre of everything at home; but if he is working here with other boys he learns something about other people, and above all he is taught in class to attend.
“I have been much delighted by the Greek play you boys have just acted. You have in this, as in so many other pleasures and opportunities which you get here, to remember all those who arrange these things for you. This routine of work and pleasure does not come by chance, but means great trouble for some one, working early and late to get you these advantages.
“And now, boys, you have learnt here what is good and worth knowing and holding, haven’t you? Well then, I say Stick to it! When you leave this place, wherever you are going, don’t be laughed out of it. Stick to it yourselves and so show your gratitude to West Hayes.”
In the Easter holidays of 1909 Mr. Helbert came to us in the Isle of Wight. He thoroughly enjoyed excursions in the Island, always accompanied by a book of Latin Prose, for he was coaching Alan for Winchester.
I remember our going to the three hours service with him at the Parish Church, Freshwater; a very beautiful and peaceful occasion. On Easter morning he brought chocolate gifts to Alan with a Latin verse:—
Salve feste dies! semper valeatis amici,
Piscis Aprillis inest: ne nimis Alan edas.
Hail festal day! My friends may you always flourish,
There is an April fish inside; don’t eat too much Alan.
The coaching was carried on for some hours every morning, relieved by occasional comic verses such as this concerning his youthful amanuensis at this time.
The moon her light doth shed.
Where is that rascal Ted?
Where is his wandering head?
My letters are misled,
Where is that rascal Ted?
Sometimes his wit ran into such a succession of amusing little jokes almost whispered to himself, so that one had to be on the alert to follow him and miss none of the fun. He was extraordinarily free and merry on a holiday. His grudge against the Term’s hard work was that it killed the joyous fun and humour to be perceived in daily life. Boys were always attached to him and an amusing illustration of this occurred when he was visiting us in the Isle of Wight. We were singing round the piano and I had in my arms the baby boy of the lodgings, so stout and big that we called him “Julius Caesar Pompey Green.” As we ceased singing the baby leaned over from my arms, stared at Mr. Helbert and then suddenly planted a kiss on his cheek. I said, “He is asking to come to West Downs some day.” He pretended to be very wrathful, but before leaving a nice box of sweets was sent to me “for Julius Caesar Pompey Green.”
On a certain wintry Saturday afternoon, when Mr. Helbert had shut himself up in his small bedroom to be free from molestation in order to prepare his Advent address, he issued the strictest orders, as always, that no one should come near him. This Advent eve, the day of Confirmation at Winchester, was the one Saturday on which Mr. Helbert never entertained. Shortly before teatime H.R.H. The Duke of York and a Naval friend arrived, asking to see Mr. Helbert and the School. Sister (Miss Drought) went to the Drawing Room to receive them, and sent a message to ask Mr. Helbert to come down but he replied that he could not do so. However, Sister Drought, being a lady of great loyalty and with a charming Irish gift of persuasion, decided to personally storm the fortress, knocking at Mr. Helbert’s door and telling him that she was not going to undertake the responsibility of a son of the King arriving at West Downs and not being properly entertained by its Master. Miss Drought was of course right and she carried the day and deprived Mr. Helbert of nearly an hour of his much cherished time of preparation for his yearly address, about which he was always diffident and anxiously responsible, but perhaps the breezy talk with so gallant a sailor and gentleman was able to add something to the Advent address next morning.
His breakdown came swiftly, as many had foretold it would. His friends had watched with dismay the pitiful spectacle of his self-destruction, the ignoring of headaches and nature’s warnings, and had seen at times a wistful appeal in his expression as of one longing to be delivered from this self-made prison of incessant toil.
In 1914 he had foreseen that war was coming and had tried to prepare his boys for it. Nevertheless the proclamation of War, the retreat from Mons, and the uncertain victories at sea, shocked and affected him more deeply than the average unreflecting man. Many West Downs boys were serving in the Army and in the Navy and the rapidity of their death brought the shaft of sorrow home, with regrets that he himself might not go and serve. All he could do, he did generously, namely to give up one Master after another until the Staff had dwindled to almost nothing and he was prepared to shoulder the whole burden of the School himself. He felt that he must prepare the younger generation to go out and serve as soon as they were old enough. He therefore took up Scouting with great enthusiasm, and for the first time in their lives West Downs boys were seen in pairs going into the town on Scout duties, and once even to London on a message to the War Office, and their manhood and independence being brought out in various ways. Mr. Helbert was soon asked to be District Commissioner. He was connected with St. Martins-in-the-Fields and the Central Committee in London. The Chief Scout soon recognised his quality, and came down to Winchester to inspect the West Downs and West Hayes Troops.
At this time General Smith-Dorrien’s sons were at West Downs, and their father, from the Western Front, wrote them full and vivid letters of his experiences, and these were allowed by the General to be read at the Pow-wows, to which we were often invited. It was a wonderful sight to see the boys sitting about in their Scout kit in all attitudes of ease, after a hard day’s work, listening to General Smith-Dorrien’s letters, which had a first-hand touch, quite apart from anything one could read in the newspapers.
During this time of stress Mr. Helbert had a great fight against what he called “Pessy.” He was cruelly overworked and was losing his Masters one by one. In the Chapel services I heard him use for the first time the prayer which has since become so familiar:—
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve Thee more faithfully: to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we try to do Thy Will.
He had put up outside the Chapel, printed in large letters:—
Keep on lookin’ for the bright, bright skies,
Keep on hopin’ that the sun will rise,
Keep on singin’ when the whole world sighs,
And you’ll get there in the mornin’.
Keep on sowin’ when you’ve missed the crops
Keep on dancin’ when the fiddle stops,
Keep on faithful till the curtain drops,
And you’ll get there in the mornin’.
The boys sang this at the Wednesday singing class and at their Autumn Concert.
When owing to the inclemency of the weather during that terrible autumn and winter of 1915 the troops and horses were ordered at a few hours notice to quit the soaking camp at Hursley and to find quarters where they could in Winchester, West Downs was seized upon and requisitioned in Mr. Helbert’s absence in the Christmas holidays. He returned to find the Welch Fusiliers sleeping in every room and even in the corridors and passages and their heavy Army baggage all over the fine parquet floor of his new Shakespeare room. He of course took the invasion in high good humour, welcoming it as an opportunity of service and making the Welsh officers as much at home as possible. We shared with him in a small measure the burden of their hospitality, if burden it could be called when it was such an honour to minister to those men who were so grateful for small kindnesses, and of whom so many did not return after they left us for the Front. At this time Colonel du Maurier came to see us. He had just returned from the Cape in order to take his regiment to the Western Front, and he was the author of the play “An Englishman’s Home” which had sounded such a valuable warning of the coming war some years before. He was a brother of Sir Gerald du Maurier and we had known them when boys at Hampstead in our youth. Colonel du Maurier narrated how he had only just returned in time to be at the death bed of his mother, the beautiful lady of du Maurier’s pictures in Punch at the end of last century. He did not long survive his mother and was killed in France soon after leaving Winchester.
As the strenuousness of the war progressed, with all its horrible details, Mr. Helbert decided to sit up through Friday nights to write to his old boys in the trenches and those serving in the Navy. This he did regularly without complaint. One winter night at 4.30 a.m. a policeman arrived at his study window angrily calling attention to the fact that a light was burning and apprehending that a burglar had entered the house. Mr. Helbert answered the constable penitently, “It is only me,” when he was left unmolested to finish his pile of nocturnal letters.
My husband and I were just leaving Winchester on a brief holiday when we heard that Mr. Helbert had been taken ill, that he had been moved to the Nursing Home and that Lady Goodrich had come. We delayed our going in case we could be of use.
His brother told us that he had found himself misspelling well-known words and substituting wrong words in his letters. The long strain had brought its inevitable consequence and Sir Thomas Horder ordered complete rest. For many months after that his trusted Masters and friends Mr. Hayward, and afterwards, Mr. Brymer, carried on at West Downs.
Mr. Helbert spent some months with his friends Captain and Mrs. Wentworth at their home, Blackheath, Norfolk. The family life at the quiet country place and the affectionate solicitude of his friends helped him to recover. He appeared from time to time at West Downs at a Christmas party or at some other occasion, but generally felt that the strain of coming back was so great that he preferred to keep away and to know all that was happening through letters.
Sir Thomas Horder recommended a sea voyage and through the influence of Mr. Helbert’s brother-in-law Sir James Goodrich, it was arranged that he and Sir Thomas Horder (who would not leave him) should go on a cruise on Captain Henley’s man-of-war, Emperor of India, which was leaving for southern waters on active service. It was thought that no personal danger was involved in this experiment and that the novelty and the entire change of scene might do much to restore health. He returned, after some exciting experiences off the coast of Turkey, supposed to be convalescent, but as soon as he took up the Term’s work the strain immediately told.
During this last summer of his life an extraordinary gentleness was added to his intercourse with his friends. At the Doctor’s advice he took up his abode at Melbury after Term but the quiet of the place did not suit him, and he fought the fiend of melancholy by extra kindness to those around him.
He proposed to come over to supper on a certain Saturday night in August. When the time came he was not up to it but asked to come over on the Sunday afternoon. He was to bring over a paper concerning Bryan Kay’s entrance to West Downs. I spoke to him of the time when Bryan would enter the School, and all at once I heard him saying that he would not be there when that time came. It was a great shock which made one feel dumb, but prepared us for what was so swiftly to come to pass. We were sorry to go away again so soon, and Melbury transformed itself in imagination into a sort of melancholy prison of Mr. Helbert’s naturally gay spirit. Even the quacking of the ducks at Melbury seemed to make an ominous sound, so that my husband and I were relieved when we heard that he was going to join his closest friends, Mr. and Mrs. Nowell Smith, in the West. However he returned apparently in good heart for Term and was soon at work as usual preparing time-tables with his faithful and efficient secretary, Mr. Edward Russell, who said to us, before leaving Winchester, “Mr. Helbert is all right now but how will it be when the strain of Term begins? Mr. Rose and Mr. Brymer were doing all they knew to shield him, but in vain.”
He promised to come over to give a lecture to our boys describing his wonderful tour on the battleship in the Mediterranean and in Turkish waters. This engagement he fulfilled before the middle of October, all our boys delighting in his coming and ready to laugh at all his jokes. He stood under the Minstrel’s Gallery in the then Music Room, but shortly asked my husband if he might sit down to give his lecture, and it was evident that he was unfit to stand. He said to the boys, “You see it is nearly my bedtime – not your bedtime, of course.” This joke greatly appealed to the boys and they laughed merrily. He recounted in a manner that was vivid and telling the incidents of the voyage, the wonders of the battleship and his talks with the sailor boys on board. The ship advanced up the Dardanelles and lay off Constantinople and permission was occasionally given to land and do some necessary shopping. After being cooped up in a ship for so long, it was a great relief, he said, to get on shore and he did so on as many occasions as possible. Once when in a narrow, steep street of Constantinople doing some shopping, the sound of bombardment was heard, the ships in the harbour answering one another. He said that whenever there was trouble the inhabitants of Constantinople immediately shut all their shops. In a moment railings were dragged forward and locks were fastened. Mr. Helbert found himself just able to squeeze behind one of these barricades when he saw a poor old woman, frightened almost to death, standing outside the cage and unable to get in. He was able first to get out and then push the old woman into a safe place, when the cage was shut and he was left standing in the street. Mr. Helbert added, “I suppose you boys think that I felt brave at that moment, and glad of my chance, but I can tell you that I have never been in such a blue funk in my life as when I heard the guns from the harbour and was deprived of my shelter. What do you think the row was all about? An Admiral’s ship had come into port and all the warships in the harbour had fired a salute.”
My husband was grieved that Mr. Helbert had evidently taken much out of himself by the exertion of the lecture. He offered to go back to West Downs with him, carrying the things he had brought over, but this was declined and my husband did not see him again.
On the last Sunday, before he left West Downs for the last tune I went over, as was my usual custom, to evening service. We heard that one of his old boys, Crossley, was seriously ill, and this seemed to strangely affect Mr. Helbert. He came in late and seemed hardly to be able to raise himself from his knees after the opening prayers. When during the last prayers Mr. Helbert prayed for Crossley’s recovery, most pathetically he appeared to be also praying for himself that he might endure and carry through.
O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done. Then, Lord, in Thy mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
He seemed to rise with difficulty and to look round tenderly at everything and everybody. As I passed the study door on my way out I saw him standing there and he appeared to beckon me in, but seeing him so exhausted I adhered to my rule of never speaking to him on Sunday night after his strenuous day with its unremitting duties. I did not then know that he had made up his mind to leave West Downs next day. “It is not fair of me to remain,” he said to those around him. He left next morning and consulted his doctor in London on his way to Norfolk. The night nurse was with him as he was unfit to travel alone. He had a wish to get back to his friends, the Wentworths, and their quiet home at Blackheath, Saxmundham. When he arrived there in the evening Mrs. Wentworth was away but Captain Wentworth made him as welcome as possible, but he did not know that the Doctor had warned him never to get up early in the morning and to rest at least till midday. This rule Mr. Helbert ignored, fearing to trouble the household. He would come down to breakfast like any other member of the family and then go out and lie all day in the heather, having, as his friends said “A hunted expression,” and he seemed to be wistfully facing with himself what was coming. He was now homeless, having decided not to return to his beloved West Downs. Captain Wentworth was perplexed, not knowing how to help him except by saying, again and again, how very welcome he was in their home. When Mrs. Wentworth returned she insisted on his lying in bed, but the strain had been too great. They saw that life was ebbing and telegraphed to Lady Goodrich. She arrived just as he was lapsing into unconsciousness, he had just time to grasp the hand she put into his and say “You here – this is heavenly,” and in a few moments he was gone.
At the time of his passing my husband and I were awake before dawn on the November morning and the morning star was shining into our room. I walked to the window to look at the pure beauty of the planet Venus and said to my husband “There is something holy and something strange about this morning.” That impression passed away, but somehow we were not surprised when Madame Calviou came over from West Downs at 11 a.m. and told us that they had heard by telegram that Mr. Helbert had died that morning. To us it was hardly a shock; we had been prepared by his words and we found much to be thankful for that he had not been called upon to suffer more.
The funeral was at Woking on the following Friday. Old friends, old masters and old boys were assembled in the cemetery Chapel, where masses of wreaths were banked around his coffin. For a moment as we saw that sight it seemed cruel that he should die at 49, and the same thought came back to us at the grave, where Lady Goodrich whispered to me after the service “He is not here.” My son had come from New College, Oxford, in company with many other Old West Downs boys, to be present at that service. His brother Basil said to my son, “Don’t sorrow for him, it is all right for him, his head has always been among the stars.”
I append a letter written by a Public Schoolboy who had only known him on his visits to West Hayes in the boy’s schooldays here. It conveys an impression of his influence, even over those with whom he had slight acquaintance.
The House on the Hill, Bradfield College.
November 24th, 1919.
My dear Mr. Rannie,
I have only just heard today from Fitzmaurice about the death of Mr. Helbert. I am so glad to have been able to read the account which you sent to Fitzmaurice. Although I was only privileged to meet Mr. Helbert a few times, his death came to me as a shock and has cast a great sorrow. It is my regret that I was not old enough to appreciate what a great man he really was. I never realised what his intimate friends were fortunate to realise, the great Christian gentleman they had among them. I remember so well his scholarly head, his beautiful voice reading the lesson in St. Thomas’s Church, his wonderful eyes that told what his fellow man was worth. The last time that I remember seeing him was in the Lady Chapel of Winchester Cathedral on a very memorable day of my life.
The reason, I think, why I knew so little about his striking qualities was because of his wonderful humility. He was a saint of simplicity. One of the truest things said about him is the gift he had of looking at the best side of men. The comments on him made by his old boys in their unconscious moments are worthy of his love for them.
Permit me to offer Mrs. Rannie and you my sympathy it is the snapping of a link, a golden link with you and all West Hayes. The consolation is in the undying memory which he has left to the world. His life is an open page in an open book. As he stood for all that was brightest and best in life, so much the more are his friends able to carry on the good work.
From an O.W.D. who knew him very intimately:
No single O.W.D. could write of what L.H. meant to all of those who passed through his hands, so much did he mean to each. For he had such sympathy that, of all the boys with their differing personalities whom he taught, hardly one, I am sure, has, been unable to regard him as a friend from the moment of their first meeting.
Memories of him as a Head Master are radiant with his jolly sympathy, his twinkling humour, and his very boyishness. His fun, which bridged the gulf of age so happily, and melted quickly one’s first shyness, was never confined to a Master’s sing-song. With the call of “Grapes!” instead of “Grace!” he sometimes silenced the buzz of conversation before breakfast on April Fool’s Day, and at many an unexpected moment he would sparkle with a joke or prank, so that no barrier or reserve could long stand between him and the hearts he successfully set himself to capture.
And so, when he came to strike a deeper note, he was able to speak without our feeling that he was preaching from an eminence: but as if he was one with us in the experience of sternness in life, which was not easy to be met with light-hearted children, tumbling constantly into pitfalls unaware. He always had a smile ready for the disappointed, and he wove the silver thread of his humour into every pattern.
Like an elder brother he would stretch out a helping hand to us in difficulties, with a fire in his, eyes which kindled enthusiasm, and with a tender severity in his voice which breathed into others the infection of his own superb courage. Thus it was easy to trust him and respond to his leadership.
When the little vessels which he provided with chart and compass left the sheltered waters of West Downs for the stormier seas of Public School or University, and those beyond, they carried with them, therefore, a firm confidence in their first pilot who, for his part, never lost touch with them, although some sailed far away.
During the War especially, his letters and the Hesperid Supplements for which he used to give up many a night’s rest were eagerly expected by those in the trenches and in the ships. There was no swifter cure of the “Pessy” as he called them. And always an old boy knew that whenever he chose to go down to the School, he would be welcome and would be able to sink down again into the red leather chair, while L.H. stood in front of the fireplace, one hand in his coat pocket and the other hanging down a little behind him and with his shoulders back. (How often he used to press back those shoulders, as if he was constantly bracing himself to further alertness). He would turn his eyes upon you like swords, clean and sharp, but yet very tenderly, which seemed to pierce you through and through, and to cut away any rubbish which could block up the channel of sympathy along which the hoped, and rarely in vain, would flow the tale of adventures encountered, of victories and defeats, of wounds perhaps, received in the midst of battle, of hopes of further discoveries and conquests.
And if there was any cheering word needed he would be sure to utter it, any steadying advice to give it, or any other help to render it, swiftly and ungrudgingly. It was always a relief to escape for a moment from the whirlpool of conflicting opinions and oppressive events, and to enjoy a breathing space upon the rock of his faith and courage. Few men, surely, have more fully enjoyed “the royalty of inward happiness and the serenity which comes of living close to God.” Fewer still can have been such glorious diffusers of life to others as was L.H. to his loving and beloved West Downs.
I cannot leave the story of West Downs without speaking of some of the wonderful people there, who were Mr. Helbert’s helpers. He had a great gift of winning service from others which was ungrudgingly given in response to his courage, enthusiasm and devotion to his work. Of these Mr. Walter Kirby the cricketer, courteous, gentle, and unselfish, was his right hand, helped by his friends Mr. Hayward, Mr. Wilfred Brymer, Mr. Rose and other devoted Masters. But what could he have done without the ladies of his household, who bore the brunt of the incessant demands of the School so magnificently? Of these Miss Dix, Miss Helena Drought and Miss Hills deserve the highest praise. Miss Florence Dix, guileless and single-minded, gave the best of her years and her whole physical strength to the School, acting with rare tact and discretion and carrying on with unflinching courage to within a few months of her death. Miss Hills went to West Downs in her early youth on the recommendation of Lady Goodrich, who perceived in her an uncommon gift of disciplining boys and of teaching. She entered with perseverance and ready adaptability into all Mr. Helbert’s new methods of teaching and of guiding the youngest boys.
In seeing over the School, one of Mr. Helbert’s greatest pleasures was to show Miss Hills’s Schoolroom, and the cheerful youngsters around her. It contained some fine models from India and elsewhere, which gave a toyroom effect, as well as that of an educational workshop of the highest order and discipline. Miss Hills would tell the Bible stories in her own words, until the boys were old enough to understand the same story read from the Bible by Mr. Helbert at Morning Chapel, and no little homesick boy could long remain miserable with so kind and perceptive a guide. In proof of Miss Hills’ gifts as a teacher I must add that she is still at West Dawns carrying out those same principles with which the School began.
Mr. Helbert at his death left the School to his sister, Lady Goodrich. Some Schoolmasters of fashion made a bid for it, but Lady Goodrich, feeling the School to be a most sacred charge, took the advice of Mr. Nowell Smith, and asked Mr. Tindall, an old Wykehamist and a Housemaster at Sherborne School, to come to Winchester, and undertake the Headmastership. Mr. Tindall had wished to have the School, but did not press his claim; therefore, when he was heartily invited, he accepted the responsibility gladly. He and Mrs. Tindall have carried on the work for more than ten years with happiness and success on lines of their own individuality.
Founders Day is observed on a Saturday near to June 13th, Mr. Helbert’s birthday; this day is marked by a cricket match with the Old West Downs boys, a Society formed immediately after Mr. Helbert’s death.
Advent Sunday is reverently kept by Mr. Tindall in the old way, and November 7th, the day of Mr. Helbert’s death, is marked by an early celebration in the Chapel, which is attended by Lady Goodrich, and many old friends and old boys. When kneeling at the Altar, so near to his last written message in the place which he strove to make beautiful through Art, as well as through prayer, Maeterlinck’s words come to the hearts of the worshippers:—
“There is no death.”
My son thus describes his Headmaster:—
There is general agreement amongst those who came into contact with Lionel Helbert that he was a remarkable man. In the majority of cases they would probably pay him the tribute of being the most remarkable man whom they had ever met.
He was highly gifted in many directions. He was extremely musical and could accompany with an unusual amount of sympathy. He was an excellent mimic and actor and he partook in no small degree of that “universal mind” which is attributed to Shakespeare. He had also the indefinable quality known as personal magnetism, and he was born to command. He was quick, alert, sensitive, and had a great gift of humour.
But these characteristics, which are often found in showy but unsubstantial persons, were associated in him with other qualities of a different type. He possessed a manliness and courage which caused him to live dangerously, and to be an inspiration and an acceptable leader to many men and boys, who would not have been attracted by his purely intellectual gifts. He had an excellent tact and judgement which ensured a high standard and the seeds of success in all his undertakings. And though he had plenty of self-confidence, there was a humility about him, as genuine as it was attractive, which was based upon religion and which lay at the very root, of his character.
He was intensely serious of purpose, and there was an austerity in his nature which contrasted strangely with his nimble wit. Such occasions as “Revision,” when he took each class and put it through its paces, or his Advent address to the boys alone in Chapel, were extraordinarily impressive. Nor do I think that their effect would have been lessened if he had been dealing with grown men instead of boys. Other very solemn events were the formal challenges of one boy by another which resulted in a secret boxing encounter, and the reading of Marks at the end of the Term. In all this Helbert made much use of symbolism, and also of Wykehamical customs and names; he was the most loyal of old Wykehamists. He was exceedingly severe to any boy who showed a tendency to shirk things, and he had a great belief in the efficacy of cold baths, the high dive and other small tests of physical courage. He had the seriousness of an Arnold, but what might with others have seemed tedious or exaggerated, was with him relieved not only by his intense sincerity, but by his flashes of wit, and by an element of unexpectedness in all that he did.
His movements and his probable course of action were alike incalculable. Enough has already been heard of the way in which he overstrained his physical powers to a degree which caused his premature death. But while his strength lasted, his complete disregard of personal comfort, of regular meals, of the ordinary standard of sleep or leisure, lent a peculiar magic to his personality. He was liable to appear at any moment in any place and he almost seemed to acquire the power of being in two places at once. He was also full of original suggestions, as when on a pouring wet night in February, when work in the class which he was taking was not going particularly well, he suddenly announced that we would go for a run. We all changed, including Helbert of course, and covered about two miles of country, returning wet through, but, after hot baths, none the worse fur our unconventional lesson. He was an inspiring teacher of Greek and Latin, enlivening the dullest page; by constant puns or other jokes, but also full of severity when the need arose. Occasionally he would call for extra efforts, and once he appeared to be treating his Greek class intolerably, filling up all their spare time with extra work. But at the end we were told that he was going to take us all to Oxford to see a performance of “The Frogs” – a play in which he had himself played the chief part whilst in the O.U.D.S. On another occasion he suddenly announced a whole holiday simply on the ground that it was the first really fine day of Spring. Rut these “alarums and excursions” did not really interfere with the smooth working of the School, which was a model of good organisation, and followed in the main a well ordered routine.
A good example of his humility is furnished by his attitude to the War. Instead of being daunted, he rose magnificently to its opportunities, whether he was called on to surrender his masters one by one to their country’s service, or to hand over West Downs in the Christmas holidays, for use as a Divisional Hospital. And he set himself to learn all that he could, from every soldier that he came across, looking up to all his old boys who were serving in the Army, not only as heroes but as instructors. It was in the same spirit that he threw himself heart and soul into Scouting, and quickly became one of the Chief Scout’s most trusted advisers. At the same time he felt the tragic side of the War to the full, and the deaths in action of so many O.W.D.’s undoubtedly contributed to the strain which killed him.
It is unnecessary to speak here of the brilliant military record of so many products of West Downs both Masters and boys, but a word must be said about Walter Kirby, who died shortly after the War, and largely as the result of it. He was Helbert’s second in command for many years before the War and acting Headmaster in his absence in the early part of 1919. He was a singularly perfect example of an English gentleman, brave, loyal and unselfish in an exceptional degree. Without the natural optimism and enthusiasm of Helbert, he carried a heavy share of the burden of West Downs, and the high standard which he set was one of the most important elements in the success of the School. He made no bid for popularity but he won, from most of us, an admiration which increased rather than diminished as time went on.
Helbert himself had an unfailing fund of enthusiasm and apparently never became disillusioned. He was always ready to experiment, and saw unlimited possibilities in any new idea which he thought worthy of adoption. His extraordinary personal interest in each boy, and his sense of the potentialities of each one have often been described. His boys and his Masters were naturally of different types, but it is difficult to meet one who was not deeply impressed by him, and full of admiration for his character, even though his understanding of the individual may sometimes have been imperfect. It is indeed, possible that he overrated the motives and sensibilities of some of his boys, but it is impossible not to believe that he enlarged the vision, and raised the moral temperature, of them all.
Apart from the fact that he was a gifted man of intense vitality who would certainly have made his mark in any walk of life, the true secret of Helbert’s remarkable influence was, by common consent, his complete devotion to Him whom he regarded as his Master. There was undoubtedly that in him which helped one to understand the power which Christ exercised over His disciples. Religion, intense and real, was the mainspring of his life. I can remember very little of what he said to us in his Divinity lessons, but I think I shall always remember his reading at an ordinary weekday Chapel, the end of the XI. Chapter of St. Matthew, beginning “I thank thee O Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth,” and continuing with “Come unto Me, all ye that labour.” And I feel that this one memory is sufficient to compensate for a great deal that I have forgotten.
His early death is usually regretted; for myself, I am inclined to doubt if I would have had it otherwise. I have an idea that life can only be lived so intensely for a comparatively short space of years. And I also think that he belonged essentially to the era which culminated at once so splendidly and so disastrously, in the War. Essentially dynamic and modern as he was, he would not have failed to adapt himself to a new, and in some ways less attractive, order of things, but I imagine that the second part of his career must to some extent have lessened his boundless enthusiasm and thus dimmed a little, the lustre of what we remember.
And so, like Socrates, Helbert is for very many “the justest and wisest and best” of the men that they have known. And to some of us at any rate, he appears to be numbered amongst the saints.