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

From Lieut General Sir Anthony Mullens, KCB, OBE 1945-49

The Arrival. The War had just ended when I went to West Downs, but we were of course still living in the post-War rationing, restrictions era. It was thus with some feeling of emerging from the dark that I arrived that first morning in Perthshire. West Downs was of course still at Blair Castle, and Scotland was, to a small boy of 8½, a different planet. Mountains were a new phenomenon, and that first morning, having travelled overnight from Euston, seeing them for the first time was a traumatic event. Those train journeys of course became routine after a while, and one feature I well remember was the rug. The rug was needed, I recall, to keep warm during the night, but it had to be carried in a special way. It was rolled into a sausage, and secured with a rug strap – in fact 2 straps with a handle. A new one was an early present as far as I remember.

Settled in: After the initial shock of seeing Scotland and mountains for the first time, the Castle became home. The terrifying South Wing, should one ever venture there. Virol to keep out the cold (I was never allowed it, as it was kept for the weedy boys, and I was, strangely, never one). Health seemed to play a major role, with the thermometers every day, the inevitable epidemics of measles, chicken pox and whooping cough, and Matron. I never really overcame my fear of the starched cap and apparently severe (although actually not true) appearance.

Shakespeare featured so largely with its ever changing roles of dining room, chapel, play room – lunch with Lotti and Gerda wheeling in those enormous tin trolleys – the unspeakable, but frequent, venison which tasted like shoe leather (I have never liked venison since). Chapel with Kenneth Tindall, and I have never understood his “Lover of Hoghorn.” It was years later that I realised it was “Lover of Concord.”

The wonderful outdoor life in the Highlands, with the deer, the rivers, and the feeling of peace. Small boys seemed to fit into that setting.

Winchester. And so to Winchester. Back to the building savaged by the Americans. New parquet flooring to be laid. Lantern slides in the Chapel and the Advent Service. Shakespeare at Melbury, and Scouting. I was an Owl and took pride in acquiring as many badges as possible. Cooking over wood fires – potatoes and chestnuts. And knots. Lots of knots – learning how to tie them, and what they were called. And semaphore. Practising in Shakespeare from the gallery when it was wet – and then out of doors.

Evenings of bookbinding. The smell of glue, and making sure the covers were straight and the pages trimmed.

Games – playing rugger and getting muddy. Shooting. The .22 match against the fathers. The gym with the Sergeant Major – Risbridger.

And so to bed in the dormitories with KBT walking round every night, rubbing his hands together, round and round. A word with everyone. “Goodnight All” – “Goodnight Sir, Goodnight All.”

Then the stories after lights out. The great names – KBT of course himself. DH-G and ATT – others now sadly forgotten.

Great days, great fun, and a tragedy that the school is no more.

Mr. Risbridger was very much a central figure at West Downs. As I recall he was primarily responsible for the gym, but he also supervised the swimming and the shooting.

Small in stature, but always immaculate in white jersey and blue trousers, very similar to many PT instructors today, he excelled at getting the best out of small boys. He had iron grey curly hair cut quite short, and a small neat moustache. In essence he was the epitome of a Sergeant Major.

The school had a very strong link with the Scout Movement. From the earliest days I remember being very conscious of its influence in the daily life of all of us. This was hardly surprising, since on arrival one was put into a patrol, and that became the focus of one’s life. It directed which dormitory one slept in, and it provided a point of contact for much of what one did. Apart from this administrative convenience it did much more. It gave one a sense of comradeship and it taught the value of teamwork. It inspired leadership, and, I suppose, to a degree, ambition, since the taking of tests, and the gaining of badges, added prestige and standing.

I always remember learning semaphore, at which one really became very expert, and signalling across Shakespeare was a frequent pastime.

Scouting also taught us to take a pride in our appearance, through the wearing of a uniform, and discipline, in that it was necessary to conform to certain rules. All in all, it inspired a true sense of purpose. However, above all it was fun. Tying knots, cutting logs and making fires at Melbury and many other activities added much to the enjoyment of life.

Tony Mullens