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

From Sir John Nelson (E.J.B. Nelson, 1921-1924)

I arrived at West Downs in September 1921, aged 9¼ and left in July 1924. Mr KB Tindall was headmaster, having succeeded Lionel Helbert, the school founder, on his sad death 3 years previously. Mr Helbert’s influence was still strong and I believe it continued throughout the school’s history.

It was a “good” school in every sense of the word with a strong Christian background. I remember, I think first of all, morning and evening Chapel, and having to learn a passage from the Bible each week, and one’s knowledge of it tested in that Chapel on Monday morning. On leaving, each boy was given a little gold cross on which the words “Honest, Brave and Pure” were inscribed.

Academically it must have been good, judging by the scholarship results. I can vouch for this personally as a very average pupil having passed a snap Common Entrance examination into Eton owing to an unexpected vacancy in my prospective House. With no notice, and thus unable to prepare, I was whipped off to Eton at the end of July, aged 12 years and 1 month and put to the test with a successful result.

We must all remember the excellent way we were introduced to Shakespeare, taking part in abbreviated plays performed weekly by patrols during the winter, and the grand summer play in the open at Melbury. (One year, John Grimston and I represented Thunder in “The Tempest” by, between us, shaking a piece of corrugated iron in the trees behind the stage!)

We were reasonably good at games, with Mr Stanton, a somewhat severe and a little conceited games master, who was always anxious for us to beat Horris Hill in whatever contest was scheduled. This we rarely did, but seemed usually successful against other schools.

Mr Ledgard encouraged the less ambitious cricketers by placing his “land and water” grey felt floppy hat where a good length ball should pitch and challenged us to hit it, while he stood behind the stumps in a net. This I found fascinating and acquired sufficient skill in bowling onto the land and water to squeak into last place in the 1924 cricket eleven. Discipline was maintained largely through the fact that we all had to become Boy Scouts on arrival and respective members of the five patrols allotted to the five dormitories, each under a Patrol Leader. I was a Wolf, and the Wolves always seemed to be in trouble, unlike the Lions, whom we jealously regarded as too good to be true! However, the inter-patrol competitive spirit was a healthy one, and a Scout’s Honour was something none of us would willingly degrade.

We were, I believe, unnecessarily mollycoddled; temperatures taken twice a day and we were well wrapped up on walks over the Downs. The notable exception to this was Peter Scott who, presumably to acclimatise him for following in his famous father’s footsteps, was never clad in anything but shorts and an “aertex” shirt, winter or summer. We viewed him with a certain awe of which he seemed quite oblivious and became one of the school’s future heroes. Unlike John Amery, whom I remember as a nasty little bully, who made poor Matthews follow him around like a dog. He suffered a miserable end but none of us were surprised.

The rest of us conformed to the system which, I believe, had a permanent influence on our lives.

Sixty three years after leaving I renewed acquaintance with West Downs when two of my grandsons were pupils, and found that, under Jerry Cornes, little had changed. He managed to maintain the standards set by Lionel Helbert soon after the beginning of the century. There had only been three headmasters since its foundation, a remarkable record, and one of which all three should be proud.

John Nelson