Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Cornes Era, 1954-1988

John Passmore, 1957-63

Dear Mr. Hichens,

This is the first time I have ever replied to a letter from the Old West Downs Society. When I heard the school was closing I was not greatly disturbed – personally I always thought it the most frightful place.

But you are quite right in saying that it was a unique school with a strong and distinctive character – and so if someone is going to make the effort to write a history then I suppose I should rouse a memory or two.

I was there between 1957 and 1963. I remember being made to run the gauntlet in the dormitory and being whipped with dressing gown cords by the other boys standing at the ends of their beds. I also remember doing the whipping and inspecting the red and gratifyingly perfect impression of my Billings and Edmunds dressing gown cord on the back of a really quite pleasant boy called Eric Crichton – I wonder what happened to him?

There was the world’s ugliest matron called Miss F— poking about in the lavatories for proof of our exertions which would duly be entered on an ancient wooden clipboard – or not, in which case three days of failure would be rewarded with a dose of syrup of figs.

I remember the taste of methylated spirit at the beginning of every term when Sister in her 1914 headdress would take the temperatures of the entire school in an attempt to ward off the inevitable epidemic. There were, of course, far fewer thermometers than boys and she would take the instruments from our mouths, squint at the mercury and place them in a jar of meths held by the under-matron. There they would presumably be disinfected and reduced to zero before being pushed under someone else’s tongue.

I remember Jerry Cornes trying to teach me Latin in those green corrugated iron classrooms at the back – N1 and N2, were they called?

“Puer Amat Mensam,” said Jerry.

Puer Amat Mensam meant “The Boy Loves the Table”. It had to be the most stupid sentence anyone had ever uttered and even I, at the age of ten was able to recognise the fact.

I refused to translate it.

Jerry tried it a word at a time: “Puer?” The boy. “Amat?” Loves. “Mensam?” The table.

But together? Oh no.

He threw a book at me – The Shorter Latin Primer – although, like every other copy in the school, it had been carefully corrected to read “The Shortbread Eating Primer.”

He made me stand on the seat of my desk – no joy. Finally in understandable desperation, he dragged me off to the study shouting: “Maybe the stick is the only thing that will teach you.

As he pulled me by the arm the whole length of the school, I remember the fading chant as the rest of the class gleefully declined: “Bendo, Wackare, Ouchi, Sorebum...”

I only got four that time – From the short straight cane with the Elastoplast round the ends. When Dominic Wyhowski and I went down to Winchester in the middle of the night to get some chewing gum from the machine at the Post Office and got picked up by the police, it was the full six.

I do not think I have ever been more terrified than at the time I stood in the study with my pyjama trousers escaping from beneath my shorts while Jerry stood there in his dressing gown and told the officers: “And these two, of course, will get the thrashing of their lives.”

Not right then, of course – certainly not. We had to be sent back to bed first to lie awake for the rest of the night thinking about it – and then sit through chapel with a reading in which the evil-doer was smitten a good deal. In retrospect I think Amnesty International might have been interested in our case.

But I suppose it was not all bad. There were the Saturday evening film shows in Shakespeare with the screen made of a white sheet tied to a bamboo frame and everything stopped when the reel changed.

Jerry sat at the back with his box of 100 Players Navy Cut, lighting each from the stub of the last. He had to do this because he never seemed to carry matches of a lighter. In his study he lit them with a spill which stuck in the gas Fire.

And then there was Mrs. Cornes reading to the new boys in her sitting room after lunch. You had to take your shoes off before you stepped onto the carpet and there would be a sort of parking lot for Clark’s sandals in the strip of black boards between the skirting and Wilton.

There were not enough chairs, of course, and most of us lay on the floor in the tangled poses which aid boyish concentration. It was the best time of the day, with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Borrowers and the Railway Children.

Mrs. Cornes ran the school magazine too, and when I became much too enthusiastic and turned in a story at least four times too long, she made me possibly happier than I have ever been since by saying she would include at anyway but only because it was so good.

I vowed there and then that I would grow up to be a writer.

In fact I grew up to be a newspaperman which is not the same thing at all. But I suppose if I must grudgingly award some credit somewhere then maybe it would be churlish to ignore West Downs.

But all the same, was it absolutely necessary for us to go on those interminable walks every time it rained?

Yours sincerely, John Passmore