Between 1921 and 1925 I spent four very happy years at West Downs Prep School. Inevitably, a boy is more likely to retain the fun memories of his school days rather than the unhappy or stressful moments, but even so my time at West Downs was enjoyable, and I remain grateful to the school for a splendid start in life: my memories remain of the happiest.
In September 1921 I was taken up to London by my mother – a lady of autocratic ways and unorthodox ideas – and handed over to Mr. Tindall at Waterloo station in time to catch the 3 p.m. Mush train to Winchester. There were I suppose about a dozen new boys that September term of whom 8 or 9 will have followed the official advice to travel down to Winchester in the care of Tindall himself, who invariably had all the new boys in his own compartment. I don’t remember much about that journey, except that I was much comforted by Tindall’s approachability; though I do recall being a little surprised at having to walk up the hill from the station to the school – somehow I had expected a bus or taxi.
One of the first parades at the beginning of every term was compulsory incarceration with Puffing Billy – a small windowless room in which a high concentration of germ killing steam was emitted; it was quite impossible to see across the room, let alone recognise the chap standing next you. After about ten or fifteen minutes we were released from this Black Hole of Calcutta, eyes streaming, coughing and wheezing like nobody’s business! Supposedly any germs we’d brought back from the holidays were properly killed. West Downs, on health grounds, was rather laughed at by its rival prep schools – Horris Hill, Twyford, Stubbington House, etc, and not entirely without due cause. We were cossetted by an overzealous matron and by an army of nursing sisters. The whole school in the winter terms would be issued with copious tumblersful of permanganate of potash (pinky pani) with which we had to gargle under the Patrol Leader’s supervision. At the slightest indication of a temperature, or pink eye, or any other minor ailment we were whipped off to the sanatorium, or isolated down at Melbury. “Puffing Billy” was another measure of health care. But whether or not West Downs boys enjoyed better health, or were tougher than their contemporaries elsewhere, is open to question, but the school so decreed and we conformed.
The entire school routine was run on Scout lines. Helbert, our Founder must have been a close friend of B-P, or at any rate an ardent admirer. On arrival a boy was immediately assigned to one of the five Patrols, in my case the Wolves, which I was sad to see no longer existed by 1957 (probably disbanded for naughtiness). The dormitories were all organised by Patrols; Melbury was the one exception. The Head of School was the Senior Patrol Leader, and the 5 Patrol Leaders, together with their seconds, filled the functions of prefects. Before meals we were drawn up by Patrols in the Gym – this not only to check for absentees but also for inspection of hair, hands and fingernails, and general tidiness: it was then that the Headmaster or his deputy would give out his notices, which sometimes, though not often would include the thrill of an extra half holiday!
Practical or outdoor Scouting activities were pursued across the road down at Melbury: in wet weather, or in the winter evenings, we did our badge work in the Gym or Shakespeare or “N” Room or one of the larger classrooms.
Of the Headmaster, Kenneth Tindall, I cannot speak highly enough. We all revered him, for he was everything a Head should be:- approachable, yet held in awe; very fair, with no favourites; a patient and painstaking teacher, yet withering in his reprimands; understanding and kindly, yet quite ready to punish real naughtiness – [my own father had died just before I went to West Downs, a loss I felt most deeply. K.B.T. knew this, and filled the gap effectively].
Mrs. Tindall was a most capable and charming lady – the Parents held her in high regard. They never hesitated to take her all their worries and requests (even those of a most novel kind, such as “Goats Milk at meals, please, for little Willy.” Mrs. T. didn’t bat an eyelid and Smith the “Butler” duly complied!)
Richard, the eldest son, I did not know – he was a “Man” at Win. Coll. by this time. He was killed in the Western Desert early on in the War.
The second son, Mark, was born when I was at West Downs and he was also a casualty of the War, tragically electrocuted whilst at his O.C.T.U. At his birth every boy in the School contributed from their small credit balances in their money books to a slim half-hunter watch, which was presented to the infant. In retrospect, I am sure this spontaneous action on our part reflected the regard we all had for his Mother and Father.
Then of course there were the two daughters, Rachel and Anne, both of whom were in their time pupils in the school. The older, Rachel, (I wasn’t of the same age group as Anne) was a clever girl and worked hard in class: she put many of us to shame when it came to exam lists at the end of term. She was also a good games player and deservedly earned a place in senior hockey and cricket elevens.
When I first arrived at West Downs, and for a year thereafter, the Second Master or Deputy Head, was W.J. Brymer, to whom a memorial plaque in the Chapel was dedicated in 1958, a fitting tribute to an unusual character, who did a very great deal for the school and held things together in the difficult time between Helbert’s death and Tindall’s arrival. “Bruin” was an imposing figure, tall and immaculately dressed, sporting across his waistcoat a “massive gent’s gold albert” watch chain. He was a particularly tidy minded man and I remember so well being instructed by him how to fold my clothes on the little stool between our dormitory beds, a lesson that included rolling up one’s tie on top of the chest of drawers, not only to be neat and tidy, but also, in his view, to help preserve the material.
After his departure to his Puddletown estate in Dorset, the mantle of Senior Master devolved on W.H. Ledgard, a quite wonderful man, deserving of a book all to himself. Quiet and unassuming, yet a strict disciplinarian. He was in charge of the rather special little band of boys (6 or 7) who slept down at Melbury. I like to think they were specially chosen, for we much enjoyed the privilege for about a year. He was no athlete, and in any case by the 1920s was getting on in years: but how pleased we were to be assigned to his cricket net where he would bowl his off breaks or googlies at us for hours, until in the end he would either scatter our stumps, or say with such conviction that we believed him “That was out – bound to’ve been caught.”
It was he, with his neat handwriting, who kept the entries up to date in our moneybooks. He had an extensive knowledge of the English Language – the spelling games we had at his table in the Dining Hall were great fun, as well as being a good way to widen our vocabularies. He was also no mean poet, and at the end of each year, would compose short doggerel verses about each Leaver, and then recite them to a piano accompaniment (he had no singing voice!) in true “music hall” style.
For instance, when I left in July 1925 in company with 14 others, his song went something like this:-
1st verse – to the effect that 15 leaving at one time would make rather a gap, but, despite their having presented a silver cup to the school for swimming, West Downs felt their time here was up.
Bill Harris, of this mob the Head,
Leaves room for Oppé instead,
But I wonder who’ll grapple
With the organ in chapel
When Harris to Harrow has sped.
To Eton go Thorne ma and mi;
Doubtless Nutkin will have a good cry,
But he hasn’t the bags
That are needed for fags,
So he must wait for his turn by and by.
His way now young Pearson is winging,
To Sherborne, like Ariel singing
“Where the bee sucks, suck I.”
But I hope he won’t try
for Bees have a habit of stinging.
And so on for the full fifteen verses: I forget the wording now.
Notes: Verse 2
W.B. Harris, 1921-25, Head of the School, played the organ and flute very competently.
D.L.T. Oppé, 1922-26.
A. Thorne and G. Thorne, twin sons of General Sir Andrew Thorne. They wore rather voluminous plus fours, referred to by the boys as “bags.”
P.F. Thorne, 1923-27, nicknamed Nutkin. The 3rd and youngest Thorne, hence Thorne mus (minimus).
B.A. Pearson, 1921-25. Took the part of Ariel in The Tempest 1924, won the Shooting Shield 1925, also the Peacock Cup along with E.W.S. Ford 1924.
West Downs provided great encouragement and many opportunities to the budding would-be actor. Each Patrol did a Shakespeare Play (or at any rate a loose semblance of one!) on a Saturday evening in the Winter Terms. Then, under the personal direction of the Headmaster, a Shakespeare play proper was staged every Summer Term in the natural outdoor setting at Melbury. In my time it was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1922, the next year “The Tempest” in which Tindall himself played Caliban, and I was cast as Ariel, because I had a passable treble voice. In 1925 it was “Twelfth Night.”
In addition French Plays were tackled under the long suffering direction of “Madame.” And then of course the staff used to entertain us with the Masters’ Plays, generally written by K.B.T. and always produced by him. He was a born impresario and actor.
From time to time these much looked forward to highlights would be included in the School programme, such as to Southampton to see an International Soccer Match or to the Stockbridge woods to pick primroses at Easter.
One very special occasion I remember vividly was the whole School (about 90 boys) going off to see the Naval Review at Spithead in 1924. We went in vehicles known as charabancs pronounced sharrabangs) which were the forerunners of the motor coach or ‘bus.
Three of the boys, Burmester, Forbes and Sinclair all had fathers who were senior Captains R.N. commanding H.M.S. Barham, Queen Elizabeth and Warspite, respectively: they had kindly invited the school to witness the review from aboard their battleships. The review was terribly impressive with its mass of naval craft at anchor in straight lines, but as a small boy with little or no knowledge of the sea I have only the dimmest of memories of the day apart from two excitements which I recall in detail – P.H. Nowell-Smith’s accident, and our return trip to Winchester in the evening.
I was in the Warspite party, so was Nowell-Smith. As we went out from the dockside in an open “barge,” we were repeatedly warned by the coxswain not to put our hands over the outside edge of the barge. Of course, one boy, in his excitement, forgot, held onto the outside edge of the barge as we drew alongside the Warspite, and all his fingers were crushed to pulp. From having been a promising pianist Nowell-Smith never played another note.
The other excitement that day was on the way home after the Review was all over, when the charabanc in front of ours (we were travelling in convoy) capsized, depositing its contents into the ditch! Something had caused it to swerve suddenly to its near side where there was a large heap of gravel on the road’s verge. Luckily the vehicle fell over onto its near side: had it been the other way, all the boys would have been thrown out onto the road in the path of oncoming traffic. I remember seeing one lone figure sliding down the vehicle’s side and onto the ground. Apparently he had had the presence of mind when everyone else was being tipped out into the ditch, to hang onto the hood struts and in his own time to let himself down to the ground, slowly and gently – that was Michael d’Oyly Carte, son of the opera company magnate. It might have been a nasty accident, but remarkably no one was hurt; the charabanc was righted and we continued on our way back. It had been quite a day!
At the time, when we were just school boys at West Downs, we never gave a thought to background or family. We either found ourselves making friends with someone, or not, depending largely on mutual pastimes, hobbies or interests. Only in later years one realised that there had been amongst contemporaries quite a few prominent, even famous, names. In the previous paragraphs I have already mentioned some: others which come to mind are:-
Grimston, later to become the Earl of Verulam.
Pelham, later to become the Earl of Chichester, and at Eton a close associate of Ludovic Kennedy.
Nowell-Smith, Simon and Pat, sons of that great headmaster of Sherborne.
Amery, Jack, elder brother of Julian and son of the Secretary of State for India; regrettably came to a sticky end.
Thorne, Andrew, George and Peter, sons of General “Bulgy” Thorne.
Forbes ma and mi, sons of Admiral Forbes
Scott, Sir Peter, of Slimbridge fame.
Astor, David, Son of Nancy, whose visits always caused a stir.
Colville. There were three brothers. John, the youngest, was the best known.
Ford, Sir Edward, a twin of Christopher, sons of the Headmaster of Harrow, later to become the Queen’s Private Secretary.
Lionel Helbert died in 1921, two years before I entered West Downs, and although I never met him I sensed with everyone else in those early days his all pervading influence. His name, his qualities, his personality, were constantly referred to. In the person of Lady Goodrich, his sister, who visited West Downs frequently – a lady of personality and drive – his memory was kept to the fore. We were never allowed to forget the ideals for which he stood. He had been a man of vision.
Lady Goodrich, in memory of her brother, gave to each successive Head of School a silver half hunter watch, a prize of great worth, to be valued by the recipient all his life. It was presented formally by the Headmaster at the end-of-term prize giving.
Another presentation, greatly valued, was the small gold maltese cross with the letters H.B.P. engraved upon it; this was given to every boy who was confirmed in the School Chapel. The initials stood for Honesty, Bravery, Purity, which, I was told, was Helbert’s own motto.