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

From N.J. Hodson, 1943 to 1947

The Return to Winchester from Blair Atholl

When the school returned from Blair it was very much a home coming. As far as I remember it was just after Christmas 1945 that we returned. That winter, and the following one, were cold and sometimes difficult for staff and boys. Power cuts were a regular occurrence under the Socialist Government, and the floor boards in the passages were all in turn taken up to allow rewiring. In fact, some of the floor boards had been quite missing when the Tindalls returned, as had some of the furniture, the soldiers having burnt them for fuel, but the Chapel was intact, and was quite glorious. The upper and lower fields were more or less usable, but the small field was in a bad way, as it had been laid with gravel to make it into a car park. The grounds of Melbury were in good order, but the house in Melbury was fairly derelict. A revolving summerhouse in Melbury was completely overgrown. The dining hall at West Downs was in good order, so was Shakespeare, though I seem to remember the parquet floor being reground. Many items had been locked away in the Green Room, and these were taken out and restored to use, among them the collection of large reproductions of various paintings that were to be found just to the left of the door leading from Shakespeare to the Chapel stairs. The swimming pool was made usable shortly after the start of Cloister Time 1946, and the first problem was the number of boys that could not swim, or could only just swim, as there had not been much opportunity during the war. We had a series of dreadful sergeants after Miss Coombes had returned to her beloved Switzerland, but during 1947 one Harry Risbridger arrived, and he was the best swimming teacher you could hope for. He must have been one of the most well liked schoolteachers ever known. In 1946, however, we had a similar stroke of luck as we had a young master called Bevan, who was not only reasonably able as a mathematics teacher but who was also quite a good swimmer and diver, so that by the end of that first summer back at Winchester he had got most of the boys to a state of reasonable ability. Certain boys were formed into an elite called The Pioneers. These spent most of their afternoons over at Melbury working on clearing the grounds of fallen trees and branches, and generally sorting out the place. I was fortunate enough to be one of them, though as School Librarian I could not go down every day. Melbury was a good place for certain kinds of wide game, but never again were we to know the complete freedom of those wide games in the remote Cairn Gorms.

On being demobbed two of the masters returned to the school to take up their prewar jobs there. One of these, F.H. Balleine, was popular with the cricketers and footballers, but he was more or less OK in other spheres as well. The other, R.L. Schuster, who had had an amazing escape from a German P.O.W. camp during the War, came back in 1947, and after a while left to found his own prep school, taking with him H.A. Ricardo, as joint headmaster of it.

D.L. Rose left to continue his retirement out of which he had been yanked at the start of the War, but very sadly he died shortly after. W.H. Ledgard continued to flourish, as did Madame de Coutely and Miss Maisie Richardson. A.T. Turner also flourished, and in particular had the job of school organist, which he did very well indeed. For a year or so I had the job most days of sitting beside him on the organ bench and turning the pages of his music.

Two new faces appeared around the school. One was the groundsman who had the mammoth task of turning the playing fields back from car parks into what they were supposed to be. The other was Canning, the boot and shoe man, whom I don’t remember at Blair, yet whom I can’t quite imagine the school being without. Perhaps we didn’t play so much football at Blair & so didn’t need a boot man so much.

Music was served as ever by Miss Playsted and Miss Lunn, though the latter suffered a stroke shortly after we got back to Winchester, and Miss Playsted was in a wheelchair crippled with arthritis. W.J. Tremellen was as popular as ever (Peg Leg) and of course D.H. Griffith presided over the Masters Lodge and kept all the new staff in order. Lottie und Gerda were with us for a shortish time before getting back to Germany.

Founder’s Day was reinstated in 1946, and the first OWD through the doors was someone called Dixon, who arrived early enough for Chapel. Several others came up, and we were able to identify some of the names we had seen on the honours boards, such as McCorquodale, Morse and Storey.

Up at Blair the athletics had always taken place during the summer. It was a little puzzling at first to know why there was talk of removing them to the Common Time, but I think they stayed in Cloister time as long as I was there. What did happen was that they moved to the end of that term instead of the middle, which made it easier to rehearse the Shakespeare play. At Blair we had had as much as possible going on round about the last weekend in June so that parents could come up and stay in neighbouring hotels, and be well entertained by their young.

The Shakespeare plays formed just as major and memorable a part of the Cloister Time at Winchester as they had at Blair, the major difference being that they were always in the natural theatre at Melbury, instead of in various venues, as they had at Blair. Indeed it is difficult to see how we could have put on “Twelfth Night” at Melbury, whereas at Blair we had the house and lawn of the factor, Mr. Paterson. While I was at WD the following plays were staged:—

1943 A Midsummer Nights’s Dream;
1944 As You Like It;
1945 Twelfth Night;
1946 A Midsummer Night’s Dream;
1947 The Taming of the Shrew.

It did occur to me at the time that only the fittest and sprightliest of parents and other relatives could get down to Melbury to watch the plays because the road ended at Melbury Lodge, and there was only a precipitous track down through the hanging woods to the stage. However, everybody seemed to make it and enjoy it, though it was notable that the midges and mosquitoes gave them a run for their money.

A number of young women came in to assist Matron with clothes and polishing the dormitory floors, and so on. For some reason a state of war evolved between us and these “skivvies” as we called them. One weapon we had was our chamber pots. The girls had to empty these, but of course it was down to us to fill them – and fill them we did, quite legally, of course. I don’t know if it did us any good or harm, but we used to drink pints and pints of water, which, in due course, made its way into the pots. Of course, you had to use your own pot, at least until it was full to overflowing. Then you could contribute to someone else’s. I remember KT realised something was going on and gave us a jaw about it, but as our actions were quite legal – no cheating – every drop was passed through a boy – there wasn’t a lot he could do.

Another nocturnal pastime was bed-crawling, which meant getting to as many distant parts of the school as possible without being detected. There was one very good undetectable way out, which was via the skylight of one of the upstairs W.C.s. The reason why it was undetectable was that it was so difficult to get to this skylight, which was above the cistern, that no one in authority had thought of it as a way out. Of course, there were genuine fire escapes, but these were too easy. E.S.M. Cameron was the king of the bed crawlers, but I came with him on a number of occasions.

Sister Guy watched over our health with tray and thermometer as always. I thought she was an angel, and that we were very lucky to have her. We were also very lucky to have Miss Payne and Miss Ward, who were Matrons.

As always the central theme of the school’s life was Scouting. In some ways games like Cricket and Football pushed Scouting aside. But where Scouting really came into its own was the fortnight’s summer camp at Little Somborne, the Hervey-Bathurst’s house, about 10 or 15 miles west of Winchester. Here we had wide games nearly every day, cooked for ourselves, learned how to camp the Gilwell way and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. In the evenings we had a washing session in which everybody had to soap himself all over, then there was a colossal water fight, in which the object was to chuck buckets of water over anyone who still had some soap on him. After that we would have a camp fire, round which we would sing songs, the last of which was always “Good night Ladies.”

In the dark, on the way back to our tents, we could see glow-worms, and perhaps for many of us that was the last glow worm we ever saw, as it was the fragile victim of modern farming methods.

We had to spend much of our mornings in camp collecting firewood in the neighbouring coverts. We quickly learnt how to distinguish quick burning woods from slow burners. When it came to serious Scout cooking, like making twists, we had to make our fires on the tunnel pattern, and to have mostly oak chips as the source of heat, as this made the twist rise nicely and take on a good colour. I always rather wished that there was another way of making them rise than putting Bicarbonate of Soda in them, but there it was, we had to do it.

On the whole we were extremely innocent. During our last terms we spent a lot of time in solemn discussions trying to unravel the mysteries of where babies came from. The boy who got nearest to the answer was P.G. Stead, whose father was a doctor, but we dismissed his theories as just a leg pull, too extravagantly unlikely to be worth considering. E.S.M. Cameron, whose mother had had lots of children, rather thought that going away on holday might have something to do with it, as he had noticed that his parents would tell him about the next one on the way just after returning from holiday.

On your last day, or as near that as possible all the Leavers would be called round to the Study. You would be taken out to the pavilion where the photographer from the town, Salmon, would be waiting for you. You then went back to K.T.’s study, where he gave you the renowned Leavers’ jaw. Certain facts of life were then mentioned, and as this was definitely on a very different tack to anything we had hitherto considered we were somewhat thrown, especially as we were not any the wiser about babies. Still, I suppose it was necessary.

There were various aspects of the school’s life that were not renewed at once after the War. One of these was shooting. When Harry Risbridger got into his stride this was something that he made especially his own province, but for the first few years there was none.

Another lack was the squash court, which I believe existed, but which couldn’t be used because all the shooting equipment was in it.

The great snow of Common Time 1947 was interesting, for everyone made such a song and dance about the weather, and the lack of heating due to the power strikes, yet to us boys used to wintering in the Central Highlands of Scotland it was pretty much what we were used to. One weekend there was a visit of our parents, who stayed at the Royal Hotel. My brother and I, and one or two other boys decided to roll up snowballs, like you do when you make a snowman. If you roll up enough of them, and pile them on top of one another, you can make an igloo. A month later the parents came down again to the Royal Hotel, and took us out: this time we were confronted by an irate gardener, for the igloo was still there, despite the fact that all the other snow had melted away.

During the snow, we went out, the whole school, with our toboggans, to the golf course the other side of Chilbolton Avenue. But the runs we made were not nearly as good as the ones we had made at Blair. We also had some good times at Melbury in the snow. Little did we realise that this was the spring when the melting snows in the Thames Valley had caused the River to rise so high that Eton became unworkable and the boys there had had to be sent home a fortnight early.

During the summer term of 1946 a great deal of grass grew on the lower field, and was cut as hay. We made houses of hay and romped about in them. Unfortunately I was bitten by insects in the hay, to which I am very allergic, so that by the time summer camp was over I went home with swollen and sore arms and legs, and had to spend some of the holidays with poultices on the sores. It was our first summer in our house on the Isle of Wight, but that is another story!

There was a boy called Potter, whose aunt had discovered a marvellous old mahogany crystal wireless set in an attic, and we used to spend hours begging him to let us listen on the headphones. I thought it was quite extraordinary that with no batteries you could hear programmes on the wireless.

Nick Hodson