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

From Dick Norton, 1935-39

West Downs did not enjoy a reputation for toughness among other schools. At Winchester it was sneeringly referred to (by the boys anyway) as “Wet Downs.” Perhaps with hindsight there was an element of mollycoddling despite the physical attributes of an exposed situation and a largely unheated Victorian building.

Mrs Tindall’s nickname was “Tumpty” (from her initials TMT). We used to believe she didn’t know this. Surely we were wrong.

We used to wait with bated breath for Mr Rose’s false teeth to be ejected when, as often happened, he became agitated and spoke fast and forcibly in class. I think it only happened once but it passed into folklore.

We used to chant “Goodnight Sir, Goodnight All” in unison as KT made his bedtime rounds. This happened every night, in each of the five dormitories in turn. On one occasion – I was then in Chapel dormitory – KT prefaced his usual “Goodnight” with the news that King Edward VIII had abdicated. As far as I remember most of us received this news in silence, apart from the odd “Oooo.”

I once had a stand-up fight in St. Cross. Who was I fighting, and why? I now forget, but I wasn’t pugnacious so I must have felt strongly about whatever it was. Bare-knuckle Queensberry rules stuff. No jiu-jitsu, as it was then called, or other martial arts that wouldn’t have been in the West Downs tradition. Others formed a circle round us and egged us on, but the fight was hastily abandoned when Sister entered the dormitory on some errand.

One night the Masters’ Lodge caught fire. Being in West at the time I and others there had ringside seats. We leapt out of bed and crowded round the windows. (The damage wasn’t serious, rather to our dismay).

KT really went to town when making himself up for the part of Caliban in The Tempest, in which I had a minor part. I was quite taken aback at the dress rehearsal when this fearsome apparition, blacked-out teeth to boot, suddenly emerged from the bushes at Melbury. It was the talk of the school for days – I don’t think any of us had previously appreciated that KT, normally a rather austere and Olympian person, was capable of letting his hair down to that extent. (The highlight of my own Thespian career came a year later when I was Malvolio in Twelfth Night.)

When I was awarded second place on the Roll at Winchester, I received a greetings telegram from Lady Goodrich. (What was her connection with West Downs? Something to do with Lionel Helbert. Sister? Niece?) I attach the telegram.

A final anecdote about KT. At one Parents’ Day in the 1960s, when I was aged around forty and with two sons at West Downs, KT – himself there as a guest, having some years previously handed over to Jerry Cornes – eyed my suit-clad figure suspiciously. “Aren’t you getting changed for the Father’s match, Norton?,” he asked. I mumbled something about giving cricket a miss that day. “How very SLACK of you,” he boomed contemptuously. Instantly the years fell away and I felt exactly like a schoolboy who had been caught out in some misdeed. I slunk away. It was as much the thirties slang as his manner which did it. “Slackness” after all was the ultimate crime in KT’s book.

To strike a more profound note, one event, which I rather took for granted at the time, now seems to me to exemplify how West Downs, and KT in particular, had a proper scale of priorities and a laudable lack of “league table” mentality. Just a few months before I was due to sit the scholarship exam for Winchester, I was allowed to take a complete term’s leave of absence to visit my parents in India, travelling both ways by sea. How many prep schools would allow that nowadays?

Looking back, I have little doubt that I enjoyed West Downs and that it taught me a lot, not just in the narrow academic sense. There were ups and downs but I was seldom actually unhappy there. Mainly I was happy. Both my sons went there – what more need I say?

I took a few photographs of the buildings etc. at the final Founder’s Day in 1988. I enclose these. They are ones which I would quite like to have back in due course. I should also be grateful if you would return the greetings telegram in due course.

Dick Norton