Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Helbert/Brymer Era, 1897-1922

From Sir John Stephenson, 1919-1922

I followed my elder brother to West Downs in May 1919. We went there because Lionel Helbert was a godson of my mother’s aunt, Lucy Cavendish, and a friend of my mother’s brother, Jack Talbot. But it was to be Helbert’s last term, for he died in the following November. I was, like most new boys at that time nine years old when I entered the school; and I left a year early at twelve, when I got an unexpected scholarship to Winchester. So I had only three years and one term at West Downs; but it was an eventful period in the School’s history. LH died in my first year; Walter Kirby, who took over, died in my second; Wilfrid Brymer took over until my third year, when Kenneth Tindall was appointed Head Master.

LH I remember surprising me by sending for me and telling me to work hard; explaining in Chapel the meaning of “symmetrical;” reading in Shakespeare “Wandering Willy’s Tale” from Scott’s “Redgauntlet;” and teaching us to sing Schubert’s “Who is Sylvia” and Cornelius’ Spring Song (but the songs may have been on a visit to West Downs before I got there). The staff was headed by two masters who had been there from the start in 1897, Kirby, already ill (it fell to Brymer to make the sensational announcement in Chapel of LH’s death), and D.L. Rose, recently returned from the war as a Major. Next came W.J. Brymer, who handed the school over to Tindall and served him loyally till retirement to a property he had inherited in Dorset, and W.H. Ledgard, who was also back from war service, a Captain with a Military Cross. Another old stager was Benson, who frightened us by shouting and shaking us in “Benny Baits,” but was a talented artist and taught the future Lord Duncan Sandys Russian. There was also C.A. Ranger, who left to be Headmaster of Pinewood, and two of the Rawson brothers, Hugh and Wyatt, the former of whom married Miss Rice, another teacher. But the best known and best loved mistress was Miss Hills (Miss Squilly) of the high collar and the husky voice, who spent over 40 years at WD teaching the new boys in a classroom above Shakespeare, and made me learn, to my lasting benefit, the 19th psalm and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Later came H.W. Perry Gore, who read “Three Men in a Boat” to my brother Bill and me and others, and J.L. Stanton, who played cricket once or twice for Gloucestershire, where he was a neighbour of LH’s sister, Lady Goodrich.

We were taught carpentry, called Sloyd and initiated by a mysterious incantation “sight, touch, tri-square, ruler” by a Mr Barnett, and singing by a Mr Bates. Madame, face remembered but name forgotten, taught us French. The piano was taught by Miss Garland and Miss Playsted, drawing and painting by Miss Tempest. Miss Garland, who played Scriabin, was my excellent teacher and got me as far as easier Bach. Miss Tempest was a well-known illustrator of children’s books and taught my younger brother Paul. I competed unsuccessfully in the Peacock Cup competition, singing “Goosey, Goosey, Gander” one year, “Zummerzettskin” another, and “The Ash Grove” a third. Stewart Wilson was once the judge.

Under LH, WD was first and foremost a Christian school. LH was himself a devout Christian, who often considered taking Holy Orders; and Chapel played a large part in our lives.

He was also a talented musician and a brilliant actor, and music and stage plays were outstanding activities, to which must be added scouting. The whole school was organised in patrols of scouts and wolf cubs. I got as far as being a second in the Hounds with two badges, which I lost before I could sew them on.

We were given the stories of Shakespeare’s plays, and then acted our own versions of them. I even improvised a play of my own invention, full of mercifully inaudible puns. Mr Tindall (KT) staged full dress Shakespeare plays and French plays, and the highlight of the year, a Masters’ Play. I played Lancelot Gibbo in “The Merchant of Venice,” and Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” M. Purgon in “Le Malade Imaginaire” and Mme Mallingeau in “La Poudre aux Yeux.” The Masters acted “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” and a thrilling play about a coward who turned out to be an undercover agent, called “The Man Who Stayed At Home.” Rose rounded off the term by singing “Ring the bell, watchman” and “The White Light Shows Bright.”

Note: The only words I remember of these two songs are:—

Ring the bell, watchman, ring, ring, ring!
Hark for the golden news is now on the wing.
Yes, yes, we come with good tidings to tell;
Glorious and blessed tidings, ring, ring the bell.


The white light shines brightly,
Brings us home quite safely;
But where you see the red light,
Then there’s danger on the line.

There was also the school song, the words written by the grandfather of the Nowell Smiths, the music composed by the Plunket-Greene’s grandfather, Sir Hubert Parry. We can’t have sung it often, for all I remember of it is the line:—

If you’ve done your best, there’s nothing more to do.

and the conclusion:—

Three cheers, three cheers, three cheers
For past and present at West Downs.

We venerated two old boys who had recently taken scouting to Eton, Peter Loxley and George Hyde; and two musicians, Michael Lubbock and Mark Pasteur

Lubbock had composed a remarkable double chant, which we sung in chapel. My attempt to follow him was a composition found by Wyatt Rawson to be riddled with consecutive fifths and octaves.

Pasteur came down and played the harmonium in Chapel, I think in particular at the Service where the War Memorial was dedicated, but that may have been Alan Rannie from West Hayes.

I succeeded Tom Brocklebank, the Cambridge oar, who climbed Everest and taught at Eton, first on the harmonium and, when it gave out, on a piano.

Three other figures come to mind: “Bo’sun,” who carried the colours on the annual Trafalgar Day parade; Russell, the cricket pro, whose son became a chartered accountant and for many years Treasurer of the OWD Society; and “Sergeant,” who presided over the swimming, boxing and gymnastics, fished me out of the swimming pool when I did the ritual jump from the “high” diving board, of all new boys, whether they could swim or (in my case) not, drilled us in the Gym and held the ring when one boy was challenged by another for dishonourable conduct or simply competing, as I once unsuccessfully competed until my mother discovered that boxing was bad for the retina of the short-sighted.

We spent much time, when not in classroom or dormitory or Chapel, reading or playing chess in Shakespeare or plating cricket, soccer or hockey in the magnificent playing field or scouting on the Downs or in Melbury. In Melbury we gave a gymnastic display and also performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

At school matches we thought it witty to vary “Play up, West Downs” with “Work down, East Ups.”

We were reputed to rather a mollycoddled school contrasted with tough opponents like Horris Hill. It is true that on arrival we all passed through “Puffing Billy,” a small room filled some steaming disinfectant, and were tended by a small army of matrons and sisters. But the buildings were cold and uncomfortable; one mother described them as the only place when her hat had been blown off indoors. Epidemics were frequent and severe, one of measles started by my brother Bill which left me as the only boy who had not already had the disease and didn’t succumb to it then, while I was individually coached in the comfort of the Sanny. Two boys died while I was in the school. I never got anything worse than colds and coughs.

“Morning Run” was a regular feature of our days. I can’t remember whether it differed from the walks initiated by the cry, which still rings in my ears, of “Caps, burberries, footer stockings and up the road.” It is immortalised for me in the opening lines of a stanza Brymer sang to the tune of “The Lincolnshire Poacher” my last term: “At morning run Jo Stephenson is nearly always late.” And late for everything I usually was, my unpunctuality eventually leading to my being “slippered” by KT for overstaying my time in a rare hot bath.

LH had imported one or two Winchester “notions,” and KT, also a Wykehamist, maintained them. One was giving every new boy a “pater.” I suppose mine was my brother. I know I was pater to my cousin, Ran Dunluce. Another was going to the “foricas” (the lavatory). Many a time was the request made: “May I go to foricas, please Sir?” If couched in the form “Can I go to foricas, please Sir,” Ledgard’s invariable reply was “I don’t know. Will you please rephrase the question to ask if you might, not if you could.”

KT must, I think, have been somewhat restricted by Lady Goodrich’s devotion to her brother’s memory. She gave us all photographs of him, with his last words “Well Done, West Downs” inscribed on them, and a pressed flower from the bunches which had been by his death bed. It had been his practice to give every leaver a little gold cross inscribed “H.B.P.” for “Honest, Brave and Pure.” I don’t know how long she or KT continued this practice, but on arrival in College at Winchester I found such a cross with a kind letter from Lady Goodrich, bidding me “Hold tight to the little gold cross.” She, I believe, held the purse strings (her husband, Sir James, was an Admiral: at least he had a trim white beard) and when KT came, after selection by LH’s great friend Nowell Smith, a former headmaster of Sherborne, where KT had been a house master, he had to move warily. I remember he wisely stopped the practice of “pi” boys staying on in Chapel after Evening Prayers to pray in the dim religious light provided by a blue bulb over the altar. But he was a keen Christian; Chapel remained central and he continued the practice of boys preparing “Advent Schemes,” with such artistry as they could command and denouncing the peccadilloes of their fellows so that all could make a fresh start to the Christian Year on Advent Sunday. One December he showed us coloured slides of Christ’s life, from his father’s collection.

We were regarded as something of a “snob” school, and LH’s friends included parents who were peers or members of what was not then called the Establishment. Lady Astor, who embarrassed us by drilling us in Gym before meals; Mr Leo Amery; Sir Thomas Horder. We were a conventional school, young Horder being considered babyish for having rabbits on his dressing gown. Our number – under 90, though that was my school number – did allow one girl, Crossley’s soror, for a short time, and later Rachel Tindall. But a soror’s Christian name was a shameful secret, indeed no boy ever called another by his Christian name, not even a brother.

We were, I think, a happy school. True, Jack Amery and Rupert d’Oyly Carte ran away, but they got no further than nearby allotments. I suppose there was some bullying, but it was exceptional. One boy was allowed to be unconventional – Peter Scott, the explorer’s son, who provided the model for his mother’s statue commemorating the OWDs fallen in the first world war, of a boy on a pedestal inscribed “Here Am I, Send Me.” He was excused trousers and knickerbockers and wore an open necked shirt and shorts all the year round, keeping a pet lizard in his pocket. He had a good soprano voice and was a star soloist in Chapel Services.

I suppose the upset caused by LH’s illness and death must have affected the teaching, but we were, I would say, well taught. I was certainly well grounded in Latin and Greek, first by Kirby and a master called Dundas, later by a master named Laming and, above all, by KT himself. He took me down to Winchester each day, in June 1922, to sit for my scholarship, and, as it was only a trial trip, I wasn’t strained, and he and I were delighted when I succeeded. But it cut out what would have been my last year at WD and I left in tears at the end of a happy and valuable time there.

John Stephenson