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

West Downs – the Hon. Charles Strutt, 1918-22

My mother died in April 1919 and I went to West Downs the following month. I had had governesses and been for a year or so to Gibbs school in London, and had started Latin with my last governess when only 8. I think that academically I was well up to the standard of contemporaries; but I had lived a very sheltered sort of life, and this on top of a certain innate Strutt eccentricity resulted in my feeling shy and ill at ease with other boys of my own age. Moreover, during his two years at west Downs John had acquired a reputation of being something of a way-out character, and in consequence a spotlight was turned on me from my first day there, without which I might perhaps have got through school life almost unobserved. As it was, my peculiar nature unredeemed by any prowess at cricket or football marked me out as an unusual boy and unusual boys tended not to be much wanted by schoolmasters because they did not fit into the conventional mould, but required a little extra thinking about. I felt myself unpopular, not to say despised, and this was increased by the fact that I had a high pitched, squeaky voice which was mercilessly mimicked at West Downs and later at Eton, to my great shame. I suffered greatly until it broke.

I was homesick from the first moment to the last and I well remember the waves of agonising sadness that overwhelmed me as a new boy, lying in bed in the Chapel dormitory in the early evening, and listening to the bellringers at Winchester Cathedral practising their art, contrasting the sorrowful beauty of the sound with the happy peals at Terling on a Sunday morning. John was my “pater” with the duty of inducting me into the ways of the school during my first fortnight there, but after that I did not see a great deal of him as he was in a different form from me, sat at a different table in the dining hall and generally slept in a different dormitory.

West Downs had been chosen by my mother for its combination of snob selectivity and its religious atmosphere. It had been founded in the late 1890s by Lionel Helbert, a successful city man who had given up business for schoolmastering as an act of expiation for some misdeed of his brother, or so I was told much later. There was certainly a cloyingly goody-goody atmosphere about the place. We had services in the chapel every morning and evening on weekdays as well as Sundays. After evening service every boy as he left the chapel shook hands with the headmaster giving the scout salute with his left hand simultaneously; but boys could, if they wished, stay behind for a few minutes to pray in the darkened chapel, lit only by a blue light concealed in the chancel. This I used to do partly to avoid the false bonhomie of the good night ceremony with the headmaster, but even more to enjoy a mysterious thrill until the practice was stopped as being somehow unhealthily dramatic.

The school was dated by the fact that everything was run on boy scout lines, having been founded just before the Boer War when the Baden Powell ethos was in the ascendant. There were patrols with names like wolves, lions, peewits etc. and each patrol had its shoulder badge of some combination of coloured ribbons on the uniform, which we wore at all times except when playing games. Bach boy was assigned to a patrol in which he remained during the whole of his school career, moving up gradually in seniority until he reached the position of no. 2 but, if memory serves me right, the patrol leader was elected by the boys under some system subject to the headmaster’s powers of nomination and veto, which at the time I felt made a nonsense of the democratic theory supposed to lie behind it. The patrol – leaders were the elite of the school and would have been called prefects or monitors elsewhere. Though good at my work I did not fit into this system, which was somehow married to Kipling’s Jungle Book, and I think must have been intended to produce Empire leaders at a time when the sun was setting on the British Empire at a speed which was not realised by the old guard, or indeed by any of us. However, this concept of education for leadership lasted the whole of my time at West Downs, and at Eton too; it did not suit my temperament, which has always been that of a loner.

In this cold and rather hostile climate I made a few friends, some of whom I have retained throughout life. Denzil Baring was a mild boy a little older than me, rather eccentric and certainly not on the side of the bullies. I remember him pulling a large watch out of his waistcoat pocket as he stood in the school backyard and in some way this reminded me of the white Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, so that for years afterwards I saw him as a white rabbit standing on its hind legs. Jo and Bill Stevenson, with whom we had played with in the park, were boys I had no cause to fear and they have remained lifelong friends. Another such was Alexander Combe- Tennant, though I was a little frightened of him in my first term or two. Another new boy with me was Allhusen, who tripped me up with his outstretched foot as I was running along a stone-floored passage to the gym; it was done without malice, but I fell and broke one of my front teeth, the result of which was much pain and countless visits to an American Dentist. He had a good reputation, but totally mismanaged my teeth, so that I ended with a denture of three false teeth in my late teens. At one stage the false teeth were not properly fixed and would fall out at awkward moments, such as when I was saying good-bye to my hostess after a tennis tournament. This must have gone very deep as it has been a recurring subject of my dreams up to this day.

There was a matron at West Downs and a night sister who made the rounds of the dormitories with a torch. In my memory they were both elderly, but probably quite young really. If one had any ailment one reported to the matron after breakfast in her surgery, and she would dispense laxatives or aspirins, take temperatures and paint sore throats with a long brush. If several boys wanted to see her they would wait their turn in her sitting room next to the surgery. I was an inquisitive boy and one day I found that the matron had a cupboard full of sweets in packets, which had been taken away from the boys on their arrival at school after the holidays and labelled with their names so as to be returned to them at Waterloo on the “mush” school train at the end of term. One of the new boys with me was Viscount Somerton, and I ate some of his sweets. Greedy as well as inquisitive, I made excuses to return once or twice more for some treatment or other, and must have aroused the matrons suspicions, as she presently appeared at the door of her sitting room and caught me red-handed. I was duly reported to the headmaster and summoned to his study, where the following conversation took place:—

H.M. You have stolen sweets from Somerton. What are you going to do about it?

Self: (Thinking the question should rather have been addressed by me to him). I must apologise to Somerton.

H.M. Yes, certainly, but what else must you do?

Self: (After much thought) I must pay him for the sweets I have eaten.

H.M. Yes, certainly, but what else must you do?

Self: (At my wit’s end) I don’t know.

H.M. Don’t you see that by your action you have besmirched the honour of the whole school, and that you must apologise the whole school for what you have done?

Self: Yes, sir.

H.M. Would you rather apologise in the chapel or the gym?

Self: (instinctively) In the gym.

The whole school was assembled in the gym after lunch and was told to sit down on the floor. The facts were recounted by the headmaster and I was told to stand up and apologise – which I did in the fewest possible words. Although no boy ever referred to the incident afterwards, I was seared to the soul and felt a criminal and outcast for many years, right to the end of my time at Eton in fact. It may be said that was what the headmaster intended, but I maintain that the punishment in no way fitted the crime and that a short sharp beating would have been more appropriate. The same treatment must have been meted out to Tom Brocklebank, who put on the school notice board what seemed an innocent enough notice; “Lost, stolen or strayed, a fountain pen. Will the finder please return to Brocklebank.” He was made to get up in chapel and apologise for having suggested that any member of the school could have stolen anything!

The cloying goody-goody atmosphere of the school was reflected in numerous aspects of school life, such as for example the unholy fuss involving boys of unascertained identity, who were seen urinating in Melbury, a sort of small park adjacent to the school grounds where scouting games were played. Nobody owned up and I think the whole school was kept in for a half holiday afternoon. I am sure that this sort of piety was excessive, unnatural and verged on hypocrisy, but one aspect of it which I have since valued was the learning by heart of large chunks of scripture. These included several of the psalms from beginning to end, the sermon on the mount, most of the parables in their entirety, as well as the collects Sunday by Sunday. At Eton we had so called saying lessons, in which we had to memorise and recite poems and selected pieces of prose, but these have not stayed with me in the same way as the passages from the Bible and prayer book which I imbibed at West Downs.

Every boy was under an obligation to write home once a week, and the first page of our letters had to be taken to Mr. Tindall, the headmaster, who read it through in one’s presence in his study. The arrangement was that John would write to Papa one week while I wrote to Granny, and the next week we would change correspondents. Of course the problem was to find anything to say, and our letters, like all school letters, must have been devastatingly dull; children do not generally understand what will interest their parents, viz. their own estimation of people and their attitude towards events, rather than a bald recital of those events. I remember Granny writing to me once to say that if I had anything private to communicate to her I must not write in pencil, because she was getting so blind that she had to ask Grandpapa to read such letters allowed to her. Alas, that I did not write and tell her how unhappy I was at school, but such a thought never entered my head. Another time she returned one of my letters with spelling mistakes corrected and I took this as a great insult. I remember to the cost of sending a letter, one penny for over 80 years, rose to a penny halfpenny, the familiar red stamp giving way to the intruding brown one.

Papa occasionally came down to see us, generally accompanied by some lady, I think. But Granny was a much more regular visitor both at West Downs and later at Eton. At Winchester she would stay with the Selbornes at the Warden’s Lodgings at Winchester College, or else with Mrs Guy Baring, who was very motherly and kind to us and had three sons at West Downs with us. Granny would attend services in the school chapel, where her rather loud singing of the alto part caused us a good deal of embarrassment. Fond as we were of her, we were conscious that she was very far from being a good-looking old lady, and the contrast with the youngish mothers of the other boys was something we felt rather acutely. As the sister of Arthur Balfour she was probably something of a personage in the eyes of the headmaster, and the words “Strutt’s grandmother came” were never omitted from the record of school events which was periodically read out to the assembled boys. This too made us squirm, for children are embarrassed in a way grown-ups have no idea of. Grandpapa died in July of my first term at West Downs and John and I were summoned to the headmaster’s study to be told so, and to find ourselves “The Hon” – I think at first we were rather proud of the title, but the novelty soon wore off, particularly as there were plenty of other boys in the school with handles to their names. All the same I am clear that such handles are generally an advantage in life, and have saved one the time and effort involved in establishing status symbols of other kinds.

I was absolutely hopeless at games and never made the slightest progress at cricket or football, though I could run quite fast and once won a cup for hurdling. Besides compulsory games every afternoon, there was “puntabout” during the morning break; this involved kicking a football around and made no appeal at all to me. When the weather was too bad for games an order would appear on the school notice board, “Caps, Burberrys, footer-stockings and up the road.” The school would shamble off to walk the “Big Triangle or the Little Triangle” over the Downs, straggling in twos and threes behind the master on duty. This braving of the elements had no more appeal for me than organised games, and one day I discovered that I could avoid it by skulking behind in the room where the Burberrys etc. were hung up on stands placed in serried ranks parallel to each other so as to give good cover for a small boy in hiding. I shirked a good many walks without getting caught. The sound of footsteps of masters in the passage outside gave me a delicious thrill of fear.

Some of the masters were kindly, among whom I remember a Mr. Perry-Gore, who later became a clergyman; but there was at least one sadistic bully, Mr. Benson by name, whose classes were a nightmare dreaded by all the boys. I experienced one of his unreasoning rages in the following circumstances; we had to pass various tests to obtain badges which marked our progress in scouting. One of these tests was of the flags of St. George, St. Andrew and St. Patrick. Mr. Benson put me through this test and was satisfied that I properly undertook how each flag was represented. Then he asked me something not in the book – what did the Union Jack stand for? I replied that it stood for the country. Benson gave me a painful cuff on the side of the head and repeated the question. I was paralysed with fear and, searching wildly for an answer, tried The King. More cuffs on the head and violent jabs of his knee into my backside with the question repeated several times more. All my answers being rejected, he eventually told me that the Union Jack stood for the people.

Charles Strutt