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

From J. Browne-Swinburne, 1946-50

No doubt you will have many reminiscences of scouting in Melbury, Mr. Ledgard’s money books etc. and I thought it might be a help to give you my thoughts from the point of view of my present position as Chairman of the Governors of Mowden Hall school in Northumberland which is a preparatory school of approximately the same size and, coincidentally with a Headmaster, Andrew Morrison, who previously was Headmaster of West Downs for a short time. We have therefore, on many occasions compared the one with the other.

I hope this is some help and a slightly different angle and I wish you every success with your History.

The Importance of the Founder

I went to West Downs in Summer 1946, just after the school had returned from Blair and I never met Mr. Cornes.

Even as a boy it was apparent that the traditions and standards set by Mr. Helbert were still much respected. (The framed cheque in Chapel – “Well Done WD”.)

He must have been a remarkable man. First, I think I am right in saying he built the school to a standard which, I suspect, was unsurpassed in England at the time. Indeed, the facilities in 1946 compare very favourably with those of today in many such schools, I suspect. When one thinks of the indoor swimming pool, the Chapel, Shakespeare, the gymnasium, excellent playing fields, a rifle range and the incomparable Melbury.

I do not know if it was Mr. Helbert or the Tindalls who based the structure of the school on that excellent “Empire-building” combination of Baden-Powell’s scouting and all that stood for, Scott of the Antarctic’s idealism (the picture of Captain Oates going out into the snow) and, of course, the wonderful way that the Chapel meant that Christianity was an integral part of everyday life.

In the context of Religious Education I think KBT was exceptionally gifted. He took Chapel services beautifully, his translation of the Gospel was memorable and I just wish I had a copy of it. He prepared us for Confirmation and had us confirmed while still at West Downs which was fairly unusual and I think still would be. He also instilled in many, a great love of Church music and his choir practices were unforgettable. I still think of him when singing certain hymns and canticles and remember his instructions (“don’t drag!”). All that was backed by an excellent organ and Mr. Turner who I suspect was a first class organist though I am no musician and I also particularly remember the religious lantern show which I think he did as part of a series of Lent Term evening talks (Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World”).

When all that was combined with the Patrol System as a basis of organisation, discipline and day-to-day competition, which was then extended to full scale scouting activities and making the maximum use of Melbury one had a unique and wonderful basis to the life of the school.

In addition Mr. Tindall, I suspect, was cast in the same mould as Mr. Helbert, being very much a Private School Headmaster though I know he had advisers like Sir Fordham Flower and E.W.S. Ford whom he may even have entitled Governors.

I also had the impression that he, and no doubt Mr. Helbert before him, and, I understand, Mr. Cornes since, all aimed for the highest possible academic standards though KBT was equally marvellous with idle and stupid boys. I myself did, I think, two years in his Latin class as I was totally disinterested in lessons and he instilled in me a love of Latin which I am sure no one else could have done. I am not certain how good the other teachers were, indeed I can only remember that Mr. Tremellen was an outstandingly good French teacher. I could not tell you who else taught me what apart from the fact that Miss Richardson, in her squeaky rubber-soled shoes, taught LS2 my first term.

Catchment Area and Exeats

Today’s Prep school children are constantly having exeats or their parents come to the school for matches etc. When I was at West Downs my parents came to the Shakespeare play in the summer term and took me out, by the day, for the weekend of my birthday in the Christmas term; that was all.

As boys seemed to come from the North of Scotland downwards this infrequency of visits was fortuitous when one bears in mind petrol rationing etc.

Having said that, I can honestly say that going to West Downs was the most traumatic emotional experience of my life so far. I had been brought up in the depths of Northumberland and had never spent a night away from home without my mother or nanny and then it had only been to go and stay with my grandparents in the Lake District.

To add to the sensation of distance, my father managed to take three days to get me from Capheaton to West Downs. On the first we drove in his prewar car from home to the Angel Hotel in Grantham where we stayed the night. On day two we drove to London and stayed in Browns Hotel arriving in time to witness the evening Changing of the Guard etc. On the third morning we went to the Zoo after which I experienced my first ice-cream cornet from a barrow in Regents Park. That afternoon I was put on the dreaded School Train at Waterloo and I was fairly certain that the world had come to an end.

I can still remember being woken up in St. Cross dormitory (I was an Owl) the first morning by a cuckoo and not knowing where on earth I was.

I remember Mrs. Tindall being particularly good at dealing with homesick boys and my mother tells me that she took great trouble to write frequently during the first few weeks reporting on progress or lack of it. I remember that I and most of my contemporaries minded returning to school dreadfully the whole of our time there though latterly we went on the train from Newcastle and were okay once we had said goodbye on the station. That is in marked contrast to children these days who know that the first exeat will be after about a fortnight from the beginning of each term. This has also led to people going to schools much nearer home and that in turn has led to the blossoming of first class private schools, such as Mowden Hall which previously were small and provincial.

Catholic Education

If you believe that prep schools should be places where pupils get a chance to try everything then I think West Downs was outstanding. We played cricket, soccer, rugger, hockey, the choral music was excellent and I think the instrumental music adequate though I myself was no musician.

By modern standards I suppose the extra mural activities were fairly modest but it was just after the War and that undoubtedly caused restrictions. Having said that, I well remember the day that Mr. Tindall announced after breakfast that the First Cricket Eleven were being taken to Southampton to see Hampshire play the Australians. Not only did I see Bradman bat and Miller hit two sixes into the Stand and one out of the ground but I also saw Lindwall and Miller open the bowling for Australia before rain stopped play. An added I interest was that Canning, the son of the West Downs odd job man, opened the bowling for Hampshire. (No TV, so first chance to see heroes live).

The magic lantern shows on winter evenings were wonderful. I have already mentioned the religious one and of course “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” was our first taste of science fiction. That was in the days before the Eagle comic, the Red Planet on the wireless or television of any sort.


Medical science has advanced greatly since 1946 but I think the medical supervision was somewhat overdone. Spot inspections, front and back, night and morning for the first fortnight of each term, not to mention one’s temperature being taken twice a day. I can still remember the taste of methylated spirit. The supervision of one’s bowel movements was also excessive. Sister Herbert’s supervision of “numbers” with her millboard and pencil rendered me constipated for at least three years after I had left West Downs!

A spoonful of malt night and morning was one of the best things we had, I think probably because there was a certain shortage of food and, in particular, of sweets because of rationing. However, I could never see the point of remedial exercises – why walking along an upturned bench was supposed to stop your feet going flat or indeed unflatten them if they were already so always escaped me – I gave up after one term. There were also dreadful things called “sick walks” where one was trailed up the Old Sarum Road if one had a cold or sore throat.

The quality of flora fauna and wildlife in general at West Downs was remarkable and I feel that this was something which could have been put to greater use. I remember slow-worms on the lower playing field, finding a nightjar’s nest in the ivy just over the boundary fence and Melbury, at a certain point in the summer term, was always lifting with those beautiful red and black spotted moths. Apart from a few caterpillars in jam jars in LS2 I remember no use being made of all that except possibly in one of the scouting tests where one had to identify certain trees. That was a bit of a farce because one soon learned that there was a hornbeam bush on the path behind the house at Melbury and other such specimens were quickly passed on by word of mouth. However, I did learn what wood burnt best on my scouting fire when cooking baked potatoes and stewing nettles.


As I say, I think the games facilities were excellent. We were well taught and everybody got a chance to try everything. One feature I particularly remember which was unique to West Downs, were the “coffins” in which we carried the cricket gear to the various games fields from the main pavilion. How many private schools have two pavilions? Last, if I may be allowed one personal moment of glory, I remember sharing the cricket fielding cup with Richard Ingrams of Private Eye fame. Incidentally, there were four Ingrams brothers and they were brought up alternatively Roman Catholic and Protestant because their parents were one of each.

The Tindalls had become friends of my parents before the War when staying with mutual friends in Northumberland and KBT never tired of telling me the story of how he had seen an Osprey while fishing on our lake. I am glad to say, no doubt in common with all his pupils, that he remained a friend until the end of his life and the last time I saw him was when he came to see me and my wife in our new house just after we were married.

John Browne-Swinburne