Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Cornes Era, 1954-1988

From Giles Warrack, 1953-1958

Dear Mr. Hichens,

I was delighted to get your circular about West Downs. Like you, I believe it was a very special school. The highest standards were always emphasised, but at the same time boys were not subjected to intense pressures, and an atmosphere of kindness and tolerance always prevailed. I was reminded of this a few years ago while having dinner with an old Winchester friend. He told me that he had sent his sons to West Downs, because he had observed that boys from there seemed generally to be happier and better balanced than boys from other prep schools.

If it is of any use to you I am enclosing a piece about Mr. Tremellen’s weird, but effective, methods of teaching French grammar. Of course there are other, less attractive memories, but my overriding recollection is of a happy, well run school, at which I probably received a better education than at any other educational establishment I was sent to.

Incidentally, are you a brother of the terrifyingly fast bowler, A.L. Hichens, who was in Lords and Trants at Winchester with my cousin, Robin Towsey? I don’t know if you were able to contact Robin, but he was also at West Downs, and might be interested in contributing. You may also have been a contemporary in Trants with my oldest brother, John Warrack. (I had two brothers in Trants, but neither went to West Downs).

I am also writing to Nick Hodson, since I am not formally a member of the O.W.D. Society. It is hard to keep up with everything when one has been out of the country for 20 years!

Yours sincerely

Giles Warrack (1953-1958).

During my time at West Downs (1953-1958), the teaching was generally excellent. We were not pushed particularly hard, but we consistently won scholarships, mainly to Winchester and Eton. I do not recall a single boy failing Common Entrance. I have vivid recollections of many teachers: the kindness and fairness of Mr. Watkins and Mr. Griffith, the brusque but lucid mathematical expositions of Mr. Rawson (he had, I believe, been a brilliant engineer before deciding he preferred teaching), and the tremendous mercurial rages of Mr. Turner. But above all I remember the highly eccentric but effective way in which Mr. Tremellen taught French grammar. So far as I know his methods were unique: they relied upon a very idiosyncratic system of visual and verbal mnemonics, all of his own devising. How many people remember “The Brazen Pillar” (regular verbs on the left, irregular verbs on the right)? And what about “The Mastam Verbs” (those whose past tense is conjugated with “etre” instead of “avoir”)? That the French for “never’ is “jamais” is a fact indelibly imprinted in my mind by his habit of grabbing a boy round the neck (usually one of the Cleminson brothers) and throttling him until the boy answered “jamais” in answer to the question “do you surrender?”. Alas I have not preserved my notebook from his class. Full artistic license was encouraged, some of the more artistic boys producing minor, and multicoloured, masterpieces. Of a warm summer afternoon, I can still hear the haunting tones of “the dead man endings”, and see the picture of the two giants “Onen and Elil” on the blackboard.

I know virtually nothing of Mr. Tremellen’s background, apart from the fact that he had written a novel about a pilot in the First World War. The pilot developed an ingenious device called a “Foozle-Board”, a system of mirrors which enabled him to temporarily blind other pilots before shooting them down. I suspect the story might have been partly autobiographical. Presumably he was of Cornish origin. His manner and appearance were decidedly those of the artistic and imaginative Celt. In fact with his beret and ancient jacket he looked not dissimilar from a Breton onion-seller.

One final memory: during class a boy from Thailand, normally quiet and studious, was asking an unusual number of questions. The questions continued as Mr. Tremellen became visibly more irritated. Finally in exasperation he burst out, “For goodness sake, I didn’t invent the —- language!”.

From Giles Warrack, 1953-58 (2nd letter)

Dear Mark,

Thank you very much indeed for your letter. I am sorry to trouble you again, but I have stupidly lost the original circular with Nick Hodson’s address. Could you possibly give me the address, as I should like to formally join the Society.

I am glad that Duckworth major also remembered the “dead man endings”. His younger brother Michael was my friend and exact contemporary. Oddly though, I had remembered the endings as being “-ais, –ais, –ait, –ions, –iez, –aient”. However, I have noticed that over the years my memories become more vivid, but less accurate!

Your mention of Robin Jacques brings back a bizarre memory. One of my contemporaries was a boy called Christopher Leigh (known as Leigh major, to distinguish him from Lea minor). One day he told me that as Mr. Jacques had bent down to pick something up, he had heard a strange crinkling sound. He then propounded the following absolutely astonishing theory: he believed that Mr. Jacques was wearing special waterproof trousers. The reason he was wearing these special trousers was that he was really a German spy, and wore them to wade out to sea at night and signal to German submarines! In spite, or perhaps because, of the wild implausibility of this theory (the War had been over for at least ten years) I eagerly agreed to collaborate with Leigh in keeping a close eye on Mr. Jacques. Needless to say we observed nothing of interest, indeed the only criticism that could be made of Mr. Jacques’ blameless patriotism was that he had a voice that rather resembled Lord Haw-Haw’s. I soon lost touch with Leigh, who went to Harrow, and is now a Q.C. However, some 15 years after this incident, I found myself at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. A vaguely familiar figure was making a spirited speech, vigorously demanding the impeachment of Harold Wilson, “... for the betrayal of our white brethren in Rhodesia ...”. Closer inspection revealed it to be Leigh major, remarkably unchanged, and still apparently with the best interests of the country’s security at heart.

I don’t know if this anecdote is usable, but if it is you’re welcome to it. The Ingrams to whom you refer must be Peter, elder brother of Richard and Leonard. He used to come and teach occasionally at West Downs when I was there.

I remember Risbridger well: goodness knows how many times I must have heard him recount how, after administering a birching, he always sorrowfully declined the lunch his wife had cooked. He was certainly amiable enough at West Downs.

Another person whom I suddenly remembered was “Mademoiselle” (Vati Carrere). When I came to West Downs, my French was fairly fluent (I had come from a school in Switzerland, where I had been sent for health reasons). Needless to say it declined fairly rapidly, as did my general deportment. During a class towards the end of my career she suddenly expostulated, “When you came here you had perfect manners and spoke beautiful French. Now you have the most atrocious manners and you don’t speak a word of French!”. I wish her well wherever she is. Somehow I have the impression that she and that her family had suffered terribly in the war, as they had lived in German occupied France.

Anyway, that is enough. As you can see you have started a flood of memories, and I don’t doubt it has been the same for many OWDs.

Very best wishes, Giles Warrack