West Downs through the eyes of an Old Boy:
what did we get out of it?

After writing several papers about life at West Downs, as seen through the eyes of a boy there, perhaps the time has come to write one as seen through the eyes of an Old Boy.

Of course in these days we have Old Girls as well as Old Boys, but when I was there, there were no girls in the School, though the Head Master’s daughters had been there during the 1920s, and one of them at least had been a very successful member of the School football team! The same Head Master welcomed the daughters of his staff into the School, and again this was a great success. But the staff, during the War years, were too old to be combatants, and had no children to bring to the School, so there weren’t any girls in my time.

Jerry Cornes, the last owner of the School, took girls into the School as a regular thing. In these days when so many parents want a few of the benefits of an English Prep School education, but want to have their children at home with them overnight, or over the weekend, it obviously simplifies the family logistics if the girls and the boys are being driven to and from the same destination.

But, as Jerry Cornes wrote at the time, this was originally partly undertaken with a view to civilising the boys by the presence of the girls – unsuccessfully, because the boys decivilise the girls by their presence, as many a Head Master of schools all over the country has discovered.

My brother Anthony and I joined the School while it was evacuated to Blair Castle, in the remote Highlands of Scotland. I went there in 1943, and he followed a couple of years later. I have written elsewhere of the wonderful years at Blair Atholl.

But why did we go to a school more than five hundred miles from home? Not entirely because of the Blitz, because many of the boys came from homes which were far from areas normally bombed by the Germans. It was because our great family friends, the Hichens, had already sent their two oldest sons there, and their youngest arrived at West Downs shortly after the School’s return to Winchester. Then, one asks, why did the Hichens go there? I suppose that was because three cousins of theirs, Edward, Christopher and Alfred Ford had been there. So then you ask, why did the father of the Ford boys, the Head Master of Harrow, send his boys to West Downs? Because the Head Master of a great English Public School is in the best position to know which was the best English Prep School at the time. Well, that takes us back to the last years of the 14-18 war, by which time the School had been going for barely twenty years, and already it had achieved that pre-eminent position.

For our own family, the story did not stop there, for Anthony and I were followed by our two younger brothers, Daniel, now the Chairman of the OWD Society, and Charles; and our close family friends, the Macadams, sent their two boys, Bill and Corbett, to join Anthony and myself. And the Macadams introduced Norfolk friends of theirs; and so the chain went on and on.

Many of the boys at the School in my time were the brothers, sons, nephews, cousins, friends, or relations generally, of men who had been boys in the School before them. In this way there was a strong tradition of family loyalty to the School, a tradition which continued to its very last days, for the youngest of all our Old Pupils, Oliver Howard, had followed his father, David, to the School, and David had followed a whole flock of Scott cousins.

As I write this, in March 2001, we are organising a dinner for Old Pupils to take place at the end of the month. Sir Edward Ford, to whom I referred earlier, and who came to the School with his twin Christopher in 1918, was the very first to apply to come; Mark Hichens, who, after the war was the OWD Society Secretary, who fifty years later is still on the Committee, and who wrote the official history of the School, is down to make one of the speeches; my brother Daniel is the Society’s Chairman. Other families, too, are well represented. Michael Cripps, one of my contemporaries at Blair Atholl, and son and nephew of boys at the School before the first World War, is coming over from Guernsey, and joining one of his sons at the Dinner. Rob Browning is, this time, the sole representative of the Browning clan: Rob’s many brothers, his sister, his father and his grandfather, were all at the School. William Spooner, whose father was a contemporary of mine, and whose grandfather was at the School at the turn of the 19th century, wrote me a most encouraging letter of support.

I have illustrated my point with four or five chains, but if you were to talk to any of the former pupils you would find there had been a very good reason why they had been sent to West Downs, and in many cases it was because there was a family or near-family link.

But not all boys at the School turned out to be successful. Two, at least, achieved infamy. One of these, Jack Amery, the son of a British Cabinet Minister, was hanged after the 39-45 War for Treason. Nowadays, however, Treason is so commonplace that the present Government, in the Autumn of 1999, and almost unnoticed, did away with hanging for it, as nobody had taken the slightest notice of it for years. The newspapers openly carry treasonable articles, broadcast debates regularly air treasonable views, and the man in the street sees no reason not to do the same.

The other person who was a bit dodgy from the School’s point of view, was Sir Oswald Mosley, the Leader in the 1930s of the British Fascists.

But on the other side of the coin there were men and women of achievement in all walks of life. Other people, in other papers about the School, have attempted to detail and list the more famous of these men and women. But most of us did not become famous: we went back to our homes to carry on as farmers, lawyers, soldiers, sailors, businessmen, politicians, and what-have-you. What did we get out of it?

There were a number of School Mottoes, all lifted from other Schools and Organisations. Our religious education was Church of England of a type exemplified by the altar-screen, which illustrated “Honest, Brave and Pure.” There was a strong tradition of service to the community, exemplified by the Motto inscribed on our War Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance: “Here am I, Send Me.”

And if the terse Scouting motto “Be Prepared” doesn’t seem to amount to much, you should remember that the average boy arrived aged eight and a half, and was invested into the Scouts at the age of eleven. He therefore had two and a half years of scoutcraft training as a “Recruit”, followed by two and a half years of practical scouting. On his investiture he would say, “I promise on my Honour that I will Do My Best, to do my Duty to God and the Queen, And to obey the Scout Law.” The King, of course, in my day.

So what was the Scout Law?

We can sum it up by the little jingle we all had to remind us of the full wording:—

“Trusty, Loyal, Helpful, Brotherly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Smiling, Cheerful, Clean as the rustling wind.”

“A Scout’s Honour is to be trusted.” That is the first of the ten Scout Laws. I won’t go through all the other nine, as you can work them out for yourself from the jingle. But we learnt that our Honour should mean a great deal to us. It wasn’t just our own Honour, it was the honour of our School and, perhaps even more so, the Honour of our Scout Patrol.

If you were naughty or late, you lost points on a scale of “All-Rounder” (the worst), “Nuisance Point” and “Late Mark”. While a score was kept of your own waywardness, what was far more important was that a score was kept of each of the five Scout Patrol’s total bad behaviour. I will go a little bit into what happened when a Patrol was found to be really naughty, for I can tell you this: that in my day one Patrol was found to be running its own private “Court of Star Chamber” with which it intended to punish those who had added to its large tally of All-Rounders. That patrol, the Eagles, was disbanded, its members dispersed among the other patrols, and new members selected for it. And so well was this done, that the new Patrol, the Curlews, was at once as honourable as any Head Master could wish.

In one of his papers on the School, Jerry Cornes refers incorrectly to this episode. He assumes that the kangaroo court, styled by the participants “The Court of Star Chamber” was run with the permission of Mr. Tindall, the then Head Master. This was absolutely not so. I know. I was there. I was one of those punished by the “Court of Star Chamber.” It was my first term at the School, and I was in the Eagles, and then stayed on in the Curlews. The episode is also obliquely referred to in the article by Wilfrid Grenville-Grey.

So far I haven’t said very much about work and games. We were made to work extremely hard. As an ex-member of staff wrote, after moving to West Downs from another School, he had never before realised that few boys and girls at English Schools work to even a tenth of their capacity, and many to far less even than that. What kind of a mush can be left of their brains after such a feeble education?

We were not punished for bad work; there was an ethos that simply would not permit it. Every boy would Do His Best, and there was a most remarkable monitoring system that ensured that boys who Did Their Best were adequately and publicly praised. Not the other way round.

As for games, there were boys who excelled naturally at them. Every boy had as good a chance as any other at winning a place in one of the School’s Teams, and representing the School against other Schools. There weren’t many matches while we were away at Blair Atholl, but we still kept up our daily net practice in the summer, or ball-control practice in the winter, against that joyful day when the war should be ended, and the School return to Winchester.

As I’ve said above, after Godliness and True Learning, Scoutcraft was one of our most important skills. In retrospect, I think it might have proved of more lasting importance to me than the subtleties of Latin or Greek syntax. It was especially important to us while we were at Blair Atholl, because we were able to roam the hills, forests and moors there, taking part in those Scout games called Wide Games, which demand every ounce of a boy’s skill and courage. I hear nowadays of Scout Troops that have no Scoutcraft at all. I won’t go into the scorn with which the older Scout Leaders regard such Troops. But we were lucky, very lucky, that’s all I can say about it.

When the School was at Winchester, our far-seeing Founder, Lionel Helbert, had bought for the School Melbury, a large and semi-wild property the other side of the main road that ran past the School. Here we were able to practice our Scoutcraft to some extent, though not so adequately as we had done roaming the Forest of Atholl. In the dying days of the School less emphasis was placed on Scouting, and when Melbury was sold the days of the West Downs tradition were numbered.

Well, that’s what it feels like to be a member of the Old West Downs Society. You are a member of a circle of people, who, when you meet them for the first time, or talk to them on the telephone, you know that you have that great tradition behind you both, that you speak the same language, and view the world through the same eyes. And that surely is worth something, especially in these days when such standards are so openly derided by those who were less admirably brought up.

Nick Hodson, Membership Secretary of the OWD Society since 1980