Chapter 4: Pembrokeshire and Public School, 1930-1934
As the year 1930 drew closer several changes were taking place. Warning had been received that the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment would be moving to Wiesbaden on the Rhine, which sounded an attractive place to be stationed. However Rhine Army was evacuated before the transfer could take place and we found ourselves in Pembroke Dock, the only regular Battalion in Western Command. The economic depression had hit the neighbourhood very hard. Activity in the dockyard, if any, appeared to be more concerned with dismembering ships than building them. However the position of the Barracks on a hill above the town, overlooking Milford Haven, was very fine particularly for the Officers’ Mess and our Quarter which stood next to it. The wild country and coastline called for exploration. Whatever has happened to picnics? We had many then but they have since become a lost art. There were headlands and beaches, cliffs with myriad birds, and the Preseli Hills, the source of the Bluestone for Stonehenge. The choice was so wide that sole possession of a site was common. Nowadays too many people just sit in their cars. Perhaps that is the change.
Then there were the Chargers, as the Infantry officers’ horses were called, that we were encouraged to ride. Our groom called the laggard horses ‘sooners’ on the basis that they would sooner go towards home than on the outward ride, when they needed constant urging. Palmer, the groom, was a great cross-country runner, representing Wales in International events.
In this relatively under-populated area civilian families with children soon made contact with us so that we made many friends. It was a lovely area that brought many relations and others to stay. There were local characters to remember too: Mrs Hopla, our cook, who made a specially popular sort of cake and Mrs Thomas the fish lady who appeared regularly on foot up our steep hill bearing a woven basket containing the freshest of fish.
The other major change of the year was that it was time for me to go to Public School. The selection of such a school often depends on family tradition, which in my case would have indicated Harrow. My grandfathers, my father and my mother’s brothers all went there and the earliest family Harrovian noted went there around 1760. I have one important thing which I thank Harrow for. It brought together my father, from a family owning cotton mills in Cheshire, and Keith Baynes, my mother’s artist brother. My paternal grandmother was dying of cancer, so my father spent some holidays in Kent with Keith and the Baynes family. No doubt my mother, six years his junior, had her eye on this athletic young visitor from an early age.
In fact I went to Oundle in Northamptonshire. It was later in life that I discovered how this alternative choice of school arose. My grandfather, Jo Horsfield, was at Christ’s College, Cambridge, with Frederick Sanderson, who quickly made his name thereafter as an original scholarly mind in the world of education.
Sanderson believed in the importance of the Sciences and Engineering for an Industrial Nation and that the staff of Schools had the major responsibility for discovering the interests of every pupil and providing the right channel and encouragement to lead them to success.
Sanderson was not a cleric, not a public school boy and not a classicist, so did not fit the stereotype of his time of what a Public School Headmaster should be. He had distinguished himself at Durham University and at Cambridge where he was a Wrangler.
Note: the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge University ranked candidates in order of Wrangler and two lower orders by the total number of marks gained. A Senior Wrangler was a mathematical star.
However he was not a narrow mathematician as his appointment as Examiner in Arts at Durham shows. As well as Honours Mathematics papers he had charge of papers on the Greek Gospels, English History, Scripture History and Logic. He was taken on as assistant master at Dulwich College in 1885. The only science taught there was Chemistry and that as a special subject. With the Governor’s backing he was able to introduce the teaching of Physics for the whole of the Modern Side and to the middle forms of the Classical Side. He arranged laboratories and workshops and founded the Science and Engineering Sides. A steam engine was introduced into the Engineering laboratory. He did not believe in models; one must have the real thing. Applied Mechanics, Workshop Practice and Mechanical Drawing were later additions. At least this one headmaster saw the need for trained engineers to run the booming new industries and make them competitive.
Most of us set out to be improvers in any job we take on, but a time may come when this is not enough. The old mould has to be broken and a new start made. Here was a mould breaker. Nevertheless any new approach is treated with suspicion, so it was a bold liveried Grocer’s Company that voted Sanderson to be Headmaster of Oundle School at the age of thirty-five. He took over a shrinking school of under a hundred pupils and left an expanding one with more than five hundred.
Some remarks Sanderson wrote at the end of his first term are of interest:
‘I have been surprised to find that the Assistant Masters, with hardly an exception, have no idea of what hard work means. This is not altogether their fault. … But from whatever causes this want of robust energy and hard work has arisen, it has without doubt done great harm to the boys. Not only have the boys not been pushed forward, but they have acquired a very low standard of energy. … It will undoubtedly take some time to infuse a spirit of work throughout the school.’
I remember a near contemporary of mine at Oundle remarking that he was surprised to find when he arrived at the RMA Woolwich that there were fellow cadets who thought that work was something to be avoided. The Sanderson precept was plainly being carried forward after his time. A History of the Oundle Schools by WG Walker notes:
‘It is not too much to claim that three headmasters of schools forming a triangle in the Midlands have given public school education in one century three great principles: Arnold of Rugby the management of the school by the boys, the prefect system: Thring of Uppingham the teaching of the whole class, not merely the promising boys at the top of it; and Sanderson of Oundle the width of the curriculum and the finding of a course of study that would suit each individual boy.’
By chance we have a link too with Headmaster Thring. His was a Somerset family coming from Castle Cary and had a great flowering in his generation. His elder brother became a peer for parliamentary work and his sister Theresa was also a woman of talent. She was grandmother to an uncle of mine. We have her fascinating scrapbook including a record of the laying of the foundation stone of the Bristol suspension bridge that is signed by Brunel.
I went to Oundle and it suited me well.
My Headmaster at the Grange had given warning that the Common Entrance qualification for Oundle would not be easy, but a pass was obtained. I believe that other preparatory schools were better at preparing pupils for this examination. At Oundle I got off to a good start in a low form. At the end of every fortnight an order of merit list was produced for each form and set. A regular ceremony then took place in the Great Hall. The Headmaster called for the orders in various groups to be brought to him and those topping lists would take them up. In a moment of glory at this first assessment I made the journey three times, once each for form, maths and French. I was promoted after my first term and again after the second, obtaining the Lower Certificate of the day there. Still aged fourteen I started my second year in the top School Certificate form on the Science side. My basic education turned out to have been sound enough.
Oundle, in Northamptonshire, is an old stone-built market town with fine buildings. It is small and compact enough for all the School’s varying facilities to be within easy walking distance. The foundation of the School in 1556 is owed to Sir William Laxton who became Lord Mayor of London and brought about the long and profitable association between the Worshipful Company of Grocers and the School. It is owing to Sanderson that it grew into a major public school during the early part of the twentieth century.
Note: the Worshipful Company of Grocers, London, was originally known as the Guild of Pepperers, whose earliest records date from 1180.
The House to which I was allotted - Dryden - did not qualify in any way as a fine building, though it had some local history. Our Housemaster, ‘Tally’ Hale, had known Sanderson at Cambridge. He had been delighted to accept the post of assistant master that was offered him. They moved to Oundle together in 1893. He had therefore been an Oundle master for thirty-seven years before I arrived. He was a man of great wisdom and knew exactly what to notice and what deliberately not to see. We admired and liked him. Dryden House itself was a different matter. It was part of an old Coaching Inn squeezed in between a residual pub and a private house. It provided for sixty boys without privacy of any kind. There was one large room that was home for the bottom thirty boys with a long table down the centre and one small locker for each boy down the walls. A small coal fire at one end provided such heating as there was. Arthur Marshall, of television fame, had been a boy in the house six years ahead of me and was back as a Master. He comments in his autobiography that the Black Hole of Calcutta had nothing on our small and low-ceilinged changing room for games. It had a few basins, and no showers. Two baths a week were allowed on a timed programme and cold baths each morning were routine. In winter dormitory temperatures dropped well below freezing conforming to exterior levels.
Arthur Marshall also comments that the Hales showed extreme cunning in order to avoid showing parents round the establishment. To us, having no comparisons to make, this was public school and we accepted what was there as one did many other things. The house had studies, just three rooms, perched above old stables. On reaching the upper half of the house after two years in the crowded prep room one moved over there. The first study contained fifteen boys, the second nine and the last one six. So there the head of house and the prefects shared the best of the poor options available. So much for privileged education! There was a modest yard providing some outdoor space and miserly sanitary appliances at its extremity. The study stairs had been modified by the boys so that a buzzer sounded in the largest room when the housemaster stood on the middle stair as he approached for a prep time visit. It was then the duty of the boy nearest the door to switch off the warning device in case someone else should cause a loud buzz whilst authority was with us. I feel sure that this ancient device was well known to Tally Hale, but I do not remember that he ever cheated by stepping over the operative stair.
Returning home from school in the summer we found that a caravan had been acquired for camping so that the accommodation problem was solved for tours and visiting friends and relations. This second hand acquisition bore little resemblance to the luxurious models of today. Entrance was from the back, like its gypsy counterpart, and the design was like a covered railway truck with a curved roof giving maximum height down its length. Heavy canvas tent-like extensions were fitted each side to provide boys’ sleeping quarters and an eating area. The speed limit when towing was 30 mph and with little thought given to weight saving this was not a great restriction. Long journeys took time.
Camping sites had yet to be developed so one chose a likely field and with the farmer’s permission set up camp in a convenient corner. An early trip was to Charmouth - that must have been in 1931 as I remember a walk to the newsagent to buy a copy of a Times supplement that showed that I had passed the Lower Certificate. In those days examination results were notified in this way. On another occasion we went to Boot, a famous rock-climbing and hill-walking village in Cumberland. Our idyllic site was in a minor field above the small river Esk. It rained and rained and the river rose fifteen feet but by good fortune we remained just above its reach. First acquaintance with the Lake District led to many later visits with ascent of peaks and passes, though rock climbing was not suitable as a family pursuit with our disabled members.
Back at Oundle the terms passed happily enough. It was an asset to be reasonably good at games and to represent the school in its lower level teams, but the heroes were the top performers, particularly on the rugger field. Frank Spragg, an Oxford Blue, was a brilliant coach at a time before coaching became a major part of sporting success. Ken Fyfe was probably his greatest star, captaining Cambridge and Scotland within a few years of leaving Oundle.
One of the major contributions of Sanderson was to introduce practical workshop training throughout the School. There were facilities for metalworking, a forge, foundry and woodworking, including the pattern-making of wooden models for casting. Each term one had a full week released from classrooms and under instruction in one or other of these workshops. DIY was a term yet to come but this training built valuable skills for both the professional and the amateur.
Music must be for everybody, not just the specialists, said Sanderson. Clement Spurling came to Oundle with Sanderson. There would be an orchestra and as many boys as possible in one of the parts of the Choir. Everyone else was termed non-choir and they were brought in with thundering effect at dramatic moments in major works, reinforcing now the trebles, or now another part. Spurling had professional friends who supported the concept and he brought instrumental soloists to join in. In my time I remember Clara Butt and Leon Goosens taking part in the Messiah. It is said that during a chapel service Sanderson would stop the singing of, say, the Magnificat, if it was not energetic enough and have it restarted - odd but effective. Sanderson died eight years before I reached Oundle, but like many others I feel a personal debt to him and the school he created.
One thing that the School lacked in those days was any form of career advice. When I was 15 I remember a group of us sitting down and being asked by Tally Hale to write down what we proposed to do when we left school. Having little or no understanding of the options available I wrote down ‘Army’, so that was decided upon. Later I formed the idea that flying might be very like skiing and that the Air Force would suit me better. The troubles of Army cut-backs and the depression worried my father, who noted that Sappers with their Engineering background found civilian jobs with ease when others had little success. A Sapper Commission depended on getting entry to the RMA Woolwich and a place high up on the passing-out list. After discussion my name on the examination list was marked ‘W 30’ which meant that I would go to ‘The Shop’ as it was called if I passed in the top thirty (out of 120).
Oundle made little special provision for Army entrance candidates. In the term of the entry exam special instruction was given in the peculiarities of the Woolwich Maths papers. This was brilliantly done with the result that I achieved marks in this subject near the top of the list, a position I failed to maintain when I got there. I was also safely within the acceptance limit that I had set myself.