by Bill Burchell
My strongest and most vivid memory of Harrow County School for Boys in the late forties and the aftermath of World War Two is of the first time I entered the hallowed portals. I walked through the front door under the stained glass window commemorating John Boothman's winning of the Schneider Trophy. The occasion was a meeting for new boys and their parents to be addressed by the Headmaster, meet the Staff and learn something of the School and its routine. Little did I realise as I came through that door and gazed, somewhat awe-struck, at the gold lettered boards listing the School's University honours that it was the first and last time I would ever use that entrance. For then, its use by pupils was strictly forbidden and only staff were allowed to come and go that way. (Does this rule still apply in today's freer society, I wonder?)
From the impressive entrance lobby with its gleaming boards - "I'm sure my name will never go up there," thought I (and I was right ) - past the, then it seemed, so very wide, central staircase into the Main Hall to join a somewhat subdued audience of boys and parents. Were they all as overawed as I was by the gowns and the multi-coloured college capes? Was my Mum overawed? I never did ask her. Were the other boys all feeling as self-conscious as I was in my brand new green uniform with its shining gold badge (that would soon be shrieking to all and sundry "Look, I'm a New Boy!") and that so alien cap grasped in sweaty hands? I wonder. And was it simply the importance of the occasion and the realisation that one was on the threshold of a new way of life that gave the Hall an aura of dignity and scholarship that it really didn't possess and most certainly disappeared once one had dangled from its wall-bars?
The Head at that time was Dr Randall Williams who had been at the School for many years and had contributed a great deal to its culture and ethic. He came across as a benign, friendly man who told us a bit about the School, what would happen on our first day and that his retirement was imminent. Hence, perhaps, benigness. I cannot now remember exactly when he left but it did mean that my year's entry had no less than three Heads during our first two years. Crowle Ellis followed, a man I always found quite inspirational and someone who understood boys. The man who after giving me six of the best for punting about on a scaffold plank in six feet of water in the flooded "ruins" (truly, a life threatening escapade!) shook hands and said: "No hard feelings. You know you deserved it." I did and I respected him for it. Where would he stand in today's misguided PC world? And then, of course, came Dr Simpson, of whom, more anon.
And so to the first school-day proper, once more into the Hall, via the quad this time, of course, and even then the realisation that it was not a vast place of great solemnity but a rather small hall dominated by gym equipment and a grand piano on a separate stage. It was in fact much smaller than the hall at my not-nearly-so-grand junior school, Bridge, Wealdstone, (now the site of Harrow's architecturally-challenged Civic Centre) but it still had those, so typical, dust motes floating in the sunlight. Why do all schools seem to have them together with that distinct, all-pervading smell? Is it perchance the powerful pong of learning? I'm sure not, more like the fear-ridden smell of young bodies. But again, a digression, we were then sorted into Forms - 2B for me - and into alphabetical order and marched off to our classrooms. Classrooms? Forget it! First year pupils were then housed in the "temporary" pre-fabricated buildings known affectionately as The Huts. (Can anyone tell me when their "temporary" existence finally came to an end?) They were great if you sat on the sport field side and could watch the day's happenings outside. Not so great if you were on the other side and had the grey concrete wall of the Sheepcote Road ramp to gaze at for inspiration when declining a French verb. Great in Summer, not so great in Winter with a solitary cast-iron, coke-fuelled stove for heating. But, good training for latter days and National Service.
Who are the characters that spring to mind from those early days? Ron 'Rags' Graves who had been kept back a year, a stigma amongst the staff but one-up amongst us tyros. 'Rags' knew the ropes and was a man worth cultivating. Alan Porter, who reduced the form to hysterics when he announced, with distinct pride and a total lack of awareness of the humour of his Dad's name and his job, that his father was the Station Master at Kenton LMS station. Does Kenton station even boast a ticket clerk today?
Georgie Armstrong, a geography master, renowned for his accuracy with the blackboard duster (the old wood and felt type that hurt when it hit - I promise you!) and who on one classic occasion became so enraged that he threw a chair right across the room, smashing it in the process. We just took it in our stride and probably didn't even mention it at home. And the very attractive lady teacher who took French and was said to be more than just good friends with the aforementioned Georgie (it now occurs to me that the chair episode probably had more to do with her than with us) and who, along with all lady teachers, we called "Sir". Strange, but it did make life simpler all round. Imagine the furore if it were suggested today!
The other highlight of the first term was, of course, the time-honoured, traditional, this-is-what-a-good-school-is-all-about practice of beating up new boys. The first few weeks were hell at break and lunch times. Gangs of boys, mainly second years determined to wreak vengeance for the indignities they had suffered (another bizarre parallel with National Service!) surrounding us first years, easily identified by our beacon-like blazer badges, and asking: "Which House are you in?" With odds of one-in-four, the chances were you would give the wrong answer and get thumped and, even if you gave the right answer, your cap was likely to find its way into a tree or puddle. I was a reasonable size for my age and so didn't suffer too much, but many did and their first few weeks at a new school were made very unhappy. But, we all just took it as part of school life and never complained. What was the point? It was probably seen to be "character forming".
And what of these Houses? Northwick, Preston, Weldon and Kenton - all names of surrounding districts, some of which, even then, were fading into obscurity and all rather boring. Why not poets, sportsmen, statesmen? - someone with whom we lads could have identified and perhaps even emulate. A great opportunity lost, I always thought. The House competitions never seemed to be taken seriously and getting House Standards in athletics was a great bore that was in no way enhanced by the ridiculous shorts we wore. Although quite attractive in colour, my house, Weldon, had chocolate brown with a Cambridge blue stripe (chic, n'est-ce pas?), they had the widest, fully-flared, crutch-revealing legs imaginable. Linford up with them would not have put!
One of the greatest characters of those early days was Swannie Amos who took us for PT and swimming and who often made spiteful, but always deadly accurate, observations on schoolboys. Mr. Amos was long and slim of body, and equally long and slim of neck. Hence his sobriquet.
But swimming! The agony and the ecstasy! The agony of being segregated - swimmers and non-swimmers - and then for the latter, amongst whom I shivered, further agony and humiliation on being told that for the next lesson one would need a large letter 'L' sewn on the rear of one's trunks. Ignominy! But, what a wonderful psychology! For to go swimming after school with an 'L' written large on one's bottom was an act demanding supreme courage. Particularly as the pool would be full of basso-profundo sixth-formers, some of whom even sported embryo moustaches and played for the school polo team. First, the beacon blazer badge and now a glowing 'L' to proclaim one's fallibility.
That 'L' had to be got rid of, and quick! And quick it was, for Swannie, true to his name had a unique method of teaching us to swim. His only piece of equipment was a ten foot cane that enabled him to reach whatever part of our anatomies was above water at the time. In truth the cane was merely to tap you to gain attention but his method was one that quickly built confidence, let the water do the work and then you swam! Ecstasy! Rip off that 'L' and celebrate with a cup of piping-hot Bovril. Bliss!!
I used Swannie's method to teach my own kids to swim and light years later, on holiday in the Caribbean, even taught a nervous, 40-plus lady. Much to her delight and her husband's chagrin.
Another abiding memory of Swannie was his stentorian call that echoed round the pool: "Hey, you boy, get in the water and swim!" It's a call that passed into the language of my non-HCGS friends and subsequently into my own family's vocabulary. Long may it be a call to the pool!
And swim we did. Virtually every evening after school from that first, fatherhood-threatening, but point-of-honour, dip on May Day through to the last day of the pool as Autumn approached. But after each session it was a three mile bike ride home to collapse on the bed exhausted before awakening to the prospect of homework - and it's due in tomorrow morning! Horror!
It is impossible to think of the School pool without thinking, with great affection, of its custodian, Tim Millard. Tim was a big man, strong, very well built who apparently ran the pool with an iron fist. But, he was a gentle giant and a great friend to those of us who frequented the pool after school. We got to know him well but when he used your name (usually surname, as was common at school then) you really knew you had arrived. I believe the pool was closed a good few years ago, which is sad because it was one of the many things that made the School so special.
Memories flood in as I think on down the years but I suppose the most significant happening for us pupils and, most certainly, for the Staff and the School was the arrival of Dr A R Simpson.
One of ARS's first acts on arriving was to introduce a new early morning registration system known as "The First Instance". This comprised a book in which, some ten or so minutes before the official register was called, the names of any boys not yet present were recorded. If your name appeared too often you were punished either with a detention or with lines. To this day the logic of it all escapes me. But it did cause a classic happening.
On the first Speech Day after the introduction of the notorious and universally hated "First Instance" system (I forget now whether it was at the old, long-gone Coliseum Theatre or in the Round Room at Harrow School), the guest-of-honour and presenter-of-prizes opened his speech with the immortal words: "In the first instance I would like to . . ." Uproar! Pandemonium! Hissing! Booing! Cheering! Never in the field of public speaking had such response been owed to so few words. The poor man was bewildered, yet bewitched. What on earth did I say? How did I score so well with my first phrase?
It would be poetic if I could tell you that "The First Instance" died forthwith. It didn't, but die it eventually did.
Another ARS initiative was the introduction of the Combined Cadet Force which was to absorb the long-established and very successful Air Force Cadets (or was it Air Cadet Force?). This roused a great deal of feeling and much controversy and, in retrospect, I realise gave me my first experience of racism, politics and censorship. So much feeling was aroused by this change that a Sixth Former put before the Debating Society the motion "The formation of the Combined Cadet Force is the first step towards Fascism". The proposer was a Jewish boy who, perhaps, in those immediate post-war days had good reason for his sentiment, but it did result in someone saying to him, loudly, in Assembly: "Why don't you go back to Jerusalem." Ferocious fisticuffs ensued. The motion never got debated. The Combined Cadet Force came in. And yours truly learnt a lot.
That episode and that motion in particular came strongly to mind when I read Graham Leach's article An Average Student in The Old Gaytonian, 1994. Was not that motion a scary harbinger of the ultra-elitist, narrow-focused, only-the-top-10%-matter, regime that Graham criticised so passionately? And, in fairness, are not the subversive ploys that Graham and his cohorts used to combat such extremes reflective of our larger world?
But, the tone gets too serious. Who else looms through the mists of time? Most certainly, Georgie Thorne the Music Master, who, with Randall Williams, was an architect of the School's ethos and co-writer of the school song Virtus Non Stemma, which was the School motto and translated as "Worth Not Birth". And very laudable too.
We certainly sang the song with gusto and I think, by-and-large, lived by the motto too because at School "worth", by the often bizarre judgement of one's peers, certainly counted for a lot more than "birth". So, now join with me and sing:-
It's worth not birth be this our battle cry.
Stand up for truth, be honest spurn a lie.
The times are hard and need the strength of men.
Hold fast. Fight on. If beaten, try again/
Oh! How long we hold that "agaaaaain..."
Georgie's other (genuine) claim to fame was the School choir which, whilst not quite enjoying the latter-day eminence of the John Lyon choir, was well respected in Harrow. Obligatory auditions took place early in the Second Form, when, still traumatised from "new boy" beatings, one stood in glorious and terrifying isolation on the side stage alongside Georgie and his grand. The test pieces now escape me but it was instant "in" or "out". I was "in", and still have an extensive repertoire of hymns from those days.
But, as well as having time away from school when we sang at the church on the Hill or at Harrow School, we also had the joy of practice sessions in the School hall. Here, because of the lousy acoustics, we could sing with great verve and volume our own versions of the classics and Georgie would be none the wiser. Just imagine the potential of:-
Where the bee sucks there suck I.
In a cowslip's bell I lie.
Good old Georgie, he gave us a lot of fun and, for me, a lasting joy in singing.
Georgie Armstrong, Georgie Thorn, "Cob" Webb, "Eggie" Webb, so known because of a large cyst on his forehead (I said we were spiteful), who else? But of course, Patrick Brendon Bradley, "graduate of Trinity College Dublin," as he always introduced himself. Known to us as "Twink" he took us for Eng. Lit. Well, being an Irishman he would, wouldn't he? More importantly, in the Fourth Form he offered us another option for Summer sport - rowing. Rowing?
Well, it wasn't quite swimming but it had potential and it would get us away from School, so we went for it. Training, prior to any actual rowing, took place on the Thames at Putney where, and I may be romanticising history, I think we used the Vesta Rowing Club tank-house.
In those days, schools didn't have mini-buses or Sunshine Coaches so we used to get on our bikes and cycle to Putney. The trip was much enhanced by the fact that one of our number, Tony Easy, yet another kept-back-a-year boy and therefore possessing great status and charisma, had a racing tandem! On the then relatively uncluttered North Circular the tandem could easily take most cars, dragging in its slipstream the rest of us would-be Reg Harrises.
Winter, of course, meant Rugby, unless the pitches were water-logged, in which case it was the dreaded cross-country running. A "sport" that corrupted this erstwhile innocent with the discovery that it was possible to take a short-cut on the course and then lie in wait for the rest of the field to go by before re-joining it.
Rugby we enjoyed enormously, particularly at the Peterborough Road field where there were no separate washing facilities for the Master who, on blowing the whistle for the end of the game, would then leg it back to the pavvy hotly pursued by thirty muddy youths all intent on seeing "Sir" in the communal bath. The pavvy is long gone and the field is now a Garden Centre, but I still recall happier happenings when I drive by.
Fifty years on and so many reminiscences sparked by one name, Beaky Fooks, and it is to him and all of his contemporaries who served us boys so well that I dedicate this piece.Bill Burchell
First printed in the Old Gaytonian, 1996