Harrow County School for Boys

Reminiscences of Gerry Freed 1948-55

This text refers to real people, living and dead. It consists of recollections separated from the events by over fifty years. It may well contain comments that give offence. They are shared in the spirit of the community value in understanding and learning from the unusual culture of this school. If they are inaccurate then I hope they trigger memories in others to correct them and apologise for the discomfort that may be caused by that process. If accurate I have recorded them because I think they are worthy of record. 

HCS in my era during the Simpson regime could hardly be described as a benign learning environment. It was undoubtedly a major factor in developing my character and life skills and certainly not all its effects were negative.  

My overall dominating memory was one of fear, each and every day. A lot was of my own making, because the opression produced a larrikin distrust and disregard for authority that was created by the self apppointed and self righteous. In consequence, testing the boundaries of what my friends and I could get away with, added highly to the risks. Yet, I survived nearly seven years without a serious caning.

Living here in France, we have just had the pleasure of watching the recent film Les Choristes. It portrayed much of the HCS environment within in a French orphanage run by a similarly psychologically compromised principal. It has triggered off my interest in sharing these experiences on the Website.

Simpson (Square) was obsessed by Oxbridge which was tolerable, but it was accompanied by a blinkered exclusion of value in any other educational trajectory. He recruited excellent staff and some less good and some temporaries. A selection process of pupils, which at the time brought up images of the live/die selection in the Nazi concentration camps, was carried out at the end of the first year. We moved into four streams, which in spite of his second obsession with the classics were not labelled alpha, beta, gamma, delta as perhaps they should have been. The best by his standards were put in the A stream and given the lightest hand, the best teaching and other resources. They were fast tracked, jumping the fifth form and programmed to a single goal, the Oxbridge Scholarship Exams. The B stream were tolerated. The C's and D's were lost to the system. Late developers never got a chance. They got the worst of everything but the best punishments. These seemed to be for individual misdemeanours but I felt as I left, that it was a communal punishment for being there and failing to contribute to his ambitions.

He hated the concept of Comprehensives, grovelled to Public Schools and saw Merchant Taylor's as the school to emulate and beat. He was an elitist and I share some of those values that support pushing people to the limits of their individual capability. However, he left me wondering where elitism ended and fascism began. I remember discussing at the time, with minimal knowledge of psychology whether he had been thwarted in an Oxbridge ambition personally and subrogated their fulfillment to us. He believed in what he did,  operated with sincerity and consistency and was an honorable man. However his drivers and values were highly unusual and today would probably get him in jail. I don't think he reflected post war values, he was rare mixture of Victorianism and personal hang ups.

It was compulsory to be in the CCF or the school's 4th Harrow Scout troop. Some of us were not and were regularly berated in Simpson's daily tirade and homily session at Assembly. We were blamed for everything that went wrong (ie outside his definition of right). It was a self fulfilling prophecy, we worked diligently to make as much mayhem as possible and break the rules wherever possible. We had various titles, all non complimentary, which most of us wore with pride. My favourite remains the "Non Conformists, Saboteurs and Potential Murderers." I certainly qualified for the first, did well in the second but felt that the third should have been reserved for the CCF.

Two streams were brought together and made an interesting mix. There were those who refused to join the two 'extra curricular' activities, some on health grounds and some representing their parents pacifist and/or Communist leanings. It was the time of CND, the Cold War and a strong anti war feeling. The other was religious in origin. Each morning there was an Anglican service to start the day and preceding the 'announcements'. Roman Catholics could be excused from attendance if their parents so chose, Jews were expected not to and there were no Muslims in my time. The presence of atheists and agnostics was never really recognised, although I recall at least one boy whose father was an evangelical atheist and had his son excused. These two overlapping groups were segregated, left in classrooms that were poorly supervised and expected to get on with school work while the services or CCF/Scout activities were in progress. It gave adequate opportunity to wander the school and plan the next bit of mischief or to talk about the wrongs of the world and how we would put them right. The only risk was meeting one of the Masters who had declined to attend Assembly. Fortunately many of these were non believers in Square and turned a blind eye.

I qualified on several counts, my parents were Jewish and I was an atheist and worse I was not prepared to join the Scouts. I was too small and weak to be considered a serious Dad's Army recruit. I tried the Scouts for one term and found myself lost in a fairly tough, almost bullying environment. Anyway, I was the troop leader of the 11th Ruislip, which was a tiny troop of two patrols. There my outdoor fire lighting capabilities could be used to obtain greater personal prestige. I escaped on the argument that I was already a Scout and Square could not enforce which Troop I belonged to. There was only one Baden Powell.

I left the school bearing several scars. A family of three brothers were in the school and all were fairly rough. One tripped me up as I ran down a short staircase. I cracked my chin and my beard still hides the damage. A bit of larking about nearly killed me. In fact several of our adventures were quite dangerous. This one though, was silly. I was really very small and some of my VI form class mates dressed me in a CCF Army khaki greatcoat, buttoned over my head so that I could wander round like the ghost of a decapitated General Haig. Great idea, but I suffocated. 

I needed to swim but couldn't. I had respiratory limitations probably left over from severe pneumonia at around 8 years old, was a sinker and was excused lessons. Finally in the lower sixth I joined a class for boys improving their swimming. At the first test I was supposed to swim a few lengths which was impossibly more the width I had once achieved while sinking diagonally. I foundered at the deep end and had to be fished out and resuscitated. These two events must have been contributory factors to a lasting claustrophobia and fear of respiratory restriction. 

The swimming pool had a tuck shop run by volunteer mothers which sold hot drinks and food, which were welcome after the cold of the outdoor pool. It and the official Tuck Shop also supplied supplementary diet to the doubtful school dinners. I do not think a nutritionist got anywhere near these services. Tragically one boy ate a school bun, which arguably was a life threating experience anyway and then went swimming. He refluxed a crumb which lodged in his windpipe and he died. I remember the dire warnings given by Square the morning after the inquest. It led to sensible regulations leaving a reasonable gap between meals and swimming lessons and a discouragement to the Tuck Shop to overfeed the wealthier pupils with stodge. The standards of supervision were markedly improved.

It is ironic that I write these words sitting at home in south west France, my English confused by French phrase structures, when the French teaching I experienced was my worst pedagogical experience at HCS.

When we arrived there was a shortage of French teachers and we only had one term of teaching in the first two years. The first one named Eagers was I believe half French and spoke the only French I heard at school with an authentic accent. He was as scatterbrained as I was later as a Uni professor and could not remember boys' names from one lesson to the next. I easily fooled him into believing that he had lost my homework, when he had taken it away for marking. He could never found it, which was consistent with the truth that I never did any. That behaviour of generating excuses for not doing homework followed me right through school. I only did any out of interest and fought the system simply because it was compulsory. 

He had a nervous breakdown for which I still feel guilty and he was not easily replaced. We had a year with a history teacher taking us in French. Unfortunately all this mattered in the Great Scheme, as French or German plus Latin or Greek was compulsory for Oxbridge entrance. The O level had an oral which must have been hell for the examiners, as we were only conditioned to respond with simple phrases in a Harrow accent to questions posed using an upper middle class to BBC Engish modulation. Anthony Newmann, a friend from the year after mine, and I were sent to a private tutor for a few rescue weeks before the exam. I just scraped through with what I suspect was a sympathy vote, as I was terrified at the oral.

That terror was a repeat of the moment of auditioning for George Thorn's choir. I was tone deaf and did not understand the concept of singing as I had no correlation between the sound of a piano note and the pitch of a voice. I shook for half an hour until my turn came and was dismissed fortunately at the first randomly placed Doh. It took me years after that to speak in public and it wasn't until my forties that I became an accomplished speaker and presenter.

It had the advantage that I could hide at the back of music lessons or the frequent singing of hymns, the school song and the National Anthem to talk of other things with my equally operatically disadvantaged friends. Strangely I never heard of Beethoven's Ninth or Schiller's Ode to Joy until I left HCS; pleasure was not a part of the vocabulary there.

George Thorn achieved a life ambition to raise the money to install a permanent large musical instrument which alas was called an Organ. This gave rise (no pun intended) to a variety of disgusting but amusing schoolboy humour around the concept of George Thorn's Organ. 

Sex was a to be expected biological interest of teenage boys but at that time homosexuality was a taboo subject. There was an element of pedophilia linked to the school. Several boys got involved with a doubtful media industry personality who used to pick them up and drive them to the school. I accepted one such lift with one of my classmates. I sat in the back of the car and sat on and broke a master vinyl recording of some value and fortunately was never asked again. 

Sadly one boy in the year younger than me got involved and commited suicide. Another was tortured in the CCF and left the school soon afterwards.

Biology was the province of Shwock Bigham, a large man with an archetypical RSM behaviour although he liked to known as Major. His arbitrary and savage beatings have been documented by others. There was no system of appeal. Few boys were prepared to tell their parents what went on and probably did not realise there were other ways of running a school. Few parents seemed to have the strength to take on Simpson or Bigham so there was little justice in that small but critical world of ours.

I do not remember any sex educuation formally given at the school. It seemed officially as if the subject did not exist. If there was any, perhaps someone can recall, it would have fallen to Bigham as the senior biology teacher to present. I cannot imagine a less likely or sympathetic individual for the task, like learning petit point needlework from a gorilla.

I actually had no run-ins with him, I was scared of him but he was good to me. He formalised the process of dissecting frogs, the catching and dismembering of wild animals and insects being an unstructured evening and weekend distraction. My mother never adapted to newts climbing and descending our staircase at home.

An innocent benefactor gave the school a large cabinet containing an excellent collection of tropical butterflies and other insects, mostly Asian. It included a hairy spider of around ten inch span and a similar sized Atlas month. They must have been collected by someone dedicated, as most had hand written labels with their Linnean classification. It was a long way in sophistication above anything in the biology lab, dominated as it was by by a smelly set of rabbits intestines. Sensing our interest, Bigham gave John Leonhardt and I the task of sorting and classifying, which occupied a lot of our breaks, biology lessons and lunchtimes.

The drive that sent us hurtling towards Oxbridge and threw aside so many, produced a sort of sort of reverse discrimination. In the new wing about 1952/3 they set up a woodworking and metalworking workshop to provide some of the subjects taught in the despised secondary Modern schools. They were only made available to the drop outs as the selected few had over-full curricula. I resented that and complained to my form master, Spider Webb, who had started the woodwork lessons. He and several other masters had a dedication that has long ago vanished in the teaching profession and was prepared to run classes for us in their own time. 

So an interested group soon formed and we stayed back after school to learn basic skills that for me have been as valuable as the more academic indoctrination. He fast tracked the normal syllabus and let us work on products of our own choosing, with the two masters involved show us how to do things as we needed to know. I built but never finished, a little tortoise shaped goal seeking robot. I learned to use machine tools, lathe mill etc and to gas weld which I continue to benefit from in my car restoration, boat building and house restoration. When I ran my own factories I made a point of never asking anyone to do anything I could not do myself. Thanks to Spider I had the grounding that made that possible.

Another positive contributor was Groombridge, a physics teacher. He had been a met officer and really knew his subject, which was hardly relevant to the somewhat theoretical science courses. He ran an after hours set of lessons on meteorology - how to prepare and read weather maps and the various predictive techniques, well before satellite imaging and computers. Again invaluable when I became an amateur sailor, as what I remembered of his teaching was a life saver many times and of course it easily got me through the Yachtmasters course on the subject. I just had to sharpen my pencil.

Friday afternoons after hours where taken up with the Sixth Form Society which got us into some very interesting areas. A neighbour of the school was Neville Schute, the author and aviation industry personality. I got much inspiration from the talk that he gave. I was in the Chess Club and an undefeated member of the school team but that was a feature of the opposition as I was mediocre. The Captain was an interesting character who become the London Schools Champion. He was very usual because he had a truly photographic memory. He would amuse us with responding to quotes from a book with a page number and position on the page. His chess technique owed much to the fact that he had read all the GrandMasters games back a century and so in any situation he could recall how they had played and the outcomes. I heard that he did less well at Uni because he was less exceptional at cognitive reasoning that at remembering. 

To achieve Square's goals you had to focus on a narrow range of intensive subjects early on. I was bright but lazy and more interested in my electronics at home that in the school work. I was heading in year two towards the bottom of the B's until I got dragged onto the treadmill. We had to learn French or German, Greek or Latin, English and Maths as base qualifications. Of those I only had talent and motivation in Maths but enjoyed peripheral subjects like science. I got away with a carefully crafted minimum in everything to avoid any more punishment that a rap with a ruler but it was marginal in terms of passing the O levels necessary. I recall a Latin teacher, Morgan by name, who was a rugby coach and pretty hefty looming over me to translate some really exciting piece of Caesar's Gallic Wars in a class that had been so doing for some fifteen minutes. I did not even have the book with me. He was too amazed to hit me. Once I got into the fourth Form and started to specialise, the teaching quality was impressive. Dan Maskell was excellent and really understood what I needed to help me grasp often difficult abstract concepts. I bravely asked him why he taught there as he there were lots of other place he could be. He replied that teaching at Harrow County on one's CV was a big plus, and he left shortly afterwards to a good promotion, I believe. 

With BJD Harvey in 1953, who was a better mathemetician than me, I started reading about computers. There were only three in the UK  (about half the world population) at Cambridge, Manchester and the National Physical laboratories. We did not know about Bletchley at the time. I decided then to go to Cambridge or Manchester to play computers. I scraped through the six O levels I needed and then focused on the scholarship exams at Cambridge, which were a Xmas event. En passant, I took A levels in Pure and Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Brian Harvey decided he wanted more theoretical maths and headed to Oxford. He did end up in computers, in spite of that.  I sat the exams and was told along with John Leonhardt that we could enter as Commoners if we did our national service first or come back and have another try at the Scholarship. John accepted and went into the RAF for two years. I didn't care because my eye was on all those valves and paper tape at Manchester. 

When the next term started and Square called me into his office to tell me that I was the youngest in my year and I should stay on and try again, I said no because I had a place at Manchester. I am not sure that he had even known that it has a University and certainly the idea that they might be world leaders in any field did not apparently occur to him. I was dismissed and never spoke to him again. He read out the list of University places at Assembly and 'forgot' me. I finished the year and got a State Scholarshipin maths, one of four that year and he did admit that in his statistical review.

I left or rather escaped the school and headed North to interesting science and engineering with a very valuable parting present from HCS. Because of this intensive three year immersion in the Cambridge exam saga I had already covered most of the first year's work at Uni. I was able to cruise; I went to a few lectures and practical classes that interested me but moved into the social environment as if I had had been released from a life sentence in prison. I joined a multitude of clubs and discovered girls in quantity and quality. I then benefited from another last minute gift of the school. I had never, never had any talent at sport which was a big minus in the Square world. However in my last year Legget came and gave a talk at the school in the Old Hall, then the gym. He was a 6th Dan Judoka, the highest qualified non Japanese and I believe the first foreigner to go though the training at the KodoKan in Tokyo. Japan was a very exotic destination pre war. What he said about the philosophy of Judo intrigued me, as did the idea of having some self defense skills. 

At Uni I took up the sport seriously and made the Uni team. Later it became my turn to teach Judo to children.

One other of my year came up to Manchester with me. He was David Barnett, son of a GPO engineer in Harrow who became an electronic component sales executive and also played Judo.

The plusses were that the education and especially the non mainstream bits became valuable assets that I gained at HCS. The environment was a huge liability in many respects, I am still paranoic from those long years of fear, fright and panic. However, I reacted by thinking a long way beyond the Square, a mind set that has done me no harm.

The education I got was of high quality and like a targeted arrow. It masked the reality that I was not a genius in the subjects that were chosen for me and was much more of a generalist - I have since been called a 20th Century Renaissance man.  After I went to Uni, I flew on with the arrow until after graduation, when I had started a PhD in computer modelling of neural function. The arrow dropped to earth as I realised I did not want to spend the rest of my life locked into science and a lab. Subjects like English and French literature had passed me by and I wanted to go back and start again.  I made an abortive attempt to do a B. Arts degree but I did not have the Scholarship to fund it or the competence in French.

The school made a limited choice for me. In retrospect I would have liked to have seen the option open of a broader based education at a less intense level. The obsession with Oxbridge entrance Rolls of Honour denied me that.

Gerry Freed


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