by Richard Buckley
Throughout his career at HCS, Harry Mees, to put it mildly, made his presence felt. Teaching history in that rich Gloucestershire accent (sometimes doing so whilst lying on his back due to an old soccer injury), leading the Scouts, Master i/c Rugby or sinking the Spanish Armada on the school stage were all grist to Harry's mill. As he says modestly, "I did all the jobs no-one else would - badly". But, of course, far from doing these jobs 'badly', Harry was a key member of staff in the Simpson and Avery eras and the first years of Gayton High. He caught the imagination of boys and colleagues alike whilst his Department consistently delivered first-class academic results.
Born into a Great Western Railway family in 1920 and educated at Cheltenham Grammar School, Harry went up to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1938 to read medieval history. Under special wartime arrangements, he was awarded his degree after only four terms of intensive study. The day after his 20th birthday, he joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and in due course found himself serving in the Gambia as a Sergeant commanding a Bren gun carrier. But illness struck and he was repatriated to the UK and transferred to the Suffolk Regiment.
It is said that every man has a destiny. Harry found his destiny whilst serving with the Suffolks. Still fit only for light duties, he reported in every day and was invariably sent away with nothing to do. Then one day the school master responsible for teaching the Regiment's band boys was taken ill and Harry, simply because he had a university degree, was detailed to take over his duties. He loved it from the very start, taking responsibility for getting the boys through the Army's equivalent of the then School Certificate.
He progressed to the Education Corps and ultimately found himself in India lecturing to Indian Army Education officers, including his future close colleague at HCS, Bill D'Arcy (though neither man has any memory of that early meeting!). In his spare time he played soccer for his unit, an experience which convinced him that soccer was a far more dangerous game than rugby! As goalkeeper, he saved a penalty in the Kashmir Army Cup Final against a team of ferocious Gurkhas but went on to lose 1-0.
Demobbed, he went back to Oxford with the intention of following an academic career and taking up his interest in the 100 Years War that had been interrupted by the war. But like so many young men returned from war, Harry found that times had changed. He had married his first wife Olive before going out to Africa in 1942. She was living in Cheltenham and he in Oxford. After the tragic loss of a child for the second time and with someone else having published the line of research he had hoped to follow, Harry felt he had no choice but to get a 'proper' job. And so Harry came to HCS.
Harry was one of Dr. Simpson's earliest appointments and it is to Simpson's credit that he saw the promise in this young historian with his truncated (but no less valid) war-time degree and no teaching qualification. Their views on education often differed and as he gained seniority Harry saw it as his duty to try and shield the boys from Dr. Simpson's more extreme ideas. But he is generous about Dr. Simpson and still considers that he would not have been able to do many of the things he did at HCS had Simpson not played his part as well.
Harry loved HCS from the start. He threw himself into the life of the school becoming Master in charge of Rugby and tentatively staged his first play in 1951. When Dr. Simpson virtually forced all boys into either the Scouts or the CCF, Harry formed a fourth Scout troup, the Forresters, to create enough places in the Scouts for those boys who didn't want to join the CCF.
Harry was fortunate in his timing. He joined the History Department as number three but by 1953 was Head of Department. For Harry, history was never just a matter of learning dates but more about understanding the flow of events. Over the years he was to preside over a department staffed by many extraordinary men. Unlike many heads of department, who often keep Sixth Form and 'A' stream teaching for themselves, Harry tried to give all his members of staff the opportunity to teach all abilities.
Harry has always rejected the idea that HCS in those days was only interested in the most academic boys. He took the view that to get to HCS at all was an achievement in itself given the competition for places and that the 'least clever' boys were worth as much attention as the high flyers. Not all his colleagues agreed with him.
He stood down as Master in charge of Rugby in 1955 but kept on training the Under 14s, taking them on tour to his beloved Gloucestershire. His interest in amateur dramatics and staging was re-ignited when Jim Golland arrived at HCS and persuaded him to organise, of all things, the refreshments for 'Caesar & Cleopatra' in 1956.
The next year, Harry stage managed the production of 'St Joan' and thus began the great years of Harry's school stage life which influenced so many boys and, after 1965 when Convergence was formed, girls from Lowlands Road as well. Harry's stage crew prided itself on its professionalism and resourcefulness for which nothing was too difficult. A crew member would start as an apprentice and after suitable training and hands-on experience, would be raised with enormous pride to the coveted position of Stage Hand.
The importance of these productions lay not just in the acting or the stagecraft but in the opportunities such as front-of-house management, ticket distribution, refreshments and so on which gave young men and women their first experience of responsibility. In a sense, they provided an alternative school 'career' to the Scouts and the CCF. Under Harry's not entirely benign tutelage, everyone involved worked far beyond the call of duty because they knew he expected no less.
The Dramatic Club Reunion held in December 2001 in which HCS and HCGS alumni surprised Harry with a 'This is your Backstage Life' tribute was testament to the enormous affection in which he is still held after all these years.
In 1975, HCS went comprehensive and became Gayton High. Harry became year tutor to the first comprehensive year intake. Rather to his surprise he found comprehensive schoolmastering little different from what had gone before. He retired in 1982.
His first wife, Olive, died in 1980 and shortly afterwards he married his second wife, Sally. Sadly, Sally died a few years later and some years after that Harry married his third wife Pat, who died in 2002.
Harry lives in retirement in Cirencester in his native Gloucestershire. In old age he creaks a bit and has lost his hearing in one ear but his enthusiasm still shines through. The electronic age has passed him by but he keeps in touch with many former colleagues and old boys through 'phone and old-fashioned letter. Indeed, when it comes to keeping up with the news, he reckons he's only a day or so behind the web-site!
Harrow County School and the many boys and girls who came under Harry's humane and inspirational brand of schoolmastership should be ever grateful to that wartime RSM who thought to detail Sergeant Mees to temporarily take charge of a bunch of band boys!
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RWB - 30-5-03
Some photographs of Harry:
With 1949/50 Rugby 1st XV With 1950/51 Rugby 1st XV With 1950/51 Rugby 2nd XV With 1950/51 Rugby Under 15 XV
With 1951/52 Rugby 1st XV
With Northwick House 1953
With Form 4D 1955
With Advanced VI Arts 1959
With Backstage crew 1963
1966 Staff Photograph
With Form 4M 1973
With former members of staff, January 2001 Onstage In 2001
Sadly, Harry Mees, who taught at Harrow County and then at Gayton High from 1947 to 1982, died at the age of 88 on January 15th, 2008.
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