My family moved to Eastcote when the war started and our nearest grammar school was Pinner County, my parents’ first choice if I passed the “Scholarship.” In the end someone in the council education offices allocated me a place at Harrow County from September 1942. It meant a train journey with a long walk at each end but we were told it was a very good school and you took what you were given in those days.
My first memory of the school is of the induction meeting for the 1942 intake. For school uniform they advised us what to buy and where (from the local outfitters, “Shepherds”), including for we youngest boys those short, grey woollen trousers which chafed my inner thighs red raw in cold, wet weather. They told us to sew white tape letter L’s on the back of our swimming costumes for non-swimmers. One of the parents asked if they had to supply their own L’s, to general guffaws.
Copies of the School Hymnal and Service Book were on sale and I still have my copy, which I duly protected with brown wrapping paper, as we did all school books. The last hymn is the school carol, “O Cradled Town of Bethlehem” with “words by R.W., music by G.T.” I can still remember the rather jolly refrain:
“While men proclaim Christ’s holy Name
And hail his sacred birth,
Let man’s goodwill God’s plan fulfil;
For God has dwelt on earth!”
Randall Williams, the headmaster and “Georgie” Thorn, the deputy head, science and music master, had also written the school song: “Virtus Non Stemma,” or “’Tis worth, not birth.” My copy was on a folded, typed sheet, slipped into the end papers of the hymnal and always recalls the sentiments of the well-known poem by Sir Henry Newbolt that they also taught us, with its “Play up, play up and play the game.” However, the lines about “far-flung ancestry” and “carved portals” were surely a dig at the other school on the hill. Anyway, the school song also had a good tune (actually two) and we had young lungs, so we roared it out.
For me that was the main benefit of school assembly, a time for a good old sing song. I was not too bothered by the religious readings and prayers, though I shut my eyes at the right time. School assembly was a comfortable ritual, the first act of togetherness in the school day. It gave me a lasting love of the old hymn tunes, and an admiration for the language of the King James Bible. The morality of the New Testament seems to have sunk in, even if many Biblical stories were hard to swallow, but I respect those who have managed to hold on to that religious faith.
I mainly remember “Georgie” Thorn for his description of a passage from Mendelssohn’s “Hebridean Overture,” adding that it always made him think of the words “How lovely the sea is.” At the time I thought this rather absurd, but it still comes into my mind when I hear the piece. I eventually joined the music society and I suspect that my love of music owes more than a little to George Thorn’s influence.
Travelling in winter by the war time trains with their eerie blue light could be dark, cold and very wet. On the trains I met boys and girls travelling to school, including my old school friend, “Rob” Farley, who left at sixteen to work in a bank. We walked from the back entrance of Harrow station and along Gayton Road with the preparatory schoolboys in their navy blue and gold blazers and caps. We were often joined by a tall, middle-aged man dressed like them in short trousers and school cap. He always walked on past their school, satchel on his shoulder. He reappeared after school and came back with us to the station, but never spoke to any of us. He was just part of life’s many oddities, though we did wonder what he did all day.
I was very young, shy and immature for my years and to me the sixth formers were grown men already. I was totally in awe of the prefects, though they cannot have been as important as I imagined. They were a breed apart and we were all known only by our surnames. I still remember some of their surnames, though not their faces at this distance in time. However, this was wartime and most of these young men would soon be off to war, which my year’s intake would be spared.
On the first floor, at the head of the central stairs, there was a panoramic painting of a procession of medieval characters, probably of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. I was studying this when I was aware of a man with specs standing next to me. It was my first actual meeting with the headmaster, Randall Williams. Pointing at first one, then another he said to me “That’s a funny fellow and there’s another funny fellow.” He was always a very serious-minded man, here doing his best to put a small lad at ease.
I am cursed by being critical by nature. However, my memories of the teaching staff are rather tolerant, appreciating the difficulties in dealing with a much younger, increasingly rebellious generation. My two daughters have been long-suffering teachers. However, it is difficult to excuse the sheer terror that “Swanny” Amos could wreak. When he was in charge of pre-school assembly in the quadrangle, he often carved a swathe through to strike an offender round the face with the maximum force of his open hand. Terror would yield to sheer relief if he brushed you aside on his way.
As PT instructor he ruled the swimming bath with a long cane, at least 10 foot long, and much longer at extended swish. With “Swanny” on the warpath there was no hanging back out of the frigid water. The school baths are long gone, but they were a huge asset for us once the unheated water reached above a scrotum shrinking temperature. I soon learned to swim the 25 foot width and then the 33 yard length. We were all encouraged to take the life saving exams and I still have my bronze medallion. I received my water polo colours eventually, but water polo is hardly a fair play sport!
“Swanny” was a lean, hatchet faced man with prominent, shaggy eyebrows and a very long neck, hence his nickname. He was much more friendly if you were co-operative, but he would tolerate no talking or larking about. He caught me “bunking off” from a cross-country run over the open fields alongside the Watford Road, which were invariably covered in icy puddles which cut bare legs to shreds. As punishment he made me write an essay on the value of games, which he ironically later printed in the school magazine, “The Gaytonian.”
Our rugger grounds always seemed to be too steep and wet for the solo runs expected of a wing three quarter. I was initially shy in the changing rooms and it took time to get used to stripping off to change for the game and later for the steamy and muddy communal baths and the equally mucky songs. I was only ever a reserve for the real teams, but I turned out for Northwick house teams and later for one or other of the “Old Gayts” rugger and cricket teams. In one “Old Gayts” cricket match the atmospherics made my swing bowling virtually unplayable. The comedian Cardew Robinson was fielding in the slips and a nicked outswinger thumped him painfully on his cavernous, sloping chest, rising high above his head for a dolly catch. Even the “Cad of the school” could hardly drop that.
Until the sixth form, our form master was “Beaky” Fooks, whom our form came to respect deeply. He taught us English and English literature, with a love of his subjects and a touching belief in the subjunctive. Who uses that now, in this ungrammatical age? I still have the copy of Wordsworth and Coleridge poetry that he gave me in 1946 when I moved up into the sixth form. He eventually retired to the Cotswold village of Winchcombe and lived to be over a hundred. Old school friends kept in touch with him and he would send them printed copies of his own quaint poetry, the Winchcombe Verses.
In the A classes we were taught Latin. I made a reasonable fist of conjugating and declining, but can now recall little more than “Amo, amas, amat” and “Caesar adsum jam forte et Pompey aderat.” As a “dead” language it has been more useful than I ever expected, especially in other languages and botany, but I dropped Latin when I moved into the economics stream. One of our Latin teachers was Creeper” Davies who had fascinating thick, black tufts of hair in his ears. Then we had “Jumbo” Jones, who smiled sweetly as he rapped us on top of the head.
For mathematics we had “Joe” Brister. I got on fairly well with him and the easy subjects of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and “trig” but eventually balked at the greater difficulty of calculus and the rest of advanced mathematics, which were to feature in the more abstruse economic theory I later studied at college. With hindsight I should have tried harder not to drop mathematics at that early stage, but we make these life choices as children in full ignorance.
I really enjoyed French with “Whiffy” King, but his sense of the comically absurd encouraged me to have too much to say. In one lesson about railways, he became histrionically angry at someone’s mistakes, so I called out “King’s Cross.” He actually smiled slightly as he banished me to stand in the corridor. Thereafter, he sent me there at the start of every lesson, but I made progress again under a new, rotund master, “Sorbo” Hartland, though no wonder he said my vocabulary was weak. You were never “unruly” with “Sorbo” in charge.
Our biological and sexual education was rather rudimentary and consisted mainly of copying anatomical drawings of internal working parts. I remember wondering why “Eggy” Webb counselled us boys not to spend too long in the bath, in case it spoiled our eventual marriages! He was known for his eccentricity, including yoga. He showed us the “lotus position,” while standing on his head. Another time he persuaded one boy to show us his abdominal muscles (we say “six pack” today), obscuring the genitalia discreetly with a cupped hand. That would be shock horror today, but it passed unremarked at the time.
Because of space limitations, we had a few lessons off site. For mechanical drawing we went to Harrow Technical college in the town with “Cobb” Webb. I could never take my eyes off the large cyst on his forehead. For other lessons we went to the Harrow school, where every other wooden desk was deeply carved with Winston Churchill’s initials. We had no sense of privilege in being offered the use of these “carved portals” classrooms, just irritation at the cold and damp of the long trudge up the hill.
In the lower sixth form we were given a classroom off the school hall, with high ceilings and suspended light fittings. “Johnny” Armstrong was a youngish, ruddy-faced and moustached geography teacher, newly returned from the armed services, I think. Children can be so cruel, testing for any weakness. With black cotton we prepared for one of his lessons and when he reached for the chalk, we whipped it away, followed by his usual weapon, the blackboard duster. The window catch pole was sent clattering to the floor and next we set the lamps swinging, with some of us pulling on non-existent cotton, as he vainly tried to stop them swinging. It was heartless and shameful, the way we acted.
In the lower and upper sixth our economics teacher and form master was “Jackie” Hackman, who also kept discipline occasionally with the aid of the blackboard duster, but we warmed to his sense of humour and never tried to play him up. When he married another teacher, Miss “Trixie” Gower, we were utterly bewildered, for we had totally discounted any “how’s your father.” Surely they were far too old at their age (they cannot have been as much as 40)?” I never thought of teachers having private lives or even any existence away from school.
This was especially true of our art master, “Georgie” Neal, who was long past retirement age, probably because young teachers were away at the war. He had joined the school before the first World War! With his gaunt, lugubrious appearance, walrus moustache and half-moon glasses, he seemed to belong to the 19th century, which was true, of course. His art certainly did, but I got on fairly well with him. It helped that I already drew conventional landscapes with bridges and churches, copying with 2B pencils from various books. Early on he set us to drawing tediously the various cones, cubes and other impedimenta around the art room, to practice our perspective and shading.
Discipline finally went to pot in the upper sixth form, when we moved into the former kitchens, reached by an iron spiral staircase. Trying to “helter skelter” down it on a tin tray produced the most satisfactory bedlam. The tread of a master’s feet on the metal was an essential early warning, for we were always up to some prank or other, especially with the “dumb waiter” lift to the floor below. It was too tempting for us to cram into its recess and be lowered away, volunteer or pressed man.
I was very glad of school dinners. We were growing lads and hungry, though that did not mean there were no complaints. Many hated carrots and one lad had not noticed that his neighbour was stealing them off his plate while his back was turned. He never thought anyone could actually like carrots. “Just for that you can have ALL mine” he said and loaded the rest onto the appreciative thief’s plate. A few did not like the ‘Spam’ fritters, so the rest of us got extras. Not everyone appreciated the steamed puddings and the thin, yellow “pustard.” These puddings were cooked in long, tin cylinders we called “Bangalore torpedoes” after an Indian army invention, used for clearing away barbed wire in the first World War.
There were always some jokers who thought it great sport to make the rest of the dining room queasy. One of the chants was “Hot snot and bogey pie, all mashed up with a dead dog’s eye.” The full stomach-churning verses are even on the internet now. There were already too many occasions when one of the boys would throw up, in a school where any infection would spread like wildfire. Most days there would a call for the caretaker to bring his bucket of impregnated sawdust and the corridors often reeked with the smell of carbolic.
At break times the quadrangle was a frenzy of worn, grey tennis balls, which often had to be retrieved from the starkly windowless “new buildings.” These were forbidden territory with deep channels in the concrete floors for future pipework. I still have a shin scar when I ran into one by mistake. We brought with us all the playground games from our junior schools, like “Orny, orny” and “Killer.” Pairs of boys linked arms in “Bustups” to shoulder charge others, or formed whirling lines in suicidal “Chain he.” However there was a craze for chess at one time, played on folding kits with slots for the pieces. Then an eerie quiet ruled as pairs of lads leaned against the quad walls, lost in the ancient game. After the wild congestion of the quad in winter, it was always a relief when the signal was given that the playing field was dry again.
After Randall Williams retired, we had an interim head from Enfield Grammar school, Donald Crowle-Ellis, who was younger and very approachable. He had scored a century against the M.C.C., which counted a great deal with the boys. After his short spell, he moved as head master to Harrow Weald Grammar school, to general dismay.
His permanent successor could not have been more of a contrast and he suffered severely by comparison. Alexander R. Simpson was a stiff, dour Scot with a Kelvinside accent who got off on completely the wrong foot by calling us all “byes” and pronouncing Isleworth with an “Izzle.”
In the school magazine he addressed us “From the Head Master’s Study” as follow:
“Even with the diffidence due from the unproved new before the established old, even so I presume, I fear, as the new Head Master, to inscribe these first words in this, my first Epistle to the Gaytonians,” and so on in like vein. He may have had sterling qualities but he seemed humourless and this lack of simple humanity made his acceptance by the boys and the staff very difficult. Nevertheless, during his tenure the school’s academic success grew and grew, but most were too prejudiced to appreciate this.
I guess it was he who put a stop to the school concerts, which usually took the form of a series of short acts and sketches. It had sunk to being very low farce indeed. The teaching staff fully expected to be lampooned, but it was not always obvious who was the target. When one was shown tipsily chasing a bottle on a string held just ahead of him, the master (who shall be nameless) asked who was being depicted. The brave if courteous reply was “You, Sir!” One long drawn out sketch with many double meanings was about a bosun-led ship’s mutiny which climaxed with the line “Now at last Bates is master of the ship.” (Nudge, nudge!)
It was Aspinall’s idea to put on a gymnastic display, and I was one of his small troupe. In singlets and house athletic shorts we threw ourselves around the stage in a series of choreographed leaps and handsprings, while Aspinall acted as strong man. It nearly went pear-shaped when I twisted my neck in a handstand and roll. In a school of odd boys, Aspinall was mad about body building and PT (as we called PE then). With a perpetual half smile he loped around in slow motion like a prowling tiger. He actually told me how much he admired Greek male statues. Imagine that!
My pupil’s report book still has its neat, brown wrapping cover and is generally much kinder to my progress and behaviour than I deserved. Some comments were very perceptive, proving that teachers were trying to be thoughtfully constructive. Every term’s report had to be shown to our parents and duly signed by them, so no adverse results could be hidden from home. One classmate complained bitterly about the “Only average” in his report, demanding to know what was so wrong with that.
By the upper sixth form, whether we knew it or not, we had pretty well determined our school and exam results. Our dies were cast. I believe my time at Harrow County School for Boys was the most formative of my life and I will always be grateful for the wide education it gave me.
Ian Johnson, May 2012