Harrow County School for Boys

Trials, Tribulations and Rewards

Exchange trips from scratch

by Hugh Skillen

I began French exchanges with Lycées in Nantes, Paris, Poitiers and Lyons for pupils from Harrow initially, in 1947, and then for Middlesex generally at the request of the Chief Education Officer for Middlesex.  Former pupils of Harrow County who had become teachers of Spanish at Solihull, which was the blossoming center for Spanish, asked for their pupils to be included, and other former pupils across England and Wales made similar requests.  And so it grew, just like Topsy.  Soon the system was extended to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Eire and Wales.

Children travelled in groups of 100-200 to France and Spain, Easter and Summer, by train and boat in the early days, on the Newhaven-Dieppe three-hour crossing, because school groups were not allowed on the Short-Sea routes, and on the often unpleasant long Dover-Ostende route to Germany.  It was nearly thirty years before it became practicable to transport the groups by air from Belfast and Dublin to London and from London to Lyons, Barcelona and Stuttgart.  It was a three-day journey by coach across France and Spain to Huelva and we had to bring the French children from Lyons, Nantes and Poiters to Paris by train, and spend a night and a day showing them their own Capital's sights, which they had never seen, on the outward and inward journeys.

The Spanish teachers decided to spend two nights in Paris on both outward and inward journeys in the Summer and they travelled all the way to London by coaches, usually in three or four large coaches, transporting up to 200, and taking back with them to Barcelona their English partners to spend the customary three weeks with them.  These were brought back in Wallace Arnold coaches to London at the beginning of September, to begin the new school year, fortified with their new oral linguistic qualifications.  What a delight and a satisfaction it was for a teacher to listen to these youngsters babbling away in Spanish or French and especially young eleven or twelve-year olds speaking fluently a language as difficult as German!

The exchanges were officially endorsed with civic receptions each year at the imposing Hôtel de Ville in Lyons, the Council Chambers in Stuttgart and the Civic Center in Harrow.  In the days before the family car, every effort was made to ensure the foreign visitors saw important historical sites, and coach tours were arranged from Harrow to visit the Roman city of Verulamium  at St. Albans, Beaulieu with its unique Veterans Cars Museum, the safari park at Windsor and Woburn, and special trains were hired each summer to take hundreds of French, German and Spanish exchanges and their British partners from harrow and wealdstone Station to Bath, to see the Roman baths and visit Cheddar Gorge.  Boat trips were organised to visit the then thriving Port of London and sail past the hundreds of great ships on a Sunday afternoon.

At the core of these exchange visits was the really hard work of allocating the partners to the applicants in the four countries.  I had to devise an application form, translated into French, German and Spanish, duplicated on a brand-new Gestetner and despatched by post in parcels of hundreds to colleagues in these countries for their pupils to complete.  The winter months were spent laying these forms side by side and studying the age and gender of the applicant, hobbies, family background, professional and financial status, and the expressed preferences of one of three choices of city in each countyr.  Then the applicant would be requested to write to his/her new partner in order to begin the bonding process before the actual journeys began.  Mothers were also requested to correspond with each other.  It was quite difficult to equate working-class families in the Midlands with wealthy Spanish families, but it worked out well.  The Spanish children did not mention the servants they had at home and accepted the often poor fare as long as the English mother was motherly.  there was no snobbery about the Spanish.

There were hazards with allotting hundreds of children in our favourite Paris hotel, as most of these children had never before been in a hotel.  Teachers had to be observant, to keep down movements between rooms, running in corridors, etc.  Madame Legrand would complain on behalf of the other hundred guests, "Nous sommes marchands de sommeil, Monsieur Skillen."  Sometimes we needed three or four hotels in Paris in the Summer season, and we found it was successfuk to take the children on long walks to visit the Paris monuments on foot, to tire them out so that they would fall asleep soon on their return.  This was after a day of sight seeing by coach, visiting Sacré-Coeur, Nôtre Dame, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, etc.  The young french children from Lyons were indefatigable, however.  hardly recovered from the day's outings, I would be persuaded by the longing in the keen little faces to set off once more in the Summer evening to take them to walk the full length of the Chaps Elysées, up to the Arc de Triomphe and back, via la Madeleine, and the Printemps to the Gare St Lazare and our hotel of thirty years.

Unexpected pitfalls added spice to the adventures.  Arriving near midnight in Lyons, we found many of the families waiting with their cars loaded ready to whisk off their young charges to the Riviera or the mountains.  At midnight there was one unhappy little girl who had not been collected.  The Gendarmerie have a permanent 24-hour station at the Gare de Lyon and they were magnificent.  We sat for hours in their office while a gendarme on motor-cycle went to the village and found the house empty.  The family had gone on holiday by car.  Where?  No one knew.  The little girl came to ouur nearby hotel for the rest of the night while the police pursued their enquiries.

After breakfast, back to the Gendarmerie on the station, with a new inspector in charge.  The mobile gendarme discovered that Madame went to her hairdresser once a week in the next village, and the latter might know where the family was on holiday.  They traced the family eighty miles away and we heard the ensuing telephone conversation.  The French father said that they had confused the  date of the English child's arrival and thought it was the following week.  Profuse apologies, and he said he would be there within the hour, to pick up the little waif.  The inspector said, "if you are I shall arrest you for breaking the speed limit!"  In due course the family arrived, carrying a bouquet of flowers for us and a present for the inspector.  That night there was another little girl not collected who was not a member of our group and who was with us in the Gendarmerie and we found her family as well - a worrying time but all ended well.

The journeys to the Continent were executed with military precision.  Easter and Summer groups left Dublin, Belfast, Liverpool, Glasgow, York, Bristol and Bath for overnight journeys to London to assemble at Victoria station with the young people being brought there from the London suburbs by their parents to be checked out, ensuring they had not forgotten their passports, before being marched to the reserved coaches on the boat train to Newhaven or, later, Dover.  Before roll-on-roll-off ferries the Channel packets were small and not very stable in bad weather.  The escorts had to cope with sea-sickness in their charges, if they themselves had not succumbed.

On one of the earliest crossings the heavy seas broke open the doors on the side of the ship through which the gangways were lowered.  The waves swept through the deck, luggage was floating as crew members struggled to brink heavy balks of timber down to plug the gap.  Sitting knee deep in water, those who were conscious cheered when they saw the white cliffs.  The cheers soon turned to dismay when they found they were the white cliffs of Dover.  To prevent the ship being swamped they had had to turn the ship around and present an intact side to the waves.  No one was allowed off as the Customs Officers had gone home.  At seven o'clock next morning the ship set sail again for the three and a half hour journey to Dieppe.  The weather had not altered, the restaurant had run out of food except eggs and nobody joined me for fried eggs!  the group arrived in Paris after a journey of 28 hours and three Channel crossings instead of 8 hours - and all the train connections for onward journeys had been lost.

the unreliability of the Channel crossings in bad weather ensured that the Paris coaches chartered for the cross-city journeys tothe Gare Montparnasse, Gare d'Austerlitz and Gare de Lyons could not reach their termini in time for the departures with the reserved seats, and the families waiting at Lyons and Grenoble, Nantes and Barcelona had to wait several more hours before meeting their British guests.

With a ratio of about one escort for fifteen children there were many teachers who got their first experience of the Continent on these trips.  Ordinary travel to France had been suspended for virtually ten years.  Many language teachers in the meantime had qualified who had not previously had the opportunity of visiting the countries whose languages they had studied.  Some of the pupils on their third or fourth annual trip were more experienced than those teachers on their first trip.  Whereas some pupils went back to the same family year after year, others would visit France the first year, Spain the second year and Germany the third year.  The exchange visits contributed to the training of those teachers and of course many of the pupils themselves became teachers, and better teachers of Modern Languages for their early introduction to the inhabitants and customs of their chosen country.

With the growth of package tours air travel grew and planes became much larger and finally after about thirty years it was possible to send groups by air from Belfast and Dublin direct to Paris.  My daughter-in-law was the first to escort an air group to Belfast and it was her first flight.  I was soon able to come back from escorting a group to Stuttgart and set off for Barcelona without leaving Heathrow, in one day, and escort three groups abroad in one week at the age of seventy.

There are still echoes of the past.  The exchange pupils of fifty years ago still telephone or visit with the news that they are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their first exchange visit with their old partners.  The boys used to take their brides to visit the families they first stayed with in Nantes and Vannes.  They have been sharing holidays over the years and one local girl is taking her mother (now 90) to the Riviera on holiday this year with their erstwhile French exchange of forty odd years ago.  Mrs. Cragg has never flown before.

These thousands of school exchange visits, from 1946 to 1985, began with the first letter I received from a little French-speaking boy in 1931.  My French master asked the class if anyone would like a French correspondent.  All we had to do was to put our name and address on a postcard and give him 4d for the stamp.  It was months before the yellow envelope arrived from Oran, Algeria, from a 14 year-old Jewish boy, Alexandre Karsenty.  we wrote regularly correcting each other's foreign language mistakes, until the war came.  I landed in oran with the US Army intelligence in November 1942 and met him via the Gendarmerie next day.  I am taking his letter to Nice today, 19 May, 1999, to show it to him and his family.

The author was Major Hugh Skillen, Head of Modern Languages at Harrow County, who taught at Harrow County from 1946 to 1975.  He died on January 4th, 2004.

Source: The Old Gaytonian, 1999

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