Harrow County School for Boys


by Mike Smith (HCS 1941-48)

A schoolboy's tale, the wonder of an hour! - Byron


I left school in July, 1948 with a feeling of failure.

In effect I left two weeks before the end of term.  This was the year of the London Olympic Games and I had got a job in one of the centres housing the competitors.  I cannot now remember how I arranged this but it was in response to a request for students ie University students.  It was certainly not organised through the school; I was the only one from school to take part and all the other helpers in the centre had already completed at least one year at a University.

Nowadays many years and millions of pounds are spent building new stadia and Olympic villages to house the Games. London was chosen for the first post-war games because it would be possible to use existing facilities and therefore stage the games in 1948.  Otherwise it would have been necessary to wait until 1952. 

Events were staged at Wembley, the stadium and pool, at Harringay arena and other existing sporting venues.  The least satisfactory was probably Henley where the river is too narrow and quite unsuitable for Olympic competition.

Anyway, I left school early to report to the Greenford School which had been turned into a hostel for the Greek and Lebanese teams.  Presumably that school, and others,  had closed early to allow this.  I was employed in the kitchen to wash up, peel potatoes and generally make myself useful. Apart from an administrator and a chef, the helpers were all students so we were all young people together enjoying a brief paid holiday job and involved in a great happy occasion.  During our off duty time we were able to pick up free tickets for events and I saw some of the athletics, wrestling and basket ball.  I also attended the opening ceremony, but I had booked a seat for that.


School speech days had been abandoned during the war and were not re-introduced until 1948.  It was held the day before term ended and, as I had never been to one, I felt that I ought to go and managed to arrange my duties to have the time off.  For nearly two weeks I had been working and playing in a new environment.  The Speech Day did not seem to have anything to do with me - I had already moved on.  This feeling was not lessened by the fact that I did not actually go back to the school.  The new hall was still not finished and the old hall was too small, so Speech Day was held in the Harrow theatre, the old Coliseum soon to be knocked down to make way for a supermarket.

Many years later I was taken aback when a cousin remarked that I had been a bit of a rebel in those days.  I had been a prefect, joined the school party to Switzerland, performed in the school concert, participated in the clubs and societies, rugby, cricket, athletics and table tennis.  This does not appear to be the behaviour of a rebel.  But, against the wishes of my parents, I had jibbed at going to medical school and so my family saw me as a rebel.

Why did I think I was a failure?   Why, when I was thinking about this forty years later, did I again feel churned up with anger and frustration?

I seem to have a capacity for forgetting unpleasant things. I either forget the event completely, or remember that something was upsetting but cannot remember the details.  It is, therefore, not easy after all this time to account for the state of mind of this eighteen year old who was me.

The sense of failure is fairly simple to explain.  In my first year I had formulated two ambitions, to get 'Colours' for Rugby and to win the prize for service to the school.  I achieved neither.  Although I had taken part I had not been in the first team for any sport.  I had taken no prizes; even had there been prizes throughout my school career I would not have received any, so I could not say 'except for the war I would have had such and such'.  The Higher School Certificate Examination results had not yet been published but I knew that if I had passed it would be by the narrowest possible margin; this would not be regarded as success at home.  So I had been an all rounder who shone at nothing, and I had no idea what I was going to do.

When I was about five I announced that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up.  If I had said that I was going to be an engine driver it would have been taken as the typical utterance of a small child and not a serious statement of intention.  Being a doctor fitted in so well with my parents hopes that they were unable to accept that it was just the whim of a child.  At fifteen I had to chose what subjects to study in the sixth form.  I wanted to do languages.  My parents attitude was most surprising.  I am quite sure that for any other person they would have said that a university education is the prime consideration and the subjects taken are of secondary importance.  My wish to do Arts was met with 'What do you want to be? Do you want to teach?'. No, I did not want to teach.  'Well, what use is an Arts degree unless  you want to be a teacher?' 

So I was persuaded to do science.  Most boys in the science sixth did Chemistry, Physics, Pure and Applied Mathematics. Instead of Applied Maths. I joined the small group of putative medics and took Botany and Zoology.  One can see that far from being a rebel, I was amenable. 

During the first year in the sixth form I worked very hard but floundered and got poor results.  At the beginning of the second year I expected to be made a prefect but was overlooked.  My Mother told me much later that this was because it was felt that the responsibility would affect my work with which I was having difficulty.  Apart from the fact that this rates the amount of responsibility too highly, nobody bothered to tell me this.  I just thought that I had been slapped in the face.  At this stage I can remember feeling that there was no point in working hard if one could not achieve anything, so I did very little work in the whole of the second year and, hardly surprisingly, failed to get my Higher School Certificate. 

In those days the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate were respectively the equivalent of O and A levels but one did not get a certificate unless one passed in a minimum number of subjects, unlike the present system in which one can get a certificate showing a pass in just one subject.  To get a Higher School Certificate one had to get a minimum of passes in two subjects and a subsidiary pass in a third.  At this first attempt I failed in everything except Pure Maths and this one pass was, therefore, worth nothing. I had to take  Maths again with the other subjects the following year.

At the beginning of my third year in the sixth form I was made a prefect and I was also appointed captain of the 2nd XV.  This meant that I would not be considered for 1st XV selection when team changes were made.  I was not asked if I wished to accept the captaincy on these terms.   Because of this arrangement to secure a stable captaincy for the 2nd XV it had been the practice to award Colours to the captain, but when the Colours were awarded my name was not called. Again, nothing was said to me and, stupidly, I did not ask, so I never found out if this was an oversight or a deliberate decision.

No member of the staff discussed with me the problems I was having with the work; there was no concept of tutoring although we did have someone who was nominally Form Master. There was no Careers master in the school and so far as I know nobody got any careers advice.  On second thoughts that is not quite true.  Towards the end of my last term, when it was known that I did not intend to go to University, my Form Master asked me what I intended to do after National Service.  I said that I would obviously have to get a job but had no idea what.  My final report included 'Recommended for a business career'.

And so I left school with a sense of failure but really my parents and the school failed me.

Mike Smith

(Copyright Mike Smith)

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