The War Years - Reminiscences of Bernard Gillespie (HCS 1939-44)

"The day war broke out", as Rob Wilton used to say, my older brother and I were on holiday at a farm in Hampshire.    We dug dirt madly for about a day and a half on what was supposed to be an air-raid shelter.  Fortunately it was time to go home to Harrow before we got deeper than about 6".  At home everything had changed - windows were decorated with brown gummed strip - "to keep you from being injured by flying glass"  -  and cars now had to have quaint little visors on the headlights so that German planes couldn't navigate by our brightly illuminated streets.   In hindsight it was all very naive and touching.

 The first day at school saw old and new pupils walk into the playground through the "new buildings" which at that time consisted of brick and concrete only - no windows, no doors, no finishes.  We were marshalled into line and form by the art master, Georgie Neal who, after an appropriate haranguing marched us into the "big hall for the morning rituals.

At my junior school I was considered to be pretty bright - always top of the class or second in a bad year - but at HCS I was a complete flop.   Placed in the C stream because, I always believed, my exam marks did not show sufficient ability for A or B, thoughout my HCS years I never got above 15th place and a couple of times was pretty near the bottom of the heap  -  well, I said to myself, "don't they know there's a war on ?"

 My recollections of the 2nd and 3rd form years seem all to be about the activities that a form master was trying to promote.    Roland Birch was, as I later learned, a member of the British Union of Fascists and an admirer of the Nazis, but it came as both a shock and a relief when one day he was no longer there -  he spent most of the rest of the war in Wormwood Scrubs as a detainee under regulation 18B of the Defence of the Realm Act.    

Most of the school days for the next several years were spent in regular school activities with the occasional trip to the air-raid shelter in the basement near the chemistry labs.  On a few occasions we were required to don our gas masks and recite some nonsense  (see the movie "Hope and Glory").  

Sports was a must at HCS during the war - swimming (OK), cricket (a hopeless bat but a hot-shot bowler) and rugby which I gave up after one game - too energetic for my taste.     The years dawdled by - the war news was terrible at the beginning but began to improve in 1942.   We each still carried a little package of "iron rations" in case bombing required us to stay late at school  -  it never did.    In 1941 I missed a day of school because the roof of our house had been damaged by a nearby bomb but most days I was there religiously  -  well, perhaps, not religiously - my lowest mark of all time was in Religious Knowledge - 8%, with the Headmasters comment "DISGRACEFUL".   

In my third or fourth year at HCS I foolishly tried to help a classmate who was having difficulty igniting some fulminate of mercury  -  where he failed I succeeded and there was one hell of a bang.    The room emptied except for me and my form captain, Dick Wickens, who, leader-like, marched me off to the school secretary, Mr Atkins.   His first comment was "don't drip blood on my carpet, boy",  but then organized the gym master, 'Swanny' Amos, to take me to Harrow Hospital for minor surgery. 

In those years the school thought it could educate boys up to Matric standard in 4 years but not all of us were that bright and we ended up in a class called the Upper Fourth or, as (following our revolt at that demeaning title) the Lower Fifth. Because of the conversion of rooms into air-raid shelters not all of our classes were held at HCS.  Some were in the labs at Harrow School and others (woodworking and drafting) at Harrow Tech in Station Road.  I think we all enjoyed the two offshore venues - on the Hill we could snigger at the Harrow boys in their boaters and at Harrow Tech we could ogle the girls from Chiswick Poly. 

My visits to Harrow Tech paid off handsomely as the drafting skills learned under 'Cob" Webb allowed me to join the ranks of the second oldest profession - architecture.      By the Spring of 1944 we were all gearing up for the School Cert. exam.   It was just my luck that the night before the English Language exam our house roof was again blown off, this time by a V1.    So while I did passably in all the other subjects I failed English Language which normally meant that the Certificate was withheld - happily for me the examiners were kind.  

I remember with affection the School and many of the teachers - 'Killer' King, Georgie Thorn, Sammy Watson, Jerry Cast, Eggy Webb and best of all Mr Parkinson, the English teacher who never managed to instill in me the use and abuse of the 'gerund' (to this day I am confused about it) and the delightful repetition of his favourite phrase  "figures of speech and devices of style".    Since the early summer of 1944 I have not once set foot in the School  -   but one of these years I will do so - and through the front door to boot !


I have now been back, September 2002, for an extended guided tour of a facility that is far and away a significant step up from the school of the war years  -  the only disappointment I felt was that the school did not feel able to keep the organ that had long been the desire of the Head and the faculty before the war and which was installed in the fifties only to be sold and removed within a very few years." 

Bernard Gillespie, a retired architect, lives in Canada.

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