Harrow County School for Boys

Memories of the School's Swimming Pool

by Brian Hester (HCS 1940-47)

(Photographs from Alan Klein)

When I joined it in 1940, the School was unusual in possessing an outdoor swimming pool. I have always understood that its construction was the result of a prolonged effort of both money-raising and physical effort but details seem to be lost in time.

Weather constraints allowed use of the pool only during the summer terms.  Each form was assigned a period for pool use each week. These periods were devoted to improving our skills in the water. Free swimming was allowed after four o’clock. We were required to wear ‘one piece’ swimming suits. Trunks were still regarded as somewhat ‘avant garde’ and in any case these were not suitable for displaying the large white cross our mothers were directed to sew on the costume until we could swim across the pool.  This test was conducted by special appointment under the eagle eye of the renowned ‘Swanny’ Amos.

To own a second swim suit which could be worn elsewhere was out of the question for most of us. Quite apart from the cost, clothing was rationed so such a frivolity as a second suit could not be considered.  In proportion to our fear that girls at public swimming places might ask the significance of the white cross so our incentive grew to struggle across the pool.

To encourage our swimming ability, the system awarded points for achievement of a list of standards. These points contributed to determining ‘cock’ house at the end of summer term. Points were meticulously recorded by Amos on a chart he kept in the change room reserved for masters use.  There were no change facilities for the lady teachers who arrived during the war.  The school was rocked by a scandal that arose when an unidentified boy walked unseen into the staff change room and added numerous ticks to Amos’ chart.

A small tuckshop counter lay to one side of the entry to the pool. This facility was staffed by boys’ mothers who volunteered for the job.  Randall William’s wife, know as ‘Lady Alice’, was there occasionally. While a cup of hot Bovril would have been most acceptable after swimming, especially on cold days, most of us did not have the money.

Arrangements did not include any provision for adjustment to the schedule on inclement days. We all duly showed up with swimming ‘togs’ in hand. Amos chalked up the water temperature each day. Sometimes it was well below 60 Fahrenheit  (15C).  Only when a pupil died in such cold water at another school was the ruling made,  presumably by the County Council, that there was to be no swimming in water below that temperature.

Those who had passed the initial test and removed their crosses were allowed to swim up and down improving their skills while working towards achieving new standards. The less fortunate ‘cross bearers’ would be line up along the pool edge and required to jump in under the eagle eye of Amos who was known to encourage the activity with squirts of cold water from a hose.  Encouraged by so many incentives to struggle across the pool, I soon achieved a point for my house but it took a long while to lose the reaction of my testicles to pucker up at the merest smell of highly chlorinated water.

Amos was never seen to swim although he would venture on occasions into the pool wearing a black swim suit which extended halfway down his thighs.  Even in those far off days, the costume struck us as old fashioned.

Absence of showers in the change rooms was compensated by adding chlorine to the water. With no need for everybody to take a shower before and after swimming lessons, the turn around time for getting 35 small boys changed and in and out was reduced. To accelerate the process Amos would sometime award one of his ‘cracks’, this time with a switch, to the last bare bottom exposed. A cousin who attended boarding school was sympathetic when I related these practices. He carefully demonstrated to me how easy it was simply to loosen one’s tie and then remove tie, singlet, shirt and short sleeved sweater in a single graceful movement. What was more, if you were careful, you could replace the combination in a single reversal of the movement.  Amos was impressed when he saw me complete the manoeuvre.

Only two of the staff had the temerity to join the boys in the pool after four. Attridge, who taught German and French, swam well and ran life saving classes after school. House points were awarded for achieving basic skills (and a badge to sew on our swimming costumes) and for various improved skills, including teaching the skill). Attridge also coached those of us who were interested in diving.

Attridge also participated in organization of the water polo teams formed by each house. Play offs of the final competition took place with Attridge acting as referee at the end of swimming sports day.  On such occasions, Randall Williams made the royal appearance accompanied by Lady Alice, both of whom were seated close to the deep end. From their vantage point, they could see details of play. While most of the shots were directed at the goals, not a few went in the direction of the honoured guests who took their being splashed in good spirit.

The only other regular user of the pool was E. W. (‘Eggy’) Webb, who, much to my admiration, would swim the entire length of the pool under water. I attribute this ability to Webb’s devotion to the practice of yoga. None of us had more than heard of the subject, yet alone met anyone who actually practiced it. As an illustration of his ability, he once started a biology class by stripping to the waist, following which he stood on his head on a table in front of our class. He followed up by crossing his legs in the lotus position and manipulated his stomach muscles magnificently. Webb was a capable and devoted teacher of biology but I suspect the combination of his yoga and the beard he sported were all that it took to raise the animosity of Simpson. Webb left for an appointment on the Isle of Man at the end of Simpson’s first term, leaving the biology department in the hands of Bigham who from all accounts was a very different calibre of man.

Had the pool survived to the present, its operation would almost certainly have been curtailed by all the regulations that now govern us. Removal of at least some of the diving boards would have been required. Showers would have to be installed. Provisions would have to be made for girls. In all likelihood, the water would have to be heated. The list goes on. As it was, geology solved these problems when, during a particularly dry summer, the clay under the pool dried out and the cement forming the pool, cracked beyond repair. Many will have mixed feelings about the pool, but many of us learned to overcome a fear of water there and to acquire skills we have enjoyed in later life.

August 2011

Brian Hester, a retired geologist, lives in Canada.

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