New! A heart-warming comment: Richard, your Fag blog in the newsletter made for delightful, enthralling reading with a valuable message. Your School House values did not have to be trumpeted, but were absorbed through quiet unspoken role modeling that made honorable men out of children. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your graceful account, and comparing it somewhat wistfully to the unwritten rules of conduct at Sandhurst. What a privilege to have had this exposure!
Your admiring friend, Ken Schonberg
When I was but thirteen or so my parents sent me away to school. I had been perfectly happy at the grammar school in the small Cornish town where I was born and grew up but my parents had high expectations of their children educationally. They became comfortably off as my father’s career progressed, but not wealthy and they had to choose what they spent their money on. Their priority was our education. Like most of their neighbors they regarded their own car as a nonessential luxury, as well if truth be told as an impenetrable mechanical mystery.
Both my elder sisters did well at school, head girls, a captain of sports teams, a star in the school play. Pam became the first girl from Cornwall to go up to Cambridge where she read English and later economics. Pat studied at the Bristol Royal Infirmary (where our formidable Aunty Betty was matron) and qualified as a physiotherapist.
My parents’ choice of school for me was Clifton College. It was aiming high, given that I had not gone to a private preparatory school, but my father felt he might as well stretch his financial commitment to go first class, and anyway my mother’s whim of iron decided on what was best for her children. Also my cousin, whose father was the steward for Viscount Clifden at Lanhydrock, had gone there to School House, which provided a connection. Furthermore, Clifton was a Westcountry school, relocated to its home on the Bristol Downs at the edge of the city after being evacuated to a Cornish seaside town during the war. Further, it was less military than Wellington, less athletic than Sherborne, and less terrifyingly academic than Winchester. After all, I had to pass the Common Entrance examination in order to get in.
This was a challenge. Latin was the major requirement. Unfortunately, the Liskeard Grammar School insisted on a choice between Latin and biology after the second form. Since at the time I was set on a career as a kindly rural veterinary surgeon I chose biology, although how I would ever deal later with the Latin requirement to enter university was not explained. Fortunately, there was a retired missionary in Liskeard who agreed to coach me. So when I went up to Clifton to sit the entrance exam I was modestly confident that I might eke out a scholarship to help with the fees.
The other candidates proved awesome. I was literally out of their class. They had studied Latin since they first went to boarding school at the age of seven, and many of them Greek too. Their mathematics were advanced, their French Parisian, their English impeccable. I could not even correctly pronounce the surname of the winner of the major scholarship, Marjoribanks. I was advised to stick to elementary mathematics for the second examination paper in that subject after my shortcomings were revealed by my answers to the first one. I am sure I was better than the other boys at biology and physics but these were not deemed worthy of examination.
However, I apparently did well enough with the interviews, particularly with the housemaster of School House, Martin Hardcastle, to get a place and win a minor scholarship, an exhibition. However, I was told to repeat the fourth form to give me an extra year to prepare for the school leaving certificate and university entrance, and was demoted from the A to the B stream until I improved my Latin. Apparently my modest success was based more on promise than accomplishment.
The summer of 1945 was eventful. In June the war ended. In July in the general election the Labour party resoundingly beat Churchill and the Conservatives and the Liberals were trounced. In September my life at Clifton started with a tea in School House for new boys and their families on the first day of term. It was a stilted affair since few of us knew each other but it got us introduced. The tea was hosted by the housemaster, Mr. Hardcastle. He was a bachelor so the house Matron, Miss Andrews, acted as hostess and they were supported by the house tutor, the Reverend J.M. Grove, widely known as Olly. As well as assisting in running the house, Olly was one of the school’s two Anglican chaplains and also taught classics. The three of them lived in the house on the private side.
Boarding school life was full and very different from the way I had grown up. I was too busy to be homesick. There was so much to learn, not just school lessons but traditions, customs, privileges, slang, names, games, timetables, places, where to go, how to get around, what to avoid, and rules and punishments.
I did write a dutiful letter home every Sunday, enquiring after the wellbeing of my amazing cat Tigger and my racing pigeons, and looking forward to my parents visit at half term. I welcomed my father’s illegible notes of encouragement, my mother’s elegantly calligraphed letters of news from home and concerns about whether my bed was properly aired, and my sisters’ occasional shafts of humor. Letters were our only communication. There was no telephone for us boys, although we could use the housemaster’s in the rare event of emergency. Anyway, long distance calls were an extravagance.
Academics, sports and music were excellent at Clifton. There was a strong military tradition, with the O.T.C. (Officers Training Corps) parading every Monday on the quadrangle in front of the statue of Field Marshall Earl Haig, an Old Cliftonian and commander-in-chief of the British army on the western front in the Great War.
The school provided a wide range of activities. My favorite was the scientific society; field trips included visits to a brewery, a cider works and a cigarette factory. One old hand pronounced that the school had an unspoken code that ensured that every boy could do well at something, with plenty of competition to keep us focused. That way, most were satisfied with their lot and there were few trouble makers. He said we were all classified either as hearties, arties or smarties.
The school had an ingenious way of dealing with the older hearties, the athletic types who lacked the brains to shine in the classroom or the character to be given responsibility. They were officially appointed to a shadowy institution known as Big Side Levée, which was nominally consulted on matters of sports but in practice had no power or influence and never met.
Big Side was on the Close, the field at the heart of the school grounds where the first Rugby XV and cricket XI played, watched by the whole school. Team sports, including field hockey, rowing, shooting and athletics, were important, as well as individual games of tennis, rackets, squash, fives, boxing and cross country running. There were practices or matches every afternoon except Sunday. No doubt plenty of exercise was good for the moral development of pubescent boys. As well as the school teams, every house had teams for all age groups, culminating at the end of term with knock-out tournaments vying to be champion, or “Cock House”. School House was short of individual stars but we prided ourselves on winning through the house spirit inculcated by our beloved housemaster “Cassy”, as Mr. Hardcastle was known fondly if not very imaginatively.
The intense competition between the houses extended to music and art contests. School House lacked music scholars so rather than soloists our tradition was to enter an orchestra. It was a motley ensemble made up of whatever instrument we could muster; the judges always commended our enthusiasm. Music was important at Clifton with a high standard ensured by music scholarships, a professionally staffed music school, and performances by a military band, a symphony orchestra, a choral society and a chapel choir, sometimes at outside venues like Bristol Cathedral.
The school was organized as a sort of federal system. The board of governors set broad policy and guided finances. The headmaster led the school’s staff and academic affairs assisted by heads of departments. The head of each house and one or two other senior boys were appointed “praeposters” (as prefects were called) to take leadership in school activities and societies and the O.T.C. The head of the school had the privilege of wearing a moustache, although this had not been exercised in living memory. Praeposters had authority to discipline any boy. It took a serious offense for a master to get involved or for severe discipline to be applied for academic shortcomings. In the rare event of an extremely serious offense like stealing, the headmaster would step in and it could result in expulsion.
We were assigned to forms according to our ability at Latin, which we studied with our form master, as well as English and Old and New Testaments. We were assigned seats in the order in which we had ranked in the end of term exams, with boys at the bottom seated in the front. For other subjects we were placed in sets according to our shortcomings or special talents. I particularly enjoyed physics and chemistry in the well-equipped modern science school.
Since the war and rationing meals were no longer prepared and served in the individual houses but in Big School with all 500 boys eating together with a sprinkling of masters. It was partly about efficiency and economy of large scale (particularly in the case of whale meat that was tough but officially nutritious!) but also a desire to ease the segregation of houses, although we were still assigned places at table by rank in houses. At lunch and dinner the headmaster presided at high table and said grace before and after the meal in Latin, with proper attention to the tense of the verb.
Every morning after breakfast we went to Chapel, passing the inspection of the school Marshall who made sure our shoes were polished. We took our assigned seats for a compulsory service conducted by the school’s Anglican chaplains. Every Sunday there was an optional early communion for those who were confirmed Anglicans and a compulsory morning service and sung Evensong twice a term. Sometimes there would be a visiting bishop or canon and once a term the headmaster would preach a scholarly and uplifting sermon. Jewish boys attended synagogue in their own house.
Our lives outside the classroom centered on the house. There were six houses for boarders and two more for day boys, each with distinctive personalities and traditions. Upon arrival at School House we were assigned study mates, which we could change to someone of our own choice after the first term. My study mate was R.N.D Kidd, minor. He had an elder brother in the house, Kidd major. We all called each other by our surnames, hardly knew each other’s Christian names. Kidd and I proved compatible, became good friends, even visited each other’s homes to stay during the holidays and remained study mates until he left Clifton.
We boys were assigned studies where we kept our personal belongings and books and had a desk on which to do extra class work. Studies were for two or three junior boys or one senior boy and provided a modicum of privacy during the day. There was one senior boy, called a “house sixth”, in a single study at the entrance to each corridor of studies.
House sixths were in charge of routine discipline within the boarding houses and were empowered to impose punishments, up to and including beating. There were lots of rules. Breaking them, such as running or fighting in the corridor, disobeying or being impertinent to a house sixth (being “gassy”), and siding (which was leaving your jacket unbuttoned or putting your hands in your trouser pockets), talking after lights out, all punishable by “lines”.
You would be given 50 or 100 lines for minor offences — not in those enlightened times in the form of repetitively writing a rote promise to reform but rather memorizing a Shakespeare sonnet or a Horace ode. However, if you accumulated 500 lines within one term you got a house beating; four strokes for a first offence, six or eight if you were incorrigible. These were ritualistic affairs administered in your pyjamas after lights out by the head of the house and his lieutenant. We innocents lay in our beds in the dark counting the cracks and then silently welcoming the stiff-upper-lipped new hero back to his bed.
House sixths had responsibilities but also enjoyed privileges. A sixth had a large solo study at the end of each corridor, could stay up after lights out and had the bed at the end of the dormitory, was allowed to “side”, and was a member of the house Anchor Club with its own common room. Above all, they had fags. New boys were fags for their first two or three terms until they were promoted to non-fag or little fifth. If the sixth wanted something done (for example, his brass corps cap badge and belt buckles polished, his gaiters blancoed, his shoes polished, his study tidied), he would go out of his study and shout “Faaag!” The fags would hare out of their studies down to the end of the corridor and the last one would get the job.
The head of the house chose three personal fags from the more senior ones, who took turns to fag for him one week at a time. I fagged for R.T.M. Lindsay, which was quite a privilege because he was also head of the school, corps commander, captain of cricket and captain of football. My most important jobs were oiling his cricket bat and cleaning his white wicket-keeper’s pads for school matches, covering the grass stains with blanco.
We slept in communal dormitories assigned by seniority, each one under the supervision of a house sixth. We had lockers and hanging space by our beds for clothes. (I enquired about the floor to ceiling steel barred gates sealing off the stairs leading to the dormitory on the third floor. Apparently they had been installed to restore order after the fags rebellion in the nineteenth century but had not been locked in recent years. Good grief, Clifton was going to take some getting used to!)
Anyway, our days started with a bell at ten past seven. The seventeen boys in my dormitory (excluding the house sixth who was in charge and excused such rules) leapt out of our iron beds and into dressing gowns and slippers and rushed down to the communal “pan rooms” in the basement, one for senior and one for junior boys.
The plumbing was luxurious by English standards since it had been remodeled by General Omar Bradley and his American staff when they were billeted in School House for the planning of D-Day. We had twenty minutes to get back upstairs and dressed and back down to the house hall on the ground floor for call-over.
The house sixth in charge would call out “Two” at 7.28 a.m., “One” at 7:29 a.m. and “J.I.T.” (Just in Time) on the dot of half past, at which point he would slam the door shut and bar further admission. If you were not there to answer when your name was called, you got a “late”. If you accumulated four lates in the course of a term you got a house beating. Most boys tried to be in time, thus learning the virtue of punctuality.
After call-over we went back to our dormitories and made our beds, tidied up and in some cases got properly dressed. We wore uniforms: plain grey suit with long trousers, grey socks, black laced shoes, white shirt with an optional thin stripe and a detachable soft collar (that required a front and back stud to attach it) and a plain navy blue tie. In the summer term we could wear a cooler unlined grey blazer with navy blue piping.
We wore distinctive small black caps that sat precariously on the back of our heads. Ribbons sewn on the caps formed stripes and the color identified your house. The School House color was a reddish orange. You had to wear your cap when you were out of doors on the school grounds except when playing games, except for cricket when you wore a cricket cap, except when you were bowling when the umpire held your cap for you. Except, since School House was the first house when the school was founded, we enjoyed the privilege of not wearing our caps on the school grounds.
We had great pride in School House. Martin Hardcastle was unchallengeably the best housemaster in the school; we respected him and loved him. He taught us, like William of Wykeham, that “Manners Makyth Man”. Never give in to alarm and despondency. He suggested rather than directed. He did not say never boast, never bully, that honour, duty, integrity and loyalty were fundamental values; they were simply without question, imbued in the spirit of his house. We made us special, indeed unique. He was progressive and during our time he liberalized some of the more hidebound customs.
We did things no other house did. We competed successfully as teams, without stars. We ended each term with a house entertainment, featuring the Gilbert & Sullivan songs he taught us, the sketches we wrote and performed, rollicking fun with the female impersonation so beloved of English music hall. We had Anchor Nights, “arries” on the Clifton Downs on a Saturday night when Cassy created elaborate plots with the fags capturing and beating up house sixths disguised as dangerous foreign spies. We had a first-class croquet court on the lawn. He took us climbing and caving. One night he woke four of us at midnight and took us out to climb Cheddar Gorge with ropes in the moonlight, followed by skinny-dipping in the school pool. Cassy arranged for the senior boys to have dancing lessons with the neighboring girls school. At Christmas we had a dance in the house hall where we could invite our girl friends. That is where I met my first wife and my lifelong chum the irrepressible Shirley, now known as Clare.
A few years ago some twenty or so of us arranged an unofficial reunion, climaxed with a banquet at the Bristol Merchant Venturers Hall. We were drawn together by lifetime friendships and our loving memories of our housemaster. The old house had changed since our day, of course, but certainly not improved by what our successors saw as progress. Hell, they allow girls in the school nowadays. Nobody said it, but the looks in our eyes told us that our schooldays were the happiest days of our lives.
What a strange experience it must seem to those who hear of life at Clifton but did not live it! What was the point of the weird traditions, the regimentation, the hierarchies, the pettifogging rules, the code of privilege and punishment? We certainly enjoyed a magnificent education that enriched our lives to an extraordinary degree. But beyond the scholars and the academics and the scientists, the great public schools set out to train leaders, rulers of empire, explorers, statesmen, military officers, public servants, business executives, entertainers, sportsmen, community leaders. Before we became leaders we were taught to become followers and to serve; when we became leaders we had already learned to exercise authority with responsibility.
We were imbued with a sense of belonging to something special, of having a duty to contribute and to set an example. In the words of the poet, Sir Henry Newbolt, we were taught, “To set the cause above renown, to love the game beyond the prize.”
It is all so quaint, so old fashioned. I cherish the tradition.