Barry Parker’s memories of HAHS
HAHS was one of many such good schools, having been originally founded in 1690 by Robert Aske for the sons of haberdashers (one of the City’s 12 premier livery companies). It had originally been in Hoxton, but was moved in Edwardian times to the open pastures and tree-clad hills of Hampstead. By the time I went there things had changed a little and Westbere Road was really in Cricklewood, not far off the Edgware Road. The journey to school was a long one, walking from Wynchgate to Brockhurst Corner for the 114 bus to Edgware, leaping off at the traffic lights there so that one wouldn’t have to walk back to the Edgware Road, and picking up the 645 or 666 trolleybus to Cricklewood, then walking another half mile through a dreary area of council housing to the school. When I arrived, in 1946, the bomb damage from the war had still not been repaired, and we had to climb the stairs to our form room on the fourth floor with nothing between us and a long drop but some very weak-looking timbers and sheets of tarred felt. The sandbags and diamond-laid strips of plaster on the windows had gone, but the school air-raid shelters still existed: they were brick-built with concrete slab roofs and did not appear to be very sturdy. In fact we demolished them by getting together a team of the heaviest boys and running the rugby field roller down the slight incline to the side wall. It didn’t last long, and we felt a great sense of achievement as one of the war relics collapsed. On somewhat more mature consideration it’s obvious to me that what we did was dangerous vandalism and today’s attitude of judgement on every action would have, if applied then, condemned each of those taking part to extended and wearisome counselling, whereas the school took the enlightened attitude that the shelters needed to come down anyway. It really was a very considerably freer society then than now.
Our welcome to the school on our first day was made by Mr Oliver, the Deputy Headmaster. He was a figure of terror, with an iron jaw, beaked nose and a scowl of what appeared to be pure unadulterated hatred for every member of the genus boy. When he spoke we listened, wondering what we had let ourselves in for by coming to what was obviously going to be several stages worse than Dotheboys Hall. He introduced us to the care of our form master in 2s (the scholarship form) who was TEC Carrington. He strode into the noisy form-room, all 20 stone of Rosslyn Park forward, and addressed us at the top of his very powerful voice thus:
“I’M A ONE-MAN TIDAL WAVE OF DESTRUCTION. I KILL MORE MEN THAN DIPHTHERIA. IF YOU INKY STINKY LITTLE SCHOOLBOYS WANT TO BATTLE WITH ME I SHALL PIN YOU TO THE GROUND AND BITE YOUR EARS OFF!”
We listened with glee and treasured the wording. This was our sort of man, and we shortly afterwards made a club for him out of the pedestal of an old lectern and decorated it with red ink to represent the bloodstains. At one stage our main occupation when waiting for the next class was to construct folded paper pellets and ping them at one another using the strongest elastic band we could find. We thought in our innocence that nobody knew about this but ourselves, but one day TEC arrived, cocked a world-weary eye about the pellet-strewn form-room and demanded a supply of pellets and the best rubber band in the room. Our protestations that we didn’t know what he meant met with a blank wall of disbelief, and he soon had us working away to a deadline while he methodically picked us off one by one. We loved him dearly, and his subsequent demand that we kept the place litter free was cheerfully acceded to.
In the fifth form I first met a science master whose attitude to the inability to grasp concepts was extreme. When a boy made a more than usually daft answer to a question he would dance around the lab and recite nursery rhymes at him – a procedure that sounds inane, but made the offender cringe and try his utmost to avoid the humiliation in future. I am convinced that his power over us was not only not misused but was a very considerable positive aid to the learning process.
We learnt over the years that even Mr Oliver’s fearsome appearance hid a kindly spirit with a most engaging sense of humour, and in the sixth form we addressed him as Pop. This taught me never to rely on first impressions, least of all the facial appearance of those I came into contact with.
The other masters all made their various impacts on us in different ways, but looking back on them I can assert with confidence that they were almost all excellent teachers at the forefront of the profession. There were (a very few) exceptions. One student teacher arrived with a stated hatred of the public school ethos and, in particular, accent. This did not go down well, particularly as our accents were diverse, ranging from broadest cockney to outrageous Oxford (as in Bryan Sewell the art critic, who left shortly after I arrived). To add insult to injury the nasty little man was short and meagrely proportioned with a horrid little moustache that reminded one of Himmler. So he arrived one day to find the wall facing him draped with a Nazi flag and the whole class giving the Fascist salute. He fled, and we didn’t see him again, thank God.
Even our Padre, Mr Bennett, was a character. He always wore a cassock with a broad belt tied tightly round his ample form, and when one hot summer’s afternoon we languidly enquired why, in such heat, he persisted in such outdated trappings of monastic dress, he grinned and told us that far from being incarcerated as we were in stiff collars, ties, closely-fitting shirts and trousers and thick waistcoats and jackets, he wore only the cassock. “A cassock can hide a multitude of sins” he beamed.
The school playing field was just large enough for a Rugger pitch, tennis courts and Eton fives courts, and with 700 boys we had to travel out to Chase Lodge for the weekly sports afternoon. Here we played ferocious games of Rugger during the winter and cricket during the summer, and revelled in the after-sports hot baths. The pitches were on the grounds of the Habs prep. school, and next to the pitches used by Copthall Girls school. Nobody watched the little boys, but the other two groups showed a great deal of interest in each other, which intensified when we started ballroom dance classes with the girls.
I cannot recollect precisely our timetable or curriculum, but I do remember that we worked longer hours than today’s pupils, and that for at least two years we came to school on Saturday mornings as well. Even after the Saturday classes were dropped there were things to do, such as shooting in the school’s miniature rifle range or taking part in other sports. We had, besides the Saturday, an afternoon dedicated to sports when we did our best at Rugger, cricket, rowing, fives or tennis. There were an additional two periods each week given over to PT or swimming. On Friday afternoons there was a choice between the Combined Cadet Force (army, RAF or naval section) and the Special Service Section, which concentrated on topics such as citizenship and canoe-building.
I joined the Army section and much enjoyed it, particularly the manoeuvres, when we would entrain or embus for distant areas and there crawl around in the mud shooting off blank rounds at the other side. One of our lads, called Collett, thought that blanks were not interesting, so searched until he had found a nicely rounded pebble of the right windage. This he slipped down the barrel of his Lee Enfield 303 and, taking great care not to point it at anyone, pulled the trigger. Up to then he had been firing blanks, which gave no recoil on being discharged, and the sudden unexpected force knocked him backwards. At the same time the pebble split into innumerable small pieces that hurtled into a nearby tree, causing a shower of leaves to fall to the ground. It was only when he took his rifle to be boiled out at the end of the day that he realised the pebble had torn little triangular flaps out of the rifling. The armourer told him about it, at some length.