The Happiest Days? – David Godrich
Westbere Road in the War Years
Having been born in Versailles, France in 1927, of British parents. (Scottish mother, English father) my first education came at the hands of a tutor who endeavoured to prime me for schooling at the Lycee Hoche.
Tuition was given in all subjects by the same teacher, and of course homework in no less than four subjects each night were the norm in preparation for the next day's classes. I was not brilliant by any means, but nonetheless I walked away with the first prize for singing plus the Tableau D’Honeur (for good behaviour).
Send him along!
Upon reaching Golders Green in August 1939, my mother looked for suitable schools and decided to write to Dr. F.J. Kemp, the Headmaster to explain my circumstances and lack of English education and schooling. Having suffered from a general exodus of pupils at the beginning of the War, due to evacuation to the country for most of them, Dr. Kemp wrote to my mother and said, in so many words, 'send him along!' which I did as commanded going to Mill Hill for my first day. In suitable uniform of grey shorts and black jacket, no cap yet, I met one other new boy, Derek Knudsen, with whom I remained friends throughout my school days, even though we were not always in the same classroom.
Due to the uncertainty of the number of pupils that would attend classes, forms were established as "Groups", the 10th being the lowest level, and Group 1 being equivalent to the 6th form.
After the end of the first term at Chase Lodge I was so used to studying very hard that my level of learning put me into a higher Group, namely Group 9, where the work levels were not beyond me even though I had no English grammar background; as for pounds shillings and pence, yards feet and inches, well those items did not exist in my previous repertoire.
Students began to trickle back to the London area and so classes grew larger to where an arrangement was made with Copthall School for Girls so that Haberdashers' could use the classrooms in the mornings and the girls in the afternoons, '...and never the twain shall meet!' Don't you believe it!
Sports activities were held at Chase Lodge and I was introduced to my first taste of rugby. As I was so small I was always put at scrum-half. I loved it, because I could get as dirty as possible with impunity from home reprimand. My mother got quite good at washing mud out of my jerseys!
John W. Dudderidge was in charge of athletics for those who wished to excel in other activities other than rugby. Len Fluke was in charge of the rugby and senior cricket. Although I loved rugby I was never quite big enough to find a place on any of the school teams, even though in my enthusiasm to do the best possible, I got my right ear torn one time, but I did not sustain any other major injury. I ended up playing full-back, that way I was independent and not so likely to get bashed about. (What a hope!) E.V.A. Escoffey tried to tackle me once and I just ducked down and he missed me.
Of course, at the beginning of each term, on the first day, we all had to fork over the princely sum of ten shillings (10/- the old way of writing it) for the cost of sports activities. This was in addition to the four guineas tuition fees paid in advance.
In order to maintain strict classroom behaviour and discipline the "Diary" system was firmly in place for the Lower School boys. Each boy was required to carry his "Diary" at all times, the cover being dark blue and the calendar insert was bound in a red cover. Each page was blank with an opening lined in for each class period in the week and the whole term.
Bad behaviour, or even "forgotten homework” could result in the master calling out, by way of example, "Godrich, bring me your Diary!" This never happened to me, as I was a firm believer in the "Eleventh Commandment" (Thou shalt not be found out!) In the event of such a call from the master, he would place his initials in the space allocated to the particular period, and at the very next opportunity, break for example, one would have to report to Mr. J. (Josh) H. Blunt, the headmaster of the Lower School, and he would take whatever disciplinary action he deemed fit. Caning would be warranted if offences occurred more than once in a term, or extra homework would be set, for completion by the next day. No harm in this.
Three "diary marks" in one term would call for drastic action, possibly "six of the best" or even reporting to the Headmaster. With successive diary marks there could be the possibility of expulsion, which was the most shameful of all punishments, for it would follow you forever; or so we believed. Once into the Upper School, the diary system disappeared, because you were expected to be growing up to where such recourse was no longer necessary.
Teachers of note in my school life included Dr. Absom as the Headmaster after Dr. Kemp, who taught Divinity; his main thrust was the disgrace exhibited by boys who could not pronounce the difficult names and words in the Bible. I was a particular target, not because of such frailty but because I was a bugler in the cadet corps, and he never ceased to tease me that, ‘my biggest pleasure in life was blowing a bugle!’ All in good spirits, though. Snickers all round the room!
Norman Callan was my mentor, for he took a particular interest in my struggles with the English language and grammar, and as a result I took a great interest in the subject, and I believe that I learned to acceptable levels. He rewarded me with the privilege of using the 6th form library, when I was still in the 4th form as I was able to quote Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories with considerable accuracy. I never forgot that privilege, and was very grateful to him.
Eventually, after a couple of years during the War, the School curriculum was moved back to Westbere Road and surface air-raid shelters were built of Fletton bricks with concrete roofs; a blast wall was constructed in front of the entrance to each shelter unit. School uniform was mandatory with the School cap with the house-button sewn on top, according to the House colour. The School cap had to be worn at all times by the lower School boys, but this rule was relaxed with the upper School. Of course the 6th form privileged wore a hat with a white stripe sewn round the base. Prefects wore crimson blazers, with the School badge sewn on the pocket
It was not until 1943 or 1944 that boaters were reintroduced for summer wear, together with dark blue blazer and badge, plus any honour tie to which one was entitled, or the regular School tie.
Anecdotes which make the memory vivid and cherished
In the lower School, Mr. Sturgeon was my form master and taught English and Latin, in addition to coaching the cricket elevens. I was under his thumb on all three counts. When provoked, Mr.Sturgeon would show his anger, biting his lower lip, and coming over to the particular boy, exclaiming loudly, "Beast!... Viper!…” and would then wrap on the desk and say, "put your backs into it”. I was not one of his favourite pupils as he would exclaim. "If you can do Latin, you can play cricket well... Godrich can't do Latin, but he can play cricket!" A sort of damning with faint praise.
Mr. Pask, who played the piano for the morning prayer hymns, was also an accomplished jazz or boogie player, but seldom showed his prowess. On one occasion, when a boy arrived for class later than he should, he exclaimed, "please Sir, I'm late." This evoked the response from Mr. Pask, "Boy... you've said it!”
Mr. Beynon I consider to have been the main maths. master who got me to understand what arithmetic was all about, and hence I was successful in passing that subject in the School Certificate exams. All business, but he got the message across, for which I am grateful, and his teaching has stood me in good stead ever since, especially with mental calculations, which make people sit up and take notice.
W. F. Barling was perhaps the most effective teacher of French, besides being of great help in developing the rugby sides for competition. I know he understood my capabilities, but I know that I must have been a source of constant aggravation to him, because I would not use the grammatical French that he was trying to instil into our brains. Instead I would paraphrase the texts with French slang, not the usual "Argot" which is taught in the French schools, but just every day colloquial conversational French. Nonetheless I always remember his patience and gentle persuasion so that I would get into the proper habit of using the schoolboy French required to pass the School Certificate exams.
Mr. Payne who explained, one time, at Copthall, when standing in for another master that 'he was too rough to teach little boys!' A man to be reckoned with at all times, but who placed the burden of learning upon the student. If you "forgot" your homework you merely got no marks and was greeted with, "Urch y'wallop!" whatever that really meant?
Once when leaving the shelters after the "all clear" had been sounded, when passing another shelter, I issued forth what I believed to be a sincere imitation of the sound of a duck! Some sneak told Mr. J.H. Blunt that it was I and so I was summoned to his office for an explanation. How does one write a letter of apology explaining the sound made as being that of a duck? This I had to do and was then admonished never to do it again. (At least I didn't get caught at it).
Sent to Coventry
Honesty and admitting guilt was brought home very early when at lunch some exuberance took place and pepper was thrown, which could have caused eye problems to anyone hit with it. After lunch the whole class was assembled and the culprit requested to own-up, but no one came forth. In order that no one should break the unwritten code of not sneaking, Mr.Blunt said quite clearly that he did not want any one but the guilty boy to admit, therefore he would pass down the line of boys, stopping in front of each and if not the right person, the class would say, "No! Sir." This continued until the right boy was in question and 'silence' was the order. That boy who shall remain nameless, was put into Coventry for three years, with no one having anything to do with him whatsoever. His existence must have been Hell, for himself, and there was no way he could undo it. No one ever failed to own-up ever again, as long as I can remember;
Mr. Percival Adkins who taught manual arts and maths left a lasting impression on me of hilarious memories. In the process of getting his points across to us he would endeavour to elicit answers of arithmetical nature, and when given an incorrect answer he would retort; "that's a terminological inexactitude!” He would ask another boy until he got the answer he wanted. If none was forthcoming he would go to great pains to explain the answer, and why it was so. If asked a question for which there was no immediate answer in relation to the subject matter he would say; "thereby hangs a tail without a bow-wow!"
Well I remember the manual arts classes where he would go to great lengths to be sure we had the correct procedures and safety measures taken to prevent accidents. I still practice his rules and methods; with good results, I may add.
Tea with Dr Absom
The age was approaching when I would have to serve in the Armed forces; I volunteered to join the Royal Navy under the "Y: scheme". In order to qualify you had to have passed School Certificate, or submit a letter from your Headmaster to the effect that he believed you would pass. I approached Dr. Absom with the dilemma and he agreed to meet with me for tea at his office at Chase Lodge, one Saturday afternoon. This was a great privilege for me, as I had never been inside his offices for any reason. Dr. Absom put me at ease at once and we had a most delightful meeting at which time he discovered my French heritage; and as he also was fluent in French, that broke the ice so to speak. At the very end of a nice tea provided by Miss Pridmore, he casually asked if I intended to pass the School Certificate, to which I replied that I was certain that I would. He said that had better be right, and proceeded to give me the requisite letter, and so I was accepted into the Royal Navy, April 5th 1945.
This is just another example of the consideration and help extended by senior masters for the benefit of boys, no matter who they may be. I will always remember his gesture and assistance on my behalf.
The war experiences were somewhat limited. However, I believe that I may be the possessor of the only two photographs on record of the high explosive bomb damage at Westbere Road.
Incendiary bombs were always a threat and so certain 6th form boys were assigned to fire-watching from the top floor of the main building. This activity developed into what I believe was a social crisis when, I believe it was, Mr. Payne discovered that certain girls had been invited to "assist" in the night activities! Those involved are known to me, but may remain nameless at this juncture. That was the end of that activity.
The Disruption of War
The V1s caused the most disruption when an alert was sounded and all students had to vacate their classrooms and go to their assigned shelter, walking there and not running at any time. There the respective masters would try to continue with the teaching, but this did not have much success, for it was virtually impossible to keep the boys quiet in such cramped quarters.
Joining the Armed Forces
Being somewhat weak in my academic endeavours, I found that the constant alerts during the SchoolCertificate exams were to be too much for my concentration, and so I failed the first time around. This of course prevented me from going on to the 6th form, as I was of the age eligibility for service in the Royal Navy, which service I duly undertook in September 1945.
To become a member of the Junior Training Corps, I had to wait to join until I was 14. I had considerable difficulty with all the drills and arms, as I was only 4' 1" until I was 16 years of age. Nonetheless I was determined to prove myself and passed Cert. ”A" part one with the Coldstream Guards in Camden Town and then Cert. "A" part two with the Grenadier Guards at Windsor. This was somewhat traumatic for me as my voice was in the process of breaking and when called upon to be tested for parade ground drill, the officer merely asked me to drill the squad in footwork, and moves that were all familiar to me. However, the fact that he would not let me give verbal orders until the squad was some 50 to 75 yards away made my voice delivery hard to understand. This went on until I was getting frustrated with Johnny Stagg who would not lift his feet when commanded to "about turn" while marching, (a la Guards). I reprimanded him three times, which impressed the examining officer into giving me 100% passing grade.
Because the equipment that I had to carry was of such an amount, and my size was not, is the reason I volunteered for the Royal Navy, figuring that the ship could carry the gear. Don't you believe it! All sailor trainees are "soldiers” as every fighting ship provides landing parties. Because I had army cadet experience I had to carry, get this, a Lewis Gun all through the assault course training, with which I managed to destroy the "bulls eye" of the target at the end of the course. (I also ended up with pneumonia! How to toughen a sailor!)
For the most part the School routines were as described by Kenneth Blessley but extra activities such as camp and field trips were impossible during the War, for it was imperative that travel be kept to a minimum and boys had to be accounted for at all times, especially if air raids were taking place and parents were inquiring as to well-being.
I was never a brilliant student, but have fond memories of the valiant attempts of all masters with whom I came in contact to instil education into my thick skull. Suffice it to say that one of the most memorable aspects of this Public School life was the esprit de corps we all felt for the institution and in particular the masters. No master made any boy more important than another, which only serves to demonstrate the high standard of fairness that prevailed at all times.
The Happiest Days?
At the time it was hard to understand how anyone could say, "these are the happiest years of your life!" But looking back some 55 years, it is hard to believe that there are any better days. I had the privilege of being a part of a National Heritage of the Public School System. Even here in America when asked as to my high school education I say with tremendous pride that I was fortunate in having had a Public School education.
The preparation for the adult life I have led could not have been better, and I cherish the memories. 49 years ago, when interviewed for my first employment, the interviewer asked my age, as was permissible in those days, and when I said 23 he could not believe it. At different times he repeated the question in the hope that I would trip myself up, but the answer was always the same, for I had nothing to hide. After the interview the interviewer reported to one of the Partners that 'he had a man who said he was 23 but he firmly believed him to be in his 30s’. Such was the confidence and poise given us in our schooling.
The parting gesture that my dear Father gave me upon leaving in 1945 was to give me a Life Membership subscription, for he never wanted me to forget the experience I had in such a fine system. Discipline by masters and prefects was the order of the day, and if we came in for punishment we took it as we deserved it, and should we have complained about it to our fathers, we would have got more of the same from them. For having got into trouble, or for being caught. Take your choice.
David Godrich 2000
(First published in the OHA Magazine 1999-2000)