No. 187

OSB Logo The Old St Beghian
  January 2015


Robert Bodenham (F 40-43) concludes his reminiscences of war time at the school:

“As at most boarding schools we did not have a lot of unplanned time, but somebody told me when I arrived at St Bees that provided a boy was where he was supposed to be at any one time, meals, lessons, bed time, prep and so on, then he was, at any other time, allowed anywhere within a seven miles’ radius of the school. I’m not sure how true that was officially but we did seem to have an enormous amount of freedom to roam. Together with one or more other boys or alone we would wander around the village, down to the shore and up on to St Bees Head. At the time there was along the coast south from the golf course a military training camp training soldiers to fire the Bofors gun at aircraft. Light aircraft used to fly up and down the coast I suppose about half a mile off shore towing a drogue behind the plane. We could see the odd round tearing up into the air but I cannot remember ever seeing any hits although there must have been some, but they would have just gone straight through the target. The sea bed must be littered with Bofors shells. At other times we would wander up onto the head avoiding the cave at the top, which was officially out of bounds. We would wander over to another little bay near Sandwith. (If anybody has information about this cave I should be pleased to hear - Editor).

The railway, because it ran alongside the school, always had a fascination for the railway enthusiasts. Several times a day a steam locomotive, large or small, would haul either a passenger or a freight train through St Bees station. I spent many a happy afternoon with one of our railway buffs who was knowledgeable about the engines and their wheel classifications and the brake and valve types. People now travel miles to gawp at these engines in York Railway museum, but to us they were as familiar as the school buildings and much more interesting.

Some of us used to spend hours in the library enjoying the old editions of Punch, the daily papers and the large selection of books which we were allowed to borrow. I wasn’t there when it happened but I was told that the library was heated with a boiler behind the building. Apparently some boy found that if he crept into the boiler room and urinated into the boiler fire he could clear the library in double quick time with the most dreadful smell!

Every dayroom seemed to have at least one boy whose parents had given him a mains-powered radio. He would bring this to school each term and of course only he or chosen friends were allowed to operate this bit of equipment. During the war radio programmes were limited to only one or two, with the content strictly controlled by the authorities. Much time was spent listening to and fantasizing about singers like Anne Shelton and Vera Lynn. Programmes like Workers Playtime and ITMA with Tommy Handley and so on were allowed so long as we were not supposed to be working. I know that occasionally the owners of the radio would quietly tune in to Lord Haw Haw on the German radio to see what rubbish he was churning out. There were of course no televisions etc., just plain valve radios. The equipment we enjoy today was then the stuff of science fiction.

Most of the dayrooms in Foundation House had the walls lined with individual ‘Cubes ’, which were little open-sided spaces with a drop-down desk and seat and shelves on the wall. These ‘Cubes’ were a small space in the dayroom which a boy could call his own and which were, I seem to remember, quite sacrosanct. Some boys brought from home games like chess, draughts, mahjongh and others. Card games were popular especially with the gambling types, who spent hours playing pontoon and poker.

A small group used to smuggle cigarettes into the house and even had places to hide them up on St Bees Head where they would go on Sunday afternoons and smoke in secret, not then knowing they were preparing themselves for a nasty way to die. They didn’t realise it of course but those of us who didn’t smoke could smell them coming into the room. I could never understand why the staff didn’t cotton on to their antics. I suppose they smoked as well, almost everybody did.

In the summer terms we had three-quarter days when we would be allowed to go off on our bicycles into the countryside. We had to notify the staff where we intended to go; a packed lunch would be provided and off we went, usually to one of the nearer lakes. My first was to Ennerdale but after that one or two of us usually plumped for the wilds of Wastwater. Traffic was of course nothing like now because only cars on business of national importance were on the road.

It's hard these days to realise how out of touch with our families we became. Our only contact was for most of us the weekly letter from home. No mobile phones or Emails. That weekly letter was so appreciated. More direct communication, usually via one of the staff, would likely be bad news. Some of the boys had fathers or elder brothers and sisters in the forces and I will never forget one of the boys in my presence getting some very bad news from a member of staff. His poor anguished face still haunts me. A few parents managed to visit and usually stayed in the Abbots Court Hotel just along the shore road. It was usually understood that the boy concerned would entertain a couple of other boys to a slap up tea at the hotel. My parents managed one visit all the time I was at St Bees.

Paper was a problem during the war. Wood pulp had to come by sea so paper had to be used as sparingly as possible. We usually brought from home a small pad of note paper for letters and crammed as much as possible onto one sheet. Envelopes were difficult to get so we were all encouraged to use ‘Economy Labels’, which stuck onto the front of an already used envelope with a flap that sealed the top. No self-adhesive things in those days, you just licked the back and hoped the glue would stick. Some of us tried a trick with a bit of string. This was anchored inside one end of the envelope and poked out of the other end when the letter was sealed. The idea was that the recipient would pull the string and slit open the letter. They would then seal the string in again and send the letter back. Secretly we were hoping to see how many layers of label we could accumulate, but the post office got wise to our fun and put a stop to these ever increasingly thicker letters winging their way all over the country.

I seem to remember the post for a letter cost about two pence (approximately one new penny), which would involve one or two stamps as usual in the top right corner of the envelope. One bright spark in our dayroom decided he would decorate his letters home by putting a halfpenny stamp in each corner of the envelope. He managed to get this through the post a couple of times but he had forgotten that in those days the postmaster in the small St Bees post office had to frank each letter that passed through by banging his franking stamper onto the stamp by hand. There was uproar because the post office saw that if this caught on they would be franking hundreds of stamps, so it was stopped very quickly.

Talking of paper shortage, in those days the downstairs lavatories in Foundation before the new building was reopened were through a door on the left side of the long passage that led to the chapel etc. Inside were two rows of WCs, no doors and absolutely no privacy whatsoever and freezing cold as well. Because paper was short the domestic staff used to provide loo paper that was made of recycled news print. The recycling process was obviously not too efficient so although the paper was a sort of grey colour it was scattered through with little bits of unshredded newspaper with the remains of printing on them. I fear that yards of paper were wasted by silly boys who couldn't resist the temptation to pull off more and more sheets to see how big a piece of print they could find. Also at that time the firm "Izal" was producing paper that had little mottoes and sayings on each sheet. Needless to say that guaranteed a huge increase in usage.

On the whole I seem to remember very little real ill health among us boys. We all got coughs and colds which just got better. We all remember nights coughing and keeping everybody awake in the dorm. We all had the usual childhood diseases: measles, mumps, chickenpox and German measles, but I suppose most of us got these out of the way before we came to boarding school. In those days with those childhood diseases one was off school and more or less isolated, which was lovely because it meant at least three weeks out of school. I managed my chickenpox very badly because I went down with it just before one of the holidays so I had about a week in the ‘San’at the end of the term and another week came from my holiday! The ‘San’ was in a small house up, I think it was called, the Rottington Road and was staffed by two or three women or maids. At that time one of the maids was a rather pretty girl and as a result the older boys welcomed any medical opportunity of being looked after by her and her colleagues. Understandable I suppose considering the monastic sort of life we led in an all-male school. We had a matron in Foundation House who was a rather substantial lady whose name I forget. She looked after our health and domestic needs. There was a visiting doctor. At the time, I was suffering from recurrent boils, which they treated with hot poultice fermentations. There were no antibiotics then and infections, abscesses etc just had to resolve themselves naturally. Sometimes this took ages and made one feel very down and rotten. Serious infections may have been treated with sulphonamides but these were dangerous in themselves so were mostly limited.The practice then was to help the process on with hot dressings to draw out the core and matter in the boil.

Once or twice a day one would attend the sickroom where the dressing would be removed and the wound cleaned; there would be much squeezing of the boil, which was acutely painful and then a new dressing applied composed of a bulky bandage which would hold on a piece of lint under a waterproof silk patch. The lint was coated with a thick layer of hot Antiphlogiston paste, which was taken from a pot heated over boiling water. It was applied as hot as the patient could bear and was very painful and frightening for a young boy. One of my boils was on the back of my neck and wouldn’t resolve quickly so doctor and matron decided to lance it. I was warned to hang on and in went the scalpel which sounds worse than it actually was. It did relieve the pressure but without antibiotic cover it would probably be frowned upon today.

Although I was only an average scholar, I think I enjoyed the lessons at St Bees as much as anything else. Because most able bodied-men were in the forces we were taught mostly by older teachers or men who were unfit for active service. We all took the Oxford and Cambridge School Cert's and I managed to get a reasonable one thanks to the good teaching and a modicum of work on my part.

The only school photograph that was taken while I was at St Bees was in 1943. After that photography was a luxury and so it was discontinued I suppose until after the war. I have it on the wall in front of my desk at home. I can remember most of the staff on it but not all of them.

At one end of the school group is the sergeant major who took us for drill etc. He was old but as upright as a younger man and drilled us strictly. We liked him. At the other end was another ex-army NCO who was our PT instructor. He ran the gym at the end of the block by the swimming pool. A new gymnasium had just been built and we had all the modern equipment available at the time. I enjoyed his instruction and exercises. He took us for swimming and PT, I seem to remember, for about an hour every day except at weekends. I think he must have been in his late sixties and was seen one day to fall from high up in the gym, landed on his feet and told the boys who witnessed it "That’s the way to fall".

In the middle of the group there are nine members of staff starting on the left with a lady whom I cannot remember clearly. She might be Miss Iley, who ran among other things the school shop for stationery.

Then there is our English teacher whose name I forget, but I know I loved his lessons. He was rather unsmiling and frightfully sarcastic. Each lesson he seemed to pick on one or two boys to dig away at to see if they had done enough preparation for the lesson or something like that. I didn't mind a bit when I was chosen for the treatment. It was like psychological tennis. He didn't mind at all if you got the better of him and it kept us all awake.

Next to him is an unfortunate man, Mr (Sharkey) Pitman. I have no idea where the shark bit came in but he was the continual victim of practical jokes by the more cruel boys. I think he must have been unfit for army service. They would set his blackboard with the pins just in the holes so as soon as he touched it with the chalk it would drop onto his toes. Every time we had a history (?) lesson from him something would happen to him. I used to sit cringing at the cruelty of it all.
Next we have Mr PG (Piggy) Gow. He was a slim elderly man with grey thinning hair and thin lips and a pointed nose. He taught us chemistry and did not suffer fools gladly. There was no playing tricks on him. I enjoyed his lessons. He was assisted by a Mr Meekes, who was rather dark-skinned and floated around in a brown lab coat and was hence called Mr (Greasy) Meekes by the boys. He was a nice man. It was poor Mr Meekes who had to stick his head in the fume cupboard when things got out of control.

Piggy Gow had a thing about boys messing about with the chemicals behind the high benches where they were out of his direct view. If he heard the slightest clink of glass he would rush out from behind his bench shouting "Bottle Toucher, Bottle Toucher" and woe betide the bottle toucher concerned. A great character and I wouldn't have missed his lessons for anything.
Next to Mr Gow, who was I think deputy headmaster, we have the Head himself, John Sydney Boulter (JSB). He lived up in School House so was in a way a little remote for us in Foundation. To us he was a rather fearsome individual with a small military moustache and eyes that bored into you if you were being spoken to. He had a gammy leg which must have been injured some time so it was stiff and bent at the knee. As he walked, it swung out, which must have made things difficult for him but he still managed to umpire rugby matches and march with the corps. Marching songs were made up about John Boulter and his leg but they could not be repeated here. He taught Latin and used to sit in the classroom with his leg stuck out and his hands placed together with the fingertips all in contact. He would then tap them together. He was married to a sweet woman and had a little boy, who was, I seem to remember, called Hugh John and was I think, adopted. Watching Hugh John and his antics gave many of us a laugh. As time went on and I saw more of JSB I realised he was a nice man and had our welfare at heart. Nevertheless he ruled with a rod of iron. He was mainly responsible for turning the school’s fortunes round once funding had been assured.

Next we have Mr (Gash) Aston, a quiet sort of man who taught maths, that's all I can remember about him. To me, he just seemed to float around and was only just there!

The man next to Mr Ashton was Mr (Monkey) Matthews, who taught amongst other things music. He tried to teach me the piano, with an outstanding lack of success, which was entirely due to my not practising. I cannot remember much else about him. The lessons took place in Grindal House across the road from Foundation, but which had ceased to be used as a house for the boys.

Mr Ofner, the next in line, was I think an Austrian Jew who had come to the UK to escape the German persecution. He taught us or tried to teach us physics. He certainly knew his subject and had a good command of English but with a German accent. I used to find his explanations of things like the refraction of light through various media terribly difficult to understand, mainly I think because of his pronunciation of certain key words which detracted from my easily understanding the subject. I think we callous boys must have been a great trial for some of these unfortunate people, who had been wrenched from their countries and their loved ones by their political persecutors.

The final teacher in the row was Dr Learoyd, a slightly odd individual whom we all liked. Very bright, he apparently collected qualifications. I was told he could speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Dr Learoyd used to wear shoes with thick rubber soles so he glided around like a ghost, which gave all of us lots to laugh about. He was the one who dished out the Saturday sixpences whilst chatting with us and entertaining us with lots of witty comments. He taught geography and made it interesting. The only subject in which I once got 100 % was in an examination about Australia. Forty-five years later I was in Queensland Australia and I found Dr Learoyd’s lessons coming back to me. A good teacher is a valuable person indeed.

Two men who are not on the photograph were both housemasters at Foundation house when I was there. GOC Smith (known as goc Smith) was my first housemaster, a friendly sort of chap who tried to make us feel at home. He had a slim sort of Clark Gable moustache. He was married to a tiny little woman called Nesti. We didn't see much of her, but of course he was always wandering about keeping a check on things. He was very keen on shooting and would often come up to our dormitory after a day out with his gun and tell us about his exploits, the foxes etc he had seen. I believe he did occasionally take out the odd older prefects for a bit of shooting. They certainly did shoot some of the rooks which lived in the trees around Foundation House. Poor man, he got some sort of nasty tumour on I think it was his left arm. He had to have this amputated and for a while he coped with an artificial arm and had his shotgun specially modified but very soon he died and we had to have a new house master. Nowadays he would have probably survived. We had a memorial service in the school chapel for Goc Smith and I well remember how uncomfortable I felt when a group of School House boys laughed and made up jokes about the whole business of his illness and death and his unfortunate widow.

Mr Smith was replaced by a man called TA Brown known as Tabby Brown. He was very popular. A little short in stature I seem to remember, compact in build and a little slow and deliberate in his movements and speech until he was demonstrating things on the rugby field. He was then like greased lightning. I believe he had played rugby at international standard at some time and knew what he was about in that respect; hence the reason for some of his popularity I would think. His wife Mrs Brown was an attractive little woman who taught history to the younger boys.
I don't remember any boys being excused chapel because of any different religious beliefs but there could well have been one or two. We attended chapel twice on Sundays and on the whole I used to enjoy this. Those of us who enjoyed a good sing joined the choir. Occasionally, choir practice got one out of less enjoyable activities, which was a good thing. All of us were offered confirmation at about 14 and most of us went to confirmation classes as much as anything out of curiosity. We all got together and decided who was going to ask the curate who took these lessons the awkward questions about the Ten Commandments. It never occurred to us silly little boys that he was well prepared for these before we even met him. Until the war I suppose the confirmation service would have been held in the Priory Church in St Bees with a visit from the Bishop of Carlisle.  However, with war time restrictions he could not visit us so we had to go to him. The Headmaster had a petrol ration so he took us to Carlisle where we made our vows in, I suppose, Carlisle Cathedral followed by a slap up tea in, again I suppose, the Bishop's palace. With rationing, the tea bit was for us the main purpose of the whole exercise!

I forget the name of the vicar at St Bees Priory, but we called him the battling parson. He was a good-looking cheerful man, who used to come and coach and umpire rugby matches. He was reputed to take funeral services immediately before games with his rugby boots on under his surplice!

I have just about run out of my memories of my time at the school. Writing this has brought many of them back, and although
I didn't enjoy my time there as much as many boys did, I am certainly grateful for the education the staff gave me and for preparing me for my adult life. I was much amused when John McArthy, the famous hostage in the Middle East, was released and said that his life at public school had prepared him well for life as a hostage! I’m also struck when reading the memories from other later pupils from the 50s to the 70s how much more goes on at St Bees since my time. Long may it continue.”



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