Stephen J. Edwards (FN 52-57) recalls the ‘50s:
“Many congratulations to Robert Bodenham on his fascinating three-part description of wartime life at St Bees from 1940 to 1943. Arriving at St Bees myself in 1952, I can assure him that, even by then, little had changed! Many of the traditions and customs he mentions were still going strong, both good and bad!
I have never felt so lonely in all my life as I did when my father, having driven me from home in Newcastle, shook my hand, said goodbye and disappeared down the hill from Meadow House on a fine early autumn afternoon in 1952. Despite having been a boarder for a year at preparatory school, I was about to enter an entirely new world of austerity and challenging experiences, some enjoyable and some utterly miserable. Nothing that life has thrown at me since has been worse than my bleakest moments at St Bees!
I will never forget those years from 1952 to 1957, which provided a robust preparation for the world to follow and for which, surprisingly, I will always be grateful.
I was not much good at sport but, after prayers one evening on Foundation, that famous Housemaster, T.A. Brown, awarded me with an athletics ‘Standards’ tie for trying hard. I still possess that tie.
My main interest, however, was in art and I owe a huge debt to Margaret Widdas, who taught music and art and greatly encouraged my appreciation and understanding of architecture. She often invited me for afternoon tea on Sundays at her beautiful pink Georgian house in Whitehaven after I had done sketches of other Georgian houses in that fine eighteenth century town. It was a luxurious escape, if only temporary! We later exchanged Christmas cards for many years until she died.
Also, I was greatly encouraged in Art, Literature and Drama by Paul Williams, who taught English with real flair and was Assistant Housemaster on Foundation. When touring the dayrooms during prep he often stopped at my ‘cubicle’ to chat about my drawings and paintings displayed above the little desk. I am still in contact with him when I visit London and he still has my stage backcloth design for Sheridan’s ‘The School for Scandal’, in which I played the part of Sir Peter Teazle with J.D.S. (Tim) Brown as Lady Teazle!
I had to fight for the right to attend art lessons, which took place in games times and for which grudging permission had to be obtained from prefects suspecting that I was ’skiving’! I won the art prize each year because so few did the subject! I ended up teaching art at Loretto in Scotland, where my Headmaster at St Bees, James Wykes, had previously taught classics and where he was a Governor when I started teaching there.
Another teacher I remember well was S.T. Aston, who taught maths, at which I was hopeless. He, too, greatly encouraged my interest in art by giving me up for lost and allowing me to sit and draw at the back of the class when, to his and my amazement one lesson, I was able to give the correct answer to a problem on the blackboard and saved the class from being kept in for not seeing it!
I remember delightful French lessons, full of red herrings, with Sam Parkinson, who organised a splendid Lower Sixth Form trip to Paris and amused us with his wartime experiences as an army officer in Madagascar! He gave me my nickname ‘Ted’.
Another excellent teacher was Harold Last, who taught music and trained the choir, including me, to a high standard of singing. Also, I have to thank that great enthusiast for railway timetables, Anthony Dearle, for rescuing me from the CCF by asking me to help him run the scouts. My 'Cert. A. Part 2’ tests had ended in ignominious failure when I marched an entire squad from the Terrace into the Chapel, much to the anger of Sergeant Major Shaw of the Border Regiment, who bawled me out and was infuriated when I suggested that he was being rather unreasonable!
Five fellow pupils I will never forget. Peter Greggains, who taught me so much about jazz when playing records in Fifth dayroom and was nicknamed ‘Dean’ because he was an ardent fan of the film star James Dean. Nigel Lister, who was interested in architecture and developed the art of winding up teachers to hitherto unknown heights of sophistication! Michael Cullen, who played the chapel organ with such aplomb. Roger Hayes, who taught me to appreciate classical music. Lastly, Peter Stewart, who went on to train for the Royal Navy at Dartmouth and was Best Man at my Wedding in 1964.
Finally, during those glorious last few summer days after ‘A’ Levels, I was recommended by Mary Brown, T.A. Brown’s wife, who taught history, to paint a picture of Brigadier and Mrs Sowton’s charming Georgian house on the opposite side of the valley, where I was generously supplied with strawberries and cream as I worked away in their lovely garden.
Happy memories tinged with sadness that St Bees School may soon be no more. Let us hope that it will quickly rise again in another equally successful form, making good use of its splendid range of red sandstone buildings and beautiful setting.
Footnote: My sincere thanks to Ian "Dent" Nimmo, with whom I was on Foundation, for the most interesting information from our schooldays at St Bees, which he lent to me when we last met at the 2013 Old St Beghian North East Branch Dinner. This included a copy of a pen and ink drawing I made of Foundation for a school publication entitled 'Ingredere ut Proficias 1941-1956'; photographs he took as lighting expert of that great production 'Ruddigore', featuring Anthony Dearle singing the part of Richard and me painting scenery in the, fortunately empty, school baths; and a 'Michaelmas Term, 1954' school list. Also, I have happy memories of Fred Merrill, who took 'O' Level Art with me and who did superb drawings of racing cars. I think he went on to work for Jaguar and eventually lived in Hong Kong.
Finally, I still occasionally find myself imitating some of Cyril Wood's brilliantly sarcastic remarks, delivered with a strong Yorkshire accent, in his unforgettable chemistry lessons!”