KES ARCHIVE
The Boarding School
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon 1914-1945

 

Memories of a Boarder - 1931-1939
by Brian Walker

2nd IV rowing crew, 1938 2nd IV rowing crew, 1938 - Brian Walker second from left

I arrive from my home in Middlesex in September 1931 with one other new boarder, Raoul Beakbane. His father had driven him there from Kidderminster in a Bianchi tourer, a fine open car with a wooden steering wheel. It is interesting to try and recall from whence some of the other boarders came. Ridley Scott and his young brother came from Northumberland; the Mottrams from Northwood, Middlesex; the Allens from Cornwall; Dewling from London; Jack Clark, Jack Sillitoe, Thornton from the Birmingham area., the Caldecotts from Offenham; the Speeds from Evesham; the Brickwoods from Portsmouth; K B Francis from India. We asked him to say "What's the time?" in Bengali (or whatever) and it sounded like "Kitna budgie hi" and so for evermore he was "Budge". John Mills came from Sierra Leone, Tubby Brown from Chile and a real Indian Prince, Ali Khan with his English off-sider, Norton, from some minor princely state. We tried to extract from him all the secrets of the harem but I don't think the answers were very enlightening.

I have often wondered what were the reasons for boys to come from such a widespread field. In my case it was because a good friend of my father, Randle Ayrton, was a leading light in the Shakespeare Theatre Company and he had strongly recommended KES and its Headmaster, the Reverend A C Knight. I have always been indebted to him for that recommendation, and remember seeing his last performance as Lear sometime in the mid thirties.

Life was spartan in School House in 1931. There was no electricity, but gas lights downstairs and candles in the dormitories. A box of matches and a torch were therefore highly prized items of equipment, especially as you could not read under the blankets by candlelight and, as a young boy, it was a frightening experience to run from Big School under the archway of Pedagogue's House, on your own without a torch. There were three dormitories in use at School House at that time: A, B, and C, all with bare floor boards, no heating and no plumbing but a row of china washbowls on a stand along one wall and a "gazunda" under each bed. The only WC in the sleeping area was in a bathroom which was not for the use of the boys except on bath nights. New boys started in C dorm, which had about four beds and was close to matron's bedroom and next door was the sick room. One then graduated to B dorm and finally to A dorm, which was the biggest with about ten boys and overlooked Chapel Lane. This was the site of the A Dorm Test, which necessitated climbing out of the window, inching along a cornice above the headmaster's sitting room window which was on the floor below and then back into the dorm through another window. This pretty dicey feat was only carried out to my knowledge by the Speed brothers until young Edward, the last of the line, got spotted by someone in Chapel Lane and reported to Cecil Knight. I think that ACK was so relieved that Ted had not fallen and broken his neck that he forgot to wallop him, but we all had a good wigging about the foolhardiness of this activity.

On the landing outside A and B dorms was a large glass skylight which could be opened to reveal the stairway and hall of the headmaster's house. When he had a dinner party, delicious smells of roast meat, coffee and cigars would waft up and remind us that the end of term had to come some time and we could go home to enjoy similar goodies. Our only excursions into the head's part of the house, through baize covered doors to keep out the noise, were when traversing a small section on the way to the downstairs bathroom and for catechism classes, conducted by Mrs Knight in her elegant sitting room on a Sunday evening when we were still too young to walk to Holy Trinity for evensong. If you could remember and recite about three of the catechism answers you were rewarded with a sweet.

By today's standards, toilet facilities were abysmal. There were the two bathrooms I have mentioned and bath nights once a week. On this night, a coal-fired boiler was lit and a list of names, times and up or down bathroom prepared by Mr Whitfield, the housemaster. He slept in a small, lonely room, completely divorced from the dormitories and was brought a small tin can of hot water each morning. What he did for baths we never did, nor ever shall, discover. One left prep in Big School at the required time, bolted through the tunnel by P2 and had one's allotted fifteen minutes in the bath, provided the chap in front was not too dilatory and the chap after was not too pressing. The early times had hot baths and the later ones only lukewarm. Every morning, with the getting-up bell at 7.30, a housemaid left a minimal amount of warm water in a jug outside each dormitory door. Somebody was detailed by the dorm monitor or prefect to bring it in and ration it out, making sure that the monitor got the lion's share. At all other times during the week there was only cold water available except when the new cloakrooms were built and there would be some warm water after rugby on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Cleanliness was therefore quite a distance from Godliness. Clean shirts, collars (white, stiff), socks, handkerchiefs and underclothes were issued on Sunday mornings with a top up of collar, socks and hankies mid week. I suppose clean pyjamas came when bed linen was changed every so often. The one incredible luxury which we enjoyed was to have our shoes cleaned for us most nights. These were left in a basket overnight and the gardener/handyman who lit the boiler on bath nights did the cleaning. All shoes, boots (for the cadet corps) and bedroom slippers had your house number neatly banged into the instep with brass headed tacks and so were easily identified in the mad scramble.

 

Brian Walker, 1999

Found written as a letter among the effects of Squadron Leader Brian Walker, DFC, following his death at home in Australia on 1 March, 1999, this text ends abruptly. Perhaps the intention was to finish it later. Nevertheless, the flavour of life at the School in those days comes across very strongly.

Related articles

History of the boarding side of the School 1876-1938

Joe Stephens -
Memories of a boarder 1925-1934

 

 

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