Marlborough Reminiscences

by Charles A. Hope (B1 1954-58)

“First just a gentle start. In a Shell maths set, a master was conducting a mental arithmetic test. “I have eight pence in my left trouser pocket and nine pence in my right pocket. I transfer one third of the money in my right pocket to my left pocket. I then take five pence from my left pocket and put it in my right pocket. I then spend three pence on an ice cream and pay for it from the coins in my left pocket. Jones, how much have I got left in my left in my pocket?” Jones, who had been dreaming, answered quick as a flash, “Precious little, Sir?”

The CCF Field Day sometimes went through the night for the older boys during the 1950s and in the Winter terms it was still mighty cold. Our group were given a grid reference and told to get there not later than 8 am when two boys would bring us breakfast. We worked out a compass bearing which was straight through Savernake Forest and set off in as straight a line as we could amongst the trees and bushes. We eventually came to a 10 foot high fence and realised we had somehow got stuck in a deer park. We could hear the deer rushing about not very far away but could not see them. They would all suddenly stop and we could hear their breathing but still could not see them and wondered if they were getting ready for a charge in the same way Mowgli killed Shere Khan the Tiger with the herd of buffaloes in the Jungle Book. In some panic we pulled up a section of the fence enough to crawl underneath. I think we reached our rendezvous about 4am to sleep briefly before being woken by the arrival of breakfast on a pair of bicycles.

Meanwhile, Vaux, I think it was, a sturdy second row forward in the College 1st XV was taking part in some other mission up north on the bleak Marlborough Downs.
His group lost him. This did not worry them at all and they wandered about in the biting cold wind until eventually they saw the light from a fire and set off to investigate. There was Vaux sitting in the warmth and happily toasting one of his sandwiches. They asked him where he had found all the wood. Came the reply, “There was a hut.”

My own, more trivial part in playing at soldiers on a Summer Field Day was waiting down at the bottom of a field bordered by a hedge. It was going to be our turn next to stage an attack on a copse towards the top of the field. We were standing about getting bored and I wondered what effect it would have firing a blank cartridge at close range at an ear of some cereal crop that was growing just the other side of the hedge. So I did and looking at what was left of it, I said in rather a detached manner, “Hmm, shredded wheat.” It then seemed quite funny but down the hill striding at a great pace came a master who had been a Captain in the 2nd World War and was now teaching us war games. He was furious and demanded to know who fired that shot. I admitted it was me straight away. “Don’t you realise you will have given your position away to the enemy?” he demanded. Foolishly, I thought this absurd and said “but we have not started yet.” He was furious and told me he would report me to my Housemaster and asked that I should be caned for insolence and not taking the war game seriously. Luckily for me, my Housemaster, Derek Seymour, quite liked the shredded wheat bit and I escaped the beating.

The statue of Cupid that had been – and I think still is – in the Memorial Rose Garden. We all arrived for breakfast one morning to see it sitting on the apex of the Hall roof which was about the same height as the splendid new Dining Hall. Nobody ever knew who did it and perhaps after 60 years one of the team will admit to be a perpetrator and explain how they got it up there. It stayed there for about a week while someone worked out how best to get it down. There are still separate and named beds in the Rose Garden. An anonymous letter in the Marlburian expressed concern that the President Hoovers were, for the second year, in the next bed to the Lady Belpers.

The highway authority put up a sign just before the bridge over the road from B3, warning of children crossing as indeed they did to reach the main gate. The sign, back in the mid 1950s, showed a boy and a girl holding hands, the girl in a dress and the boy in short trousers. Within a few days some Marlburian found this all too humiliating, got some black paint and gave the boy a pair of long trousers. I do remember Tom Garnet saying in some assembly that the Highways Authority had objected to having their road signs defaced and no one was to do such a thing again. We were sure he had a twinkle in his voice.

“Bolly” Lamb had a cupboard in his classroom in Leaf Block where he kept all his books and at the beginning of every lesson he would open the cupboard and get out what he needed. One morning, a College beagle had escaped from the kennels that were up by the Observatory and wandered into the classroom. The boys swiftly put it into this cupboard and waited. When Mr Lamb appeared as usual opened the cupboard, out walked the beagle to greet him. It made a very happy start to the day

My brother Robert was also in B1 six years earlier and the next two stories are from his days.

Court was mostly, if not all tarmac in his and my time with a double row of Lime trees running down from the gate to C House and masters used to park outside C House. Someone fixed a huge meteorology balloon over the end of the exhaust pipe of a car parked back against the wall with the empty balloon tucked out of sight. It was filling to a good size as he drove out of the gate and set off down the Bath Road. No one knew whether the owner had seen the balloon in his rear view mirror and removed it before his car spluttered to a halt or whether the balloon had simply burst and given him the shock of his life.

One of the teaching staff regularly came into his North Block classroom for the first lesson after lunch having had rather too much to drink. In those days there were about 6 lights in the classroom, each of them a large white glass ball hanging on a cable from the ceiling. One day, carefully planned and rehearsed, a lookout told the rest of the class when he was coming and standing on chairs, they got all the lights to swing round in a clockwise circle. They then all quickly sat down at their desks and swung their heads and shoulders round and round in time with the lights. The poor man came in, stared across the classroom, held his head in his hands, said he would be back shortly and hurried out.

Mr Quadling took the Maths Upper V1th. Not being a boastful man, some one other than he told me that he had redesigned the trigger mechanism in the British version of the Sten Gun, a small quick firing short range machine gun that had been invented to make use of large amounts of ammunition captured from the Germans which would not fit the 303 rifles and Bren guns used by the British army. What he did tell us (in a more general Set in the Hundreds) was that he had taught a boy called Wall, one of those brilliant mathematicians who are moved into the Upper V1th aged 15. Mr Quadling said in the following year there was nothing more he could teach him and gave him the most advanced book he could find, written in German, which he was to work his way through on his own. He finished it within a term and Mr Quadling had to find something else. He was nicknamed Sweet and Lovely by the other members of the class, all at least two years older, from the line in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream , “O sweet and lovely wall.” Wall took an Oxford Scholarship Exam prepared, as was the custom then and maybe still is, by a group of 5 or 6 Oxford Colleges. The main paper said at the top, “Candidates should attempt at least 8 Questions.” Wall apparently answered all but one of the 20 questions and then wrote. “I believe the 14th question is incorrectly set. This is how I think it should have been” and then he rewrote the question. “If I am right, then the answer would be as follows” and then solved the problem as now set by him. Not surprisingly, all the Colleges in the group offered him their top Scholarship. Perhaps Wall will read this and tell us more.

The Memorial Hall brings back many memories.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra came by coach to us and then straight on to Bradfield School to give concerts twice a year. They came with 6 double basses for one concert and Sir Charles Groves conducting usually, I now read from an old copy of The Marlburian, without any music in front of him. They continue this tradition of bringing fine music to schools to this day, no doubt still to Marlborough.

Christopher Hassall came to give a talk and, with Dame Edith Evans, read extracts from various plays including, even in those far away days, her happily over the top version of Ernest in the handbag speech.

James Blades, the percussionist, came with a great assortment of instruments. He told us how the huge gong at the start of J Arthur Rank films was made of cardboard which boxer Billy Wells and later wrestler Ken Richmond pretended to strike while James Blades would struck his gong. As an aside during his talk and demonstrations of various percussion instruments, he said, “If bread is the staff of life, what is the life of staff?” After a pause, “One long loaf.”

Later in his talk, he got out a baby’s bib and held it up for us to see. “This is an invention of mine. I am planning on it making my fortune and then be able to retire. It has a foam rubber front so that when your baby dribbles soup down it, the soup gets absorbed instead of running off the bottom and making everything messy.” Then, while pretending to wring out the bib with both hands, “You can see the great advantage is that your baby can have a second helping.” The “urghs” just about equalled the laughter.

After a final flourish with a row of car horns, the sort that seals are taught to play in circuses, he produced another car horn, with the large black rubber bulb set in the mouth of the horn instead of the pointed end. “This is another of my inventions. It is for putting strawberry jam into donuts. You squeeze the bulb, put the point into the jam and release your grip on the bulb to suck up the jam. You then stick the point into the donut and squeeze the bulb. You release your grip on the bulb and then after a pause, remove the point from the donut. This last action means you suck most of the jam back out, save a lot of money and just leave the smear you get in modern jam donuts.”

Opera bass Eric Shilling came to sing the lowest notes I have ever heard. He must have been in his twenties at the time. No doubt with a soprano and others but it is only him that I remember. After a particularly low last note of some song, he ground his foot on the floor boards as if giving a final push to some earth down a hole he had dug.

He told us that one of his highest honours was to be invited to sing in an Italian opera at the Milan La Scala. He set off at once to see an Italian coach and rehearse his part to ensure his pronunciation was absolutely at its best. Onto the stage he went and started to sing. Very shortly, the audience began to laugh at him. He knew of only three reasons why an audience would do such a thing. The first was that he had come onto the stage having failed to do up his buttons properly. He looked down and all was in order. The second was that the theatre cat had followed him on, so he surreptitiously looked behind him and could see nothing. The third was the grim reality – they were “giving him the bird” and laughing at his incompetence.

He continued to sing, trying his hardest and as soon as he came off the stage he asked an English speaking Italian singer why the audience had been laughing at him. The man replied, “They were not laughing at you. They were laughing because what you were singing was very funny and they revelled in the deadpan humour on your face” After singing in England to audiences who enjoyed the music and the sound of it all but never understood a word, this had never crossed his mind. He continued for the rest of the performance remaining in serene and blissful ignorance of what on earth it was that he was singing.

From time to time, we had concert pianists come to play. The grand piano was apparently a very fine one though the casters on its legs did not spin too well. This was not a problem to a team of helpers who would swiftly shunt it across the stage as required.

A ballet company came for one subscription concert. My only memory of it is that of a pretty little dancer suddenly falling to the floor, landing on her bottom, immediately bouncing up again without using her hands and continuing to dance as if nothing had happened. It was so seamless, I thought perhaps the whole thing must be part of the performance and only afterwards, I learned that she had caught her toe in one of the ruts made by the grand piano.

Every year the Inter House Singing Competition was held in the Memorial Hall. We were blessed with Richard Podger in B1, a musician who played the flute, the piano and probably more instruments and sang with such skill that he won top scholarship to Kings College Cambridge. We came 1st with Drake’s Drum and the following year without him, we came humiliatingly last. It all left me with the unshakeable belief that Conductors can work miracles with a motley collection of amateurs, happily confirmed when Gareth Malone came along 50 years later.

At the end of term there was always a concert, most of it comprising short light-hearted sketches, many gently mocking the characteristics of the teaching staff. None of the sketches can I remember at all but between two of them, a large second row forward, perhaps Vaux, appeared from the wings of the right side of the stage pulling a tug of war rope slowly across the stage until he disappeared into the wings on the left and there was nothing but the rope for 15 seconds or so jerking its way slowly across and then a team of five or six boys appeared from the right all tugging hard but failing amidst much laughter. Between two later sketches, Vaux appeared again, tugging this rope from the right, all in the same way with nothing but the jerking rope for 15 seconds or so until he re-appeared on the right being tugged by himself across the stage.

An exquisite memory of The Right Reverend Bloomer, Bishop of Carlisle, standing outside A House in black and purple as I arrived. “I am looking for my son Bloomer. Have you seen him anywhere recently?” Before going in to look, I saw on the other side of Court by The Master’s notice board there were a couple of boys one of which looked like Bloomer with his distinctive red hair and I said, “I think that’s him.” The Bishop peered across Court and said “Ah yes, thank you. It is he.”

Every Marlburian of my generation will remember hearing for the first time the astonishing volume of the singing in chapel. You took it for granted after a while until you were next in an ordinary parish church and were surprised at the barely audible congregation. I came back for a reunion of our era ten years or so ago and somehow all of us attending the service sang as we had always sang in chapel, full volume. By chance the Master joined us at our table for lunch and with real sadness in his voice said that we had sung with more enthusiasm and greater sound than when the chapel was filled with the present school. Certainly Peter Godfrey pushed us along in the singing practice we had every Thursday before he was enticed away to New Zealand. One memory of our daily chapel service was a prefect announcing the lesson he was about to read. “Today’s lesson is taken from the second apostle of St Paul the epistle to the Corinthians”. No one ever knew whether he had created this Spoonerism on purpose but it was not the same prefect whose turn it was to read the long Latin grace at lunch. It was usually read at great speed but still took 15 seconds or so. This prefect read quite slowly and after about 20 seconds paused before starting the next sentence but the whole school sat down and started talking with the usual noise made by 700 boys and he never finished.

Dr. Hunter, the school doctor, must have a mention. He had a no nonsense manner about him and would fairly regularly inject two days worth of penicillin in one dose as he considered this was more effective, never mind any instructions from the manufacturers of it. The whole school got through a fearful Spanish Flu epidemic in 1957 without loss when part of Summerfield was converted into an overflow sanatorium. One day when out shooting with his 12 bore shotgun, he slipped while going through a hedge and got some mud in the barrels. While cleaning it out with his middle finger, he managed to catch the trigger on something and blasted off the end of his finger. He was just pleased he was not looking down the barrel.

Perhaps it was both Vaux and Matson again, this time on top of the flat roof one wing of the Science block during a practical physics lesson. The class were trying to calculate the height of the science block by timing how long it took an eight pound shot to fall from the roof to the ground. Whoever was teaching them had gone off to do something and had rashly left the class on the roof. A few wandered off onto the roof of the other wing and one of them thought he should throw the shot from one side to the other for a friend to catch. He tried and not only did it not reach the roof, it smashed its way straight through the glass window of the classroom below. Like any quick thinking Marlburian, he knew it would be best not to hesitate and quickly dashed down and round and up to the classroom, knocked on the door and when asked to come in, said to the teacher. “Please Sir, can I have my ball back?”
History does not relate the sequel.

In B1 and no doubt throughout the school, we had House Prayers at the end of each day. The housemaster would say the prayers and a house prefect would choose a reading, often a parable or a story from the Old Testament. One night, Nigel Roberts just stood without anything in his hands and said, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death.Horseman, pass by.” Two lines from a poem of W.B.Yeats. It had a stunning if chilling effect on me and no doubt on everyone. He was a very talented poet himself.

We had some excellent sermons in the college chapel many preached on the basis that the discomfited were to be comforted and the comfortable were to be discomfited. One followed the theme of us all being miserable sinners to be converted from our wicked ways. The preacher made it clear that if we were wanting to get to Bath, turned to the right at the college gates and set off down the High Street until someone “converted” us, so that we turned back the other way, we would not have reached Bath. We would not have even reached the point from which we had started.

Bruce Chatwin was in B2. He enjoyed his rather refined and cultured image and he thought he might make a career in Sotheby’s. He did indeed spend some time there as a porter before starting to write. Playing rugger seemed to him rather an uncouth and unwholesome pastime but play he had to as we all did. He was not a fast runner and was consigned to the scrum. In a combined B House match against C House, Chatwin was passed the ball about 10 yards from the line. He had no option but to charge his way through the melee and hurl himself over for a try. What was not to be missed was seeing him get back on his feet to great applause, in obvious confusion over whether to be proud of his achievement or having to cope with the loss of his treasured image.

Playing a friendly game of tennis with Nicholas Halton in a howling gale on B1’s court below the athletics track, a ball drifted off in the wind towards Preshute and rolled past the wire mesh gate in the fence about two courts away. He set off to get it and on the way back, he shut the gate as he went by and said, “Oh, that explains why it is so windy in here.”

Perhaps not for printing but there is no doubt you will have to have it – certainly with no names, first heard by me at Marlborough but with no memory of when, who and where. One boy broke wind (oh all right, farted) rather noisily. The class all started giggling and the beak said severely “Stop that! “ One voice, instantly “Yes Sir, which way did it go? “

Mr Goodban taught in a classroom immediately to the right after entering the doorway welcoming in Greek only those who can manage geometry, but what subject he taught us now escapes me. One day, as the lesson was due to start, someone came in and told us to read and revise as Mr Goodban was not feeling well enough to come in and was staying at home. He was one of those really pleasant teachers who treated us with more kindness than we deserved and as a result we did take unfair advantage by talking in class and not being intimidated.

One member of the class – and I am sad to have forgotten his name too because he deserves praise for this – said that in the break after lunch we should call on him at his house which was one of the terraced houses in the High Street just past the church on the right, say hello, wish him a swift recovery and tell him we looked forward to having him back soon. About 5 of us went. We rang the doorbell and Mrs Goodban came to the door. Our leader explained why we had come. Mrs Goodban called up to her husband asking if he would like to see us and off we went upstairs. He was sitting up in bed having had some lunch himself. We said our bit and very soon disappeared. I learned weeks later from some other member of the staff – and I cannot remember who – that he was absolutely overwhelmed by what we had done.

I was reminded of this when learning that the Headmaster of Westminster School said that he had given up appealing to boys’ better nature because after 40 years in the teaching profession, he realised that boys did not have a better nature. I would not argue with him but once in a while you catch a glimpse of what might come later.

In or around 1957, there appeared in a National newspaper a letter written by some man attacking British public schools in a truly vile manner with all the usual claims that they were filled with thick over- privileged slobs whose parents had too much money etc. etc. Two boys wrote a reply from school directly to him “on lavatory paper as this is the only appropriate paper on which to write to someone as foul as you” and heaped a load of abuse upon him. The man was over the moon and immediately followed up his first letter with another saying , “ I told you so” quoting this and other choice extracts. The two boys went to see The Master, Tom Garnet, and confessed all. He was very understanding, told the whole school what had happened and this was the first time I heard that excellent advice that you should never post a letter full of anger and steam until you have read it again in the cool of the following morning.

Mr Guy Barton was our Art Teacher with all the eccentricity that artists should have and blessed with an eccentric wife Maire although I never met her. In the mid 1950s in the 5th Form we had one art lesson a fortnight (alternating with one of musical appreciation each week). He had such enthusiasm for his subject he carried you along. From making us consider the effect of the dark blue sky impossibly seen through the windows in Van Gogh’s painting of the church at Arles at one end of the scale, to photographs of a tower block of flats at the other. The tower block was to him a disastrous concept of isolation with the impossibility of a mother letting her children enjoy a playground a dozen or two floors below. He wanted a combination of privacy away from the outside world and of meeting the outside world on neutral and unthreatening territory such as a communal garden containing benches in the entrance area to a group of homes. In a residential home, there should be an area for having a cup of coffee with newspapers to read through which every one must pass. All this, I am sure, was his original thinking and who knows, those who speak of such things now, might have had his thoughts filtered down to them from those who had heard him 60 years ago, even if they have new names such as “defensible space” for his concepts.

Another member of the Staff, Mr Davies who taught English, told me of an invitation he and his wife had to dinner with another couple at the Barton’s farmhouse, with an old style kitchen range. They ate at a long bare wood table in the kitchen and food was served straight from the saucepan to their plates by Maire. There was only admiration and a little envy in his voice as he told me. During the meal, his wife had said to Maire, “I am now going to carpentry classes. I have made a tray. I have heard you do a bit of carpentry too.” “Yes indeed,” said Maire, “do you remember the five barred gate you came through at the bottom of the drive? That was the last thing I made.”

Mr Barton himself told us that he and Maire were having a spring holiday in the countryside one year and passed a field full of sheep. One of them was coal black. Maire insisted they called in to see the farmer. She asked him if she could have the fleece from the black sheep. In return she would sheer both it and some more sheep in his flock. They did a little haggling over how many sheep she should sheer and reached a bargain they were both happy with. Maire came home with the fleece, washed it , carded it, spun it into many balls of wool and then knitted him a fine black sweater.

While trying to track down the name of Mr Barton’s wife on the internet, I came across a website “parishkneelers ” run by a Mrs Elizabeth Bingham (who numbers Chris Hogg and Peter & Henry Brooke among Marlburians she knows). She has a page on Mr Barton’s time spent designing church kneelers after leaving Marlborough. It is truly impressive – Guy Barton enthusiasts should read it.”