My Time at Marlborough

by Jack Thomas (C2 1942-47)

One afternoon in July, 1942, my father and I took the steam train from Ealing Broadway to Paddington. There we boarded a faster train bound for the glories of the west country. Two hours later we alighted at the small station of Marlborough, long since closed by Dr Beeching. A pleasant walk of half a mile brought us to the centre of the town. Samuel Pepys admired the handsome high street with its colonnaded shops and broad avenue, wide enough for a coach and four to make a u-turn, and a church at both ends of the street. But we were not there merely to admire the town. We walked along the Bath road through the town until we came to Marlborough College at its west end which we explored. There my father spent the first 17 years of his life with 9 years as a pupil at the College. This is the history of four generations, Dean Farrar, J.S.Thomas, A.F.W.Thomas and J.B.W.Thomas, your humble author.

C2 was a friendly House. We slept in two dormitories, 30 boys in each, with bathrooms at the end. In the middle of each dormitory was a pair of ropes suspended from the ceiling with a ring at the end of each about level with your armpits. The prefects instructed us how to swing forward and backwards in ever increasing yardage until we hit the ceiling in front and behind. I could never do it! I am not a gymnast.

The prefects were on the whole a kindly lot and as far as I can recollect, there was no bullying or homosexual behaviour. There was some very mild fagging in which we did things for the prefects like cleaning their shoes or running down town to buy something for them. If we had to be disciplined, the punishment was “Voss me at 7, Thomas.” ‘Voss’ was a legendary school porter back in the 1860’s and vossing a prefect involved getting up at 7 o’clock fully dressed and waking him up. Normally we got up at 7.30, had a cold bath, dressed and crossed the court to the dining hall, a building which has since been knocked down, only to be replaced with an even less distinguished one. We were each allocated a pat of butter (‘groise’) which we then put on the end of a springy knife and flicked up so that it stuck on the ceiling. There it would stay for several days or weeks until the heat of the hall melted it and the pat would fall on some unfortunate and unsuspecting diner. The food by the way was atrocious. It was wartime and we were starving. We all supplemented our intake with a great deal of ‘brewing’ on gas stoves in our studies or common rooms. Baked beans which were not rationed were a staple supplementary diet. So was going downtown to the school tuck shop – first shop on the left as you enter the High Street. But for a real treat if a relative arrived to take one out, the Polly Tea Rooms offered exquisite and delicious delicacies.

The Master, F.M.Heywood, who I later discovered had been educated at Haileybury, once told a funny story on the top table which was deemed so hilarious it went right round the dining hall in 46 seconds flat. He told a story about the school swimming pool which I should explain was open-air and curved round part of the Mound whose trees shed their leaves profusely into the pool. “We sent a sample of water from the swimming pool,” said the Master to his prefects, “to the laboratory for analysis, and the report came back, ‘This horse will be fit for work in three days’ time!’ How we laughed at what we deemed in those days a rather risqué joke.

I said that we had a teaching staff of useless temporary beaks while all the real masters were away fighting the Nazis. On our table at lunch sat Mr Popovic who may or may not have been Russian. Anyway, he spoke little English. The object of our cruel joke was to make Mr Popovic embarrassed. Remember, we were a cruel lot when it came to speaking to any adult we despised. So somebody on the table was deputed to ask Mr Popovic the following question, “Sir, have you ever been tossed off by a horse?” Mr Popovic thought hard for a moment before replying, “No, but I should like to have been.” Collapse with mirth of the whole table. In retrospect, I am ashamed of our behaviour.

Sport was an important element in our lives – exercise of any sort or a ride on our bikes (‘grids’) to Silbury Hill, Avebury or even Stonehenge. Just above C.2 were the playing fields. Here we played rugger in the Christmas term, hockey in the Easter term and cricket in the summer term. At rugger I got badly injured by a boy called Drewry who tackled me and damaged my cartilege which eventually meant I needed surgery (see ILLNESSES). Leave-Off Games, as it was called, I turned to the indoor games and became good at Rugby Fives at which I represented the school in the first pair.

Music played quite a large part in my life. The Director of Music was B.D.Hilton-Stewart, though we always called him Hagger-Staggers. So when he took Congrational Practice in the Memorial Hall on a Friday morning, we had Congregagga Pragga in the Memoragga Hagga with Hagger-Stagger. There was a great deal of schoolboy slang, almost all of which I have forgotten. But if you wanted to reserve something, you ‘rushed’ it. A run across the Marlborough Downs was a ‘sweat’. One of the beaks was called Tegan. He was known as Two-Gun Tegan. E.R.L.Gough who wore a toupée was known as ‘Wiggy’ Gough.

Brasser 1941

I soon became a member of the choir and sang in our beautiful chapel all my time at Marlborough. I also took up the trombone and played in Brasser, which was great fun. I remember I bought my lovely instrument from Boosey and Hawkes in Upper Regent street, near the B.B.C., for the princely sum of £12. I was taught trombone by Mr Lewis who is sitting in that photo on the left of Hilton-Stewart.
I played in the school orchestra under the baton of Hilton-Stewart and remember vividly the thrill of performing Schubert’s Unfinished symphony. One cannot get much nearer to heaven than that. Hilton-Stewart also organised Subscription Concerts. He brought down to Marlborough the London Symphony Orchestra which he conducted. Solomon played the piano divinely and one memorable concert gave us Benjamin Britten on the piano, Peter Pears singing tenor and Dennis Brain in R.A.F. uniform playing his French Horn.

Just before ‘D’ Day, an American band came and gave us a fantastic concert in the Memorial Hall. No, alas, it was not Glen Miller, but it was as good as him, with sousaphones at the ready and a glorious stream of Sousa’s incomparable marches sending us into delirium. So music was very well catered for in our lives.

Religion too played a big part. I was ordained by the Bishop of Salisbury (Rt. Rev. Neville Lovett) and in my last two years assisted the communicant at the altar during Holy Communion, something which I also did back at St Matthew’s with my father. We had some memorable sermons in Chapel. We were prepared to listen but expected the sermon to last no longer than twelve minutes. Imagine our horror when Winnington-Ingram, Old Marlburian and Bishop of London for yonks years, preached fluently for 20 minutes and then said from the pulpit, “secondly.” The whole school groaned audibly. Later that day, in the Master’s Lodge, Winnington-Ingram blessed various groups of boys who were summoned – the Prefects, the leavers, the first XV and the confirmandi. One boy happened to belong to all four groups and received four blessings from the Bishop. My! But was he holy!

During my four years in C.2 I had four Housemasters. Since I myself became a Housemaster at Haileybury for 18 years, I do know what I am talking about. I will give my mark for each of them.

R.A.U. Jennings was a lovely man who lasted two years and then married which meant he had to leave as C.2 was a bachelor House. He taught me English one year and inspired me with a love of Browning’ s dramatic monologues, especially The Bishop orders his tomb in St Praxed’s Church and Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister Years later when we at last visited Rome, the first church we had to see was St Praxed’s (It’s just by Trajan’s Column). I can still hear in my mind ‘Janks’ as we called him spouting, “Grr! There goes my heart’s abhorrence…” I think he was a good Housemaster if a bit handicapped by falling in love. Β+

After him for one term only came D.S.Milford, a wonderful rackets player (he had been world champion) and international hockey player. As a Housemaster he was totally useless. He always put Brylcreem liberally on his hair and was known affectionately as ‘Slimey M’ γ

He was followed for two years by F.H.P.Barber who had been in the army and was badly shell shocked. He tried hard but could not do a good job. βγ

Finally I endured G.R.Rees-Jones whom you can see was Welsh and very pleased with himself. I would say he was a lazy schoolmaster, though he did go on to become a Headmaster where it is even easier to be lazy. In the 1930’s he played centre for Wales, look you, in a legendary team. At Oxford his wing three-quarter had been the famous Prince Obolensky. Βγ+

In the four years I spent in C.2 not once did any Housemaster ever visit us in our dormitories; not once was I visited in the Sanatorium where I had German measles for 10 days.

My best friend at school was Peter Lloyd who was Best Man at my wedding. By a strange coincidence Peter and I were born on the same day in 1928. Saturday, July 23rd. We had the same tastes in so many different ways. We both had fathers who were parsons; both had one elder sister. We liked doing the same things – playing games, singing in the choir, playing in the orchestra, listening to classical music, watching sport. We both went in to the R.A.E.C (Royal Army Education Corps) for our National Service; we both went to Peterhouse, we both did a Dip. Ed. in our fourth years; we both became schoolmasters and subsequently Housemasters, he at Uppingham, I at Haileybury. That’s about where the coincidences end. But we shared a study in New Court, number 22. On one occasion there was a knock at the door and two Old Marlburians paid us a visit. One was Lord Jowitt who was the Lord Chancellor and the other was Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice. That was the most distinguished gathering that study had ever seen!

On the 8th March, 1945, one of my friends died in the Sanatorium. He was Michael Hanscombe, 17 years old, who had contracted meningitis which killed him in three days. I was terribly shocked and I think the whole school was surprised, saddened and humbled by the news.

In my last term, F.M.Heywood took a sabbatical and went to India. A dreary little Maths teacher called Robson became acting Master and promptly set about organising a rebellion in Common Room to get rid of Heywood. The uprising came to nothing and Heywood continued as Master. Meanwhile on the first day of my last term, I went across Court to the Museum Block to look at the Master’s Notice board. And there it was. Robson had made me a School Prefect. There were at that time over 700 boys in the school, a mere 25 of whom were School Prefects, about two per House. So it was a great honour and afforded me the incomparable delight of wearing a white tie on Sundays and being allowed to carry an umbrella as a symbol of my office in all weathers, including prolonged heat waves.

On June 6th, 1944, I was sitting in a classroom in the Leaf Block being taught French irregular verbs by Mr G.G.Beecher when he casually announced that the Allies had invaded France and that it was D Day. A couple of weeks before this, we awoke to find tanks parked all down the Bath Road. A Division had landed on the school on its way to a port for embarkation on D Day. It was Friday so we all trooped to the Memorial Hall for our weekly conregagga pragga. We sat there patiently waiting for the Director of Music and looking at the stage with its huge blue curtains firmly closed. Unknown to us the officers of this regiment were eating their breakfast behind those curtains on the stage. It happened that the school play that term was French Without Tears which required a large table as the only prop. Some clever stage hand went back stage and pulled open the curtains. There were all the officers around the table enjoying a quiet breakfast. Suddenly they were exposed to the gaze of 700 boys and mocking laughter. This event for some of those officers was perhaps more terrifying than their subsequent landing on Sword, Omaha and other beaches in Normandy. We went into our classrooms for lessons and found soldiers at the back of the rooms shaving and eating breakfast out of billycans. It was the most extraordinary day I ever spent at Marlborough.

On about the third day of my last term, it snowed heavily and it never stopped all through, January, February and March. We were frozen with the cold. All of us had terrible chilblains. No games could be played; snowballing became the top sport. As I walked up from town one icy afternoon a car came round the corner, lost control and skidded inexorably towards me. That could have been my last moment on earth. It missed me and term ended early. I left Marlborough a fairly mature schoolboy, not very well educated but eager to discover the world. The army turned me into a man and Cambridge educated me.

The school motto is Deus Dat Incrementum (1 Corinthians 3:6:”God Gives The Increase”). I certainly felt that He had increased me.