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Coal Mines and Currant Buns

by Tony Kenber (B2 1961-65)

John Dancy was headmaster throughout my time at MC and I remember him as a pioneering liberal educationalist who made a big contribution to the College’s development. He was instrumental in starting the moves towards co-education and was a key member of the Public Schools Commission which I seem to remember was set up by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.

My father, Ernest Kember (CR 1936-73) was appointed a physics master at MC in 1936 and, apart from the war when he ran a tank training school in Rhyl, stayed at the College until he retired in 1973 when he was 63. I grew up in Marlborough. Dad was housemaster of B1 from 1953 to 1956 and then Cotton House until I believe about 1965 when he became 2nd Master. His final job was Registrar. His house tutor at Cotton House was John Isaacson who became a close family friend. I was in the Priory from 1961 for one year when Pat Barber was the housemaster and then transferred to B2 under Jack Halliday who was very upset one day when we had literally no silver left on the mantelpiece. The last cup we lost was the Chess cup! Both Pat Barber and Jack Halliday were very caring individuals and I knew their families well.

Mid morning, at B2, we used to be served hot chocolate in thick china mugs and could help ourselves to currant buns which were served from large laundry baskets located in the open basement area of B house. There were two housemen who used to help named Giddings and Rossiter. I can picture them both now and their precise appearances. They kept us all in order.

The first girl who came to MC was Caroline Wheeler who was allowed to attend chemistry classes in my last term – summer 1965. She was the elder daughter of one of the local doctors – Bob Wheeler and his wife, Jean. They lived in the middle of the high street on the higher level, Swindon side. It was the very start of co-education at MC and a prelude to the arrival of the first 30 girls who studied there and resided with various housemasters and their families.

Every summer a number of College boys used to go up north and stay with coal mining families to experience the life of a pit village and going down a mine. In return, coal miners and their wives used to visit MC for a week to learn more about a public school. In the very late 1950s, I remember a couple coming to stay with us called Mr and Mrs Bradshaw with a grown up family. He was still working as a miner and gave me a set of small books published by the NCB (National Coal Board) all about coal mining. When Dad took him round MC he could not believe the spartan conditions – loos without doors, cold showers and large dormitories with horse hair mattresses etc.

Dad was the first schoolmaster ever to be appointed to MC from a state school background. He had a good degree in physics from University College, London. In the 1960s he was Acting Master for one term when John Dancy had a sabbatical. Dad had a key role in persuading the Swindon education authority to fund 20 state school boys, as boarders at MC for 2 years, to undertake their A levels – an unprecedented event in those days.

During his time in charge of the CCF, Dad managed to persuade General Bernard Montgomery to come and inspect the corps. Indeed, after Dad died I found a short letter addressed to Dad, from Monty, amongst his papers.