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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Wimbledon College 1949-1953. A few recollections.

Today’s event is tomorrow’s history, thus my recent decision to join my school Old Boys Association, having left that particular establishment a mere 56 years ago, is presumably history in the making. I must admit that this step has been taken rather late in the day, but a combination of nostalgia and suppressed guilt has eventually forced my hand.
I ask for your forebearance as I reminisce on school days from 1949 to 1953 at Wimbledon College, in SW London, a part-aided Grammar school run at that time by the Jesuits.


My first headmaster was Fr John Sinnott SJ who died at a relatively young age, I think in his early 50s, possibly from tuberculosis. He was succeeded by Fr Ignatius St Lawrence SJ (died 1999). There were numerous Jesuit priests on the school staff, including Fr Hayward SJ, teacher of chemistry, and community bee-keeper and gardener; Fr Scholes SJ, physics teacher; Fr Hamer SJ, a gentle, soft-spoken man, who I think would have preferred sporting activities to academic ones; Fr PhilipWetz SJ (died 1999), a veritable human dynamo, involved in almost every sporting activity at the school, but particularly rugby and boxing; Fr Bermingham SJ, geography teacher of nervous manner, believed caused by wartime experiences; plus two or three others whose names elude me. We had several lay teachers including Richard Milward (died 2006) a brilliant history teacher; Mr Ennis, geography teacher; and Mr Ferdnand Lalou, music teacher and composer, with Mr Salmons (ex Commando P/T instructor) an excellent PT teacher.

The school occupied part of a very large, rambling, Victorian red-brick building, on three floors, which included residential rooms for the Jesuits on the top floor, numerous adapted classrooms for students on ground and first floor, a refectory, library and chapel all on the ground floor, with changing rooms and a gymnasium adjoining the quadrangle/playground.There was a small playing field at the side, used mainly for training purposes for rugby, cricket, and athletics, with the main Sports fields situated 3 to 4 miles away in Raynes Park. Boxing was encouraged, as also was cross-country running, usually over a course through nearby Wimbledon Common.
The school week commenced with Mass at the fine Sacred Heart Church, Edge Hill, Wimbledon, with all classes attending. Learning our Catholic faith by way of the catechism was a priority in all classes, particularly in the lower and middle school, with homework set and tested every morning, and woe betide those who were found wanting! I remember that Richard Milward, a young man in his mid-twenties and our form-master in that particular year, who had suffered severe spinal deformity as a result of contracting polio in his younger days, was very strict about this. He was an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, specialising in history, a subject which he really brought to life. He was liked and greatly respected, but also feared (at least by me) when it came to catechism tests. Corporal punishment, by way of the ferrula, a type of thick leather strap, which was administered on the hands by a member of staff specially appointed for this duty, was distinctly painful and definitely to be avoided. Erring pupils who chose to deliberately ignore the rules, and in spite of warnings were still found wanting, knew what to expect, and it is fair to say usually accepted their punishment manfully!
I lived in Wallington, Surrey, about one hours journey, necessitating a train journey and two bus rides. When I was late, I sometimes cycled to school on an old bicycle, originally belonging to my father, which had unusually large 28” wheels. It was not a posh bike, in fact I’m convinced that it was designed to foster humility. It had straight handlebars, three gears and very large wheels, which meant that when you were on a level or downhill terrain, especially with a following wind, and you were in top gear, you could absolutely fly along without seemingly pedalling very fast, no doubt to the chagrin of other youthful cyclists with their sporty, drop handlebar models. I seem to remember that I could cycle to school in less time than if I travelled by public transport, but it was a hard ride and much depended on the weather. On the subject of weather, I remember in early 1950 or thereabouts, we had a period of dense fog (or smog as it was later called) in London when you could hardly see your hands in front of your face. I can still visualise sitting on a double-decker trolley bus travelling to Wimbledon Railway Station from my school at Edge Hill, and the fog was so thick that a person had to walk in front of the bus carrying a torch to enable the driver to see where he was going!
The school years went very quickly. I enjoyed sport, particularly cricket, and managed to represent the school in all age groups up to the 2nd XI, which meant quite exciting trips to compete with other schools, which included St Georges, Beaumont; Whitgift School, Croydon; Rutlish School, Merton; and other formidable opponents. I suppose my one moment of minor sporting glory was playing for the under 13’s or perhaps 14’s, when I won an ‘Evening Standard’ cricket ball for taking 5 wickets for 4 runs. If I had done a little better I might have won a cricket bat! Academically I was about average, but I did win a prize for ‘Religious Knowledge’ in 3rd or 4th year, which rather pleased me, as to win any sort of academic prize was quite an achievement, bearing in mind the competition from some very bright students! Memories come back to me, of volunteering as a 2nd or 3rd year boy, to help with the teas at various sporting events involving senior teams, thus guaranteeing a share of what inevitably was a delicious tea! Don’t forget that food rationing for certain products had, even then, only just ended, so opportunities for treats were not to be dismissed lightly! Similarly, volunteers were regularly sought from the middle-year classes, to read aloud to the Jesuit community at their meal-time. Their early evening meal was taken in silence and the reader was given a book from which to read. I think that on completion of his 'shift' he was rewarded with a meal, although I am not so clear on this. I remember the religious ‘Retreats’ held for different school ‘years’. Two 'Retreats' that I can remember, were given by Fr Bernard Bassett S.J. a very highly sought-after ‘Retreat Master’. A positive and encouraging priest, he provided traditional, sound Catholic teaching, backed up with genuine humour, and always with a clear spiritual message. Fr Bassett wrote several books, and in later years I believe that he moved to the Scilly Isles where, in addition to his many other commitments, he was also the parish priest.
It is strange that even after an interval of 55 years, I can remember the names of many if not most of the boys in the same school year as myself. I remember going to tea with Gerald Conway who lived in Chelsea; he was a good rugby player, academic and well organised. Another classmate, surname Tracey, lived at Mitcham, where his father kept racing pigeons, and another Basil Last, who lived at Merton, had an extensive model railway layout in the loft of his house, in which we spent many enjoyable hours. By the law of averages, inevitably some of my old classmates and almost certainly all my old teachers, are now dead. I pray that they may rest in peace. Indeed I can remember visiting a monastery with Basil Last and another classmate Hilary Sutton, I think it may have been the Carthusian monastery of St Hugh , Cowfold, Sussex. I vaguely remember that Hilary had been invited to visit the monastery, together with a friend or two, and on arrival we were treated with great hospitality, being shown around the working area of the monastery, and being given a very simple but appetising meal. Recently I learnt that Hilary died last year. One day, we know not when, will be our last day on earth. This is not morbid thinking, just the truth. I pray that my life, our lives, will reflect if only in a small way, the spiritual ‘logo’ attributed to St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, the shortest form of which was often written at the beginning of school work:- ‘AMDG’- ‘Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam’ - ‘To The Greater Glory of God’.
One final reflection concerns the school week, with compulsory in-house sports every Wednesday afternoon, and inter-school sports matches every Saturday afternoon, preceded by studies on a Saturday morning. The six-day week didn’t seem particularly strange or arduous to us at the time, it was just accepted as normal. I wonder if this is still the same?
By the way, in the unlikely event that an OW commitee member might read this, I am still awaiting receipt of the OW membership application form - applied for on the OW web-site admittedly not that long ago. But 'tempus fugit' (I was no Latin scholar-but I think this is correct!), and having at last taken the decision, I can't wait to pay my £30 fee!