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!


Patrick Whitaker said...

How pleased I was to read the reminiscences of a former pupil of Wimbledon College who was quite clearly at the College around the same time as myself. I arrived in Rudiments ll in January 1950, travelling each day from Reigate for the first year and a half and later, even further, from Horsham. I do remember Basil Last, although my own year was made up of John McPartlin, Noel Kearns, "Nooch" Earl and those of Poetry ¨53/54 and Rhetoric ¨54/55. Unfortunately I did make the acquaintance of the ferula on more than one occasion! My most vivid memory was of being caught with three chums, by the good "Iggy" playing solo by the Sodality path when the rest of the school was in church. We were in Rhetoric at the time and close to the end of our summer term. We were each ordered twice-nine as a punishment. What happy days!

umblepie said...

Great to hear from you Patrick. From the dates you mention I think that you were a year behind me. I also remember John McPartlin the younger brother of the 'famous' Joe McPartlin who captained Oxford University at Rugby, and also represented Scotland. I still have two or three school photographs which I guard! My uncle Henry Crowe lived in Horsham in his later years, and attended the Catholic Church there, I think he was the Catholic equivalent of the Verger. Did you know him by any chance? Best wishes, Brian Crowe.

Patrick Whitaker said...

That was a swift reply! John was in fact the older brother of Joe, who I also knew quite well. I´m afraid that I left Horsham many years ago, 1959 in fact. I did sing in the choir at St. John´s Catholic Church in Horsham, when the Parish Priest was Fr. Walter Stone. As a family we preferred to go to mass at St. Hugh´s Charterhouse outside Cowfold.

I married a non-Catholic at the Church of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, but only last year, my wife asked to be received into the Church, after 51 years of marriage! It was a fairly simple matter, considering that we have lived in Spain for the past eleven years. I wrote a letter to the en Bishop of Orihuella and Alicante and received an answer back from the Vicar General, enabling Jean to be received the following week; fortunately we were able to produce the christening certificate in the C of E.

The only contact that I have retained is a friend from the year below me, Anthony Foulger, who lives in Esher. I did also exchange emails with Chris "Nooch" Earl, who has lived in Florida since the sixties.

We attend Church at a small Capuchino Monastery in a village called Orito, very close to us.

Very best regards

Patrick Whitaker

umblepie said...

Thanks again for your interesting reply. You are quite right, Joe was the younger brother of John McPartlin. We had another pair of brothers at the same time, the Heuvals, both excellent sportsmen.Sincere congratulations to your wife on her reception into the Church, it must have been a wonderful occasion,and the Capuchin monastery sounds very traditional- although I know not necessarily so! Our spiritual needs here are looked after by the FSSR community (Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer) from Papa Stronsay, Orkney, - very traditional, Latin Mass, old rite. Two of the Brothers are due to be ordained priests on 22nd June in Rome. They have an interesting website,google 'Transalpine Redemptorists'and they will show up. Exciting day today, who will be the new Pope? Oremus! Best wishes, Brian Crowe

Patrick Whitaker said...

Dear Brian,

I have indeed looked into the site of Redemptorist Monastery on Papa Stronsay as well as watching the retreat of a journalist, shown on You Tube. I also watched you singing "Panis Angelicus" with three brothers of the order; all very interesting. I assume that there must be times when you can´t get to mass, when the weather is too rough.

Regrettably, my Capuchin Monastery in Orito is not wholly traditional. In fact the nearest Latin Mass is some 80Km distant in Murcia. Our community consists of four Friars, three priests and one Brother. One of the priests, Jose Vicente, is a diabetic and not very active and the other two, Laureano and Jesus, share the duties. The principal income of Orito comes from the Santuario of San Pascual Baylon. Around the feast of San Pascual, May 17, we have in the region of 350,000 pilgrims visiting the cave and piling money into the collection boxes and filling the little chapel with flowers.

Before coming to Wimbledon, Ihad been boarding a Prior Park in Bath where my elder brother, David, spent the major part of his school career, before gaining a scholarship to The Guildhall School of Music; Cormac Murphy O´Connor was a couple of years below him.

It would perhaps be better if I give you my email address: as this site is getting a bit cluttered!

I would like to know how you found your way so far to the north of the UK, but there again, I am just as far south from Wimbledon. I started working in Spain in January 1970.

Very best regards,

Patrick Whitaker