Royal Albert School
FROM TWO TO EIGHTY TWO
ALBERT – THE LATTER YEARS
It was late afternoon, dusk was settling in as the train pulled into Camberley railway station. Bernie the ginger nut and I had travelled down from Edinburgh to London with our naval escort, caught a train from Waterloo station and finally reached our destined stop. Didn’t have a clue where we were but knew we were destined for another trip to somewhere else. We were introduced to a tall slight built, balding gentleman, whom our escort identified as our new headmaster whom I now know as Mr. Chas. A. Taverner.
We shook our escort’s hand and said our goodbyes and was ushered to a small sedan car - I think it was an Austin, with a wooden panelled dashboard. We were very quiet until we reached the driveway up to the school. As we turned into the drive, I whispered to my friend something like “if they don’t know how to play football, we can soon teach them”. Bernie ginger nut agreed that that was a good idea. How dumb was that, you can tell what a sheltered life we must have led.
Because of the late hour we were shown to our respective bedrooms and the following day we were informed regarding the rules etc. advised which house we were in and the particular classroom where we should attend. I was placed in the best house bar none; Victoria – Colour Red.
From that point on we were separated and placed on a roster for duties such as scrubbing the entrance hall and cleaning the stairs to the two floors above and various other duties. Ushered off to our respective classrooms and met the other lads where as in all social settings slotted into a sort of pecking order. That night always remains a vivid memory, because the two of us had to walk the ‘gauntlet’ of initiation. This comprised of getting walloped with wet, sometimes knotted towels. We were told that if we tried running we would have to do the walk three times. For me once was good enough, and after what I had been through this was a piece of cake. Having reached the end of the line, one lad thought he would continue with the belting until I grabbed his towel and gave him a couple of wallops, which kind of sent out a message that I was no easy mark, and was willing and able to take care of myself if need be.
There were four dormitories on each floor, two at each end of the floor with a shower/wash room separating them. The younger boys were on the top floor with the older boys on the first floor. Access was gained from a separate area (other than the main entrance). Straight in front of the main entrance, was the central flight of stairs where you branched either left or right to the respective dormitories. I branched right to the first floor, turned left, passed the teacher’s lounge room then left into the dorm. My bed was directly across from the door, and the only boy’s name I can recall is a lad named Waring whose bed was to the right of the door, directly in the middle of the far right wall under the window that overlooked the outside assembly area. There was a row of lockers on the left hand side wall allocated to each boy for his personal effects. Each boy was responsible for making his own bed and a duty roster was followed ensuring the dormitories and other areas were kept clean and tidy.
One if not the most enjoyable prospects of being at the Royal Albert School was being able to go home for Christmas and summer holidays, especially after having been isolated in Scotland away from home for five years during the war. It wasn’t worth my while going home any other time as they were short holidays and everybody was working. There were many other lads in the same boat so we were not short of company. We always had a teacher or two looking after us and keeping us out of mischief. I do recall one particular Easter period when the headmaster was helping out one particular evening. We were playing a game of billiards (as we thought) when the headmaster chipped in and began teaching us the correct rules and principles of the game. One particular shot he taught us, which I have used a number of times since whilst playing snooker, was how to spin the cue ball in order to pot a ball resting on the top cushion. Something he obviously picked up from a misspent youth.
If you recall, during my latter days at Mayfield House in Edinburgh, I joined the local church choir, so I thought it might be a good thing to do in Camberley, (anything to break the monotony) so cheerfully I trotted off to church and turned up for my first practice with the rest of the choir. Opened my mouth to sing the first hymn and the most horrible grating sound made everybody stop and look at me. How embarrassing, my voice had not just broken, but had shattered into a million pieces. I was politely asked to sit down and when ready, quietly leave.
So, that was the end of my singing career, which left me wondering what I could do to while away my precious spare time. Someone suggested Morris dancing and thinking it was something like we used to do in Scotland at Christmas time I said ok. Bit of a shock when I had my first practice session, felt it was more for girls than boys, but when the lads explained that we appeared at weekend festivals around the district, which included being fed and watered, and that it was a recognised traditional form of entertainment, I was all for it, fancy gear an’ all. We were really good at a particular routine where we had what were supposed to be swords made of wood which involved a lot of clashing and smacking of our wooden swords and came the finale we linked them altogether in a circle, which looked quite impressive when done at speed whilst still jigging up and down.
A bit of gossip now about teachers; don’t worry, I can’t remember any names. Because of the war, most of them were old school, firm but fair. There was one master who stood-in if one of the regulars was away or off sick. He was a tall upright gentleman who suffered with frost bitten feet, and he had special shoes that catered for his condition which caused him to walk more on his heels with the aid of a rather stout walking stick. He was always polite and helpful and often told us of his many exploits and travels, but he took no cheek from anyone, and any boy who tried it on only ever did it once, because he also used his walking stick as a cane, and nobody tried it on twice with him. No regrets mind you, I reckon most of us turned out pretty good because of the discipline.
One teacher we had was from Yorkshire and didn’t he get upset when some of the lads couldn’t understand his dialect. Things like “Pit oop thee and” or “stanoop” or “dost clean thee bairts t’day”.
We had at one time a tall burly lad who was a bit aggravating and often very intimidating to one or two of the teachers. One particular teacher, a new arrival from the air force, somewhat younger than the normal run-of-the mill that we were used to seeing, was taking dining room duty, and the boy in question was asked to do something, a fairly trivial request, and he immediately told one of the younger boys to do it for him, at which time the teacher told the younger lad to sit down and repeated his request to the big boy. At that point the brash lad started swearing at the teacher, walking up to him in a threatening manner.
The teacher never moved or blinked an eye and never said another word, but when the lad got within arm’s length of him, the teacher smacked him around the head which sent the boy skidding back to where he came from on his backside. The teacher followed him and made the same request of him in a calm controlled voice, and this time the smart aleck did as he was requested, which was a signal for a thunderous round of cheering and clapping from everybody.
That same bully boy made a point of picking on individual and much younger lads every now and then. One particular day, one of the younger boys complained about him and asked me to help them by fighting with the bully to teach him a lesson. This I refused to do of course, but as he had asked for help I suggested to him that the younger boys should manage the problem themselves. In order to teach this bully a lesson, one of them needed to antagonise him, but before he could hurt the young lad, all the other young boys should rush him and one or two should get behind him, kneel down whilst the others push him backwards causing him to fall over.
I reminded the lad I was talking to, that a person lying down was shorter than he was standing up, and if one or two boys could sit on his arms and legs the bully would be helpless and at their mercy, at which point you tell him that if he ever bullies another boy again, you will all take it in turn to punch the nose off his face. Needless to say, that is what happened the following day, and the bully boy got the fright of his life and thereafter left the younger boys alone.
Saturdays were special, when we were allowed to walk into Camberley with a bit of pocket money to spend. I well remember the very first time, I was as green as grass. One of the lads my age talked me into going into a sweet shop with him, whilst in there he did what any mischievous boy would do; he began nicking sweets putting some in his pockets and pushing some into mine despite my whispered objections. He quietly explained that he had never been caught so it was ok. Fine until we decided it was time to go, when we paid for a couple of sweets and walked towards the door; we were stopped by the owner and asked to empty our pockets, which we did. My new friend was told that they knew he had done this before and next time the police would be called. I also received a warning to pick my friends a bit more carefully. We both received a good clout around the ear and allowed to leave. It was the most embarrassing moment of my entire life. Experience is a wonderful teacher.
Future visits were without incident, having formed new friendships and walking in small groups and occasionally alone. One little pleasure a couple of my friends introduced me to was a small café not far from the rail crossing, on the right hand side. We would wander in for something on toast with a pot of tea, my favourite was beans or scrambled egg on toast. I also appreciated being alone at times, enjoying the freedom of just wandering around. Being content with my own company served me well as the years passed by, as I never ever actually felt lonely.
Most Sundays, when permitted, I and many other lads would wander off through the woods to Bagshot Common and mingle with the locals, particularly if there was a series of scramble races on, where motor bikes of all varieties would race around a dirt track, over humps and bumps, ripping through mud puddles, some quite deep and everyone including the riders thoroughly enjoying it. (I dare say that Bagshot Common has probably gone the same way as the Albert.) Occasionally, after the stroll on the Common, I would wander across the railway road bridge over to a small general store, situated at the top of the road leading down to Bagshot, and buy a jar of jam or marmalade which I would share with my mates at teatime.
The season I missed most in my mental meanderings is autumn. The beautiful colour varieties and the sound of crunching fallen leaves underfoot, and the searching for conkers. Following which, great battles ensued which could be quite daunting if you were left with a short string; it was surprising the amount of force that could be generated with just a conker and a piece of string. And if it happened to crack your knuckles instead of your conker, much blasphemy ensued.
The older boys also had roster duties helping around the farm which included picking kale for cow fodder, great in summer but bitter in winter; funnily enough kale has recently become one of the favoured health drinks. At the end of our shift we were allowed to ride the Clydesdale horse down the hill to school; quite a challenge being able stay-put without falling off, as it was too broad across the beam to sit in a normal riding position.
The dining hall was originally fitted out with long tables, but in the latter eighteen months or so, they were replaced with smaller square tables which created a less austere setting.
Autumn and winter heralded in the very best seasons; football and Christmas. Even now I still get the urge to trot out and play, for me it was the best part of growing up. Nothing felt better than strapping on the boots and trotting out to give Edinburgh, Sturdee or Connaught a good friendly hiding because Victoria was always the best.
The lads from our school always acquitted ourselves very well against the other schools in the area, and I recall one weekend we played against the visiting RAF district champions, and we sent them home with their tails between their legs, 3-1 if I remember it correctly. Our centre half (mid-field man) scored the goal of the season in that match; the left wing smacked the ball into their area from about three yards before the by-line just about knee height without it touching the ground, and our centre half came roaring in, flew at it and volleyed at full speed knee-high off the ground, fully airborne, and drove it straight between the keeper’s hands. He never stood a chance of stopping it, bearing in mind it was a proper leather ball that was wet and heavy, not like the ‘ping-pong’ balls they play with these days.
Christmas was an especially exciting time; we were encouraged to create our own Christmas cards to send or take home when the school closed down, and pre-Christmas we used to terrify the locals when small groups ranging between two and four lads would go out carolling. It’s a wonder we weren’t arrested for murdering all those beloved carols. The night time temperature soon put a stop to that lark.
Having spent five long years away from home during the war, my first Christmas at home was pure heaven. Having arrived home I couldn’t wait to go Christmas shopping at the weekend with my Mum.
When my Dad got demobbed from the navy in 1919, after being unemployed for a while, he was fortunate to be offered a job as a bus conductor, and he was still employed there up until his death in 1939. During the period of his employment, he used to pay a small amount each week into a Christmas fund, which meant that each year he received a turkey and a few bits and pieces to go with it. When he passed on, the depot allowed our Mum to continue with the club membership, so a couple of days before Christmas, Mum and I bused it over to the depot to pick up our turkey, and what a whopper! It took a bit of an effort to carry it back home on the bus, but that didn’t phase me at all.
After getting that home safely, I had to go over to my oldest brother Eddy’s home to pick up the Christmas cake, after he finished work for the day at the bakery.
After returning from Dunkirk, being a despatch rider, Eddy and three others like him were sent to the factory that built the Army motorbikes, and it was there job to test each bike to ensure that it was right for the job. This particular day, the four of them were on a test run riding four abreast in an area with prohibited access to any other vehicle. They had just fully opened the throttles on their bikes travelling at speed, when an unauthorised truck came out of a side alley. All four crashed into the vehicle and all four engines broke loose and exploded, my brother was the only survivor leaving him with a permanent injured right thigh from which for many years after, bits of metal that could not be removed medically would work their way out. Fortunately, he was able to return to the same bakery he worked in before the war.
I thought the turkey was heavy, but it was nothing compared to the weight of the cake he made. It was at least 15-16 inches in diameter (that’s 375 - 400mm in funny figures). Full of fruit and nuts and decorated fit for the royal table. All the family were there for Christmas except Billy who was up in York and was snowed in. It was the best Christmas party ever, especially after five years of wishful thinking. There were records playing all night with singing and drinking (in moderation) and fooling around in general.
After Christmas came and went, I conned my way into playing for a local team, having bought a pair of boots with my Christmas money. I filled my time in with reading my Dad’s commendations for gunnery when he served in the RN, plus running errands for Mum or other family members and occasionally trotting off to the pictures. On Saturday mornings they usually showed cartoons Tom & Jerry, Roadrunner etc. followed by episodes of The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon or The Perils of Pauline. If I went with my Mum, it would normally be on a Wednesday half day when everything else was closed. Those were the days when they started with a news reel, followed by two main feature films, usually a drama followed by a musical.
All too soon it was time to trot down to Waterloo station and hop on the train for Bagshot, after crashing through the concrete column, in order to get onto platform 9¾. One of the most comical things about returning to school after a holiday, especially the long summer holiday, was listening to the weird county dialects that the boys had reverted to using. Two of our lads came from the north around Newcastle, and sounded like Scotsmen with their heads bashed in.
I thoroughly enjoyed our gymnastic evenings. We had a detachable wooden horse that was used to enable us to do proper forward rolls. Starting off using just the top section, then gradually increasing the height as we learned to dive over the full height (without a spring board I might add) tucking your head in and doing a forward roll on the other side. We were also taught to do a handspring somersault off the top of the horse. All of that gym work taught us poise, timing and balance, all of which helped me when playing football, and later on in life, doing tai chi.
We would put our gymnastic talents to work every Commem. Day, putting on a display for our visitors, which usually finished with the team forming four or five man high pyramid which we were able to collapse in about two seconds (without causing any injuries). The only drawback for me, and a set of twins from London and a lad from Newcastle, was that we were the only boys in the school never to have the pleasure of receiving visitors. Probably because family members had to work. Other than that, the day was brilliant, with various activities, races etc. ( I didn’t know it at the time, but the twins actually lived four doors from where I lived for the first five years of my life.)
A few months after I arrived at the school, we were advised of a very sad incident that occurred to one of our ex-students. He had joined the Army Airborne Service, and during a training exercise, his parachute failed to open. Very sad indeed, a few staff members attended the funeral on our behalf. On a brighter note, one of our old boys represented the school in 1948, by carrying the Olympic Torch.
Underneath the assembly hall at the rear of the building was a long room that served as a store room for our sports gear and a change room for sports days. It was also an area where we used to muck-about. During one of those times when boys will be boys, I was being chased by two other lads and headed for the door, where I made a sharp left hand turn and headed for the basement area, intending to hop over the 12 inch high parapet, hopefully land on the steps or just in front of them and race off from there through the basement corridors. As fate would have it, the best laid plans can go awry. As I approached the parapet wall, I rose gracefully into the air until my right toe caught the lip of the parapet and I descended head first towards the concrete floor, which was not part of the plan. How I missed the iron bannister only my guardian angel knows, but I did.
From there my gymnastic training clicked in on auto, taking me into a forward roll position, whereupon my back hit the wall of the building, my arms tucked around my head and cushioned my fall and I finished up jammed tightly into a corner, with my backside where my head should have been and my toes touching the ground beside my head, all of which had happened in a fraction of a second. As I lay with my shoulders resting on the concrete surface, I looked up between my legs wondering what on earth had just happened,
For what seemed an eternity, there was absolute silence. I was conscious and fully aware of what was going on around me, but because of my unusual position, I was unable to speak. There was a whispered murmur going on and someone had dashed off to get the first aid nurse, a chubby lady with a brilliant personality.
I could hear the sound of rushing feet and heavy breathing as the nurse appeared on the scene. First she asked if I could speak and if so, how did I feel. I grunted that I felt alright which she conveyed to the mass audience that had gathered, following which someone thought I had said something funny, because everybody in the vicinity was roaring with laughter, except me of course, until the nurse got a couple of the boys to gently untangle me, whereupon I assumed an upright position, standing like a stunned mullet. The nurse took me to the sick bay where I stayed for a couple of hours just to make sure I was undamaged. That is apart from my ego, how embarrassing, I got ribbed for days after. Imagine if that had happened these days with mobile phone videos and photos. I would have been splashed all over the world on Facebook.
Around 1946/7 the school formed our first Army Cadet Corp. which I immediately volunteered for along with a few other lads. Aside from learning to crawl whilst keeping your backside flat in a cow field with a few cow-land mines dotted here and there, we also learned how to see best at night by not specifically looking out of the corner of your eye, but by looking straight ahead, but focusing your attention at the periphery point of your field of vision. It is quite surprising how easily you can detect movement in that manner, particularly at night.
In my time we also paid two visits to Sandhurst Officer Training Barracks. The first visit involved a briefing in field communications, the various forms of radio and field telephone communication which also included cable laying and cable splicing and joining. Electric cables in those days had, apart from the copper strands, one strand of steel wire, which was used in the actual joining process. Where a cable break occurred, you would roll back the insulation rubber roughly two inches (50mm), flick the copper strands with your finger causing them to bend, which then exposed the steel wire. After twisting and folding the copper wire into a loop, the steel wire was used to wrap around the tail of the loop and secure it firmly in place. The second cut end would be threaded through the loop and the same procedure followed. If necessary, the joined cable would be twisted to help reduce the size of the join and the insulation would be rolled back across the joint once more. Being done on the field of battle, made communications in those days somewhat more risky than mobile phones and upmarket methods of today’s means of communicating.
Our second exercise at the barracks concerned a lesson in using and caring for your weapons. We were shown the use of hand grenades and a variety of weapons, but the most common weapon of choice in those bi-gone days was the old faithful 303 rifle (which incidentally was still in use during my compulsory Australian National service period). For that aspect of our training, we were taken to the practice rifle range and taught not just how to strip one down and put it back together, but also how to use it. Wasn’t that exciting, particularly as a couple of the lads were not listening as intently as they should have been when it was explained to us about the kick-back if the rifle was not held correctly. They quickly got the message after firing the first round. If I rightly remember, the range was laid out in two sections, with targets erected at 100yard intervals. We were allowed three sighters which enabled us to accustom ourselves to the action of the rifle, noise of the shot and sighting. My first sighter was well off the mark, and my trainer having watched my actions suggested that even though I was right handed, I should try firing left handed which I did and to my surprise my shot almost hit the bull, which vastly improved as we continued the exercise of firing two rounds from each position, with gratifying results.
It was around that time when the school started allowing the older boys to start swimming lessons. Most of us had never seen a swimming pool let alone set foot in one. We acted like a bunch of morons, hanging onto the edge of the pool and walking along occasionally finding the courage to let go and duck the head under, but never venturing too far from the pool edge. I finished up learning to swim after leaving school.
To complement our gymnastic periods, the school introduced boxing lessons, by way of an ex-army lightweight champion named ‘DUSTY MILLER’. Not a very tall gentleman but built like a brick wall, with a big smile and fists to match, who was always cheerful and never got angry with any of the lads, some of whom would try it on now and then. However he did not suffer fools gladly, and soon earned our respect. There was one particular new arrival, a lad from Australia. A tall lanky boy given to pushing others around and thought he would do the same thing during our boxing lessons. One evening he got a bit too arrogant even for Dusty, because he felt he knew more about boxing, having been taught elsewhere and also having supposedly won a couple of trophies. Our teacher suggested that the only reason that he probably won anything would have been because of his reach and not from his boxing skills.
One thing led to another and the lad actually challenged Dusty to three rounds, at which Dusty simply laughed, and proposed that they have a sparring lesson and if the boy could lay just one good punch, he would be given five pounds for his effort. The lad jumped at the chance and so they started, but after almost ten minutes without landing one punch, the boy became angry, frustrated and embarrassed and broke down crying. Best and shortest lesson he ever learned. It made a big difference to his behaviour with everybody, no more bullying.
Being a member of our School cadets, we were allowed to go into London, to the Albert Hall as one of our old boys was boxing for the Army in the combined forces Boxing Championships. We had a great view from up in the top row (up in the ‘gods’). Our boy got a bit of a hiding but it was a good night out all the same.
It was around June 1947 I think, I was one of the lads nominated to play in the football rep. trial games for the Southern Counties. Having reached the final selection process of the Possible’s Vs Probable’s, I was selected to play right back for the Probable’s, beating one of two brothers to the position. The other brother was selected as centre forward for the Possible’s. Half-time came with no score, but in the second half we began getting the upper hand and frustration was beginning to show in the Possible’s forward line. About halfway through the second half, a ball was fired down the line towards me around knee height and I raised my foot to collect it when our opponent’s centre forward kicked me at the base of my spine, (the boots in those days had very solid toe caps) thereby putting me completely out of action, which meant that his brother stepped in as my replacement.
Strange how fate works. Had I finished the game I would probably have stayed in England and made a career out of playing football and would probably never have left for Australia. One never knows?
I think it was around Spring of 1948 when we were told that our school would be moving to combine the RAS with the RAS (for girls) and that a visit was being arranged for all the boys to attend, which we eventually did and my only recollection is standing near some shrubs and trees, looking across a beautiful grassy scene at the school building. I cannot recall having entered the school at all. I’m pretty sure that I was disappointed that I would not be joining the boys at their new school. For me it was a very sad time because it meant that a great chunk of my past would disappear, as like the time spent in Scotland, and at RAS, these places and people had been my home and family since 1940, you could say the most informative 8 years of my life. However, I did what I had done before; accept a situation as it was and get on with living one’s life.
Having turned fourteen in May of 1948, I was asked by the Head what colour suit I would like, I opted for a blue pinstripe; given the address of my new employer – Perrots Nickol and Payten; cloth processors just off Piccadilly circus, given a train ticket, handshakes all round a pat on the head, a slap on the shoulder and a kick up the b…., driven to Bagshot station and so ended my very colourful and interesting but happy school days. There are a few memories that could not be put into print but all in all the quality of education from what I have experienced, was far superior to most, and I do not say that lightly. It provide me with good manners and self-discipline, and the ability to stand firm and let no one ride roughshod over me, which has stood me in good stead over the years.
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