Royal Alexandra School
On September 7th 1945, my two brothers and I walked down Horsepond Lane with our Mum to Bishopswood; my life effectively started then, at the age of 9 years and 7 months. Geoff was 8, Gerald 11. As three of twelve children living a hand-to-mouth existence in Goodmayes, near Illford, our first years were of deprivation, evacuation and desperation.
Our father died in an air raid having survived WW1 in the trenches, and we three had just returned from evacuation to Lancashire. Sadly these two brothers have passed away.
Despite our humble start, we all suffered from homesickness accentuated by the initiation ceremony of ‘running the gauntlet’ – scurrying through a howling mob wielding wet towels at our heads. These assailants were your dorm-mates!
Accommodation comprised of three age-progressive boys’ dormitories and I believe two girls – since they were out of bounds, the number was unknown – for circa 300 kids in total, aged 8 to 16. Each dorm had 24 two-tiered iron framed beds with three blankets, a sheet and pillow, all to be neatly folded on the bed for the 8am ‘stand by your beds’ inspection by the Housemaster.
We got up at 6am and in dorm order marched to the absolution block where toothpowder and soft soap were provided. We had to scour the basins with Pavitts (Vim) after use. The water was sometimes hot and you hoped it was during your weekly shower! Back in the dorm we could read comics or listen to the wireless until 7.30am when we marched to the dining hall for an inadequate breakfast, taken in silence. School lessons began at 9am until lunch break at 12.30pm then restarted at 2pm till 4pm.
The academic staff were very good, in particular Ellis Evans (Taffy) and Jack Andrews (Gump). In addition to teaching the three R’s they drummed into us good manners, deportment and diction and it is to these two teachers that we owed the deepest gratitude. Regrettably the same cannot be said for all of the housemasters, some of whom probably were suffering the after effects of the war. Some of them should never have been allowed anywhere near youngsters; bullying and abuse were common and there was no method of redress – you had to endure it. That said, the likes of Alfie Belton (A Dorm) and Bill Vousden (C Dorm) were head and shoulders above the rest and took a keen interest in the development of their charges.
The Headmaster, George Woodman MA, was conspicuous by his absence this his lack of leadership and everything else. My lasting memory of him was his Hillman car, number plate HLO 809!
There was a thirst for all kinds of sports and we were sometimes banned from the dorms to encourage us in this direction. There was a relic of an asphalt tennis court (no nets or side-netting), an evil-looking green-coloured swimming pool and a self-made football area. Gump Andrews, Ron Pearce, Mo Kinchin, Clive Naylor and I made a cricket square and built a wooden hut and two practice nets at the bottom of the field. We spent hours with a clapped-out roller and a hand mower and soon played against other schools on it. There was a thriving conker championship, and hotly contested marbles matches were popular, and football. In C Dorm we had a half-size billiard table and table tennis.
There was an annual pantomime written by Gump and Taffy which included boys and girls. ‘Sarge’ Vousden was the Scout Master and many enrolled for that. I was taught elementary piano by Lees Howarth, the last Housemaster of C Dorm. Each month we had Visitors’ Day (Viso). We three, my brothers and I, rarely had any visitors so would disappear to Peppard common or go ‘scrumping’ – pears were a favourite!
The school outing best remembered was in the spring of 1952 to Gatton Hall, the former home of the Colman family, and it certainly cut the mustard with us. The comparison with our surroundings at Bishopswood was difficult to take in and those like me about to leave school were envious of the new RAAS home.
Back at the camp to say we were perpetually hungry would be an understatement. The food was barely adequate for growing youth – Oliver Twist had more seconds and probably fewer beatings! Nevertheless we had a very efficient school nurse who kept us alive with malt and castor oil, and a week in sick-bay was the ambition of all.
We were issued with every item of clothing you needed and some of it fitted. Fortnightly laundry ensure that you ended up with someone else’s pants or socks, hence the school number system.
Girls were strictly off limits; however, rumour had it that some success in this direction was achieved in the darkness of bonfire night, regrettably not by me. Anyone talking about girls was a cissy.
In 1947 I sat the Scholarship exam and was accepted at Henley Grammar School, thereby becoming a boarder at RAS. My success was wholly attained through the efforts of Taffy and Gump. My brother Geoff followed later. The teachers at HGS were all Oxbridge/ London graduates and it was one of the leading schools in the country for academic attainment.
An agreement was struk between the two schools so that we would represent RAS at cricket and HGS at rugby. Ron Pierce, Brian Reynolds and I played for Ox/Bucks and Berks U15s. After O Levels I was fortunate enough to be given a sponsorship by a school benefactor to do my A Level course at Newcastle Royal Grammar School, a huge learning factory of over 2000 pupils (120 in the Sixth Form.) I played in the 1st XI and 1st XV and was a prefect in my last year.
Rather than read Economics at Durham I decided to join the RAF, was commissioned and served twenty-four years as a navigator on six different squadrons. I subsequently found employment with the BAA at Heathrow as Airfield Operations Manager, and retired in 1992 to play golf, which I still do four times a week in my 80s.
In 1982 I played cricket for Bracknell CC against Bishopswood Sports Club. A new square has been laid close to the old circle in front of the dining hall (where the teams took tea.) The former pitch so painstakingly laid out all of those years had gone, so too had most of the huts, but not my memories.
Winston Churchill said “There can be no better investment that to put milk into babies”. Equally he could have said ‘education into deprived children’.
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