Royal Alexandra and Albert School
Reminiscences of an Old Scholar by Peter Hamilton-Scott
(Previously Peter van Klingeren)
I returned from South Africa in 1997 after eighteen years in Johannesburg, a city that still preserves a rough-at-the-edges frontier-town mentality, bringing my wife, from Pretoria, with me. We settled into post-midlife gentility. For a while I worked near Victoria Station and each morning as the train sped to Victoria past Merstham I could catch a brief view of Gatton Hall in the far distance before the train darted into a tunnel. And so I thought to myself, what would it be like to visit the school once more? It was an idea whose time was not quite right and once my commute to work changed and Merstham was no longer incidental, the idle commuter ramblings were buried. It lay like that until a chance internet encounter through the school’s website and the Gatton Association and Philip Wade brought it all back to the simmer. I told myself I will get back to the school and almost forty-five years since I was a pupil, I jolly well did. I eventually made contact with Paul Spencer Ellis, the headmaster, and he kindly arranged to meet me and take me around one Saturday morning. It was a short appointment as he had other commitments to attend but in the time I spent with him he took me around the school buildings and houses and one-by-one long-forgotten memories and mental playbacks were kick-started.
When I first came to the school in 1964 my rather stern parents presented their case to a small group of governors in the Connaught Library why I should be allowed to attend and board at the school. I know nothing about those discussions except being told a letter would follow in a few weeks and on the morning it arrived I cried when I was told I was going to boarding school and that was jolly well the end of the subject.
Feeling like I had been abandoned the train’s guard kept me near at hand and handed me over at Merstham to a driver who took me up the winding road to the school. I felt utterly alone as I was received by the headmaster and handed over to Alexandra House where I spent my first few weeks until I was passed on to Gloucester House where I stayed for about three wonderful years before I moved to Kent House and then later in the first intake of pupils into the newly-built Rank-Weston House. In that transition I came under the wing of some really wonderful senior pupils and teachers.
I very fondly remember one houseman called Mr. Beecham who retained a Mr. Chipps down-to-earth fair play approach and who arguably was the kindest person I ever knew at the school.
When Paul Spencer Ellis took me through the school’s main building we first looked in to the gymnasium. The climbing frames and ropes were long gone but the gym still maintained a busy air about it and youngsters were playing table tennis; a far cry when we as youngsters went in there. Then, it was mandatory to climb the frames and hang by our hands until every muscle in our arms were screaming with pain and then to immediately jump down and do star jumps and press-ups and shimmy up and down the ropes not stopping until you touched the ceiling.
I don’t recall who thrust us into that dark world of 1950s-esque compulsory military service PT training but one name I do recall, Peter Cotterell, who looked as if he could single-handedly take on the combined might of the Fleet Air Arm in the annual gun carriage obstacle course. For punishment, he once sent me out on a cross-country one bitterly cold February morning. Dressed only in shorts, a singlet and a jersey and plimsolls he told me to run fast to keep warm and stop for nobody. I tried my best but fatigue struck me as I ran past Gloucester. My eyes closed and the next I knew I was being pulled off the barbed wire and hauled to the nurse on duty. To this day I still have the four-inch scar on my thigh and others on my left shoulder. Peter Cotterell popped by to see me and he became a person I fully respected. I never blamed him for what happened but like so many at the school you know you could trust them. As we left the gym I keenly felt the physical presence of those years come back to me.
There was also a time when I was sent up from the playing fields for swearing at another pupil when I was tackled really horribly. I was told to wait outside the headmaster’s office which at that time was occupied by Norman “Nobby” Worswick. Each time I heard a movement in his office or if I caught a glimpse of another teacher passing in or out of the staff common room I’d quickly nip out of the main doors (they’re still there and they’re still the same) and I’d crouch down behind the bushes until the coast was clear. I’d then sneak back in and wait by the headmaster’s office and three or four times I slipped out and back in again when all was quiet again. A little later the sports master came up to me and asked if the headmaster had spoken to me. I replied that he hadn’t. I was dismissed with the warning “Let it be a lesson to you” and I went off to shower. I had the last laugh and some of my house-mates roared with laughter that I had pulled one over the head and the sports master. Until that evening when we went to the dining hall and one of the senior house pupils, Jack Plumb I think it was, vacated his chair in the dining hall and Nobby Worswick sat down next to me and said “You’ve been avoiding me.” He had seen my sudden vanishing acts and he told me he deliberately opened and closed his office door which sent me running to safety. He went to a window by the main entrance and looked down on the quivering wreck in the bushes. I thought of nothing but being pulled by the ear and being caned for my efforts but the headmaster laughed, I sort of laughed and the rest of my mates in the dormitory also laughed.
Some years ago, Philip Wade referred me to a 2006 newsletter where there’s a picture of Gloucester House’s pupils, assembled with Mr. Pickford (the housemaster) and immediately I picked out some faces I knew well. There is Simon Boniface who was noticeable for his pudding-bowl haircut, some other faces were also familiar but the names are lost to me. Apart from one, a young black pupil called Jonathan Weeks who was my best friend in Gloucester and he could play a mean trumpet which he played for the school’s sea cadets and Marine Corps and he’d sometimes play hymns at the school church service on Sunday mornings. I’ve studied that photo so often; I’m in there somewhere as I recall it being taken but there are no names other than those which are known for other reasons, like those with pudding-bowl haircuts. My wife has studied it long and hard but she too said, “There you are, oh, maybe not, what about that one who’s wearing glasses?” And still we don’t know who I am. Was I bound for faceless anonymity even at the age of twelve?
Outside the chapel there are three very tall fir trees and those are familiar to me. Some of us from Kent would wear athletic spikes and we’d run up the trunk of one of those trees and stick a knife in the trunk as high as we could. We’d then take it in turns until we pulled the knife out and we’d start again. Paul Spencer Ellis made his apology and said goodbye to me and went back to his office. I went back to the chapel and I walked around each of the trees looking for a knife but there was none to be seen. Perhaps the tree has grown around the knife or does it now sit as a claimed trophy in somebody’s toolbox?
I was much puzzled by the way in which the houses have been renamed. What used to be Gloucester is now Albert. What’s Edinburgh is something else? I mean, the buildings are the same so perhaps there’s a reason for moving the names around? Thinking of names, familiar events with other pupils would resurface but I don’t recall many from my time. In Kent there were better mates I knew: Paul or was it Richard or Graham Dodd and Chris Harvey. The soccer team was then the best in the school. Games between Kent and Edinburgh were always keenly contested fixtures and we had some fine soccer players. Three names I do recall were our goalie, Peter Sparey, and two first-class forwards Peter Shadbolt and Graham Apps and now I mention them, a third called John Gates or was it Bill? The team from Albert was often cannon-fodder and usually lost heavily and often. We beat them one Saturday, something like 7-0 and when the game was finished and we walked back up the hill I put a consoling arm around one of Albert’s players and I told him of the corny line from the Olympics, “It’s not the winning that’s important it is the taking part.” After a pause he replied (I still remember his exact words to this day), “They have a name for people like that they’re called losers.”
Paul took me to the houses I remember most, Gloucester, Kent and Weston, which was locked at the time, but I could see the steps leading up to the dormitory on the left and my bed which would have been directly opposite the door in the corner. In those days, the beds had steel frames and each morning we had to make them with perfect hospital corners and nothing, but nothing was allowed on top of the bedside drawers as if to suggest that hard work, exercise, eddication and food is all we needed. Our housemaster in Rank was Freddie Stafford and his wife Mavis. He could be, depending on his mood, the Devil Incarnate; she was steadfastly friendly and amiable. Paul took me into what was then Kent and is now Edinburgh or has it switched places with Gloucester which is now Albert which used to be Cornwall? See, it’s all a bit confusing. He took me up to the dormitories on the first floor and we looked inside a couple of them. We never had dormitory numbers or pupil names on our doors. For sure we had names but we were often referred to by our school numbers when clothing was handed out. I still remember my number, 241.
The youth of today! They now have unmade beds, clothes tossed idly all over the place, posters on the walls, duvets even. It was nothing like that in the 1960s when it was starched sheets, itchy blankets and identical pyjamas. It was the Shawshank Redemption for youngsters. If a hospital corner wasn’t just-so or a personal item wasn’t locked away in the bedside drawers you’d be reprimanded or have your ear pulled for being an untidy so-and-so. In Rank, there is a large common room shared with Weston and how novel it was to do homework with girls and play table and board games with them. The last thing we’d do before going back to our dormitories in the evening is that we’d get to drink glasses of milk and eat a Digestive biscuit or two with them.
I walked along the path past the girls’ house, Elisabeth, where my first ever girlfriend, Doreen Lambert, was from. How childish it seems now that we’d pass notes to each other in class. It was childish but then we were children.
I never got to see any of the classrooms but the long corridor took me back in time. I recall a Mr. Davies who taught English I think, and a maths teacher called Bill Jefferies whose temper was legendary. I recall him throwing a blackboard duster at a pupil one lesson and he almost threw several pupils to one side in his rage to get to him. How that lad’s ear stayed connected to his head was astonishing. There was never any backchat in his class after that. Being as young as we were, we remember his wife (Beth?) was a decent looking lady. Even as early teenagers, the school was gradually changing us in different ways.
There used to be a small swimming pool near Gatton Hall and tennis courts where there are now formal landscaped lawns. Around 1968 or 1969 one tennis court was made over to look slightly like a POW yard and a short film was recorded and I had a non-speaking starring role, drinking water from an old bucket. I still wonder what happened to my Oscar.
When I left school in 1970 I left with the uncertainty of where I’d be going to. For sure, it was a time of great excitement for some. Some of the pupils I remember who were then wannabes or were A-level hitters were Jack Plumb, Graham Chiverton (who wanted to be a vet) and Ricki de Freitas, who sowed within me a lifelong passion for mathematics and physics. I still recall the book on calculus that Ricki gave to me shortly before he left the school.
Then there was a housemaster called Gump Andrews who for some reason I think of as a round homely-faced hobbit but whom I think was quite a tall gentleman. And of course, no reflection of my time would be complete without thinking fondly of Malcolm Cleroux who put endless time trying to teach us not just to like music but to understand music. I was sad to hear that he’d died in an accident some years ago.
Our RE teacher, Mrs. Muhletahler was another character. If the Salvation Army was ever in need of an SAS divisional commander she’d be the one to lead it. Uncompromising and steadfast fully to the point of utter devotion she somehow made what was to us a dull subject sound fresh with a taste of a Boys Own story resonating through it.
When I left school I maintained contact with Godfrey Bainbridge whose mother (Elisabeth) was a well-known opera singer and they used to have a lovely house in an older part of Chiswick and there was a sort of gung-ho character called Alan Tear who, in the mid- 70s was a passionate Disco King. I also remember Mike Tabanski who once berated me for a silly reply when he said he’d lost one of his football socks. I asked him “which one, left or right?” Even then a sub-breed of Homer Simpson was stirring in the dark waters of my Murky Gene Pool.
I can honestly say my six years at the RAAS were truly the six happiest years of my life. If I could give any pupil the best advice I could give it would be to get the best from the school you can because it shapes what you aspire to be, and once you leave school you’ll never get those years back again.
I made my way back to the dining hall and thought again of those naughty pupils, who, like me, would sometimes stick a knife, blade first, into the edge of the long dining room tables. If you pushed the handle down and released it the blade would bounce like a swimming pool’s diving board. If you put a dollop of food or margarine on the handle you could send it heavenward where it might fly on and land on another table or pupil or stick on the ceiling where it would later, at some uncertain time, drop off on to the head of another.
I remember we’d be shown movies from a projector at the back of the dining hall. Some pupils would shape their hands into rabbits and birds and do impromptu shadow shows on the screen. We were shown one of Kirk Douglas’ movies, The Heroes of Telemark and there was one slightly intimate scene where he kissed the lead actress and placed his hand on one of her “assets”. In a hall full of impressionable young lads it was too much and we all cheered and thumped and slapped our hands on the tables. I stood outside the dining hall as those memories raised their hands for attention and even though the hall was empty a huge grin and chuckle came over me.
I walked past the headmaster’s house where forty five years ago I waited for the clock to chime when we’d go in for the final year’s exams and Nobby Worswick came over to wish us all individually good luck in our exams. I was doing humble CSEs at that time and though my grades were very average, I left school with his encouragement telling me I hadn’t achieved the potential he thought I had and those words resonated after I left. I still had Ricki’s book of calculus and over a period of two years I achieved the O- and A-levels I needed to get into university where I studied maths and with that behind me I moved to South Africa and later did an MSc as well. Without their encouragement I don’t think I would have aspired to very much but with it, I discovered what they saw in me and you can’t put a price on that.
I ambled past Gatton Hall and a short distance down the path leading to the playing field where in summer we’d lie on the grass and listen to the crackling radio reception and commentary from test match cricket games. Later, we’d play out the day’s action among ourselves until it was time to go back to the house. I stood on the path and listened to the laughter of pupils carried up on the mist and out of sight from me but enjoying their time in the grounds much as I did so many years ago.
The playing fields, the almost secret ponds, and the woodland were places of excitement where we’d play war games armed with sticks for rifles and balls of mud and pine cones for grenades. Other times we’d play hide-and-seek and the only thing missing was a jar of ginger beer, cakes, a dog and school friends having fun; it could have been the furnace where The Famous Five was forged.
There are few schools that have such a beautiful setting and the RAAS is one.
Finally, I went onto the lawn at the back of Gatton Hall and I thought for a while about everything the school meant to me and so many fond memories came back to me. In 1964, I arrived at the school as a very insecure, friendless and scared pupil. I left in 1970 and there aren’t many kids who cry when they leave school but I was one. On my final morning in Rank I remember so well sitting on my bed for the last time with my suitcase by my side, packed with my uniforms and such personal chattels I had and a suit given to us for free to help us make a better presentation when we went for interviews. I recall other pupils flitting up and down the stairs shouting raucous goodbyes to everybody and nobody in particular. The stairway fell silent and I was one of the last to leave.
And, you know what, I cried that morning for every good thing the school did for me and the wonderful teachers I knew and friends I’d not see again.
It’s very tangible now that I cried when I came to the school because I didn’t know what I was going to; I cried when I left school for what I was leaving behind.
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