I believe it was 1958, / was about twelve years old and being driven in a cold, rather damp Morris 1000 to the county town of
Hertfordshire by my welfare officer to begin the next episode of a new life at a boarding school for boys. I recall the vivid
memory of rain which lashed the windscreen and beat violently against the bodywork. The wipers responded intermittently,
threatening to give up their blurred sweep at any moment. Heading out of London we ventured north out of the suburbs before
the spread of fields and countryside became more forthcoming. The rain started to ease and my mind wandered aimlessly
rambling on in distant childhood fantasies. I had been extremely fortunate to be brought up in children's homes since I was three
years old so the prospect of going to a boarding school did not deter me too much. I had become institutionalised at an early age.
Naturally I remained a little bit apprehensive as is always the case perhaps in constant awareness of the unknown.
However, my thoughts as to my destination and what the future
might hold were totally destroyed upon my arrival, as my previous imagination had allowed me to believe that the school would
be similar to any normal size building that I had been used to, yet on reflection, this place was absolutely enormous.
We had turned into a private drive-way passing by a lodge at the main gateway and then onward through open countryside. Fields
as far as the eye could see before crossing two rivers over hump-backed bridges and up through a tree-lined avenue to the main
building. Trees, fields and open spaces. So unexpectedly different. There were also outbuildings of all description, large garden
sheds, green-houses, a vast expanse of nurtured gardens and large recreational areas. How many children lived here became an
immediate thought? Finally we reached what must have been the main school building. The building itself was hugely majestic
standing at least four stories high and stretched for some 300 metres long, with vast towering blocks of chimney stacks, bound
together in clumps of varying quantities towering high above. Balconies and verandas at the higher windows indicated lavish
architecture. Two large Cedar of Lebanon trees adorned the front lawn A front pathway ran parallel and wide to the main
building retained by an ornamental wall with wide stone steps at the centre. We drove under a decorative archway, into an
enclosed courtyard, surrounded by yet more buildings and eventually the car pulled into an official parking area. We had arrived
at the main rear entrance to the building Above the door was an inscription which bore a dedication almost as an allegiance to
the original proprietor of the building.
It read William Baker Technical School,
William Baker Esq. LL.B., Hon. Director., Dr Barnardo Homes.
First opened by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales in November 1922.
There must be hundreds of boys here, I thought. And so, I later
established, there were. With my suitcase in tow we stepped through a small side door and into a darkened hallway and were met
by the Headmaster. A tall lean looking man, elegantly dressed in a light-grey pinstriped suit, elderly, no chin, powder-white
complexion, glasses and little hair I recall. Mr Wheatley introduced himself and after a few cordial details were exchanged
amongst the two adults I said goodbye to my welfare officer. Sadly, to this day I don't remember his name but his dedication
to his work and for my well-being at that time will always remain in my gratitude. I also do not remember ever having felt
lonelier being abandoned in such a large hallway with my few personal belongings. Wherever you looked, the walls, floor,
ceiling, all were manufactured using a semi-dark grained wood. The smell of polish remained somewhat overpowering. The
floor lay in herring-bone parquet fashion, the ceiling was elaborately carved in an ornate design with numerous elegant hanging
chandelier lights, the walls were covered with wooden panels in varying designs and there was a huge, wide staircase which
turned on itself twice before rising to the next floor. Above each small door leading off would be an attractive carving. The
whole hallway remained imposing, magnificently impressive and yet somehow detached in its welcome. Almost cold and
unwelcoming. Eventually, after various formal introductions I was led away by the house-captain of Pelham house. As I would
be joining Pelham house he had been selected to show me around and to explain the day to day happenings of the school.
I was to learn that there were five other houses - Cairns, Buxton, Kinnear, Somerset and Aberdeen, all named after Lords of
the country, each house containing some seventy or so lads aged between 11 to 16. Onward I was led into another hallway,
used as the main junction for through traffic of boys. Centrally there was a large dominant notice board detailing every
important feature relating to the schools activities and domestic duties. Essential information and not to be ignored I was
I spent some minutes absorbing information that I didn 't understand at the time yet knew that I would have to be relying on it's
usefulness in days to come. Up three flights of stone steps to meet the House-master, Mr Jones and his wife. He, a slightly small
man, grey and elderly who appeared to display a gruff manner, and his wife, being much taller, appeared the more dominant
protégé in charge and rather austere. Then off to find a suitable bedspace among the dozens of others. I was shown a metal bed
in a long corridor-type room adjacent to the wash-rooms. Handy I thought. Placing my suitcase on the bed I began carefully
filling the tall metal locker that not only separated one bedspace from another but would retain my most secretive and valuable
possessions from inquisitive eyes.
The suitcase then went on top. Alone for the first time that day made me realise just how solitary and isolated life can be at times.
Simple desolation almost. 1 felt like I had arrived in the bee-hive yet all the bees were still out gathering honey. The remainder
of the boys in Pelham house descended upon me late in the afternoon and came to 'gawk at the new boy' and to throw questions
at me from all directions. "What's your name boy"? "Where you from"? And slowly, yet surely, I precariously began to be
accepted by most of them.
A resounding bugle call came as a complete shock and sounded, what I was to learn was, a "5" minute warning. We all hastily
washed in preparation for the evening meal. Another bugle call followed, this time by the "Cookhouse" call and we hurriedly
ventured down the three flights of stone stairs, through the main hallway and along a very long stone passage to the dining hall
All the while we passed rooms which were pointed out and identified as the Cleaners lobby, Tailors shop, Laundry room, Staff
cleaners room, cellars, and so it went on. My first assembly in the large dining hall was startling and staggering beyond
description. All eyes seemed to be briefly turned to my direction. The sheer noise of everyone gathered in one large room, all
chattering amongst themselves, standing behind their respective chairs at row upon row of tables. Each house had six or seven
tables, ten or twelve boys to each, spread across the room each in their own sectional rows. Prefects, Senior boys, House-masters
and House-mistresses wandered around in an authoritive manner near their respective tables. We walked to the far end of the
hall and I was shown where to stand and where to eventually sit to eat. Grace was conducted by the duty master of the day
amid total silence and everyone sat down at the same time. The resultant noise became deafening. Bread the thickness of your
arm spread with hard margarine became an achievement to actually absorb and certainly not to be trivialised. The "meat and
two veg" always proved popular. But, I later had to admit, the puddings would forever put me to shame. Rubbery, doughy and
sometimes too tough even to slice. It also became possible to stand a spoon upright in the thick custard without it toppling over.
Never the less the food remained substantial, edible and very filling. I ate well that day not realising just how hungry I had
become since I last ate at breakfast.
After our meal we burst out of the dining hall through patio doors that led directly onto the square. A vast sloping tarmac area
used for general congregation that gradually sloped away and down to the band practice shed and on towards the trade-training
areas.. We sat on a low wall and talked endlessly, breaking the ice and becoming more and more familiar in each others company.
Next to the dining hall was a long low building containing dozens of urinals, toilets, wash-hand basins and an area for polishing
your shoes. Later I would be shown other areas of the school appropriate to me but today I think I had seen quite enough.
I had arrived.
The school had so many facilities for boys it was difficult to imagine how it could have all been conceived in the first place.
Sports wise there were five football pitches on a huge area known as the top fields, which had been put out of bounds during
the summer months to allow the grass to regrow after a hectic football season. The bottom fields, which were generally out of
bounds in the winter months, had a cricket pitch, pavilion, a sand-trap for long-jump and high-jump, a marked out running track
and off to one end a large area for recreation. Just above the cricket pitch on higher ground were two grass tennis courts mainly
for the staff it has to be said. Situated to the side of the main drive-way, way down near the rivers, were two hard tennis courts
for the boys. Next to which was the outdoor swimming pool and changing huts. The school also boasted a gymnasium
competently administered by a fully fledged resident physical training instructor. Next to the education department was a high
fenced-in 'tennis-court' size tarmac area -with a large wall at one end where boys attending education classes during the day
congregated during lesson breaks. This hallowed piece of ground became the football pitch for dozens of boys during their
fifteen minutes of freedom. Fifty odd boys all chasing around, yelling and screaming, hoping to kick one worn out tennis
ball has to be seen to be believed.!! The high -wall also had an additional function in that it could be used for individual tennis
practice as it had a black line painted at net height across it. had always been small in stature - which proved to be rather fortunate
when being introduced to the prefects in their own rest-room where I happened to be taken one day by complete surprise. This,
I learned later, would be my first 'initiation'. I was physically lifted from the ground above the school captains head before being
thrown from one prefect to another across the snooker table amid their riotous laughter. This ordeal appeared to last a long time
and more from fear than bravado I fortunately survived this brief nightmare and allowed to be set free. "No tears, well done"
....came as a bit of a compliment I suppose. Later though, I was sent on what now reveals to be absolute wasteful exercises. I
would be instructed to go and collect a 'glass hammer' from so and so to repair a broken window, or perhaps it would be a
'left-handed screw-driver', essential for a particular task, or after an age sitting in the hallway waiting for a 'long weight' to be
delivered. I'm sure that most new boys suffered these humiliating exercises much to the merriment of others. Yet they remained
fairly harmless really.
Once a month or so each house became responsible for various chores around the school The rota would be on the notice-board
in the hallway and tasks, known as 'skivvying', ranged from cleaning toilets, washrooms, washing-up, etc., to helping the three
civilian chefs in the kitchen preparing food. Kitchen work was really tough but a real opportunity to appreciate the amount of
work involved at first hand. Whether operating the potato-peeler, loading tray upon tray of vegetables into the steam-ovens,
preparing pastry and bread slicing, meat preparation, gravy, custard or porridge -called 'pongie' - being produced by the
bucket-load and all this groundwork timed to perfection to coincide with a dining-hall full of expectant mouths to feed. Hot,
arduous, hard work with substantial cleaning-up afterwards, it appeared never ending.
Mrs Stevens, one of the senior chefs on duty, normally controlled the boys in the kitchen and the first time we met I felt so
embarrassed. Sadly, for whatever reason, she had only one eye that performed correctly whilst the other one, being false,
remained stationary. As I was not aware of this quandary beforehand it soon became quite intimidating. "Go and get a sack of
potatoes boy" she asked. There being three other boys with me who also stood motionless and somewhat confused. No-one
dared move unsure of who she was actually talking to. She repeated the request a couple of more times before getting quite
agitated and it was only then that I realised she was actually talking and looking at me with her good eye but looking somewhere
else at the same time. At that instant I just wished the earth could have swallowed me up. Silent promotion did come after a
period of time when I was selected to help clean the staff dining hall instead. A much cleaner job but with an oppressive
amount of washing-up by hand, drying everything and putting it all away before polishing tables I do recall. Finally setting up
the tables ready for the next meal seemed to be a never ending chore.
However, there were always the routine daily chores to complete in the mornings. Upon being woken by the bugle call. The
sounding of "Reveille " not only disturbed the very depths of many fervent young dreams and destroyed their fantasies but also
at a stroke, brought home the reality of consciousness at some ghastly hour in the morning. "Hands off cocks and on with socks"
such chanted sayings by the House-master would welcome you into reality again. Feet on the cold floor and off on the first visit
to the washrooms. Dress quickly, put everything out of sight, fold all your bedding into a bed-block, which consisted of an
elaborate arrangement of blankets and sheets folded neatly and wrapped around with the bedcover, all neatly placed on the
mattress at the foot of the bed. Sweep the floor, lay floor polish, known as "Ronuk", thinly on the wood flooring planks and
briefly shine with a 'buffer'. The 'buffer' was a flat, rectangular, heavy weight on the end of a broom-stick that was swung from
one length to the other along the floor and hopefully fashioning a shiny surface. Meanwhile another group of boys were busy
cleaning the toilets, showers, sinks and mopping floors. Then it was down to the dining hall, breakfast, a mug of tea and back
to the dormitory ready for the inspection. A final buffing of the
floor to remove all signs of residue footprints, stand by your beds, look smart and keep quiet. The inspection, by the House-master,
normally proved to be routine, and depending on if he had slept well or not the night before, would decide if the appearance
of a further inspection may become necessary later that same evening. Finally down to the main assembly hall to be joined in
allocated areas by the other five houses for morning assembly. Centre stage would be a rostrum in preparation for whoever or
whichever dignitary decided TO present himself before the school that morning. Roll call by the house master, a spiritual five
minutes by the school chaplain followed by an address from the Head-master or deputy-headmaster who laid down the "do's"
and "don'ts" for the next 24 hours and for the necessary preparation for any forth-coming events or activities.
Morning assembly over we would all file out and make our way to our daily activities. Younger boys attended education lessons
at the school while the elder boys went straight into various trade-training lessons. Barnardo's officialdom at that time had pulled
off a master stroke in the future development of young men by not relying wholly on their individual educational ability, or
perhaps the lack of it, but to try to encourage and develop their own practical abilities. They realised that you do not have to be
academic to succeed as a good tradesmen. This theory being developed as a recognised method for future employment and
would, at the very least, enable the individual upon leaving the school to survive potentially in the employment field as a
semi-trained young artisan:
For one day per week younger boys also attended trade-training whereas the elder boys attended full time. The choices of trades
ranged from carpentry, sheet-metal work, painting and decorating, horticulture, printing and lastly the boot and shoe repair
department. This last trade was in genuine decline and slowly being phased out although the maintenance of everyone's footwear
still relied heavily upon that department. Upon leaving the school some of the old boys who were considered suitable and who
had been formally associated within the printing trade took up an apprenticeship at the print-works within the school and
continued on for more years. They did however leave the confines of their residential accommodation and went to live at a
separate house called the "Verney" situated in the neighbouring village of Waterford.
Again in retrospect, and as a direct bonus to the maintenance of the school, the majority of the trades being taught could be
employed into useful school maintenance projects. Broken windows, general refurbishment, wallpapering, painting and
decorating became a task for the painting and decorators department. The horticulture department ensured the gardens, fruit
trees, lawns and flower-beds were always immaculately maintained. The carpentry section supplied tables, chairs and a
multitude of other wooden exhibits while the sheet-metal department manufactured dustbins, buckets, various copper and brass
items as well as manufacturing all manner of welding, brazing and soldered items. All trades taught were overseen and conducted
by well qualified instructors whose dedication and patience remained unsurpassable. Although at the time I daresay it wasn 't
always individually appreciated.
The gymnasium was fully equipped with all manner of muscle-breaking exercise features. A trampoline encouraged individuals
to practice somersaults, twists and turns without injury. Wooden vaulting horses and spring-boards encouraged inner confidence.
Parallel bars increased upper body development. Internal circuit-training integrated various activities which were also designed to
build-up individual personal stamina. "Don't fold your arms, push your chest out, arms behind your back, stand up straight"
Constantly being verbally dispensed by the Instructor.
Sunday mornings would find the whole school in best green blazers, grey flannel trousers and shiny black shoes, formed up on
the square ready to march to church behind the schools very own Army Cadet Force (ACF) Drum and Bugle band. The band
would strike up and off we trooped, in step, down past the fir trees, along the drive beyond the front lawn and up a slope towards
the church. We then filed in by houses. The interior of the church was splendidly kept, typically smelling of incense and yet
quite cold. A beautiful stain-glassed window high over the alter accepted the early morning sunrise. The next couple of hours
gave the vicar justification for his existence as he droned on in pious monotony for what seemed an eternity and we were
extremely grateful when we burst out through the main doors ready to march back to the square. Final release from the square
indicated a freedom from all duties and, after changing back into 'scruff order', we would be free to find adventure in any form
we could find. Sunday afternoon was normally 'free' time.
The vicar also became responsible for the training and selection of ball-boys for the annual Wimbledon tennis fortnight. The
school had proved to be very successful for supplying extremely well trained ball-boys for a number of years and so the tradition
of competence had materialised. Normally training to become a ball-boy started on the two hard surface tennis courts in
April/May and progressed daily until the beginning of June when official selection would be made. Smaller, shorter boys stood
more chance of selection than the longer, tall boys who found it more difficult to stoop at speed when collecting a ball from
the base of the net. None the less all were regarded with equal enthusiasm and I can recall great personal excitement to be
selected to be on Court 11, which was in fact an 'outside court' at Wimbledon, in my first year at the school.
The Wimbledon fortnight began with the early morning arrival of three antiquated Grey/Green coaches to which we would pile
on board and venture forth on the road to London. The drive itself became rather mundane after a few days but each arrival at
the All England Wimbledon tennis centre has remained indelible and etched in my mind to this day. The ball-boys had their
own changing rooms just below the main stairway leading up to the Centre court and after changing into the famous grey/mauve
shirt, grey shorts and socks we would sit on benches outside and view all the most charming young ladies who ascended those
stairs, obviously the higher they went the better the view. To a young masculine mind this was his vision of pure heaven!!
Later a salad lunch was provided on the production of the free issued ticket at Joe Lyons restaurant as was the afternoon tea.
Just next to the ball-boys changing rooms was a photo display counter where black and white postcard-size photos of your
favourite tennis stars could be purchased for sixpence each.
When actually on court every physical pause and movement became accentuated and more pronounced to create that polished
performance required. As if personally playing to the crowd. Stillness, deportment and speed were essential. Being on court with
some of the most famous tennis stars in the world was itself rewarding even though some of the games were played for hours
and hours on end before the breaking of an opponents serve and gaining the advantage to win the set. We found out where the
television crews were filming, where the editing was being done, and often we could be rubbing shoulders with TV celebrities
as -well. The military staff manned the entrances and they too became familiar faces of acceptance. Autographs and sweat-bands
grew to be a status symbol among the boys. Wimbledon became a hive of exciting and interesting places to be and that dress
code of grey/mauve opened many doors of curiosity. To put the cream on the cake we each received £2:10/- per week which
came in as handy pocket-money just prior to the summer holidays. Most of the boys had somewhere to go to spend their summer
holidays. A relative who could possibly accommodate them generated a nice change from the routine of school life. However,
it was equally exciting to return to the school in the late summer. To reunite with friends and discuss the holidays often proved
enlightening. Locally, at that time of the year, the fruit on the trees appeared ready in the orchards and so the birth of 'scrumping'
became instantly popular. In the twilight of an evening just before, or even after darkness fell, you would often meet a familiar
face climbing the fence of the orchard either returning loaded up with fruit or heading into the copse. What made the event more
adventurous would be if the Headmaster, speaking on morning assembly, had recognised that boys were going out of bounds
into the gardens and had subsequently banned it. Like a red rag to a bull!!