Wennington School

 Memories  and reflections         1949 – 1953

 Tim Thody         Martinique   21st  June  2012

 Why was I there?

 At age seven and a half I had a reading problem. Today it would be called dyslexia.  My primary education at the “Tom Cats School” teachers training college in Bedford, had been a little progressive. My teacher, Miss Lesley had entered and exhibited two of my poster colour paintings in a children’s exhibition at the Tate gallery. I was leader of the “Holly tree gang” in the playground. I was spoiled, egotistic, intolerant and bit of a bully. Kenneth Barnes was later to write on an early school report “He does not suffer fools gladly”. My parents and Miss Lesley decided Wennington would be the best option.

 I arrived a couple of days before school started in late summer for orientation.  No doubt wearing the green uniform. I was placed in a dorm with some older boys who gave me the name “ little Sampson”, presumably because of my belligerent attitude. I had never slept away from home and family before and I hated being there, but did not cry.

 What was it like?

 I think sending children as young as seven to be weekly boarders is quite a good idea. For me, who lived with my parents, Grandmother and considerably elder brother, to find myself a termly boarder, at that age was traumatic. Although my parents drove to see me and take me out for a day once a term.  A telephone was not available to us, also since I could hardly  read or write a word, written communication was minimal.  For many years afterwards I felt that I had been rejected in order to liberate their social life. On reflection considering my learning problem, their choices must have been limited; they undoubtedly did what they thought was best.

 The boys and girls with whom I found myself living were from all the “casts” of British society. They hailed from Scotland to southern counties, although at that time I do not remember any non Europeans. I soon made friends with some and not with others. Richard Rhodes was my first and best friend. Other pupils I  particularly remember during my four years, were Ruth and her sister Vivien McColm , Sam Doncaster, Ernest Churchyard. There were several others whose Christian names are all that remain in my memory, now 60 years on.

 I don’t have to tell you that Wennington did not provide conventional education, especially at the junior level. Being entirely free to pace ourselves, academically, to express our personalities with little constraint, in a coeducational environment was a radical experiment in schooling.

 The Quaker influence also impinged upon our development.  Happily there was no regular time slot set aside to brainwash us with religious instruction . Born and bred in Bedford the home of John Bunyan, I was no stranger to puritanism and their progress. My family was nominally C of E, in reality agnostic. I soon affected a broad Yorkshire accent and slang.   Sang “ To be a pilgrim” much to the consternation of my family.

With hindsight I consider the experience to have enriched my life enormously.

 No other school of its time provided such space for the development of free expression, almost unfettered liberty and chance to build character.   There were few organized team games, no football, cricket or rugby; rounders as I recollect was the only team sport. The tennis court was not made available to juniors. Swimming naked in the cold outdoor pool was our treat on rising early each morning, during the summer term. On occasion we heard the bugle sound the revaillé a mile or two away at the military school nearer Wetherby, the cadets were roused later than us boys. I dropped my towel on one side of the pool ran round to the other, got out of my dressing gown, swam only the breadth, returned to retrieve the garment then made off shivering to the dormitory at a run.  Indelible on my mind are the occasions when a disrobed young women, red headed and elsewhere, was interrupted completing her early morning dip.

We spent a lot of time in the glorious woods . The open glades of the ancient beach wood brown with leaves, the spruce plantation almost impenetrable with matted bracken; the rhododendron area where we were shown how to construct a round hut, woven with branches and leaf covered. Fungi and stink horns, pools home to amphibians, birds and their nests.  Insects and rodents. Flowers and plants. So many types of trees: oak, sycamore, silver birch, hornbeam, ash, copper beach. The yews were my favorite, with my “Jack knife” I carved small objects from the dual coloured wood and ate the juicy red part of the berries. Our wonderful “teacher” Margaret Burgess, once took us into the pine plantation to make a fire, then cook vegetable soup in a big metal pot. Perhaps that was my first introduction to campfire cooking, I often made small fires, cooked stolen potatoes charred in the jacket, and whatever else could be obtained. Once when cooking field mushrooms with margarine on a roof slate heated over an open fire, I was interrupted by a staff member, surprisingly I was not reprimanded, or discouraged; although I should have been if you have ever seen a hot slate explode and fly. I think most of the academic staff were from cities, they did not know much about country life.  Alfred Schweitzer and a few trustees made a visit, it was said that one had taken a job as a dustman/garbage collector for a few days just for the experience. Well meaning do-gooders, I am not convinced that they were on the right track.

We also celebrated  November 5th with an enormous bonfire with blackened spuds in the embers.

 One summer the whole school was involved in preparing and performing a Medieval Pageant, for a parent’s day celebration. Weeks of work making costumes, heraldic shields and emblements, bunting, stalls offering produce, sweetmeats, mead etc. The eldest pupils attired as Lords and Ladies crossed the main courtyard on horse back with a retinue of retainers and musicians. There was twisting the ribbons may pole dancing performed by Margaret’s lot. We wore tunics, leggings, pixy style hats and shoes with turned up points.

Country dancing was a regular class, Sir Roger de Coverly, Dashing white Sargent, I particularly remember, also singing John Peel, On Ilkley moor, Bladen Races, Mama’s little Baby.

I was allocated a non speaking part as Mustard Seed in a performance of “A mid-summers night dream”.  Kenneth read the Iliad to us, usually in the room above the portico but on occasions on the bank opposite the pool. We were named for the protagonists, I was Achilles’. Odd, but I have no recollection of his wife Frances.

  Another project for Margaret’s lot was “The village of Cowthorp ” We spent a term studying  the physical aspects of  the little community a mile from the school,  making a scaled  model  of it in what remained of a concrete billiard table.  Famous for an oak tree said to be the oldest still living in England, what remained of it was barely alive, standing at the top of a field near the church. The meadow ran down to a river and the ruins of water mill.  I got to make a painting of the decrepit tree in its last throws of life, also to make a balsawood model of the vicarage.

  Frank Burgess the carpentry master had lots of sandy hair in those days, he showed us how to use hand tools, we started by making three legged stools. There was a potters wheel in one of those rooms out back that we never got to try. Margaret had a big loom in their apartment. In the short cold days of winter we sat with a fire in the little common room with chapped knees and played Monopoly. The Janitor stoked the boilers across the courtyard with poisonous smelling coke, we went to our beds that we had made up with hospital corners after scalding baths.

The food was not good, though no doubt nutritionally adequate, we did not go hungry. My favorite dish was cottage pie, I have little memory for the rest save rissoles, also cauliflower or macaroni cheese that I have never eaten since or red lentil soup.

Presumably due to a mishap we the juniors were obliged to drink from jam jars for a few days.  There was a tuck shop once a week, those of us who had the chance ate too many sweets although sugar was still rationed until 1951 as I recall.

 Although I only vaguely realized the problem at the time, equating the Quaker faith with coeducation in a liberal environment was never going to work. KCB wrote something about the “hothouse” in one of his books. From his copious writings on the subject of sex and education, (I have read only a fraction) it would seem he was for a many years trying to square this circle.

   I was a prematurely precocious child, I had crushes on pretty little girly girls from very young.  Once whilst recovering from a serious bout of flu, my bed was in mixed dormitory for the sick in the main building, a few older girls contrived to tease me with provocative postures and movements until I amused them with an erection. On another occasion I was chased by a chubby older girl in need of physical love. I escaped with my virginity intact. Older pupils were often to be observed hand in hand or caught embracing, there was a fair amount of fornication going on I am certain.

 My relationship with Margaret Burgess whom I respected and admired as a substitute mother, soured when I was caught entertaining my dorm, after lights out, with some filthy pornographic drivel conjured from my fertile imagination. There was a connecting door between our dorm. and her apartment. I was not reprimanded concerning this misdemeanour, nor reported to Kenneth. I remember with others being invited to see how two of our classmates  performed sex, in the  smaller dormitory next the junior matrons room. Fortunately the exhibition was interrupted before it got started.

 I was once called before KCB in his office, I thought to be expelled. I had placed a dead mouse in the junior matrons bed.  I don’t know why I did this, I bore her no malice, even if she was the person who gave us spoonful’s of cod liver oil. She was a fragile toothy woman who had become hysterical on discovering my evil deed.

 Aftermath.

  At age eleven and a half I remained functionally illiterate, in that I could not or did not read fluently, I was stuck in the same classroom having failed to progress to the next level ( Form 1),  along with my contemporaries. My juvenile artistic talents had found little encouragement, as a junior I never came into contact with the art master. Art materials were not generally available to me, except crayons provided by my parents.  Academically and artistically, for me Kenneth Barnes School had been a disaster.

My time was up, I had become persona non grata. My parents sent me to another private boys boarding school run along public school lines with an ex-army Major headmaster. There was no drill, but it was “yes Sir, no Sir” and stand by your beds. Within four years age fifteen (a year early) I took and passed three “O levels”. A little discipline had broken the spell, I could read. I quickly caught up with and overtook my classmates.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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