|14 Oct 2022|
Hugh at College and now, with his wife Pamela
Britain was in a state of international crisis from as early as the summer of 1938. The boys at Cheltenham were put to digging trench air raid shelters along the edges of the adjacent playing fields during the summer term – only to fill them in again in the autumn term; the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had returned from a meeting with Adolf Hitler, flourishing a letter as he alighted from his aeroplane and pronouncing to the waiting journalists, ‘Peace in our time!’
Our family summer holiday in 1939 was taken in southern Ireland from mid-August to a few days before I was to return to Coll. for the autumn term. The ominous signs of war in August 1939 persuaded my father to bring forward our ferry booking from Dublin to Glasgow to enable us to overcome any restrictions which might suddenly be imposed. Several days later as I was with my mother leaving church on that fateful morning of 3 September, the sirens sounded for the first time in wartime.
Amongst the post waiting for us was a letter from Coll to advise us that an important Government Department had notified College that it was to requisition all our premises and that we were to be evacuated. But where to?
Old friendships were immediately exercised and an invitation was received from the headmaster of Shrewsbury School, HH Hardy, for College to use the facilities of his school for as long as was required. ‘HHH’ had been headmaster of Cheltenham for a number of years in the 1920s and 1930s and had appointed many of the masters who were still on the College staff, and had made many friends.
This magnanimous offer presented another problem: where would the boys live? How it was first managed I shall never know, but the outcome was to be an incredible offer by the people of Shrewsbury to find ‘digs’ for everybody, masters and boys, throughout the town and even to several of the outlying villages.
During the limited period before term was to begin – the start was delayed by a week until near the end of September – my parents heard from the family who were to host me. Their house was in the village of Bicton, WNW of Shrewsbury. I was advised to bring a bicycle. Study of a road map revealed that the distance to school would be some four miles. At that time I did not know who, if anybody, would be in the same ‘digs’. Nor, indeed, did I know which sixth form I was to be placed in.
I had arrived at Shrewsbury station in the early afternoon together with a number of other boys. We were not expected at our digs before the evening so, I recall, several of us found a cinema where we watched Ben Hur. I began to see the make-up of the group with whom we would be close friends for the next two terms. By the evening our group was complete and in the context of our accommodation we must have been the luckiest boys in Coll.
There were four of us in those digs. My memory produces four names other than mine so there may have been a substitution for the Spring Term 1940; all four of those other names appear in the Spring Term College Roll. The names of all five of us are as follows:
J.L.B.Cohen – U6bS,
G.H.Greenish – L6bMil,
H.R.Langrishe – L6S,
J.Grigor Taylor – U6C,
A.G.Townsend-Rose – L6aMil.
Geoffrey Greenish, Grigor Taylor and Tony Townsend-Rose were all Christowe, House prefects and all were at least a year older than me.
We found ourselves in a delightful country gentleman’s house called Udlington, on the edge of the village of Bicton, close to the old A5 road. Our hosts were a childless couple of mature age; Richard Sandford was a solicitor in Shrewsbury. He was the younger brother of the family who owned the estate of The Isle, a mile and a half down the road towards the River Severn. Udlington had obviously been built, probably an estate house, to provide facilities for a family and satisfy their requirements for participation in country pursuits – stables, tack room and hay storage, garaging for at least three cars around a paved yard.
Mrs Sandford ran the house with a team of servants, all of whom except one were firmly in the background. The exception was a boy of about fourteen, from the family of one of the estate workers, who had joined the household to be trained as a butler. He was assigned as our personal servant! We were all accommodated in a large bedroom in the front of the house, over the dining-room, easily large enough for four large young men, in which were four school beds which had been brought up from Christowe. For our home activities, including prep, we were given the use of another upstairs room known as the ‘day nursery,’ again large enough for the four of us. We had exclusive use of the ‘nursery’ bathroom.
Newspaper clipping from 23 March 1940 - 'The Life of an Evacuated Public School: Cheltenham Boys do Prep. in Billets at Shrewsbury'
On the first evening we were to experience the first of many three-course dinners, served on the very best china, with the young man waiting on us. Mrs Sandford was obviously unfamiliar with ‘High Tea,’ the evening meal recommended by our Housemaster or the College Bursar, but we had a cup of tea to finish the meal. I am sure the weekly allowance for our food was regularly overspent. Our hosts sat down with us. One must remember that it was not until January 1940 that food rationing began so variety and volumes were generous.
It was clear from the start that we were welcomed to Udlington as guests and not as lodgers. In the evenings, after dinner and after we had done our prep, we went downstairs and joined Mr and Mrs Sandford in a large sitting-room which was also the billiard room, equipped with a full-size billiard table. We were to spend many evenings at the table, learning all about billiards and snooker, probably providing Mr Sandford with male company and willing competition!
We never saw Mrs Sandford at the billiard table. Her sport was archery and she was an England International archer. A selection of her bows was hung up along the landing wall. Her husband’s sport was shooting, for which purpose he had a black Labrador, a lovely dog which, in true country style, was housed in a large, caged run in the yard with an ample-sized kennel in one corner. This animal was never allowed in the house, where Mrs Sandford’s spaniel ruled the roost. One weekend we were invited to go down to The Isle and go out on their lake in a rowing-boat – normally used for fishing. Mr Sandford took us down in his version of what would later be a Landrover. This was an Austin Big Seven saloon; to accommodate the retriever the front passenger’s seat had been removed.
The daily rides to and from school were very enjoyable. At that time there was no waterproof or wind resistant clothing as we know it today and raincoats were only showerproof. After even the short ride to school, a wet day would see us spend a lot of the day in damp jacket and trousers. However, this did not deter us and we never missed a day. I can recall brilliant sunny autumn days and still air making the ride a real boost for the day, even though the silence was frequently broken by the snarl of the Rolls-Royce Kestrel engines of the Hawker Hart trainer aircraft from RAF Tern Hill to the north. Our daily commute became less enjoyable as the days shortened. By the end of term we were riding home in the dark. Cycle lamps were small then and battery life was an important aspect. To have spare batteries in one’s rucksack was essential.
The first morning we were surprised to be roused by the young butler who came in and drew back our curtains. This was a routine which never failed throughout our stay. After an ample breakfast on our own and supervised by the young butler, we set off for the school, riding through a typical rural scene with fields of pasture on both sides of the road, a slight rise bringing us through tall trees to the prominent water tower at the junction with the Welshpool Road. It was then that we could see the town as we freewheeled down to the old by-pass and enjoyed an almost level ride to the school.
We had been directed to go to the Alington Hall. We found this to be a building separate from the main school building, opened for theatre and concerts in 1905. It could seat over 500 people so was adequate for the whole of Coll. It became our headquarters for the duration of our stay, each of our five boarding houses being allocated its own area. It was then that we understood how specific areas of the town had been allocated to each house for the boys’ accommodation, with the housemaster at the hub of each area. Christowe was in the north-west quarter. Although all details of managing this situation had been very well organised there was one rather important gap in the Coll hierarchy: our headmaster, Mr John Bell, had fallen foul of the College Council and was in the course of resigning. This was not finalised for a number of months so Coll was in the hands of Mr P Fletcher, Head of Military and Engineering, until a new headmaster appeared sometime in the following spring term. Since 1936 he was the fourth headmaster we had.
What was the state of Coll then? I have lost my copy of the autumn term 1939 College Roll, but I have it for the spring term. There were 301 boys at Shrewsbury and 34 in the temporary equivalent of the old Day Boy houses at Springthorpe, Cheltenham. Christowe boys at Shrewsbury numbered 53.
Most of the boys in the five houses which were accommodated in the town could go home for lunch. Those who were five miles or so away from school took their lunch in the school tuck shop, an arrangement which enabled friendships to be struck up with boys from other houses, something which was virtually impossible during normal times. Altogether there were probably fifteen or so boys who were catered for in this way, including us. In traditional fashion Friday was the day for fish and chips!
On that first morning we were told of the arrangements for us to use Shrewsbury facilities on a ‘box and cox’ basis. We had our daily House and Coll meetings and assembly in Alington Hall first thing in the morning while Shrewsbury boys were in chapel and at their morning assembly, following which we had our daily chapel service. This was followed by outdoor games for most of the morning. Classes were taken in the afternoon.
Shrewsbury was a soccer school which made for difficulty in providing pitches for our games of rugger. I can only remember two pitches, laid out side by side on a piece of rough ground near the by-pass. There may have been others, but I only recall playing on those two. Other things happened in the spring term which will come later in the story. What was remarkable was that this term was to see Coll field its finest rugger XV for many years, if not ever. Three members of the team won international caps after the war; if there had been no war, there would have been at least one other. Philip Moore and Geoff Hosking played for England and Graham Jackson for Scotland. The potential international was Dickie Price, a brilliant scrumhalf who would certainly have challenged for a Welsh cap if he had not been killed in the war.
Our rugger coach was Mr Ritchie Williams, known to the boys as Ritchie Bill, a proud Welshman. He happened to come into the tuck shop one Friday lunchtime, to see several of his XV tucking into fish and chips; he did not approve of the chips. It was unfortunate that we had no suitable ground for school matches, so this wonderful 1st XV played all their matches ‘away.’
In general terms the ‘box and cox’ arrangement with the Shrewsbury boys worked very well. Games were played towards the end of the morning. Those boys who were accommodated in the town went home to change into and out of their games clothes. The Udlington party and, broadly speaking, all those who were fed in the tuck shop, had the use of the changing room in one of the nearby Shrewsbury boarding houses. This was convenient but I think we had to take our “strip” back and forth on the days when we were to play games. This routine may well have been carried out on Corps parade days; the Corps uniform was very uncomfortable and would have been unbearable if worn all day.
Although in the autumn term I was still under 17 I was in and out of the first game of rugger which was very exhilarating. The usual arrangement was that the 1st XV forwards played alongside the 2nd XV backs and vice versa. With the 1st XV backs of such a high quality I remained stuck amongst the second group of players; I never had the honour of representing Coll at the top level.
I found it difficult to settle down in such unusual circumstances and in different surroundings. Apart from the different atmosphere of the chapel, the classrooms and laboratories, our extra-curricular activities such as the Corps had to be carried on whenever they could be fitted in. I had passed my OTC Certificate A, a step towards eligibility for an Army commission at some time in the future – now quite an important qualification with the war about to explode into action. I was assigned to the machine-gun section, in which we were introduced to the heavy water-cooled Vickers .303”, an important relic of the Great War, the new BRN or Bren gun, a new acquisition for the British Army and used for many years, and the BOYS large bore anti-tank rifle.
There was a shortage of instructors, partly caused by the recall to the colours of our army NCOs. Instruction was taken over by our senior cadet NCOs who quite naturally lacked knowledge and experience. At that time there was no alternative military training, Cheltenham’s background having been concentrated on the British Army. Therefore entry to the two Military Cadet Colleges of Sandhurst and Woolwich was the aim of those who entered the Sixth Form, Military and Engineering. The only recognition of another Service was when, during the previous summer term, a party of volunteers – all dressed in their OTC khaki uniforms – attended the Empire Air Day at RAF South Cerney, outside Cirencester. Personally, I was thrilled with this visit. Our Corps uniform was a relic of the standard soldier’s uniform of the Great War – heavy khaki serge tunic and trousers with puttees wound round one’s lower legs, unforgivingly tight or they would fall down. The peaked cap bore the badge of the Gloucestershire Regiment to which we were attached. Completing our preparation for parade or marching outside the school grounds we would wear a full set of webbing equipment of 1908 vintage and standard army boots.
As can be expected, there was great interest in the school in how the war was progressing. I recall that one morning in Udlington our young servant, breathless with excitement, woke us up with the news that during the night Blenheim bombers of the RAF had bombed one of the German naval bases. This would undoubtedly have excited all of us as well.
There is no doubt that I struggled in the classroom, although at times I was stimulated by the new syllabus. In maths I was introduced to differential calculus and in chemistry to the different classifications of organic and inorganic substances. I have no recollection of the physics subjects, nor of anything which might be considered to be associated with the English language. No doubt we had practical chemistry and physics classes but they have left no mark, even though they were held in a new science block incorporating laboratories and small lecture theatres. Preparatory work at home cannot have been too arduous if we could find time for snooker with Mr Sandford in the evenings.
One of the letters awaiting my parents on our return from Ireland was from the Oxford & Cambridge Examination Board, containing the results of the School Certificate exams I had taken in the summer term. This had been my second School Cert. I had taken the exams in 1938 whilst in the Classical and Modern stream in which, amongst others, I obtained a credit in Latin. But in expressing a wish to go into aeronautical engineering the decision was made to move me into the Military and Engineering stream, in theory making me more acceptable as an engineering student, and to take another clutch of School Cert. subjects. Three were to be new to me, namely physics, chemistry and higher mathematics. Up to that time I had never been inside a science laboratory in my school life. The outcome in 1939 was that I failed to achieve credits in any of the science or higher maths papers, otherwise obtaining six credits in the other subjects.
I explain this saga in some detail because there were repercussions. My father wanted me to go to Edinburgh University, where he was a lecturer in the medical faculty, to study engineering, but the education system being different to England this was not so simple. It had to be proved that I was acceptable to either Oxford or Cambridge; it transpired that Cambridge would only accept me on the basis of my Latin credit of 1938! This decision was accepted in Edinburgh.
My lack of success in what might be considered essential subjects seemed to put Coll authorities in a quandary. Which sixth form would I fit into? For better or worse, the latter being the outcome, I found myself in L6S, doing subjects which were mainly out of my depth. It was downhill after that. I can honestly say that during my nine years of boarding school life the two terms at Shrewsbury were the most useless in my education and my efforts were un-noticeable. The upshot was that during the Christmas holidays I suggested to my father that he should give notice to the bursar and to Mr King that I would leave Coll at the end of the spring Term, and so I did.
I returned to Shrewsbury in January, apprehensive of the reaction to my intended departure from Coll at the end of term. Mr King was disappointed; in theory I still had another year before I would be due to leave and I could expect to be appointed a house prefect. However, responding to calls to join up, a few older boys had already left and were training in one or other of the armed services, and the national atmosphere was encouraging the nation’s young men to serve their country. This softened the blow.
The early months of 1940 were particularly cold. The ground was frozen solid which put paid to traditional games. It had been usual for the senior boys to play hockey in the spring term at Coll but for the early weeks of the term at Shrewsbury there were no spare pitches available for this purpose. However, during a particularly cold spell the groundsman flooded the main soccer pitch, resulting in a perfect skating rink. A surprising number of boys appeared with skates and a challenge was made to the Shrewsbury boys for a game of hockey-on-ice. Nobody had any idea of the rules of ice hockey so hockey on ice was really the only thing.
How many times we played this peculiar game must be an unanswered question, but it was good fun and only came to an end when a thaw set in. The very cold spell included several falls of snow and one of these caused us to fail to bicycle to school. That was the one and only day during the term when we did not go in. I took exercise by skating on a pond just beyond the garden hedge. That is not to say that the frozen half-melted snow on the main road made cycling difficult and on occasion we were tempted not to go into school.
The lack of other memories of the term indicate that everything must have gone according to routine. Out at Udlington, as the days lengthened and air temperatures rose, one Saturday afternoon Mrs Sandford tempted us out into the garden to try our hands at archery. She had all the equipment required so a target was erected on the lawn for us. As was to be expected, her demonstration was most professional and we all found the experience very enjoyable – it is not as easy as you might think.
I have recently found my copy of the Cheltenham College Calendar for the spring term 1940, It is an impressive calendar, giving an impression of normality which would appear to be based on faith and blind hope. I say this because there are many athletic pursuits which would require a high degree of cooperation with Shrewsbury School. Most of these arrangements have left no mark in my memory, but I must presume that, in spite of the wintry weather, many would have taken place.
What has impressed me about the calendar is the presentation of the Sunday chapel services in bold print. This goes to show how important to the ethos of Coll was the observance of the Anglican Church year. Other important Church festivals were also included in the calendar. During this term classes were held for Confirmation and the Bishop of Lichfield was invited to confirm the candidates in Shrewsbury chapel on 15th March.
It had always been the routine that the organised games for the spring term had prescribed hockey for the senior boys and rugger for the House 2nd XVs and below. There was a House 1st XI cup competition at hockey and cups for the junior rugger XVs. The Coll 1st hockey XI was restricted to three matches, one, in company with a Colts XI, against Marlborough, both played on the grounds of one of the Oxford Colleges. Otherwise there were home and away matches against Wrekin College, down the road at Wellington, Shropshire. Other events held were a country run, a sports meeting with Shrewsbury, a House P.T. competition and House relays. Fencers had to be satisfied with a match against the Birmingham Fencing Club. It looks as if we were to be kept out of mischief. With three schools in close proximity a Corps Field Day was organised with Shrewsbury and Wrekin.
It had been the custom for many years at Coll that the Captain of Rugby recognised the efforts of those boys who had been involved in the training games of the school XV. These were effectively the 2nd and 3rd XVs. They were awarded sashes, red for the 2nd XV (Fireflies) and green for the third XV (Grasshoppers). (I hope I have the colours the right way round.) Philip Moore, Captain of Rugby, made the selection. There is no doubt that I participated in many of these events. The only one I can remember vividly is when a friend and I cycled to Wrekin to support our hockey XI there. Although it was a fine and sunny day, it was hard work managing a return ride of around 30 miles. Our effort was appreciated and we were invited into the Wrekin dining-hall for tea. I cannot remember who won the match.
For me the approach of the end of term generated some excitement. The end of school! My entry to Edinburgh University would only take place fully in the autumn but through his university contacts my father arranged for me to have some tutorial help in subjects which I should be studying. Education certainly did not come to a halt after Coll. It was to be seen how well I was prepared.
The four (or five) of us saw each other off on 4 April with profuse thanks to Mr and Mrs Sandford and to our young servant. The war broke us all apart although we all survived. It was some fifty years later that Geoffrey, Grigor and I met again by arrangement at a Boyceite drinks party in London; we were completely out of our generation and knew nobody. However, I have maintained contact with College and since moving to Herefordshire I have attended many events and met old friends. There are now few of us left.