It stands on the hill overlooking Greenwich Park, but probably not one in a thousand of those who visited Son et Lumiere in the summer knew of its existence, and even the majority of the residents in Blackheath are unaware that nearby Vanbrugh Castle houses a school which is unique.
The fifty boys in this R.A.F. Benevolent Fund's School have all lost their fathers— most of them killed while on service with the R.A.F. — and this link binds the boys together in a way usually found only within the family. When you know that Smith's mother—and, in fact, most of the other forty-nine mothers— goes out to work and that you and the rest of the boys will return home for the holidays to lend a hand in the house and possibly cook your own lunch, it gives an added dimension to the school relationship.
Bullying is completely unknown at Vanbrugh Castle, and sweets and toys are shared with a spontaneous generosity which makes visiting strangers reflect upon their own youthful ways at school.
The wide range of the boys' ages—from seven to seventeen—has resulted in the anomaly that Vanbrugh Castle, while a school itself, also houses boys who are pupils at four other schools.The youngest are taught at the Castle, and from there take their Eleven Plus exam. The top boys may then go to the City of London School, while the rest proceed to grammar, comprehensive or secondary modern schools, returning to Vanbrugh at the end of each day.
The head of this family is John Corner ~ a six-foot ex-guardsman with a lively and highly perceptive mind, an enormous gift of imagination and an overwhelming affection for youth. " The boys " at Vanbrugh Castle are his first and only concern, just as " The boys " of the King's School, Canterbury, filled the twenty years of his life which he spent there, teaching modern languages.
The study door, after school, is never silent. Knock-knock. " Please, sir, any jobs? " Willy, a shrimp of a child, has a passion for cleaning. " You may clean my brown shoes if you like." And off bounces Willy to burnish mahogany brogues.
Knock-knock. "Please, sir, I lost my shilling down the drain and had to walk home." Philip gets a fresh shilling without a pi-jaw. It's his first day at his Secondary Modern—enough to scare any eleven-year-old.
Knock-knock. " Please, sir, may I go on the raft? " This is a try-on which just won't work. John's comprehensive eye has long ago seen from his study window that the raft contains the maximum four.
"Not until one of the others comes off." " Very well, sir." Regret in the tone, but no shade of malice. The ruse hadn't worked — but it was worth trying.
Knock-knock, "Please, sir, may I take the bassoon?" One of the City of London boys is off to practice for the Vanbrugh band. Since John Corner was a choral scholar of King's College, Cambridge, it is not surprising that music should be close to his heart. In the two years he has been at Vanbrugh Castle the school band has grown out of nothing more concrete than his fiery enthusiasm to fifteen lusty instrumentalists.
Musical instruments are extremely costly, but this stubborn six-footer is never defeated. There is always a way to get what you want, if you want it sufficiently. Sir John Barbirolli paved one of the ways by writing an appeal in the Press.
In the playground, clad in their play-clothes — a wonderful collection of gaily patterned T-shirts, "Given to us by the Americans" — the juniors are playing cowboys and Indians.
Drama is also enjoyed and encouraged, and a play is acted during most terms. Once a week twenty-four exuberant actors are taught how to do a stage fall, how not to speak, and how to think up an act which does not include their prime favourites— a bank robbery or an argumentative Court scene. A play is voted a good one only if it contains a meal and a fight. Eating ranks high in their estimation.
This term, the seven-year-olds have started to learn sewing, spurred on by the thought of making Christmas presents for their mothers.
The tale I like best, however, concerns a maintenance job which had to be done. A builder quoted £36, but the "enterprising" headmaster discovered that a length of wire plus two boys' labour, could complete the job satisfactorily for fifteen shillings! So certain was he of his boys' competence that he produced the two estimates with dead-pan aplomb at his next committee meeting. Which did they choose?
Well—I told you the school was unique!