This essay would scarcely be passed as a ‘History’ by an historian, but it does attempt to be a story. My involvement in it stems from my having been immured in Vanbrugh Castle from 1947 to 1956. This makes me, and my contemporaries, rather central people in this story, for we experienced something of each of the first three Controller/Headmasters, Captain Slimming, James Webb Jones and John Corner. These ruled from 1921 to 1972 (with an interlude between Webb Jones and Corner in which David Jones, a master, served as acting Head) just before the dissolution of the school, as an entity, in 1976 organized by W. P. Jones, the last Headmaster.
Much of the content of this document is derived from my brother’s website, ‘Vanbrugh Castle School’ (q.v.), and from information kindly and assiduously gathered by Lisa Taylor of The Cedars. It is motivated largely by a desire to redress the biassed descriptions of the school, in various media, from the beginning. (At one point, on that website, my brother wrote, ‘we have heard a lot of positive things about this, and would like to hear more of the negative ones.’) This account is therefore evaluative and judgmental, for I, like him, have felt frustrated by the press adulation of the authors of the boys’ suffering.In the account of the early years, I have had to retro-polate from our 1947 experiences to those of the earliest years. No changes had apparently taken place, in staff or structure, during second world war, so that doing this seems justified. But there are telling comments by boys actually from those earliest times.
The post World War II section is very largely an account of my own experience – I was there. I hope, though, that the environment of my narration conveys something of what the boys generally were experiencing. My stringing together of Vanbrugh Chronicle items and boys’ comments, to cover the period after I left, may be somewhat chaotic, but that can be corrected by people younger than me. An important part of ‘boy-centredness’ is the giving of their names. The aim of this piece is to string together, like jewels, the names of all the boys and therefore those of the fathers of the boys who lived through each part of the narrative.
Sir George Cayley had already designed a glider (he called it a ‘dirigible parachute’) by the late 18th century. As the 19th century progressed, and his designs became more ambitious, one being “the boy-carrying machine” and another “the man-carrying machine” (“the man” being Cayley’s unwilling coachman), Cayley saw that a light power source (‘a hundred horsepower in a pint pot,’ as he put it) would be required to turn his gliders into aeroplanes, but it was not until the early 20th century that the Wright brothers, who acknowledged Cayley to be the father of aeronautics, managed to employ an internal combustion engine to propel a plane in the air. In this country, particularly in Sheppey, at Eastchurch and Shellness, a group of inventor/entrepreneurs were engaged in building and flying aircraft. Their names (e.g. Short and, in the form “Avroe”, A. V. Roe) were to be given to generations of aircraft in later years. These men, together with the Wright brothers, who visited Shellness and admired its runway, began trying to sell their inventions to governments for military purposes, but there was prejudice in those quarters against ‘heavier than air’ machines. Airships were the vehicle of choice for them. However, with the very rapid development of aeroplanes, and with the advent of the Great War, governments became aware of the real potential of heavier than air machines, and bought them in great numbers for waging war in the air.
In this country, the section of the Navy using aeroplanes was named “The Royal Naval Air Service”, or RNAS, while the corresponding branch of the Army became “The Royal Flying Corps” or RFC. Most of the aeroplanes used in the 1914 - 18 war were biplanes. On the Home front, they fended off attacks by German Zeppelins, which crossed the east coast and bombed major cities. Often, these airships could outstrip the aircraft sent up to deal with them. In the early months of the war, the planes were single-seaters, and their pilots were commissioned officers, as opposed to air mechanics, or ‘airmen’, who saw to maintenance, fuelling etc.. Occasionally, and increasingly as the war progressed, sergeants (non-commissioned officers) became pilots. On the Western Front, many more aircraft were used, and more dangerously than on the Home Front, as air-battles developed between opposing aircraft, and ground-fire also had to be faced.
It was not long before 2-seater aircraft were developed that allowed an “observer” apart from the pilot. This observer might have any of several roles. Gunner, bomb-aimer, navigator were perhaps the most frequent of these. These roles were usually, but not always, taken by Air Mechanics, AM I or AM II, (non-commissioned personnel). Commissioned or not, these men flew, and their lives depended on the survival of their aircraft.
In 1918, the RNAS and RFC were rationalised into a Royal Air Force. This was at the height of the destruction. The year 1918 produced as many casualties as all the earlier war years put together. Quite consistently, during both of these periods, 1914 – 17 and 1918, the ratio of casualties of officers to those of airmen was two to one. That means that a third of airborne casualties were non-commissioned personnel.
After the Armistice, a Royal Air Force Memorial Fund was set up to help the families with casualties to educate their orphaned children. The families of commissioned officers received bursaries to fund their children’s entry into private boarding schools, but no such provision was made for the children of airmen. In 1920/21, Alexander Duckham, the oil magnate, presented Vanbrugh Castle to the Fund ‘as a home for the children of airmen’ (i.e. non-commissioned personnel) and as a memorial to his infant daughter Dinah. At first, the Fund doubted the wisdom of accepting this gift, but eventually did so, along with that of another house, in rural Kent, Rook’s Hill, intended for younger children.
When, in 1921, the Prince of Wales (later, Edward VIII) unveiled the RAF Memorial on the Embankment, he referred to Duckham’s Gift as ‘noble’ and met the first tranche of 27 ‘Vanbrugh boys’ with the “Controller” of the now Vanbrugh Castle School, Captain G.A.Slimming and the Matron, the Controller’s wife. The newspaper report of this event said that the boys were ‘cared for and educated’ at the castle. (Being ‘cared for’ is scarcely how any of the boys at Vanbrugh would describe their experience – see below, passim – and most of the education took place in outside schools, not actually at the Castle.) A photograph of the unveiling, taken from the river, appears on the VCS website, and in it can be seen the backs of the heads of the boys that the Prince of Wales met. This seems to be the only photograph of those first Vanbrugh boys. A photograph of the memorial itelf, taken from Waterloo Bridge, hung in the dining room and explained that the eagle on it was made from melted-down captured German ordinance.
In February 1922, Vanbrugh Castle School, housed in this building, was formally opened by Lady Trenchard. (A photograph of Lady Trenchard and her accompanying Air Force dignitaries was taken, as they sat in front of the tall brick wall separating the garden (lawn) of Vanbrugh Castle from the garden ot the next door house. Throughout the years, that photograph hung in the school dining room, but now (2020) it seems to be lost, despite its being an important historical document, giving the ranks, names, decorations and appearances of the group). Lady Trenchard, accompanied by Air Marshall Sir Hugh Trenchard and Lord Hugh Cecil and, led by Captain and Mrs Slimming, inspected it, with its dormitories and school rooms. For the occasion, each bed was covered with a bedspread of white linen, bearing, at the pillow-end, the blue badge of the school, the letters V, C and S intertwined and winged. This presented a very neat spectacle, but the use of those bed-covers was to be reserved only for celebrity visitations such as this. At the opening ceremony on the lawn, words of high praise were uttered for the flying services and their contribution to victory in the Great War. A bouquet was presented to Lady Trenchard by ‘little’ Benny (Benjamin) Frost, who was about 5 years old, and one of the twenty three (?) boys, including his brother, then living at the Castle. The reports said that this was a mere “nucleus”, as it was planned to increase the accommodation in the near future.
There is an ironic circularity in these generous gifts, for the war which killed these boys’ fathers must, with its prodigious requirements for aviation fuel, have contributed greatly to Duckham’s oil-based fortune. This connectedness is shown again by the friendship and collaboration between Duckham and Bleriot, the cross-channel flight pioneer. Bleriot aeroplanes had been used during the Great War.
The Vanbrugh Castle building, as handed over, had a curious layout:
Toggle the links to see the floor plans.
Cellar. Ground floor. First floor. Second floor.
Because there was a requirement for staff to care for the boys and for the maintenance of the building, a (small) number of people was hired.
The turnover was very rapid – each line of the following table is about one year (the table running from 1924 to 1939).
|Cooks/ Carers||Carers||Maintenance staff|
|A&M Thompson||Stephan Seaman|
|A&K Wesson||Richard Raymond|
|W&A McKenzie||May Prentice|
|Ivy Alenson||Edgar Baker|
|Ethel Heathcote||Doris Lockwood||Samuel Hayes|
|Florence Reeves||Mabel Daniels,Iris Davis|
|Sarah Miller,May Newman||James Hanna|
|Edna Wormall||Charles Smyth|
In the very early days, around 1924, married couples fulfilled these roles with an additional (single) male assistant, but as the years wore on, the tendency was to employ females, for the care (washing, bathing, putting to bed) who usually stayed for a very short time, one or two years, although Ethel Heathcote stayed from 1930 to 1935) and single males, for the maintenance, who stayed much longer (like Samuel Hayes, who stayed from 1930 to 1936). This seems to have been in response to the increasing intake of boys, for whom more care was then needed. The general oversight of this care was the business of Mrs Carrie Slimming, the Matron. Medical examinations and treatment were done by the central European Doctor Rivaz, who lived in, having retired from his earlier practice.
The boys who entered at this time were:
Robert John Fowler
Walter H. Morley
Initially, the very young boys (‘infants’) were taught to read by Captain Slimming himself, probably in the room G3 or G4 in the above diagram. The rooms bore, on their doors, the names of firms which had contributed towards the fitting up of the castle as a school. The school room, G1, was named ‘Waring and Gillow’, and the more general assembly room was ‘Heal’; ‘Debenhams’ appeared, too; these were firms with RAF connexions. The books used may themselves have been given by well-wishing institutions, and may have been second-hand, for I remember (in the ‘50s) a class book, “Reading in a Twelvemonth”, which must have been Victorian. Older, but junior, boys had to be marched by one of the staff across the Park to Royal Hill School, to receive the whole array of subjects until they were 11 years of age. The older boys, of secondary age, if they qualified for entry, attended the local Roan School for Boys, their fees being paid by the Fund. (In the 1920’s, the Roan School had been in Eastney Street, off Trafalgar Road, near the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. It was housed in a depressing Victorian building. If, in the very early days, any boys entering became 11 before 1928, they would have had to attend that school in Eastney Street, but there is no mention of this, so this is something of a mystery.) It was not until 1928 that the Roan School moved up Maze Hill to a site 200 yards from Vanbrugh Castle on the Blackheath side, to be housed in a handsome neo-Queen Anne building designed by the architect Percy B. Dannatt, an Old Roan who lived just across the road from Vanbrugh Castle, in Westcombe Park Road. This move was highly convenient for senior Vanbrugh boys, as Castle and School almost became an informal campus for them.
As more accommodation became available, through boys’ leaving and the building of a new dormitory (Salmond) above the previously single-storey rooms, more boys entered the Castle. They were :
Albert Sidney Davies
George H. Hines
James G. Hulford
One of these, G.Moore (1924 to 1932), writes of the benefit of spending the whole of his school years (until 1932) in the company of the same Vanbrugh/Roan boys. There was no ‘scattering’ of boys to other day schools ‘at age 11’, as was to happen later, when the 11+ was introduced after 1945. If he entered Vanbrugh at, say, age (7), Moore will have been taught at Royal Hill until he was 11, by which time the new Roan School had been built, and he will not have had to make the journey to Eastney Street.
After breakfast during which the boys had to leave their beds stripped to air, they would have to make them – very neatly, and with ‘hospital corners’. Captain would inspect the beds and take to task any boy who failed in this. Before leaving the castle for the Roan School, the boys lined up to be inspected by Captain, who paid especial attention to their ‘boots’. Moore does not expatiate on what Vanbrugh food was like, but he does say that he ‘hated the Tuesdays dinners’. That seems to show a fixed sequence of meals during the week, and may presage the poor food experienced by later generations of boys.
Moore gives some details of the educational timetable of those early boys. Their days were filled by being educated (“excellently”) at the Roan from 9am to 3.35 pm when they would return to ‘Vanbrugh’. Then, perhaps at 5pm (quite a long time after a Roan School dinner) they would have a Vanbrugh supper. Following that, at 6pm, homework was done in supervised silence until 8pm, or later by boys taking ‘metric’. Then, after a beverage which might have been cocoa, it was time for a tepid bath, sodden linen roller-towels and bed.
If he was true to his later form, “Captain” would silently move through the corridors (hoping?) to catch any boy who spoke after lights out, so that he might beat him. Talking after lights-out will have been one of the ‘misdemeanours’ which, being discovered, “invariably”, according to Moore, were “rewarded” with the cane, so that “few of us got through without some corporal punishment.” It is in the nature of boys, if they are awake, to talk, so Captain was guaranteed ample opportunities for beating boys. If he had not relished beating boys, he could have moved about less slinkily: then he would hear silence. Moore wrote that “caning didn’t turn us into delinquents” “in spite of modern psychological thought”, but that caning may well have been so easily resorted to because Captain Slimming’s previous posts, after qualifying post-war as a teacher at Goldsmiths’ College, were in Reform Schools, where, of course, the pupils were seen as the enemy, to be outwitted. Not a good start, for “a home for the children of airmen”.
Nine years after Vanbrugh’s opening, many new vacancies were made by boys’ leaving. Those moving in to fill these vacancies were :
Stan Willis, who was at Vanbrugh from 1930 to 1939, corroborates the general picture above when he writes, “In my days at Greenwich, Vanbrugh Castle held terrors reminiscent of those in the French Bastille which the place is said to resemble. We knew not what ghosts were hiding behind every corner, and nightmares were common In the dorms.” He goes on, “Life itself was spartan and a 3/4 inch, 3 foot cane added to our misery. To see the sinister looking place looming over Greenwich Park and to know the “terrors” that awaited you within, was enough to make you feel like retracing your steps and fleeing when returning after the holidays”. Then, most curiously, just as Moore had done, he says, “...however, I feel that an education less strict than that under the late headmaster Capt. Slimming would have left me floating aimlessly in the sea of this harsh world.” That education, though, was actually at the Roan School, where corporal punishment was a very rare occurrence, requiring the Headmaster’s sanction. Any success that those Vanbrugh boys had in later life was due to the Roan School, not to Slimming’s cane.
An old boy, whose father, serving in “India”, had died in the Quetta earthquake, and who was at Vanbrugh from 1935 to 1938, wrote,”….it is interesting that Captain Slimming was still [i.e. after World War 2] in charge along with his wife as matron, and yes, he was a cruel man, sadistic I would say. We also got caned with his walking stick even if the misdemeanours were trivial”. Of the brothers John and Eric Maddocks, while the latter enjoyed his time at Vanbrugh (largely because of his romantic involvement with a female member of the domestic staff), John ran away several times, conformably with the feelings of Stan Willis expressed above.
Saturday mornings, after the enforced consumption of laxatives before breakfast, were spent weeding the drive, polishing floors and cleaning windows, and Moore actually enjoyed that, despite the fact that it was like doing fatigues. Joking and singing decreased the tedium. The Saturday weeding requirement carried on into the post war years, and it was certainly not enjoyable, for Captain allowed no tools and forbade the breaking of the stem of the weed; the whole of its root had to be carefully extracted. This seems to be adding spite to enforced labour. In Moore’s time, Saturday afternoons were take up with Scouting, a more character-building and enjoyable activity than weeding, and one overseen by someone other than Captain Slimming.
On Sundays, those boys who formed the Naval College Chapel choir (see the next paragraph but one) processed to the chapel as a group, while the remainder of the boys were marched across the Park to sit, as part of the congregation, in the front rows of pews north of the central aisle. Supervised writing of letters home occupied the afternoon. The supervision was not merely a matter of checking spelling, but, more importantly, of censorship – making sure that nothing negative was written about life at Vanbrugh. Another aspect of this was the prohibition of the possession of postage stamps, which held boys incommunicado.
There were events, in the early days, to which Vanbrugh boys were treated. The Hendon Pageant, with its displays of biplane flying was one of these, and the Royal Tournament at Olympia another. The Pageant ceased when it failed to raise enough money, but the Tournament went on serving as a treat. It still continues.
The Royal Naval College Chapel
The Queen’s House and associated buildings on the Royal Naval College site across the Park had been a school ‘for the sons of naval officers’ until the ‘30s. The school was named The Royal Hospital School, as King Charles II had initially set up the whole site as a home (‘hospital’) for retired naval personnel. The boys of the school were given a thorough naval training and were destined for the Navy. In this way, it had had a function parallel to that of Vanbrugh Castle School and, when the Royal Hospital School moved to Holbrook in 1933, it deprived the Royal Naval College of a ready supply of boys for its Chapel choir.
With the appearance of Vanbrugh Castle School, it was natural for it to ally itself with Vanbrugh Castle, which then provided press-ganged boys for that purpose. (Making this alliance more natural was the fact that Sir John Vanbrugh had completed the buildings of Wren’s ‘hospital’.) Captain Slimming, the gangmaster for this, who was quite musical, and whose son John was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, took choir practices for the psalms during the week in the school room, G1, where there was a piano. “Captain” was a smoker, and his habit of resting his still-burning cigarettes on the keys left indelible brown stains on its rightmost keys. On Friday evenings, the boys would march across Greenwich Park (daylight permitting) to the Naval College for a full rehearsal, in the Chapel, with the men, who were drawn from among the officers and lecturers of the college. The practice was conducted by the Welsh organist/choirmaster “Mr Phillips”, using a quite unpleasant-sounding harmonium, placed between the choir stalls, when necessary, to give the note or illustrate a passage (He used to illustrate rhythms with ‘ti ri-ri ri’ etc.). It was quite mind- broadening to have this inter- service (RAF/RN) cooperation, and the Sunday Mattins services, with their naval emphasis in collects (“a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign, and security unto such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions”), the recessional hymn “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave”, and the gold braid of the admirals, commanders and lieutenants, so visible at the lectern as they read the lessons. These were orderly and impressive, especially as they took place in that grand classical 1790’s chapel, where everything was well wrought, and which possessed a nationally important historic organ (by Samuel Green, 1789) on its western gallery. These services were very well attended by uniformed naval officers and ‘Wrens’, but were rendered depressing because of their use of the Cathedral Psalter (the ‘nadir of Anglican chanting’) and ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. Mr Phillips, through his long experience, when given the first line of a hymn – or, at least, of every hymn that was normally used – could give its number, and vice versa.
The RAF honoured the School by periodically sending an Air Marshall to visit it and speak with the boys. Boys such as the above remembered Sir Hugh Dowding visiting and handing out sweets! That was very kind, but he did not see Vanbrugh from the boys’ point of view. Two other concerned and important visitors were Alexander Duckham and Louis Bleriot, who came together, in 1934 with their entourage and were photographed in a group with the Vanbrugh boys outside room G2. Many of the boys in that photograph are the same as many of those in two separate photographs taken of subgroups of boys in 1929, but none of them are old enough to have been at the unveiling of the Air Forces Memorial.
The Wakefield Wing Extension 1939
As the second world war approached, the house, ‘Cedars’, next door to Vanbrugh Castle, on Westcombe Park Road, was given by Lord Wakefield as a wing to house an extra 25 boys at the school, giving a theoretical maximum attendance of 67. This necessitated the demolition of the tall garden wall that had separated the Castle’s lawn from the Cedars’s garden, with its great cedar and mulberry tree, not to mention pear trees, at the end of a spacious lawn, beyond which, to the north, was a further space with a summer house and, beyond them, a tennis court and wooded, rambling garden sloping down steeply towards Maze Hill station (later called ‘The Dell’). The two gardens were at slightly different levels, and so, instead of the wall, a cement-capped step, about a foot high, stood between the two formerly separate gardens. Between the two buildings stood a coach house and a lodge on either side of a courtyard.
At the opening ceremony of the Wakefield Wing, in May 1939, Lady Newall revealed a sub-plot of the Vanbrugh Castle School story by announcing that, of the boys who had passed through since 1921, 25 had entered the RAF through the apprentices’ training establishments, set up by Air Marshall Trenchard, at Halton and Cranwell, while the rest had found careers in civil life. These apprentice courses took three years, and, though the resulting men were non-commissioned, they (‘Trenchard’s brats’) were the technical spine of the RAF. Trenchard was proud of them. The sub-plot is that the RAFBF hoped that the school would be a source of recruitment to the RAF. That is a curious thought, given that the boys’ fathers had perished in the RAF, but perhaps understandable if, in the words of one boy, they wanted to ‘continue their fathers’ work’. (After the ‘39-’45 war, a Link Army Training pamphlet carried an article about how the war had affected Vanbrugh boys. It said that, of the more than 100 boys who had attended Vanbrugh before the war, 60 or so had joined the RAF and taken part in it. Of these, a good number had received commissions up to the rank of Squadron Leader. This seems to show both a loyalty to their fathers’ service, the RAF, and an ability and determination to make something of it. The hope that Vanbrugh would be a recruiting ground for the RAF had obviously paid off.)
At this ceremony, Lord Wakefield said, “It is a small school but we are sure that it is run with wisdom and understanding”. He was just saying that, for at the same time Stan Willis, and others reported here, were suffering their ‘terrors and forebodings’ engendered by Captain Slimming’s cruel, obsessional and violent behaviour.
The 1939-45 evacuation and the wartime closure of Vanbrugh Castle School
Vanbrugh Castle closed for the duration of WWII, the boys being evacuated with their outside schools to the country in Sussex. Captain Slimming found some employ elsewhere, and perhaps it was James Hanna who acted as caretaker of the Castle for the period. (Whoever it was had disposed of his used razorblades in the space beneath the top drawer of a dressing table that later would be in Tedder dormitory. My discovery of these led, after the war, in 1948, to a deep finger wound in my left hand, as, shielding this precious, but forbidden sharp object in my hand, I bumped into a desk. I couldn’t stop the bleeding until we had crossed the Park to Royal Hill.)
‘Dynastic’ Vanbrugh Boys
The human recycling of boys into the RAF, referred to by Lady Newall, mirrors the economic recycling of the oil magnates, Duckham and Wakefield, generous benefactors of the RAF, which, in turn, was a major source of their wealth. This is poignantly illustrated by the cases of Vanbrugh boys who were the sons of Vanbrugh boys. These from the ‘30s on were, in the words of the Link army recuitment magazine, ‘making history’. If one sifts through the names of boys put in the order in which they entered the school, one comes across repeated surnames. Sons of Vanbrugh boys would, of course, have the same surname as their fathers, but any repeat might be a chance occurrence. However, it takes 20 or so years to have a son, and this places limits on the closeness of the two names in the ordered list if they are to be father and son – they must not be too close together. When the entrance number of the second name of each pair is plotted against that of the first name, a very orderly graph appears, rising steeply at first and levelling off gradually. This lawful, regular shape shows that these pairs of boys were very probably father-son pairs. The shape is describable by a logarithmic function:
second number = 117.7 + 51.4 x log first number
The levelling off of this function is due to the successive, but diminishing, increases in the number of bed spaces, until no further room could be found or made. This causes the second number of the later pairs to rise more slowly as time proceeds. The fit of the above equation to the plotted points is very close, the correlation (r) being r = .976, where a perfect fit would give r = 1.The figure of 117 is about the minimum possible difference between a father’s and his son’s entry numbers.
Extracting the names of these pairs of boys, we may give a list of the names of families that may have made this double sacrifice. Coincidence is always possible, here, as illustrated by the pair Geoffrey Williams who left in 1942, and David Williams who entered in 1955. David cannot have been Geoffrey’s son, as Geoffrey paid a return visit to Vanbrugh in 1955. The list, nevertheless, is:
(There are other possible pairs, Clark/Clarke, Davies/Davis, but with differently spelled names, and Willis, but we know that Stan Willis was still alive in the 1960’s, so the second Willis must be unrelated. Yet other pairs, Campbell, Day, Elliot and Baker are too close and may be either brothers or unrelated.) It seems probable that these second within-family deaths were not (except, perhaps, occasionally) of the 25 pre-war boys spoken of by Lady Newall who had entered the RAF by Trenchard’s apprentice training establishments, for these would be fitters, mechanics etc., on the ground, seeing to the maintenance of aircraft.
These ‘second generation’ Vanbrugh boys form a genetic, unifying bridge over the gulf that was caused by World War II, during which, because of the evacuation, boys, even though adopted by the RAFBF, could not be called Vanbrugh boys, on account of their being in widely scattered schools in the country, and so supported by the State elsewhere. The structure of this bridge may be illustrated by a hypothetical example:
Father 1 is killed, over the Western Front in 1917, Son 1 enters Vanbrugh in 1922, aged 7. He stays through 3 years of Royal Hill teaching and 7 years of Roan, leaving at age 17, in 1932. When he reaches 21, in 1936, the Third Reich is flexing its muscles and Son 1 joins the RAF in an attempt to imitate what his father had done vis-a-vis the Kaiser.Son 1, perhaps a rear gunner, perishes in action in 1942. His son, Son 2, enters Vanbrugh Castle School in 1950, aged 8, and will appear in documents there until 1960.
The effect of this is that several of the contemporaries of boys who entered, as I did, after the war (in 1947) will have been sons of Vanbrugh boys, but this was never spoken about, and remained unknown to us.
For some reason unfathomed, Vanbrugh reopened in April 1947. For the sake of introducing this next section, I will give a personal account of those first hours, as I was one of the entrants.
Our supplicant parents had had to comply with RAFBF requirements to equip us with a regulation set of clothes, so as to lead to a uniform start there. This meant having Sunday suits tailored, for us, in Diss (by Frank Gough), and the purchase (for us, in Botesdale) of underpants with loops for braces, among other items. We had to have a sponge-bag, toothpaste, toothbrush and flannel and comb as well. Our mother took my two brothers and me, thus equipped, via Diss, Liverpool Street, and Charing Cross, to Maze Hill, up which we walked to Vanbrugh Castle at the top.
There was some difficulty knowing where the entrance was – it wasn’t the gate that looked like the entrance, at the main drive. But an older boy let us in and let it be known that we were there. This was Vanbrugh Castle, and we were met in the lobby by Captain Slimming, who showed my mother and us around the dormitories (in their ceremonial attire) before letting my mother go, leaving her to say to us, “Say your prayers.” We were then led into the room named Gibson, all alone. But, during the day, boys began to arrive and fill that room, talking away. That was all very interesting, but, as evening approached, we realised that this wasn’t the normal state of affairs. What would happen next? We couldn’t go home. A devastating wave of homesickness swept over me and I went out to shed my private tears and kick the wall. In his conversation with my mother, Captain Slimming had said, “They’ll probably have a little homesickness, but that’ll go.” When I heard that, I didn’t know what it meant, but now, a few hours later, I knew fully.
Some staff-members, unremembered now, must have shown us to the dining room, in the Wing, where we will have eaten, and then perhaps others took us to our dormitories, saw us through the crowded baths and to our beds. My bed was in Trenchard dormitory. I don’t remember any noisiness. Everyone was stunned, I think. (My elder brother wrote of hearing boys crying themselves to sleep).
The boys who experienced this were :
James De Voile
*These boys came somewhat later
It was some time before two uniformed assistant matrons were appointed, and, during the earliest days, I remember being supervised when washing or bathing before bed by the Irishman “Pat” (James Hanna) and his wife Bridget (“Bridie”); and having a Swiss au pair, Miss Schneider, looking after us downstairs and giving us colourful “Helvetia” stamps from her letters. She also visited me in St Alfege’s Hospital when I was having my tonsils out. That was a great comfort.
The school had now been expanded by the addition of the Wakefield Wing, which lay 50 yards to the east of the Castle, across the now-conjoined gardens, and the plan of which was as follows
The boys' dining room, was a single storey structure at ground level connected by stairs with the kitchen below in the basement and with the staff dining room above, on the raised ground floor of the Wing.
The Captain & Matron’s living quarters and a 10 bed dormitory were on the first floor.
On the third floor were rooms which variously served as rooms for staff (including Dr.Rivaz) and as a Sick Bay for the boys.
Toggle the links to see the floor plans.
Basement. Ground/Raised Ground floor.
First floor. Second floor.
On weekdays in the Castle itself, the electric bell on the stairs would sound at 6.30 am., and the duty assistant matron would pass through the dormitories. If that person were Miss McComiskey, she would strip each bed suddenly. (Judging from a later occurrence, she hoped by that to reveal any autoerotic activity.) Boys would take their sponge bag to the nearest bathroom, wash, clean their teeth, comb their hair and put on clothes (‘second best’) conformable with the local schools they would disperse to later in the day. On Saturdays, ‘play clothes’ would be put on, and, on Sundays, ‘best clothes'.
They would then descend to a room on the ground floor for an assembly and inspection by Captain before marching in a crocodile across the grounds to the dining room in the Wing, where they would be seated on forms at tables arranged lengthwise along the room. A senior boy would sit at each end of these rows of tables. Near the stairs to the kitchen stood a table with the food and a tea urn on it, and with an assistant matron standing behind it to serve the food to the boys who filed past the table to receive it. There would usually be two such queuings, one for porridge and the other for a more proteinous course, perhaps of boiled eggs, sausages, or kippers. When everyone was at their place, the matron would say grace, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.’ The utterance would be scarcely finished before a chorus of, “Pass the bread, please!” burst out. In the early days, bread would be a palatable item, contrasting with the proteinous course which often was of Polish boiled eggs that were actually bad.The assistant matron had by her side a brass bell, which she would ring if the noise level rose too far.
On Saturday mornings the boys had to consume a medicine glass of Epsom salts on entering the dining room, but Captain insisted on a post-breakfast visit to the lavatory every day. After breakfast, the boys had to make their, now aired, beds neatly, with ‘hospital corners’. Captain would inspect them. That done, they descended to form up in lines to be personally inspected by Captain, on the path between the Castle and the Wing. He would move through, examining their boots, particularly. At the beginning of one term, he said to a boy, “Your shoes are very shiny!” “They were done by my grandmother”, came the reply. Moving on to the next boy, Captain said, “You’d need a great grandmother to clean your boots!” Royal Hill School, the central part of a Vanbrugh day.
In the earliest days, we, the Royal Hill boys, were led across the Park by ‘Pat and Bridie’ ( i.e. James and Bridget Hanna; James had been on the staff in 1937) to Duke Street and Royal Hill school, which, though Victorian and forbidding, had very competent staff, particularly Miss Broad, Headmistress, Mr Yates, Mr Ford and Mrs Waite, who, apart from teaching, played the piano for assembly and singing lessons. Other boys walked off from Vanbrugh to secondary schools, notably Charlton Secondary Central. While these latter were left to their own devices, we (the majority) were spied upon by Captain after he had instituted a “crocodile” system which required us to march in lines across the park by ourselves. Later still, he introduced a ‘groups’ system in which groups of five or six boys would walk in formation across the park. There was to be no competition between groups, and no overtaking. In order personally to police this, Captain had to dart from bush to bush spying on us. My brother tells me that the staff at Royal Hill saw him doing that and supposed that he was a ‘dirty old man’, or something of that sort. Every now and then, we would get relief from Captain’s spying, when one of those famous ‘pea-souper’ fogs occurred. Then we could break ranks and career about anywhere, invisibly.
That route to school took in some interesting things – the ancient park wall and gate, the exceedingly ancient chestnut trees 600 years old, a strange grotto-like water fountain, Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, still standing fenced off though dead, Greenwich Observatory with its ball and Montcalm’s statue of Wolfe looking down to the magnificent spread of the Queen’s House and Royal Naval College, various ancient brick structures covering springs in the park and, just outside the far gate, a 17th century gazebo on Croom’s Hill near Duke Street. In those days, the area between the Observatory and Queen’s House was covered with allotments put there during the ‘dig for victory’ campaign in the war.
Mr Ford would take us to the Greenwich Baths (where I learned to swim by being pushed in) and to sports, notably rounders, in the Park.
The post-war dinners were terrible and one’s throat pushed against the meat streaked with fat and the disgusting Pom potatoes. Owing to shortages, not all the tables could have these ‘cooked’ dinners; at a couple of them only sandwiches were available. We clamoured to get onto the sandwich tables. If we could not escape the cooked-meal tables, we had a very good remedy: Mrs Waite, patrolling the tables, would collect our streaky meat in an Oxo tin, to take it home for her dog.
Notable among our fellow pupils at that school were the three sons of the director of the Greenwich Observatory, the eldest of whom, Stephen Hunter, shared a desk with me, and taught me how to draw steam locomotives and galleons, with all their named sails, masts and decks. These three boys had closely cropped hair, and I wonder whether their father was afraid that they might get lice.
The dinner hours were a separate education. Boys would go out to King Street and buy all sorts of exotic things, like peanuts, carob beans and liquorice wood for us to consume in the playground. A boy took me across the park to the Greenwich foot tunnel and I had the surreal experience of walking underneath the Thames to the other side. Occasionally, too, we would go to the Maritime Museum. It was always practically deserted, and we could stand wondering at Harrison’s clocks all working away there, or looking, appalled, at the painting of the execution of Admiral Byng, which shows him, blindfold, and just, at a signal from a man holding a Harrison IV watch, having let go of a handkerchief to tell the firing squad to fire. Smoke came from their barrels, as the handkerchief had fallen only 3 or 4 inches.
There was a ‘down side’ to those excursions, however, for, on the Deptford side of the park stood Creek Road School, whose pupils used to come to Greenwich Park to terrorise people like us, chasing us and threatening to beat us up, even in the colonnades of the museum.
The Evenings at Vanbrugh
At the end of the day, we would come back to Vanbrugh and change into play clothes and plimsolls in which to play outside or in the locker room until supper time, when we would eat strange meals. On certain days, Captain assembled the boys whom he had selected to form the choir for the Royal Naval College Chapel, in the room named Cheshire for choir practice. To start with, this was deeply mysterious to me, because we did not realise that we were being prepared for choir service. After that, in the room named Gibson, further games might be played, often directed by the older boys, like John Ayers, or Harvey Hitchcock. There were fearful battles with paper pellets fired with elastic bands and the game ‘high Jimmy Knacker’, which involved one team making a ‘horse’ against the wall, and the other sending boys to leap on to this horse and try to collapse it. Then we were gradually called to bath and bed by the matrons.
In spite of the danger of getting caught by Captain, the older boys in Salmond dormitory, where I was moved on to, played all sorts of games, the most mysterious one to me being “Truth, Dare, or Command?”, in which the victim is asked which of these he will select. If he selects ‘Truth’, the interrogator asks if it is true that the victim has ever done some really bad, or embarrassing thing. He is obliged to tell the truth. Similarly with ‘Dare’ in which the victim must do the thing he is dared to do. This might tax the victim’s courage. ‘Command’, likewise. The result was sometimes a knot of naked bodies.
On Saturdays, boys would dress in their play clothes, and, after breakfast, have to go out, as did their pre-war predecessors, to the circular main drive and weed it. This was perhaps the price to pay for the opportunity to play later on in the day.
On Sundays, best clothes would be donned. Then after breakfast the choir would go off in a crocodile to the Naval College , there to robe and prepare for the service. The rest of the boys would be brought down later in a large crocodile. As always, there was a large and impressive naval congregation. At that time, the choir robed in, and filed out from, the vestry, which was behind Benjamin West’s great east wall painting of St Paul and the viper, and straight into the choir stalls. The service over, the boys filed back to the Castle for dinner. That meal was marginally more appetising than the weekday ones – there was butter in the mashed potatoes, and piccallilly to mask the taste of less palatable items.
In the afternoon, boys would be assembled in Gibson to be supervised as they wrote letters home These were scrutinised, as always, by Captain. That done, the boys, changed into their play clothes, could go out and play. With just one member of staff, there were no organized games at that time. And so to bed.
Visiting days came every four weeks, but our own mother only came a few times – she lived in Norfolk – and usually entrusted us to her sister, our aunt, who lived in Eltham. Aunts, especially unfamiliar ones, are not a substitute for mothers.
When we returned in the summer term of 1948, Captain told my mother that we would have a visit to the countryside. In the event, we were taken by train to Chislehurst, where we rampaged around among the trees, coming across the monument to William Willets, the inventor of Summer Time (daylight saving). It was a hot day, and we returned to Vanbrugh very thirsty. There was one external tap there, and the wait in the queue for the boys in front to finish their drinking was agonizing.
Very early on, perhaps in 1947, the RAFA at Lee Green gave a party for us Vanbrugh boys. It was a generous affair, in a quite large hall, and a conjurer performed for us.
An American charitable group called Foster Parents adopted us and sent us bundles of presents, story books etc. But we had to write thank you letters on paper headed Foster Parents Plan, and Captain’s stickling for neatness and correctness meant that, before we committed anything to that official paper, we had to write our letter on a separate piece of paper first, for Captain to inspect and to make changes and corrections. Then, to transfer the draft letter to the official paper, we had to adopt something like Captain’s copperplate writing. We had to assemble in the play room for this ceremony. Those gifts were very kind, but this rather punishing ritual made the whole thing a real chore for us.
Each year, Vanbrugh had a place at the Royal Tournament, usually at Earls Court, but once at Olympia. We would be taken there by coaches run by Lewis’s of Greenwich.
Holidays occasioned great excitement, and when the day came, Captain posted a notice in the dining room giving the times of the train that each boy was to catch and a sign, a dotted cross, against their name if the length of their journey required sandwiches. That was the case for a good number of boys, who came from places like Kirkaldy, Carlisle, Sunderland, Exeter, and Diss. My elder brother was able from the beginning to guide us from Maze Hill to London Bridge and to Liverpool Street station. The day before departure, we would pack our cases and a clothes list would be put into them to ensure that each item that went home came back next term. An advanced feature was PLA – Passenger Luggage in Advance – so that we didn’t have to carry our cases.
The holidays went in a flash, and soon our return was anticipated with fear and foreboding (remember Stan Willis). For the first few returns, we were accompanied by our mother, but later she enrolled the services of the Travellers’ Aid Society to steer us across London.
When we got back to Vanbrugh, we would be assigned either to a different bed in the same dormitory as the term before, or to a fresh dormitory. The bigger dormitories were assigned to younger boys.
In the summer of 1948, Captain announced the Belgian Air Force was offering holidays for RAF children in Belgian houses. My brother put in for that, and had an exciting holiday with paddle- boating and so on. The same offer came in 1949, and I put in for that, flying from Hendon to Brussels in a Dakota, and staying in a rurally active household in Liedekerke, situated in a street which had been named after a son of the family, Gaston Mertens, a hero who had escaped from German-occupied Liedekerke, made his way to London, become a flying officer in the RAF, and was killed while flying over the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. My Vanbrugh peers seemed to have had a more entertaining time than me, when we compared notes on our return, but my experiences were of much more worth, with beekeeping, fruit picking, wine making, field and river walking, and farm visiting, as well as learning about the German occupation, and having the company of the grandfather of the house. Gaston’s brother Clement was an athlete who competed at Belgrade. He demonstrated shot, javelin and discus to me on the marsh next the river Dender.
One day, Captain told us that a new member of staff was coming next term, that he was a strong young man and would be able to beat us better than he could. What a sadistic thing to say! What this was in preparation for was the setting up of Vanbrugh as an attested junior school, so that the daily trek across the park could be eliminated.
The new member of staff was David Jones, and his effect was momentous. He oversaw the physical refurnishing of the school room and established an art-room on the first floor of the coach- house building; he taught an up-to-date syllabus to the juniors (with HCFs and LCMs in arithmetic, for example) including art; he supervised physical exercise, games in the grounds and swimming in Greenwich Baths; he, at one point, laid out a plot next to the Castle to introduce boys to gardening; and he generally shepherded the boys at assemblies, meals and going to bed, washing and getting up, and he patrolled the dormitories. These activities of his caused a great and welcome reduction in the involvement of Captain in the running of things – and, it is to be supposed, in the number of beatings. I don’t think Mr Jones ever beat any boy.
When my brother Frank moved from Royal Hill to this brand new government-recognized school, with its new desks and blackboards, the association of Vanbrugh Castle and Royal Hill School came to an end.
After the introduction of assistant matrons, this was the next big step in the evolution of Vanbrugh Castle School. (Was it, we wonder, part of an existing long term plan that had still further to go?)
In December 1950, we suddenly became aware that Captain was about to retire. A great gathering was assembled in the dining room, with Captain in the middle of the top table and assorted press people standing in the aisles. He said that it was time for him to give way to a younger man. The person selected to succeed him was called Webb Jones, and Captain surmised that the boys might nickname him “Spider” or something like that. By speaking in that avuncular way, Captain was presenting himself to the public as a humane controller. That he was not, and we were greatly excited that he was going. Further adding to the apparent goodwill on that occasion, John Ayers presented Captain with a briefcase bearing the initials G.A.S.. I wonder who chose, and paid for, that.
At the beginning of spring term inJanuary 1951, Mr Webb Jones made his presence known to us, initially in the dining room, where he spoke to us about his policies. “I am not a person who springs to the cane immediately,” he said, to begin. What a mighty relief that was! He went on to explain his system of ‘stars and stripes’. In that scheme, bad deeds were recorded by issuing the culprit with a little form printed in black and detailing the offence, while good deeds were recorded on red-coloured forms The black forms were called ‘stripes’, and the red, ‘stars’. These would be accumulated, and physical punishment would only follow if there was an excess of ‘stripes’ to a boy’s name. What a good, and humane, scheme! We had emerged from hell.James Webb Jones had been headmaster at St Georges School Windsor, and so tried to give a public-school-type ethic to Vanbrugh. The first thing was to establish “houses”, so that competition and team spirit might be developed. So we were divided into two teams, Harries and Cordingley, after Air Marshalls, and the first fruit of this policy was the putting up on the dining room wall of a board on which were displayed the cumulative numbers of stars and stripes awarded to these two teams. That was quite a cunning scheme, getting boys to compete in good behaviour.
Webb Jones did not approve of inactivity (‘moping’, he would call it), and, unless a boy had some useful hobby to exercise himself on Saturday morning, he would have to go across into the park and play football under the tutelage of Mr Jones. On other occasions, football matches would be arranged between the Houses, and Webb Jones, inculcating ‘esprit de corps’, instructed boys in the audience not to shout, “Come on Smith!” to individuals on the pitch, but “Come on, Harries!”, or “Come on, Cordingley!” Sports days, held on the playing fields of the Royal Naval College on Shooters Hill afforded another opportunity for interteam rivalry, as did swimming galas held in the Greenwich Baths. The all-rounder Mr Jones made artistic certificates for the winners of events at these competitions.
Mr Webb Jones sometimes used picturesque expressions. The dog’s leg corridor in the Castle had a polished lino floor, and this invited boys to run and slide on it. High up on the wall were the remains of gas fittings which the boys would jump up to try to reach as they ran along. In expressing his disapproval of this, he said, “I will not have you boys running and jumping and biting the ceiling.”
It was during this time that the election that ousted Winston Churchill took place. It is a sign of Mr David Jones’s conscientiousness and competence that he had some of us in his flat following the results as they came in. He probably knew that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime, historic, event and wanted us to be exposed to it. I remember being amazed that the citizens of Britain had voted out their national saviour.
Boys entering during this epoch were :
Robert (Ricky) Edwards
During this time, the School was visited by Princess Marina of Greece, Duchess of Kent, and so widow of the RAF war hero the Duke of Kent (whose crashed aircraft was only unearthed in the 80’s, somewhere in Kent, with his remains in it). There was much pomp, and David Jones got us to do gymnastics on the tennis court to give a false impression of the place. In announcing to us, in the dining room, that the Duchess was coming, Webb Jones called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Her Rolls Royce outside the Wing had allusive letters, like DOK, on the number plate.
In 1952, probably at Webb Jones’s instigation, a further master was appointed. Peter Lyons was just the man for the job. He was Cambridge-educated in modern languages and had been a choral scholar there, which made him a natural successor to Mr Phillips as choirmaster, and an in situ one at that. He became straightaway the choirmaster of the Naval College Chapel and took over Mr Phillips’s duties in rehearsing both the boys, in the Castle and Chapel, and the men in the Chapel, on Friday evenings. He was ‘a new broom’, and gave very short shrift to the Cathedral Psalter, with its terrible pointing, replacing it with the Oxford Psalter with its sophisticated (and a little difficult) pointing, and the awful Hymns Ancient and Modern with the English Hymnal. This was a musical revolution, and standards shot up. We even became a little proud to belong to the choir. It may have been Peter Lyons’s idea to add drama to the Morning Service by having the choir, after singing an antiphon in the anti-chapel, processing from the west door of the Chapel to the choir stalls. For that to happen, the choir had to file across a quadrangle south of the chapel, and enter the antichapel from the western colonnade. A choir boy (often me) would be detailed to chime the bell, from a little cupboard in the colonnade. It is surprisingly hard to keep strict time in that.
Mr Phillips continued as organist of the Chapel for a few months, after which Peter le Huray, organ scholar at Cambridge, came down to play at Sunday mattins. He was a university friend of Peter Lyons, and was attracted by the chapel’s historic organ. As time wore on, and the quality of the services became known, boatloads of people from Westminster would join the service (the boat service did not coincide exactly with the Chapel service).
Peter Lyons’s coming enabled Mr Webb Jones to proceed with his reshaping of the school, for now there could be two house masters to go with the two houses – Mr Jones for Cordingley and Mr Lyons for Harries. Lyons was keen on sport, notably football, and so all was ready for a healthy ongoing rivalry between houses and ever growing esprit de corps within houses. Now, as the seniors set off each day for their outside schools, the real Vanbrugh School boys would get an expanded education, adding Peter Lyons’s languages to David Jones’s maths, art and gym. An evolution was taking place in Vanbrugh as a school.
Mrs Barbara Webb Jones, though not on the staff, was a most important influence. She must have met James Webb Jones at St George’s School Windsor, where he was teaching when she visited her distinguished father Col. Moody C.B., who then lived in the ‘military knights’ quarters in Windsor Castle. Her father had fought on the North West Frontier under General Sir Bindon Blood. In honour of his commander, Col Moody had caused his daughter to have the cognomen ‘Bindon’, when she was born in what was then “India”. James Webb Jones was keen on literature, introducing us to Henry Williamson and Willie Maddison; she was keen on drama, and began getting us to perform in, to start off with, short plays. This continued with growing ambition during the Webb Joneses’ stay. We acted, in successive years, ‘The Rest Cure’, ‘The Crimson Cocoanut’, ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, and, in 1954, a grand finale, “Pirates of Penzance” in which Peter Lyons’s musical flair was invaluable. Practically the whole school was involved in presenting that operetta, to a large invited audience which, apart from our parents and aunts, included Caryl Brahms, who showed a great interest in Vanbrugh Castle. She was with her fellow playwright Ned Sherrin. It was, I think, as a result of this that Caryl Brahms wrote an article about Vanbrugh Castle School, extolling it, in the Daily Telegraph. (Peter Lyons made me write a letter thanking her for that, and she was, amazingly to me, impressed by it!).
During this period, Vanbrugh Castle School was visited by RAF war hero Douglas Bader (who came, stickless, down the steep Wing steps on his artificial legs, to chat with the boys, and to see their carefully staged hobbies (ours was the chicken club) and, later, Lord de Lisle and Dudley, Air Minister. The top brass had not forgotten the school.
With Mr Lyons, football was played on a more industrial scale, and, on a Saturday, we would clatter in our football boots at the Blackheath sports yard and play on one of the pukka football pitches there. The victors in these matches were recorded, along with ‘stars’ and ‘stripes’, on the board in the Vanbrugh dining room. Occasionally, there were cross-country matches run in the meaningfully hilly Greenwich Park.
The growing prestige of the choir led the officers of the Naval College to invite Vanbrugh boys to a great Pirate jamboree, organized for their children, in the crypt of the Painted Hall. The officers were dressed as pirates, and there were all sorts of piratical things, including a bran tub with ‘pieces of eight’.
The Naval College rewarded the choir boys with an annual outing, usually to a port on the south coast. We visited the Fleet Air Arm at Gosport (‘How simple it looks!’ said Webb Jones, looking at a jet engine. That’s not what I thought.). Another outing was to the submarines at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth, where comment was made about certain inaccuracies there had been in the recent film, “Morning Departure” (when they had made a test of whether water was in the airlock, there would have been a mighty jet of water, not a trickle). A final outing was a voyage from Portsmouth to Harwich aboard the destroyer HMS Obdurate on her last journey – to the scrapyard. I couldn’t control the boys, who scrambled over everything in the ship. I found that embarrassing – I had no prefectal efficacy – but the crew seemed unconcerned. I was surprised at how tasty the lunch stew was, and at the nonchalant way sailors using the ‘heads’ sat reading their magazines with their heads sticking out, all in a row. With the bus ride back to Vanbrugh from Harwich, that outing ended very late.
[The following section of this history has been bowdlerised to protect the innocent - editor]
In an endeavour to broaden the boys’ musical horizons, Peter Lyons began taking boys to operas. In preparation for each visit, we would assemble in his room and go laboriously through the plot in English – what a chore! As time wore on, boys dropped out, the required labour being too great. By the time we got to The Barber of Seville, I was the only taker left. So that project came to an end. That was not a matter of regret for me, because the polyphonic purity of church music was vastly to be preferred to the secular, half-drama half-music, and unnatural hybrid of opera.
There was plenty of sporting activity, since both Vanbrugh and the Roan had sports days, Vanbrugh at the RNC Sports ground on Shooters Hill and the Roan on the Roan playing fields at Kidbrooke, and both schools had cross country matches in Greenwich Park (for Vanbrugh, between Harries and Cordingley, for the Roan, between Drake, Rodney, Nelson and Wolffe houses). Both schools also had swimming galas at the Greenwich Baths. I was never keen at the ‘land’ sports, but had been keen on swimming ever since, from Royal Hill, I was pushed in and learned to swim. I gained there LCC certificates for swimming One Width, 33 Yards and 100 yards. I was very proud of those first achievements. (The certificates don’t survive, though.) At the Roan, I earned my swimming colours, and, at a late Vanbrugh swimming gala, I did well in winning most of the events I entered. Peter Lyons wrote in his report that that evening had been a ‘personal triumph’ for me. This happened to be the year in which we acted Toad of Toad Hall, and when I met Mrs Webb Jones in Vanbrugh grounds the next day, she said, very kindly referring to my performance at the Gala, “The Poetry of Motion!” (Toad’s description of motoring).
When reports from the Roan made it clear that I was doing poorly at history and English Lit., Peter Lyons undertook to coach me in those subjects alone in his room. I remember going over “Modern Britain” with him, and his being greatly amused at the debate about alcohol licensing in the House of Lords, during which one Peer declared, “England free rather than England sober!”
Then came the sudden announcement that Peter Lyons was to leave to go to Wells Cathedral Choir School as a master. Webb Jones, making that announcement said he was sure that we would all be sorry to hear that, but to me it was a very good thing, for I was taking up embarrassingly much of his attention.
In the term after he left, Peter Lyons returned to Vanbrugh to visit. Strangely, we were looking at images on television of the wonderful crossing arches at Wells Cathedral, when he came. Afterwards, we walked through the yard and he asked me how I had done at Eng, Lit. and History. I said that I’d failed them. I don’t know what his feelings were about that. I told him that I could retake in November. (I did, and doubled my marks in each subject!)
Year by year, the American Christmas parties continued to take place, very generously (but why?). At one of these, we were told that the great brick Drill Hall, with its INVICTA inscription, by the ‘dips’ at Blackheath was on fire, so we absented ourselves and walked up in the dark, past the Roan towards the drill hall. Flames leapt into the air, lighting the sky. This was a total fire, such as I had never seen.
When the Chapel had been thoroughly restored and become resplendent, it was rededicated on June 21 1955, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of the Queen Mother, at a special service. Lurgi Lawford had written an alternative harmonization of the National Anthem for the occasion. The unfamiliar words of the later verses were written on a blackboard to the east of the choir stalls. (The Chaplain, Basil Watson, in a less than saintly way, wangled his son into the choir just for that occasion.)
After Peter Lyons’s leaving, his place was taken, on a temporary basis, by a very pleasant young man who had just finished his National Service as a pilot in the RAF (which requires 3 years of service) and was on his way to Cambridge to do modern languages there. On his door (Peter Lyons’s old door) he posted a notice saying, “Cave el tigre”. But he wasn’t a tiger. Although he was not with us long enough for me now to remember his name, he stayed long enough to be at our annual Sports Day at the Shooters Hill ground. There, he was supervising the long jump when a boy competitor, with the effort of jumping, farted. This pleasant master immediately relieved the embarrassment by announcing, “Unfair! Jet-propelled.”
The would-be permanent successor to Peter Lyons was a man called Gregory, lanky and like Cardew the Cad in the comics. He had keyboard skills and claimed organ qualifications such as LRCO and LRCM. He said that, although these looked like separate qualifications, they were based on very similar materials. On the face of it, then, he looked like a suitable successor to Peter Lyons. But it soon became clear that not all was well. He became Housemaster of Harries and so had to write reports on us Harries people. I still have his report for me. On the form where it says “Signed ……, Housemaster”, he crossed out “House” and wrote “Head” in its place. Mr Webb Jones had overseen this and, crossing out “Head”, rewrote, “House”. Gregory was trying to take over the school. He was a paederast, and I have an example of his mode of approach to boys. He would go into a dormitory and fiddle with a boy’s penis and ask “Does that tickle?” When that was done to my informant, he rushed off immediately and made himself scarce until Gregory had quite gone from the scene. I think Gregory must have made some progress with some of the boys, given the support he got from them. One day, sitting as a prefect at table in the dining room, I admonished a boy for some misbehaviour. He said, “You can’t touch me, I’m powerful now” (or words to that effect). He had Gregory behind him.
Meanwhile, David Jones, who was by then acting Headmaster, was discovering that Gregory’s qualifications were false. So things came to a head. Gregory assembled his rent-a-crowd group of boys in front of the Wakefield Wing and made to storm the place. Squadron Leader Cutting, from the RAFBF, was summoned, as were the Police. During the scuffles, my friend Peter Kennett came face to face with Gregory, who, entering the Castle, grabbed him by the throat. Somehow, order was restored. Perhaps as a result of having earlier been ‘depre-ed' [prefect status removed], I kept away from all this. A surmise; in the much later Vanbrugh Chronicle, set up by the next headmaster, John Corner, there is an investigation by one of the boys of a mysterious bullet hole in one of the Wing’s front windows. That boy had, by considering the hole in the glass and the impact of the missile on the plaster of the ceiling opposite, calculated that the weapon was fired from the steps at the front of the Wing. Mr Corner’s comment on this was that the shot was hopeless, unless his predecessor had been 8 feet tall. It seems to me that that shot could have been fired on the occasion of this insurrection.
For a year or two Miss (Christine) Birch and Ruth Tillotson remained as assistant matrons, getting the boys up, supervising their washing, and their eating in the dining room, carrying out any treatments that needed doing after breakfast (such as supervising footbaths of permanganate of potash for athletes foot), and seeing the boys, in batches according to age, to bed via the bathrooms. Once a week, they dealt out clean laundry and sheets to the boys who queued up at the door of their room. With a surname beginning with V, my laundry number was 44, so I was always nearly at the back of the queue. For a similar period, the Housekeeper continued to be Miss Wentworth. (Miss Tillotson, ‘Tilly’, took issue with Miss Wentworth over the nutritional value of the food that was served to the boys. Miss Wentworth said, “What do you know about housekeeping?’ as if to say, ‘Mind your own business’. Actually, after she left, Tilly took a course in housekeeping. Eventually, she was awarded the BEM for services to animal welfare, particularly that of rescue dogs.) These two well-remembered people had got the impression that John Corner had left Kings School Canterbury somewhat ‘under a cloud’. One does wonder why he put in for the job at Vanbrugh, which would mean leaving prestigious King’s School.
When John Corner arrived from King’s School Canterbury, and replaced David Jones in the Head’s flat in the Wakefield Wing, the teaching establishment was he himself, David Jones and the aged Wg/Cdr Roberts. We, the inmates who would leave in a year or two, could not perceive what his brief from the RAFBF was, or that it was different from what had gone before, but it was; the school was to become a junior school on the prep-school model.
The biggest change that I, who left in 1956, noticed was the introduction of a teacher of brass and woodwind instruments to build up a band among the boys. That teacher was Paddy Purcell, from the London Military Band. I don’t know whether the idea for this came from John Corner, or from the RAFBF, but I suspect it came from John Corner, because a) he had been steeped in music at Kings School and b) there seemed to be a strong bond between the two men. After an early performance of the Vanbrugh band, Corner, beaming, exclaimed of Paddy, “He’s a great man!” The two may have had certain traits in common; one boy, reminiscing about his time at Vanbrugh, wrote, “Paddy Purcell, musical genius and tyrant”; another boy wrote, “John Corner, what a tyrant!”
By the time my brother left, in 1958, at least one new staff-member had been taken on in the process of increasing the subject coverage. During that same interval, Corner had managed to alienate David Jones by trying to foist his duties on him. Jones was not a weak man, and it was not to be long before he moved out of his flat to live out in the nearby suburbs, later to become an educational psychologist. (I had been a subject for some of the experiments he carried out for his Birkbeck College evening course in psychology. He took his Finals in psychology on the same day as I took mine, in 1961). Eventually, David Jones became the Chief Educational Psychologist for Shropshire.
The boys who joined during this period, are given here, but boys from the tail-end of the previous list would still be in residence.
Steven G. Clarke
Geoffrey A. Clarke
Peter B. Elliott
Nigel J. Grayston
Richard D. Haughton
John Kenneth Jones
Stephen M. Jones
John B. Lewis
Paul M. McCann
Terry R. Maynard
Kevin P. Mulligan
David P. Patten
Harry R. Richardson
Ian W. Webber
Michael Day, of this group, remembers David Jones as ‘having a good sense of humour and making maths interesting, thankfully’, as well as Laurie Crookall, who played bridge after prep. and Mr Skinner, who had a ‘great left hand with the slipper’, but ‘was good for a laugh’. We are not told what subjects these two taught, but the subject range of the school was being increased, and Crookall and Skinner were the first two new masters. They may have helped with sport as well. Michael also said, ‘ I remember Corner being a tyrant. We were all terrified of him and his temper. Who puts people like him in charge of a school of kids?’
Colin Addison reports that ‘Monty’ Skinner had a rare Swallow Doretti sports car - only 276 were ever made. Some boys remember being taken for an exhilarating ride in it with David Jones at the wheel. There was another teacher (was it Fleming?) who arrived with a son, his wife had been ejected from his Austin Healey when the door opened on a fast right hand bend and was killed. Colin Addison, whom I remember, was one of the last four or so ‘seniors’, who attended schools outside. He was one of a number of boys who earned places (one per year) at the City of London and so commuted into the City daily. Earlier such boys had been Michael Laughlin and James (Jimmy) Finch.
The band and the expanding teaching staff were the first manifestations of Corner’s plan to turn Vanbrugh into a school with prep-school teaching capacity and with a special character, music. Corner actually advertised for donors of instruments, and seems to have been remarkably successful in that. Articles in ‘Lady’ and the ‘Star’ (the latter derived from the former) extol Corner’s imagination, enthusiasm (which is said to have built up the lusty band of boy instrumentalists, without any mention of Paddy Purcell) and great fondness of children and represent the behaviour of the boys as docile and respectful. This sycophantic reporting excludes the actual experience of the boys who remember that, although Corner could be kind, he could also have unpredictable bouts of violence in which he would cane and insult the boys, saying, “RAF louts” or “kick him up the arse when he’s not looking”. One boy in his reminiscence describes Corner as “schizophrenic and alcoholic”. The boy, using a common popular meaning for ‘schizophrenic’, probably meant ‘subject to mood swings’. The reason why the boys couldn’t discover what triggered the violent phases is that they were endogenous and were not externally triggered at all. For that reason, however they behaved, they could not avoid their canings. Both in the case of Slimming and in that of Corner, it could be argued that their unacceptable behaviours were a result of their mental condition, and that they should not be blamed for them. That may be so, but it would have been a great boon if people with these conditions had been screened out and not appointed to run the school, in the first place. (But, of course, ‘health and safety’ meant nothing then.)
Structurally, as David Rodgers reports, there were substantial changes during this time. The old art room (with its electric train) became the science laboratory, new classrooms were built in the space between the Castle and the Wing, a flagpole was introduced to stand next to the oak tree- stump in Castle Yard (the drive) in 1962, and a games room was built on the “Seniors’ pitch”, where the old rustic summer house had stood. The Royal Variety Club of Great Britain funded a library which was housed in Bader.
The plan was to build up to a staff of a Headmaster, three assistant masters, a matron and two assistant matrons, a housekeeper, a caretaker, a cook and kitchen help and a caretaker/handyman. Of these, the Headmaster (John Corner) and the cook (Mrs Doyle) were already ensconced, but there was some fluidity in the other staff members for a couple of years. By 1961, the three masters were Mr Bottrill (“Binky”), Mr Morgan and Mr Payne, teaching English, Maths, Science, History and Geography. Mr Corner taught French. The housekeeper was Mrs Chalmers (‘a lovely lady’), the matron Mrs Goldie assisted by Miss Lyons and Miss Usher. The caretaker was Mr Cheesman (who ‘let the boys smoke in his room’).
Boys would enter the School at 8, be educated there for 5 years, take the Common Entrance Exam, and, at 13, move on to one of a number of associated senior schools, such as Reed’s, Kingham Hill, and Royal Wolverhampton.
The Vanbrugh Chronicle was set up by Corner to confer an identity on this new school. It was ‘edited by the boys’ and is a most valuable source of information about the evolving school, It is clearly supervised by J. Corner, despite his claim that it is all the boys’ own work. There are so many ‘puffs’ for Corner in this (as in local newspaper reports) that an important part of its intended function must have been to reflect positively on the Headmaster, namely John Corner. The deferential, and always positive, mentions of staff members by the editors show that the content was supervised. All the domestic staff are thanked by the editors, sometimes a little unbelievably, as when ‘cookie’ is thanked for giving them such delicious food – this ‘cookie’, initially, being our own Mrs Doyle, one of whose creations was macaroni peas. Captain Slimming had said of this dish, when the boys complained about it, “Mmm, nourishing, but I don’t think we’ll have it again.”. A letter praising Vanbrugh in fulsome terms appears in the 1964 Chronicle, but it is signed by ‘A Mother’. She is anonymous, and one darkly suspects that Corner himself penned this letter. Further, among the press items, there is a report of a mother turning up with her son at the beginning of term, tearfully unwilling to part from him. But Corner had the answer to that – he produced a letter, again from an anonymous mother, saying how much her son loved being at Vanbrugh and couldn’t wait for term to begin. Not only does this stretch credulity, but the writing of such a letter would suggest that the mother was keen to see the back of her son. Did Corner write it? It is said to have cheered the tearful mother up, making her less unwilling to part from her son. Here are some self-puffs by Corner.
In the Battle of Britain Souvenir of 1961, where the Vanbrugh choir boys are seen singing on the Cutty Sark, Corner reports that 60% of Vanbrugh boys passed the 11+, ‘considerably above the national average’.
At the 1961 Prize Giving by Marshall of the RAF, Sir Dermot Boyle, Corner reported that for the ‘first time’ every boy had passed the 11+ and gone on to grammar or grammar-standard schools’. The Kentish Mercury of 1966, sycophantically described Vanbrugh as a “boy’s dream”, and the boys as “grateful” and “tidy”. Corner had said to the reporters, “I’m not a substitute father for the boys. Just fatherly.” And they believed him.
When Sir Douglas Bader presented the prizes in 1972, Corner reported that all the boys leaving had been accepted at the associated boarding schools “a considerable achievement by the boys” (and, by implication, by Corner.)
All of these reports mention only Corner, and do not refer to Mr Morton, the deputy Head, or the other staff members, who were doing most of the educating.
However, not everything was negative, for Corner was a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality.
Increasingly, he involved outside people to instruct (and so broaden) the boys, in various ways not directly connected with the syllabus. These were called ‘visiting staff’. Paddy Purcell was the first and most egregious of these, but later the Chaplain of the RNC would come to do scripture lessons, and a Sergeant from the Royal Marines took PT classes. A Mr Chamberlain came on Sundays to teach art.
All the time, Vanbrugh continued to provide the choirboys for the Naval College Chapel, being rehearsed by Mr Brunker, the choirmaster, at the Castle, and trooping across the Park on Fridays for rehearsals with the men (and Wrens).
Cricket and football matches were arranged between Vanbrugh and other schools, such as Westminster Choir school, Carn Brae, Ravensbourne, and Westminster Underschool,There were two sorts of visitors, those who came to inform about wider society, policemen, firemen, RAF officers (often with films) and those who were invited to lunch. These latter were often people influential in school affairs, such as the secretary of the Roan School, Lady Cordingley, and Air Marshall Sir Hugh Saunders.
Boys were taken to visit the associated senior schools, ships, the Royal Tournament and so on. The RAF continued to express its involvement with, and interest in, the school by sending its highest representatives, such as Lord Portal, to visit and mingle with the boys. These visits, particularly this last, were clearly enjoyed by both Lord Portal and the boys.The boys who came to Vanbrugh during this period were:
These multifarious activities, intra- and extramural, recorded by the Chronicle, show a huge increase in the variety of experiences, educational, civic, gymnastic, entertainment and RAF-related which clearly made for rounded energetic individuals. It seems that this variety also led to the development of a rather refined sense of humour, which permeates the editorials and entries of the magazine, and can’t be attributed to authoritarian oversight. One Editor, on taking on the task, writes that he supposes the editor’s job is to summarise the magazine’s contents to relieve people of the need to read it. One contributor writes of how, when they made a pond, “they” told us to learn about the balance of the natural world, not using chemicals etc.. So they attempted to deal with a series of infestations in nature’s way, failing in each case, so that the pond ended up with nothing but sludge in it.
The Chronicle shows the school to have been a cohesive social unit, with boys taking an obvious interest in each others’ achievements, academic, sporting or musical. And this carried on, even after the boys moved off to excel in the various associated senior boarding schools, which were glad to have them, Corner reports, for their ability, neatness and good behaviour. There was an Old Vanbrugh Boys’ association, and old boys came to visit Vanbrugh, where they were received with enthusiasm. Occasionally, Vanbrugh boys went to visit these schools. Always, they showed great interest in the progress of their old friends there; the Vanbrugh social cohesion was certainly a lasting thing.
Perhaps the most important edition of the Chronicle was that of Christmas 1964, when Corner addressed the editor in a letter, which pointed out that this was the first term without ‘seniors’. Vanbrugh was now completely independent and could do its own thing. (He had achieved his aim, and the school was admiitted to the Association of Preparatory Schools.)
The increasing staff population after 1960 had led not only to a growth of taught subjects, but also to a more complicated, and human, community. Actual fondness arose between staff members and between boys and staff members. (Many years before, David Jones had expressed a desire to turn Vanbrugh into a more congenial place to live – a ‘home’, as it said on the plaque – and now, haltingly, this was coming about.) Not only did staff members express this by marrying one another, but also boys became fond of their female carers and staff. Miss Johnson, an assistant matron, earned devotion from the boys to whom she gave a goodnight kiss. “We lived and died for her”, “a mother substitute.” And the boys were in “love” with Miss Griffith Jones who took them to the Greenwich Baths for swimming practice.
John Corner retired in 1972, handing over to a new, even taller, Headmaster, W. P. Jones, who had RAF associations, and who made an historic change by allowing children of officers to be considered for the school, thus departing from Alexander Duckham’s intention, still stated on the brass plate in the Castle entrance hall, that the house should be “a home for the children of airmen”, that is, of non-commissioned personnel. It could be thought that that restriction was no longer necessary, because the school was imminently to change its nature and become a straightforward prep-school without the particular ties to the RAF that had existed in the early years, when it was seen as a potential source for RAF recruits, particularly technicians.Although Corner had (with all his faults) struggled mightily, and successfully, to get prep-school status for Vanbrugh, it could be thought that the more challenging task fell to W. P. Jones, who had to engineer the removal of this school, bodily, to Ewhurst and dovetail it in to the Woolpit School that was already there, with a full complement of pupils, all in one go.
As might be expected at this rather uncertain time, there were frequent changes of both teaching and domestic staff, but always there was a solid core of continuity. The teaching staff were :
Of these, Mr Morton was a long-term fixture, while David Pafford and Arthur Rodgers gave continuity by being themselves Old Vanbrugh Boys, of slightly different vintage; I myself headed a table in the dining room with the very young Christopher Pafford (David's brother) sitting next to me, in 1956, the year I left. I had occasion to say to him, “I came here before you were born!” Arthur Rodgers came four or five years later. This staff continued teaching the full curriculum, which required some versatility, the list of subjects being, English (language and literature), French, Latin, Geography, History, Biology, and Science. Mrs Smith continued faithfully as Housekeeper, attended by a changing staff of matrons.
The following boys joined Vanbrugh Castle during this time:
Carlton (Michael?) Evans
*Surname changed to Downes later.
The school activities continued vigorously along their habitual lines with the continued support and encouragement of the RAF, so that in 1972, the July Speech Day prizes were presented by Sir Douglas Bader, and in September a group of boys had a holiday staying with RAF families in Cyprus.
Even in 1974, with the press reporting “Gates to close” and Mr Jones announcing that, over the next year, the Woolpit school in Ewhurst would be expanded to accommodate 140 pupils, so that it could absorb the Vanbrugh Castle boys, and the staff which he intended to move there, a pair of RAF disc jockeys came to Vanbrugh Castle and performed a non-stop marathon 24 hour session playing records to raise money for the school. They raised £65. (In the photo of this, Mr Jones appears with the uniformed disc jockeys and the then Head Boy, Paul Brady.)
This support continued through 1975, when a group of boys was taken, by an interested RAF group, for a holiday in ‘Holland’ (the trip included Cologne!). The hosts were very pleased with these “splendidly behaved boys” and, in their account of the trip, let the boys describe it in their own words. One boy, with commendable candour, wrote of the cruise on the Rhine that it was a bit boring because the boat kept stopping. Another boy wrote that the cable-car return had, in contrast, been very exciting. At Speech Day, the prizes were presented by Air Marshall Sir Neil Cameron, and on another occasion RAF caterers presented the Vanbrugh boys with a giant iced fruitcake encrusted with RAF emblems. Its creator, Sgt Norman Collins, said that he disliked fruit cake, but thought that the sweet-toothed boys would enjoy eating it. Then, in November, almost at zero-hour for VCS, members of the Red Arrows presented the boys with a painting of them flying in formation with coloured streamers.
Owing, perhaps, to the dwindling number of boys who would become fully fledged Old Vanbrugh Boys, and the growing number of boys who would become Old Duke of Kent boys, there is not a great corpus of boys’ anecdotes for this period, but we are told that Mr Morton, while being ‘a good role model’, could, when aroused, throw the board duster at you, or issue ‘such a clout as would knock you over’. The energetic David Pafford is remembered, apart from his teaching, for coaching boys at sports and taking them on charity walks. His energy was much respected by the boys.
There is, though, one story, from this time that resonates strongly with my memory; the Seaton brothers were made to write out 100 times, “I must not play on glass roofs”. In my time, in the ‘50s, there was, jutting out from the coach-house in the courtyard next to the Wakefield Wing, a small outhouse with a glass roof (we had our mouse-club in it). A boy called Brian Cuddehay was playing near that glass roof, when he saw David Jones the master coming up the drive. In an effort to disappear, Cuddehay ran across the glass, which gave way so that his leg was dangling into the space below. He tore it out, and ran forwards down a ladder, but he had to stop because there was a huge gash behind his knee, almost cutting the tendons. Just imagining that would prevent a boy playing on a glass roof more effectively than 100 lines.
When the above boys, had been transferred to the Woolpit (now Duke of Kent) School, in 1976, there was, for a while, some antipathy/rivalry between the ‘Vanbrugh boys’ (they were called ‘Foundationers’) and the ‘Woolpit boys’ (paid for by their parents) who had thus been thrown together, but eventually that phase passed and the newly-named Duke of Kent School became a homogeneous population. Arthur Rodgers, an old Vanbrugh boy who joined the staff and moved with the school to Ewhurst, informed me of this. Thereafter, he also reported, boys supported by the RAFBF were sent to any school conveniently located for them, while Duke of Kent School, following its own programme, which is co-educational, continued, and continues (2017), to lease the school from the RAFBF. After the move, John Corner visited to witness the developments, but failed to recognize Arthur when he met him there. (Arthur eventually ‘got through' four headmasters at Duke of Kent School.)
Vanbrugh Castle School existed as a kind of bubble in time (1921 - 76), but that bubble was conditioned by the times in which it existed. The Great War brewed up just as aviation was becoming possible, and came to involve air forces to lighten the work of the infantry on the ground.
These Air Forces had their own casualties, though much less extensive than those of the Army and Navy. With the development of two-seater aeroplanes, allowing for ‘observer’ passengers, the number of non-commissioned casualties increased. These provided the fathers of the first Vanbrugh boys.
Between the wars, and, most particularly in WWII, aircraft became larger and were crewed more and more by non-commissioned people other than pilots. The fathers of the postwar Vanbrugh boys were from among these.
The increasing automatization of aerial warfare, with missiles, drones etc., led to a great reduction in the number of people actually involved in the detailed flying (no Battles of Britain, no thousand bomber raids), and so the press of orphans of airmen diminished and, with it, the motivation for a school like Vanbrugh Castle. Now, it is humanity itself that is in the firing line. May it come to its senses.
John Valentine 1947 - 1956