Thursday, July 06, 2006

St.Augustines Abbey School at Hemingford 1945-1948.

Sixty years on.
They knew not St.Augustines whom only Parry Knew.

Madeley Court days started for me aged eleven at Kings Cross Station in September 1945. I had come from a Church of England Prep School evacuated from Sussex onto the Campus of Bradfield College. My home was then close enough to the Bradfield that one arrived there each term by car or taxi, despite petrol rationing.

It impressed me to find that St.Augustine's had especially reserved compartments on a train. The Monks at Kings Cross, there to accompany us, were nattily dressed in what I had hitherto regarded to be proper Clerical Garb. I have no recollection where that train dropped us off, probably Huntingdon; nor of how we transferred thence.

The School was something of a culture shock. Catholicism, the cowled medievalism of Monks, Latin, Rugger. Those outside lavatories and cheerless classrooms doubling as Day Rooms, and the idiosyncrasy of staff members both lay and clerical. At the time Fr.Abbot, who had been wounded in the First World War, was kept at arms length in Ramsgate. That winter term brought Madeley Court several other eleven-year-olds from different Schools. I had been at an excellent Prep School for the previous three years, and contrasted and compared the two. St.Augustines was for me an oppressive experience. It regimented and taught one, but gave scant opportunity for either inter -active Education or for the legitimate development of self-expression. Maybe it was too authoritarian too restrictive? I acknowledge having something of a 'hang-up' that equates my three years at Madley Court, with the same sense of frustration prevalent in all that serve their time in the wrong place. For me it was three years too long. Overall I would have preferred not to have changed schools when I did. Experience is subjective and differs for everyone whilst nostalgia is best viewed through rose tinted spectacles. Even without any there were good times, and worthwhile friendships with contemporaries. Who wrote that book 'A man of two worlds'? It concerned a black African who became a renowned Western World Pianist. He thought he was a man of two worlds, but in the end found he belonged to neither. Those three years left me short on ‘Gregariosity‘, a word I have just coined on the basis that my spell check likes Gregariousness no better. What was it Father Cuthbert Mc.Cann OSB used to tell ? 'Man is a Social Animal'

Father David Parry my first Headmaster, had a brother on the staff, possibly he was recuperating from the War?

Soon after my arrival Fr. David had given way to a new Headmaster Fr Edward Hull who had presented himself in clerical mufti. In his case the smart uniform of a RAF Chaplain freshly back from I believe Burma. Writing now aged over seventy, I am relatively far older than either Headmaster then was, so feel entitled to express my own opinion that some other person might better have been appointed to replace Fr. David.

One of our new Headmaster's earliest pronouncements was on the lines that he had never known anything so disgusting as people. It was he who had the maxim that boys should 'strip to the waist and wash both ends', but he never explained the matter.

He was not approachable, and had the look of a man with deep-seated dyspepsia, a man who never smiled. The best he could manage was a grimace that both staff and boys took to be an expression of ill humour. It would have been better had Fr. Edward delegated more. He seemed to be the Chief of Priests, a Teacher, who when doubling as an Art Master confused the subject with Draughtsmanship. He was General Manager, Headmaster, and Lord High everything else, and ran the school on the carrot and the stick principle. Did he ever get round to appointing a Head Boy I wonder? That apart '…Nil Nisi ' as the tag goes.

The post war period was a difficult time, and Fr.Edward would have been an excellent Bursar. He tried hard. created a new library and introduced us to that miracle of modern science the Neon Tube. He 'sourced' a supply of blankets, which had apparently been fumigated with sulphur dioxide. He also produced two ex. -Army bell tents with scraffitoed embellishments from which I learned much. These tents were for the use of the Scout Troop, which he had (re-) started; so too the Cub Pack of which I had the honour to be Akela's assistant. Akela and Miss Coxon were a civilising influence on the school.

First thing every day one attended Mass in the 'Colt' Chapel which the Community may have provided for themselves? There was too an evening Service six days a week. Each term would start with that Service and its 'Salve Regina' .

Did we really attend Mass twice every Sunday? We certainly went to Compline and Benediction. The latter's 'Jube Domine Benedicere.' remains ingrained on my consciousness after a lifetime of Catholic abstinence. To those of us in the Choir that vocal exchange between our first Cantor and the Headmaster was known as 'jubbing'. My immediate Choir Senior then was the late Brian Peerless who eventually became a main man at Newcourts in the city. The Choir rehearsed under Fr.Ambrose King, some two sessions every week. Rehearsals didn't end there either, because there were rehearsals for Altar Boys. Further more there was one boy in our Dormitory who then considered he would become a Priest. Thus as often as not he would recite Mass when we were in bed. His other great love was Music. Between times he would imitate and conduct an imaginary Orchestra. There was no way that any of us could make him believe that there was a serious musician known as Barbarolli. I recently saw our friend's name posted on a door at an Oxford College where he has attained great heights. 'There is a lot in these birds of a feather business!

Madeley Court was a family house prior to our advent. It had been bequeathed to someone's Housekeeper; she in turn leased it to the school. The Dormitories might therefore be better described as bedrooms. All except the one at the head of a rather grand staircase, which had the appearance of a former ballroom. It had a great grate, boarded-in at the far end. As was proper with blocked off chimneys, there was a hole left for ventilation. That proved to be a mistake. Was it flu that the whole school succumbed to? We certainly had the monks and other staff running up and down those stairs feeding us in bed. Much of the non-returnable' food got posted through that slit in the wall. A while later there was an inexplicable invasion of mice in the Dormitory. Fr. Robert, who later transferred to the Douai Abbey Community devised an automatic mousetrap which on one memorable night deposited all of thirteen mice into a container of water. May one remind readers that Continental Time, better known as Double British Summer Time was then still in operation. It was quite feasible in the summer to read in bed until about ten o'clock. It was that, combined with us being sent to bed at an unreasonably early hour, that gave scope for a lot of the afore mentioned night life. As I recall it, there was always a cane close at hand. This chiefly affected the younger boys, however there was one lad in an adjoining bed afflicted with enuresis. Apparently in those days the reflex cure for that, in the eyes of our Headmaster, was a sound caning. The school had little to be proud of when it came to corporal punishment. I recall one boy being beaten in front of the whole School which had been especially assembled to witness the event. Frequently a lad would be sent to collect the cane from the Head Master's Study in the main building across the Quad, in order that he might be beaten in the 'Library' then better known as the corridor outside the classrooms in the old stable block. Or was it a Coach House?

Everyone liked Fr Norbert Lapworth, he of the Snuff habit. A very capacious round Friar Tuck of a man pulled together in the middle by a wide leather belt. Possibly he was the Deputy Headmaster? I recall that a relation of his would send him a ginger bread cake presumably for his birthday, which he kindly shared with some of the senior boys.

Fr.Aidan Mc.Ardle the Bursar was an agreeable spiritual man who liked when visiting a house to see a 'Bible and Crucifix' when the door was opened to him. He was, and hopefully still is, empathetic so too Fr.Robert Biddulph mentioned above. The latter was indeed a very fine Conjurer and member of the Magic Circle. He taught Maths and Woodwork and was always available to listen to anyone's woes in the Carpentry Shop. He ran the School cinema projector in the Hall. His classroom blackboard always bore a Banner Heading, was it All Glory to God…..? I regret Latin and I had a confrontational relationship. I really can't remember him keeping bees then, but he certainly did so at Douai. Bees would account for his access to wax for his Carpentry shop. It was in that place that he fabricated his conjuring apparatus. There too he conjectured on the possibility of boring out Hodgson's starting pistol. That same Hodgson had legitimate access to the Village Post Office, which was covertly helpful, when it came to letters out. His mother used to send her sons the most splendidly illustrated letters worthy of Beatrice Potter. Someone used to sell Carbide? Which with added water made a Marmite Pot into an excellent Hand Grenade.

Fr.Ambrose was attached to his cane but was also in charge of the school Tuckshop as well as the choir.

Fr.William was ubiquitous. Apart from the Rugby ('Low low Go for him low whether he's fast or whether he's slow') and the Cricket, and the boxing, ('He who turns his head away is the first to see Matron') and the Track Sport, he was also the Assistant Scout Master and taught Maths. He assured us that Mr.Churchill permitted Mathematicians to use as much paper as they needed for the subject, and advised us that 'When in doubt we should factorise'. He was a man who rated people as either a 'good egg' or not, as the case might be. He was 'Hearty', and it was he who started off each day with those Gymnastics in the school Quad, be it winter or summer. Those of us there at the time will surely recall the term 'Little Bird's Flutter' which involved whacking ones thighs with the palms of one's hands.

Did we really eat conch shaped pasta, boiled in watered down milk every day as a dessert, or was it but the stuff that dreams are made of? I recall Father Edward telling us that he really didn't know how Matron managed it on the Rations. Possibly his remark was ironic? I have no recollection of the jam arrangements. Did we have jam? I certainly raffled some at 3d. a ticket raising circa 25/- odds superior to those of the National Lottery, this was followed up by raffling a bar of Russian Chocolate bought from another boy for 4/-.

A priest Fr. Payne came in from St Ives to hear Confessions. Lay staff members tended to be slightly curious. There was an English Teacher who did nothing in Class, other than read to his pupils from a bumper book of Detective Stories. Possibly he corrected 'Prep'. That occurrence apart, it is too long ago to remember detailed complaint of others. There seemed to have been so many teachers that one might wonder whether they were on shift work. Did Fr. Robert once calculate that I had had circa eight Maths Teachers between 1945 and 1948?

It wasn't all grind. There was the year the Ouse flooded the Cellars. A cold winter when Fr.Edward conspired to flood the Quad for the boys to skate over. Bit hard on shoe leather. Rugger matches gave one the opportunity to visit other schools and eat teas. Kings College Choir School amazed us in that the 'loos' had no doors to them, and that the boys had to display record of their bowel movements on a Tally Board in the dining room. An Orphanage in Bedford humiliated us when a one arm three-quarter ran rings around us. There was the occasional use of a couple of air rifles for a little rough shooting around the grounds. The Scouts and Cubs, and films, and the conjuring, school theatricals and once a birthday tea party. One boy's father, a Caterer provided an excellent spread for his son and a Refectory Table full of guests. Was that Russell? There were Essay and General Knowledge Competitions. Both probably won by Willie Charlton. A great game of 'Detective' was organised which came complete with false clues.

I managed to capture an area of an under used Classroom for my personal use over an extended period of time, and still have nightmares about having to move all my junk out on the day on judgement. It was a useful place, somewhere to mix Gunpowder albeit to the consternation of Father William who expected that it would go off bang. It was a chance to be different, as too was keeping the school supplied with ink. That gave one the opportunity to be elsewhere as necessary. Holding the key of the games-cupboard under the stable staircase or helping at tuck shop were other ways to do one's own thing.

There was a lot of bullying in such a close community. Not necessarily older boys bullying younger boys> We had no access to the news. Neither papers, nor wireless. (One had been presented to the school for the boys' use, but apart from six of us hearing the Royal Wedding on it, that was it.) It was rather as though we were trapped in an opaque-sided goldfish bowl which denied us any knowledge of current affairs. My previous school had the Broadsheet Newspapers on a daily basis. Few Speakers visited St.Augustine's; I recall talks from a Priest concerning Wartime Malta and another from a man who had been member of Shackleton's Expedition.

When parents visited, opportunities arose for tea at the guest-house in the Village, and was there some sort of a tea room at the Ouse side boat house close to the school gates? There skiffs and punts were available for hire. Both Hemingfords are pretty villages. Did we have the oldest inhabited house in England close by. Did not our village spawn the Rt.Honble John Major PC. MP.?

Times were a changing. If the staff had been affected by their war time experiences so too had both the pupils and their parents. Fr.Wilfrid Passmore RIP when Headmaster of Downside commented that

'St.Augustine Boys were all such men.'

One might wonder whether he might have said 'old men' instead? Since then the very best of Schools and Convents have either closed or been 'Secularised'.

There are many anecdotes of post war survival, however one lot of monks tends to fade into the next. I never heard the circumstance of Father Edward's violent death, nor even knew the school had finished trading.

If this 'Blog' appears to be one long moan, please understand it is but a superficial account of underlying complications. Even so it is written by the first 'chap' to be awarded the eponymous 'Fowler Wright Prize' the year it was instituted. In my case the reward for being a helpful little so and so. The prize manifested as the poems of Francis Thompson, and another book relating the seemingly masochistic penance of an Irish Priest.

Earlier this year I revisited Madley Court. This is now the name of a Housing Estate. At the time there was a wedding in the Church at the end of the road, best I thought not to stop, neither did I investigate Mill Lane.
If any of the original school buildings remain, there is nothing of them identifiable on the Google Satellite. .
It was nice to be able to tell the National Trust Lady at Houghton Mill that ‘Yes, I had visited previously, but had not been for sixty years.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

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