Christs Hospital: The War Years

By Don Gregory (Pe A, 1939-48) written in August 2003

I don't remember arriving at CH in 1939 and I don't recall any settling in problems in Prep B under Mr Willink and Mr McComas who we used to call 'McComie'. McComie went to the war to fly aeroplanes and we heard he'd been killed in action. I remember the shock of hearing about it but we were young and the sadness was soon forgotten. I think 'Brushie Wright' was brought out of retirement at that time but there was nothing retired about his slipper arm which was used very effectively when he heard me using his nickname. But it was fair enough. He had warned everyone that we should not use it. Unfortunately I had Pink Eye and was in the Sicker when he made the announcement! Nevertheless, he was a popular old man.

I forget the names of other staff except for Turner, Broadribb and 'Pinker'- Mr GW Pink. Why do I always remember initials? We liked him and he was a dead shot with a dog's rubber bone, thrown hard at inattentive pupils. We tried to dodge and didn't mind one bit.

Those first months, July/August 1939 were wonderful. I had joined early along with other boys whose parents had taken advantage of a school offer to take their sons early. War clouds were gathering but it meant little to us. I remember swimming, playing cricket and 'stoolball', listening to important people making important broadcasts, and I can remember filling sandbags. It was a glorious summer. Tearing round the asphalt and copses, playing 'Bang - Bangs', brandishing cricket bat machine-guns as either a cop or a robber or playing cowboys with broken roller skates as revolvers, yelling "gotcher". During my time in the Prep, and throughout my years at Housey for that matter, I don't remember being worried about my father who was at sea, or my mother who was being bombed in Plymouth and Bristol and doodlebugged in Claygate, least of all, whether we'd win the war. I don't think it occurred to me that we might lose. Even trying on gas masks was fun. All was very well with my world. Housey and Prep B in particular under Mr Willink, felt safe.

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I think I spent a year in the Prep and I can't recall any transition difficulties when I moved up and became Peel A.1. David Pritchard was 4, Michael Jarrett was 47 and Roger Kingdon was 37. There were boys, 'nursemaids' who were tasked to look after the 'New Squits' for the fortnight's grace period during which nobody was allowed to be in the slightest bit nasty to them. After that, it was open house on them but we survived all sorts of fairly unpleasant pranks, rather proudly, to become 'Junior Juniors' , sitting at the bottom table in the day room. We were supposed to know how to tie our bands (we weren't allowed to 'fudge' them), that our girdles - fastened with a 'narrowy' buckle - should be worn tightly round our waists until we grew more senior, where our brush and comb bag should be kept, which were our pegs in the changing room, and what our house and trades duties in the dining hall were. There was lots to learn.

Memories come tumbling and there is no way I can order them too much without losing their freshness and authenticity. Again, it's the asphalt games which come first to mind, which perhaps says something about where my priorities lay. Did we ever use the dustbins as anything else than very wide wickets for asphalt cricket? Then there was a game called 'Bad Eggs'. I collected many a painful bruise on my backside playing it but it was fun slinging the tennis ball as hard as one could at the bent-over form of the unfortunate who had collected three bad eggs and had to pay a forfeit ."Stay down and stay still" we'd shriek as the victim howled with pain, dancing and dodging desperately.

Bren guns, grenades and anti-tank rockets were now the weapons we used to destroy each other while roller skaters swanked and swerved across the asphalt. We did all this, dressed in breeches with the gown, which kept us warm in winter, looped up behind and tucked into the belt to allow freer movement. Our bands fluttered from a safety pin at the neck until we felt we could get away with 'fudging' them; having them neatly made up ready for tucking into the neck of the gown, a practice mightily frowned upon by fussy monitors and certainly not allowed while performing running punishments.

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In Peele A, monitors awarded running punishments. The running was fine, but I loathed changing from uniform to running kit and back into uniform. The art lay in the layout of clothes, allowing one to pant and sweat, in and out of them. Failure to do the punishment in the time allowed meant that it usually had to be done again. Peele A boys will remember triangles, level crossings and miles which were given according to the wickedness of the transgression. Grecians were allowed to beat but it did not happen often. However, I do remember that a House Captain decided to beat the whole house when he was hissed after making some unpopular announcement. I think the Juniors got three each while those more senior got more and had to go first while his beating arm was fresh. He didn't do himself any good.

Beating is rather a harsh word; perhaps the softer sound and feel of whacking would be more suitable. As for teacher whackings, I certainly had several as a junior -- well deserved I have no doubt -- but I don't recall any hurting particularly. Indeed, one of our junior house masters kindly offered a choice of 'back or bristle' when about to whack with a long - handled hair brush! I was never able to decide which was better. One housemaster was rumoured to begin whackings with the command "Study the pattern of the carpet, Boy!" and another, or perhaps it was the same one, required you to place your head under the top rung of a dining room chair and then chalked an aiming mark across the seat of the breeches. Another awarded psalms, long ones too, which had to be learned and recited on a Saturday night in his study. If more than a couple of mistakes were made, a whacking was inevitable. He hit hard so we tried to learn the psalm well. Sergeant Major Fielder, administered the Headmaster's canings as far as I can remember and I recall one which took place in front of the assembled boys, on a dais in Big School. I remember who and why but it is of no importance now. It was probably the last public caning, and a good thing too.

The running punishment awarded by teachers was called 'Punny Drill' and it took place during a 25 minute period before lunch called 'Twelve Fifteen', at a time when other boys were relaxing, or playing 'kicking and towing'. Punishment drill was administered sternly but very fairly by the School Sergeant, Sergeant Usher. "Pick your feets up!" Tush would roar from the centre of the square, "yer putting 'em down like plates of meat." I was a gymnast and so got on well with 'Tush' for he'd been an Army PT Corps instructor and I remember hearing of him when, in my turn, I did my year at the 'Muscle Factory' in Aldershot and joined The PT Corps. JH Edwards, commonly known as JH, was in charge of PT and swimming and I got to know this kind and gentle man very well. I met him again in about 1985 at a Speech Day and I will never forget how he recognised me instantly, the first time he'd seen me since 1948. What's more, he recognised my mother before I introduced her.

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Only the two senior boys had studies so we spent a lot of time in the day room. There we played chess, draughts, Monopoly, L'Attaque and Dover Patrol. We were often able to use one or other of the studies for birthdays and we cooked sausages and chestnuts on the open fire. I guess that their normal occupants were given goodies. We often played table tennis on the long narrow dayroom tables. However, on holiday, using a normal size table, I was an expert at keeping the ball on the table widthways but hopeless lengthways! We read the house newspaper which could usually be found on the second table, (the junior - senior table), and examined the interminable war maps which showed with large sweeping arrows where men were being killed.

Food was rationed but we never felt hungry. Whatever we had for breakfast, one boiled egg, a fishcake, or a sausage, were mashed up and spread on slices of 'crug' of which we could eat as much as we wanted. Even today I have to spread my fishcake on bread or sandwich a sausage before I can really enjoy it. A small round of 'flab' (margarine) could be eked out over masses of half slices of crug. Later, the flab situation must have improved for we used to flick flab from the end of our knives at King Charles in the huge picture on the wall behind Noel Sargeant, the Hall Warden. It was usually dotted with our efforts, very few of which made a direct hit. I always found it amusing to see the house parading for breakfast or tea, every boy clutching his jar of jam or Marmite to his chest while swinging his other arm shoulder high, for smart drill was essential. We drank our tea and spooned our porridge from 'kiff' bowls. In fact, some poor unfortunate boy I didn't like at the time once wore my full porridge bowl for a hat one morning while porridge dripped down his gown and neck, I had to visit the Hall Warden, my housemaster, who awarded me many weeks on the Pig Table.

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The School Tuck Shop was run by Mrs Tickner. During the early war years it must have been difficult to keep it stocked. Again, bread was the staple diet but, whereas Dining Hall bread was hessian - coloured and fairly tasteless, Tuck Shop bread came in huge white hunks, liberally smeared with flab, costing us a penny. She also ran a tea shop at the back, a must for visiting parents. I well remember its cosy atmosphere on a cold Saturday afternoon. Our pocket money was restricted to thirty shillings a term and Noel Sargeant, as Housemaster doled it out, rarely allowing a boy to draw more than sixpence a week. Most of us brought tuck from home and I often swopped a finger 'dig and wind' of Radium Malt or black treacle, for a biscuit or few. Some of us also made a a little money by mixing cocoa powder with dried milk and water, pressing the 'mucksture' into boot polish tins, drying it on the radiator and selling it as home-made chocolate to anyone foolish enough to buy. A lucky few knew where we could fill our voluminous brush and comb bags full of apples for a penny, a secret we did not part with readily. We also scrumped from the school orchard. We attacked it from the end furthest from the road using folded sheets of corrugated iron kept hidden in the wood to surmount the barbed wire. It was like a military operation with a recce, sentries, a quick attack and a very smart withdrawal!

We really should have been ashamed at a couple of our Sunday afternoon activities. There was one place where trains on the London - Brighton line slowed and often stopped. We picked wild strawberries on the embankment and tried to look like hungry waifs and strays. We didn't actually beg but welcomed the odd sweets, buns or money that passengers threw from the train windows to the 'poor hungry orphans' below. We were usually on our way to or from Sharpenhurst where 'Holy Joe' used to preach to anyone who would listen, standing by one of the wells. We positioned ourselves at the other one and, taking advantage of the fact that a call or strange noise made at one well could be heard at the other as a ghostly wail, did our best to ruin his outdoor sermon. It was some measure of the holiness of 'Holy Joe' that he never lost his temper. For our part we never carried the teasing too far.

Mention of Sunday afternoon activities reminds me of HOSs and HOOBs, an ingenious plot by the housemasters and monitors, which ensured that only those who had sick notes remained in the house. If the weather was foul, and it had to be really foul, a notice went up announcing a HOS (House on Silence) from 2-4pm. If the weather was a little better, then the notice read HOOB (House out of Bounds). In general it meant that one went out every Sunday afternoon. Since there was also another period of silence on Sunday to enable letters to be written, it usually meant that most boys spent Sunday afternoons out walking, scrumping apples or, after heavy rains, sliding down mud slides into the river Arun. We returned after an afternoon of exhilarating slides, as wet and muddy as the Arun itself.

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I think CH matrons must have been indomitable, determined and very caring. Peele's was 'Matron Marling' and a character if ever there was one. Matron's inspection in the evening could not be avoided. Many a boy, having failed her inspection, would depart for the 'Lav-End' with the words "hot water, soap and flannel!" ringing in his ears. Once a week we all had to go into the Medicine Room where, under the supervision of a monitor, we knocked back the most obnoxious dose of 'Black Draught' or 'White Draught' We got away with it sometimes by managing to spit it out into a tooth mug hidden in a gown pocket. We all had to say "Goodnight Matron!" loudly to show that we had swallowed the medicine. She also looked for nits in our hair once a week after breakfast, an opportunity which gave her the chance to examine our combs at the same time. She was a remarkable lady; stern -- and she had to be - with a very kind streak! It wasn't matron who insisted we had cold baths before bed on summer evenings but when I mention cold baths, I always claim to be the only Housey Boy who could dive in one end and emerge bone dry at the other!.

Healthy habits remind me of Dr Friend and the daily 'Nose - blowing' he instituted.

Imagine being tucked up warmly in bed on the cold winter's morning. At about six am the monitor took a deep breath and, over a period of about three seconds, sleepily intoned the customary 'Get Up' and boys crawled to the end of their beds, pulling bedclothes backwards and around their shoulders. Then 'Nose-blowing' took place to numbers, three times.

"One!" - raise the handkerchief to nose.

"Two!" - blow nose.

"Three!" - rearrange handkerchief and prepare for the second blow. Few, if any, followed the routine but sat sleepily making loud raspberry noises with their lips. There was usually no handkerchief either! The monitors knew exactly what we were up to having done it themselves when more junior and anyway, it would have been difficult to check and would have meant getting out of bed.

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Before we left the dorm we folded our sheets and blankets, stacked them neatly, and arched the mattress between headboard and bedding so that they could air while we were at breakfast. After breakfast we'd hurry back for 'bed-making'. Hospital Corners were the order of the day and then, finally, the top rug had to be carefully placed with the letters CH absolutely central. Then, the final touches were made. We had to use a long pole, helped by a friend, to 'pole' out any creases from the bottom of the bed to the 'Bolio', a tightly packed straw-filled pillow, the hardest one could imagine. The beds had no springs, just a number of bed boards which fitted across the bed. Boards were often missing but that didn't matter because the mattress was so hard that it didn't dip into the gaps. Those of us who were in the Cadet Corps also used boards to press creases in our 'corps bags'. We'd wet and soap the creases, put boards each side and sleep very uncomfortably on them.

Every Sunday morning the dorm floor had to be polished. Matron provided polish, bumpers and some old blankets. We had tremendous fun polishing the floor with the blankets. We'd take it in turns to sit on the blanket while two or three other boys grasped the blanket and raced up the length of the dormitory, swinging the charioteer from side to side until they contrived to throw him off so that he'd hit the wall with a bone-shuddering crunch.

The dormitories had no blackout shutters but the 'lav-end' windows were painted over to allow low wattage light bulbs to be used. In the 'lav-ends' we each had a small open locker for our washing kit with, above it, a small heavy as lead, and I think it actually was lead, toothmug. I will always remember how, in winter, a number of us would press in close to the large round radiator there, discussing the day's events until the monitor on duty ordered us to bed. Then it was the turn of one boy to pour three basins of water down each urinal and flush the loo several times, screaming with rage at some poor unfortunate who felt the need to pay one more visit before climbing into bed. Monitors on duty in the dormitory sat at the table underneath the lowered central light. Hockey sticks were tied to each corner of the table and blankets sewed together covered it and the light. Monitors worked there and, on Saturdays and Sundays, read to us. Usually the stories were good but, if not, there was sheer and silent bedlam in the dorm. We knew that the monitor, emerging from his lighted cocoon, would not be able to see until his eyes were accustomed to the dark, by which time those of us out of bed, would not be! Years later, as a teacher, I often read J. Meade Faulkner's 'Moonfleet' to my juniors, having first heard it in the dorm. They loved it too. I was also introduced to Dornford Yates and 'Berry' and of course 'William' during those dorm readings.

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We had fifteen minutes PT each morning, Monday to Friday. Nowadays we would think of it as physical jerks. It was taken by monitors and was, as I discovered when I went on a cadet PT course at Shorncliffe, very similar to warm up exercises in the army - Sgt Usher's influence, I presume. It wasn't popular, especially on rainy or frosty days, but it did us good and it broke up the morning's schooling. After PT we had milk and biscuits issued by one of the monitors. Our last meal was in the dining hall, probably before six pm so we had soup and bread after Duty in the evening, sitting at our places in the day room, before the Juniors went to bed. The soup was hot, thick and delicious, mainly pea soup I think, and warmly welcomed by all on a cold winter's night. The day room always seemed warm, probably because of the numbers who frequented it and also because blackout shutters were placed over the windows when it got dark.

I understand that nowadays the tube is only used for maintenance purposes but, early in the war we used it in earnest whenever enemy aircraft were in the area. When I first arrived in the Upper School, we bedded down there every night in tiered beds and senior boys manned the telephone in the tube signals room. The atmosphere was so fetid, many boys were sick and bowls were placed strategically every few feet. I can smell the disinfectant to this day. There was great competition to sleep on the top tier! We slept two to a bed, head to tail, putting up with biscuit crumbs and smelly feet! Sandbags separated us from Peele B. Soon someone decided there was no need to sleep down there. The beds went back to the dorms and we only went down when the school was warned about the presence of enemy aircraft.

We kept our gowns rolled up at the foot of the bed and there was a drill which involved standing sleepily at the bottom of our beds before turning left or right and walking quietly out of the door, down the stairs and into the tube were we'd sit on the floor until someone decided it was safe to go back to bed. Later, when the flying bombs were scurrying over every night, we just roused the boys on either side (there was many a cracked heads in the pitch dark) and then lay under our bed-boarded beds until the doodlebug had flown over or exploded. After a while most of us did no more than pull the sheets over our heads and go to sleep again. At the end of the war the tube was used for wet weather walking up to meals. We went in file, warm and dry, emerging blinking in the Dining Hall. It really was a well-named place, just like the narrow underground we'd encountered in London when travelling to and from home during the holidays.

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There was also another organised activity in which we took part with great glee. The classoom 'Take Cover!' routine was quite simple. Some pupils had to duck under their desks while others moved to sit against the wall underneath the windows. Well, ducking and diving were not the words for it for as many boys as possible would throw themselves headlong against the wall and each other, causing as much disturbance as possible. I don't recall doing it for real but we occasionally had a practice, usually with warning. Once, word came round from the Grecians during a meal that there would be an organised 'Take cover!' when the bell sounded for the end of morning school. That day, the whole school as one, with - I believe - the craven exception of Headmaster Oily Flecker's Classical Grecians, crashed heavily against walls throughout the school at the same time. Result, many startled teachers and, I suspect, some detentions!

Noel Sargeant, as Hall Warden, was part of the end of term routine. On the last morning we left our suitcases at the house and marched to breakfast before taking the 'Housey Special' train to Victoria. There was great excitement and Noel Sargeant, before knocking at the end of Second Grace, always gave the same short speech, wishing us a good holiday and safe return. He always went on to say: "You may cheer but there is to be no vulgar whistling when I knock at the end of Grace." Then he would ostentatiously take large bits of cotton wool and, grinning broadly, stuff them in his ears, wish us well, and knock. Of course, we took not the slightest bit of notice and yelled and whistled as loudly as possible. One year, a message was sent round Hall, passed from bench to bench from Coleridge to Prep that, after Noel knocked, there'd be an organised silence; we'd walk out to without speaking - and we did. I'll never forget his face and the speed with which he removed his cotton wool!

After the cotton wool routine we marched to the station with our suitcases and boarded the 'Housey Special' which made its way up to Victoria filled with laughing and singing boys but as we reached the area of Clapham Junction, one year in particular, I recall that everyone fell silent as we craned to look out of the windows at the bomb damaged houses and, shuddering, wondered what it must have been like. We'd heard about the bombing of London on the news, read about it in the papers and were now seeing the results of it for ourselves. Those missing and decayed teeth - burnt and destroyed houses - the sight of which silenced us as the train slowly wound its way through Clapham Junction and into Victoria, is another memory which will stay with me for ever.

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As I grew more senior and my broadie girdle slipped to fingertip length, I began to wonder whether the war would last long enough for me to join up. The thought was electrifying and exciting. But I remember so well the shock I had after a few years when, at the termly roll-call in chapel of those who had 'given their lives', I heard the name of a boy who had only left a term or two before. War didn't seem such a good idea after that.

Many of us joined the Corps or ATC. I eventually became a Sergeant and I dare say, swaggered about with the best of 'em! My first uniform was the tunic which fastened at the neck with brass buttons (hence one learned what a button stick was), corpbags with long puttees which started at the boots and fastened just below the knees. Later, we changed to battledress and gaiters and felt much more comfortable and modern. I remember one Field day when someone misguidedly decided that two schools would take part in an exercise, each being the enemy to the other. I well remember a line of our 'prisoners', each bound securely with their own puttees while we debated loudly whether we could torture some information out of them! RSM Carter was the School 'Sagger Magger', a character if ever there was one. In the 30 yard miniature range, just behind Peele A, he would time a 5 second target exposure practice by pulling the lever and reciting "Fifty years an infantry gunner and never been called a son of a bitch" before lowering it again. I also learnt an invaluable and never forgotten 'Rule of Aiming' - "Keep the tip of the blade of the foresight in line with the centre of the 'U' of the backsight and level with the shoulders thereof." Only Housey boys of that ilk will be able to imitate the voice of that splendid man.

Stilt walking was a popular activity and some of us became extremely adept, jumping up and down steps and being a human target at fetes in Big School for boys volleying footballs as hard as they could, trying to knock us down. Another 'fun' stand was an ingenious bombing range. A wire was rigged up, down which slid a model Lancaster bomber with a bomb under it. To win threepence the aspiring bomb aimer, from a vantage point on the balcony, had to judge the right moment to flick a switch and drop the bomb on a target. On three or four Saturday nights each term, we went to Big School in the evening to see films in black and white, mainly warlike I seem to remember, which were - and still are - epics of their time. Once, 'Monty' visited and spoke to all of us there. It was a stirring speech but I think that the huge applause at the end of it was really due to the fact that he announced that there would be an extra half-holiday!

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As I recall it, we marched up to Chapel daily (twice on Sundays) and to all meals. A Junior was appointed to wait outside the house, sitting on the benches under the front windows. At the time appointed, the 'sentry' banged on the windows and shouted a long drawn out "Get Out!" The house members fell in on the road, in file, and then - with a monitor giving the orders- formed fours, turned right and marched up the avenue. Peele A and Maine B had the longest march! At lunch times, to the stentorian commands of Sergeant Usher and the stirring marches played by the band, we marched into Hall, arms swinging high, each house led by a standard bearer.

By arrangement with the Housemaster, parents and relations could visit at weekends. When my mother came, I booked her into one of the Laundry Cottages one icy Saturday night. I remember how icy it was; there was no hot washing water and the water in the jug was frozen! Most parents took their sons to one of Mrs Tickner's teas but an alternative to this was a more expensive visit to the Odeon Cinema in Horsham followed by a 'banquet' in the cinema restaurant! My mother had come by train and I have no idea how we got to and from Horsham. I suppose we walked.

Sport played a large part in our lives, the main ones being cricket and rugby. Watching cricket on a sunny Saturday afternoon was sheer joy as one sprawled on the grass at the boundary. It was almost compulsory to support home rugby fixtures against other schools. They were played on the 'Blasted Oak' pitch -- and there was certainly a stump of a tree which had been struck by lightning. Noel Sargeant coached and I can remember him shouting at the scrum line-outs: "Sugar tongs, men!" I think Lionel Carey also coached. In his book, spectators should not clap injured players when they came back on the field. In his unmistakable way Carey would remind us: "Don't clap! It's his duty!" The result was that sometimes when a player returned to the field it sounded as if he were being hissed. In fact, it was six hundred boys imitating Carey's "It's his duty!"

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I swam for the school, was Captain of Life Saving and our newly-formed gymnastic team. When we swam against Dulwich a doodle bug barely interrupted the bun fight after the match; we slid under the large wooden table and finished our sandwiches there. After a gymnastics match against Brighton College, a bus driver stopped to allow us to buy ice creams. We had a competition to see who could eat the most. It was a disgusting exhibition of gluttony but until then, an ice-cream had been a rarity.

I recall with the great affection a wonderful old gentleman called Mr Hyde. His nickname was 'Dido' and he returned from retirement to take over from one of the young teachers who had gone to war. He taught mathematics in the Upper School and we loved and feared him. He had an unmistakable 'gravelly' voice which has always made telling stories about him, and imitating his voice, such fun. I remember one sleepy afternoon I found that the only way of keeping awake while Dido wrote up an algebraical equation on the blackboard was to play with the window cord. Dido seemed to be able to see through the back of his head, a trick I learned many years later when I took up the profession, and a few minutes before this incident had told me to stop. Unfortunately, I did not and began to fiddle with the cord once again. He turned and demanded that I should stand upon the seat of my desk and from there to climb upon the window sill. Once I was there, grinning the inane grin of the embarrassed, I waited for his next command. " Tie the rope around your neck, Gregory!" The whole class waited.... hoping. "Now, jump!" I disappointed everyone. As I recall, we were in a first floor classroom!

On that anecdote, one often told over the years, I am ending these memories for the time being. There is more to tell and perhaps I will get round to it one day when retirement becomes less busy. I am sure it is easy to tell that I am one Housey boy who enjoyed his time - nine years - at the school. Of course there were 'difficult' and not so happy times for one reason or another but they pale into insignificance compared to the rest. I hardly saw my RN father throughout the war and each holiday, spent with my mother, was enjoyed in a different part of the country - Plymouth - Wetherby - Bristol - Isle of Arran - Salisbury - Worth Matravers in Dorset - Southampton - Esher, and so on. CH became the one steady influence in my life and I will always be grateful. It was tough and I am grateful for that. It made National Service training which followed so easy and stood me in good stead throughout my life.

I am not sure whether this will ever be 'continued in my next'. It is my hope that it will have raised some memories for some and an interesting comparison for younger men and women whose upbringing, as with me, owes so much to Housey, its teachers and its scholars.

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