Reminiscences (1939-1949) – John Holmes

John Holmes was born in London in 1931 and spent the war years there. His career has been in science, mostly in Canada, to where he emigrated in 1962. He is now Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Ottawa University.


On discussion with my daughter a few years ago, I decided to write a family history and personal memoir for my grandchildren, something that I dearly wish my maternal grandfather had done. The following is excerpted and revised from the more personal memoirs of those days. My love of reading, sailing and the outdoors and my career, I owe largely to my years at Haberdashers.

These idiosyncratic memoirs are not necessarily totally accurate and so I apologize for any mistakes in what follows. My sketches of the masters are, of course, the way that I saw them. Others will have different views! I have tried to give the flavour of the times as well as the substance thereof.

The following covers the years 1939 to 1949.

Westcroft School

I went to Westcroft in 1938. It was then the official local Preparatory School for Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, [situated in Westbere Road, Hampstead]. Westcroft School was nearby in Cricklewood Lane not far beyond the big railway-bridge at Cricklewood Railway Station.

I have relatively few memories of that school, other than that I was happy there. It nevertheless provides an introduction to the times and obviously is connected with Haberdashers, not least because many Westcroft boys went on to Habs.

The school was in the charge of three unmarried ladies. Miss Challen [short, stout and tweedy, with cropped gray hair, the stern headmistress], Miss Biggs [tall, well spoken, elegant in manner and dignified, gray/black hair in a bun] and Miss Alderton [much younger, jolly and, I suspect, an attractive woman]. Now [in 2001], the school is called “St. Giles of Cricklewood”.

There was a tuck-shop in the charge of Miss Challen, where sweets were sold at morning break. The unwrapped sweets were, (of course), kept in tall glass jars and then were meticulously weighed out on a little scale using brass weights. A farthing’s worth was the minimum quantity that one could buy.

Evacuation to Brympton
In 1939, at the outbreak of the war, it was planned that all children of school age would be sent away from London, which it was believed, undoubtedly would soon be heavily bombed. For Westcroft that meant evacuation to a big old country house, Brympton d’Evercy near Yeovil (the family seat of Clive of India), about 130 miles west of London. We were bussed away on September 5th 1939, a brilliantly sunny autumn day, in Cronshaw’s coaches together with the three teachers and a few mothers to help out.

The whole exercise was not a success. Brympton was cold, very damp and ill prepared to cope with an influx of some 40 boys of age 8-10 years. We slept in what had been an upstairs ballroom or dining hall. It was accessed, (at least by us), via a stone spiral stairway at a corner of the building. There were large holes in the plaster ceiling of this dormitory and it was rumoured that rats peered down at us at night. The cooking facilities were also inadequate for so many people and a strong memory is of being hungry a lot of the time. My aunt Rene and the aunt of the two Pangalos boys (Greek, Stavros and Demitrios, later at Habs too) were there part of the time to help with the daily round.

It was the early autumn and so it rained a lot, making all the paths and fields very muddy and often confining us indoors. I was going through a flying craze at that time and I remember releasing my elastic band driven model airplanes on the big lawns and pebbled terraces in front of the main building. There was also an ornamental lake into which several boys fell, one [Partington junior] breaking his arm as he did so. On Sundays we attended the tiny chapel in the grounds and sat through interminable sermons to which we paid little attention. The only recollection that I have is “Boys will be boys”. (Pause for effect) “No they will not. Boys will be men!!”

After a couple of months of disorganized chaos, with little schooling, the “evacuation” finally broke down. Mother and Dad visited me, staying overnight at the farmhouse nearby; they took me for a meal in Yeovil, a long awaited treat. I don’t think that they were impressed by what they saw. One by one, boys were taken back to London by their dissatisfied parents, where of course, the “phoney war” was still creating a very false sense of security. For many, the winter at Brympton must have been the final straw. By the next autumn, in spite of the major changes in the war situation, (France, the Low Countries and Norway had all fallen and the Battle of Britain was in full swing) school went on in Cricklewood Lane much as before.

[I went back to Brympton a few years ago, and found that the house and the little chapel adjacent are now open to the public. They do afternoon teas and sell white wine, made from locally grown grapes].

The Blitz
In 1940 the fall of France and the Battle of Britain were followed by the Blitz. The only bright interlude was the Battle of Britain in September, before the nightly bombing of London began. Long sunny days, with the sky filled with vapour trails and the distant howl of aircraft engines. The radio and newspapers greatly exaggerated the Air Force’s successes, but there was no doubt as to which side had come off best in the battle.

When the regular bombing began in the autumn of that year, at Westcroft School we sheltered underneath a very large billiard table. The Auxiliary Fire Service had requisitioned a classroom for their use as a recreation room. Here a full size billiard table was installed. It was a massive piece of slate, as were all best billiard tables, and it stood on very heavy wooden legs. Whether it would have given us much protection I don’t know, but it felt secure enough, sitting through the air raid under the table with the dust bunnies.

While the evacuation was still proving to be a terminal failure, Westcroft must have been closed for at least the first half of 1940. As a result, my schooling in that year was rather haphazard. Daily life then seemed to be a perpetual muddle, perhaps characteristic of that very unsettled period, when so many large schools had all been evacuated and the war in France was suddenly not going at all well.

In the summer of 1941 I went to Haberdashers to sit an entrance exam for a Middlesex County Scholarship, which I won. I also had an interview with the headmaster of the Lower School. [The Lower School was for the junior boys, ages from about 10 to14]. His name was Mr. (Josh) Blunt; he was short, rotund, bald, with rimless glasses and he wore a dark blue pinstriped suit with a watch chain across his middle and he smelled strongly of tobacco. He seemed a kindly but strict old gentleman.

In September I found myself in the first-form and the youngest boy in the school. In the winter term, an even younger boy, Gabriel Woolf, came. He later had a successful acting (stage and TV in the UK) and later also a writing career, mostly in Israel, I believe.

The first form was in the care of Miss [Connie] Johnson, not to be confused with the exciting Miss [Irene] Johnstone, (see later!). She was a brisk, very plain, no-nonsense (but kindly) lady, probably of close to retirement age, short, stout, a big nose, all heavy tweed and gray hair in a bun. She taught us French, English, Mathematics, Geography and History. She obviously greatly enjoyed the latter, as I can still recall her enthusiasm for the days of the (wicked, attacking) Persian Empire and the heroic (defending, winning) Greeks. I also remember making a ziggurat out of London garden clay for a history project; it was very good for modelling, as it set hard and durably, and could be smoothed and painted.

Westbere Road
The School was in Westbere Road, which runs north to south from Cricklewood Lane to Mill Lane. It contained council houses to the north of the school and opposite were allotments with the LMS railway beyond. The allotments were created in the early stages of the war, so that food rations could be supplemented by home-grown vegetables.

As the war progressed, the allotments became partly replaced by prefabricated houses, each with its own little vegetable garden. These “prefabs” provided dwellings for bombed out or otherwise displaced families. They were constructed of a single layer of cement/asbestos sheets on a rectangular frame of metal and wood on a cement base. The windows were metal framed too and single-glazed They had electricity and simple plumbing and they must have been very cold and damp in winter. Although intended to provide only “temporary” accommodation, many of them survived and were lived in up to at least the 1960’s.

Ringing the bell
The school loomed as the largest building along Westbere Road, before the big houses to the south, towards Mill Lane. The older part of the school was in two parts, built of grubby, dark red brick. The southern side had a bell tower, next to the single-corridor covered bridge between the two buildings. The bell tower was accessed from the stage in the big assembly hall, and it deserves a few remarks.

When I was in the sixth form, Ken Pearce and I were responsible for ringing the bell in the mornings. It was to ring for about five minutes, stopping at exactly nine a.m. Anyone arriving at assembly after the bell had ceased, was officially “late” and liable for a detention. Originally we only had one morning’s duty, but we persuaded our schoolmates who shared the task, that it was more important and/or interesting for them to attend morning assembly (which we disliked). Thus we got to ring the bell nearly every day. The small door onto the stage could be left ajar, so that we heard announcements etc.

Assembly began with a short religious service, prayers (usually the Lord’s Prayer plus special prayers appropriate for whatever world or national events deserved them), a hymn sung with piano accompaniment (how easily remembered are the tuneful ones! “He who would valiant be…”, “A safe stronghold….”, Fight the good fight….” etc ), and finally a reading from the Bible, recited by a prefect. Catholic boys attended these Anglican devotions, but the Jewish boys occupied a separate room upstairs, off the hall’s balcony, where they did we knew not what. Apart from important announcements, there were sometimes strongly worded admonitions from the Headmaster, Dr. Taylor, (or the much more impressive Deputy Headmaster, Mr. (“Pop”) Oliver) often with regard to “waste of food” at lunchtime, misdemeanours in the Cricklewood shops, or general lack of discipline. (Pop Oliver rhymed “food” with “good”).

School Lunches
Wartime school lunches were not very nice, and finicky palates sometimes overcame simple appetite. Noteworthy was the meat, invariably overcooked, gristly, stringy and tough. As mince, it was poured from a jug and all its flavour derived from the gravy. Vegetables were watery and bland, and usually cabbage, potatoes were nearly always mashed. No salads, nor fruit. Rice or semolina pudding, topped with a dob of jam; sometimes date roly-poly pudding. Doughy bread and cheese instead on leaner days. The masters ate with us, but at a separate long table at right angles to ours. Their food at least looked appetizing.

Pop Oliver
“Pop” Oliver deserves special mention. He was a tall, bald, bent man with beetling eyebrows, a hooked nose and an expression of permanent, often furious, disapproval. His assembly harangues were very impressive and were probably much more successful in disciplining us than the much milder and reasoned arguments of the Head. In the dining hall Pop would achieve silence by banging ferociously on the masters’ table with a serving spoon, that often bent under the impact, much to the amusement of all those nearby. He was however, unpredictable. An atypical smiling entrance of his into a classroom could rapidly be replaced by fierce glares and widespread disapproval of us all. His jokes tended to be long and rambling and had to be listened to quite carefully in order to catch the punch line. Laughter, not too soon, and in the right place was essential to avoid his displeasure.

Pop taught us Mathematics in the fourth and fifth forms, not very well so far as I can recall. His approach was more of rote learning than of understanding, but he obviously enjoyed geometry with its well defined Theorems, and the opportunity that it gave him to draw meticulous chalk diagrams on the blackboard, using giant compasses, rulers and set squares. I can clearly hear him say, loudly and firmly, when introducing a Theorem “We begin, with the General Enunciation.”

Science Building
The modern science building to the south, was a clean, bright structure, with many tall metal-framed windows and full of familiar laboratory smells. Mr. Disboro was the chief laboratory steward, tall, bald, brown coated and usually irritable. Among his many duties was the maintenance of the big, Pb/H2SO4 (lead/sulphuric acid) batteries in the basement, and which provided 12V DC to the physics laboratories on the ground floor. There were heavy, solid teak bench tops in the physics and tiled teak in the chemistry labs.

Much of the apparatus in the former labs was made of gleaming gilt brass and mahogany There were Wimshurst machines, big translucent celluloid wheels, stored in glass fronted cupboards, waiting to electrostatically entertain us. Delicate, rarely used [senior students only] fragile apparatus with neat coils of glass tubing. A Fortin barometer was used for accurate atmospheric pressure measurement and here one encountered ones’ first Vernier scale.

In the chemistry labs were the ubiquitous, necessary Bunsen burners and their tripods, with wire gauze mats to conduct the heat from the flame to the beaker or whatever. Coal gas, no natural gas existed then. The exploding treacle tin, [with a hole in top and bottom], was an excitement for third form students and clearly showed that a coal gas-air mixture is not necessarily explosive. The delights of chemistry with Mr. “Johnny” Knight are described in detail elsewhere in a Royal Society of Canada article on “Teachers who influenced my choice of career”.

My very first practical experiment was in the first form, under the care of Mr. Henwood (otherwise known as “Chickweed”). The experiment was to separate a mixture of salt and sand. The salt was dissolved in hot water, the sand was filtered off and the salt recovered by evaporating off the water of the filtrate.

Mr Payne
In the second form we first encountered Mr. (Harry) Payne with his dreaded metre stick. In his Physics class it was necessary always to have definitions ready and to understand them, or else you got a sharp prod in the ribs from his stick. (“Density; what is density? No, you stupid boy, (prod, prod) that’s specific gravity!”).

Rote learning was not always enough, because the correct response could be followed up by the more difficult secondary question. He also specialized in frequent surprise written tests and so the nervous tension while awaiting our admission to the physics lab was palpable.

He had a very sharp and ready wit, and saddled some of us (not me) with nicknames devised by him. A very small boy [Henderson] he dubbed “Bobo”; a plump boy (Geoffrey Wise) was “Wallop” (“you’re just a big “Wallop”; “Give me buns” is your motto”), a small rotund, apple-faced boy, David Woolf was “Fido”. The names that he coined usually suited their recipient well. A new boy of Italian origin arrived one day. “What’s your name?”. “Lobatto, Sir”. “Lobatto? What’s that? A game?” Howls of unkind laughter from the rest of us.

I suppose that according to present day sensibilities, Mr. Payne was a bully and a bad teacher. I remember him rather fondly, as another hazard to be negotiated in the process of growing up, one that I shared with my classmates. He clearly however, enjoyed humiliating the unfortunate boy who had stepped out of line and the latter’s fear and discomfort transmitted itself to the whole form. Apart from the prods with the metre stick, he never struck a boy to my knowledge.

Tuck Shop
On the brighter side there were early morning winter slides in the frosty playground; a continuous line of boys keeping the slide slippery and extending it too; but it had often melted by mid-morning break. At break the Tuck Shop would open and you could get your free 1/3 of a pint of milk (provided by the Government for all school children, and not discontinued until long, long after the war) and a variety of sticky, penny buns and doughnuts. The shop servers were dressed in pale blue coveralls, with a white hat similar to that worn by a waitress.

School Crazes
Like all schoolboys, we went through crazes. Paper aeroplanes, elastic driven model ’planes, [especially the “Frog” models that had a gear box, to greatly increase the rpm of the propeller], marbles, cigarette cards, yo-yos, were for the playground. At home there was Meccano, Minibricks, model railways and Dinky toys. In the war years Britains produced a fine range of die-cast model lorries, guns and tanks. Model aircraft kits were very popular and excellent wood or plastic scale models of the Gladiator (biplane), Spitfire, Hurricane, Blenheim and Wellington, as well as various Heinkels, Messerschmidts and Dorniers were available at reasonable cost. Most of us had aircraft recognition books, which allowed us easily to identify the majority of warplanes.

Sport was conducted at Chase Lodge, at Mill Hill, where the school playing fields were located in Page Street. The Chase Lodge Farm buildings also acted as cramped classrooms for use in the morning of the day allotted to our Form/Year for games (each Year had its allotted games day). Rugby was in the autumn and winter terms, cricket in the summer, with the addition of cross-country running and athletics when the weather was kind.

Irene Johnstone
The female teaching staff taught only in the Lower School in the early war years, but as time went by, more and more masters were called up and the number of female staff increased. Irene Johnstone was loved by most of us. She was fair-haired, tall, slim and extremely vivacious and energetic, and I guess, very attractive to men. She had a sharp and witty tongue, and was able to reduce the most precocious boy to stunned silence. She had us produce short plays in our English class in the second form, some of which we presented to the assembled Lower School. By the force of her personality she made English, (even grammar), into a very enjoyable subject. Her classes, and my grandfather’s library are probably responsible for my love of books.

I spent two years in her Form Two, because early in the summer term of 1943 I contracted pleurisy and missed most of that session. When I moved to the third form, she was no longer one of my teachers. However, that year to our dismay she had to leave, in an atmosphere of barely suppressed scandal.

The lady teachers
Two other ladies of note were Miss Woods and Miss Dittrich. The former taught French to the Lower School. She was not very tall and wore her hair in plait, wound round her head. Although rather plain of face, she was equipped with a truly splendid bosom, interesting to adolescent boys. She had a series of boyfriends, mostly in the RAF, who sometimes could be seen waiting for her after school. In the second form she organized a short French play, which we presented to the Lower School. An RAF boyfriend was on hand to give expert help in applying make-up on those of us who had female parts to play. I recall very well the difficulty of walking in high heels, never mind remembering my lines.

Miss Dittrich (popularly known as “Marlene”) was older than the others, possibly in her late thirties. She was tiny, blonde and shapely, vivacious too. The masters deferred to her in a clearly susceptible manner. Her German classes were often fun, as she liked word games as an aid to instruction. She would not dismiss us at the end of a class unless we intoned all together, “Die glocke hat geläutet” (the bell has rung).

The only other woman teacher was Mrs. Richardson, the wife of the Latin master. She taught us History in the fourth form, especially contemporary History, and I recall the campaign maps being pinned to the wall showing all those Russian towns with (to us) strange names, Kursk, Smolensk, Veliki-Luki and Minsk. She was shrill, very acid tongued and an arbitrary disciplinarian, often misidentifying the real culprit. She was not a favourite and we felt rather sorry for Mr. Richardson. She left the school in an interesting and very advanced state of pregnancy.

Otto Pask
One day, in the fourth form, while awaiting our French teacher, Mr. Pask, who was for some reason late, several of us shut Pomeroy in a large cupboard. After the master’s arrival we waited breathlessly for the inevitable noises from within. They came in due course; Mr Pask flung open the cupboard door to find the discomforted Pomeroy crouching inside. Needless to say no one owned-up to the deed nor would Pomeroy “sneak” on us. He was ordered to produce by the next day, 100 lines on “The evils of dark places”, which we found highly amusing.

Mr. Pask was a great favourite and a fine teacher. His French classes were almost always enjoyable as he had an excellent sense of humour and made sure that our French “readers” contained entertaining stories. One that I recall was “Le Scolopendre”, almost a science fiction story.

Mr Pask was tall, dark haired, portly and wore bright clothes; usually a check sports jacket, yellow pullover with a scarlet tie and shiny brown brogues. His wife, (not a teacher), was French and was a very chic lady indeed. He liked to test the air, sniffing as he came into the classroom. “Open up! This room stinks” was a common announcement by him, as he hurried to open the big sash windows. This was particularly likely to be necessary and true if we had just come from the gym.

Sailing with John Dudderidge
Our sports’ master was John Dudderidge, a taut, athletic individual with a beaky nose. He also taught geography in the lower school. He was distinguished by having been the Olympic canoeing coach for the 1936 Olympic Games, the infamous Berlin event. I greatly enjoyed the geometry exercises that accompanied his geography classes in the second form, as we converted the contour lines on an ordnance survey map into a scaled profile of the valleys and hills. Indeed, I still enjoy maps and charts and I look at them with the analytical eye that he gave us.

His gym classes were usually fun, especially the last period of the term, when with luck we could persuade him to let us play “shipwrecks”. In this game, one boy was “it” and he could chase the rest of us all over the gym. However, all players had to keep their feet clear of the floor, by swinging on the ropes, climbing the wall-bars and leaping from horse to horse and to mats in the body of the gym. When touched by your pursuer, you were “out”, but if you touched the floor you were also “out”.

Mr. D took a group of sixth formers canoe camping and sailing on the Norfolk Broads, starting after the war. Indeed, my very first sailing ever was on the Broads, with the school in 1948 and twice about then with Alan Woolford and his father on “Brown Imp" a very handy, sliding gunter-rigged catboat.

The canoe camping was great fun. We had two-man Klepper kayaks. Rubberised skins on wooden frames, fully detachable and the whole kayak could be dismantled, framework and all and then stowed in a canvas bag. The canoeing/sailing expedition was very well organized and led by Mr. Dudderidge. As mentioned earlier, he had been the UK Olympic canoe coach for the 1936 Olympic Games, whence his supply of kayaks. We carried all our gear and food in rubber bags which stowed fore and aft. The kayaks were fast and so we covered a surprising distance each day, before camping for the night. We went to and from Norfolk in a canvas topped lorry to our “base camp” on Wroxham Broad.

The second part of this holiday involved a rather slow, beamy, gaff rigged sloop, also from Wroxham, that slept four or five of us, using the cabin sole to squeeze us all in. Life jackets were not worn by any of us; a practice that would be impossible nowadays.

John Dudderidge also visited Canada in the late 80’s but alas, I missed his visit to Ottawa, by only a couple of days. He was well into his eighties by then.

Air Raids and the war
Air raids during school hours were spent in the brick and concrete surface shelters on the edge of the school field, in which we sat on rows of cement breeze-blocks. Uncomfortable and numbing to the bum. Normally this was only deemed necessary when raiders were “imminent”, as told by the local ARP who kept in touch with schools, hospitals and factories etc.

However, late in the war, when the flying bombs (the V1’s or “Doodlebugs”) became a nuisance, more time was spent in the shelters because of the uncertain direction of their swift approach and their random destination. We sat carefully listening to the broken beat of their simple jet engine getting louder, rising to a crescendo of sound when they came closest to the school. Great was the relief as the sound passed its maximum and the note changed, indicating that the missile had gone by. Then the moments of complete silence as the engine cut and the “Doodlebug” fell to the ground with a loud (or louder) explosion. Our silence as we carefully listened to the changing noise of the flying bomb spoke volumes; our elementary physics had us ready to observe the Doppler effect.

The school suffered a direct hit by a high explosive bomb in the early years of the Blitz. One or more sixth formers who were fire-watching at the time, were killed by the blast, which severely damaged one end of the main school building adjacent to the science block, but without significantly damaging the latter.

The collecting of shrapnel was usually done after any heavy raid in which there had been a lot of anti-aircraft fire. Generally, shell fragments were quite small, and jagged (and they rusted quickly), few larger than a cm or two. Occasionally larger pieces of a shell’s nose-cone, with numbers on them (and therefore much coveted) were luckily discovered. The AA guns were permanently situated in local parks and mobile guns were at night, placed at wide road intersections, where they had a good field of fire. The mobile Bofors guns were easily identified by their sharp barking note, distinct from the heavier thump of the permanent guns. Although all these guns were generally ineffectual, the great noise was good for morale, giving the feeling that we were fighting back.

The aircraft engine sounds were also characteristic. German engines had a discernable beat in their rather low-frequency sound. Among allied aircraft, the smaller planes (Spitfires, Hurricanes etc) used the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that had no obvious beat and had a higher frequency note than Jerry’s. Most easily recognized was the Harvard trainer with its very harsh and rough sounding engine.

The V2 rockets came only towards the end of the war; they were not so easy to endure. The problem was that no warning was possible because they made no approach sound whatsoever, coming down at supersonic speeds; indeed their approach sound came after the explosion. They contained sufficient high explosive to knock down a pair of semi-detached houses. When they first came, the authorities did not wish to acknowledge their existence and the first few that fell were interpreted as “gas main explosions”. This silly deception could not and did not last long.

We took all this in our stride without much fear, as I recall. No “counselling”, just get on with things. Certainly my parents never showed any alarm in my presence. All through the war, neither I nor any of my school-mates, had any doubt that we would win. Looking back, it is easy to see how the ordinary citizens were sheltered from the worst of the war, simply by things not being reported in the limited media available. It was long after it was over before the true horrors of the Russian front were realized. The media were presumably carefully monitored so that morale lowering events were downplayed. I remember that when Belsen was liberated, there were sufficient journalists and radio commentators with the advancing allied troops, so that descriptions of the dreadful place were quickly released.

The barrage balloons were a feature of all the war years. They were intended to deter low flying by enemy aircraft and were usually set below 2000 ft. They were flown on long steel cables and those nearest to the school were at a site in the nearby park at the other end of Anson Road, Gladstone Park. Trailing cables hung from the balloon. They were controlled by a group of male and female Civil-Defence workers and the raising and lowering of them was always worth watching. The balloons were big, ungainly, silvery-gray elephantine objects, about the size of a bus, sometimes flaccid with lack of hydrogen. They tended to kick and sway to-and-fro if they were landed in anything much of a breeze and were obviously quite a handful. Again their presence in the sky was encouraging, indicating that some action was being taken to defend the city.

My father was a leader of the local fire watching group and the log book came frequently to our house as a result; he also had custody of several stirrup pumps, for use when incendiary bombs fell. These latter were best dealt with before they were well alight, and quickly dowsed with sand to prevent oxygen easily getting to their magnesium bodies. Once well alight they were very difficult to extinguish with water. Most streets had large water tanks, made of welded steel sheets and about 30ft by 8ft by 4ft. These static water tanks were to supplement domestic water supplies if they were interrupted by a bomb or otherwise interfered with. A steel mesh covered their top to prevent rubbish building up in the tank (and so clog pump inlets).

After the war, the indoor swimming pool at Haberdashers’ was refilled and swimming and diving classes began. The chlorine content of the water was sufficient to bleach [and rot] most woollen swimming trunks in one term of use.

In about 1947 we were shown the Leni Riefenstahl film of the 1936 Olympiad, in the assembly hall. The whole Upper School attended and the Head made introductory remarks. We were generally impressed by this piece of propaganda, and it gave us a little understanding of the attractions that the German population must have felt for the Hitler regime. I have my own copy of the other Riefenstahl film, “Triumph of the Will” and its attraction remains, in spite of its awful connotations.

Another early post-war relaxation was the recognition by the school that girls existed. Thus exchange dances were arranged with north London girls schools, for the sixth formers. Apart from youth clubs, opportunities to meet girls were rather few and so these “blind date” events were eagerly anticipated. On the whole these were enjoyable occasions, although they tended to be rather formal and not very relaxed. Going to my Mother’s old school, Kilburn Grammar School for Girls, turned out to be a highlight, because the atmosphere there was, for some reason, much more relaxed and joyful. Possibly the Headmistress was responsible. Certainly our Head, Dr. Taylor, never looked at ease at the dances.

North London Collegiate was also included in these somewhat false social gatherings. On one occasion it was discovered that the prefects’ room had been equipped with gin, to enliven the proceedings; The Head was not amused when the story leaked out and we were given a long lecture in assembly on the evils of drink.

Masters of note
Other masters who remain memorable are Mr Cooper, Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Parr and Mr. Smith.

Mr. Cooper was the Head of the Lower School, after Josh Blunt. He did relatively little teaching, but was a strong and very fair disciplinarian of the younger boys. In this particular regard he was one of the few masters who deserved and received our wholehearted respect. He was a tall, gray, spare man with a small moustache and a kindly, quizzical expression. He seemed always to be in a great hurry and I suspect that a great deal of school business fell on his shoulders.

As an aside, some of the discipline at Habs was arbitrary and poorly handled. The system of “diaries” in the Lower School worked reasonably well. Each of us was supposed to carry a little red diary at all times. A real or perceived misdemeanour was recorded at the appropriate day and time box in the diary by the initials of the teacher involved. The latter had called “Bring out your diary!” at the time of the incident. The mark was absolved by a detention. Too many such diary marks resulted in a caning. Prefects could also give diary marks. On the whole, diary marks reflected the daily mood of the teacher, rather than the magnitude of the offence and minor errors (not wearing your school cap in the street, talking during assembly, failing to stand at the call of prefect or simply “mucking about”) were punished arbitrarily too.

Mr Wilkinson was a very large man indeed, who wore dark pinstriped suits and had an orotund voice entirely in keeping with his appearance. He taught History, but it seemed likely that school teaching was not his life’s work. Indeed, after a couple of years he left us to join the Foreign Office and as someone pointed out, “now our American allies will be very firmly sat on”. His classes were very dull and he gave us homework such as “the foreign policy of King Henry IV” or similar unexciting subjects.

Mr Parr taught English in the lower school and he was one of the few masters to wear a gown (Pop Oliver, Mr Cooper and the Head, Dr Taylor, were the others). He was noted for his extremely uncertain temper. On occasion he would erupt into a frenzied rage, leaving him purple of face, inarticulate with fury and very likely to break a ruler on his desk. These outbursts did not relate in any way to the severity of the incident responsible. It was rumoured that he may have been shell-shocked in the first war and so we were relatively gentle with him. Small boys can be very cruel.

Mr. Smith taught Maths and General Science. He was a small man, with greying frizzy hair, spectacles, rabbity teeth (through which he hissed), a strong Scots accent and a singularly untrustworthy smile. He had a habit of repeating himself when meting out discipline. “Yoo buy! Cum oot on the flooorr”. He also taught usefully useless things, which of course I remember to this day. For example, P to eleven significant figures is reproduced by “How I wish I could recollect an artful dodge for maths”. Try saying that with a strong Scots accent!

Other masters’ names from the past include Carrington, Crossman, Spafford, Beynon, Cave, Abson, Sturgeon and Thomas. Mr. Beynon taught me Applied Maths, Mr. Cave, English and Mr. Thomas was the assistant gym master. Dr Abson was the Head before Dr Taylor. The others did not teach any of my classes.

Bullying is a hot topic at present. Habs was certainly not free of such activities and I can recall a small number of boys who were repeatedly victimized for no definable reason. On reflection, I would suggest that a prime cause of such bullying arose from the way in which the chosen victim responded to aggression, and not because they belonged to some ethnic, religious or social minority. I never sensed any real undercurrent of racial prejudice, even though our simplistic ideas about foreigners were coloured by the comics that we read. (Orwell’s essay describes it very well indeed). We took our schoolmates pretty much as we found them, irrespective of colour or background. Fist fights were not that uncommon, but they were usually to settle some score or grievance.

Sex was always a topic of great interest, but in the rather cloistered atmosphere of a boys-only school, first hand experience was virtually absent. By today’s standards we were a hopelessly repressed bunch of youngsters. Certainly there were a number of homosexual liaisons, but they were discrete and anyway were probably not of general interest. What sheltered lives we lived!

The School today
Poor Haberdashers in Westbere Road is looking very run down now [2001]; the old school field is covered with cheap cement classrooms, but the coat of arms is still intact at the base of the bell tower. It is now called “Hampstead School”. At Page Street, where the # 113 bus used to stop in almost rural surroundings, is now a complex, six-lane traffic junction, with an overpass. In its new splendour at Aldenham, the old school has its own web-site and I note that the fees are ca £8000 a year. In my day there were many scholarships available and relatively few parents paid very much in the way of fees.

The happiest days?
No, they were not the happiest days of my life. I chafed at the petty restrictions of school life and the war made for an uncomfortable daily round. But like the curate’s egg, parts of it were indeed excellent and those had a great influence on the rest of my life.

John Holmes - 2002