Interviewed by Jon Corrall
We were delighted to have you as our guest of honour at the OHA dinner this year on this 50th anniversary of the move to Elstree. As Headmaster, Tom was President of the Association and is a legend in the history of Haberdashers’ because he had the vision to move the school to its present site and to create the school we know today.
How was life different at Haberdashers’ from the previous school?
MT. We used to live in Bath and we were very happy there. Tom enjoyed the music there. It is a beautiful Georgian city. Tom was sad to leave Bath but was very excited to be coming to Haberdashers’. When we first moved we had to buy somewhere to live and we bought in Hampstead Garden suburb, and remained there until the Headmaster’s House was built some years later after the move; it was the last thing to be finished. Tom had a difficult journey to school and it was very inconvenient for the girls as they had to get to Edgware to North London Collegiate, and in order to catch the bus from Golders Green they had to cross Hampstead Heath and then walk at the other end. It kept them terribly healthy.
What are your most vivid memories of the move to Elstree in 1961?
MT: First of all there was the planning. I remember Tom on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning together with two members of staff drawing up the plans for the new school. Tom bought, (and later sold) some lorries in order to move all the musical instruments, the school records and apparatus. The boys and staff helped move all the equipment. I’ve read that it took three days to complete the move, but in fact it was much longer than that, and the whole experience was pretty traumatic. The old House (Aldenham House) was pretty scruffy and it smelt of old cabbage. You could see the muddy fields from Tom’s office. But it was quite central and he was very aware of what was happening in the school.
Did you and your family enjoy living at the School in Elstree?
MT We were never lonely. We had a big family and I practised physiotherapy. I needed that pocket money as the salary was not all that generous. We enjoyed a very full family life in school, and our daughters got on very well with the boys. On the other hand our daughters had great difficulty travelling to their schools as the Girls’ School did not arrive at Elstree until later. Before the Girls’ School was built we had a wonderful view across the field to the church on Elstree Hill. Liz, my daughter, used to live here with her husband who was very scruffy. Tom used to get reports that there was a tramp around the campus, and he explained it was his son in law.
Did your life with Tom change much when you came to Elstree?
MT: Enormously because there we were on the spot. He came home for supper and would then go back to school again in the evening. He used to do the timetable, using a huge pin-board – always dangerous with a lot of children around. As far as computers are concerned, I’m quite illiterate, but Tom would have loved computers. He would have been a real whizz-kid.
There was a Boarding house in those days. Did you as a family get involved in the boarding house?
MT: I was given strict instructions by Tom ‘Not to get involved.’ Nevertheless our daughters and particularly Jenny used to invite boys back to the house on a Saturday evening and give them coffee and biscuits, as many as a dozen at a time, and they rather took over. No alcohol, of course. Peter Squire, who was the Boarding House Master used to ring us up, and say: ‘Has your daughter still got my boys over there?’ and he’d ask for his boys back.
Was there much socialising amongst staff in those days?
MT: We used to invite all staff to the house every term – we did a tremendous amount of entertaining and there was no allowance for this. We paid for all the hospitality; it was all taken from the kids’ rations. People were very friendly, and I remember in particular when my father in his last years lived with us and was always invited to go and join classes and activities. He used to talk to the Prep boys about fossils which were his speciality. Tom loved the staff and the boys’ parties which were a regular feature of school life.
Which of the extra-curricular activities did Tom think brought most benefit and which of the activities did you both most enjoy?
MT: Tom was particularly keen on drama and music. We toured the school play to Pforzheim and Offenburg in a coach and two mini-buses. Tom drove one of the minibuses and Ted Sproat the other. Ted was very popular as he made tea and coffee at every stopping point. Tom loved using his fluent but archaic German. I used to make a lot of the costumes. We took our son, Jeremy, and we put him on the stage with the others. Simon Stuart was quite happy to have my son as part of the crowd. The German pupils used to come back on exchanges. We were made very welcome in these delightful cities of half-timbered houses and vineyards stretching down to the town, and wondered what they would make of Borehamwood. In fact they loved it! They stayed with families and used to go down to the pub!
As well as music and drama – Tom played the piano well, and we played duets, but I wasn’t good enough! -Tom was also keen on the model railway society, though I think the model railway no longer exists.
Sport was not really his strength, but he always went out to support the school teams. I never really understood rugby and found it very cold. Matron used to make delicious scotch pancakes, and when our children went out to watch the rugby I had to stop them scoffing the lot as they were made for staff.
What sort of school do you think Tom was trying to create? Did he feel he had succeeded?
MT: At the beginning Tom had a very difficult relationship with the Chairman of Governors, and he thought he was going to lose his job. But later, despite frustrations, he generally got what he wanted. He was very happy at the school. It was a great thrill for Tom to realise his ambition and create the new school. He was a very private person. He never discussed school business with me – unlike some of the staff and their wives! – but I know he was particularly proud that the school at Elstree entered a new league after the school had been struggling somewhat in Hampstead. Habs. became a top public school. He felt that establishing music as a major part of the school’s reputation was an important achievement.
Which members of the teaching staff did Tom feel made a particular impact on the school?
MT: He worked very closely with Bill Crossman (who had a House shield named in his memory) and Dai Barling. Bill thought Tom a bit liberal as Tom was reluctant to cane boys. Tom hated having to beat a boy. Bill Crossman used to do this for him without a second thought.
What was Tom's relationship with the anonymous donor who funded many of the new buildings?
MT:Tom’s other great contribution was to find the anonymous donor who gave so many buildings to the school. Mr Diggins, as we later were able to disclose, did not want his own name associated with the buildings, but he did name the Seldon Hall after his agent. I met him once and found him very courteous and charming. Tom was very proud to have the music school named after him. There is a bronze bust of Tom, made by Laurence Broderick in the music school, and I have a cast of it as well. He was an Old boy, and Tom though he should follow this up, and he did follow it up and suggested all sorts of projects such as the music school. The school would not be the place it is today without the anonymous benefactor.
How did Tom relax at the end of a school day?
MT: He never did relax. The school was his whole life and he did not want to retire, but at 65 the Governors insisted. He then took on a consultancy job in London until he was 70 and earned more money at that than he had as Headmaster!
We also put on concerts in the Hall with very famous international artists, including the Yehudi and Hepsibar Menuhin, Myra Hess and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The Hall was always full for these top-class concerts and the boarders helped with parking. I was particularly annoyed when the Menuhins were here that Tom could not join us for lunch as a boy in the boarding house had gone missing.
How has the school changed over the years?
MT: It is not really my place to answer this, but it is a great thrill always to be made so welcome and to know that Tom was instrumental in setting up the school as it is today. It really was his life-time’s work.