Kingsfield memories from Mark 'Buster' Carpenter
There were three brothers in the Carpenter family - all three went to Kingsfield. We went down as a trio to see Mr and Mrs Sobey around 1975 after they retired, together with our wives and offspring. The Sobeys were told only once the names of the six or seven children … and they needed no reminders. Their gift for getting alongside youngsters was well in place. Strangely enough, it was not an afternoon of endless reminiscence. But Wilf Sobey did say that the final year of the school was a ‘little quaint’ with only a handful of boys attending.
And he recalled when he found out at a time when my brothers were boarding, about a midnight feast which was planned. Rather than banning it, he joined them and, characteristically, contributed to the fun!
He also confided that “Juicie” Jacobs was never very keen on his nick name. It seems ,his surname being Jacobs, that it worried him that it might be construed as “Jewcie” and in those days, war or no war, attitudes over semitism were still ambivalent.
Mr Jacobs taught Latin and succeeded in getting an astonishingly high standard out of his students in a subject which was not popular: it has stood me in very good stead for my whole life. The Latin lesson on the last day of term was always a special treat: the primers were put away and we were treated by this shy but gentle man to tales of Greek heroes and the Punic Wars. We were on the edge of our seats. He seemed rather a dry fellow to the boys but this belied a kind man. I remember one winter when I fell over on a slide we had made in the snow and my hands had run across the ice, freezing my fingertips. The concern in his eyes was visible as he took this whimpering 9-year-old to a basin in the cloak room and ran in some warm water for soaking my hands in to return the circulation. “It must be luke warm, not hot. D’you see?” he explained.
Miss Flint mostly taught Forms 1 & 2. She had a lovely deep voice with beautiful diction and had the air of being rather severe. Which I don’t believe she was. She left school for a year and came back married to a Polish man rejoicing in the name of (something like) Mrs Baczikovska. The war was still not long over and it all seemed wonderfully exotic.
Miss Date taught Scripture… as did Mr Sobey from time to time (his Bible quizzes were vigorous occasions). She told Bible stories like no one I have met since with loads of gusto, humour and an obvious love for her subject. She also taught art and I remember one lesson when she warned us that we should not suck the brush as “Paint is poisonous”. Which some of it was in those days - green contained arsenic for instance: quite a thought for the Health and Safety folk now. Prefects wore little yellow scallop shell badges and Miss Date once enquired of a boy who had recently been appointed a sub-prefect whether subs wore any special badge. When the boy explained that they didn’t wear anything, she remarked that they should, then, be quite easy to identify.
One of the biggest influences on surely every boy in the forties and fifties was that of Godfrey Frank Pullen. A very talented man. At 60 (which in the1950s was considered pretty ancient by even 60 year olds) he was unbelievably athletic. He taught gym, cricket, boxing (another one for the Health and Safety people), football, athletics and swimming. And all of them very well. He also taught Geography and English. Like so many people in physical education, he could be very harsh but he was a fount of all wisdom. You could ask and get accurate answers about everything from technology to English sentence construction, from Current Affairs to cookery. He seems to have been an officer in the Great War. He was a brilliant raconteur - his adventure and school stories had been published (Three Stout Fellows and Me was one). The tale goes that during one riveting account he gave in class of a wartime exploit he had starred in, one boy, transfixed by the excitement, was prompted to ask “Gosh! And did you get killed, Sir?” The tale, I later learned, had been perpetrated by Pullen himself.
Miss Jean Stewart taught Form 3 and I remember being rather afraid of her. Looking back, I don’t know why as I don’t recall getting into trouble with her, although she was quite strict. It is to my chagrin that I remember feeling slightly more secure when she died quite suddenly (from a serious illness).
The Music mistress was Mrs Nina Harford. And, again, she was very good. The annual Schools Music Festival at Watford Town Hall was an event which Kingsfield always came out of rather well. We consistently walked off with a win for Percussion Band - I think Mrs Harford had a real gift for picking good tunes, and was streets ahead of the others in arranging them around percussion instruments. And it was always conducted by a boy - Neil McLaren being especially notable in this respect. She formed a lunch time music club in which we were treated to gramophone record concerts ( about 4 or 5 two-sided discs to a symphony) and the occasional recital by a visiting professional. And a tea party or two at her house at which we might listen to “Sparky’s Magic Piano” after which the tone of the evening was brought down by Mickey, her son, also at the school, slipping in How Much is that Doggy in the Window?
We had a term or two with a young New Zealander, Mr Lawson, who was very popular. He had his own style of teaching History and Geography. And his Antipodean accent was an immense novelty. And Mr Mullins was there for a while teaching History when I was in Form 4. He said he would be 72 at the turn of the century… I do hope you have made it Mr Mullins. Mr Hyland was another History master: he could be rather grumpy, but had a way of treating the boys like real adults and this was appreciated.
Joe was the caretaker who also took football from time to time. I remember the many times he would scatter damp sand impregnated with disinfectant on the floors to sweep them. His wife Phyllis (?) was a darling and worked in the kitchen. I used to spend time at the kitchen window chatting to her as she did the washing up with Mrs Braddock. By hand.
There were two sittings for Lunch, then in a substantially sized room in the main house. Grace was said before and after the meal - Jacobs preferred the English “for what we are about to receive…” but when Sobey said it he would use “Benedictus…”. When he wanted to call the boys to silence during the meal for some announcement, he would bang a spoon or a salt cellar on the table. One boy experimented by knocking a spoon on his own table starting quietly and building up in a crescendo - but was appalled when the assembled lunch eaters suddenly went quiet.
Actually the food at Kingsfield in the fifties, while not like Mum makes by a long chalk, was quite acceptable post war fare. I had two favourites. Pea soup which was deliciously thick. It was followed by cold roast from the previous day in the same plate which I was not keen on. But this was made acceptable by leaving a little of the soup in the plate to use as gravy. The other dish all the boys loved was date slice. The Kitchen could not be separated from the recipe, despite blandishments from boys who wanted Mum to make it: it remained a secret.
Back to Joe whose favourite remark when you went into long trousers was, “Are those long shorts or long shorts?” He found this immensely amusing. Towards the end of the autumn term he would put up the stage for the School Play/s, This was a very ingenious piece of trestle carpentry with the curtain and proscenium made from barrage balloon material. He also made some of the larger items of scenery. There were cake-tin footlights and bright spot lights and it was all very grand and exciting.
The plays created an exciting diversion in the morning assembly routine, because the gym would be filled with sets of collapsible seating for the period of the occasion. Normally we would stream into the empty gym to the sound of Bow Bells, broadcast on a huge wireless set at the morning start of the BBC Home Service and sit cross legged on the floor in four ranks representing the four Houses: North, South, East and, well, West. The staff would sit in a row along the wall of an open passage flanking the gym, between a tiny resource room and a board on the wall recording each boy’s achievements. This was a kind of incentive system logged by stars next to a boy’s name - including black stars for misbehaviour - and listed by House to add an element of competition. At Assembly there would be announcements by Sobey from the front - like a half day holiday in honour of a scholarship winner - a Bible reading, a hymn, briskly accompanied by Mrs H - or less briskly by a boy - prayers and dismissal. On one occasion during prayer, a boy emitted a fart. It was loud but it was the reverberation of it which was peculiarly remarkable. It seemed to echo round the entire school including the grounds. Although there were some suppressed sniggers at the time, nobody talked about it afterwards. Being God-fearing chaps, I think we felt that when it came to prayers God wasn’t into flatulence.
Not that lavatory humour was without a presence in the urinal block outside the pupils entrance. Although, thanks to Joe’s regular ministrations with Jeyes Fluid, this was quite clean, it was painted black. Which made it rather unsavory somehow. There were the inevitable competitions to see who could aim highest up the wall, the benchmark being the horizontal pipe from which there was a steady stream of water into the trough below. The door had the bidding pinned to the back of it in red and black to “Now wash your hands” in the basin provided with Lifebuoy carbolic soap. The door had a simple spring closer which made it slam very loudly. The saying “She bangs like…etc” gives me a smile, reminding me of that place although it sported only a urinal and I don’t remember any gales while I was at Kingsfield.
Going to the cinema was frowned upon - it was packaged entertainment which was an uncreative use of young brains and anyway cinemas were considered a bit grubby. But, every so often, we would be treated to an Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy film in the gym. The sound equipment, the clatter of the projector shutter and the acoustic of the Gym made it difficult to hear the dialogue - but nobody minded. It was fun to watch and there were no lessons. There might also be a visit from an Interesting Speaker, like the deep sea diver who rejoiced in the name of Captain Scott. He showed us pictures of the undersea world on the magic lantern and brought along some of his equipment. This included dummy sticks of dynamite, which, having explained how unstable they were, he fumbled with and nearly dropped, drawing apprehensive gasps from some of the boys - including me.
The most notable national events during my time at Kingsfield were the death of the King and the Coronation. It is not until you look back that you realize how naturally patriotism was part of the boys’ culture. It was not just the loss of a King whose unstinted devotion to his duty - however unsuited he felt to the role - played such a part in getting the country through a war. None of us remembered much of that anyway. It was more than the personality focused scrutiny given to monarchy today: he was The Country and most of the boys felt his passing touched them personally. The yellow ties were replaced by black and the radio broadcast of the funeral was listened to in complete silence in the gym even though it must have lasted at least an hour. A year later, the Coronation was occasion for a day off and coincided with the conquest of Everest by a Brit. So it was generally agreed to be a Very Good Thing . There was much heated discussion among the boys about who was getting a television to watch it all on - Ultimate Status.
Before the Coronation, television was not really taken seriously, But comics were viewed by the school authorities with real distrust and eventually a ban was brought in on all of them except The Eagle (which had a Christian editor) and the Children’s Newspaper (which wasn’t a comic). I was addicted to Lion and on one occasion smuggled a copy into the loo for a quiet read during Break. When I went into the lesson afterwards I discovered I had left it in there. Horrors. I slipped out between lessons to collect it, but bumped into Mr Pullen emerging from the cubicle carrying it. He said nothing. But the expression on my face must have told him.
Of course, the character that dominated all the proceedings was Mr Sobey himself. Mrs Sobey was quite reserved and not informidable. But he was larger than life - certainly to the boys. Frightening when angry, which was rare, he positively radiated good humour at most lessons. He taught Maths and French. Who could forget the cheerful “Pom pom pey” he would sing in the corridor outside the 5th and 6th class rooms. It would be followed by a loud bang as he burst open a fresh packet of exercise books drawn from the stationery cupboard there. And who could forget the “Vocabulaire” game where all the boys stood in a row and answered questions, a boy shuffling up the row when he answered the question of a previous boy stumped by one. It was all conducted in the very highest spirits. For a while, he brought in a Ma’mzelle to brush up our accents - well a Madame actually - Madame Mautelen, instantly christened “Madame Motorlaunch”. She was a great hit with the boys… genuine French, quite plump and pretty.
I was a duffer, particularly at Maths and my early schooldays were not easy. I must have been the subject of concern, but have no recollection of being held up as a fool. When you hear of stories of the humiliation some teachers can wreak, I realise that Sobey must have had an exceptional understanding of the minds of pre-teen boys. He knew that to add to my discomfort was going to be of no help and he treated all boys with a respect due to any sentient human beings. And this approach pervaded the attitude of the whole teaching staff.
An interesting insight into Wilfred Sobey’s nature concerned an incident I was involved in which implicated one of my contemporaries, Paul Leppard. We were going home as usual from Bushey and Oxhey station and I must have had a temporary lapse of sanity. Against the advice of Leppard, I decided to sit on the edge of the platform with my feet dangling over the edge. We were spotted by a porter and, of course, it was reported to the school. In the meeting later convened by Sobey of all boys who used the railway it was announced that a boy had misbehaved on the station the day before and would he please step forward. I have to admit I was slow in doing so, as I reasoned that I hadn’t REALLY misbehaved. He had to spell out the nature of the lunacy before I owned up which added to my culpability. But the ensuing debate over my punishment dragged out over a week or so, because a caning was the only suitable option (would the Child Protection Officer please leave the room) and Sobey hated corporal punishment, trying to get my father to do it. And Father refused to - he didn’t like it either. Eventually, one day after school, Sobey asked me to walk with him to his study in the House. On the way he selected a cane in the garden, announcing, “I’m afraid that I must punish you for what you have done.” I received six of the best and it was all over: never referred to again. My greater embarrassment now is the fact that all the boys turned on Leppard who was a bit older than me (but only a month or two) for not preventing it. Indeed he was accused of daring me which was not true at all. But to my shame I did not intervene. As it happens, Paul turned the other cheek and did not face me with this. He and I remained friends for the rest our days there. Sorry, Paul.
An incident which amused Sobey immensely happened when I stayed back for an afternoon the day before a Sports Day. He had noticed that the moss in the hanging flower baskets was looking a bit moth eaten. So he took me down to the stationer’s shop in Bushey, where we bought a tin of green powder paint. He set me to the task of going round painting all the moss in the hanging baskets a nice fresh green. He was still chuckling about it the next term.
He had been a star rugby player (England, I think), yet soccer was the staple sport at Kingsfield in winter. Nobody understood why, as we would all play rugby when we went on to Public School. I was later told that having in his career as an International seen the appalling injuries some men had sustained in the game, Sobey felt that he should be more solicitous of his charges’ safety.
The annual exam time and the Boxing tournament were times I dreaded. For the former the desks were all moved into the Gym for the older boys and a real exam atmosphere was generated for the occasion, sometimes with the presence of an external invigilator. All excellent experience for the Common Entrance of course. But memory still gives me a clear picture of those dreaded purple inked exam papers.
And as for the Boxing … As it happens, we were regularly honoured by the presence of no less a man than W Barrington Dalby who would comment on the bouts. But I never really appreciated being on the receiving end of someone’s begloved fist.
But I did like swimming. And at Kingsfield we were blessed with our own swimming pool. Public baths were not approved of, especially indoor pools, being incubators of veruccas, athlete’s foot, and, bearing in mind that Dr Salk had not yet completed in his macabre research, polio. There was no pump and filter for the school pool and the water was changed once or twice during the term - so the dangers from the bacteria level sometimes were probably even more prevalent than in the public pools. But we all survived and very few boys were not able to swim before long, thanks to the little pool and Mr Pullen’s iron tuition. Indeed, we learned simple life saving. A special treat was to bully your parents into allowing you to stay back for High Tea. Following the tea and after the story read to you while it went down, you could have a swim, with only two or three others sharing the pool. One boy who went on to make it quite big in swimming was Roger Harford, Nina’s elder son. There was a story, which is possibly true as it did not originate among the boys, that Roger lost his swimming trunks during a race in a contest at Watford Baths after he had left Kingsfield. He continued the race, back stroke and all, and they switched the pool lights off after it so that he could get out of the water with some dignity.
There were plenty of light moments. And it is interesting that those things which we found most amusing were really incredibly simple. Fountain pens were infinitely losable, although some boys used a Platignum … unless you were a show off and had a Parker 51. So most of us used a dip pen. Leppard has reminded me that you could make a Festival of Britain Skylon model by sticking one of these pens into a rubber and standing it on the desk. The variations that could be created by adding decoration or altering the angle from which it stuck out of the rubber seemed to be endless - and no doubt a subject of innocent ribaldry for some. And it gave you plenty of opportunity to nudge for attention during a lesson, the boy next to you on one of the double desks. Interestingly, even now, with the great sophistication of products now available, children continue to enjoy simple devices they have created themselves - something which manufacturers might do well to note. Then, as now, there were toys to show off with and those to play with.
Sports Day at the end of the Summer Term was the major event of the year and it suited me well. I was hopeless at ball games but was a fast sprinter and efficient jumper and it gave me a chance to emerge from the shadows for a while. But it was not just a time of demonstrations of athletic prowess by the boys: there was a handing out of prizes in all fields of achievement and speeches including one from a Person of Note. And (horrors) a chance for parents to discuss your progress with the masters/mistresses while you knocked back juice made from lemonade powder in one third pint milk bottles with Swiss buns and fish paste sandwiches, and generally fooled about at the bottom of the garden.
My times at Kingsfield were not by any means always happy: there were plenty of low points. My lack of academic progress reached a climax when I had a succession of illnesses, one of which nearly finished me off. What to do with the youngest Carpenter, was a matter of considerable discussion and Sobey eventually took the decision to keep me down in Form 5 for a second year. It was an unpopular decision with both my parents and my contemporaries. But how wise! Carpenter Minimus turned out to be a late starter and it was plain sailing for the next two years. When I went up to Senior school I found that the Kingsfield methods had taken me up to near O Level in Latin. And, in all other subjects, I was well ahead of the rest - some of them from very posh schools. So my new school got me to skip a year and I took the GCEs at 14, gaining back the year Mr Sobey so prudently held me down for at prep school.
When my father presented my brothers to the school during the War, Sobey admitted that the enterprise would “only just about see him out”. He was right. The changing system and social order was already well under way when I started and it is to his credit that he kept the show on the road for another twenty years. People thought the big social revolution followed the First War when the servants returned from the front lines. But the class barriers were still breaking down in the middle of the last century. Big time. But then, if you were not grammar school material, the State alternative was nowhere near as good as it is now. Private education was seen as the only way a parent, whether shopkeeper, bank clerk or solicitor, could give a child a “good start in life”. And for many families this would mean going without a car for a start. Still, a fair amount of snobbery prevailed occasionally among the boys, but I do not recall any hint at it from the staff. One boy who spoke what would now be classified as Estuary English had a pretty rough time from the rest of us. Something which would have shocked Sobey if he had known.
The age of eleven, not thirteen, would become the more usual time - even in the private sector - to go up to most senior schools. Most private education establishments have their own preps now and the need for the Kingsfield education style has more or less disappeared.
But there is no doubt in my mind that WHS did a very good job indeed: he offered much more than an education based on exam results. He was interested in bringing out well-rounded little chaps and he succeeded. Anyone who has read Arthur Marshall’s enormously entertaining book about the English prep school (not Kingsfield!) will see that we came out of the system very well with Kingsfield.
The memory of this colourful and gifted character and of the six years of my “leading out” in his care stands out very sharply in the sixty I have lived to date.
Thank you, Soap Flakes!