Chapter IX



I WAS STAYING with friends at Lee, near Ilfracombe, when war was declared. I had been told to wait where I was until sent for. So there I stayed until a telegram came ordering me to report at school the next day. I had only two or three days to pack, to send off my housekeeper and cat, lock up the house, and go off to Fairbourne in Merioneth. Many boys and masters had gone to Hartlington; from there a bus load, mostly Junior School, went to Fairbourne with Mr. Ince and Miss Jones. I am told it was a terrible journey in many ways.

I went by train on 11th September, taking with me 11 boys. The mother of one of the boys came with us. We had to change at Manchester, Chester and Ruabon, the journey seemed endless to Barmouth Junction. There, Eryl, the Headmaster’s younger daughter, met us in her car. There was a coal lorry for the boys, I went on the lorry which took us to the Hostel. One of the boys I brought was only eight years old, he had never been separated from his parents before. He was very homesick and often unconsolable. His elder brother used to come and ask if I could do anything to help when the youngster was in floods of tears. Tears were standing in his own eyes as he asked me. Before I had talked long to the small boy I was nearly crying myself! He wanted to go home, he hated the place and everything about it he said. The advent of Mr. Lee did much to comfort and console him—but both boys left Fairbourne at the end of the first term.

THE HOSTEL at Fairbourne was like a large bungalow, with a big central hall and dormitories on three sides of the hall. It had a large and very useful stage. In peace-time this building was used as a holiday home for young Methodists. There was one small fireplace, quite inadequate for heating the place in winter. Several paraffin stoves were bought, the working and lighting of these added variety to our lives. The hall was used as a dining-room, a playroom and a classroom. I say a classroom, but we had three forms in that room, so our lessons sometimes got mixed up. A boy in a class I was teaching once answered a question of Miss Jones’. She was at the other end of the room!

We used, too, the Church Room. A wooden building, about three minutes’ walk away, there we taught two forms. That was heated by a Tortoise stove, which made the form near it quite warm. Sometimes it smoked terribly and, on more than one occasion, silly boys tried to roast Indiarubbers on it. As a punishment, the master-in-charge ordered that the stove should not be lit. Then we all suffered! I shall never forget the weird walks, in complete darkness, we had after lessons during the first term. From the Church Room back to the Hostel there was a very uneven road with pot holes full of water, rain and wind lashing us, a few flashlights which we dared hardly use. The boys seemed to enjoy all the hazards; not so the grown-ups.

At the beginning of that first term we bathed a good deal. The sea bathing there was about as safe as anywhere, with a huge, smooth sandy beach. We did not start lessons until we had been there four or five days. In contrast to the poor, homesick boy, one cheerful M. D— (commonly known as ‘Dicky’) told me one night in the dormitory: “I think this is all just like a long summer holiday.”

MR. INCE was master-in-charge for the first year, and, with his usual benevolence, he decided that we were going to give the boys as good a time as we could, to make up for their having had to leave their homes. They were to be left to their own devices as much as possible. After two or three days, we found that this ideal arrangement did not work and we had orders from the Headmaster to maintain constant supervision.

Mrs. Ince joined us very soon, she was a constant source of strength. No job was too hard for her, she seemed to work all day without a break. She also took in hand, most efficiently, the First Aid.

Mrs. Terry Thomas came every day, helped in the kitchen and in the dormitories, and used to go back to her bungalow at Friog late at night. She also played the hymns on a piano with many mute notes!

Eryl was invaluable in the help she gave with games; she helped daily in the kitchen too. Later she joined the staff for a short time. She and I ran a most successful singing class, taking the whole of the school in the Church Room once a week. I do not know how much singing we taught them, but I know that they enjoyed themselves and so did we!

We had no paid helpers that first term, but everybody lent a hand in all sorts of ways. Relays of mothers used to come to help most willingly. But that arrangement obviously could not work.

I WAS NOT in residence, except when I was on holiday duty, but I had digs nearby. I had three different lots within a month. The first were very comfortable and I was very well fed, but they were above the butcher’s shop. There was plenty of meat in those days and the perpetual smell of it upset me. Also there were rats in the roof above my bedroom, they made a terrific noise at night!

The second rooms I left because of disturbed nights caused by young evacuees. Each time I moved a squad of boys helped me to carry my belongings. Then I went to Mrs. (Rosery) Jones, who was always most welcoming. I used to arrive at the Hostel about 7-30 and help to get the breakfast ready, specially help to cut up the hundreds of slices of bread we needed. We had about 80 boys that first term. Then I helped to pour out the tea; huge heavy teapots which had additional handles at the top, so you could use both hands. After breakfast there was the washing up, inspection of dormitories and other odd jobs, then teaching, which was a rest! At dinnertime we had to supervise the putting away of lesson books and the laying of the tables, help to serve the dinner, help with the washing up. After one lesson and games in the afternoon, we had the same work at teatime. After Prep. there were the boys’ baths, dormitory supervision and the cutting of toe nails! It was a hard day often lasting until 9-30 or 10-0.

For a few months Miss Jones took charge of the laundry. That was a big job. I have seen her on the stage, surrounded by garments of all kinds, struggling with a book and pencil and nearly tearing her hair.

We had many visits from parents. They were very good to all of us and too kind to their sons! The latter often had bad bilious attacks when they had gone, as well as further attacks of homesickness. It was upsetting and inconvenient. Sometimes parents left their boys too much pocket money, yet it was at their request that this money was limited to ninepence a week, distributed on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

IT WAS SOME time before we got used to the vagaries of the electric supply. The lights failed suddenly at most inconvenient times. The first time it happened was in the middle of tea. The boys enjoyed it, specially as one of us kept them quiet by telling ghost stories, while there was a wild search for candles and lamps. Some of the boys had probably never seen candles before. In a short time there was a smell of burning fat—several boys were trying to toast their bread and butter over the candles!

During and after a heavy storm the water supply would fail. The boys did not mind that, (fewer baths for one thing!)—they enjoyed fetching drinking water in a bucket from a spring about half a mile away.

We had no proper equipment for hockey that first term. We had only about six sticks for our first game and I, having lent my own stick, wielded a cricket bat and showed the boys how to play! There was a marvellous ‘playing field’—the huge stretch of sand when the tide was out. We played soccer most successfully—starting with a Rugger ball—excepting when the wind carried the ball out to sea!

It was Eryl, I think, who introduced ‘Stool ball’, that was popular. Then of course there were many other ball games, such as rounders. I was always asked to play, the boys told me it was a ‘mess’ when I did not—meaning there was a good deal of quarrelling.

FROM EARLY DAYS it was the custom for everybody to have a large cake on his birthday. Occasionally, when I was given a piece, a boy would enquire when it was my birthday and ask if I were going to have a cake. So I always had a huge one made by the local baker. It was a mathematical problem to divide that cake into as many pieces as there were boys, staff and helpers. The boys became very generous with their ‘tuck’ and sometimes very honest. Once I tried to refuse a piece of cake, the owner said: “Do have it. I don’t like it at all.”

Towards the end of the first term, when a few of the boys had already gone home in their parents’ cars, an aeroplane made a forced landing. I was refereeing for a football game at the time, saw the plane, obviously in difficulties, and the pilot looking for somewhere to land. The boys did the dottiest thing they could—ran towards it, or under it, in spite of my blowing the whistle more vigorously than I have ever done.

Mr. Andrews, who was with us for a short time, had taken some of the boys for a walk. He and they ran back at top speed to see the excitement. Neither airman was hurt but the ’plane was damaged. The boys helped to drag it up to safety above the sandhills. I had the impudence to invite the two men to spend the night at the Hostel (and was in consequence severely reprimanded). I did not do it for cheap popularity, though I got quite a lot. However, they did not come. They stood by their plane until they were fetched by an R.A.F. lorry. We brought them hot drinks and some food, somehow there was no Prep. that night! I was told that Mr. Ince had so decreed, he was most surprised when he heard that he had!

HAVING MANAGED to get 80 or more boys evacuated to Fairbourne the Headmaster thought they should stay safely there during the Christmas holidays. However, as there had been no signs of enemy bombing, the parents would not consent, even though the Headmaster told them how many of the boys were looking forward to seeing Mr. Ince as Father Christmas—this also was news to Mr. Ince.

I HAD TAKEN very many belongings with me to Fairbourne, helpful parents had brought many more—big things like my cycle, oil stove, deck chair—as the Headmaster had told me I was there for the duration of the war. Three days before the Easter Term started the Headmaster told me he wanted me back in Leeds! All the schools in Leeds had been closed that first term, many re-opened in January. The Headmaster must have had a stupendous and difficult task in closing down the school at Leeds, opening it again, in running two, later three evacuation centres and in dealing with the numerous problems and annoyances arising out of it all.

I was very annoyed, personally, at the time, as I had left nearly all my winter clothes at Fairbourne and the weather was bitterly cold. Also, I am ashamed to say, I was something of a coward and felt that Fairbourne was safer than Leeds. I was given three days off school, which allowed me one whole day to pack up and get all my things back and make arrangements for visiting parents to transport some.

So I missed one of the hardest terms at Fairbourne—easier, in that there were only between 40 and 50 boys, but hard because of the severe wintry weather. On my journey, I saw the Llangollen Falls frozen solid; later I saw the frozen foam on the beach. For several weeks all pipes at the hostel and in all the houses were frozen. Drinking water had to be fetched from the spring; washing-up water was obtained by collecting and melting snow. For bath water the boys had to carry sea water from the beach, to get to the sea they had, on more than one occasion, to dig their way through three feet of solid frozen foam. All this was much better than regular, uninterrupted lessons!

Once a boy piously (?) expressed the hope that they could have another winter like the first one. It is little to be wondered at that there was some skin trouble amongst the boys that second term.

ALL THIS TIME I was once again enjoying home comforts and the help of my dear old housekeeper. But I longed nostalgically for Fairbourne, even for the wind which blew through double doors at the front of my digs, lifting bodily the heavy mat I had put across the bottom of my sitting room door, in an effort to keep out the draught. I have never known rain as fierce as it was there. More than once it came right through my Burberry in a very short tune. The coal was poor, rather like the kind many of us are trying to burn now. I used to do beachcombing regularly—the sticks did burn and give some heat. I went into my digs with a bundle one Sunday afternoon. My landlady told me I should never go to Heaven when I died because I had desecrated the Sabbath in such a way.

IT WAS AT the end of this first term, I think, that our middle school boys were recalled from Ripon where they had been billeted in private houses and had attended Ripon Grammar School. One boy, whom I will call M—— was visited by his mother after he had been there a fortnight. The boy looked a grey colour and distinctly ill.

On closer inspection his mother found that it was just dirt. So she asked M—— if he had not had a bath. When he said he had not, she asked if there were a bathroom in the house and if he had been offered a bath. “Oh yes,” said M——, “she keeps asking me, but I say ‘No thank you’.”


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