The family financial outlook was transformed and Father could now easily afford to send us all to boarding schools, for which we had all been entered and which Ruth, and Dick were already attending. Ruth was at Bedford High School, and Dick had gone to Stowe in 1923 as one of the first 99 boys. Father left for Mexico late in 1925, having returned to India to settle up his affairs, and hand over to his successor, and I went to Stowe as a new boy in September 1924. Mother stayed on in England to see us settled in school, and then she too went to Mexico. Unhappily the marriage was already breaking up, Mother having fallen in love with Alan Gordon Walker, a High Court Judge in India, but it lasted a few more years before they finally parted.
Stowe had been started in 1923 by a public spirited body of wealthy and influential people, who thought that there was a need for a new Public School free of the traditions and conventions of the existing schools. They had purchased the house and very extensive grounds of Stowe, formerly the seat of the Dukes of Buckingham, in order to put their ideas into practise. They appointed as headmaster a 36 year old housemaster from Lancing College in Sussex called J.F.Roxburgh who later rose to be considered the leading headmaster in the country. He brought with him from Lancing a few boys to form a nucleus of a school, and the school was formally opened in 1923 with 99 boys.
The whole estate was perfect for use as a school,being about 2 miles from Buckingham, and the grounds of 600 acres contained 2 lakes, ample areas for playing fields, and numerous Grecian temples, and follies scattered about. The house was enormous, built in early Georgian times, with huge rooms containing beautifully decorated ceilings. There is no doubt that any boy educated there would appreciate Georgian architecture for the rest of his life.
Roxburgh was an unconventional headmaster and believed in no unnecessary rules or conventions such as existed in most public schools at that time, so that a lot of freedom was allowed, and out of classroom hours, boys, if not taking part in compulsory exercise or games could go anywhere at will providing they were present at roll call, or class, as the case might be.
My first term at school was something of a shock after my time at a small “dame” school, and I was lucky to have an older brother there to show me the ropes. I had passed the Common Entrance well, and found the work in my first term’s form easy. In the second term I was moved up several forms, due to my good grounding in Maths, which kept me near the top of my various forms for the whole of my school career, as it was marked highly in proportion to other subjects at the weekly reading out of orders.
Games were compulsory on all but 2 days a week, but unless one was playing in a picked team, one was left to choose what to do, and had to tick a form in the house room daily showing what exercise one had taken, and a false entry meant a beating by the head house prefect. I was useless at cricket, perhaps due to my blind eye, and hated it, as in my first summer term when doing compulsory fielding practice on a slipcatch, some sadist hurled a ball at me, and hit me full in the face, breaking my two front teeth, and making my nose bleed. Thereafter I was always in the very bottom lot of house games, which were usually played on one of the more distant fields, and as I got older I managed to get myself placed as a fielder in the deep whence I could often manage to sneak off to swim in the lake, which was my favourite summer passtime. In the winter I enjoyed rugger and running, but never really distinguished myself in these, a 2nd row forward in the house team being the pinnacle in rugger, but in cross-country running in my last year I did manage to come in 11th of the whole school, the winner that year being P.D.Ward who later ran in the Olympics for England, and I wasn’t all that far behind him!
There was very little bullying at school, and I suffered it only once in my first summer term when a nasty type called Luckock threatened to throw me in some nettles when we were out rabbiting; fortunately Dick was there, and hit him across the arm with a stick, breaking the arm, and so we had no further trouble from him or anyone else.
I have no very vivid memories of school, and have only kept occasionally in touch with those who were also at Cambridge with me, as I made new friends there.
The Masters at school I remember well, but I regret, not with affection. I had three successive house masters, the first the Rev. “Pop” Earle, who was fairly elderly, and soon moved to a new House, then a man called Arnold, who I heartily disliked as he had favourites, and needless to say I was not one of them, and finally another Parson called Playfair who was a much more sympathetic type, and was a four year Oxford rowing Blue. The first two were probably latent homosexuals, and indeed I well remember one occasion when I, David Niven, and a boy called Willes, who was rather pretty-pretty, were all doing extra Latin with Pop Earle in his room. Pop could obviously restrain himself no longer, and leapt on Willes much to my, and Niven’s amusement. Pop soon remembered where he was, and recovered himself with some lame excuse. Apart from this, I can honestly say that I never came across homosexuality at school , although I know that one or two boys were expelled for it during my time.
As mentioned previously, David Niven was a contemporary of mine, and we were very often in the same sets or forms, but he was in a different House. He was always the star of school concerts, and usually did an act with a boy called Keith, which was in great demand although it never varied much. At an O.T.C. Camp which we shared with Eton, and Monkton Combe, (vulgarly known as Monkeys Womb), the whole audience of perhaps 500 or more boys yelled another act off the stage with cries of “We want Niven”, continuing until he reappeared, and did another act.
The Officers Training Corps was compulsory unless one was flat footed or otherwise incapacitated, and in those days was for the Army only, and Infantry at that. There were once weekly drill, and weapon training parades, in uniform and boring. Roxburgh who had never served in any of the Forces was very keen on the O.T.C.and thought that it ought to have its own band. With this in view volunteers were called for, and I seeing what I thought would be an opportunity of avoiding drills etc. put my name forward. I am still mystified why I was accepted to play a fife, as I had no knowledge of, or interest in, music, and was given no kind of test, which I would have inevitably ignominiously failed. In due course I was given a fife, and told to practise with it, and I never managed to produce a single sound with it. Fortunately after about a year the idea of a band was dropped so that my deception was never revealed.
About once a term the O.T.C. had “field days” which involved going to some part or other of the country and there having imaginary battles with some other school or schools. I think our usual opponents were Radley or Eton and sometimes these battles became quite dangerous, as we were issued with the standard Army .303 Lee Enfield rifle, and blank ammunition. On at least one occasion, one of the opposing side had put a pencil down the barrel, and fired the blank, drilling a neat hole in one of our side’s caps. For the most part field days were a military shambles, as the Masters who masqueraded as Officers had very little idea of military tactics, and the boys just wanted to have fun. Looking back I can see how very badly we behaved sometimes, and I remember once, on returning by bus from a field day, and passing some cyclists riding with drop handlebars, and with bottoms in the air, one of us leaned out, and gave one of them a terrific whack with a swagger stick, which we all carried.
One of my other interests at school was riding, an interest that I acquired rather late after staying a winter holiday at a village called Ablington in Gloucestershire, with the people who ran a crammers at which Dick was studying for Cambridge, and at which I learnt to ride. At school I hired a horse from a local livery stables, and usually managed to ride at least once a week. We were encouraged to hunt especially when the Grafton met at the school and this I did as often as I could. I can hardly believe it now but I was fanatically interested in all things horsy and subscribed to Horse and Hound and read every possible book or paper on the subject. My ex house master Pop was a very keen horseman, and the music master, Mr Huggins became MFH of the Grafton. This enthusiasm for riding lasted until I was past 40 years of age, and I really learnt to ride well in the cavalry O.T.C.at Cambridge and later with my father in Mexico. The enthusiasm died when I returned to England after the War and had to chase my horse round the field at Stourton to saddle and bridle it, and I decided to give up riding for good.
Some time in 1928 I took the School Certificate, and got enough credits to pass into Cambridge, but there was still a college entrance exam to take. At about the same time Dick took the Littlego exam, an alternative exam for Cambridge, and passed it. Roxburgh then entered us both for Magdalene, and I was to take the Honours exam, while Dick took the ordinary College entrance exam. In due course I went up to Magdalene and took the exam and on leaving, left ten shillings with the head porter as was the custom, in order that he should send me a telegram at school to let me know whether I had passed or failed. After an anxious wait of a few weeks I got the telegram shortly worded “sorry failed”. Naturally I was devastated, as I thought that I had done well enough at least to get me in with the non Honours candidates, and went along to Roxburgh, and told him of my failure. He was very good to me. and furious with Magdalene, saying that he would never send another boy there. A few days later he sent for me and told me that he had had a letter from Magdalene, saying that not only had I passed in but that I had done so well that they were also going to admit Dick, as they did not wish to separate the brothers! Of course I never told Dick of this. Later when I went up to Cambridge, I taxed the Porter with his misleading telegram, and he explained that he had only looked at the list of ordinary candidates, which of course I was not on. I am sorry to admit that that exam was the summit of my scholastic achievements, and it is still a matter of regret to me that I completely wasted my time at Cambridge, as far as learning went , and worked only just enough to get an ordinary degree.
Having passed the necessary exams I spent one more term at Stowe, but was not required to attend classes, but expected to read in my study, and otherwise occupy myself usefully with a few other boys who were in the same position. We had in consequence a wonderful Easter term with complete freedom to go where we liked, hunting rabbits in the beautiful Stowe grounds, riding, and playing Squash.
After Father had moved to Mexico the break up of our parents’ marriage became a reality, and Mother returned from Mexico to tell us that they had decided to divorce. We had known for some time that this was likely, and so it did not come as much of a shock. Father had hoped that the move to Mexico, and away from India, would enable them to become reconciled, but Mother was bored with the Anglo-Mexican way of life and pined for Gordon-Walker, and so they had decided to part when we all had finished school.
During the last summer holiday at Stowe, Dick and I went to Mexico to see our parents, and Ruth, who had gone out earlier. We travelled on a Holland America liner to New York, called the S.S. Volendam and Father met us in N.Y. We stayed two nights at the Pennsylvania Hotel, at that time quite grand, and, having two or three clear days to wander about, we on one of these went to Coney Island, then a giant amusement park, and in the course of the afternoon were attracted to a gambling game being played, around which a lot of men were gathered, and which consisted of a roulette wheel and one was invited to bet on which number the ball would end up.We foolishly placed our bets doubling up each time we lost, which was every time except the first. Of course it was not very long before we had lost every dollar on us, leaving not a cent with which to get back to the hotel. We were desperate, and it dawned on us that the game was crooked, so not knowing what to do, we approached a large policeman swinging a night stick, and he, after giving us a good ticking off for being so stupid, marched us over to the stall we had played at, where the crowd round it quickly melted away, and said to the operators, “are you going to give these guys their money back, or are you going to show me your license?” After some protests they finally gave us our money back, and we left for the town as quickly as we could. We both learned a lesson we never forgot.
From New York we went by train in Pullman carriages to Mexico City, a journey that took five nights. It was very interesting to us, who had not visited the States before, but I can imagine that it must have been very tedious for Father, as we did not get many opportunities to get out and have a walk around. The Pullman seats turned into an upper and lower bunk at night and the lower one was the one most sought after as one could get out to walk about without disturbing the other occupant. The first night, Dick, after cleaning his teeth, went to his reserved lower bunk, and found a woman in it, much to his embarassment.She had obviously calculated that he being very young, would meekly climb into the upper bunk, but she was wrong, and he called the porter, and had her turfed out in her nightie, much to her embarassment, and our amusement.
We had a most interesting, and happy holiday in Mexico, but sadly I had to return to school after 6 weeks to take the School Certificate, while Dick stayed on for another three months. Father took me as far as San Antonio in Texas, and after that I made my way to N.Y. on my own but I can remember nothing of the journey except that I sailed home on the Veendam, a sister ship to the one in which we travelled out.