Memories of Bec School
Author: Peter Tomblin
joined the student body of Bec School at age 11, during the middle
of World War II. At that time the main body of the school was
evacuated to Lewes, in Sussex and a small contingent was still
operating at the original site of the school, on Beechcroft Road,
Tooting. I think there was about 175 students and perhaps 20 staff.
There were no fifth or sixth forms at this location as all the boys
in the older intakes were in the evacuated group of the school. The
acting headmaster of the school was Mr. Bennett who normally taught
French, and had been brought out of retirement to look after this
small group in London.
been evacuated to Reading, Berkshire for the previous three years,
and allowed to come back to London because there was a lull in the
bombing at that time and it seemed to my parents that it was
reasonably safe to bring my sisters and me back home. It wasn’t long
before they regretted the move as the raids heated up, and we spent
a lot of nights in the air raid shelter. There was also a large air
raid shelter on the school property, where we were sent to when
there was a warning of an imminent raid in the area.
teachers I can remember from that time were:-
|Mr. Bennett Acting
Headmaster, French and Divinity.
||I was very
impressed with his divinity class because we were free to discuss
any beliefs we chose provided we could defend our views logically.
|Mr. Cox History.
||And anything else he felt inclined
to reminisce about.
||He had published a number of books on Geography,
one of which was the textbook for our 1st year class.
Popham Phys Ed, and Games.
||Mr. Popham was the only master on the
staff who did not wear a tie. All the other male teachers on the
staff always wore a white shirt and a tie, but Mr. Popham was always
in an open necked shirt. Very unusual for the 1940s in England when
even garbage collectors wore a tie when working.
||I remember one occasion when he
asked the 3rd
form science class if anyone could get him a pregnant cat for
was also Mr. Sullivan, the school caretaker, who lived in the rather
large house next to the school gates. At one time Mr. Sullivan’s
young daughter contracted double pneumonia, which at that time was a
very serious, life threatening disease. Antibiotics were in their
infancy and not readily available. We were asked to maintain
complete silence when in the playground near the Sullivan’s house
for several weeks. Eventually the little girl recovered, and things
returned to normal.
The school was very well equipped, with 3 science labs, a very good
gymnasium, a big auditorium suitable for plays, school assemblies
and special presentations, which also served as the school
cafeteria. There was a craft shop for wood and metal working. There
was a pavilion for sports teams, with showers and changing
facilities and equipment storage. There was a large sports field
with a 440 yard track, and pitches for rugby and cricket. These were
the only sports which were really approved
at this time, soccer being regarded as somewhat
was an interest in competitive swimming for which we had to travel
to the Latchmere Baths in Battersea. I was at one time the captain
of swimming for Delta house, which was just as well as I did not
shine in any of the other school approved sports.
I have described elsewhere the effect of the war on Bec School. We
were lucky not to have been damaged by the bombing, but we lost many
of our alumni to active duty in the armed forces, and quite
frequently the morning assembly would include the reading of the
names of the dead or injured. At the end of my first year in the
school the Germans introduced the V-1 bombs which were pilotless
aircraft using a crude form of jet propulsion. These weapons arrived
in such a relentless stream that it became impractical to continue
classes, and we were told to report to the school once a week to
pick up assignments for each subject which we would work on at home
ready to hand in the following week. However my parents took me out
of school at this time and sent me to the comparative safety of
Yorkshire, before returning to Bec early in the following year. We
were still subject to bombing and rocket attacks which eased off a
bit due to damage being inflicted on the launch sites by the RAF and
At the beginning of the 1944-’45 school year the main part of the
school returned to London from Lewes where they had been evacuated,
to the London site. This was a major change in the life of the
school as we went from about 175 students to close to 500, and a
corresponding expansion of the teaching staff. Mr. Stanley Gibson,
who had been the headmaster since the founding of the school in 1926
took over this function for the combined school, and it was quite
amazing how quickly the organization returned to normal. The changes
were most significant for us, the boys who had remained in London.
We had to get used to having a fifth and sixth form, prefects with a
lot more authority than we had been used to and teachers who were
more likely to be specialists in their subject. There were still
teachers who did not return to their teaching positions at this time
as they were still ‘On His Majesty’s Service’ as we said in those
days. Soon after the end of the war in Europe the remaining staff
members started to return. Among the names I remember were:-
H. Watkins Shaw.
For some time after his return to
civilian life he insisted in teaching in
his major’s uniform, complete with
swizzle stick. He would use his swizzle
stick to inflict punishment on
inattentive students. I remember one
incident in his class when the BBC was
going to broadcast the world premiere of
Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes.”
that night . He had set an
assignment for homework and we all told
him that we would not be able to do this
because we all planned to be listening
to “Peter Grimes” “Very well”, he said
“you may each write me a 6 page summary
of the opera, and have it ready for
tomorrow’s class.” He eventually left
teaching to become a director of musical
education for the Hampshire Board of
Education, He prepared an arrangement of
Handel’s Messiah for which he became
well known, and his arrangement is still
in use today.
||Taught English. In later life I would regard Bill Lease as the
best teacher I ever had, although I did not think so at the time. He
instilled in me an appreciation of Shakespeare and a great regard
for the English language.
||Taught Latin and Greek.
A great classics scholar. He wrote the
words to the Bec School Song (Illis Ut Orantibus). I was never
in his classes but I knew him because he was the housemaster for
Delta House, and I was captain of the house swimming team.
||Taught art. Good
teacher, with a good sense of humour.
Taught us to be very painstaking. I once
spent several months making a basic
small wooden box because of his
insistence on precision. Looking back,
it was a good training for life.
senior chemistry mainly to the sixth
form Very good teacher.
Unfortunately Mr. Martin suffered from
what would be called today Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder, although in
those days it was always referred to as
Shell Shock. Mr. Martin was a nervous
wreck from the trenches in WW1. and
should not have been teaching as he was
totally incapable of controlling a
M. Eileen Morris
||Taught biology. A later
addition to the staff, she was an
attractive young lady not much older
than the sixth form boys she taught.
We spent a lot of time trying to get out
of her what the M. in her name stood
for. As she wouldn’t tell us, she was
widely known as Miranda, after a popular
movie of the time. While at the school
she married another member of the staff
and became M. Eileen Allen.
|| Taught History.
Very dour, humourless man. Also
involved in organizing cricket events.
were of course quite a lot more teachers but these are the ones I
1945 the war in Europe was over and the school slowly reverted to
its pre-war condition. The air raid shelter disappeared and the front
lawn was landscaped once more. I don’t remember any parking areas
for cars, but lots of room for bicycles. I was a keen cyclist and
usually rode my bicycle to school. On one occasion we found that a
new cycle shed had been provided and that the concrete slots in
which one was supposed to place one’s bicycle wheel was too wide and
would allow a bicycle with thin sports type wheels to lean over and
bend the wheel. Somehow I was designated to go to the headmaster’s
office and point out this problem to him. He was quite sympathetic
but it was a long time before anything was done to fix the problem.
point as we progressed through the school we were under pressure to
sign up for the Army Cadets, the Air cadets or the Boy Scout troop.
I believe it was compulsory to sign up for one of those three
groups, but I am not clear on this point. I personally joined the
army cadets. We went through the typical army activities such as
marching, stripping and reassembling guns of various types, and
every so often a trip to the rifle range. We had a regular army
sergeant instructor who was a member of an Ulster regiment, and
would regale us with stories about the poor treatment given to the
Irish in the British army. Most of his anecdotes ended with “but we
were only an Irish regiment, so it didn’t matter about us”
once a year we went to camp in a real army base. By this time I was
an NCO, I forget at what rank exactly but I might have been a
sergeant. The trouble was that any time you were on the parade
ground the regular soldiers would gather round with critical
comments about our military discipline or lack of it. It got a bit
irritating at times.
memorable event while I was in the lower sixth form was a marine
biology expedition to Plymouth in Devon, which was organized by our
biology teacher, Miss Morris. I think there were about eight boys
took part, four each from the lower sixth and the upper sixth We
operated out of a big marine biology laboratory in Plymouth. I have
no idea how Miss Morris obtained permission to use it, but it
appeared to be used by a number of schools, including in the week as
we were leaving a contingent from Harrow, the very upscale “Public
School”. It was well equipped and had several boats at our disposal.
On the first day we went on a fishing trawler out into the English
Channel with a crew of fishermen who operated the boat and did the
actual fishing. They were interested in the commercial value of the
catch while we were after the weird sea life that came with it and
that the fishermen would normally discard. We spread “our” catch on
the deck and sorted it by classification, and took take the items of
interest back to the lab for dissection.
remember one of the senior boys had developed quite a crush on Miss
Morris, (well, perhaps we all had) and one day he came into the lab
with a big box of chocolates which he presented to her with the
words “That’s for being such a good girl” She was furious, and
balled him out unmercifully. I don’t think any of us attempted to
flirt with her again.
we were in Plymouth for 3 or 4 days, staying at a bed and breakfast
place. Plymouth, as a major naval base, had been hard hit by the
bombing and was still quite a mess. We were all quite shocked by the
extent of the bomb damage even though we all came from London.
occasion In Mr. Barker’s chemistry class I was using a small
cylinder of compressed chlorine gas. I no longer remember what I was
using it for, but I know I only needed a small quantity. At the end
of the procedure I attempted to shut off the control valve, and
could not budge it. I yelled for Mr. Barker who rushed over, but he
couldn’t shut it off either, so he grabbed the cylinder, wrapped a
towel around his face and headed down three flights of stairs to the
playing field, where he dumped the cylinder and left it to empty
itself. At this point the headmaster Mr. Gibson was alerted. He
should have called an ambulance to take me, Mr. Barker and another
student suffering from chlorine inhalation, to hospital. We sat in
the middle of the playing field where we were coughing violently,
our eyes were stinging and we were feeling very sick, But Mr. Gibson
sent somebody to buy some cough lozenges for us, and that was the
extent of the ‘treatment’ I was off school for 2 days. I think Mr.
Gibson was afraid that the accident would sully his reputation with
the school board.
summer vacation, I think it might have been 1949, a good friend of
mine, Monty Jennings, (1943 to 1951) who was a very gifted artist,
undertook under the guidance of Jack Elvin, the art teacher, to
paint a mural on one of the walls of the English classroom. The
mural depicted a scene from the Canterbury Tales and included a
number of caricature portraits of various members of the staff. The
mural remained there until the demolition of the school building in
1990. Bill Lease, whose classroom this was, was delighted with the
mural, and took great pleasure in showing it to school visitors.
the headmasters office was a small office which was the domain of
the school secretary, always known as Minnie Watson. Among other
things Minnie was responsible for keeping track of absence and
lateness. At some point Bill Lease also got involved in absence and
lateness records, ostensibly assisting Minnie. After this
cooperation had gone on for a long time it naturally lead to
speculation as to precisely what assistance Bill was providing.
Well, after I had left the school I heard that Bill and Minnie had
got married and had both retired and moved to New Zealand.
non teaching staff there was an attractive young lady laboratory
technician, whose name I don’t remember, and she had an assistant
who was a rather surly young man. On two occasions a group of us
from the sixth form plucked up the courage to ask the lady if we
could take her out to dinner and a show, and she agreed. The first
time we all went to the West End to see “Les Compagnons de la
Chanson”, a French vocal group which was very popular at the time.
I don’t recall where we went for dinner but it was probably
somewhere fairly cheap like Lyons Corner House. The second outing
again to the West End was to see “The Pyjama Game” We really enjoyed
those outings and we always planned more of them but for some reason
it never happened again.
time the department head of chemistry, Mr. Gale, was getting very
worried about the loss of chemicals from the storeroom, some of them
quite dangerous materials. He questioned each class, and a number of
individual students about it, and was considering getting the police
involved. One day one member of our class was following the young
male assistant out of the school on a rainy day, and the lad was
wearing a heavy cycling cape. As he got to the gate a glass bottle
of white powder fell from under his cape and smashed, immediately
followed by another one. At this point the young man took to his
bicycle and rode at high speed up Beechcroft Road. My classmate
went back into the school and reported this to Mr. Gale, and early
the next morning the young man’s house was visited by a couple of
representatives of the Metropolitan Police, where they found a large
supply of chemicals, glassware and other laboratory equipment. I
don’t know what happened to our ex lab assistant.
end of my schooldays approached I was faced with the prospect of
doing my 2 years National Service which was then compulsory. In
spite of my time in the army cadets I opted to go into the air
force. School ended in mid June, but His Majesty did not need me to
report for duty until early October. There was a renovation project
in progress at Bec and a number of tradesmen of various occupations
working all over the school so I found the foreman in charge and
asked if I could get gainful employment for a few months before I
had to report to RAF Cardington. He found me a suitably menial
position on the crew. This worked out well until the staff and
pupils returned to school about the end of July. Well I had never
realized what a snobbish bunch of people I had been associated with
all these years. There seemed to be no recognition on the part of
either staff or students that I was not ready to enter a profession
or higher education because of the imminent National Service
commitment. One teacher held out the prospect to his class that if
they didn’t work harder they would all end up in dead end jobs like
Tomblin! The students were inclined to understand the situation
better, no doubt because many of them realized they would likely be
faced with a similar situation soon enough.
saw Bec School once more and that was just before the building was
demolished. I had gone with my wife to visit England and decided to
take her to my old school to show it to her. The school was
completely empty of people, but pictures still hung on the wall.
Monty’s mural was still there, and out on the big lawn was a
sculpture by an artist names David Mills, who had been a classmate
of mine. The plaque identifying the work said he was David Mills
R.A. I was astonished that he was an R.A. as I did not recall him
as showing any great artistic talent, but there it was David Mills,
Royal Academy. I suppose he was a late bloomer. As we left the gates
of Bec School I had the sad realization that I would never see it
again. It was a really good school, and I was very pleased to have
been a part of it. Floreat Florebit!
Bec School Song (written by T.W.
Illis ut orantibus
Nostra Schola, Domine
Nunquam te carebit
Tuo vis nomine
Ortus hic Augusta
Taeda quam incenderat
Nunquam est exusta.
Nobis in memoria
qui tacet ore!
Deus, sic manet Tuum
Salvum in perpetuum
Peter Tomblin December 2011