Memories of Bec School::

Peter Tomblin attended Bec School from 1943 to 1950, presented below in his own words are his memories of his time at Bec.

My Memories of Bec School

Author: Peter Tomblin

I 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.

I had 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. 

The 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.
Mr. Lane    Geography. He had published a number of books on Geography, one of which was the textbook for our 1st year class.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Barker    Science.  I remember one occasion when he asked the 3rd form science class if anyone could get him a pregnant cat for dissection purposes!

There 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 inferior.  There 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 USAF.

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. Taught  music.  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.
Bill Lease 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.
Tom Melluish 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.
Jack Elvin Taught art. Good teacher, with a good sense of humour.
Mr. Hall Taught crafts.  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.
Mr.  Gale  Taught  senior chemistry mainly to the sixth form  Very good teacher.
Mr. Martin Taught Physics.  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 class.
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.
Mr. Phillpot   Taught History.  Very dour, humourless man.  Also involved in organizing cricket events.

There were of course quite a lot more teachers but these are the ones I remember most.

By mid 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.

At some 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”

Also 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.

One 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.

I 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.

I think 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.

On one 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.

One 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.

Next to 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.

On the 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.

At this 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.

As the 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.

I only 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. Melluish)
 Illis ut orantibus

Olim adfuisti
Utque laborantibus
Opus perfectisti
Nostra Schola, Domine
Nunquam te carebit
Quae Tuo vis nomine
Floreat Florebit!
Hic Papia tenderat
Ortus hic Augusta
Taeda quam  incenderat
Nunquam est exusta.
Sit eorum Gloria
Nobili exemplo
Nobis in memoria
Dedicata templo.
Iam Scholam discipuli
Celebrant sonore
Non unius scripuli
Sit qui tacet ore!
Deus, sic manet Tuum
Opus,et manebit,
Salvum in perpetuum
Floreat Florebit!
 Peter Tomblin December 2011