A patchy education – Part 1
WHY THE SEA?
In an account written for his children N.J. (Nick) Wilson (48-52), who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, describes his four years at the Nautical College – not an especially happy time for him.
My father was in the regular army and both my grandfathers had served in the Army during the Great War. Later my only two uncles were to serve in the Army in the Second World War. I should therefore have been following in their footsteps except that, unknowingly, my mother bought me a Sailor’s Suit when I was four in which to attend birthday parties. It was the full kit – white, of course, with a cap bearing the ribbon of H.M.S Renown. That was all the encouragement I needed and, when the war started the following year, it was the Royal Navy’s fortunes that I was interested in rather than the Army’s or the RAF’s. This fascination with the sea has never left me and never will, and even my mother began thinking in terms of BRNC Dartmouth before I had learned to read and write!
I am not sure how my family discovered the Nautical College at Pangbourne, but early in my last term at prep school I was informed that I would be sitting the common entrance exam to enter. My parents’ intention, for I am sure my father was involved in making the decision, was that it would be a better school from which to springboard me into Dartmouth, because it was run on R.N. lines though the cadets were nominally classed as part of Royal Naval Reserve (R.N.R.).
One summer’s day before the end of my last term, my mother and I went down to Pangbourne and met with the Captain Superintendent, Commander Hugh Skinner, R.N. Referring to the results of my common entrance exam, he remarked on my backwardness in mathematics and stressed the importance of that subject in the Navy. Yet in spite of this ominous warning I was accepted as a new entrant for the coming September term.
I don’t recall being particularly excited at the prospect, or worried either. My parents had made a decision and to me that was it. The NCP fees in those days were around £230 a year and my mother who must have enquired if there were bursaries available discovered that there were. Eventually she obtained one provided by Booth Line of River Amazon fame for something like £80 per annum. Since that time I have lived with a guilty conscience and keep telling myself I should reimburse the successors of Booth Line. That £320 of over sixty years ago are probably the equivalent of £5,000 or more today so I need to give it a lot of thought!
I Enter the Navy, Sort of
It is not a subject I have ever discussed with friends, but I would think that I was not alone in feeling that going to public school after the cosseted existence I had enjoyed at prep school, was a very retrogressive step. Sadly it is always a necessary one. Today, at least in my own family, the move from primary to secondary school has been much less traumatic because so long as you stay in the same town you find a nucleus of your old primary school friends beside you on your first day at your new school. I had no such comfort. I was one of 32 New Entrants and I did not know a soul, or, naturally, the other 190 older cadets. The following term an old prep school mate did join, Neil Francis Churchill (49-53), the son of an active RN officer, but for some reason we never clicked in our new surroundings.
The most exciting part of going to this new school was the opportunity to wear a very glamorous uniform, that of a Royal Naval Reserve cadet. At 4’ 11.7/8’’ I was not a very commanding figure but a uniform adds certain grandeur to the least of us and I was no exception. Gieves were from time immemorial outfitters to the Royal Navy and their shop at that time was located at No.27 Old Bond Street, just a few doors up from Piccadilly, in the toniest part of London. Armed with the list of required clothing, my mother and I visited the shop early during my summer holidays. The list was impressive particularly since clothes were still rationed; I am sure my mother, and her parents had to forgo all their own coupons so I could be properly attired.
One No.1 double-breasted serge uniform, one rough serge battledress uniform and a Burberry navy blue raincoat were the major articles. The No.1 uniform cost £13.0.0 and the battledress about £.8.0.0. These were high prices to pay for children’s clothes, but then it was Bond Street and they did provide uniforms for His Majesty the King and every naval officer back to and beyond Nelson. The lesser items included four stiff collars and four soft collars and four collarless white shirts to attach them to, plus various bits of sport clothing, and of course a cap with a gleaming gold braid R.N. badge. It was all very expensive, and at the time I did not give a thought to where all the money was to come from, but now I realize it must have been my mother’s parents’ generosity that paid for everything.
The photo below shows me walking along Piccadilly by the Burlington Arcade, around Christmas time 1948, after I had been at Pangbourne for one term, with a parcel containing a newly-purchased pair of grey flannel trousers under my arm. It was taken by a street photographer and is the only picture of me in my uniform I still have. I do not know why I was all dressed up while on holiday but it was probably my mother’s suggestion that I call on Gieves properly attired in one of their uniforms. Thereafter I seldom wore uniform away from school unless it was as a special favour to my mother who naturally was inordinately proud of having a son in the King’s uniform to show off to friends whose own sons wore blazers and grey flannels!
I had hardly ever worn a tie let alone a stiff collar before going to Pangbourne and I needed plenty of practice at home before I could get the knot to stay in the right place. A stiff collar was exactly that and was as inflexible as a piece of rigid plastic. This meant that it was not for bending or forcing in any way. It was also rather uncomfortable particular when one’s growing neck size had made it too tight. Getting the tie knot to stay at the top of the collar opening was a trick one learned after countless attempts. When I got to Pangbourne a lowered knot would trigger the crack. ‘Oh, Wilson, I see someone in the family has died’, which when answered with a bewildered denial, would be followed by the punch line, ‘Then why are you wearing your tie at half mast?
College Life 1948-52
New entrants had to arrive the day before the rest of the College in order to learn something of college rules and the geography of the grounds and the vicinity. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 16th 1948, my mother bade me farewell at Paddington station as I grasped a half single ticket to Pangbourne, Berks, while fighting back my tears. These soon began to flow as the train pulled out of the station though thankfully in an empty carriage and not in the presence of other cadets travelling on the same train. We were met at Pangbourne station and taken by car the mile or so up the hill to the College. Or did we walk? I cannot remember.
One’s first year at college was spent in Port Jackson Division, which was housed away from the main college buildings in Croft House, a pleasant looking, sprawling red brick building with lots of white trim. Being 32 new entrants in number we were to make up about half of the Division that term. Seven of us were directed to the ‘Rodney’ dormitory on the first floor overlooking the small parade ground. Four sets of double steel bunks lined the walls and formed the only furniture. Cameron (J.C.; 48-52), Sandison (J.R.D; 48-52), Boyd (J.A.; 48-51), Janes (P.R. 48-51) and two others whose name I cannot recall were in the dormitory. The eighth space would be taken by a cadet leader the next day.
We were handed our sheets and a pillowcase and instructed on how to make up our bunk. This was my first introduction to the importance naval discipline placed on uniformity. Sheets and the single blanket were laid with precise hospital tucks and the pillow made as flat as possible. The bed was then covered with red and blue jacquard counterpane bearing the College crest. This had to be tucked in so the patterned line of small zigzags near the border was exactly four finger widths above the steel bunk base and dead straight. This was hard to achieve without a lot of practice because the bulkiness of the pillow at one end tended to throw the line out.
Cadet leaders just loved stripping bunks when the dormitories were inspected before breakfast, and making the unfortunate cadet re-make his bunk. You therefore learned very quickly the importance of getting the line straight. While I have been writing this memoir I have discovered that in the early Nazi concentration camps that is from 1933 onwards the prisoners were also issued with bedspreads woven with a checked pattern and were severely punished by the guards if the pattern was not perfectly parallel to the bunk-frame. I wonder whether the Gestapo learned this form of ‘torture‘ from Pangbourne, or vice versa.
After making our bunks we were formed up by watch into two columns, three abreast and marched the mile or so up Prince’s Drive to Drake Hall to be weighed, measured and produce the regulatory cough while a strange doctor held our scrotum in the palm of his hand and Matron looked on. It was from this beginning-of-term ritual that I can now recall exactly how tall I was at thirteen and a half, an eighth of an inch under five foot, and therefore a bit of a runt. My chest was something like 27” deflated and 28” inflated and I weighed about six and a half stone or about 90lbs. By the time I left four years later I had grown to just under six foot and weighed a gangly nine stone nine, or 135 lbs.
My fellow new entrants were a mixture of prep school boys like myself, and therefore quite approachable, and state school boys, a breed I had never come across before and who had sadly been the butt of many unkind jokes in the past for their perceived uncouthness and odd way of pronouncing the King’s English. However, they had learned to survive in a much tougher environment than we had, and usually ended up being the leaders at Pangbourne, at least in their early years.
From the very start, I became the butt of ridicule myself for my plumy accent and consequently drew even deeper into the shell I had already built to protect myself in this strange new world. It was always guaranteed to get a laugh when one of my tormentors ridiculed my very normal way of talking. This I could bear by avoiding contact with such wits whenever I could. What I could not avoid was the teasing that greeted the rather immature development of my genitalia, which had to be put on display in the showers twice a day. The nickname ‘Quarter of an Inch’, a slight exaggeration I might add, that followed me around really did hurt and was so unfair since what control did I have over what God had decided to give me in that particular department. I could modify my plumy accent if needs be and subconsciously I am sure I did, but could do nothing about the other perceived fault (and never have!). So defensive did I become about this physical inadequacy, amongst my peers, where the length and heft of one’s prick was paramount, that on going to my senior division at the end of my first year, I just ceased showering unless I was sure I was alone or with friends who I knew would not tease me..
How this aversion to showering was never detected, I will never know for I lived in dread that I would be exposed and subjected to a ‘house scrubbing’. This was inflicted on any boy whom fellow cadets deemed was less than fussy about personal hygiene, and it would be announced that so and so was to undergo punishment before bed-time. This involved being dragged, usually because victims seldom went willingly, into the showers and literally scrubbed clean. The name Sceales (C.J.B; 49-51) of Macquarie division comes to mind. Frontier injustice at its lawless worst!
Our divisional tutor in Port Jackson was Mr. Ernest Beet, nicknamed Minnie, a mousy little man with slicked down black hair and John Lennon type granny glasses. His wife, who was equally lacking in outward charm, assisted as housekeeper. They had no children. He was the school’s senior science master, a robotic person unskilled in the humanities. He was only approachable if you shared his interest in astronomy or playing with his miniature steam trains, but I never managed to get in his good books. I did, however, receive a few bad spankings from him using one of my bedroom slippers. It happened so long ago I cannot recall what my particular sin was but it could have been my poor school marks.
The day-to-day ex-curricular discipline of the cadets was left to the various cadet officers. All divisions were split into two watches, port and starboard, and each watch was led by two cadet leaders and one cadet captain (CC). The senior cadet in the division was the chief cadet captain (CCC). The overall head boy of the college was the Chief Cadet Captain of the College, or the C.C.C.C.
Punishments below the level of corporal punishment were meted out arbitrarily by Cadet Leaders on the spot, in the form of Extra Drills, which needed no legal niceties, or in ‘courts’ presided over by the Divisional C.C.C. known for some odd reason as ‘House Pegs,’ at which you appeared before a triumvirate which included the cadet captains. These were always held in the evening after lights out. The usual charge would be something like talking after lights out, failing to keep your gear tidy and other trivialities. The punishments were again in the form of extra drills which meant that you were required, together with other miscreants, to give up15 or 30 minutes of your free time doing calisthenics. Depending on how much of a sadist the Cadet Leader in charge was, this could mean gentle exercise at one end of the scale and bunny- hopping half a mile up Prince’s Drive at the other end.
I became a Cadet Leader for the summer term in my third year and was posted to Port Jackson after spending two years in one of the senior divisions. I don’t recall being particularly brutal with those I had power over but one did need to be a little circumspect when dishing out punishments, because if a cadet leader served his term in his own division he always had to bear in mind that he would be an ordinary cadet again the following term and possibly in the power of one of his current ‘victims’.