A selection of memories: 1940s

Prof John Nye (Cobham 41)

I think that J. F. Roxburgh made a conscious effort to shield us from the full awfulness of war, and School life went on as before but with notable differences. Of course, food rationing made itself felt and some Masters’ left to join the armed services, but there seemed to be no major upheavals. We returned to School in September 1938, the time of the Munich crisis, to find two muddy trenches dug in the South Front playing field, roofed over with corrugated iron and earth, for use as air raid shelters.

The OTC suddenly became more important. I switched over from the Boy Scouts and in 1940, with invasion threatening, joined the Local Defence Volunteers. We enthusiastically laid field-telephone cables as far as the Corinthian Arch, got an old 1914-1918 radio set working with Morse code and took planned exercises and field-days quite seriously, as well as with the usual mirth.

The Duchess of Bedford had disappeared piloting a light plane and we scoured the grounds for a crash, with no success. Most memorable for me were the patrols where we used the Bourbon Tower as a lookout and, as the welcome dawn broke, watched the slow sunrise. Armed with live ammunition and our First World War rifles, we were instructed to look out for enemy parachutists, probably disguised as nuns. We did not see any, but I remember well how the uncertain light of dawn can make an innocent bush appear to move quite alarmingly.

There was a memorable night when a German bomber, returning from a raid and no doubt not wanting to land back home with unexploded bombs in its racks, dropped a stick of about six on the School. They were in line with the buildings, but by luck they overshot and exploded in a line across the South Front playing field. The Housemaster of Grafton sent his House to the air raid shelters. In Cobham we stayed in bed.

I remember that it was, in fact, quite common to find tail sections of burned-out incendiary bombs in the grounds. We would have kept them as trophies but were told to throw them into the Headmaster’s garden in case they still contained something dangerous.

Mr John Keep (Chatham 44)

Although the subject of war was never referred to in class, and seldom outside it either, the fact that we were at war was always ats the back of one’s mind. Newspapers (including the long defunct ‘News Chronicle’) were available in the Common Room, and I recall the graphic headlines as the enemy marched through northern France in May 1940.

We received a briefing from our jovial Housemaster, who told us that in moments of crisis people preferred strong government under a single Leader, in this case Mr Winston Churchill. Of course, we believed every word on the subject in the press or on the radio, even the highly inflated figures of the number of enemy aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain.

For a 13- or 14-year-old, war meant technology: weapons and so forth, about which we were reasonably well informed; the humanitarian and social aspects of warfare did not swim into our consciousness. Of course, matters would be different if one lived in a war zone; the closest Stowe came to action was when an aircraft crashed just above the lake. I don’t know whether it was one of ours or not. Incidentally, although studying German (with an excellent teacher, Mr Capel Curig) the connection with contemporary problems (e.g., anti-semitism) was never made. I think this was an advantage. Thank you, Stowe, for such a sheltered childhood: the switch to life in the army at age 17 was, however, a healthy shock.

Mr Brian Stewart (Bruce 44)

When I arrived at the School, blackout curtains and net glued to all the glass windows had already been installed, a mammoth task bearing in mind the height of some of the windows in the rooms like the Bruce Common Room on the south side of the building. Also, air raid shelters had already been built. Looking back, it is amazing to realise that electricity was installed in 1923, when such a thing was very rare. However, there was no mains. In those days, the School had its own power station, which was in the yard to the west of the main building. It was a DC system charging an enormous bank of lead acid accumulators for use after lights out. It also had a one-cylinder hot bulb gasoil engine for helping with the additional load in the evening. This machine was about 15 feet tall and with a 10-foot flywheel and would be a museum piece if it could be found now. At some time after the war when mains became available, the whole School was rewired and changed from DC to AC, a mammoth task, but I have never seen it mentioned anywhere or seen any record of this.

Mr John Owen (Temple 46)

The top floor dormitories in Temple were reached by a passage in which there were doors to a series of rooms used for drying laundry. One of these rooms had a panel in the back wall that could be removed to enable an inquisitive boy to climb into the roof vault of the Marble Hall of the House, marvel at the carpentry of the 18th century roof timbers and peer over the cornice down to the floor of the Marble Hall.

The boys would also get out of a dormitory window at night and climb onto the pediment of the north side of the House to admire the view by moonlight and compare the charms of the school maids.

Mr David James (Cobham 46)

Watching Gliders being towed to D-Day from Cobham fire escape in the early morning.

Mr John Owen (Temple 46)

They were allowed a great deal of freedom.  John remembers a whole-day holiday granted to the boys on the award of the V.C. to (Old Stoic) Group Captain Cheshire in 1944 when each boy was given sandwiches and the challenge of getting up to 20 miles away from Stowe without accepting a lift.  John reached Barford St. John, about 14 miles away, where he had lived during the early part of the war but was forced to accept a lift back as he was quite unable to walk any more.

Mr Michael Latham (Chatham 47)

At 15 years old in the late 40s, some friends and I from the Fifth Form hired a coach to take us to Oxford. We piled into the Mitre Pub and started drinking all the healthy local ales. After we’d drank quite a few beers, which was, of course, frowned upon, we dragged ourselves out of the pub. One Stoic was worse for wear and needed sobering up before the departure back to School. My brother Robin took it upon himself to help us out and kept feeding the Stoic water in the hope that he would straighten up before we got home.

Mr Anthony Pearce (Bruce 47)

General Montgomery was inspecting The Corps and asked the name of the man standing next to me (actually named Part), who replied “Private Part, Sir.” Montgomery was not amused.

Mr Anthony Barton (Grafton 48)

On my first day at Stowe, I arrived early and found myself wandering alone down a long rather frightening corridor. I suddenly saw an impressive man striding along towards me. I was scared stiff and pressed my back against the wall hoping that this obviously important man would not notice me. No luck! He saw me and stepped towards me hand outstretched “You are a new boy are you not?” “Yes, Sir” I mumbled in reply “And what is your name?” Stuttering I replied “Bbbbarton, Sir.” “Oh, hello Anthony” he replied grasping my hand, “my name is Roxburgh”. I already felt less lonely.

My favourite teacher was Ewald Zettl, Austrian by birth. As I was specialising in modern languages I was very much in his hands. He was an exceptionally gentle personality who might have lacked the authority to keep control over a class of students, but this was not so. We did occasionally, but respectfully, lead him away from the Goethe script we were supposed to be studying. Someone in the class one day held up his hand “Tell us more about the Anschluss”. Being Austrian he was very happy and well qualified to tell us all about the German occupation of his home country. We were delighted to have led him astray from Goethe and when the end of class bell suddenly rang, he looked at his watch and said, “Oh dear we seem to have wandered away from Goethe.”

Mr Martin Gibbs (Chatham 48)

When my mother dropped me at Stowe for my first day, my eyes filled with tears as she was driven away in a taxi. My Housemaster at Chatham (MacDonald) put a friendly hand on my shoulder. I wish I could have thanked him.

Mr David Connell (Grenville 48)

During the war, staff who were key to the attainment of the ideals set out by the founding Headmaster J.F. Roxburgh were called away for military service and in their absence some of the pioneering zeal was undoubtedly lost. The burden this placed upon JF’s shoulders was greatly increased by the simple fact that by May 1945 Stowe had lost to the war more than 1 in every 8 of those who had passed through the School, a fact that will have been a source of deep sorrow to one whose personal interest in the welfare of every boy was a particular feature of his stewardship as Headmaster.

My personal passage through the School earned me the occasional pat of approval, usually for some deed on the field of sport: and once a mild rebuke. This latter occurred one Sunday on the steps outside Chapel. I had just read the Lesson for the first time and was full of self-doubt when the stately figure of JF, be-cloaked and with mortarboard held in the crook of his arm, approached. “My dear fellow,” he said, quietly so that no-one else could hear, “please next time don’t make it sound as if you are in a hurry to catch a train.”

An endearing habit of JF’s was to seek out any boy whose birthday it was to wish him many happy returns of the day, coupled, invariably, with appropriate words of encouragement. This meant more to us than perhaps we admitted even if some of us suspected that a secretary behind the scenes was providing a prompt. My own suspicions in this regard were dispelled, however, when as an old boy now doing my National Service, I received a hand-written letter from him dated 11th January 1949, enclosing my Higher Certificate results, and concluding with the words “a nice birthday present for you, just one week early”. My 19th birthday did indeed fall on 18th January, exactly a week later.

When the war in Europe came to an end in September 1945 it was a fact that no boys then at the School had experienced life at Stowe as it was prior to the war. We therefore had little to judge what impact it was having on our day-to-day lives. There was, of course, some austerity – cold dormitories, black-out and a shortage of petrol so that parental visits were infrequent. But food was adequate even if scrambled eggs were made from powder: if we were hungry, was this not a part of life at an English public-school! By the time I arrived in September 1943 the worst of the battle of Britain and London blitz were over and, apart from a stick of bombs in the grounds, which caused some broken windows, Stowe was spared.

Several of us from that generation enjoyed our cricket at Stowe so much that we went on to form an Old Stoic cricket team. We played a week’s cricket at the school early in August and were soon able to recruit a couple of Old Stoics from pre-war times to join us – Granville Carr (Chatham 29) and Harry Kemp (Chatham 31). This gave us a certain much-needed gravitas and, urged on by Mike Loup, we chose ourselves a name, The Stowe Templars Cricket Club. Granville Carr became our first President and before we knew it, we were playing competitive matches against other school old-boys’ teams at Burton Court in London.

Mr David Corbett (Grafton 49)

My father questioning whether Stowe was the cheapest place to learn the art of ferreting.

Mr John Lindgren (Bruce 49)

I was there for the 1944 and 1945 Remembrance Day services in November, at which JF read out slowly the names of those Old Stoics who had been killed during the last year. Very sobering moments, especially when the name of Struthers was read out, as A.J. Struthers, his brother, was sitting just across the aisle. At the end of the 1945 reading, JF addressed us and gave some statistics. He then invited us to look down our row – nine seats either side of the aisle – and said that very roughly one of in each row of Old Stoics had been killed, and almost the same had received decorations.

Later, I remember a staff member pointing out to us that JF of course knew each and every one by face and name, and it was an extremely distressing time for him every year.

Mr John Lindgren (Bruce 49)

Of those that finished – I was second from last in my second from last year and I was last in my last year in the Inter-House cross-country event.

Mr Derek Nightingale (Chatham 49)

Dr Huggins asked me one day, as we came away from Chapel following an organ lesson, whether I’d considered applying for an organ scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge. This took me by surprise, having never heard of University Organ Scholarships.

I mentioned this to Bill McElwee, who had in mind that I might achieve a History Scholarship: he said, “one attempt only”. So, I entered for a Cambridge group, including four colleges, and at Oxford, Balliol, where I was fortunate to succeed.

Dr David Read (Temple 49)

When leaving Stowe in 1949, JFR summoned me to his room. “David, we are both leaving Stowe for the last time, and we also share birthdays. I would like you to accept this book token to remind you of our times together.” The battered book shares pride of place on my bookshelf.

Mr John Turner (Grenville 49)

I remember burning the blackout screens on the South Front at VE Day.

Mr David Corbett (Grafton 49)

The Temple of Concorde had been annexed, legally or not I know not, by the ‘ferreting boys’ as the home and centre for their ferrets and their gear. The few mad ones amongst us who brought our ferrets to school each term established it as our base and refuge.

This was the classroom for Level 1 Commerce, we had no lecturer, but we learnt a great deal about business. The first challenge was feeding the ferrets, for this a carefully prepared routine of daily extracting milk and bread from the dining room and transporting it to Concorde was established.

Level 1 Business management. Ferreting was not only a popular sport, made possible by the abundance of wild rabbits throughout the grounds, but it was also a very good and carefully protected (by us) business. In those days of tightly restricted rations the opportunity for a visiting parent to buy one or two fresh rabbits was too good to miss. Some were a little alarmed to find that their newly purchased joint still had its fur coat on, but the deal had been done by then! Visiting weekend parents were, however, very thin on the ground in those days of strict petrol rationing. So once spotted the unwary parent had to be quickly tied down to a sale.

Level 1 Marketing. The going rate in those heady days was five shillings for a pair of rabbits, just 25p! So, rabbits sold and cash in pocket, we made our way to the tuck shop which, I seem to recall, still used to have something edible to sell. The real treat though was the occasional trip to the old house by the Corinthian Arch where the elderly tenant, for a few shillings, would prepare the most delicious egg and chips on her strongly smelling paraffin stove.

Magical days, I can still smell that stove! My Father complained that going to Stowe was a very expensive way of learning how to catch a rabbit, I replied that, being an accountant, he would not understand the subtle detail. However, I was a lot older before I volunteered that thought.

Mr John Turner (Grenville 49)

We returned to School on 6 May 1945 for the Summer term. Most of us came by train – petrol was rationed. The trains were overcrowded with standing room only and all the corridors were packed. The War ended on 8 May – VE Day. We took all the blackout screens out of the Houses and burnt them on the South Front.

The First World War was remembered by lower passage by Egypt which was called Plug Street thought to derive from Plug Street in the Ypres Salient where Major Haworth, Housemaster of Temple, had fought. Field Marshall Montgomery visited the School and we had an extra holiday.

When JF retired in 1949 the Old Stoics gave him an Austin Healey coupe with the personalised number plate JF1. Several years later I was driving back to School when I found myself behind JF. I overtook him and he stopped. I was able to introduce him to my wife. He was delighted.