Off to Goldings
THERE was an air of finality about the way in which the bottle-green ambulance glided down the crescent-shaped drive from
Gwynne House, out onto the Chigwell Road.
My earlier sight of it as I emerged from the governor's office, having received his brief farewell, caused me momentarily to shudder
and inwardly to question the reason for its appearance. It was a vehicle I had observed frequently during my years at the Boys Garden
City, as it journeyed to the hospital and back on its errands of mercy. Yet, for some reason which I feel unable to explain, it was a
vehicle I always associated with death, rather than life.
Its darkened windows always looked so forbidding and gloom laden, and, whenever it approached, I stared almost transfixed as it
passed by in a kind of stately silence. I hesitated awhile before entering its black-upholstered interior, accompanied by a young
colleague, Stanley Woodhouse. We were both being taken to one of Barnardo's most important training schools: the William Baker
Technical School, at Goldings, near the town of Hertford, there to learn a trade. (We always referred to the place as 'Goldings', or
The vehicle quickened its pace as it turned onto the highway, and for what must surely have been an old vehicle it ran very smoothly
and quietly indeed. I responded to an urge to rise and look out of its dark, green-tinted windows and was surprised to see how light
and clear the view was outside. As I did so, my gaze alighted upon two familiar figures, walking arm in arm along the pavement,
engaged in happy, animated conversation. I waU lied almost in disbelief as Miss Tyerman and John Green strolled casually along
until, gradually, they appeared as minute figures, as the ambulance distanced itself from them. I sat down, realising that I had, quite
unintentionally, been witness to what was surely a secret love affair.
My mind flashed back to all those occasions when Mr. Green had visited Angas House and realised that it had always been Angas,
never any other dwelling. I recalled his wonderful stories before bedtime, when we would all sit around the fire, especially on Sunday
evenings, captivated by his eloquence and sense of mystery. I remembered, too, his frequent help with the cubs and scouts. All this
now seemed to fit a kind of logical purpose. He came and entertained us - but could there have been a deeper motive, too? Young
though I was, I genuinely hoped that they would marry one another. Each was a person of middle age. Both had devoted so much
of their time - and Matron so much of her life - to others. Why not now to and for themselves? That's what I sincerely hoped as the
vehicle continued its journey, taking us out of their sight. I never saw either of those two wonderful people again; neither would I
ever forget them!
As we continued our journey my thoughts returned to my own situation; but they were quickly diverted by the sight, and plight, of
my young companion. He sat on the long, upholstered bench opposite and was straining every sinew in order to quell an imminent
onrush of tears that were making his eyes appear as two large, wet marbles. In order to relieve the pressure from himself he spoke
suddenly. "What are you going to do at Goldings?" he questioned. He produced a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, quickly
dabbed each eye, then continued, "I suppose I'll follow my brothers into cabinet-making or carpentry."
Stanley Woodhouse and I had only one thing in common. We had both entered Dr. Barnardo's Homes at
virtually the same time - indeed, our birthdays were both on the twelfth of June. There it ended. Stanley (he could not abide the
abbreviation 'Stan') was a very tall boy for his age, almost six feet. He was the youngest of the three Woodhouse boys who had
resided at Bernard Shepherd House, a little distance from Angas. Peter, the eldest, had held the prestigious position of head boy of
the BGC three or four years earlier. (Stanley tended to trade upon this situation and was known to be rather a bully.)
"Are they both at Goldings?" I inquired. "No," he responded, "Peter left three years ago and I believe they've just found Jack a job now."
He repeated his original question. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to be a printer," I replied, with an air of absolute confidence. It was a reply which I could afford to be quite positive about,
for I had often thought about it at Angas and had never hesitated to choose printing from a list of trades which had been suggested
to me some months earlier. "I've always wanted to be a printer," I continued, "I love anything to do with books, though I don't
actually know how they are printed - only that an Englishman, William Caxton, invented printing." (This latter remark would prove
to be a wrongly-held notion which time and knowledge would eventually rectify.)
I could not bring myself further to relate my immense enthusiasm at the prospect of 'becoming a printer'. There were many occasions
when, instead of going out to play, I chose to remain in the large playroom and quietly peruse some of the many donated books on
the shelves. I seemed to be readily attracted to them, and not simply for their content. I loved to thumb through the pages of some of
the thicker, hard-bound volumes and felt fascinated by their styles of typography. I believe that I gradually developed a kind of
romanticism; a sympathy for typographic formations, laid out to inform, but also to please. Printing and I assumed a kind of 'love
affair'; then it was not understood; today, over fifty years later, I still find all the new technology exciting, challenging and, printing
as a whole, a source of great personal satisfaction.
Stanley Woodhouse chose not to speak further. He sat quietly, looking intently towards the floor, clasping his hands round his knees,
as the ambulance caused each of us to sway and slide, this way and that, on the long narrow seats. My thoughts returned to Angas
House, with its heavily ivy-covered frontage, providing a haven for blackbirds and tits attending their second broods; its white eaves
providing shelter to a number of white-breasted house-martins, swooping with great speed and certainty to feed their ravenous young.
It was a sight that always enthused me.
The inverted Y-shaped front of the house always looked at its best in summer; and peaceful too. The hive of activity behind its
tranquil facade sprang into life again as the boys returned from school. All those mundane, irritating duties one had to do before one
could go out to play; then, too, those early morning, boring routines. Surely, I thought, Goldings couldn't be any worse than that; one
of many things it would be worth leaving behind.
I looked across at Stanley. He still had wetness about his eyes. Why did he cry and not me, I thought. After all, Angas House had
been my home for as long as Bernard Shepherd House had been his, yet I did not feel the slightest bit sorry to be leaving it. Perhaps
things might have been very different had there been any element of real affection to lose - one could discount any thought of love.
There was, of course, still a personal feeling of anger and resentment at having been so severely punished - I felt, unjustly. It had not
then subsided sufficiently for my youthful obduracy totally to forgive, let alone forget. Yet, the challenges and opportunities which
I felt awaited me at the new technical school filled me with enthusiasm and anticipation, too.
I raised myself from my seat again and chose to spend the rest of my journey half standing, half sitting, simply watching the
countryside pass quickly by; to vanish into the dusty vortex created by the fast-moving vehicle. We reached the outskirts of Hertford
in about an hour and, once clear of its boundary, proceeded along the road towards Waterford until, just short of that small village,
it turned sharply left, into a long, winding drive that wended its way through trees and fields, finally stopping in the quadrangle of
what appeared to be a large Victorian mansion. I had observed it a few moments earlier, as we entered the estate to which it belonged.
It seemed to occupy the whole of one end of it. There was little sign of life at the time, due to everyone probably attending to their
daily duties, but the boys I was able BARNARDO BOY
to observe immediately caused my heart to pound with excitement. Each of them wore long trousers, and none of them had a
closely-cropped head of hair!
The school; the halcyon years of my youth
THE SCHOOL, and its grounds — once owned and occupied by the Abel-Smith family - are worthy of a detailed explanation.
Observed from the front the whole building was spectacularly large, its extreme west wing being the residence of the Governor, his
wife and family. The central - and largest -section of its three storeys housed the boys in seven 'houses', each accommodating about
forty boys. They were not actual dwellings, only loosely sectionalised areas; each house had a housemaster who was sometimes an
officer of the school, or one of its teachers.
Each boy had his own bed and small locker in which he kept his personal belongings, and, daily, was responsible for making his bed
and doing a minimal of cleaning. (No repeat of the Angas sagas, thank goodness!) Washing and showering was communal and
casually undertaken, rather than strictly overseen. It was sufficient for each boy to know that he had a serious duty to consider his
cleanliness and tidiness as an essential personal discipline. To ignore it was to foster antagonism from other members of the house
who had developed a collective pride in its achievements, especially in sport, and on parade.
The ground floor of the building was given over mainly to offices and service departments, such as stores, while the whole east end
of the school contained the washing and toilet facilities. Fronting everything was the large dining hall and its kitchen. The dining
hall overlooked a large parade ground, also used as a playground, where, each day after breakfast, we paraded for inspection before
going to our training; the exception being Sunday when we always paraded for church.
Immediately fronting the Governor's residence was a broad expanse of carefully maintained lawn with flower beds, that spread right
up to the west end of the parade ground. To the left of the Governor's quarters stood the school church. A long, wide driveway led
from the church and circumvented the large lawn to meet up with the end of the parade ground. The school's brass band would lead
us marching to the morning service and back; whereupon the rest of the day would become our own, to follow our pleasures and,
usually in the afternoon, frequently to walk into Hertford town.
The parade ground gradually sloped downwards, a distance of some eighty metres, from its higher end fronting the dining hall,
towards an extremely large wooden building that was used extensively by everyone for indoor games. It housed a long, narrow room
on its right flank which contained all the school band's instruments and music, etc, and on the extreme left flank of the building
another room provided the prefects' quarters with its solitary snooker table. There was room, also, to house the school's tuck shop.
When the weather was severe the large hut was used for assemblies; at other times it provided an ideal practice area for the band.
Behind the hut a high brick wall stretched in a large arc to meet up with the School's east end at the wash-house and at its lower end
to sweep gradually round to meet up with what at one time was almost certainly a stable and coach house. This wall formed a kind
of inner perimeter of the grounds, being accompanied by a tarmacadam road which, at each end, joined up with the main road via
which we had entered the estate.
The so-called 'coach house' was actually a collection of buildings specially adapted and used for training. They housed the printing
school, tinsmithery, engineering (mechanical and electrical), shoemaking and repairing, blacksmiths (or wheelwrights) and one or
two others. Opposite, across the road, was the cabinet and carpentry school, horticultural and, all by itself, the school's gymnasium,
under the charge of Percy Paget (who was also my housemaster). Finally, there were two other important facilities: the first-aid
centre; the other a large area opposite the gymnasium given over to allotments, where boys were encouraged to keep plots, assemble
small huts, and even keep small pets and pigeons. The whole of the estate was encompassed by a low perimeter fence, inside which
an expansive acreage was available for football pitches, a cricket ground (with its own pavilion) and, solely for the staff, a tennis
court. The provision of such a comprehensive layout provided an ideal environment in which further to educate and nurture rapidly
developing youths in what was a vital and important period of our lives.
My experiences at Goldings proved to be the highlight of my young life; almost three years packed with diverse activities, that
included the vitally important one of learning my trade. The impact upon me was absorbing and wholly pleasing; and my developing
relationships with my young colleagues were an equal source of satisfaction. The marked difference between my nine years at Angas
House and those spent at The William Baker Technical School was in the very nature and depth of my relationships with them.
At Angas House, I was simply one of thirty-five children, brought up in one, very large dwelling, by two dedicated ladies. My
horizons were strictly limited, my interests quite transitory. The depth of my knowledge in terms of being able to share and discuss
it seriously with a pal were, quite naturally, almost nonexistent. Indeed, amongst us youngsters generally, at the Boys Garden City,
there existed a situation which, in its mildest form, was much akin to dog-eat-dog. We were all only too aware of our dependency
for everything we had, and did, upon the whims (if whims they were) of two adult ladies and, with few exceptions, acted much as
young fledglings in a nest, seeking to grab at every morsel that was proffered in the way of favours, with little consideration for the
effect that it might have on the weaker of our numbers.
Telling tales about each other was commonplace, especially amongst the younger children. This is not meant to suggest that we were
without good manners or lacking in loyalty - far from it. It was, however, much more collective; something induced from 'above'
almost as a discipline, rather than from a child's personal, genuinely-fostered, concern for another. At Goldings one's relationships
became much more meaningful and important the longer one remained. Apart from our personal relationships there were other
groups brought together by our combined participation in such activities as the school's band, the gymnastics team, football and
cricket teams, and so on.
All these added to our friendships. There were, however, always one or two special friends with whom one would share one's
thoughts and confidences to the exclusion of everyone else. There was also a greater overall loyalty to the school, particularly
towards one's house and its housemaster. My own consuming interest, apart from my work, was the school's band. As soon as I
heard music emanating from the large hut, I knew that that was where I wanted to be.
Jack Youngman, the newly-appointed bandmaster, welcomed me with open arms, and soon I became a consistent practiser of my
tenor saxhorn (later I turned to the trumpet) and, eventually, proudly took my place in the band to play a very minor role, helping
to lead my school colleagues to church each Sunday morning. Increasing practice helped me to become more proficient; to play
more demanding parts, and subsequently to accompany the band when it played at fetes, special memorial services at the Royal
Albert, and Westminster Halls and, in Hertford town itself on one occasion solemnly to play at its war memorial service to its dead,
the 'Last Post'.
Yet, the band proved also - quite unintentionally - to be the reason for a temporary lapse in the cordial relationship which existed
between my housemaster, Mr. Percy Paget, and myself. Indirectly, the cause of the trouble started much earlier - at the Boys Garden
City. During my last two years there the gymnasium was built and, as I earlier described, also doubled as a weekly cinema. There I
became, very quickly, a most proficient young gymnast, doing hand-stands, back flips, somersaults, etc. with the greatest of ease.
So I went to Goldings well endowed with the ability to be one of Percy's leading performers.
Unfortunately for him I heard the music and was grabbed by Jack Youngman before he had even a chance to say 'You're mine!' In
fact, that's exactly what he did say and prevailed upon me for a number of days to change my mind. I not only wanted to stay in the
band, but I wanted to be loyal to Mr. Youngman, too. Percy was livid and in a moment of extreme vexation at my unyielding stance,
hit me hard upon the side of my face with his hand. He apologised immediately. Hurt though I was I genuinely forgave him. "It's
okay, sir," I said, understandingly. Percy patted my shoulder and said, "You know, son, I could hardly bear to think of losing you to
the band. I think you're a fine young man." Perhaps, at last, I was beginning to act like one, too!
I felt less certain about Percy's sincerity, however, when, during the following week, he nominated me to have a couple of rounds
with him in the boxing ring. (We were alone at the time.) He was normally quite considerate on these occasions, never over-stepping
the mark in his desire to show just how good a boxer he had been in his youth. But on this occasion he punched me so hard upon the
nose that blood poured forth from it quite freely. The only redeeming feature of the incident occurred when, having invited me to do
likewise to him, if indeed I could, I did a perfect feint with my left hand, subsequently to follow it with a stunning right to his nose
with such force as to knock him almost off his feet. Having recovered himself, he brushed aside a slight trace of blood, gave a good
laugh and said, "That makes us quits, son". I was utterly relieved.
Percy had been in the Army Physical Training Corps as a senior instructor before taking up his position at Goldings. He was a gentle
man in his middle forties but his agility, physical fitness and strength were those of a man of thirty. He was a wonderful gymnast and
had formed a team which travelled around the local counties giving exhibitions (as, indeed, did the band) all of which benefited the
Homes and helped indirectly to raise money for its ever-needy, insatiable coffers. He was short, but stocky, with a torso like a tree
trunk; not a sign of flabbiness anywhere.
My period in the band lasted the whole of my time at Goldings, so much of my spare time was given over to practice. I would go to
the bandroom in the evenings (often alone) to practise for an hour or two. This meant that other activities such as football and
cricket were neglected; but my one consuming interest apart from my music was table tennis in the big hut. I was quite good, and
the game itself was very worthwhile in that it complemented my rather staid activity of simply sitting and blowing an instrument.
The band's visits to many local events enabled us to dress-up in our impressive black uniforms decorated with red stripes; and we
inevitably became an attraction for young females who appeared to take our presence as an opportunity to practise the art of flirtation.
The range of our music widened immeasurably when, early in 'thirty-nine, Mr. Youngman was called to the colours, because of the
worsening situation and an imminent war, and a local master, Mr. Batelle, took over the band. We played every conceivable kind of
music: waltzes, marches, overtures, polkas - a whole range of tunes, in order to to give us extra scope and a sense of achievement;
for some of them were quite difficult pieces to learn and to play. A tragic consequence of the war - which started within months of
his appointment - was brought starkly into focus when that fine master became the school's first victim of a stray bomb shortly after
I had left. He was the most popular of all the school's masters.
For the youngest of us at the school our early months were not only a period in which we had to get used to all the major, more
obvious facets of school life; there were other changes of a more personal nature, too, that gradually confronted us; changes that
were inevitable in our development to gradual manhood. I refer to the quickening pace of puberty. Each of us became more aware
of this physical metamorphosis which affected both our sexual and sensuous selves. For boys like myself, virtually ignorant of
sexual knowledge, these changes, whilst in no way mystifying, were, nevertheless, inadequately defined. Indeed, my initial 'baptism'
into the varying, and near ultimate, manifestations of puberty, was revealed to me in a wholly unsuspecting way.
It occurred in the far-from-baptismal waters of the school's wash house; more particularly, beneath the cascading waters from its
forty or so shower heads. In conformity with school routine, Friday evening was given over to showering. I had never ventured upon
such an experience before, but happily accompanied my colleagues of varying ages to the clothing room, there to undress ready for
our turn to shower. Only then did I become aware of the significant physical changes that would soon overtake me.
As we moved to our respective positions beneath the showers I felt a high degree of personal inadequacy as I surveyed the
beautifully-matured (and maturing) forms of the older boys: the advancing stages of their growing manliness; their lissom,
well-developed bodies, with tightly-curled hairs spreading over their bodies manifesting a protective role. I acceded to an urge to
view my own body and glanced down at its skinny, underdeveloped frame. What else could I do but simply envy and admire them.
Any claim to manliness I may inwardly have had pretensions to were effectively dissolved in the watery dousing of that first shower.
I was grateful when the steaming waters quickly built a protective screen which wrapped itself round my embarrassed form.
I realised, of course, that in the fullness of time my own body would grow in a similar way; neverthless, the experience left me in a
very inquisitorial frame of mind. I felt unable to feel either admiration or envy for the few of our companions present whose
hirsuteness was such as to make almost impossible the discernment of all but a few small areas of hairlessness on their otherwise