Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times
Dura Virum Nutrix:
Tea with the Head Man
We were greeted on arrival at School House by the Headmaster, J.H. Bruce Lockhart, and his wife, and given tea in their spacious living room. The headmaster was also House Master of School House, besides running the school. There was one other new boy joining School House that Lent term in 1944, James Gourlay, who was to become a good friend. The Head Man, as he was known, was to have a profound influence on my life, awakening my interest in the French language and encouraging me to pursue water colour painting, of which he was a gifted practitioner. He also awakened my religious sense.
Bottom set for Maths
I was placed in Omega, the very lowest maths set and in Set 5 for French, the highest French set in the lower school. For all other subjects, including English and history, I was in Form Two, with a bunch of other indifferent scholastic talents. After a couple of terms, I managed to win promotion to Form 3b, the highest in the lower school.
My French teacher was “Horsey” Gairdner, who spoke only French in class, practising what is known as ‘the direct method’ of teaching. We boys formed sentences, after learning useful phrases from a vocabulary and phrase book devised by the Head Man and liberally illustrated. A popular way of starting was: “Si je ne me trompe pas, cette image represente.”
I was thus able to develop a mastery of French that stood me in good stead in later life as a journalist in Geneva and Paris. Life in School House was far from being a bed of roses. I was a rather untidy boy, in frequent trouble with prefects for having a messy locker and often being required to draw maps as a punishment. My invariable choices were Australia and South America.
School House, 1945
Cold baths every morning
Sedbergh had a just reputation as a tough school. It is situated on the edge of the Howgill fells,marking the beginning of the Lake District, in the words of the school song “Where Clough and Dee and Rawthey come singing from the hills.”
Come rain or shine, each boy took a cold bath every morning. I got quite used to this barbarous practice, and even enjoyed it. The school uniform was blue blazers and shorts, worn also in the depths of winter, with open neck blue shirts.
I greatly enjoyed playing rugger, although I was not a very skilful player. I did not much take to fell running, a frequent requirement during the winter months. One of the set runs was to climb Winder, the hill overlooking the school. Others,like Frost Row, Holme Fell and Four Lanes End, were a severe test for youngsters.
“House runs for all”
About four times, during the Winter and Lent terms, a notice “House runs for all” appeared on the school noticeboard. That meant that the boys of each house, divided into packs “Seniors” “Juniors” and “Trotters” covered a fixed course with prefects at the front and back of each group.
Swimming star at Sedbergh
I was an outstanding swimmer, thanks to the efforts of Mr Hutchinson at the Harrogate swimming baths, and quickly won a place in the School swimming eight, which competed against other schools, among them Manchester and Leeds Grammar schools, and Rossall, on the West coast, which had an unheated salt water swimming bath overlooking the sea. My speciality was the back stroke, and I would frequently come first in that event.
A winner in the ring
My other sport was boxing, and I managed to win my weight in the inter-house boxing contest on several occasions. One year, I won the final in the light weight division by beating an old friend from Clifton, Charley Rankine, who was in Evans House. My parents came up to watch the fight, over three one and a half minute rounds, and afterwards took us both to tea in the Old Bull, a local hostelry.
School House sports winners, 1948
The Wilson Run
For many boys, all this training prepared them to compete in the Wilson Run, or Ten Mile, at the end of the Lent term. I never took part in that famous race, which took the runners along the side of Baugh Fell. My elder son, Brendan, did run in the Ten Mile when he attended Sedbergh many years later.
Winning as a watercolour painter
I did a great deal of water colour painting at Sedbergh, often under the aegis of our gifted art master, Alexander Inglis, who had served in the Merchant Navy on the Atlantic convoys to Murmansk. Mr Inglis made a profound impression on my artistic ability, and I turned out several competent water colour landscapes while still at school.
Three of them won me the school’s Craigmile art prize. One painting, preserved under glass to this day, depicted boys skating on the frozen School House yard in the exceptionally cold winter of 1947.
Influential House Tutor
One great character in Shool House was Michael Thornley, then House Tutor, and himself to become Head Master on the departure of Bruce Lockhart in the early 1950s. Michael, in those days known as “Prick”, was and remains a good friend. He taught me Latin, drumming into our thick heads little rhymes, which I can still remember.
One went as follows:
The dative put, remember, pray
German added to my languages
When I reached the Fourth form, I was allowed to learn German, to which I took with enthusiasm. My teacher, right up to and including joining the Modern Language Sixth in my final year, was the hyperactive Mr Hammer. “Schoen, gut, also” he would cry as he bustled into the classroom. I further improved my German by chatting to the German prisoners of war housed near the school after the war had ended. My German was soon as good as my French. It was soon to get much better through military service in Austria and later through my work as a correspondent in Germany.
Treading the boards at Sedbergh
An entertaining aspect of my life at Sedbergh during the final months was taking part in the house play, produced in Powell Hall by Mr Thornley. The play was “The Cat and the Canary”, a murder mystery, in which I played the part of a murderer and my great friend Tris Cones took the female lead, all women’s parts being played by boys. Mr Thornley took great pleasure in coaching me and another boy, Jeremy Higham, in a ferocious fight, in which I was knocked out before being arrested by the police, played by a boy called Gossip.
Playing the double bass
A further accomplishment in my final year was to play the double bass in the house orchestra. We competed against the orchestras of the school’s other houses, Winder, Powell, Hart, Sedgwick, Evans and Lupton. Instead of music, I had a page of instructions like “Scrub with the bow vigorously five times on the fourth string”, or “Pluck the first and third strings six times”. We played a piece called Praeludium by Jaernefeldt.
We did not win the competition that year. That distinction went to Powell House, whose orchestra included Chadwick, the school’s best violinist.
Prepare for temptation
I well remember attending the school chapel for the last time at the end of my final term, when the Head Man read a famous lesson from the Apocrypha: “My son, if thou wouldst come to serve the Lord, Prepare thy soul for temptation. Set Thy heart aright And make not haste in times of trouble. Cleave unto Him and He will help thee.”
Excellent advice for a young man setting out on life.
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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh