Clifton College

In September 1935, at the age of eleven, I went to Clifton College, Bristol. This was a real eye-opener for an eleven-year-old from Newquay County School. There was the breadth and beauty of the school buildings, the Chapel, and the Close -- a huge stretch of rugby and cricket-pitches made famous by Newbolt's poem. There was the sheer number of people and the amazing variety of activities. After the bare wind-swept landscape of Cornwall there was the Autumn colour of the trees on the Downs. For the first time, I came across rugby football, and proper music. On the second day there, all the new boys had a singing test, and to my surprise I was put into the choir as a treble.

I was in Poole's House, part of the Junior School (" The Pre' ") -- one stayed there until moving to the Senior School at 13. The housemaster was D. Forbes Mackintosh, a large and hairy Scot with a beautiful wife. Mac was a benevolent bully who ruled the house very strictly; he was not at all approachable. A complete contrast was the house-tutor, Archie McLaren, known as "Croc" -- a cheerful, accessible, light-hearted man, who always seemed to have a stream of small boys in his wake saying "Please sir this" and "Please sir that" and "Please sir, what do you think". It was Croc who read us bed- time stories by Saki; who got us all out of bed to hear Edward VIII's abdication broadcast; who took us all in relays around Bristol in his old open car to see the lights and decorations for George VI's Coronation; and who. as we got older, took us down Goatchurch Cave in the Mendips.

In Goatchurch, you climb down 400 feet, and there you find the Drainpipe, a tunnel 40 feet long, just big enough for a man to wriggle along on his stomach. It was rumoured that Peter Brooke, our large ex-rugger international padre, had got stuck in the Drainpipe because of an apple in his pocket. I have a photograph of the occasion when a small group of us went to Goatchurch with Croc, and I see that none of us had hard hats; we were wearing any old bits of rugger clothing, and I only hope that we had decent torches and not candles! Things then were much more casual.

This was the sort of liberal atmosphere I came to in my first term, and I threw myself into it with great enthusiasm and enjoyment, caused mostly by the novelty of it all, but to some extent too by a youthful worry that it was costing my parents an awful lot of money. So I worked very hard, and played rugger very hard, and sang lustily. The choir practices and the Chapel services were a new discipline and pleasure; and the choir was joined once a week by the choral society in rehearsals for The Messiah. At these rehearsals we small trebles stared in awe at the 18-year-old heroes of the School Fifteen, who sang among the tenors and basses. The whole lot together, choir and choral society, came to at least 120 people, and we were rehearsed and harried by the Musical Director, Douglas Fox, while David Wilcox sat patiently at the piano.

The final result, the end-of-term concert itself, was a memorable occasion. There we all sat on the stage in Big School Hall, choir, choral society, school orchestra, all in our Sunday best, which for us smaller boys meant stiff Eton collars. Duggie Fox on the dais in tails; and the audience all in long dresses and dinner-jackets. The Messiah went like a dream, and I felt lifted up by a great new experience.

I went home with a glowing report, and lots to tell everyone. But in my second term things changed. I was no longer a new boy; I was blasé. The worries about parental expense were conveniently forgotten, and I became lazy and rebellious. I got a deservedly bad report, a sharp ticking-off by Mac, and a frosty reception from Dad. By the third term, I had settled in to a more steady rhythm at school, and began once more to enjoy myself and get results. By my second year, I was in the top form at the Pre', as the junior school was known. The form-master was the Headmaster of the Pre himself, Mr. E G Sharp.

Egg Sharp was a very pleasant and cheerful man, but a stickler for hard work. We had to know our stuff, and in class he always carried a light cane to emphasize the importance of accuracy. As he walked up and down the aisles between the desks, he would chant Latin verbs, keeping time with a tap of his cane on the shoulders of each boy as he passed. If you committed a howler, he would stand over you and would hit slightly harder -- " Sum, es, est, dear boy; sum, es, est.", with a rhythmic tap on the shoulder with each word. Nowadays, such treatment would be met with horror and threats of legal action. But in fact it was harmless, and indeed made us concentrate wonderfully well. Nobody was hurt, nobody had ridiculous ideas about abuse, and in fact Egg was universally liked and respected

This brings me to the subject of corporal punishment, about which so many people get worked up nowadays. It was taken for granted that there were rules, and if you transgressed those rules, you were punished -- not necessarily with the cane, though it was always there as a possibility, standing as it were like a slender threat in the corner of the house-master's study. And it did not happen very often; the severity varied with the crime, and was usually limited to three stinging strokes, six strokes being reserved for particularly loutish boys whose record of misdeeds was too awful to contemplate; six of the best, as it was known, was in fact very infrequent. It was obviously painful to be beaten, and one had to screw one's courage up beforehand, but afterwards you could always show off the wheals on your bum for the general enjoyment, sympathy and admiration of you friends. Above all, the sin was forgotten and forgiven, there were no hard feelings, and you probably remembered not to break that rule again.

So severe canings were a rarity; but there were less serious occasions. I remember in Pooles senior dormitory, one summer Sunday morning everyone woke very early because it was so light, and one pillow-fight became a universal pillow-fight; riot and shouting and general mayhem started, everybody becoming totally absorbed in the battle. Suddenly the door flew open ,and there stood Crock, the house-tutor, in a state of great rage. There was total silence -- boys standing on beds, still as statues, with pillows over their shoulders in the moment of striking; feathers everywhere. The only thing that moved in that stricken silence was a bottle of Brylcream, thrown against the wall -- this smashed and greasy article slid very slowly down the wall, breaking the silence as it landed on the floor. Crock gave each of us three extremely hard slaps on our pyjamaed bottoms with an old gym-shoe, a swift punishment which sent us silent back to bed with stinging backsides. By lunchtime, cheerfulness was restored, and Crock was joining us in seeing the funny side. But there were no more early morning pillow-fights.

In September 1937, I went up into the Senior School, into Dakyn's house. All the houses for boarders had been purpose-built in the eighteen-sixties; handsome houses, with (for the house-master and family) delightful rooms with big bay-windows overlooking the Close; at the back (for the boys) there was a rabbit-warren of corridors and studies with big dormitories on the top floor. The studies were about 6ft x 8ft; the senior boys had one to themselves, and the rest shared, two or sometimes three to a study. They were sparsely furnished, but always if possible you imported your own cheap arm-chair, specially bought by a loving mum. There was a big dining-room, lined with lists of names of past prefects, where the whole house of fifty boys could eat together under the eye of the house-master and his wife. And in the basement were the changing-rooms and showers, which had the added bonus of a long row of short individual bath-tubs, which we used to fill to the brim, and soaking luxuriously after a game of rugger, we'd raise the roof with reverberant song.

In those days, everybody fed in their own house; there was no communal school catering. This led to a feeling of individual house identity, of belonging to a small well-defined group, and this in turn led on to a great house spirit and inter-house rivalry. There were inter-house competitions of all kinds -- music, singing, drama, chess and so on; all these were tackled with great determination to beat some other house; but when it came to rugger or cricket, then the determination and competitive bloody-mindedness really took off -- the teams trained and practiced at all hours, urged on by their friends, and were loudly cheered on from the touch-line. Sometimes, indeed, the cheering at these matches was louder than at school matches. Our house-master was Sam Beachcroft, a large dormouse of a man who presided over all these activities with a sleepy and tolerant smile; and his wife, known as Ma B, a calm, cheerful woman who took it all in her stride.

This was the very lively community that I was quickly absorbed into at the age of thirteen. For the first two terms, one started as a "fag" -- a word, I may add, without it's modern connotation. Fagging consisted in doing chores for one of the house-prefects, cleaning his shoes, polishing the brasses on his OTC uniform, and keeping his study tidy. There was no reward. My chap was a boy called Stephenson, a lordly young man who was trying to cultivate a moustach with only moderate success. He became a fighter-pilot, and was killed, poor lad, during the war. Fags had to do more general tasks as well; if a prefect bellowed "FAG" at the top of his voice, all would come running, and would be sent to clear litter from the drive, or move furniture, or some such task. It was a perfectly reasonable lesson in communal living. After a year of fagging, life became freer; one entered that care-free middle stage of school life, with no responsibilities and rather less discipline.

By 1939, I was fifteen. I was working for School Certificate (O levels); in the summer I rowed because I hated cricket, and then I was in the House XV as a wing-forward; a busy and enjoyable year. In addition, I was in the OTC -- the Officers' Training Corps; what would now, more democratically, be called the Cadets. Everybody went into it automatically at the age of fifteen. In the OTC, we became familiar with the Lee-Enfield .303 rifle; it was heavy but reassuring, and it was a single-shot bolt-action rifle, with a magazine holding five rounds; it had a long and lethal bayonet. This weapon had served magnificently inthe1914-18 war, and was about to do so again in the 1939-45 war. In the OTC., we learned to take it apart and reassemble it ; we learned to march and drill with it, and to shoot with it. On a different level, we learned to dress smartly in our old-fashioned uniforms, clean our boots to a high shine, and master our puttees. A puttee was a roll of 3-inch wide material that you wound round your lower leg from boot-top to knee, thus providing a supportive leg-covering not unlike a surgical bandage. Properly applied, they looked very smart; but in the hands of a new recruit they could look like the legs of Norah Batty .We had the odd field-day, when we were bussed out into the country for "maneuvers", and I remember one delightful summer afternoon, when I sat in a bush at Easton Gray, pretending with a football rattle to be a machine-gun nest.

As 1939 rolled on the threat of war was increasing, but my main concern at the time was my School Certificate exam ( equivalent of O-levels). I was working for this exam during a hot summer term, with all the study windows open everywhere. The result was a varied mixture of sound drifting on the summer air -- not conducive to concentration. Some boy in Oakley's House, just across the way, played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue over and over again; somebody else had George Formby leaning incessantly on his lamp-post; and there was one boy whose record was a lugubrious song which went:-

Poor Robinson Crusoe,

He wanted to woo, so

To Heaven he cried

"O send me a bride,

With or without a trousseau".

I shared a study with Dick Hudson, and with all that noise it was a miracle that we got any work done. We ourselves added our bit with Dvorak's New World on our wind-up gramophone.

Any way, School Cert was taken and passed well enough. At the end of that term (Summer 1939) we went to the last OTC camp of the inter-war years. It was held at Bisley, and several OTCs were there, including Eton, Sherborne, Christ's Hospital and ourselves. We had a glorious ten days of route-marches, battles, and general mayhem. The Army demonstrated their most up-to-date armoured fighting vehicles, stuff that with hindsight was already much of it obsolete. There was one very North-country sergeant of the Guards, who demonstrated a tank, inappropriately dressed in scarlet tunic and guards cap with it's peak flat against the bridge of his nose. He kept referring to the tank, in all innocence, as an "armoured farting vehicle", which of course provided material for schoolboy hilarity at our end-of-camp concert.

At home, the last two or three years had seen the former group of young boys narrow down to a smaller group, with different interests developing. When I was thirteen, I'd had a pony, Tommy, who took up a lot of my time for a year or two; but by fifteen I was one of a group which included Brad, Neville, a lad called Pat Schneider ( a German name, but in fact very English), and Oliver Jenkins; John Cottier and I were two years younger than the others. John's parents ran a hotel; he had a pleasant and open personality, with a big smile for my mother, and an entirely sincere ability to listen to my father's tales of the past with complete open-mouthed absorption.

Oliver Jenkins was the only child of rich parents. They lived in a lovely house called Penmere (now a hotel and much changed) with gardens reaching right down to the Gannel. His mother was a plump and motherly Welsh woman, and his father was old and reclusive. These two nice people indulged Oliver a great deal, and he grew into a lad of considerable confidence and panache. So in those years just before the war, our usual meeting place was Penmere. We all had boats; Brad and I both had good wooden clinker-built rowing-boats, and Oliver had a sixteen-foot open motor-boat. This excellent vessel was in fact a bit of an oddity; it was driven by a 1926 Baby Austin engine, which had to be hand-started, and the starting-handle came so close to the deck of the boat that there was precious little room for one's hand. Brad, being muscular, usually did the starting, and so spent the summer with permanently barked knuckles. We had all these boats on a frap running out to an old boiler that we'd sunk in the sand, and we spent many happy hour sitting on the Penmere jetty, waiting for the tide to come in.

We would often go out to sea in Oliver's boat, mackerel-fishing or a trip round to Newquay Harbour. Getting out of the Gannel was not always easy; one had to keep to the channel, close to the rocks on the starboard side, avoiding the breakers rolling in on Crantock beach. Once out , you had to be sure to be in again before half-tide. Every time we went out, Mr. Northey, the ferryman at the mouth of the Gannel, would cry out "You boys -- you'll be drowned" in a hopeful voice, and we would call jeeringly back. But he was not far wrong; we were taking a risk that few people would take today -- we had no buoyancy, no life-jackets, and certainly no distress-flares. But then nobody else did either; it never occurred to anybody to wear anything but soft hats or caps for riding, or for motor-cycling, and seat-belts were unheard of. And this careless attitude extended to boats; in our case we trusted the boat with all the confidence and unwisdom of youth, and then we'd go back to Penmere, full of good cheer, where Mrs. Jenkins would give us big teas.

The other interest was cars, of necessity very old cars. By 1938 Brad and Oliver had left school and gone to Loughborough University to do engineering. At the end of one term they pooled their train-fares and bought instead a 1920s Morris Minor, a little open box with minimal everything. They gave £5 for it, but as Brad pointed out in a recent letter, this was the equivalent of three weeks wages for an agricultural worker. Nothing on it worked very well; in those days you could take anything on the road if you could make it move and if you could make it stop, and there was certainly no MOT. We bounced that car round and round the paddock at Penmere, and while bouncing wildly up and down, I was taught by Brad to double-declutch. For economy's sake we tried running it on paraffin, but that was not a success.

The next notable car was a 1926 Amilcar. Brad bought it for £7.50 with the money he was given for being called up into the Territorial Army during the Munich crisis. It was a road-racing car, looked like a cigar on wheels, and there was just room in the cockpit for the driver and the passenger. The front brakes had been dismantled by a former owner following an accident, and the steering-wheel was bent; apart from these minor details it was a lovely car, which we all admired greatly. One day Brad and I drove to Penhaligon's scrap-yard near Truro, full of abandoned cars, and bought a sporty-looking steering-wheel which Brad, there and then, hammered home on the solid steering-column. On the way back, he turned the wheel hard right at a crossroads, and we just went straight on. So after that, we put a nail in the key-way to hold the wheel firm, and I hammered it every time it seemed to come loose. Unfortunately, there was an AA man on point-duty at a T-junction in Newquay, and I was so busy putting my arm out to indicate our intention to turn left, that I forgot to hammer the wheel, and again we went straight on; the AA man had to leap aside, but forgave us because we were going so slowly. Another time we crunched very slowly into the back of a council lorry, mended the radiator with chewing-gum, and refilled it with water from the near-by boating-lake.

Such was our carefree life just before the war. Looking back, it was a life of extraordinary freedom -- freedom to roam, to develop, with empty roads and countryside, and the glorious expanse of the North Cornish coast. We were incredibly lucky to have such freedom, and also, to have parents who let us enjoy it all.

The only area in our lives which had less freedom than today was in the matter of girls. We all knew girls, on a brotherly level -- they tended to go around in pairs and giggle at you. But we were at boarding-school, where in the case of Clifton the act of even speaking to a girl from Clifton High School almost merited expulsion. So girls occurred only in the holidays, and in those days sex was acknowledged but certainly never mentioned in polite society. Of course, it went on -- it certainly wasn't invented in 1963, which is the cult idea nowadays. But due to the accepted idea that " nice girls didn't ", and also to a combination of fear of pregnancy (a terrible disgrace), and to a genuinely more respected moral code, there was a limit to love-making which stopped well short of risk. This may sound artificial, but it certainly prevented relationships getting too deeply involved too early. This allowed both sexes to meet , and flirt with, and get to know a greater variety, and not settle down together in their teens like old married couples.

So the relationship with girls proceeded rather slowly in one's teenage years. My first girl-friend -- a pretty chaste affair -- was Norah; she was fifteen, plump and seductive. I was fifteen, thin and spotty. She lived by the boating-lake at the bottom of Trenance Hill, an incredibly steep hill about three-quarters of a mile long. When I took her to the cinema, this meant a walk down the hill to collect her, up the hill again and another mile to the cinema; afterwards, down the hill to walk her home, a few goodnight kisses, then a solitary clamber back up the damn hill to go home. I only hope we both enjoyed it; it certainly kept me fit. Later on, when I was seventeen, there was Mary, an impish Welsh girl who used to visit our friends the Christies in the summer. She was two years older than me, but we fell for each other completely, danced well together, and made each other laugh. But she joined the Wrens, and I the army, and we lost touch. When we did meet again, it was 1946; we were mature and changed, and had nothing in common. Sadly, we parted.

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


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Early Years


Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry