Tuck boxes, inkwells, weekly baths, Sunday letter writing … What life was like for the boarders at Sompting Abbotts in the 1960s

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Richard, you’re going ‘away to school’

I can recall that first day I arrived at Sompting Abbotts as if it were yesterday …

It was January 1960. I was a quiet, timid boy aged eight and it was my first time ever away from home.

My father’s car purred down the driveway of Abbotts’ Walk towards what looked like a forest of tall trees. Then we pulled up in front of a grand building topped by turrets and towers. It looked imposing – and daunting.

I waited silent in the hallway in front of the study of the Headmaster Mr Rutherford. My father stood there with his back to the main door talking to him.

I knew I must not cry, not cry, not cry … That was something one did not do in our family. I kept a stiff upper lip and returned the firm handshake from my father. He left immediately, leaving me there, my new leather briefcase in my right hand.

Sompting Abbotts as it would have been when Dr Stillman arrived aged 8. The trees were far denser then – many were felled by the Great Storm of 1987. The landscaped gardens were grassed over in 1965 to save labour and free up more space for free play. Back then Sompting Abbotts was a boarding school exclusively for boys. It became a co-educational day school for girls and boys in 1998. Boarding ceased in 2008.

Sompting Abbotts as it would have been when Dr Stillman arrived aged 8. The trees were far denser then – many were felled by the Great Storm of 1987. The landscaped gardens were grassed over in 1965 to save labour and free up more space for free play. Back then Sompting Abbotts was a boarding school exclusively for boys. It became a co-educational day school for girls and boys in 1998. Boarding ceased in 2008.

It was in 1959 when I learned I was “going away to school”. A clothing list came. A blazer and other items of uniform were ordered from a firm in London and packed neatly in a large trunk with wooden bands around its girth.

I was also given a robust traditional boarding school tuck box. This is where we kept our treasures. My name was written in bold black letters on both.

Every boy also had to have two wooden hairbrushes, with his name inscribed on them, and a ‘tuck tin’. Mine was packed with boiled sweets and Rhubarb & Custards, Sherbet Lemons and Mint Humbugs.

These tuck tins were stored in a small room opposite the school kitchen. One treat-day a week we were allowed to choose a ration from them. We were also given £2 a term for spending money, which was kept for us too.

No mother, wrote Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir  Boy , would send her son off to prep school without, at the very least, the following in his tuck box: a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed-fly biscuits, a couple of oranges, an apple, a banana, a pot of strawberry jam or Marmite, a bar of chocolate, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and a tin of Bassett’s lemonade powder. To these, a boy would add ‘all manner of treasures’, such as magnets, pocket knifes, balls of string, clockwork racing cars, lead soldiers, tiddlywinks, catapults, stink bombs and Mexican jumping beans.

No mother, wrote Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir Boy, would send her son off to prep school without, at the very least, the following in his tuck box: a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed-fly biscuits, a couple of oranges, an apple, a banana, a pot of strawberry jam or Marmite, a bar of chocolate, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and a tin of Bassett’s lemonade powder. To these, a boy would add ‘all manner of treasures’, such as magnets, pocket knifes, balls of string, clockwork racing cars, lead soldiers, tiddlywinks, catapults, stink bombs and Mexican jumping beans.

My parents were busy GPs and we lived in Nottingham. This was the days before motorways. Sussex felt like a world away. It was a whole day’s drive to get there.

We left early. Getting to travel in my father’s Jag was the only bright part of the day, so much was I dreading going to school. He drove a 3.4-litre Jaguar, the kind the baddies always used in the cops and robbers films. We stopped only once, for lunch in a hotel – a “slap-up meal” as my father described it. I couldn’t enjoy it much.

One of the boys’ school dormitories of the period; now the school’s maths room

One of the boys’ school dormitories of the period; now the school’s maths room

A Roman in a Saxon dormitory

We arrived mid-afternoon. An older boy was summoned to take me up to my dorm and show me my bed and locker. There were six beds. Mine was to the left as you entered the room.

The dormitories, I discovered, were all named after royal dynasties: Saxon, Norman, Tudor, Stuart, Hanover and Windsor. I was then allocated my ‘house’. These were Romans, Trojans, Etruscans and Greeks. I was now a Roman in a Saxon dormitory!

Every morning, we had to take our wash-bags to the sinks for a face wash and teeth clean. Roll call was in the Assembly Room, followed by the school prayer. We then were led off to our classes.

Lessons included Mathematics, English Literature, Geography, Divinity, Classics, Latin, French and more. Science I enjoyed a lot. It was taught by a teacher appropriately named Mr Rocket. He was fun. Another teacher I especially liked was Captain King. He taught French and was ex-military. We respected him. He was strict but fair. The teachers were always firm but some were kinder than others.

I remember handwriting lessons being monotonous. We had to repeatedly copy phrases such as ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ in flowing cursive writing into our lined copy-books. Inkwells were positioned at the right outer corner of our desks for us to dip our pens into. That meant the table surface was always splattered with wet ink blobs that ended up all over our wrists and arms.

Archive photo of a school classroom at Sompting Abbotts of the period.

Archive photo of a school classroom at Sompting Abbotts of the period.

Thin lamb and vegetables

Lunch was served in the Dining Room. This was hung with impressive paintings and overlooked by a splendid marble fireplace and a gilt mirror that reached the ceiling. A vast family portrait hung on the big wall. It showed the ancestors of the then Sompting Abbotts’ owners, the Tristrams, as a family seated, children at their feet, with their hunting dogs.

The food was plain. A typical meal would be lamb cut thin served with boiled potatoes and vegetables and rice pudding for afters. We boys were constantly hungry and always dreaming of raiding the kitchen.

We liked the cook. She was kind to us. If you hung around the kitchen at the weekend, she’d give you a hunk of bread or a biscuit. She had a black and white sheep dog that lolloped about after her. If you fell over and scraped your knee, she’d get the dog to lick it for you, putting her cigarette to one side as she administered to you. (Health & Safety regulations weren’t an issue in those days).

The school dining room at Sompting Abbotts as it would have been at the period.

The school dining room at Sompting Abbotts as it would have been at the period.

Midnight feasts and pranks

Hunger meant we would try and stay awake at night until we heard the last master’s car leave. More often than not we’d fall asleep. But when we didn’t, we’d creep down the winding staircase that emerged beside the kitchen and make off with bread and anything we could grab.

After lunch was sport: cricket in the summer and football in the winter. We changed into sports kit in the cellars below the school. I was useless at sport and could see no point to it.

Standing around in shorts on a cold winter's day waiting for the ball to come to the full back was not my idea of fun. This wasn’t good for my popularity though. For that, you had to have sporting prowess and show loyalty to the team.

Once a week, it was ‘the big bath’. Old Mrs [Molly] Sinclair always presided over this event. It was a much-enjoyed session of mayhem, steam and water. She would sit on the edge of the bath and probably got as wet as we did. We were bathed, two to a bath. We all loved Mrs Sinclair dearly. She treated us all equally and like one of her own, with much kindness. She radiated love and affection.

Mayhem, steam and hot water

Once a week, it was ‘the big bath’. Old Mrs [Molly] Sinclair always presided over this homely event. It was a much-enjoyed session of mayhem, steam and water. She would sit on the edge of the bath and probably got as wet as we did. We were bathed, two to a bath.

We all loved Mrs Sinclair dearly. She treated us all equally and like one of her own, with much love and kindness. It was with great sadness some years later that I found my parents sending a wreath when she succumbed to leukaemia. She radiated love and affection.

School photo from 1963 when Dr Richard Stillman was a pupil at the school. He’s pictured 5th from the right on the third row. Seated at the front are the teachers. From left: Mrs Wyre, Miss Gingell, Mr Stamford, Mr ‘Ding Dong’ Bell, Headmaster Mr George Rutherford, Mrs Molly Sinclair, Captain King, Mr Esdule, Mr Rocket, Matron Miss Law and Miss Grace

School photo from 1963 when Dr Richard Stillman was a pupil at the school. He’s pictured 5th from the right on the third row. Seated at the front are the teachers. From left: Mrs Wyre, Miss Gingell, Mr Stamford, Mr ‘Ding Dong’ Bell, Headmaster Mr George Rutherford, Mrs Molly Sinclair, Captain King, Mr Esdule, Mr Rocket, Matron Miss Law and Miss Grace

Weekends were much more fun than week days. We had ample free time to explore, forage and play in the woods. We discovered tunnels in the grounds. [Sompting Abbotts was requisitioned by the army during the Second World War and soldiers would have built these tunnels.] I remember our excitement finding saucy cartoon-style postcards of the war era in one of them and other war relics.

The grounds of Sompting Abbotts were wonderful and loved by us all. We revelled in our explorations and games in the woods.

Britain had been hit by Myxomatosis, a viral disease of rabbits, then. It decimated the rabbit population and it was commonplace for us boys to find them staggering around with big swollen eyes, slowly dying. The tougher boys would put them out of their misery with a big stick – heartbreaking to see. No one liked doing it.

The front of the school in the 1960s with the Sinclairs’ Sunbeam Rapier parked outside. To the left of the front door is what passed as a fire escape in those days!

The front of the school in the 1960s with the Sinclairs’ Sunbeam Rapier parked outside. To the left of the front door is what passed as a fire escape in those days!

We had bikes, stacked in a bike shed in the backyard. My parents had handed me down my sister’s blue Raleigh, which had no cross bar. I got ribbed for that and barely used it. When I left for senior school, I abandoned it in the bike shed to quietly rot away…

The outside toilets were bad news. There wasn’t much privacy. You often had a row of grinning faces peering over the top of the sides, making lewd comments. Bullying between us boys was commonplace. As with all boys’ boarding schools of the era, it was par for the course, though it was mainly verbal. Luckily, actual physical fights didn’t often happen.

The games room at Sompting Abbotts

The games room at Sompting Abbotts

Stamps and cigarettes

I liked Jones, but no one else did. His parents lived and worked in Hong Kong. Like me, he seldom saw them and like me, didn’t go home at half term or weekends. His parents sent him lots of stamps from the Far East and he was generous with them. Every boy in those days collected stamps from the Empire, and they were one of the forms of currency.

Later, cigarettes took that place as some of us boys would smoke in the woods. One boy, Shalberg, was a great help in that matter. His mother smoked Benson and Hedges, which she bought in large quantities, sufficient for the odd packet not to be missed. Sadly this was the start of an addiction that nearly got me expelled from Hurstpierpoint College in later years – but that's another story.

I remember wrestling matches with Mr Payne, the gym master, too. He was short, stocky and immensely strong. When he was on evening duty after supper, he would let us try and bring him to the ground. He would hold his arms out laughing heartily and we would attempt to lower them. He was so strong even our full weight would have no effect. It was great fun, even if we never succeeded in winning.

Undated photo of the period of some of the boys lined up for a presentation and recital in honour of Samuel Coleridge

Undated photo of the period of some of the boys lined up for a presentation and recital in honour of Samuel Coleridge

Towards the end of my time at the school, we began to be allowed to watch television in old Mr Sinclair’s room three floors up. Saturday afternoons we got to watch Dr Who and we looked forward to the next episode all week.

Further along that corridor was what became the bedroom of his son Nigel Sinclair, who would soon take over the school’s running. This lead poor Jones into more trouble. One night he found an interesting trunk in Nigel’s room and removed from it some 22-calibre bullets.

He got caught showing them off, which resulted in his whole dorm being marched to the headmaster's study. That didn’t help Jones’s popularity. I still liked him though; he was different.

Rollings and canings

Strong discipline was maintained at Sompting Abbotts, and as with most boarding schools of the era, the cane was used, but only for the worst crimes. That was performed by the Headmaster.

There was one other much milder punishment, dolled out by the prefects. It was called ‘rollings’. If you got a ‘rollings’, you had to push the school’s monster of a lawn roller up and down the cricket pitch a prescribed number of times. This was actually quite fun and lead to all sorts of shenanigans. One boy set it free down the slope to the woods flattening everything in its path.

Archive photo of boys in costume for a school play. Was this Robin Hood? Many plays were scripted by Mrs Molly Sinclair.

Archive photo of boys in costume for a school play. Was this Robin Hood? Many plays were scripted by Mrs Molly Sinclair.

Sunday church outings

Sunday mornings were for letter writing, followed by church. We would sit in the Assembly Room, having taken paper and envelope from our writing cases, and write to our parents. I would often write to my grandmother, of whom I was fond. There could have been a mercenary element though. I knew the return letter would enclose a 10 bob (10 shilling) note: a small fortune in those days.

Some of the boys returning from their Sunday outing to the nearby church of St Mary’s, Sompting

Some of the boys returning from their Sunday outing to the nearby church of St Mary’s, Sompting

We then had to get ready for church. We donned jackets and grey caps with red badges, lined up, then filed two-by-two to the parish church of St Mary’s, down the lane.

We were each issued with one penny. Up until the collection platter came round, you’d often hear coins rolling across the floor. One boy or other would always drop his coin. Headmaster Mr Rutherford, who sat in the front row, would twitch his jaw and his face would get redder and redder with irritation.

After church, we’d troop back for Sunday lunch. That was usually much better fare than weekdays. Then we had the whole long lovely afternoon stretching out before us to play. Some of the senior boys were allowed to go into town at weekends and buy things for us. We would give them a list of what we wanted. Airfix plastic plane models were popular.

Backstage fun during a school play in the 1960s. The lighting console is operated by French teacher Teddy Izard

Backstage fun during a school play in the 1960s. The lighting console is operated by French teacher Teddy Izard

We all looked forward to the end of each term. We made day charts, then hour charts, ticking them off. Christmas break up was special. We were all given a present. I remember Mr Bell – we called him Ding Dong Bell – doing the honours. He was a kind spirited man, full of the joy of life.

He taught Divinity (religious studies), and dressed in a well-worn pale cerulean blue suit with a faint white pin-stripe. At Christmas, he would make up a little rhyme for each boy’s name. It was always funny and clever. He must have spent a lot of time working them out. We loved him for it.

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With our grateful thanks to Old Abbottonian Dr Richard Stillman

Dr Stillman moved onto Hurst College after Sompting Abbotts and studied medicine at Liverpool University. He emigrated to Australia, where he practised medicine. He is retired and now lives in Tasmania with his wife Gaynor.

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