A Knight’s Tale (34: Wimbledon College)

Firm friends at St. Mary’s, Russell Road primary school, Tom McGuinness and I went up to Wimbledon College together where we gradually drifted apart because we were in different forms and our interests were so different.  We spent many happy hours in each other’s homes, often swapping gruesome American horror comics. We made forbidden trips such as the one described mentioned above.  We swam in the public swimming baths in Latimer Road, Wimbledon.  In many ways we were inseparable.

When I turned on the television one day in 1964, Manfred Mann was playing.  Tom was a member of the group.  His own website and that of The Blues Band can tell you far more about him than I can.  I will confine myself to my own memories.

It was thirty years before we were, thanks to Jessica, to meet again.  He was then playing in The Blues Band.  This was a group got together by Paul Jones for a one-off blues gig.  They are still going strong in the 2020s.  On stage Paul and Tom look as youthful as they ever did.  This group made an annual trip to the Newark Palace Theatre.  Jessica got in touch with their agent, told him I lived in Newark, and Tom came up early and spent the day with us, providing tickets for the show.  As Paul thought Tom rather skittish during the performance, he told the audience that they would have to excuse him because he had just met up with an old friend after many years.  On another occasion, reminiscing on stage about his time at Wimbledon College, looking straight up at me in Malcolm Anderton’s box, Tom cried: ‘Where else can you get an A level in guilt?’.

A talented guitarist, lyricist, and composer, Tom is also the author of a book, still regarded as essential reading for would-be popular musicians, entitled: ‘So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star’, a copy of which he gave me.

Two postcards from the collection of my late brother, Chris, contain images illustrative of the history of my old seat of learning.

The school which I and my two brothers had, between us, attended from 1953 to 1978 stands on a site where in 1860 John Brackenbury had purchased two large meadows below the Ridgway known as Tree and Boggy Fields. Brackenbury had helped to run Nelson House School, in Eagle House, Wimbledon High Street. His success there was such that in 1859 he took out a mortgage on the land below the Ridgway and founded the Anglican Preparatory Military Academy in 1860, also known as Brackenbury’s. The grounds of this college were so attractive that the school was opened to the public once a week.

In 1892 the buildings of the Anglican Preparatory Military Academy were purchased by the Jesuits and reopened as Wimbledon College which had existed on other sites earlier that year.

One of Chris’s postcards is of the very first pupils’ school photograph of 1893. Note the heavy leather rugby ball, similar to which we still used in the 1950s and beyond.

The other is of the splendid Victorian building I knew.

The grounds seen in this photograph are just part of the sublime setting in which I was fortunate enough to spend my grammar school years.  During the summer holidays in 1977 the main college hall burned down. It is not clear what caused the fire, but the kitchens were located in the basement of the hall and it was supposed that the fire started there. Many a time I sat at the refectory tables in that hall, lobbing bits of food at other unruly juvenile diners under the eyes of the Catholic martyrs of the reformation, Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. Patrick Reid, the famous Old Boy who escaped from Colditz Castle in World War II, also looked down on us.

Extensive renovation and new building has since been undertaken.

The college in my time was geared towards an Oxbridge further education. This meant a concentration on the classics with subjects like geography and biology being rather neglected second-rate subjects.

Vaughan, whose first name escapes me, was my partner in my first year at the College.  Partner was a definite euphemism for what I now consider to have been a rather cruel incentive scheme.  Boys were sat in pairs throughout the year.  At the end of each term our marks for work were totted up and set against each other.  The winners went on an outing called the ‘Victory Walk’.  The losers stayed behind and wrote essays or something similar.  I never went on a victory walk, and considering how hard I tried, with or without an incentive, that seemed decidedly vicious to me. Ted Sammons was our first form master. He was a kind and generous teacher, but, at the end of our first year he made the worst possible inaccurate accusation. He asked those who had not been on a victory walk to raise their hands. Of those who did, he singled me out with: “Sheer laziness, Knight”. I have never forgotten my piercing mortification.

There were two subjects in that first year that I could not grasp at all. These were algebra and Latin.

How was it that letters could represent numbers? Like Ballarat’s Dr Blake, “I [had] absolutely no idea”.

My Latin was so abysmal that, long before the O level stage, I was transferred to Geography, not then considered of prime importance.

Being top of the class in French, it was always a mystery to me that I could not grasp Latin. At school, I thought maybe it was because it seemed to be all about wars that didn’t particularly interest me. Not very many years ago, I twigged the reason for the imbalance. It was partially about word order, but more significantly about ignorance of grammatical terms. Without understanding these, I could manage the modern language, not that dissimilar in construction to our own. Meeting concepts like ‘subjunctive’ which were not considered needing explanation for passers of the eleven plus exam, I didn’t just swim, I sank.

Latin gave me up. And Geography teaching was hit and miss, so I failed that too.


  1. Interesting about your failure to grasp Latin. When I took it in college and the prof launched into his introductory lecture on whatever grammatical construction it was, he was met with blank stares. He then asked us if we knew English grammar. Um, no . . . no one ever taught us that stuff. He was graceful in defeat and gave us a crash course in English grammar. Coincidentally, he was a Jesuit.

    Here is the highlight of your post for me: “Many a time I sat at the refectory tables in that hall, lobbing bits of food at other unruly juvenile diners under the eyes of the Catholic martyrs of the reformation, Saints Thomas More and John Fisher.”

    1. It is interesting that I do not appear to have responded to these very valuable comments of yours, Liz. I really can’t have seen it in September 2021. Thank you so much. I spotted it when I was putting back missing photographs today.

  2. Even as a teacher of English, those finer points of grammar were seldom if ever required to be brought to the fore. ‘English just is’ one of my pupils told me, ‘so why do we have to learn it?’ Why indeed? It could be a battle sometimes and one had to guard against not dropping down to the lowest common denominator. Instead, I tried to make the subject as interesting as possible, brought in grammar under the guise of poetry and literature – then, hallelujah – discovered computer science also uses grammar similar to English! Suddenly there was a renewed purpose in learning how words are best strung together.

  3. Your educational system is so different from ours, but it stood out for me that you went to a school with beautiful grounds. My kids enjoyed Latin, but I think it’s because their teacher made it so interesting and fun, and there were lots of extra-curricular Latin activities. I didn’t understand algebra when I first took it, but when I took it over in the summer, I had perfect scores. I had learned the language. I can’t do geometry at all though–my lack of spatial sense. 😀

  4. It amazes me how educational institutions can make learning such a miserable affair. I hated Algebra. That ‘x’ that we were always looking for made me crazy. I ended up in the construction industry working on tenders. Spent another fifteen years looking for it. 🤨

  5. What great memories! Even the Latin part! 😉 We all had a school subject that gave up on us. Algebra gave up on me…I was down for the count. Ha! But Geometry welcomed me back and I was not obtuse in Geometry! 😉 😀
    That postcard is so cool! And what a beautiful school! 🙂
    OHMYGOSH! My hubby is a Manfred Mann fan! I shall tell him about your memories of your friendship with Tom! 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂
    Q: What did my Latin professor hate?
    A: When his students didn’t use Latin phrases correctly, and vice versa.

  6. Interesting how we all excel in some subjects and fail miserably in others. My education never went near the classics or Latin. Were church formalities still conducted in it? I did French, forgot most of it, and now have a friend there who is trying to coach me by email. I bombed in all three of the sciences, physics, chemistry and biology, but a kind schoolmate sat beside me in my fourth grade and coached me to success in the final exam. As for art, after the first compulsory year at high school, it was an elective I did not take. Even if my life depended on it, I would struggle to depict anything, yet others in the class were innately talented. I, too, had teachers whose stinging words still ring in my ears, long after they would have forgotten even teaching me.

    1. Such similar memories, Gwen. The sciences were all very secondary to the arts and classics. You had to have Latin to get into Oxbridge in those days. My art O Level will feature soon. Thanks very much.

  7. After several years of Latin and French, I had a difficult time with German! Geography suited me much better — and I think the world would be better off if it were taught in schools ~ ~ ~ Those old school time memories are very precious!

  8. English Grammar was frowned upon during my school years and one of our masters taught us some with the instruction that we weren’t to talk about it as he wasn’t allowed to teach it. Most of my knowledge of grammar comes from Latin and German. It didn’t seem to be necessary in learning French. I have now forgotten most of it anyway, though I can still remember amo, amas, amat . . .

    1. That is astounding – fashion, I suppose. My memory of Latin mirrors yours { I tried to finish the line, but WP kept applying word-check and I couldn’t be bothered to argue) . Thanks very much, Quercus

  9. It’s interesting how some of those painful memories of our youth can still feel so fresh. Form master Sammons could not have been more wrong. And here you are with your lovely garden and wonderful partner living near pockets of paradise and taking beauiful photographs. French was one of my favorite subjects in school. I still enjoy the sound of it.

  10. I taught French, not Latin, but my best-guess would be that if somebody can be top of the class in French but has no idea in Latin, then the fault lies with the teacher not the pupil. The pupil will understand “La ville est belle” but cannot grasp “Oppidum pulchrum est” ? Poor teacher, not poor pupil

  11. Wow! Great memories. I do wish I’d had the opportunity to study Latin. I suppose I could still do so, but I’m wondering if it might not drive me insane.

  12. That was an engrossing account of your once inseparable companion Tom. Your fond recollections include Wimbledon College once more, of which you are a proud alumnus. Your uncomfortable stints with Latin and Algebra are understandable. I, too, hated everything resembling Arithmetic and its cousins like Algebra and Trigonometry. As for Latin, I do enjoy the sprinkling in the legal scripts every now and then. Not a word more, not a word less.

  13. Another fun and interesting episode. You had a far more beautiful school than I did, but I think our hall was set on fire too, around the same era. I preferred Latin to French, as the French accent seemed beyond me until I found it too embarrassing to try and dropped the subject. Our French teacher mainly taught us bingo and how to request for the window to be closed. I remember our Latin teacher bemoaning the fact he had to teach us English grammar before we could grasp the Latin. In maths, I still do not like a minus times a minus being a plus (I always try to imagine how that might work with cakes) and I have no faith in infinity.

  14. From Sandy Denny to Tom McGuinness! You have man wonderful memories, Derrick, though I am sad to hear that the educational system back then was so repressive and competitive in nature.

  15. I remeber taing latin. Amo, amas, amat is about all I remember. Later in college I enjoyed the Greek and Latin Roots of the English Language. The professor, Mr. Green, at Hunter College in NYC jumped on the desk and divested himself of his coat to make a point about divest. I never forgot that.

Leave a Reply