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.