A Knight’s Tale (36: Some Schoolmasters)

A most inspirational teacher, Mr. Millward dedicated his life to teaching history at Wimbledon College.  He was one of those pupils who never really left the school, returning after university to take up his life’s work.  Learning about the Tudors and Stuarts we would eagerly await ‘Sid’ striding into the classroom with a rolled up chart under his arm.  This would be hung on the wall to illustrate the day’s lesson. 

These were beautifully produced maps and diagrams which brought the subject alive.  He had made each and every one.  He was, like me, a cricket fanatic.  I still have the history of cricket he inspired me to write and illustrate as a homework exercise.  His nickname, ‘Sid’, was taken from a lesser known bandleader who once performed at Wimbledon Theatre.  ‘No-one forgets a good teacher’ was once an  advertising slogan for recruitment into his profession.  It was so true.

This was his form photograph of about 1956. I am on our left of the middle row.

Quite different was ‘Moses’, whose remit was European History, so named because he was an ancient priest.  His teaching aid was a small dog-eared, equally antique, exercise book from which, seated in his pulpit, never taking his eyes off the page, he would churn out notes he must have made much earlier, as if he were reciting an oft-repeated sermon.  For some reason Moses always picked on me.  Until one miraculous Monday morning. He didn’t actually know my name.  He had decided to climb down from his perch and wander round the classroom.  Passing my desk and glancing at my exercise book, reading the name, he asked: “Knight?  Are you the famous bowler?”.  “That’ll be my brother Chris”, I replied.  “But didn’t you get eight wickets on Saturday?”, he continued.  Well, I had. (I also got seven on the Sunday, but as that was in a club match I thought it best not to mention it).  From then on the sun shone out of my backside.

Another priest who also used me as a butt was Fr. Bermingham.  He did it so often that one of the boys ran a book on how many times this would happen in any particular lesson.  Quite a bit of pocket money changed hands.  Now, as I sat in the same place for both periods, in the centre of the front row because I was just beginning to realise I should have my eyes tested, I thought it might be politic to move.  I therefore took up residence right at the back, to the left of his area of vision.  As if on cue, quite early on in the proceedings, he opened his mouth to speak, looked in what he thought was my direction, closed his mouth, and scanned the rows of grinning boys.  Eventually lighting on my similarly smiling face, he said: “Ah, there you are Knight, like a great moon over the horizon”.  At least he knew my name.  However, he had just given me another one.  For the rest of my schooldays I was known as ‘Moon’.

Please don’t get the impression I was a victim.  Most of the masters, like Bryan Snalune, actually liked me.  In fact, Frs. Moses and Bermingham probably did as well.  Their observations were generally meant to be humorous.

On the viewer’s far right nearest the volleyball net, Bryan Snalune crouches, ready to spring into action. I think I am at the back of this court in jumper and tie. I’m amazed that so many in the picture wore ties. Bryan introduced the sport to the school, and brought in Canadian Air Force players to teach us the game. He arranged a few fixtures for us. I have no idea how we fared.

This gentle giant, not much older than us, had that magic quality that demands respect whilst conveying equality as a human being. He was a lot of fun without losing his authority. I see his toothy smile and shock of fairish hair now. His subject was French, through which he guided me to A Level GCSE.

The smile mentioned above is probably indirectly responsible for my being awarded a punishment of two strokes of the ferula. The ferula was the Jesuit version of the cane.

A small, flat, slipper-like object consisting of leather with whalebone inside it, this was wielded by a punishment master not connected with whatever offence of which you had been guilty. ‘Two’ – one on each hand – was what was dished out to the little boys. If you were a recidivist and rather older you could progress to ‘Twice Nine’. But you wouldn’t want to.

Bryan Snalune was a keen amateur actor. During my group’s last weeks at school he performed in a play where his character was called Goofy. Clearly the casting director had also noticed the teeth. I cannot remember why, but I was not present at the performance, yet my classmates came back with this priceless information for a budding cartoonist. It felt natural to draw Walt Disney’s Goofy on the blackboard just before the French lesson.

Unfortunately our friendly teacher was not the next one to enter the room. Instead, Fr Strachan, S.J., the deputy headmaster found some reason to make a brief visit. Glancing at the familiar character depicted on the board, he demanded: “Who did that, Knight?”. Maybe he recognised my style. Although a decent enough man, Fr Strachan was not known for his sense of humour. On that day he displayed a rather quirky one. “Get two”. He proclaimed.

I don’t remember the name of the executioner, but I can see him now, a little round chap in holy orders whose beady eyes glinted behind his spectacle lenses. He was a little surprised at his prescribed task when I knocked on his door and extended my arms. My outstretched palms were at a level which put my fingers in danger of picking his nose. He, and I, were both even more surprised when, at each stroke, a wailing chorus set up an anguished howl in the corridor outside. Although my hands stung rather more than somewhat, I was able to open the door to encounter the whole of my class doubled up with laughter.

The year before this, when Tommy reigned in the cinemas, Bryan had managed the second XI cricket team of which he had appointed me captain. How Moses came to know my name is recounted above. It was for this team that the performance that brought me into his recognition was played. Bryan Snalune was the umpire. When five wickets had fallen, all to me for not many runs, “Take yourself off now”, he suggested sotto voce. He was the boss, so I did. Mind you, I doubt that his intervention as a supposedly neutral officiator was legitimate.  When only two more had gone down and the game was, I thought, in need of my more direct involvement, I came back on and polished off the last three. Could that have been the day I would have taken all ten? I guess we’ll never know.

It was just before my fourteenth birthday that I had been introduced to playing cricket. Iain Taylor, the captain of the Under Fourteens team, and a friend of mine, asked the headmaster, who rejoiced in the wonderfully appropriate name of Father Ignatius St Lawrence, S.J., to give me a trial for the team.  I had never played before, but Iain got me to bowl a few balls in the nets and seems to have been impressed.  With ‘Iggy’, as the head was predictably known to the boys, standing as umpire I was instructed to send my nervously delivered missives down to the team’s best batsman.  I bowled him four times before Iggy had seen enough.  One of these dismissals was with a deliberate slower ball that turned sharply from the off – that is opposite the right-handed batsman’s legs – side of the pitch and hit the middle stump.  The deviation was probably caused by the ball striking an extraneous object when it landed.  Turning to me at the end of my spell, Iggy asked: “Did you mean the off-break?”.  “Yes, father”,  was my coolly delivered reply.  All priests were of course our fathers.  I was in.  Later, out of earshot of anyone else, I asked Iain: “What’s an off break?”. In the picture above “Where’s Derrick?” (6).

As will be surmised from my interview with Fr Wetz mentioned previously, I also first played rugby at Wimbledon College.

The school playing fields were in Coombe Lane, Raynes Park. We always walked there from the school in Edge Hill to play rugby and cricket.  It was here that my friend Tom McGuinness scored what I believe to be his only try.  Tom’s eyesight was so bad that he could never see what was going on.  One afternoon he found the rugby ball in his hands.  ‘What shall I do?’, he asked me.  ‘Run for the line’, I replied.  ‘Where is it?’ enquired Tom.  ‘That way’, I indicated.  Tom sped for the line, fell over, and touched down.  No-one saw him.  The fact that we were playing in dense fog had levelled this particular playing field.

Our route to the sports fields took us through Cottenham Park where I once went scrumping on the way to rugby.  Remembering throwing sticks into conker trees when younger, I had ingeniously decided to chuck my boots into an apple tree intending to knock off some fruit.  Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me to untie the laces that bound them together.  

Soon they were suspended like the socks that reminded me of this story when walking along the Wandle Trail almost 60 years later.  More ingenuity was required to get them down.  This involved the park keeper who was a bit put out.  It made me late for the match.  I couldn’t even invent a story which would present me in a better light.  The news had been spread all round the changing rooms.  Bill Edney, Geography master and rugby coach, was also a bit put out.

P.S. Keith Prince, two years behind me at Wimbledon College, has recently delighted me with e-mails offering some of his own memories of our teachers, and has agreed that I should add these to this post.

4th May 2024:

I agree with you about Sid Milward. Probably the most inspirational teacher I ever had. He installed an interest in history which is still with me today. Sid Milward and the Nitwits were the famous comic jazz group he was named after, but our Sid was no nitwit! He went on to write numerous history books.

I joined Figures 1 in September 1956. Our form teacher was Mr. Banyard, a trainee priest. “Bertie”, as he was known, later became famous as a poet, teacher and chaplain at St Aloysius College in Scotland. He was a very quiet, pleasant man who taught us Latin and English. He also had a sense of humour. It was Bertie who gave some of us our nicknames, including me. Buckley became “Buckles”, Terry Lee became “Tea Leaf”, O’Donnell became “Dogsbody”, Green became “Professor”, my best mate Mick Emmett became “Emo” and I inherited the title of “Bumble.” Like previous Bumbles, I was very short and fairly plump in those days. Bumbles were often victims of bullying, as was I at first. But I came from a rough neighbourhood and I could handle myself. One guy, Hogan, made the mistake of putting his arm around my neck to dunk me in a sink of water. My arm came over his shoulder and put him in an arm lock. It wasn’t me who got dunked that day! We became good friends after that and the bullies got bored and found someone else to victimise. That was a flame haired Irish boy called O’Reilly. Poor guy lost his temper and hollered very loudly which made them do it all the more.

I can still remember the entire roll call for our class. See if any of these names ring a bell with you. Aldridge, Bond, Boyle, Breck, Buckley, Burr, Church, DuBoulay, Earl, Emmett, Furlong, Gallagher, Green, Hogan, Johnson, Kitts, Lee, Livingstone, Loader, Mould, Newton, Nicholls, O’Donnell, O’Leary, O’Reilly, Prichard, Prince, Rickard, Sammons, Turner, Wadia, Warner, Whelan, Williams. Wow! 34 of us!

I remember Moses with a smile on my face. I only knew him by reputation but I think every pupil in the school could imitate his low, nasal, monotone voice. My first interaction with him was when I was about 12, in Ruds 1. He caught me in the playground with my hands in my pockets. “What’s your name, boy?” – “Prince, Father.” – Why are your hands in your pockets?” – “Because it’s cold, Father” – “Well write 100 lines saying I must not put my hands in my pockets!” Well, I was unlikely to be in any of his classes, and he was a dodgery old codger, and would never remember, so I didn’t bother doing his lines. Four years later, I was doing ‘A’ level history in Poetry Arts and he was our teacher. He got us to read aloud from a text book and when it came to my turn, he told me to stop. “What is your name?” he asked. “Prince” Father I replied. “Didn’t I order you to write 100 lines some time ago?” he continued. “Yes Father” I admitted. “But you didn’t do them, did you,” – “No, Father” I confirmed. “Well you had better take six ferulas instead.” I was amazed! There was nothing wrong with his memory!

Anyway, I duly reported to the punishment master who, on that day, was Father Leblique. Now he was the last executioner you wanted to get your punishment from. His whacks were as fast as lightening and worse than all the others. You had to give your name, number of whacks, the ‘crime’ and who ordered them. I complied with all this, including the full history of events, but mistakenly gave Father Moses as the judge and jury. “Sorry! Father Healey!” I immediately corrected myself, and I couldn’t help noticing a slight smile on Father Leblique’s face. I proffered my hands and he gave me three of the lightest taps on each hand. As I left the room, a hearty giggle emanated from the executioner’s room!

I also have some humorous tales to tell about ”Jack” (Father Strachan), “Batts” (Father Battersby), Father Mercer (a similar age to Moses) “Brum” (Father Bermingham), “Colonel” Naughton and others, if you would like to hear them.


Keith Prince.


Before I continue, I forgot one name on our class roll call. Must be the onset of dementia (LOL!) His name was Burton. Of course, we all knew each other mainly by our surnames. The only exception to this was boys I came to regard as my friends, ie: Roger Burr, Mick Emmett, Peter Kitts, Terry Lee, Ken Turner and Tony Warner. 

But I digress. I moved into Ruds 1 which had Father Battersby as our form master. Bats, as he was better known, also taught us Maths. He was regarded as a strict disciplinarian although I never had cause to fear him myself. Maybe this was because I was quite proficient in Maths. But he did have one queer trait. It was the number 9! He insisted that it should be written with a curly tail like an upside down 6. If you wrote it with a straight line like a reversed P, he would refuse to mark your work. 

Bats also ran the boxing club which I joined but was certainly not proficient at. To be honest, I was better at ducking and diving that throwing punches. I only joined it because my best friend, Mick Emmett did. He was a brilliant lightweight boxer and fought very successfully for the school team. Here is a photo of the boxing club taken in 1957/58. I guess you could be in it somewhere? I am in the middle of the three boys on the right of the photo, looking miserable, like I don’t belong there. My best friend Mick Emmett is on my right, proudly displaying his maroon stripe signifying he had boxed for the school. On my left, looking just as miserable as me was Whelan, the only boy I actually boxed in an inter house match. I believe it was judged a draw. One boy on our class, Johnson was a mild pussycat. But he had an elder brother about 4 years older than us who was the club captain. Wow! He was lethal. I saw him knock out at least two guys in inter school matches with a single punch. 

And on to Lower Grammar. The classroom was in the old building above the classrooms of Figures and Rudiments. As you entered the quadrangle, it was immediately on your left. Our form master was Father Bermingham or Brummie as he was always known. He also taught us English and English Lit. He would stroll into class and demand in a loud voice “Get out your Balls!” We would immediately open our desks and retrieve our English text book written by an author called Ball. I can’t remember too much about that year. Obviously nothing of much import occurred. 

Brummie was a keen cyclist, as was I, and I would often chance upon him in Richmond Park in the holidays with a cheery “Afternoon, Father.” My heathen friends could never understand why I called him Father.

And so to Grammar 1 where Father Mercer was our form master. He was of a similar age to Moses with a shock of white hair. I don’t recall what his subject was but I do remember some of his daft lectures. He informed us that according to the statistics of averages, by the time we were 60, three or four of us would be dead, two of us would be in prison, another two would take holy orders and one of us would become famous for some reason. I can’t remember what he predicted for the other 20 odd of us, but fortunately, I seem to have avoided all his prophesies – although I was stupid enough to raise my hand when a visiting non Jesuit priest gave us a lecture about the priesthood and asked if any of us would be interested. Maybe more about that another time. Father Mercer also told us that if we had a sore or wound which wouldn’t clear up, it would be the dreaded cancer. 

But he wasn’t all doom and gloom. The best thing about Father Mercer is that he instigated a kind of football pool. You could choose as many teams as you liked at a cost of 3d each. If their total goals scored on a Saturday was 11, you won or shared the pool. I always chose four teams for a bob and always included my home team Brentford FC and also Burnley FC who were doing rather well at the time. This was the 1959/60 season and Burnley won the league that year. I think I did rather well out of Father Mercer’s Football Pool and I’ve had a soft spot for Burnley ever since.

Further PS from Keith Prince:

You described Father ‘Jack’ Strachan as a humourless man. He did seem to project a drab, sombre aura. But I discovered a more kindly and considerate side of him. You see, I got stabbed twice in ten days! 

No, don’t panic. They were both accidents – well kind of. I would have been 15 or 16 in Syntax at the time. The first was by a boy aptly named Savage. His intention was to prick me in my back with his penknife which had a half inch blade. But the blade was very sharp and just missed my spine. I soon discovered a lot of blood oozing out of my back. For some reason, I couldn’t stand up straight for a while and a couple of the guys took me to see Father Strachan. I can’t remember why. Maybe he was just the most authorative priest on duty. Anyway, Jack took me in his car to the nearest A&E – probably Kingston or St Helier. Luckily, no stitches were necessary so he drove me to the nearest bus stop to get me home. I believe Savage was expelled soon after. Not just for the stabbing. He had apparently accrued a large file of misadventures. He once announced that he had three ambitions in life: to rob a bank, murder a man and rape a woman. Such a nice character!

Just ten days later, I was playing football in the playground when a boy named Smith and I jumped to head the ball. We clashed and a kitchen knife he had in his inside breast pocket went into my back causing a six inch wound. It could just as easily have gone into his chest. This time there was a lot more blood so Smith himself escorted me to Father Strachan and confessed it was his knife. I can’t remember what his explanation was for having the knife but I know he wasn’t expelled. Jack disposed of my blood soaked shirt, saying it was something my parents shouldn’t see, and drove me to A&E again where I was stitched up. The several stitches were far more painful than the stabbing itself, which felt just like a soft punch. He then drove me all the way home to Ham, wearing my rugby shirt, and explained what had happened to my parents. Through it all, he showed a lot of concern and compassion.