It is unbelievable that Woolverstone Hall is coming of age.
21 years can seem a moment or a lifetime. None of the present generation of boys at the school were born when it was founded. I left school exactly 21 years before I was privileged to be its first headmaster, and now 21 years later I have retired. Thus a working life comes to an end filled with memories, some so wonderful and some so disappointing as ever life will give. The creation of something new must be exciting and the beginning of the school was exciting - happy memories indeed. With very considerable pride one looks back, pride in belonging and indeed in leading, pride in what was achieved, a pride which I am sure is shared by so many. One tries to create and pass on for the future. The future that was is past, and others will tell of the new time. May I try to envisage for the new time something of that exciting past?
The period of preparation was very exciting. Staff had to be appointed - brave people that they were stepping into the unknown. We were the successors of the boarding wing of the London Nautical School which had been at Woolverstone since 1947. This has been training boys to go to sea either in the Royal Navy or in the Merchant Navy, and their age range at the school was 12 to 16. For the first two or three years therefore we were virtually two schools in one and this was a source of strength and of weakness, strength in that an administrative organisation existed at the school and that a school was there, weakness in that new ideas and pupils had to be grafted on to a growth that was directed to entirely different aims and methods from those envisaged in an academic school. We had countless staff meetings, and the simple questions that had to have an answer were innumerable, even to what we were to call each other - at least in public! Our organisation, curriculum, spare time activities, aims, methods, punishments - all had to be talked about. We knew full well that in the light of experience changes would have to be made, but at least we had to have a starting point.
The buildings were by no means as they are now. The Hall was there with a derelict grotto, full of rats, where the chemistry laboratory was eventually built. Indeed the Hall was found to have considerable dry rot, and for a year or two efforts were made to find another suitable site, and I remember doing a detailed reconnaissance of an establishment in Ashford in Middlesex which was eventually turned down. In front of the headmaster's house were serried ranks of nissen huts - dormitories with an "elsan" at the end and two concrete pillars with electric heaters in each for essential comfort. Where the main boarding houses now stand was an area known, for obvious reasons, as "The Ferns", a marvellous playground for the younger members. Larger nissen huts provided the dining rooms and the kitchen roughly where the boiler house was eventually put. The gymnasium, completed just before we took over, really saved the situation. It was the hall, the gymnasium, the theatre and concert hall, the chapel - it was the centre of so many things.
The actual start of the school was really rather incredible. The selected boys and their parents had been down to Woolverstone and knew what they were coining to. We knew that the London County Council was creating a new type of school, a boarding school within the State Service, and one based on parental choice and the academic merit of their offspring. What we had not realised was that we were "NEWS", and the press swarmed around in a way that to naive people like us was unbelievable. It was very bad for the boys who became ready at the drop of a hat to pose for any stray photographer. Glorious sob stuff stories were written, photos showed lone boys walking up the drive into the unknown, a parent feeling the springs of the beds - actually the "parent" was a taxi driver posed for the occasion - boys eating, all left handed because the print was produced in the press in reverse. We got sick and tired of the whole thing and were delighted when the Kidbrook Comprehensive School was opened, and the press found a new nine days' wonder.
The attitude of local people was strange if understandable. I do not think they liked the idea of two or three hundred London boys in their midst, and to start with they thought the boys could only be delinquents sent away to school. Where this idea came from was difficult to understand. Maybe they could not visualise the L.C.C. producing a straightforward boarding-school with no strings attached. Maybe it was the normal suspicion of the countryman for the city dweller. I was continually asked how "that sort of boy" was settling down in the country. One felt guilty at having "that sort of boy" in Suffolk. It was as if they were locking up their silver, and locking up their daughters because dreadful cockneys, "that sort of boys", were in their midst.
It was greatly to the credit of the school that the attitude soon began to change. This came about firstly because of the school's sporting record and because we had so little trouble, though of course our boys were no better and no worse than any group of boys living in such a community. I think too that the attitude of the school to the church in the grounds helped. Attendance was voluntary, and a great number of boys were confirmed as time went on and regularly attended communion services. On some special occasions the number wanting to go was quite remarkable. I should perhaps add that we had our own school "chapel" services on Sunday evenings in the hall.
So our work got under way, and Latin and French appeared on the curriculum in place of Navigation and Seamanship. Standards were set which reflected great credit on all concerned. A comradeship grew up which disproved completely the idea that a school must be in wonderful buildings and have tremendous resources to be successful. In many ways the esprit de corps was at its highest when the conditions were at their worst. Buildings do not make a school, people do, and if conditions are bad the best is brought out in the people. I do know that as the houses were built, this wonderful feeling of striving and building up was replaced by another which, good though it was, seemed to take rather a lot for granted. The first fine careless rapture was gone. But foundations had been well and truly laid. Academic standards were high, and indeed we quickly had boys interesting our oldest universities. We were very grateful to them, and from what I was told on occasion they really felt the school was doing something that really interested them. Clearly the school has now established itself with an academic standing of which it can be proud.
Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of having such a school in such a place was in the use of leisure far away from the urban delights of London. How hard the staff worked. Everything seemed to be done - boating, pig keeping, music, games, art, drama, boat-building, a sea cadet corps, librarianship, car-driving, car-cleaning, toymaking, woodwork, modelling to name those that quickly come to mind. Eventually more academic things became important as the school matured. Of these, music and drama developed to a degree which brought much local acclaim. One remembers some of the earlier performances, the open-air play in the beautiful natural amphitheatre at the bottom of the garden, quite inaudible because of an unexpected breeze that rustled the rhododendron leaves, the fun of "1066 and All That", the first orchestral performance, and another with an abortive start because so many parents were late taking their seats. One remembers the visit of Benjamin Britten when we were preparing one of his joyful operas, "Let's Make an Opera", when he told us to cut out one item that was too difficult for our youthful performers. What inspiring help he gave. One remembers our first sailing matches, our Young Farmers entering their first county speaking competitions. So much was happening as the school made its mark on the life of that part of Suffolk.
Perhaps we travelled about most in the early days with our games. We took up rugby and were soon able to arrange junior fixtures. I hall never forget the excitement of the first game won. I remember too, one school junior team visiting us and thinking it was not worth while taking their sweaters off to play. They removed them at half time when the score was 25-0 to us! So many local schools as well as the clubs helped. The present chairman of the selection committee of the English Rugby Union, Mr. Saunders, was among those who helped and encouraged our teams. The same was true of cricket, my own first love. We were blessed with a lovely ground though the wicket at first was at times pretty dangerous. It became a wonderful wicket in spite of a visit by a neighbouring herd of cows one very wet Sunday afternoon. Had they tried they could not have done more damage -- they went across diagonally! In 1959 Suffolk played Kent 2nd XI in a wonderful two-day match when they scored over 900 runs between them. Our visitors told us that it was the best pitch they had played or would play on during the season. I had forgotten to ask permission for this match to take place, and this became an administrative headache, but it brought considerable kudos to the school.
I have said people make a school, and I have said a good deal about the achievements of the boys. Some of my happiest memories come from their parents. It took great courage on their part, many of them, to send their boys to Woolverstone. They were accused by their neighbours of not loving their boys, of sending them away because they were not wanted. How gregarious, and how conservative Londoners can be! It made one very humble to talk to parents about this sort of problem. I think we quickly built up a relationship that was not only healthy, it was rewarding as well. The Parents' Association was quickly formed and, apart from an early visit by the committee to see if the beds really were damp -- rumour is a wicked thing -- they could not have been more helpful and generous. Splendid Parents' Days were held, an annual fete became a tradition and the Swimming Pool Fund was brought into being. Termly trips to the Gamett Training College in the Old Kent Road for parents' meetings were inspiring occasions, and I always received many contributions for various objects. As time went on their social functions began to be attended by Old Boys, and I have watched the Old Boys' Association grow and increase its membership and influence during the last ten years. One day it will be a force in the life of the school comparable to other distinguished associations. The then London County Council, the biggest education authority in the world, had the courage to do something that at that time had not been done. Its organisation is such that it is wonderful at dealing with problems in urban London, and it dealt with country problems in much the same way. I remember the water "ram" supplying Corners' house breaking down - it had been pumping continuously since 1865 I gathered soon after the house was occupied. On that very day a water engineer was coming from London to check our central heating. We told him how glad we were to see him and explained the problem. Imagine my shock when he told me that he was "hot water" and that his "cold water" colleague who shared his office would be asked to come down as soon as possible. He did not feel that it was possible for him even to look at the "ram". In fact in the first year we had 227 visits of various kinds from County Hall, and, given a journey of 80 miles from London, our various visitors, helpers and advisers travelled nearly 40,000 miles in the year to "service" our needs. Of course without their support and help we could not have survived, and most helpful and friendly they were. But 40,000 miles!
As is usual in such Local Authority schools, there is a Governing Body which basically is a reflection of the current Education Committee, nd must be so because public money is being spent. Local people of importance are co-opted as well. Stirring meetings were held over the years, and naturally without the Governing Body nothing would have been possible at all. Council rules and regulations are very strict and all passed for a purpose and I know the Governing Body had its frustrations - but I was more than startled when one prominent member insisted on paying 2/-, or whatever the Council normally charged, for having lunch in my house at my personal invitation. An employee may not entertain a member of the Council! Our Governing Body covered all shades of political opinion, all shades of educational theory and had in addition a vast experience in many walks of life. I would like to pay tribute to them all for the time, trouble and effort they spent in carrying out their responsibilities. They guided and controlled and encouraged, and I hope that they too have their reward in the school that has emerged.
Finally I must turn to my memories of the staff itself. Our community had its tensions, naturally, with such diverse people and nationalities. The non-teaching staff covered so many professions, jobs and trades that we were a miniature town. For the first time in my life I found myself in conflict with trade-union regulations, some of which I cannot understand - why for instance a woman using a small washing-machine with a hand-wringer attached to wash boys' suits (disgracefully dirty, but that's another story) should be entitled to another 1d. an hour for using industrial machinery was incomprehensible. She was perfectly happy to do the work. However, teamwork won, and I like to think that all found satisfaction in the creation of a really worthwhile community.
The teaching staff come last. By the very nature of their work they are more completely integrated into the community as a whole and lead it. I have mentioned the achievements of the boys, but of course the staff were their mentors in all they did. The original housemasters are remembered in the names of their houses. The work of all those who had the courage to join in the early days is commemorated in the school itself. There was a full inspection by the Council's Inspectorate in 1958. Their tribute to the creation of the school and its standards and atmosphere shows the calibre of the men I was privileged to lead.
It will I hope be noticed that I have mentioned nobody by name. This is quite deliberate. The creation of the school was a team effort. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. None of us are supermen. Ideas clash, and in none of them is there absolute virtue however much we may think there is. We discussed a lot, planned a lot and strove a lot together and indeed we achieved a great deal in quite a short space of time. Therein lies the reward.
Doubtless all, at one time or another, thought I was wrong, or thought they knew better. Only rarely did they show it! All contributed much each in his own way, and so, as I have said, I mention no names. My memories are of stirring things attempted and achieved together. So may it continue while the school lives.
J. S. H. SMITHERMAN - 1971