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Interview with Margaret Taylor


Interviewed by Jon Corrall in 2011

We were delighted to have you as our guest of honour at the OHA dinner this year on this 50th anniversary of the move to Elstree. As Headmaster, Tom was President of the Association and is a legend in the history of Haberdashers’ because he had the vision to move the school to its present site and to create the school we know today.

How was life different at Haberdashers’ from the previous school?

MT. We used to live in Bath and we were very happy there. Tom enjoyed the music there. It is a beautiful Georgian city. Tom was sad to leave Bath but was very excited to be coming to Haberdashers’. When we first moved we had to buy somewhere to live and we bought in Hampstead Garden suburb, and remained there until the Headmaster’s House was built some years later after the move; it was the last thing to be finished.  Tom had a difficult journey to school and it was very inconvenient for the girls as they had to get to Edgware to North London Collegiate, and in order to catch the bus from Golders Green they had to cross Hampstead Heath and then walk at the other end. It kept them terribly healthy.

What are your most vivid memories of the move to Elstree in 1961?

MT: First of all there was the planning. I remember Tom on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning together with two members of staff drawing up the plans for the new school.  Tom bought, (and later sold)  some lorries in order to move all the musical instruments, the school records and  apparatus. The boys and staff helped move all the equipment. I’ve read that it took three days to complete the move, but in fact it was much longer than that, and the whole experience was pretty traumatic. The old House (Aldenham House) was pretty scruffy and it smelt of old cabbage. You could see the muddy fields from Tom’s office. But it was quite central  and he was very aware of what was happening in the school.

Did you and your family enjoy living at the School in Elstree?

MT We were never lonely. We had a big family and I practised physiotherapy. I needed that pocket money as the salary was not all that generous. We enjoyed a very full family life in school, and our daughters got on very well with the boys. On the other hand our daughters had great difficulty travelling to their schools as the Girls’ School did not arrive at Elstree until later. Before the Girls’ School was built we had a wonderful view across the field to the church on Elstree Hill. Liz, my daughter, used to live here with her husband who was very scruffy. Tom used to get reports that there was a tramp around the campus, and he explained it was his son in law.

Did your life with Tom change much when you came to Elstree?

MT: Enormously because there we were on the spot. He came home for supper and would then go back to school again in the evening. He used to do the timetable, using a huge pin-board – always dangerous with a lot of children around. As far as computers are concerned, I’m quite illiterate, but Tom would have loved computers. He would have been a real whizz-kid.

There was a Boarding house in those days. Did you as a family get involved in the boarding house?

MT: I was given strict instructions by Tom ‘Not to get involved.’ Nevertheless our daughters and particularly Jenny used to invite boys back to the house on a Saturday evening and give them coffee and biscuits, as many as a dozen at a time, and they rather took over. No alcohol, of course. Peter Squire, who was the Boarding House Master used to ring us up, and say: ‘Has your daughter still got my boys over there?’ and he’d ask for his boys back.

Was there much socialising amongst staff in those days?

MT: We used to invite all staff to the house every term – we did a tremendous amount of entertaining and there was no allowance for this. We paid for all the hospitality; it was all taken from the kids’ rations. People were very friendly, and I remember in particular when my father in his last years lived with us and was always invited to go and join classes and activities. He used to talk to the Prep boys about fossils which were his speciality. Tom loved the staff and the boys’ parties which were a regular feature of school life.

Which of the extra-curricular activities  did Tom think brought most benefit and which of the activities did you both most enjoy?

MT: Tom was particularly keen on drama and music. We toured the school play to Pforzheim and Offenburg in a coach and two mini-buses. Tom drove one of the minibuses and Ted Sproat the other. Ted was very popular as he made tea and coffee at every stopping point. Tom loved using his fluent but archaic German. I used to make a lot of the costumes. We took our son, Jeremy, and we put him on the stage with the others. Simon Stuart was quite happy to have my son as part of the crowd. The German pupils used to come back on exchanges. We were made very welcome in these delightful cities of half-timbered houses and vineyards stretching down to the town, and wondered what they would make of Borehamwood. In fact they loved it! They stayed with families and used to go down to the pub!

As well as music and drama – Tom played the piano well, and we played duets, but I wasn’t good enough!  -Tom was also keen on the model railway society, though I think the model railway no longer exists.

Sport was not really his strength, but he always went out to support the school teams. I never really understood rugby and found it very cold. Matron used to make delicious scotch pancakes, and when our children went out to watch the rugby I had to stop them scoffing the lot as they were made for staff.

What sort of school do you think Tom was trying to create? Did he feel he had succeeded?

MT: At the beginning Tom had a very difficult relationship with the Chairman of Governors, and he thought he was going to lose his job. But later, despite frustrations, he generally got what he wanted. He was very happy at the school. It was a great thrill for Tom to realise his ambition and create the new school. He was a very private person.  He never discussed school business with me – unlike some of the staff and their wives! – but I know he was particularly proud that the school at Elstree entered a new league after the school had been struggling somewhat in Hampstead. Habs became a top public school. He felt that establishing music as a major part of the school’s reputation was an important achievement.

Titch was usually the first down to the Reading Room with its vast east facing oak French windows that caught the morning sun and that gave out onto the perfect ornamental garden. We waited there until the Masters were seated in the Dining Room and we then trooped in to join them.

The Reading Room was always stocked with periodicals designed to improve our minds. The Economist was a favourite because when it was rolled up it became a formidable weapon. Paris Match was perhaps the most universally popular for its occasional glimpse of nipple.

Dayboys had more girls than we did. They had their sister’s friends and anyone that they could pick up on the buses and tubes that they shared with the totty from Henrietta Barnett, North London Collegiate School, and anywhere else come to that.

Because we got so little practice, getting your hands on a girl was always tricky for a Boarder. I chatted this girl up on a green bus with brass lamp holders and leather trimmed seats heading for Radlett and wrote her phone number down on the fixture list that I impressively whipped out of my “Serve and Obey” blazer pocket. But when I rang her up and gave her a quick summary of who I was and where we had met, not only did she not remember me, but at one point, in what almost passed for a conversation, she seemed to be confusing me with a horse.

The Beak’s name was Spud and he was a top bloke. Boarders knew that because he got one of the first colour tellys in Britain and he invited us over on Sunday evenings to the Beak’s House down by the Yew Tree Garden so that he could show it off under the pretence of allowing us to watch something edifying. His pretext was a programme called ‘Civilisation’ and none of us were entirely sure what it was all about. Anyway, it was presented by some upper class type called Lord Clarke who chatted on about this and that in various tourist haunts around the globe.

These evenings with Lord Clarke and the Beak cheered Boarders up no end because what we were all really interested in seeing was interference when the set went wrong; which it did a lot. Psychedelic stripes leapt around the screen as a flustered Beak made it worse by pretending that he knew what the knobs on the back of the set were for.

Aside from myself, one of the Beak’s other triumphs was the almighty Willis organ, that the noted Dayboy rugger star, Willis, always believed to be a flattering reference to himself, but was in fact a vast musical instrument, heavily specced with keyboards.

Henry Willis was a Victorian purveyor of bespoke organs to discerning punters like the Royal Albert Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral and Hove Town Hall. Hove flogged theirs to the Beak in 1959 and he did the only sensible thing that you can do when you’re designing a new school and that is to buy your Willis organ first and then build the whole of the rest of the school around it. Which is exactly what he did.

As the grounds contained hundreds of gardens within hundreds more gardens, so Aldenham House was a delightfully unreal world inside another delightfully unreal world. The smart money would go to ridiculous lengths to escape including being nauseatingly nice to a rich Arab Boarder who had a flat in Mayfair. I was not smart - I was later appalled to learn that while I was wasting my time working out how to drop kick a rugby ball through a pair of distant telegraph poles, just a few miles away great minds were creating The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Prisoner and 2001:A Space Odyssey.

Escape to swinging London was popular with Boarders who knew what that was. Garbine was a rich kid sixth former with a big noise Dad. Garbine was also an intellectual revolutionary. We knew that because he told us. Garbine wore a red neckchief and claimed to have crashed a sit-in at the LSE. A couple of years later he came back to boast that he had set fire to a library at Oxford and was miffed to discover that a mere Dayboy had comprehensively upstaged him by bombing the Home Secretary’s house in Hadley Wood.

One day Garbine, and his friend Dross, went to a free concert in Hyde Park and listened to some poet guru called Ginsberg. The only Ginsberg we knew was a skinny Dayboy who was admittedly a bright chap but whether he had the pull to pack fifty thousand people into Hyde Park when he couldn’t even get a place on the rugger team seemed unlikely, even to us Boarders.

As surely as Garbine was a progressive intellectual, so his chum Dross was a conspicuous upper class dilettante. Aldenham House and Dross were not a good fit. The place was an appalling drag on his ability to take his rightful place in Society. “Adam,” he would say to me while fingering his only clean silk cravat, “You are a peasant. What are you?” Dross once stopped Copperfield in the courtyard just to say, “Copperfield, let’s face it, I am a better person than you are. You come from the wrong side of the county.”

Dross had my sympathies. Through some ghastly error, he was banged up in Aldenham House when he should have been receiving private tuition at Blenheim or Chatsworth or wherever it was that he had been born. Dross was in a fix and I wished that I could have helped him by arranging for a transfer out of the hell that he was in, but there was only so much that a twelve-year old plebeian Boarder could do for a displaced patrician.

Like Sebastian’s nanny at Brideshead, there was a sane and stable heart to Aldenham House. Her name was Marie Sproat, she was the Housekeeper, and she was the only one you could really rely on for down to earth common sense advice which she dispensed with a generous supply of digestives and tea in the giant airing cupboard that she lived in on the mezzanine floor opposite Dorm Ten. It was Marie Sproat who chose Carter’s Cambridge College for him and Marie Sproat that told Garbine how to get off a vandalism charge when he got nicked by plod for stealing a low flying aircraft road sign outside The Battle Axes.

Some Boarders were more likeable than others. When Alfred Danes grabbed you in a headlock and ground your nose into the acres of brown linoleum in Aldenham House, you got a face full of cheap floor polish and a reminder that early developers like Danes did what they liked to late developers like me. When I had caught up I did consider giving him a slap, but I decided that my image would suffer more than his and so I let it be.

How well you fitted into Aldenham House depended on how keen you were to stay away from whatever it was that you had come from. I never bought the idea that any parent with a few quid in the bank and noble ambitions for their progeny would automatically want to send their heir to board at Aldenham House; not when the country was awash with pukka schools with big images and five star boarding facilities.

I was on the run from a pretty hellish home life and, frankly, The Worshipful Company of Serial Killers School would have been just dandy with me. But a lot of other kids had apparently terrific home lives and were presumably tolerating their protracted exile. How they persuaded themselves that their family loved them when they sent them away to a boarding institution like Aldenham House was beyond me.

The name of the Dayboy’s school carried a lot of clout and anyone who could still see to read The Times academic rankings in the sixties knew that Haberdashers ranked sixth in the country. This meant that a lot of foreigners who didn’t know any better sent their kids to board at Aldenham House. There were a couple of malnourished Orientals who nobody took any notice of until their Dad showed up one day in a fleet of Mercs and was treated like royalty by the Beak. It turned out they really were royalty. Back in Malaysia they were, anyway.

As I was an émigré from Scotland, so a lot of Dayboys and Boarders were also immigrants to an Anglo Saxon land where we arrivistes lived in hope that a Haberdasher’s education would give us reservations for Pullman class seats on some grown-up gravy train where everyone recognised everyone else’s tie, took four hour lunches and enjoyed three day weekends in fancy country houses. It didn’t quite work out for me. I lost the tie, couldn’t afford the house and got reprimanded for coming back from lunch legless.

Aldenham House’s most zealous Christian was an African American Boarder from Poughkeepsie who could high jump higher than the school’s tallest high jump stands, played the piano like Gershwin and ran around our leafy English countryside fertilising every girl that set eyes on him.

That just made me jealous. No, what really impressed me about Roosevelt Nixon was when he took me to the Hard Rock Café a month or so after it opened in 1972 at Hyde Park Corner. After umpteen years eating Aldenham House grub, I had never seen so much fabulous food on a plate. I was so fixated on the size of the burger that I almost didn’t notice the two hot girls that insisted on sharing our booth with us. Ever since, I have tried and tried to capture the essence of Nixon’s appeal, and never quite succeeded.

During the Second World War, before it became Haberdashers, Aldenham House was requisitioned by the BBC’s Latin American Department who built a hideous annexe, that the Prep School subsequently lived in.

In between Tangos on the Croquet Lawn, a motley crew of typists, ex-rebels and fighters from the Spanish Civil War, broadcast Latin American formation-dancing tutorials to help keep Nazi elements in uppity banana republics subdued and distracted. This was a master-stroke. Every time Pedro felt an urge to jump into a Panzer and rampage around someone else’s coconut plantation, the BBC broadcast a Samba Special. If the Allies had followed their example, the War could all have been settled peacefully in patent pumps, frilly frocks and lederhosen at Arthur Murrays.

There were fascinating reminders of the BBC like the studio sound proofing wall and ceiling panels in Sick Bay that had lots of little holes that a fevered Copperfield lay in bed and counted. He claimed to have counted up to over one million. This was hard to verify as no-one in Aldenham House had ever seen a million of anything. No-one, that is, except Yasser Kakheel who threatened to beat up anyone who didn’t believe him when he said that the woman who might have been his Mum kept a million dollars escape-in-a-hurry money in a safe behind the solid gold framed Henry Moore that hung in the family home in Cairo.

Which members of the teaching staff did Tom feel made a particular impact on the school?

MT: He worked very closely with Bill Crossman (who had a House shield named in his memory) and Dai Barling. Bill thought Tom a bit liberal as Tom was reluctant to cane boys. Tom hated having to beat a boy.  Bill Crossman used to do this for him without a second thought.

What was Tom's relationship with the anonymous donor who funded many of the new buildings?

MT:Tom’s other great contribution was to find the anonymous donor who gave so many buildings to the school. Mr Diggins, as we later were able to disclose, did not want his own name associated with the buildings, but he did name the Seldon Hall after his agent. I met him once and found him very courteous and charming. Tom was very proud to have the music school named after him. There is a bronze bust of Tom, made by Laurence Broderick in the music school, and I have a cast of it as well. He was an Old boy, and Tom though he should follow this up, and he did follow it up and suggested all sorts of projects such as the music school. The school would not be the place it is today without the anonymous benefactor.

How did Tom relax at the end of a school day?

MT: He never did relax. The school was his whole life and he did not want to retire, but at 65 the Governors insisted. He then took on a consultancy job in London until he was 70 and earned more money at that than he had as Headmaster!

We also put on concerts in the Hall with very famous international artists, including the Yehudi and Hepsibar Menuhin, Myra Hess and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The Hall was always full for these top-class concerts and the boarders helped with parking. I was particularly annoyed when the Menuhins were here that Tom could not join us for lunch as a boy in the boarding house had gone missing.

How has the school changed over the years?

MT: It is not really my place to answer this, but it is a great thrill always to be made so welcome and to know that Tom was instrumental in setting up the school as it is today. It really was his life-time’s work.

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