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Westbere Road in the 1920's


The Happiest Days? – Ken Blessley
A Nostalgic Wander Down Westbere Road in the Twenties

With 85 on the clock, time is an element in fairly plentiful supply in terms of daily activity, and one quite pleasant consumer is the compilation of a life story solely for personal interest. Having embarked on this, it is really amazing what memories can be dredged up of past days, more perhaps than of more recent times and this certainly applies to the school years. Looking at the last list of members, it would seem that there are only about 20 of my contemporaries, or even older 0.H., on the books plus perhaps a 100 or so who could still recall the pre-1939 scene and so this may not justify inclusion in the OHA magazine (and now the web site).

However, having completed this section of my 'authorised auto-biography’, I have found it quite fascinating to compare my recall with the experiences of our two sons at the School in the '50s and '60s, and even more so with our grandsons in the 90's. It would be a bold, no foolhardy, prophet who would attempt to picture the education scene in 2020.

So, here goes…

A brief comment on family life style in 1920. The War had ended 18 months before but, unlike the immediate post-1945 years, I do not recall any serious rationing or shortages - provided a job and money were available. We lived in West Hampstead, just off Mill Lane, a semi-detached house, the only one in a road of terraced houses with four bedrooms and quite a good garden. There were no car owners and indeed horse-drawn vehicles were a common factor in transport - coal, refuse, deliveries, house-moving. One interesting (to me anyway) memory was of the road surface covered in straw where a neighbour was seriously ill - to deaden the noise of the iron shod cart wheels, but this sympathetic practice soon disappeared. 

My father had his business, a surveyor and estate agent, in Finchley Road, no car, but he and my mother had active lives, especially in the summer months with, for example, tennis and bowls at the Brondesbury Club. No radio (wireless) of course in those days but most families had an upright piano and musical evenings, home and away were frequent in the winter months when honorary aunts and uncles, several very talented, would sing, play or recite, Holidays were bucket and spade in August, places like Bognor, Broadstairs and Hunstanton, in boarding houses of a varying standard. 

Mill Lane had splendid shopping facilities, all trades represented, many duplicated, so there was no call for my mother to venture very far, possibly once a month to Cricklewood or Kilburn and, on very rare occasions, by 28 bus to Barkers Stores, Kensington High Street.

So, the general scenario was based on a very limited local area, not quite as restricted as Jane Austen but probably a 2 mile radius would have covered 90% of the year's activities. Things changed dramatically after our first car in 1924, a splendid 1915 2 litre Itala, a two seater open coupe with dickey seat.

Starting out in 1920

I started at Westbere Road in April 1920, aged 6, and I walked each way, even coming home for a midday meal, a daily total of about four miles. No thought of danger, the only problem the occasional confrontation with groups from the local council school, through whose territory we had to pass, so that a few of us would link up in a form of convoy. We moved house nearer to the school in 1925, five minutes walk, less if I ran, so I often left home as the five to nine bell was ringing. One snag was the proximity of staff homes, e.g. Freddy Payne at the top of the road, and every dinner hour a quartet of Messrs. Absom, Oliver, Pask and Knight would wander past on their tour round the block.

Almost everyone, staff and boys, came on foot, the balance, less than a 100, by bike. The catchment area was obviously outer north west London, some came from as far away as St Albans and furthest Metroland but everyone had the final walk from the Edgware Road, Cricklewood Lane or West Hampstead and in those days, Westbere Road ended at the School, so many came through the fields on the farm track and footpath from Cricklewood Lane. Cars were unheard of and the first staff owned was probably Dogger Gibbs1 chain.driven GN in about 1922 with more 'affluent' models appearing a few years later.

The day for the senior school started with a service in the hall at which the lesson was read by a prefect. This was, of course, basically a Church of England school; there were a few Roman Catholics and a significant number of Jewish boys who had their own prayers, joining the main assembly for notices. I recall three or four from India in my 12 years but nobody from Africa or the West Indies.

In the early days, there was no prescribed uniform, the only common item a cap with metal badge and house button and this was compulsory wear. Formal wear was introduced about 1925 with dark jackets or blazers, Lower School boys had to wear shorts, regardless of their development! I recall red ribbons on the arm on occasions but this was to give a warning that a smallpox vaccination had been done. One extraordinary feature was the bowler hat for prefects (and sub prefects?), perhaps also for 1st XV on away matches. In school, prefects wore a black velvet cap with a gold tassel and rugby colours had a similar blue cap with silver tassel, which I seem to recall were worn with blazers for home games at Chase Lodge. These honours caps were formally presented by the headmaster at the end of morning assembly.

The Staff

In 1920, the teaching staff could, with a few exceptions be divided into three groups. Firstly, those men who for reasons of health, age or nationality had not been in the Services during the 1914-18 war. These would have included five of the original Housemasters - Calvert, Henderson, Meadows, Russell and Strouts (Jobling had departed elsewhere) plus Webb (Art), Paterson, Ash and Cruner. Then there were the five lady teachers, responsible for the youngest boys, the Misses Biggs, Challen, Johnson, King and Plant.

They were phased out by 1924, Miss Biggs and Miss Challen setting up Westcroft in Cricklewood Lane as an independent preparatory school. Finally, there were the service men, some of them taking up their first teaching post, others resuming an interrupted career, several with wounds and disability. I recall amongst these Blunt, Gibbs, Crossman, Rawnsley, Small and Sturgeon.

A new pattern gradually emerged as the ladies left and the older men retired to be replaced by post-war graduates, the first of whom (I think) was the memorable 'Otto' Pask with his Zenith motor bike and 'modern' dress, followed by others like Hurrell, Fluke and Keevil.

Supporting staff were minimal - a caretaker with rooms under the front entrance; Desborough, general messenger and lab assistant; Blencowe, theoretically a groundsman. A matron, Miss Cairns, came later, supervising the part-time kitchen and cleaning staff, and the sole administrator was the headmaster's secretary, Miss Sharp who, in 1920 was followed by Joan Pridmore, a graduate who stayed until 1969, well after the move to Elstree. These ladies coped with almost all the paperwork with some back up from individual staff and they were also responsible for the stationery store. There was no sickbay; first aid, such as it was, provided by Cooper in this same store at a fairly basic level.

Timetable and Syllabus

After the preparatory years, the daily timetable settled down to a basic structure of Mathematics, English, History, Geography, Latin, French, German, Chemistry, Physics, Religious Instruction, Art, Music and Manual Training. The latter, under Adkins, was in a quite well-equipped workshop and was restricted to working in wood. The only project I ever completed was a toothbrush rack which fell apart on first usage. Biology was introduced in the late ‘20s and Spanish, as a 6th form subject, about 1930.

The examination programme was linked to the University of London with General Certificate and Matrix matching the current two tier system. A few remained on for a final year to sit an Inter B.A., but Oxbridge and other university places were a rarity, 3 or 4 at the most in the year.

An extraordinary annual event was linked to the Varsity Boat Race when local sweet shops would sell light and dark blue favours which were a must for the younger element who, in the mid-morning or lunch breaks would fight Oxford v. Cambridge battles for possession of vantage points such as steps. It is most unlikely that any of the combatants had the remotest interest in rowing or indeed any idea of the location of either university and, with only newspaper coverage, probably never knew the result of the race.

Few stayed on to 18, 16 was the average leaving age, usually for a career in business, trade or industry. Those who did stay would choose one of the professions, medicine, law, accountancy or teaching, a limited number to the City, not many to the church or the services. The contrast with the contemporary pattern was the almost complete absence of any further education between school and a working life.

Cadet Corps

The cadet corps was not an 0.T.C. or a C.C.F. but an army unit some 350-400 strong, based on 5 infantry companies, a signals section and a band. Membership was, I believe, obligatory from 11 years on and, during term time, one afternoon a week was allocated to Corps activity.

We were the 3rd Cadet Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers and, on one occasion, provided a detachment in the Lord Mayor's Show, marching with fixed bayonets through the City as the Fusiliers were entitled to do. Gibbs, Sturgeon and Cooper were the Company Commanders, the latter in charge of the 11 year old entrants, a surprising choice in view of subsequent disclosures, Small had the Signals and Gruner the Band. The C.O. was the undersized Braine (later the Rev.), not a very imposing figure, Norton second in command, Blunt the Adjutant and Desborough the RSM.

Uniform was based on the regular army; peaked service cap, jacket with buttons to polish and belt to blanco, breeches and puttees. The infantry carried Lee Enfield rifles and I decided this was too heavy a burden and so joined the band, as a bugler. Fellow musicians were Terry Alexander (bugle), Poppy Brown (side drum), Alan Nicoll (cymbals) and Jumbo Jackman (inevitably with the bass drum). He was clearly selected for his size but he had some difficulty in maintaining a regular beat so occasionally we marched to a rumba rather than a military two step.

The weekly activity for the troops was confined to drill and open order exercises whilst the band created a hellish din 'practising1 in a classroom. The bugle has only five notes but quite a few of these were poorly selected. Whilst these practice sessions required little effort, the rub came with the annual field days, held either on Hampstead Heath or in Richmond Park and the band was required to play for the march from Westbere Road to the Heath or, worse, to Brondesbury Station and then up Richmond Hill to the Park and back. The field day operation followed a traditional pattern based on Boer War tactics and manuals.

There was also a Summer Camp in July and I went to five of these at Hunstanton and Swanage. These were under canvas, eight to a bell tent and with very basic 'facilities' but we seemed to enjoy it.
11am on 11th November was observed with a full assembly in the Hall and an appropriate service ending with the Last Post and Reveille sounded by the Corps buglers in the gallery. I recall looking out of the windows at the trains, even main line expresses stopped at a red signal at 11am.

The Corps ceased to exist with the withdrawal of Government funding in 1930 but a summer camp continued. I achieved the rank of Sergeant and Cert A which, to my surprise, proved to be of value in promotion terms when I joined the ranks in the T.A.


In sport, the basic elements were football (soccer), cricket, athletics and boxing, the playing area a five-acre sloping pitch at the School. Some soft-ball cricket was played on the adjacent Brondesbury ground. Probably with the influence of the new headmaster, Mr Kemp (Clifton), and Stanley Norton (Merchant Taylors), the School switched to rugby in 1922 and additional pitches were rented over the wall on the Home of Rest for Horses with predictable ground conditions and hazards. The change of code was not welcomed by all the staff concerned especially Freddy Payne who was an outstanding player for Corinthian Casuals, appearing in a series of sought-after contemporary cigarette cards.

A major opportunity for expansion was missed by the Governors whether by default or lack of finance when Dickers Farm, to the east of the School, came on the market but whatever the reason, they were outmanoeuvred by U.C.S. who still occupy these splendid fields. So, the alternative was the acquisition of Chase Lodge, Mill Hill in 1924. No coaches were provided so the weekly sports day meant public transport, at first by Midland trains from Cricklewood to Mill Hill with a tedious walk to and from along Bunns Lane.

Subsequently, with the opening of the Watford-by-Pass, a private bus service started, usually overcrowded and overdriven, which took us from Cricklewood Lane to the foot of Page Street, There was also, of course, the swimming pool, somewhat undersized and concrete lined, not very attractive and probably unhygenic but, in those days, an unusual feature at this level.

Individual masters were in charge of the various sports in addition to teaching duties, coaching and supervising, and some were very capable and talented players themselves - Sturgeon and Knight in cricket. Youd (after 1929) in rugby who produced a marked improvement in the standard of play. Nobody in those early days had any qualification in P.E., and gymnastics and swimming were 'taught' by Sergeant Heath, a congenial and colourful character, who was also a good customer for the Cricklewood pubs. He was succeeded by very different personalities - St. John and Turton who, I believe, also taught geography.

Cabbage Water…

A midday meal was provided in two shifts in the dining hall, supervised by prefects with a basic unchanging, unattractive bill of fare, at a cost of 1 shilling. Living so near, I was allowed home for a quick lunch until my last two years as a prefect. Masters sat on a raised dais and prefects had a separate table, both groups provided with a much better choice (at the same price), so was happy to stay. Such blatant discrimination would no doubt be unacceptable today. The lingering smell of cabbage water in some of the first floor classrooms is an abiding memory.

Discipline and the Cane

Discipline was strict and, in general, the Rules were observed; I can recall no really dramatic events in my time with only a handful of expulsions when no explanation was available. Punishment was broadly two tier: corporal-caning of the backside - in theory for the more serious offences, and written i.e. lines for lesser crimes. In real terms, however, there was no clear dividing line between the two categories and misdemeanours such as no cap, wrong coat peg, bike not padlocked, using the front stairs, detected at prefect level, quite often resulted in caning.

Indeed, my last experience, as a Vth former aged fifteen, coat peg! Masters dealt only with the proven serious offences and they were rarely involved in the corporal side. However, prefects were a different matter and this is where misuse occurred. A few of my contemporary prefects had a sadistic streak, apparently competing to clock up the most beatings and the atmosphere in the somewhat sordid conditions of the prefects' room was often strained.

In retrospect, I doubt if any lasting harm was caused either physical or mental although I do recall at least three cases in my two years when parents complained to the headmaster with threat of legal action. Corporal punishment was, of course, an accepted factor in those days at all levels - a very different situation to contemporary conditions.

A Cross Man

But there was one serious incident in the late '20s during a period of heavy snow when inevitably and rightly there was much activity in snow architecture, slides and snowball fights. During one of these battles, out in the road, a well-aimed missile hit a cycling Bill Crossman, apparently no big deal except that it contained a large flint with potentially lethal consequences, As a result, the headmaster informed the senior assembly next day that, unless the culprit came forward, there would be a comprehensive caning. Nobody confessed and so the 300 or so innocents were chastised by Houses, 50 by each master and, as some of these were not all that young and certainly not cane fit, the later recipients were comparatively fortunate or off target. The thrower (a Vth Former) was of course known to several of his contemporaries who, for whatever reason did not grass, he had insisted that he had not intended any harm, which took some believing, He was lucky as expulsion would almost certainly have been the punishment. He became a successful lawyer.

Bullying was quite common (I was lucky with an elder brother) but was apparently accepted as a fact of life, There was sporadic smoking, caning by a master if caught, very modest swearing - no obscenities - and a general ignorance of the 'facts of life’ - (biology came rather late).

Within my knowledge, homosexuality never surfaced although there were subsequent rumours and stories, unconfirmed, about a few of the late staff arrivals.

An invitation Out

Social highspot in my last two years was the Headmaster's invitation to the prefects for dinner and a theatre. We assembled at the Refectory, Golders Green and later across at the Hippodrome. The Rev. Kemp was, it seems, an Edgar Wallace fan for both plays were his: The Frightened Lady with Emlyn Williams and On The Spot, Charles Laughton, The latter a rather unfortunate choice set in 1930s Chicago with gangsters and prostitutes and, for those days, somewhat explicit dialogue, Difficult to remember who was more embarrassed, Mr Kemp or the dozen streetwise prefects.


In the '30s, the Governors managed to allocate funds which, with local authority help provided a number of new buildings - the fives courts, a separate block comprising a first floor library above the tuckshop and armoury, replacing the former two storey bike shed, and, more significantly, the science block in 1931, a most impressive addition, well ahead of its time

Summing Up…

Summing up my journal, I find it difficult to identify really high or low points and, on the whole, I had an undistinguished career until the last year when, through the unplanned absence of competition, I was made school captain, enjoyed because of status and some modest privileges, a few games in the 1st XV and notable House successes, especially being in the winning team for the rugby shield. I look back on the teaching staff as decent people with sensible attitudes and I would single out three exceptional men - for differing reasons - Absom, Sturgeon and Youd.

The answer to the query in the title must be 'no' but the days were certainly not unhappy. I think the most significant legacy was the friendships made, especially in the closing years, many continued through the O.H. clubs, but all too many cut short by the 1939-45 war and now only a handful surviving.

In conclusion a financial note; in 1920, the fees for the senior school were seven guineas per term and I think they may have gone up to ten guineas in 1931; perhaps a telling comment on national conditions in those twelve years.

Kenneth Blessley 1999


AMONG THE many visitors to the school over the last 12 months were two old boys who both left the school in 1924. They had been invited by Mr. Yeabsley in his capacity as appeals director, and although it is 65 years since they left they were both full of memories of their school days. Mr. Hayler later wrote and asked them if they would be kind enough to write down some notes about Haberdashers in the 1920s:

"Wednesday 25th January this year became a day of dramatic interest. Thanks to the kindness of Mr. Yeabsley I was to meet Jones, who had been a classmate of mine as far back as the 1920s - we both left school in 1924 and had only met once since in 1945. Now we were meeting once again in order to see the splendid new school that had been created at Elstree.

"Our tour under the guidance of Mr. Yeabsley was an eye-opening experience. The magnificent new buildings including the sports centre and library had obviously been planned with the greatest care and undoubted devotion to what we had always believed to be the true traditions and objectives of our dear old school for which we have an abiding affection. Of course our visit inevitably led to much nostalgia and fond reminiscence. In our time at the school we were privileged to meet most of the housemasters who are immortalised by having given their names to the houses, and Jones could remember them all. I was in Calverts and remember Mr. Calvert very well. I also knew Mr. Strouts, Dr Henderson, Mr. Meadows and Mr. Russell. Mr. Jobling had left before I joined the school.

"Life in the old school at Westbere Road in Hampstead was very different from today. We had a miserable little swimming pool, about six strokes long, dark, with an appalling damp atmosphere and generally unsavoury surroundings.

"Of course corporal punishment was pretty generally administered, by the prefects as well as the masters. I do not think it did us much harm, though I have always retained a feeling of injustice for the six strokes on my posterior with a canvas gym shoe that I received from the school captain for being unable to touch my toes in physical training. Mr. Calvert always carried either a cane or a short length of rubber hose with which he administered a hefty smack for any inattention or shortcoming.

"We were all in the school cadet corps which was run as an army unit. The discipline was commendably strict, and although I achieved the exalted rank of corporal I cannot truthfully say that I enjoyed polishing my buttons or winding on the puttees which were then an essential part of our uniform. It was a relief when war came to be able to serve in the Royal Navy.

"When all is said and done I nevertheless retain an affection and loyalty to the school and was happy that my son was able to carry on the family connection there - and my two grandsons also. It is a privilege to be able to look back over 65 years. The haze of time has a rosy glow."

F Ashe Lincoln, QC, MA, BCL 

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