Ⓒ Rod Madocks
I hear that someone is writing a history of Hawkhurst Court School, Wisborough Green. Good luck to them. The school has now vanished, I understand some of the buildings survive in the guise of luxury homes. There is little documentary evidence that the place ever existed but the fabric of the surviving buildings, the very dust must groan with the accumulated distress of thousands of miserable school boys who attended there over the years. The mere sound of its name still gives me a shudder whenever I hear it. I went there 1964 to 1966, one of many wild colonial boys sent to the hellish dump because the place was supposed to be a crammer for the educationally backward. At the time, my parents still lived in the last vestiges of the British Empire – Northern Rhodesia. I’d been toughened by attending a harsh Rhodesian boarding school from the age of seven and half but Hawkhurst was no picnic in comparison. Sequestered in deep Sussex woods, bitterly cold for lads from the tropics, I constantly suffered from chest infections. The air around Old House seemed perpetually to smell of cabbage and we were taught in chilly Nissen huts that had formerly been occupied by doomed Canadian soldiers training for the Dieppe disaster with its 70% casualties. The soldiers left their names and other inscriptions carved in the trunks of beech trees that clustered thickly around the school. It seemed a ghost-haunted place at the time. The lost spirits were not only of soldiers.
It was reputed among us that the spectre of the wife of the scary headmaster and school founder, Mr Maunsell, was supposed to haunt the rose gardens at the back of Old House. Maunsell kept the garden as memorial to his wife and any boy caught interloping there would get a vicious caning. I have a copy of a handwritten letter from Maunsell to my father extolling the virtues of the school. The writing is hard to read, the pen-strokes seriously awry and jagged, an indicator of the aberrant personality of its author. I can just make out that Maunsell wrote of me, “We will do our best to bring him on. He will come to us with a pretty low standard. They invariably do these days from Africa”. Maunsell was tall elderly and stooped but still savage. I saw him beating a boy with one hand while holding his ear with the other. The ear split away from the head and the school nurse had to suture it up. But Maunsell was not the worst by a long shot. There were the creepy male staff watching us queuing naked for showers as we held out our hands for a squirt of Vosene for washing our hair, and the infernal Welches. Mr Welch, beefy, red –faced, flaxen-haired often demanding to know, “Have you been touching yourself boy?” His once apparently glamorous wife now head-scarfed and harpy-like, pushing boys forward for Welch’s post luncheon public beatings in his classroom with a sawn-down cricket bat. There would always be a scrum of boys watching the spectacle yelling and jostling like the crowd at an Eighteenth Century execution as the pallid victims would be prodded forward by a smiling Mrs Welch. Most of the teachers were weird misfits, rejected from other schools like the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Some were broken-down and meek while others were sadistic beaters, Many were war-damaged men like the naval officer, an ex-POW who shook with rage if you inadvertently mentioned Japan and who had pulpy fingers with no fingernails because the Kempei Tai had pulled them out in Changi Gaol. Then there were the outright perverts. One, I seem to have buried his name, but I do remember his feral body smell as he pressed close to me. He marked my work in class with a pen in one hand and with the other he burrowed into my trousers. He also liked to grab your nipples with his pincer-like fingers and twist them. Unwary boys get the full Jimmy Saville treatment if they allowed themselves to get caught in his rooms. But I was strong and wily enough to elude him. I laughed to get an email from Sussex police a year back enquiring if I’d experienced abuse at the school. To my mind, those hard-handed masters taught me the realities of adult life and maybe I should have thanked them for that. I never dreamed of telling my parents about anything. There was no point and I never would be able to explain the full strangeness and terror of Hawkhurst Court and maybe I understood that they in turn had endured terrors in their own childhoods and in the war about which nothing could be said.
Hawkhurst Court- It seemed caught in another world, hedged in by immemorial woods, full of old Canadian bunkers and humps and hollows from more ancient times. I used to find hefty gin traps with serrated jaws left in the bracken of the woodland fringes. Rabbit traps, I suppose or were they boy traps? I’ve written about the perverts and the beaters among the staff and given a flavour of some of the terrors and uncertainties of life at Hawkhurst but over fifty years on I now wonder if I carried away anything that was good about the experience.
I certainly learned that fear could be endured, and that you could push away the dread of a threatening future and learn to live in the moment. I also began to understand that friendship could ease the worst predicaments. There were moments that live on in my mind: playing British Bulldog on the top field with one master swept away in the excitement and joining in with all the boys clinging to him, trying to bring him down. Or, camping in Scouts, shivering in the mauve light of a chill Sussex dawn listening to a blackbird singing and impatient for a warming cup of cocoa. Secretly eating Walnut Whip during prep time risking a Welchie beating but worth it. Seeing TV for the first time, Churchill’s funeral in a winter classroom and joining an Indian file of boys at dusk going to a staff cottage in the woods to watch ‘Doctor Who’. I enjoyed the freedom of the deep woods, making dams in the streams and peering through the slats of an old timber hut on the road to Bedam church. The hut seemed to contain mysterious antique statues that glimmered in the darkness. And the clear pond on the southern side of the school contained large yellowish crested newts that crawled along the bottom, indifferent to us as they had been to the ill-fated Canadian infantry of twenty years before. I wonder if the newts are still there?
It was the mid-sixties when I was a schoolboy there. The world was changing, and its vibrations were beginning to reach us. On one of my first nights at the school, a boy ushered us into a vacant classroom, hauled out a portable record player, put on Bill Haley & The Comets’ ‘Rock around the Clock’ (an old record even at that time) and we writhed around together in the darkness. It was the first time I had ever danced, a frenetic Dervish spinning that strangely soothed me from the surrounding terrors. In an intimation of the destructive revolutionary age that was upon us, one aberrant boy took a hammer to the tops of our tuck boxes and blatantly robbed us of all our stored jams and chocolate biscuits. It was an act that could not be forgiven and no-one spoke to him thereafter. Perhaps he’d been listening to the Peter Paul and Mary hit on the radio ‘If I had a Hammer’ and taken it too seriously? I formed close bonds with a few boys and we watched each other’s backs. My best mates were Stephen Stapley (his mother was Nan Winton the first female TV newsreader, his father an actor in Crossroads) and Jimmy Ramsbottom , son of a Sussex farmer. We sealed our friendship crouched in the laurel bushes below Welch’s classroom window where we cut our palms with a sheath knife and clasped our bloody hands. Jimmy was reassuringly tough and imperturbable and his hard green eyes would gleam at the prospect of a fight. We used to shoot at stray chickens with air rifles from his bedroom window at his family farm while loudly playing The Stones ‘Paint it Black’ on his Dansette. Jimmy, somewhat improbably, became a probation officer in later life, I believe. I also recently met David Lawrance, a fellow Northern Rhodesian. He was at the school at the same time as me, a family man now, cheerful, apparently unscarred although when we mentioned Hawkhurst we both flinched and agreed, “Phew! That was something else.” Heaven knows what happened to some of the more troubled boys. I’ll never forget two brothers called Squires, always in trouble, almost daemonically transgressive and always being beaten. They were half-Malaysian, perhaps there was an animus against them because of their ethnicity. One night, one of the Squires brothers pranced naked across our dormitory beds with his genitals tucked between his legs demonstrating to us what girls looked like to our shocked gaze. The Squires later ran away from school. A pack of masters were mobilised to find them. They discovered them hiding in an old bunker in the woods and they were brought back muddy, cold and scared-looking and clad only in a tee shirts. We never saw them again.
What of the staff ? Not all were horrible. There was the hunch-backed geography teacher with a bald head like an egg. I still remember him teaching us the rivers of England “Wharfe, Nidd, Ouse” tapping his long pointer on a wall map. He was an incredibly good teacher but lacked confidence and we sensed that. Boys played him up and one even laid an explosive substance on the floor of his classroom causing him to give out a shrill scream which we found most amusing. He wrote regretfully of me in my school report, “he tries but the work is beyond him”. Then there was Mrs Walker, the English teacher. She lived in Robin’s End cottage, a bungalow hidden in shrubbery next to her classroom, her hair was coiled head-phone style on each side of her head. She taught us while at the same time smoking cigarettes and partaking of the odd glass of sherry. She always had her Pekinese dogs at her feet. I vividly recall us sitting around a table, each boy reading a passage from Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘Eagle of the 9th’ out loud. I was one of her favourites, she started me on a love of literature and on the road to being the writer I am now.
Looking back, those teachers seemed to form an almost Dickensian cast of characters of an ebullient, tough-minded English type that’s all but extinct now. I most often I think of Mr Singleton, pug-faced and wheezing after being gassed in the trenches of the First World War. He was kindly wise and sad, always coming out with ironic Latin epithets like “Celeriter” while trying to get us to hurry along the corridors. He once showed us photos of his brother officers killed at Loos. Singleton was a bachelor teacher, quietly mourning his dead friends of long before. He taught us Common Entrance, giving extra lessons in his poky little cottage on the school grounds even though he was manifestly sick. We’d sit in his cramped sitting room while he doggedly gave us cramming sessions, maths I think. But his hands shook when he took my exercise book and he seemed to be in pain, constantly mopping his face with a voluminous handkerchief and excusing himself to go groaning into the lavatory. When he came back there would be drops of blood on his tweed trousers. The last lesson he gave was agonizing for all of us. We were cowed and fearful. He managed to last out the hour-long session and told us could do no more for us and bid us good luck and farewell. As he ushered us to the door, we timidly said we hoped he’d be feeling better soon. He raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal, “Consummatum est,” he muttered. We heard he died a month later.
New schools awaited and all through my rackety subsequent life even in the most difficult years I kept telling myself that if I had survived Hawkhurst Court I could survive anything. I recently cleared out my parents’ possessions and found an old letter to them that I had written from Hawkhurst. In the letter, I sound chirpy as if not wanting to alarm them but somewhat ominously on the address line I have written “Prison- the school in the woods.” Ironically, I went on to have a career in prisons and secure facilities. Perhaps I could only really feel at home in those places after my ten years of boarding schools. For years, I was bothered by dreams that I was back there, my adult self squeezed back into our bench-like desks, once more facing Welch in class. The dreams have ebbed away, Time resolves most things. If those now living in their bijou homes on the site of the old school grounds only knew the half of it…