CHAPTER II

MORE LIFE IN KENT

 

So, two years after the second world-war and in the year 1947, life of a very different kind than that which the house had known in the past was begun.

This life at Mersham-le-Hatch, although in many ways a great contrast to that of Hyde House, was in some respects much the same because along with the occupants, the furniture and omnibus possessions of the Community came the same basic pattern and way of life.

It was as if nomads who, pitching their tents in strange places, could yet venture forth with confidence to explore the unknown territory because there was always the familiar way of life to return to, and the familiar faces.

The children were still grouped more or less according to age, and out to the Ashford schools went all the children over eleven. There were two Grammar schools and two secondary Modern schools. A high proportion of both boys and girls went to the Grammar schools. Later various girls went to the Folkestone Technical school and one or two, at intervals, to a large fee-paying Convent school. There was a wide variety of schools to which we were able to send girls and all these schools were extraordinarily good about accepting them.

In the years ahead it was often of considerable help to be able to send girls to different schools which were in different areas of the county. The education given at the Technical school was often more suitable than that at the Grammar School and the Roman Catholic Convent at Folkestone sometimes provided what one particular girl might need. It was also a good thing sometimes to detach a girl from her contemporaries: she could be "ganging-up" with them and their "nuisance value" could be great and to be right away from them for a whole school-day could be very beneficial. These problems did not seem to arise in the same way with the boys and the two Ashford schools seemed to be sufficient for their needs.

The Seniors left every morning at a quarter past eight and walked to the Mersham bus stop which was on the main Ashford-Dover road and unfortunately the other side of that road: by a mixture of will-power, a good voice, and "do not cross yet" they remained on one side until the school bus was seen in the distance; whoever was in charge then stood bravely in the middle of the road, which seemed at times like a race-track, and held up all the traffic until everyone was safely over: by the mid-fifties there would have been anything from thirty to forty boys to be got on to the bus. I believe this holding up of traffic was quite illegal but no one ever suggested we should wear a "Lollipop" uniform: no one was ever run over in my lifetime at the Community.

Everyone returned again at half past four, unless staying on at school for some reason or other, and the usual slabs of bread and butter with some "spread" or other were given in the various playrooms: as the food situation eased cake or buns were provided and always, of course, tea, or milk. There was "Prep" afterwards for those who had it, again taken by Miss Dave and as there was in the late forties still no "Pop" or television, it was possible to settle down to an evening's occupation. Miss Syer had set up her looms and a lot of weaving was still done.

At seven o'clock an excellent supper was given for Staff and seniors, the juniors having had a High Tea earlier. This meal was intended to be, and was, a proper social occasion, as it were. Miss Leila and Miss Dave, sitting side by side at the Top Table with the two Retrievers somehow lying side by side behind their chairs, always changed into other clothes for it and the seniors had all changed out of school uniform. As I have said when writing about The Mote, Miss Leila always considered meals important as they were a good ground for a training in the right social behaviour which simply meant civilised standards and a reasonable standard of conversation which was why she, rightly, insisted that adults and children must eat together, although the staff still had tea on their own in the hall. There was no reason why adult and adolescent should not be able to converse agreeably and interestingly on a variety of subjects: no one then had heard of the "generation gap" as such.

The words of the American philosopher and writer, George Santayana, were not to apply to the Community; "Teachers and pupils seemed animals of different species, useful and well-disposed towards each other, like a cow and a milkmaid; periodic contributions could pass between them, but not conversation."

At the beginning of each term, for about twenty years, I allocated places at supper for all who attended the meal. Miss Dave used to undertake this considerable task but, soon after we went to Mersham, handed it over to me.

It was rather like an intricate jig-saw puzzle and entailed a great deal of thought and an exact knowledge of the clientele who were to be placed. The old trestle tables had been replaced by smaller tables, which seated eight: there must have been about a dozen or more of these: the room could hold about eighty: at week-ends the hall was used for meals.

Now, some might say, why on earth couldn't everyone sit where they liked, but no one would, I think, ask this question again after they had been to any one meal where everyone did sit, or attempt to sit, where they liked; the ensuing scrum, chaos and noise was indescribable; we once had a meal of this nature. Not all could sit where they wanted to as there was not room at that particular table: many appeared to be unable to sit anywhere as no place was to their liking; all the noisiest twelve year-old boys ganged up together and were averse to any adult sitting with them and all the twelve year-old girls did likewise.

Your own "place" at a table, however much you might object to some of the other members at the table, at least gave a feeling of security as there it always was waiting for you, and no one else could take it and there was consequently no need to rush at top speed into the dining room the moment the bell went. With a good deal of thought and care it was possible to give places that more or less satisfied the majority. Each table was "manned" by one or two adults: these I always consulted beforehand as to whether they thought they could manage the table I had proposed and whether they had any particular preference, such as wishing to make contact with a particular boy or girl. Miss Dave always thought this was all very unnecessary and you should just take what you were given but I did not see this and continued to "lobby". I always gave the experienced staff a student or a new member of staff: this was an obvious thing to do of course. Miss Leila and Miss Dave had five of the most senior boys and girls: their table really was "civilised" as they were both admirable conversationalists and ranged over a wide variety of subjects.

Miss Leila went on ringing the same little bell for "silence"; sometimes there was silence and sometimes there was not. There always seemed to be at least a dozen boys or girls who were compulsory talkers and unable ever to stop. Miss Leila herself was a fast eater and was naturally always served first and sometimes at supper it was difficult to get enough eaten in the allotted time as there was the conversation to be attended to and the attempt to get A and B to eat differently or C to talk more quietly.

The waiting and serving was all done, as in the past, by the children on a rota system, whatever meal it might be. In those days the vegetables only were put on the tables and the rest of the serving was done from a long serving table: there were practically always second helpings of both courses. Help with the washing-up and laying of tables was, as it always had been, given by seniors and juniors alike, all on a rota system.

As the Community increased in number there were a great many meals to be laid, eaten and washed-up: two breakfasts every morning, as the seniors all had an earlier one than the juniors and there was the usual large and excellent midday meal. This was no sooner finished and cleared away, when the tables were laid for a junior High Tea, and when they had finished there was supper to be got ready. The dining-room staff must have sometimes wondered which actual meal they were going to sit down to next. At mid-day and in the evening there was outside domestic help. There was then no washing-up machine; the large plates all went up and down in a lift to the kitchen and everything else was washed-up in a very small pantry off the dining-room.

Although I generally subscribed to Miss Leila's views on food, there was one exception - a certain brand of goat's cheese: this would be at her place, a large lump of what looked to me exactly like a cake of the old fashioned brown windsor soap: I thought its taste appalling and its smell terrible.

The final addition to the dining-room, which came some years after we came and which enhanced the beauty of the room even more, was a magnificent original picture by Canaletto of the Grand Canal in Venice. It was said to be the largest picture he ever painted and it took up the whole length of one wall. It was a marvellous painting with its sea-green colouring and wonderfully observed detail and I considered we were more than fortunate to be able to look at such a picture every time we came into the dining-room.

A large ornate gilded painted clock, made in Paris, was also lent by the Brabournes. It sat on the high mantelpiece and it had a small delicate strike which could only be heard if there was complete silence in the room.

We had not been back in Kent for long before Miss Leila was co-opted onto the Children's Committee of the Kent County Council: this was in 1948 and I think she must have remained on the Committee for about twenty years.

After the war the Community had been relieved of its Approved School Certificate. In 1945 a Committee had been set up, under the chairmanship of Dame Myra Curtis, to look into the conditions of family life and the homeless child in Britain. Miss Leila gave evidence and after the Children's Act of 1948 it became the duty of all counties or county boroughs to set up Children's Committees with administrative officers responsible to the Committee for all children in their care. Many of the children who now came to the Community were sent by these Local Authorities, but Miss Leila retained the right to be selective in whom she took and completely independent.

Just before we left Hyde House in 1946 Miss Leila was asked if she would organise and staff an Experimental Reception Centre for children from the broken home, which would be financed by the Nuffield Foundation.

This was started in New House, the Dower House of Mersham-le-Hatch, and it was run by the woman who had made such an admirable Head of the Junior school all through the war years at Hyde and then for a short time at Mersham. With her went the young woman who had taught and been responsible for the sport and physical activity in the Community's school for a few years at Hyde and a stalwart young woman who had been the cook's right hand at Hyde. They were all much missed but must have run that Reception Centre, which was the first of its kind in the country, extremely well. We used to go over there sometimes to Case Conferences, which were always deeply interesting.

Another member of staff to leave soon after we were settled at Mersham was the woman who had been for many years in charge of all the senior boys. She left to run her own large Establishment: she was greatly missed; it was some time before a young Housemaster was taken on to help the woman who took her place, for by then the number of boys had increased.

The woman who ran the Junior Study group moved up to run the next and higher age group and there seemed to be no one to look after the younger group. I offered to do this as a temporary measure as I only had eight senior girls to see to: this was because many of the girls had left when we came to Kent from Dorset and no more over eleven had been admitted.

The eight were at school all day and by the evening, when the girls needed attention, the younger children would have gone to bed: this worked well during the week but was much more difficult at week-ends.

I much enjoyed life again with these seven to nine year olds. They were generally a restless intelligent group and they could, as in the past, be very trying, but I walked them for miles with the dogs and at week-ends sometimes accompanied by the girls.

Half-terms with them were quite an occasion: it was really just a "day out" and it did not matter what time of year it was, whether October, February or the middle of the summer, it was always cold and raining or just going to rain: but we were a hardy lot and ignored the climate.

We went once, sixteen of us on a November day, to Hythe. We left at half past nine and by half past ten we were on the beach: it was already drizzling. The children ran up and down to the sea's edge shrieking, screaming and shouting as only the very young can. They ran into the waves and out again; the sea seeped in over the tops of their rubber boots; after a bit they settled down to the real business of the day - salvage work.

The beach was strewn with treasure and wreckage of every sort, every conceivable kind of object. The wind grew stronger, the sea rougher, but undaunted, they worked on, collecting, sorting, making little piles; all their magpie instincts satisfied.

An old rusted tin of French "Brasso" was found, the remains of a large crucifix, cuttle-fish, starfish, bits of wood, old bottles, boxes, skates, eggs, a parsnip and two onions.

We ate lunch in a shelter; wind-whipped, rain-lashed, it at least had a roof, a glass side and one long seat.

We sat huddled with hard-boiled eggs and sodden sandwiches. On the beach later we sat amidst a whirlwind of newspapers, old ice-cream cartons and cigarette boxes which were hurled along the beach in the force of the gale.

It became obvious that we could stay no longer; we left the beach and went up to look at the old church on the hill.

Leaving the salvage at the church door we were about to go in with streaming hair and wet boots that made a curious sepulchral sort of hissing sound as each boot was lifted when the verger appeared: he gave one experienced look at us and asked if we would like to visit the crypt and see the bones.

"Bones?" they said with one voice.

"Yes," he said, "all washed up on the beaches".

Now the Junior Study knew all about what was washed up on beaches; but the verger had seen what had been left at the church door.

"Oh no," he said, "not washed up now, everyone's rescued." And to perhaps the most enthralled audience he had ever had, this experienced man told about lifeboats and all the apparatus for saving life.

We trooped down to the crypt. The walls were lined with shelves on which old skulls and bones of every sort, size and shape were piled: there were hundreds and hundreds of them: it was a truly amazing sight.

We went back on top of a bus: a funeral passed below. Michael saw it and in clear ringing tones his voice travelled down the bus. “Where,” he said, “do you go when you die?” I was just opening my mouth to say I know not when his attention was instantly diverted.

"Oh!" he said, "my tooth's come out!" and he held up a small back tooth.

"I wonder what I'd better do with it" he mused: the problem was solved immediately.

"I'll throw it out of the window,", he said, and quick as lightening he opened the little window of the bus and out went the tooth.

Whether it hit a passer-by or not I neither knew nor cared.

We arrived back in the middle of the afternoon, soaked, bedraggled and battered, but triumphant: the beach treasure all intact, the parsnip and the two onions with it.

The day had been a success: none of us, after all, had ever seen so many bones nor had we ever travelled on a bus with a passenger who threw his tooth out of the window.

I must have run the Junior Study group for a good many terms but gave it up when the number of Senior Girls increased very considerably: they were divided then into two groups with separate playrooms - under and over fourteens. But whatever else I did I always missed those small children with their totally original outlook on life unspoilt by convention and custom.