Wednesday, 27 April 2016


I went to boarding school,,not because my family were rich, quite the opposite. I was the beneficiary of 19th and early 20th century philanthropy, attending schools originally founded as orphanages fir the children of Merchant Navy seamen lost at sea. By the time my father was lost off the coast of Wales on Christmas Eve 1951, they were schools, and when I was 7, a month or so before my 8th birthday, I started the summer term at the Royal Merchant Navy School, in Collington Avenue, Bexhill.

Since my father had died, my little sister had been born and I had been to many schools, as my mother travelled the country, doing any live in job she could get, and keep her daughters with her. I can't say this did my formal education much, each school seemed to be at a different stage of the curriculum on my arrival, so I still have some peculiar gaps in my understandings!

The staff at RMNS Bexhill were mostly very fine, caring people. I remember the Headmaster coming and tucking in the the new kids for the first few nights, singing us to sleep, trying his best to ease the transition for very young children.

In due course, we moved on to the senior school, at Bearwood,  near Reading. This was in a very grand mansion, donated by a newspaper magnate just after the First World War, at which time, of course, there was a very large increase in the number of Merchant Navy orphans!  One of the first things that happened was a medical check up (in the elegant Sanatorium donated by Lord Nuffield) where it was discovered that I was so severely short sighted that they were rather amazed I was doing as well as I was, academically,  as most teaching was via a blackboard in those days, and I cannot possibly have seen what was on it! Amazing what a lonely little bookworm can teach herself, if her mind is hungry enough!

Despite being the boys' favourite victim, it was a wonderful place to be, with enormous grounds in which a child could wander and feel safe, caring, if strict, staff and a solid moral structure to give children a degree of emotional security. In fact, ex pupils still return, and are devoted to the school, even now it has been sold and become the flagship school of a big public/private school chain.

And here's where the values come in. In 1961 the girls part of the school closed,  and we were dispersed, at the Merchant Navy's expense, to schools nearer to our homes. At the end if each year, the school held a Leavers Service in the beautiful St Nicholas Chapel (Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors, amongst others)

At the end of the service, those leaving were lined up at the altar rail and presented with a bible or prayer book, dedicated to us and signed by the Headmaster, with a little card inside. On the card was the statement made to all leavers by the Headmaster as these were handed out. I can still, over 50 years later,;remember it word for word, and it's values have guided me ever since.

"I charge you to remember always the great bounty you have enjoyed at Bearwood, and in the years to come, to do all you can to help others by thought, word and deed.
Remember, too, that you carry with you the good name of the Royal Merchant Navy School.
May God Almighty direct your course,  and strengthen and inspire you through all your days."

I no longer believe in any god, but those values have stayed with me, along with the gratitude for the caring and generosity of people who had no obligation towards me. Somewhere in the intervening years our society has lost touch with those values, and it is a great loss. It was a far from perfect world then, and people were no more perfect then than they are now,;but there was a great deal more compassion and generosity, and we knew that, mostly, we really *were* all in it together. Rich or poor, we could all suffer misfortune, deadly diseases and war, and there, but for the grace of fortune, any of us could go.

As a society, we have lost our sanity, our sense of balance. I do hope we find it before collective suicide is unavoidable.

No comments:

Post a Comment