My War Years Memories - Chapter 2 (2 of 4)

War time affects the School Curriculum

The logic of suspending Saturday Morning School was easier to understand in the circumstances, of course. The only problem was that the suspension interfered with some of the traditions of the school and “Bunny” Abbott was a great traditionalist. School on Saturday mornings had, before the war interfered, been the way that time had been made replacing the time lost to academic study by the physical activities traditionally indulged in on Wednesday afternoons. These were, for the “lower” school things like ruby, cricket and swimming. As the arrangements for afternoon sessions persisted throughout 1940 and 1941, this meant I did not experience this range of activity and when the hours returned to normal Wednesday afternoon its activities had been much amended as I shall explain below.

Personally, I was in no way saddened by the loss and was, in any case, pleased not to have to attend school on Saturday mornings. In particular, I was also considerably relieved at being able to forego swimming. Even before I started at Palmers I had learned that the school had its own pool and I could not swim; facilities for learning being so poor in the Laindon area. As a result I had approached the idea with some trepidation, particularly as my informant had delighted in informing me that, at Palmers, pupils were expected to learn to swim stark naked and there were instances of people being thrown in whether they could swim or not! The relief of discovering when I got to know later that, as a safeguard against possible wartime disruption to supply, the pool had been filled with coke for the school’s heating boilers as an emergency stockpile. As a result, the swimming pool remained out of use for the duration. To my mind, the one and only case where forethought made any real sense! “Bunny” Abbott’s adherence to tradition was such that, despite the reduced hours available to him and his teaching staff as the result of the truncated week, he was determined to cling to his long term adherence to the Wednesday afternoon activities. In the circumstances of 1940 and 41 these embraced only the pupils of the “upper” school but, for all that, the circumstances of the war were regarded as being a full justification for the special activity that the Headmaster retained.

Because of the fact that Palmer’s aped the Public Schools, like them, it had long had what was known as a pre-OCTU, a sort of training unit for future officers in the armed services, particularly the army. It seems reasonable to assume that this was a lay over from WW1, particularly as the school hall had an elaborate mounted memorial to those old boys who had perished in that conflict. Furthermore, several of the teaching staff, or “Masters”, as they were called, including “Bunny”, had served their time in the army of those WW1 days including one in particular who had been awarded the Military Cross for his valour. Accordingly, Wednesday afternoons was parade-day for the pre-OCTU. Although, in theory, attendance at and membership of the extra-mural organisations gatherings was said to be optional, the reality was such that nobody stood out against; it was recognised as being part of the school’s esprit de corps and as such totally in keeping with the wartime mood of the moment. The school’s “troops” in 1940 and 1941 were composed of only the upper school. These would parade after the lunch on that day in a series of “platoons” based on which particular “house” pertained to each individual pupil. This seemed to be based upon the geographical basis of the pupil’s home location because all the Laindon based pupils, I was later to discover, were in Marlborough house. I can only assume that this manner of the makeup of each platoon was meant to be a reflection of the manner in which the regular army allocated its personnel to regiments based on the recruit’s home county.

To add to the realism that the school took its military connections seriously, the pre-OCTU was expected to parade in uniform, not the school’s normal uniform, but a military uniform that was, certainly in 1940 and 41, a carry-over from WW1, It would seem that the school had a good supply of these some of which could be adapted to the smaller stature of younger pupils if necessary. Although it was left to the individual pupil to supply his own footwear, some, even most, managed to wear boots and in order to complete the picture the long puttee was used to bind the lower legs. The final appendage to this outfit came in the shape of a firearm which consisted of a the sort of single shot carbine that had gone out of use in the middle of the 19th century and which, made inoperable and unable to fire, was considered to be of a suitable weight for the cadets to carry. It was not until 1942 that I got much idea of what it was that the pre-OCTU did on its Wednesday afternoon parades. By that year, however, a number of significant changes had taken place.

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