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Grandpas Schooldays


My eldest grandson, Elliot, was asked by his teacher to get his grandpa to write an account of his early schooldays. It was to be read out at assembly to let the children get an insight as to what their grandparents experienced as children. The following was my contribution.

Born in 1936, I was lucky enough to witness the final glorious years of the British Empire, especially so in the so-called “Jewel in the Crown”…India.

The ex-patriates, army and civil personnel and the supportive Anglo-Indian community were more than determined to have a good time while the British Raj still ruled India. Parents were more than keen to put their children into boarding schools, usually citing the reason that it would be an uplifting experience and would make men of their sons. I suspect that there were more selfish reasons for their decision.

At just over four years of age, while we were stationed in Karachi, I found myself being taken off to nursery school. The school was a few miles away from our house. My elder brother and I would go to school on horseback accompanied by two Pathan guards. I remember playing games and singing nursery rhymes and sleeping in the afternoon.


the hardings by a lake

Shortly after turning six years of age and, with the impending independence of India and the subsequent partition which created Pakistan, my father opted for India. We re-located to Calcutta, West Bengal, India. After a period of settling in our new location, my elder brother Bert, my sister Diana, and myself were sent to St Andrews Colonial Homes as boarders. The school is now known as Dr Grahams school, in honour of the founder. The school attracts worldwide support for its innovative approach to education and its intake of orphaned and/or children from destitute families without regard to race or religion. The school is co-educational and in my time had 30% fee paying children (Rs 56,000 per annum). Fee paying parents were told that their children would have to live under the same stringent conditions as the free-school children. That meant, among other things, no shoes! All children were given certain jobs to do…sweeping, polishing the wooden floors of the dormitory, gardening, helping in the kitchen etc. Saturday was sports day. Sunday was bible study day, church and evensong.

There was a tradition that on ones birthday, you had tea with the house parents. You were allowed to take just one friend with you. Any uneaten cake or biscuits were wrapped up in a napkin for you to give other friends. 

Each cottage where the children lived (30 to a cottage) had quite a sizeable piece of land attached to it. One area was a playing field and the rest gardens. There were also small allotments where you could grow orchids or peanuts or create a play area. I learned to grow peanuts by the dog-rose bushes. Children would exchange produce or give it to the house parent who would give you some pocket money in exchange. It was great fun.

You may be wondering how large the school is. Well, it is bigger than the borough of Merton. The school, besides its cottages, has its own hospital, farm, a dairy herd, bakery, swimming bath, a playing field enough to stage 7 football matches, a parade ground, Church and cemetery. My uncle, Nelson Sparkes, is buried in that cemetery. He died of hydrophobia having been bitten by a rabid dog. He was 14 years old. 

Schooling was co-educational. You were taught the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) plus how to sew and knit, help with cooking, wild berry picking in the forest…basically you learned to survive as an added extra to your academic studies. At sixteen, if you were bright enough, you were enrolled in a college to sit your Overseas Cambridge examination. A minimum of eight subjects to be examined in was the norm and a pass in English and Maths was compulsory or you failed the exam and had to take all eight subjects again. Wasting your time was not an option.

At the time of my joining the Homes, we had a cadet force complete with pipes and drums and real rifles. Holiday time was great. Not all children managed to go home for the holidays, but for the ones who stayed behind there was plenty to keep us occupied. We would be given sandwiches, told where we could go to for the day and warned to be back by 5 o’clock sharp. How we achieved this I’ll never know for not one of us had a watch. A favourite spot was the Riley valley. A beautiful place with the fast flowing river running past the fruit orchards on one bank. There were mango trees, peach and pineapple groves and a calm pool where we could have a swim. I am told that the Riley is now no more than a trickle. From Laidlaw to the Riley was about 3 miles downhill. It was quite a steep slope all the way down and an arduous climb back to the cottage. 

Kalimpong is a plateau and reasonably cool the year round. As such, during the hot season in the plains, tigers, usually female, would come up to Kalimpong. I would imagine that they went into the forest north of Laidlaw or beyond for obvious cover. During this time and until the tigers returned to the plains, we were never required to go out to collect firewood. On occasion, usually on a moonlit night, we would be woken from sleep to see a tigress and her cubs leisurely walking past our cottage. It was an awesome sight and one that I have never forgotten. Some education! 

The school day began with a muster of the boys and girls on the parade ground that was adjacent to the school. We assembled facing the Kanchenjanga massive and many other mountains forming a natural barrier guarding the Tibetan plateau from the Indian sub-continent. A magnificent panoramic view of some of the highest mountains in the world. The scene was especially spectular at the morning muster because of the early sun glistening on the peaks making the snow caps sparkle. In very bright sunshine, the reflections would make your eyes quite sore. You may think that a lot of us got rather blasé about the spectacle. Not so. Every old boy or girl I’ve spoken to remembers the sight, the grandeur and majesty of the mountains they faced.

The school day started and ended with a short prayer. Pupils were encouraged to read the Bible daily. The prize of a new Bible was given to any pupil who could recite the books of the two Testaments in the correct order. Erin, my niece, has my prize, presented to her on her first communion day. Miss Reeves, my housemother at Laidlaw would have approved.

Schooling was really enjoyable, especially so when you had a few friends you related to. I remember Helen Brown and Barbara Ridgeway sitting behind me and Ken Rose and Piggy Grant in the front row. Of the senior boys I remember Ronnie Edwards, Gilbert Speed, Charlie Weedle and Charlie Braid, and Denis Brogan, and a couple of the Princewright brothers, Larry Jarman, and the Paceys, my cousins. I enjoyed my schooldays at the Homes. Discipline was expected from you and indeed enforced, but never in a heavy-handed manner. Bullying was not tolerated and bullies soon found, to their dismay that they were called upon to explain their actions by an elder boy like Gilbert Speed who was built like a Sherman tank. Repeat offenders were usually expelled.

After school we would walk back to the cottage and indulge ourselves on what the forest had to offer…dog strawberries and raspberries which were quite abundant. We would capture elephant beetles and all those sorts of things that little boys gather and then exchange with their friends. On arrival at the cottage we would be given our chores to carry out. My first job was to clear the drains of leaves and then, with a bunch of other boys, go into the forest to collect firewood. At the height of the berry season we would be given buckets to collect raspberries. The berries would then be sent to the hospital to be made into ice-creams and jams and distributed to the cottages. A lovely treat and great fun picking. In autumn, while gathering wood we would be in awe of a tree called “the flame of the forest” whose leaves were flaming red. Then, back to the cottage, dinner, homework, prayers and then to an early bed. Reveille was at 6.00am. We had to make our beds, clean the dormitory, polish the wooden floors and then collect our uniform for the day. We then had a meagre breakfast, usually porridge and a bit of fruit or bread. After a short break we set off to school in groups for safety reasons.

As I mentioned earlier, Saturday was sports day. When we first arrived at the Homes, a couple of senior boys asked my brother and myself whether we could swim. We said we could not. Off to the baths they took us and promptly threw us into the deep end. Very effective unless of course if you drowned. But, we learned to swim in one lesson. As the pipes and drums interested me, I was given lessons after school in the pipes and drums and dreamed that one day I would play in the band. The cadets marched to all the Scottish marching tunes. The sight of precision marching by our cadets to the tune of Bonnie Dundee is something I will never forget. It has to be one of the most endearing memories of my stay at Kalimpong. I was taken out of the Homes in 1949. 

My parents decided to send me to La Martinierre, Calcutta, as a day-scholar. There are two other schools of the same name, one at Lucknow, and the other at Lyon in France. La Martinierre, Luckmow, is the only school in the world that has its own Battle Honours, the boys having defended the Viceregal residency during the Indian mutiny. La Marts, as we boys called the schools, was founded by Claude Martin, a high ranking and very wealthy officer in the French army. He fought against the British in India, but when hostilities ended he offered his services to the British. His ambition to build educational institutions in India and France was soon fulfilled given his enormous wealth. Quite a few boys and girls from Kalimpong would sit for their Senior Cambridge exams at La Marts, Calcutta. It was always a matter of joy that boys from the Homes would swipe the swimming trophies. 

Having been tutored in my formative years in the most congenial of environments, I found adapting to city life rather intolerable. The soul needs something other than education, education, education! One beautiful sunny day, a friend and I decided to do a bit of fishing in the small lake that was close to the girls’ school. Unfortunately for us the Headmistress spotted us, complete with caps and blazers playing hookie. We got six of the best at the girls’ school and more of the same by our housemaster. All the contact sports were played and there was lots of competition with other schools especially in rugby and boxing. Boxing, by the way, was used as a means of controlling fights between boys. You went to the games master who fitted you with oversized gloves and allowed to have a three minute punch-up after which he would declare a draw. The boys would usually become friends after that. 

Then, in 1951, I was sent to Bishop Westcott, Namkum, Ranchi. Westcott was immediately adjacent to the Eastern Command headquarters of the Indian Army, Bihar. Back in a countryside location was fine by me. I thought it strange that there was barbed-wire all around the school grounds but very soon realised that it was there to keep the boys off army property and not the other way around. On nights when the moon was in semi-lune mode we would go scrumping for fruit and sweetcorn by the pillow- case full. One night we were caught. We were brought before the headmaster in the morning wondering how he knew who went on the raid as none of us were asked our names by the guards. The Headmaster pointed out that our names were on our pillowcases and that he was going to cane us, not for scrumping, but for stupidity! In future raids we always took someone else’s pillow-case.

I sat for and passed my Senior Cambridge exams in 1953 and in the same year won the United Nations essay competition on that organisation. My prize was a very martial collection of books, all about war, from an organisation promoting peace. Ironic.

Then on to a naval dockyard apprenticeship. At the interview following the entrance exam for the apprenticeship, one of the panel remarked about the Homes, Kalimpong. He said that quite a few boys from Kalimpong had served their apprenticeships at the Garden Reach workshops and he hoped I would make `thorough` use of my time. “Report to the foreman on Monday morning, 7am sharp” I did and never regretted it. 

June 2006, I will be 70 years of age, and my treat will be to go to the Homes for a much yearned for visit, especially to my old cottage, Laidlaw, and of course the most beautiful surroundings I’ve ever known.

More articles
   Lyonpo's Speech
   Robert Harding's Memories
   Thuten Kesang's Birthday trip.
   Robert Street's Journey
   Memories of Kalimpong - Pat Hardie
   A brief History - Pat Hardie
   Dr Kalaam's Speech
   Miss Prentice's Pictures
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