The School was founded by Lionel Helbert in 1897, and was finally closed in 1988, surviving for 91 years. During this time there were only three owners cum headmasters, and an inter-regnum following the death of the founder, when Walter Brymer was in charge for a while. Another thing that contributed much to the school’s success was the great length of time many of the Staff stayed there, quite a few serving over forty years.
Lionel Helbert had had a brilliant academic career at Winchester, and did fairly well at Oxford, but not as well as he might, for he had many friends with whom he socialised, was a superb actor and an equally superb musician.
In 1893 he got a job as a Clerk in the House of Commons, where he once again made many friends. He became attracted to the idea of running a school for boys aged 8 to 13 – an English Prep School, for he always felt that he and his family had a debt to pay to the young, and he had done some tutoring jobs during the Commons vacations, and found an aptitude for the work.
After much searching he and his sister, Lady Goodrich, heard of some deserted school buildings on the hill leading westward out of Winchester. This had been purpose built for another Prep School about ten years before, most of the funds for that venture being provided by Lord Northbrook, formerly Viceroy of India. That school had folded after only a few years, and a second school, Westfields, a day school for the sons of local tradesmen, had likewise not lasted long. The omens were not very good. He started there with three boys in 1897, and soon was able to build up his numbers, frequently from the sons of those he had known while working in the House of Commons.
Helbert took a great personal interest in each of his charges. In many cases he got to know them by staying with the parents for a few days before he took their names onto his list. He related so well with young children that the mothers would not hear of their little boys going anywhere else but West Downs.
He did not take a fixed form, as later on Tindall did, which would have tied him down too much, but he took each form himself as often as he could, so that he was perfectly aware of the progress each boy was making, and was able to encourage or reproach each child as might be needed. He also knew that boys develop as much in their idle moments as in their working ones, and he encouraged them to dream and to play.
This system allowed him to take occasional days off during term in order to visit the families of potential pupils.
He wrote an enormous number of letters to the parents, especially when a boy was ill or in need of some sort of special attention. Some of these have been preserved, and one can see how frequently he wrote, sometimes twice a day, during those special times.
Occasionally he would give the whole school a break in the countryside. They would load up the carts with picnics, and go off to the downs. Sometimes they went further afield. One such holiday would occur on his birthday, which was 13th June. Another was Trafalgar Day, 21st October.
During the war, some of the boys heard about scouting, which had been started by Baden Powell about ten years before. The father of one of the boys was one of BP’s Commissioners, and Helbert was persuaded to try Scouting out. Never half-hearted about things he did he converted the whole system of the School to a Scouting basis, dividing the school into five patrols, which is how it stayed till the very end, though not all the patrol names lasted that long. I think Buffaloes, Hounds, Owls and Stags lasted the course: it was just the Wolves that became the Eagles and later the Curlews, with a little judicious reallocating of the boys on each change. Helbert said that one of the great advantages of running the school as a permanent Scout Troop was that it gave an equal emphasis to every boy, not just to the games-minded and the academic ones.
The first world war affected him very greatly, for so many of his former young charges lost their lives, and many of the excellent staff whom he had gathered around him were away. He became very depressed, and was physically very badly affected: he died on 8th November 1919.
Wilfred Brymer was on the staff, and Lady Goodrich offered him the Headmastership. He refused because he was in line to inherit a substantial estate in Dorset, and he believed that a squire had duties to his village, and should be there. He did however remain as Head until Kenneth Tindall was appointed, and then stayed on further until KT was established and had learnt the ropes.
Kenneth Tindall continued as closely as possible with the Helbert traditions, for many of his charges were the younger brothers or sons of the earlier West Downs boys. KT was a superb actor and an equally superb producer of plays, and so he produced an open-air Shakespeare Play each Summer Term, and, for over twenty years, a Masters’ Play in the Winter, in which nearly all the staff took part, only W.H. Ledgard who taught at WD for fifty years refusing to have anything to do with them.
Both Helbert and Tindall produced an extraordinary number of boys who were to have very distinguished careers. Mark Hichens’ book lists these in great detail.
On the outbreak of war in 1939 the school buildings were requisitioned, and KT had very quickly to find somewhere for the school to go, as the term was due to open in a few weeks. They went to Glenapp Castle, the home of the Mackays (Inchcape), near Stranraer on the South West corner of Scotland. It wasn’t entirely suitable, so after a year a second move was made, this time to Blair Castle, Perthshire, on the railway line and main road through the Grampians, and the original home of the Dukes of Atholl.
Blair Atholl was the most marvellous place to have been at school. Those OWDs who were there all feel that they enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and that they were very lucky to be there. At least I hope they do. I know that some who were more games minded than myself were disappointed not to be going off to play in matches every Saturday, but then I am still fifty years later an outdoor pursuits instructor, and a very active one, so I was in my element.
Scouting flourished, and our knowledge of, and rapport with, the hills and forests, grew ever greater. We had Wide Games in the forests on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and nobody could ask for a better boyhood than that.
In 1946 we moved back to Winchester, and resumed these matches again. Luckily there was Melbury in which the livelier boys could enjoy themselves. We went back to having our summer Shakespeare Plays there. In 1954 Kenneth and Theodora Tindall retired, and the school was bought by the former Olympic Silver Medallist, J.F.Cornes, who had made a name for himself in the Colonial Service. He brought with him four sons, some of whom were young enough to become pupils at the School.
The number of scholarships won by West Downs boys and girls increased, and the performance at matches was good too. But the School went into a very long decline, not at all of its own making, but rather reflecting the spirit of the age. For parents nowadays prefer to have their boarding school children not too far away, so that they can be taken out for frequent exeats. Most of my generation saw our parents at West Downs once a year, during the Sports and Shakespeare Play weekend on about Midsummer’s Day.
Scouting went into a decline, as it has everywhere. Again, this is due to the rise and availability of other interests for children. Melbury was sold. There was a time, in 1980, when Jerry Cornes sent a circular to all OWDs saying that his godson Andrew Morrison had been appointed headmaster, and that the future of the School was guaranteed far into the next century. But there was a disagreement with Andrew, who left and became Head of a Prep School in Northumberland for a time, before taking up a Senior Appointment at Charterhouse, which he had left to come to West Downs.
On hearing news of the possible closure of the school, the OWD Society rallied round and put up huge pledges of money to buy it or move it to another building, or even, in desperation, to merge it with another school. But all the offers were refused by the Cornes family: It’s all a long story, and you will find it well told in the book about West Downs by Mark Hichens. The Archive Secretary has all the paperwork in his keeping.
On the last meeting at the School of the OWD Society, in 1988, Shakespeare was packed, and many of us had to stand throughout the proceedings. We had tried very hard to save the School, but had not been allowed by the Fates to succeed. It was a very sad occasion.
Membership and Archives Secretary