Soham Grammarians : The Boarding House 1946-72

History of the Boarding House 1946-71
On the Boarding House (based on recollections 1957-1963): WHD 1972
Some Boarding House photos: Mrs Armitage

History of the Boarding House 1946-72

The history of the Boarding House was begun by James Faircliffe, one of the original eight boarders, in one of those periods after Summer examinations were over and time hung delightfully on boys' hands. The following are extracts from his account of the first five years: -

At the School Speech Day in the Spring Term of 1946 the Headmaster announced a scheme he had for starting a boarding house for a small number of boys. Outlining the plan, he offered part of his large house and stated that he and Mrs. Armitage would assume responsibility for the welfare of the boys during the week. One of his main arguments for the idea was that the boys would be able to acclimatise themselves to a communal life being taken from their home atmosphere for long periods at a time, as they were at a full-time boarding school.

The scheme was backed up by the Cambridgeshire Education Committee and received a great deal of support from parents. Competition to get boys in at the start was keen. I was one of the original boys and although I admit that at the time I regarded it as a rather doubtful privilege I would like to say how much I appreciated all the advantages that have become so obvious to me as I have grown older.

We were chosen from various forms and represented a more-or-less random cross-section of the school both in work and in games and I remember standing in the study, looking at the rest of the boarders and wondering how I would get on with them all; feeling, to tell the absolute truth, slightly bewildered. There was Routledge, a six-former, who would obviously be the 'boss'. Next in seniority to him were Ward and Whetstone in Lower VA and Leggett in Lower VB. From IVA there was myself. Equal in standing to me was Nunn from IVB and last, but by no means least, came Bullman and Williamson from IIIA. This distinguished (?) company was to start the new boarding house.

An immediate problem arose concerning the time at which we were to go to bed. There were several reasons why we could not all go to bed at once, perhaps the most important being that it would be very undignified for a member of the Sixth Form, such as Routledge was, to go to bed at the same time as the smaller fry! Other reasons were against this arrangement, also, of course, such as the fact that there were only three wash-basins to accommodate the eight boys.

These and other considerations caused the Headmaster to divide us into two groups, the Seniors and the Juniors. The four seniors were Routledge, Ward, Whetstone and Leggett and the four juniors Nunn, Bullman, Williamson and myself. It was decided that the juniors were to go to bed at 8.15 and the seniors at 8.45. Being a junior at the time I knew very little about the senior arrangements, but as far as we were concerned there were quarrels over who should wash last and so gain an extra few minutes. Looking back, this seems senseless but it was important at the time.

After numerous small difficulties were ironed out we gradually settled down to a more or less fixed routine and at this point it might be well to mention the general arrangements of the boarding house, such as its time-table and provision for recreation, always remembering that we were in the experimental stage. The time-table showed that we should get up at half past seven, have breakfast at eight, and leave for school at eight-thirty. After school we arrived home at a quarter to four, had afternoon tea at four o'clock, then indulged in what the timetable loosely termed 'recreation' until six. We then had high tea, after which we did homework until eight o'clock. We then had supper and went to bed.

Present boarders will read with incredulity that even the Seniors were in bed by 8.45 p.m.! The next term a new boarder joined. His name was Lack and from his very first day he exerted a profound influence (for good, let me add) on the boarding house and it was a great disappointment to all of us when four years later he emigrated with his parents to Australia. (Lack returned some ten years later with wife and two children to stay as guests of the Headmaster and Mrs. Armitage on the occasion of one of the Summer Fairs).

Another alteration which was brought into effect at the beginning of the summer term 1947 was the later bed-times. The juniors were given until a quarter to nine and the seniors until a quarter past nine.' (Progress indeed!). 'With the coming of the darker evenings (in Autumn 1947) Lack introduced chess into the boarding house. This was more difficult than it sounds as most of us at the time were not in the least interested in chess, and did not hesitate to say so. Chess men were (accidentally?) knocked over, and a rival group of boarders would serenade the would-be players. Perhaps the atmosphere was best summed up by the Headmaster in the "Boarders' Notes" for the term, when he recorded that "Lack introduced chess into an unresponsive medium".

Bonnett then joined us in January 1947 and took a long time to settle down, probably because he was one new boy amongst so many "old stagers", but eventually he proved a most valuable asset. He took up chess with considerable success and this raised the number of keen players to four, including the Headmaster. Between us we improved our standard of play considerably and managed to beat Cromwell House in a match.

The Boarding House is of course The Moat and until 1958, when the Village College was built on the adjacent land, there was a real moat. The moat has become known to the Boarders as a place to be avoided at all costs. A great many boarders have fallen into it at one time or another; it seems to attract us like a magnet. Indeed, to leave the Boarding House without having come into contact with the moat at some time or another seems an impossibility and many will retain visions of its slimy depths for some time to come. At least three Boarders have fallen completely in, these being Whetstone, Leggett and Burgess. Whetstone almost fell in a second time.

Further extracts are now given from the continuation of the history by Malcolm Watson and Geoffrey Burton.

It was at the end of the fifth year that the Boarding House lost Faircliffe, who had set up a record, which will take some years to be beaten or even equalled. He was at the Boarding House for five full years and was a "founder member". In point of fact Faircliffe's 'record', like most records, did not stand for very long and Alan Register beat it by being a boarder for the whole of his school life of eight years from 1953 to 1961 while Simon Thornhill the present and last Head of the Boarding House has also been a boarder for the whole of his life at school - 1965 to 1972.

When the number of boarders was increased to fourteen the whole House had to be reorganised and split up into completely different units. Three seniors, as Bonnett so aptly put it once in the Magazine "rose to great heights, indeed, they rose completely off the ground floor and were installed in a new dormitory on the first floor" where they have remained ever since.

The spring term sees the advent of cross-country. Watson spent many interesting evenings "wallowing in glorious mud" all the way round the course. He was considered to have passed the entrance examination for the mental home by his dormitory, but was able to bring the Norman Cup to them at the end of the term. Utteridge, incidentally, was successful in being placed 115th. (Probably out of 115!)

The Boarders set up a tradition of being well represented in all school activities. This time we again had a very large representation in the school sports teams. Docherty G's performance this year is probably a record for post-war years. Certainly no one can do more than be a regular member of every team the school has; in football, cricket, athletics and cross-country. He and Yarrow AG, reached the final of the tennis championships, which could not be played owing to rain. Burton was outstanding in getting cricket colours. Watson and Elton were both in the House Plays at Christmas and Watson played minor parts in what was probably the most successful production ever staged at school - The Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie. (Successful, yes, but by no means the most successful production ever staged).

For a short time at the end of this term Mr. Lawrance kindly ran the Boarding House during the Headmaster's absence owing to a family bereavement in Yorkshire. Mr. Lawrance's first night was marked by a broken window. The instrument was the cricket ball and Herod the source of power. We were all grateful for the time given by Mr. Lawrance to "keep the lions in" and hoped he enjoyed his stay as much as we did. This was by no means Mr. Lawrance's only spell as resident master and the Headmaster pays tribute to the ready way in which Mr. Waller and Mr. Hart as well as Mr. Lawrance all readily stood in for the Headmaster on various occasions.

Mention should be made of the many sets of brothers to have been boarders: Arthur and Graham Docherty were the first pair followed by Malcolm and Jeffrey Watson and Tony and Alan Yarrow. Alan Register was joined by David and Richard and all three brothers were members of the Boarding House together and it was perhaps in their day that the sporting prowess of the boarders reached its height in football, cricket, table tennis and darts. Howie Docherty, much younger than his brothers, was never in the boarding house with them but the Docherty family join the Register family in having had three brothers as boarders. Had Soham Grammar School and the Boarding House continued in existence it is more than possible that even this record might have been surpassed had a present boarder, Robert Wiseman, been joined by his three younger brothers.

Watson continues: The moat, of intimate interest to every boarder, has been made almost unrecognisable to those who knew it as a shallow, very muddy, reed filled channel. It is now (1954) a wide, deep, clear, stream with quite sheer sides, owing to the work of a large and very noisy excavator, and the Headmaster has pleasure in recording that in the two winters that followed he was able to enjoy occasional skating on it.

This Christmas was important for me as I was due to have my tonsils removed. This extraction would prove or disprove a theory held by Mrs. Armitage that my unfailing winter colds were due to the tonsils being diseased. This is, I think, a good place in this work to record my gratitude (and, I am sure that of all the others, who have had the misfortune to fall ill while at "The Moat") for Mrs. Armitage's unstinting sacrifice of her own comfort, to look after anyone sick. Even so, I shall always remember with a shudder that foul, brown inhalant, which was at one time the "cure all" for anyone with a trace of a sniffle.

The Boarding House changed very little this term except for the resignation of Mrs. Collins, our resident cook, owing to ill health. Now, in the interests of historical accuracy, it must be confessed that though this was the reason given to the boarders it was not the real reason which was that having entered the same pattern of crosses and ones and twos on Vernon's 12 Results for many years, one of her 'lines' came 'up' and she won considerably over £1,000 and promptly bought a house with it (you could in those days!) in Cambridge, and retired!

Again the moat crops up: Strangely enough the moat claimed only one victim this term - a visiting tennis player from the Sixth Form. Perhaps it was the change in its state of affairs. I wonder if this is just to be one of many changes to effect what will, I suppose, be called progress. Will the moat ever lose its magnetic power upon all who live within its bounds? I for one have a distinct reputation for being one of the leading "Fishermen", and would be more than sorry to learn of such a change. It is with regret that I now come to the close of seven years as a pupil at Soham Grammar School, five of which have been spent at the Boarding House. I suppose everybody refrains from thinking about such a time as this so long as they are able, but when it arrives they are filled with very mixed feelings - so it is with me. I shall be advancing one stage further in my education but I shall always think of Soham Grammar School, and the Boarding House in particular, is the "throwing and turning" of my character and channels of thought to be "glazed and fired" during the forthcoming years.

The story is taken up by Geoffrey Burton; It was one dark morbid afternoon in November of 1952 that a rather shy, nervous boy tentatively walked up a driveway which was to lead him from one world into another - the stairway which opened to him, and many others like him in years to come, the way to a fuller and more educated life. That shy, nervous boy was me; but this is not my story, it is the story of the place at the end of that drive where I passed six happy and fruitful years.

The Boarding House and its occupants make a colourful story and I shall, to the best of my ability, try to re-create some of the happy and interesting incidents during my stay there, that time will never erase from the memory. The boarders come and go but the "Moat" (the Boarding House) remains unchanged - this is the story of a house with character in every brick. The memory of the house will still dominate even when the memory of some of those who have passed through it will be slightly blurred. How Jane Austen would have done justice to it!

We all look forward to the Summer term. It is a term when the pent up emotions of the Winter evenings confined indoors can be let off. Cricket can be played on the lawn and feverish work is done on the tennis court to make it playable. There are, however, a few hardships to be endured. The gardening "squads" usually need several reminders before they apply themselves to their tasks, and Mrs. Armitage has to put on her fiercest countenance to obtain recruits for blackcurrant picking. But it is significant in passing, to mention how speedily Hallam and Painter would rush into the strawberry patch to fetch misguided (?) cricket balls, and how long it took them to retrieve it.

It must be recorded that the Headmaster participated in all our sporting activities (sorry, he declined an invitation to canter round the Horse-Fen) and was able to emerge victorious from most of them. He even donned the role of coach and desperately tried to make a cricketer out of Elton - much to Guiver's disgust. Both Elton and myself fought out a close contest in the final of the school tennis tournament and it was an achievement for the boarders to provide both contestants in the final for the second year running. Lack of space precludes any further selection of extracts and the intervening period to the present time must be skipped with only a passing reference to colourful personalities like Crowe, Elton, Guiver, Hallam and Herod (always a pair), Gothard, Bull, Wade, Wheeler, Quicke, Ewer, Grainger and Wilderspin.

The present boarders, whose photograph appropriately appears in the History of the School, are as colourful a set of boarders as any of the previous years. The moat may have gone but the Headmaster's accurate slow bowling is still too much for the cricketing juniors. Simon Thornhill, a true original in more than one sense, has been a fine Head of House, James Roberts comments loftily and acidly on the passing scene and Vincent Gudgeon is the best undiscovered fast bowler who retired too early from the game.

The juniors are nearly if not quite as good as their immediate predecessors at Twenty Questions but do possess a record which perhaps they are proud of even if the Headmaster is not of being the most persistent talkers after lights-out.

(please click on image for a larger version with key)
source: School History

Let these last Boarders' Notes finish with a quote from the Headmaster on boarders past and present:

"I have loved them all and I shall miss them all'.

On the Boarding House (based on recollections 1957-1963)

Our family benefited from about 15 years spent at the Boarding House. Since there were ten years between my elder brothers and myself I can only speak for six of them. However, I feel certain that my brothers would endorse the sentiments behind the statements if not the facts, since it was at their instigation that I attended. Should these notes find their way into the Magazine I realise that there, will only be a minority audience. However, I wonder how many of that élite remember ....

Initiation - an institution which had disappeared by the time I left the Boarding House. I remember how knowing looks from old hands had me quaking in my shoes for the first two evenings. The subtlety was in allowing each new boy at least two full days to consider the impending ordeal and expand it out of all proportion in his own mind.

Duties and Instant Obedience - As a junior one had certain menial tasks which included gardening and laying tables. Also it was quickly impressed upon one that any boy who was in any way one's senior could demand and expect instant obedience. The result of questioning this was invariably a cleaning exercise involving the whole of the senior dormitory's shoes.

Cricket on the lawn - On a glorious summer evening the wickets would be placed so that H.M.'s windows were completely safe from any wild hooks. What was overlooked was that J. Goddard of Wilburton was a cultured cross-batted left-hander and he considered his innings incomplete without a hook over backward short leg which would smash against the house. A square hook through the green­house was for mere beginners.

Christmas Parties - These can be best remembered for one main occurrence. The games invented (and controlled) by H.M. I remember the year in which I managed to discover the key to two such games. 'I open these scissors, I close these scissors and I pass them over to you'. I wonder how many if confronted with that again would still watch the Old Man's other hand?

The Art of Gamesmanship - in front of the whole school the Headmaster would roundly declare, 'It is not the winning but the taking part'. What a different story we could tell. By the mechanics of some of his own house rules the winner of any league whether snooker, table tennis or darts was faced with automatic challenge by H.M. This seemed acceptable but the fact that he invariably won did not. Especially since we boys had plenty of practice (as Messrs. Lawrance and Riley were only too eager to point out) while the Old Man only played these infrequent challenge matches.

A theory that was supported for some time and first mooted I believe by one of the Registers (a fair bet anyway, since there were so many of them) was that his son Robin gave him about eight hours' practice every Saturday and Sunday. However, unfortunately too late, I realised that it was by using his adequate skill as a player plus his more than adequate skill in gamesmanship that pulled him through.

I could write much more about The Moat. It certainly influenced my life. It taught me in an informal and very practical way to accept other people's authority and at the same time how to use my own responsibility. It was an exercise in community living. I am sure that it was because I had been at The Moat for six years that on going to university I had it said to me 'I thought you must have gone to a public school'. The school must take the credit for that statement having been made. The same thoughts were probably echoed about many boys who left Soham Grammar School.

Although I have gone on at length, I cannot finish without mentioning 'Mrs. A'. When one begins to raise one's own family one can appreciate how much she did. At various times in one's life at The Moat she would be mother, nurse, tutor, advisor and advocate. To her and the Headmaster I should like to say on behalf of all Boarders of whatever era: 'Thank you both and all our sincerest Best Wishes from 1973 onwards.'

W.H.D., from the Soham Grammarian 1972

These photos came via Mrs Armitage - would those involved please identify themselves and the date?


L-R: Bonnett, James Faircliffe, Ward, Tony Lack, Whetstone, David Leggett?, Peter Bullman

year: 1948?

source: James Faircliffe



C: According to Robert Hinze (1952) the lone figure in this picture is
David Crowe (1952) who went on to play for the 1st XI
David Crowe on 29 Dec 11 wrote: Robert Hinze is right - the lone figure in the picture is me, probably about 1956. Unfortunately, in spite of the excellent demonstration here of a drive through mid wicket on the Boarding House lawn, I never made the First XI (although I was captain of the Second XI in my last year, 1959-60, and RAT did say to me once, coaching me on the forward defensive stroke, that he wished he had recognised my talent earlier in my school career because he 'could have made something of me'!).


Nick Grainger '61' writes: I was a boarder at The Moat from 63-67 with my great friend of those days Tim Ewer. We got to know the Armitages very well. I'm pretty sure I took pictures E and F. I was pretty keen on photography in those days and developed and printed all my own pics in the small workroom at the back of the upstairs Physics Lab which I made into a darkroom.


Nick Grainger '61': Photo E was probably taken in about 1966. Sorry but I can't identify for sure any of the boys, except the tall character on the extreme right, that is Alan Gathercole. But the boy bending over in the foreground I think was Robert Plumb, the character in the middle with his hand on his head looks like Stephen Quick, and I suspect the two on the tennis court are Oaksey and Tim Ewer. I don't have any contact with Tim Ewer these days but I'm pretty certain he's still working as a medical GP near Motueka, in the north of New Zealand's South Island [the editor has located Tim's address from the NZ White Pages and given this to Nick].

29 Dec 11 David Crowe 52 wrote: The picture of the tennis court at The Boarding House does remind me of the time that, as a punishment for talking to some girls 'out of bounds' one evening, I was ordered by the then head of the House (David Elton, I think it was) to roll the court for a whole term. In spite of this I still regularly enjoy my games of tennis, 55 years on, so perhaps the punishment had a beneficial effect on my love affair with the game (but certainly curtailed any potential love affair with the aforementioned girls).


Robert Hinze writes: The window was from a 2 bed  "seniors" dorm. At some stage this exit was used after lights out by persons unknown to escape into town to go to the milk bar in the village centre (enough said!)

Nick Grainger: I also took picture 'F', someone going in or out of the window - yes I'm afraid this was a regular entrance and exit both in and out of hours
... I have a recollection that the character half in/out of the window is Robin Baldry, and the young chap is Robert Drew? Robin would have been in the 5th form in 66 I think, and Robert in the 1st or 2nd form.

3 May 10 Simon Thornhill 65 provides these photos:

Tim Ewer playing tennis on Mr Armitage's tarmac court at The Moat, probably against Nick Grainger

Junior dormitory at bed-time. In the top bunk is David Plumb and below is Simon Blower, probably 1966

At The Moat in the garden. Charlie Maschke is "treating" Simon Blower, David Plumb and Vincent Gudgeon to his violin playing.
(It was not good as you can see by their poses!).

Again at The Moat, probably in 1966 is Vincent Gudgeon (L), Charlie Maschke (M) and Richie Armitage (R)
enjoying Mr Armitage's sunchair on the lawn. It seems there was only one ice lolly to go round and Charlie was the senior boy!

25 Oct 19: Simon Thornhill: We were well looked after. There was a dining room and resident cook. We had a full cooked breakfast on Tuesdays to Fridays, a big cooked dinner after school and late evening snacks, too, as I recall. We had a large games room with billiard table and we were allowed the use of the extensive garden and tennis court. I had a tortoise which lived in the garden so some pets (eg stick insects and caged mice) were allowed but not dogs and cats.

Bedtimes were strictly observed and Mr. Armitage would come round each dormitory in turn every evening to chat or read to us and turn out the light. Occasionally we would be allowed into his lounge to watch TV if something special was on. We did manage to persuade him to let us watch Monty Python's Flying Circus on a regular basis too. Corona was delivered each week to one of the cottages behind The Moat and we would go to collect it and return the empty bottles. I seem to recall that it cost about 1/- with a 3d return on the empty bottle.

25 Oct 19 Vince Gudgeon: I have a slight disagreement to Simon’s version in that the downstairs dormitory which predominantly took the newcomers had six beds, whereas the upstairs ones had three each.  It meant that as the dormitory was along a commonly used corridor, and nearer to the Armitages' quarters, it was easier for May to keep an eye on the younger members.

This is something which with the advantage of hindsight has left the greatest impression on me.  The extent to which Edward and May were prepared to disrupt their own lives in the interest of us boys was remarkable.  As Simon said, Edward spent well over an hour every evening going round all the dormitories , chatting, reading, playing various games.  Twenty Questions was a particular favourite as I recall.

He would always have breakfast with us.  On Summer evenings he was happy to come out and play cricket with us on the lawn.  The standing bet was that if we could get him out first ball it would be ice creams all round from the ‘Milky Way’ up on Red Lion Square.  I achieved this feat once!

It was about as far removed from a boarding school environment as you could imagine with May taking on the role of 'Mother' to the youngsters and Edward providing the ‘Father Figure’ for the older ones, keeping us all on the straight and narrow. In all it provided a very happy family atmosphere.

As Simon recounts, we were allowed certain privileges as we got older and could watch Monty Python on TV for instance.  All ages were allowed to watch special events like the European Cup and the Moon landings.

I even remember them taking us to the cinema in Newmarket one evening in 1968 to see the film The Charge of the Light Brigade  (I have to admit, I didn’t remember the year, I had to look that one up) but I remember the occasion vividly.

It may in some sense seem that we were very restricted compared to boys living at home, but it never seemed that way as we always had plenty of friends to play with and access to things that most children didn’t, like a full size snooker table in a large games room where there were also darts and an assortment of board games.

Simon was (and probably still is) the proud owner of a theodolite which we used to use for stargazing.  I remember we spent an entire autumnal Thursday night convinced we were tracking a UFO across the sky.  Only much later did we come to the conclusion that it was probably a satellite, may actually have been a (very slow) UFO though, you never know.

At one point the snooker table was being refurbished and the huge slate top (full size) was resting on its edge against the wall in the games room.  I can’t remember the exact details but we encouraged Ritchie Armitage (who was a year or two younger than us) to have a look behind it for some reason.  As he did so, he upset the delicate balance of the slate and it fell with an almighty crash to the floor, cracking the slate in the process.  You can imagine the weight of it, and if it had caught him it would certainly have broken a limb if not killed him.  Health and Safety wasn’t as prevalent then!

Oddly, I also recall something that really only applied to the younger boarders (or perhaps it was just me) but every morning we had to ‘run the gauntlet’ so to speak, through the children coming to the Village College in large numbers down College Road.  Wearing our short trousers we were an easy target for mockery but we soon learned to give as good as we got.

Simon and I have since had the opportunity through the kindness of Anne Jarman to revisit the Boarding House and although there have been many structural changes to what was our side of the house, we could still determine where everything used to be.  It was rather like doing a jigsaw with some of the pieces missing but we were pleased to see it again and Anne was interested to know how the house was configured during our time there.

I only wish I had appreciated it then as much as I do now.

see also Vince Gudgeon and Simon Thornhill on the last days of the Boarding House, in the report on the 2012 Reunion talk 40 Years On

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last updated 29 Dec 11: 25 Oct 19