In summoning up remembrance of things past, after more than fifty years, what I recall most vividly is the journey by rail from Ely to Soham, long since discontinued. In my five years at Soham, I must have made the return journey nearly a thousand times. The little train on the branch line to Newmarket carried boys from Ely and neighbouring villages, including those who made the double journey by rail from Littleport or on the 'Grunty Fen Express'. The train, without a corridor and unheated, was made up of the oldest rolling-stock the G.E.R. (later the L.N.E.R.) could muster.
It is true that rusty footwarmers, slung into the carriages at Ely by surly porters, were provided in frosty weather, but few of us smaller boys were able to get near enough to one to warm our frozen feet. One boy in particular, I remember, short and stocky but immensely strong, saw to it that no one shared his foot-warmer. He had an amiable habit of forcing new boys to ride in the luggage-rack or under the seat while he jumped on it just above the wretched victim's prone body. We were delighted when his father (a pig-farmer, I believe) withdrew him from school at the age of fourteen.
In summer, of course, the journey could be delightful. The train had an inexplicable habit of stopping half-way at Barway (perhaps the driver wanted a chat with the crossing-keeper) and then all the warmth and quietude of the summer seemed to spread in ceaseless waves around the stationary train.
Although the journey took only fifteen or twenty minutes, it was long enough for most of us, with a little collaboration, to get one homework at least out of the way, and the long walk from Soham Station to the School allowed time for 'learning' to be committed to memory. I found this a great convenience. Moreover, our comparatively late arrival meant that we missed assembly, and went straight to our lessons. Indeed, the only assemblies we attended were those at the end of term.
I should like to add here a note on the House system of the time. The boys were assigned territorially to Ely, Soham and Newmarket Houses, a method that encouraged a real corporate unity that I think was lost when it was perforce abandoned after my time. There was certainly a very strong corporate feeling among us boys who travelled by train.
My experience of the journey by train was interrupted in the first year following the Great War by a series of railway strikes, symbolic of the growing industrial unrest and economic troubles that quickly succeeded the euphoria induced by the Armistice. A few months before my first term, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles had ensured that the Second World War would follow. We schoolboys were as ignorant of this implication as were most statesmen of the time, and in any case we ran our heedless ways.
What would win the Derby seemed far more important, with Newmarket boys to give us stable advice (race days at Newmarket, by the way, meant overcrowded trains when we were obliged to stand). We were far more concerned with the chances of the idol of the British boxing public, Bombardier Billy Wells, against a handsome French light-heavyweight and far more deeply distressed when our idol assumed in the boxing ring the horizontal position which became the familiar attitude of British heavyweights in the years to follow. 'I'm forever blowing bubbles', a pop song of the time, became the signature tune of the twenties.
There were still two women on the Staff, soon to be replaced by ex-Servicemen, when I began my school career at Soham; one was young, with raven hair and olive complexion, who blushed easily and vividly, exciting the amorous interest of the older boys, of whom there were very few, as the School at that time numbered less than a hundred; the other, an older woman, was maternal and benevolent, and we smaller boys adored her.
We were vaguely aware of a crisis in the School's affairs in the early twenties, but did not realise till later how heroically and successfully the then Headmaster, J. Clement Platt, had worked to preserve its existence as a Grammar School. I assume the critical time came when the School underwent a lengthy and rigorous General Inspection. The only recollection I have of this is a French lesson when one of the Inspectors exercised his favourite ploy of distinguishing the French vowels 'en' and 'on' to a point of hysteria.
My last recollection as a scholar of S.G.S. is of the traditional Sports Day which ended the school year. Ely House had by then become numerically too strong for either of the other Houses and we won an overwhelming victory. I have in front of me as I write my last train season ticket, with the date '21 July 1924'. It marks very decisively for me the closing of the door on my boyhood.
It is the fashion now for trendy TV personalities and writers to decry their schooldays, and to be applauded by sycophantic studio audiences when they say with pompous self-satisfaction that they got nothing from their education. They would of course ridicule the once popular expression that schooldays are the happiest days of one's life. For me, it is true: I owe much to my years at Soham Grammar School.
from the final issue of the Soham Grammarian, Summer 1972