David Bacon recalls life in Bradford House in the 1970s. "It was a big shock to the system and a startling change of environment."
The End of an Era
Bradford House 1972-1978 The end of that and the beginning of this David and daughter Two things made me finally sit down, scratch my head and write this piece. A former teacher asked me at a reunion whether or not I had been happy at the school. Secondly, a school friend said that the experience had not really made much of an impression on his subsequent life. Not convinced that I was either happy or unhappy at KHS and certainly doubtful about my friend's claim, I have attempted to recall the place and my time there.
In 1972 I was a skinny kid running around a council estate on the industrial edges of Oxford. I lived on "Smash" and "Curley Wurleys". My mother had three boys and 8 pounds a week to live on the social security.
There was no father, or at least one that was around. It was a stressful and unhappy home. The new prosperity of the Cowley Car workers passed us by.
A couple of years earlier I had failed the 11 plus and was attending a secondary modern school. I was bright enough, liked reading and played an instrument. Not such an unusual circumstance you might say, but then in 1960's and early 70's Oxford it was relatively uncommon.
It was through a chance circumstance that a youth worker put my mother in touch with Kingham Hill School where boys like me with difficult home backgrounds and no direction might get a chance at a residential boarding school.
There would be square meals, a strict routine and a new life. When we had the interview and I was accepted, I jumped at the opportunity.
And so I entered Bradford House in Sept 1972 and fell into line with 27 other lads. It was a big shock to the system and a startling change of environment.
We were kitted out with uniform on the first day. We had to write home each Sunday when I would mention the routine, the early start, the hard beds; the house jobs; morning floor polishing, cleaning windows, or the plum job with the vacuum. I would write about the after school clubs, the music room that was open all hours, the long homework prep every night, the orchestra and amazing art room.
Bradford House was run by a young English teacher, Adrian "Joe" Underwood who brought ambitious theatre to the school stage and gave us in Bradford House, the reputation as the "arts house". Joe left us for promotion in 1975 and so arrived David Shepherd and his family. We were lucky in that transition. David Shepherd was another dynamic personality with his transatlantic, vaguely Jamaican accent and challenging English classes. It was exciting to be at school, with plenty to do and many new people to know.
The school in the 70's was much the same place as it had been for many decades. It was still the Spartan environment that the Founder had created. Everything was made of stone, leather, canvas, quarry tiles and old materials. The interiors were beautiful with wooden floors, high ceilings and open beam woodwork in the dorms. An oil furnace struggled to heat the large rooms delivering only a feeble warmth. The wash room and toilet areas in Bradford were the original 1904 fit out, including free standing cast iron baths, slate toilet cubicles and freezing, tile floors.. There was an overpowering stench of polish and shoes from the "boot room" when you entered the house.
It was a puzzling mix with its comprehensive intake, private school look and grammar school style. There was still a trace of the original "home for boys" and unhappy stories of boys without fathers, genteel poverty and loss. An indication of the tone of the school at that time could be found in the school rules. Haircuts allowed; short back and sides, modest length sideboards for 6 th formers and Chelsea boots (no Cuban heels). Boys wore grey shirts and drainpipe, wool flannel trousers. This was more the monochrome world of the early 60's than the Glam rock times in which we were living.
It was all very straight laced. Still, we tried to bend the rules with little rebellions of our own; smoking the odd No 6 ciggy and later on starting a homebrew cottage industry. Avoiding the dreaded barber's shed on Thursday was another crafty dodge.
We all lived together and the Common room was the heart of the house. It was a close knit world of friendships, rivalries, prep, reading, messing about and endless games of snooker on an ancient table.
Most regional British accents could be heard and the backgrounds of the boys were extraordinarily varied. Armed forces, clergy children alongside local authority sponsored boys and a few show biz ones thrown in too. There were the delicate and the confident, the peacemakers and the rebels. There were moments that were belly achingly funny and painfully sad. In the two common rooms we had chipboard partitioned sections running along the walls: "horse boxes." This was our tiny personal space, plastered with photos of stars, pin-ups and heroes cut from the newspaper. Everyone had a small transistor radio to tune into the chart music that was our release and link to the world outside. If you wanted to go, really let go you could always visit the wonderfully named Jazz cellar " and blast out the latest Who or Deep Purple album.
We rarely left the school itself .There were few incoming calls. Kingham Hill was a little world in itself, with its own slang and language. There was nothing apart from the radio and an occasional hour of TV that could connect you to the world outside. Everyone had a nick name and most things had alternative names. It was a bloke-ish world of sports and study. You had to muck in. House life was a "Big brother" experience in real life, only it went on for years.
Three hot meals a day were prepared "army "style by Reggie Ham and his team. It was classic stodgy English fare. His puddings and custard were legend as were his roasts. Garlic and olive oil had never seen that kitchen. Tea was prepared in huge, battered jugs with milk and sugar already added. It is difficult to describe just how hungry we were and the feeding frenzy that started when Grace had been said. Meals were noisy and quickly performed.
Life wasn't all pillow fights and raiding tuck boxes. It could be intense with so many teenagers in the house. There was a lot of being told what to do and petty seniority. There was no privacy at all. Dorms were out of bounds in the day and life took place in the common rooms. The banter could sometimes be unkind, over competitive, and in today's language, politically incorrect. You had to develop a thick skin or tactics to cover yourself. Sometimes things got out of hand. "Joe" had seen to it that the boys, especially the juniors were treated fairly. The house ran smoothly, all things considered and it helped that our Housemasters were on the ball.
Under the benign leadership of Teddie Cooper the school ticked along. He was enjoying the last years of his long Headship at that time. These last years of his "reign" were as easy going as he was. He loved his rugby and he loved to tell a humorous story. "Teddie" had, like most charismatic people, an extraordinary voice. He knew all the boys and their circumstances and was universally respected. The staff comprised of long serving teachers. Who will forget Penguin, Popeye, "Oh no" Donald, Daisy, Charlie and Gus to name a few? - great characters all. The school room atmosphere was traditional. Talk and chalk, lugging around text books and carefully measured margins penciled out in exercise books. No photocopies were available then, any duplicate material created on the Banda machines of the day. The first digital calculators were making their appearance as we were still learning to use slide rules. You could still get a whack on the backside for rudeness and we stood up when the teacher entered the room. The teachers were mostly older generation men who had grown up during the war and austerity years. It was a no nonsense regime. In all, Kingham Hill was a long way from the trendy comprehensives that were in full swing at the time.
And so, 6 years later, I left school with decent A levels and a University place. Mum was proud and the school had delivered the academic goods for me. However, I entered a vastly different world to the one I had been schooled in. It was 1978, a crunch year with the beginning of the first long term recession since the War. All those corny school careers films we sat through, showing serious young men starting management trainee programs, seemed absurd and ridiculous.
I threw out my herringbone sports jacket and blended into the art college scene of the post punk era. After the conformity of Kingham Hill I needed to let go. I was green and buttoned up. For some time, it did not make sense what the legacy of the school was.
But after making your own life you then strike a deal with the past and recognize its valid place. Eventually, finding my feet, I became a design and technology teacher in central London. It was tough work but very rewarding. Many of the lessons I had learnt at Kingham came in useful during those years, especially memories of the styles of my favorite teachers.
I could recall Teddie Cooper saying; "What you don't put in, you can't get out!" although he would say it in Scottish dialect!
Today, Kingham Hill School looks exactly the same as it did, even though the interiors of the houses have altered to a level of luxury unimaginable years ago. Carpets cover the tiles that generations of boys so lovingly polished! The school intake and style has changed. There are day pupils, weekly boarders, some have cars and there is a bar. The dorms are now study, relax and sleep areas. The school has a nationally recognized special learning needs centre. There are girls houses. All new and welcome changes that have, no doubt, made the school more relaxed and grown up.
I have also talked to many old boys over the years who have reflected warmly about the school. Others struggle to place their thoughts about their time there. It remains a powerful memory. After all, we spent much of our teenage life there. It seems that few Kingham Hill boys kept up with each other. On Speech Day we said our goodbyes and jettisoned out into the world. "Go forth young man" Most people lost touch in their rush, post KHS, to reinvent themselves. Others didn't enjoy their time at the school and some didn't click with what was on offer.
A while back, I went up to the school with another old boy. Driving across that amazing, rolling landscape, he jokingly commented on how we could never afford to live in the area where we went to school. And so it dawned on us how relatively privileged we were to have spent our teenage years in such a beautiful place.
And so to return to the question, was I happy or not at KHS and has it affected my life since? The answer is that there were both happy and unhappy times, experiences concentrated by the close communal life of the school. But on balance it was a good time. Of course, the school has had an effect on my life since. I say to my family and friends that I went to an unusual school where I was taught to love the outdoors, learning and art. There were many things that I experienced there that I would not have done otherwise. But it was more than simply a school. It was also my home for 6 years and for the help I received there I am grateful.
I can even name all our house members in this photo even today. Well all but bar one..
Bradford House Summer 1974
1 Tim Bizley
2 Graham Butler
3 Keith Sherwood
4 Mark Johnston- Jones
5 Graham Parker
6 David Bacon
7 John Craig
8 Craig Nutter
9 Nick Pritchard
10 Mark Easton
11 Ian Black
12 Andrew Montgomerie
13 Mark Evans & Simon Robinson Kay (obscured)
14 Mark Bailey
15 Adam Ellis
16 Roger Leghorn
17 James Halliday
18 Colville Anderson
19 Mr David Carpanini
20 Mrs. Jane Carpanini
21 Trevor Mallet
22 Alan Drewitt
23 Chris Baker
24 Clare Underwood
25 Mr Adrian Underwood
26 Mrs Marion Underwood
27 Robin Underwood
28 Barry Rigby also holding Beccy Underwood.
29 John Cooke
30 Mrs Jane Boyd
31 Mr Robert Boyd
32 Stuart Nutter
33 Perry Boyeson
34 Tim Rees
35 Michael Kyte
36 ? ?