Life at one the Oldest Public Schools
In the ’60s, to enter Kings Canterbury – or any Public School – it was necessary to pass the Common Entrance Exam. Exceptionally bright pupils had the chance to win a Scholarship (which meant reduced fees) Most boys took the Exam when they were 13: I was 12, and did well – recording a very high mark of 81% for one particular subject French B which pleased the Headmaster at Kenton enormously because I was in his class for French. Although I did well, it was not quite good enough for a Scholarship.
When I joined the school, the Headmaster was Canon Fred Shirley. There were about 650 pupils at King’s and like Kenton, most were “Boarders ” and there were a number of different “Houses”. Each boy was assigned to a particular House after one year.
The first year was spent in one of two junior Houses which were in the main School Grounds – I remember my junior House was called Lattergate.
The school uniform was very distinctive in that we had to wear wing collars waistcoats and boaters (straw hats) and the complete uniform cost a fortune from the “Old School Shop” – located just outside the School Grounds, and run as a true monopoly. The Wikipedia link provided describes the school layout and the uniform in some detail, although nowadays it is a mixed school. With such a distinctive uniform we of course stood out like a “sore thumb” and were often targets for the inhabitants of the Town.
My assigned House after my first year was Luxmoore, which was reserved mostly for the boys whose parents were outside the UK. Luxmoore House actually consisted of two very large detached houses, close together, and had large grounds with its own playing field. Situated on the main Dover Road, about two miles south of the main school, we were every day expected either to walk or cycle to the main school for lessons, assembly etc. Luxmoore provided dormitories, catering and study facilities for all the 90 or so boys, and our House master was Mr K K Roberts (known as KK) who lived in a separate apartment with his rather attractive young wife.
At Kings, the privileges started in the final year when pupils reached the Sixth form, and the Head Boy and School Monitors (House Prefects) enjoyed extra privileges and wore black gowns – as did the teachers and pupils who had won scholarships. Monitors were also allowed to administer corporal punishment to other pupils and walk on the grass (“hallowed turf”) in the School Courtyards which were part of the Cathedral Grounds.
The school facilities as one would expect were impressive. Within the large grounds of the Cathedral precinct were most of the Houses and classrooms and other educational areas – such as a Library, various laboratories – and a gymnasium. The main Sports area was located some miles away, and catered primarily for Rugby (Kings was well known for its Rugby) Cricket and Athletics. There were also some squash courts and tennis courts in another area en route to the main playing fields.
Apart from all the academic and sporting facilities, we were of course living alongside the oldest cathedral in the country, and were obliged to attend cathedral services on a regular basis. The school also provided most of the Cathedral choir, and music played an important part in the curriculum. I can still remember the particular smell of the old damp walls from the Cathedral crypt on Sunday evenings ….
Arts or Science? After the first year, pupils had to make the choice as to which educational path they would take. Probably the most important choice we as pupils ever made, Arts consisted broadly of Languages, History and English, and Science broadly of Maths, Chemistry and Physics. The goal was then to pass intermediate Exams in either Arts or Science at age 14 or 15 (“O” Levels) and then to take the main University Entrance Exams at age 17 or 18 (“A” Levels) I chose Science, although in retrospect, I believe I would have done much better in Arts, for which I was naturally more talented. But even at the age of 13, I had the RAF in my mind as a possible career, and knew that Science would be more relevant.
CCF The Combined Cadet Force was available at Kings and we were provided uniforms and had some training and trips: naturally I joined the RAF section, and remember one visit to RAF Manston where I had my first flight in a Chipmunk – a trainer aircraft. I think the aim of the pilots was to make sure each cadet remembered the experience, and sure enough, after some aerobatics and the smell of the rubber mask, I remember throwing up in spectacular style! So much for my first taste of the RAF!
So What Went Wrong? You may well ask. With all the privileges available to me from one of the best schools in the country with fantastic and committed teachers and superb facilities, what was the problem? After all, I had been used to being away from home and family – I had spent the last four years at Boarding school in Kenya. And I had shown academic and sporting promise.
There were two main reasons. The first was my physical size. Some boys take longer than others to mature physically, and in a school like Kings, size was very important – both for sports (sporting prowess was highly acclaimed) and for establishing oneself within the “hierarchy”
The second was to do with money: Kings was a very expensive school with high fees, and it was the reason my mother continued working so hard in East Africa – she wanted her sons to go to the best school. (My father was not supportive) Most of my fellow pupils came from families where money was not a problem and some from very privileged backgrounds: and so “class” was an issue, and teenage boys are quick at sniffing out those “who don’t really belong” – and this was exactly how I felt: that I did not really belong.
Academic Achievements I passed my first six “O” Level exams at 13 and one year later had 9 science “O” Level passes: I had started well, and was probably one year ahead academically. But thereafter, my enthusiasm diminished. I took my first science “A” Levels at the age of 16 and failed one. The next year I passed all three – a B in mathematics, C in chemistry and a D in Physics – pretty average results which meant that I could apply to Universities like London or Bristol but had no chance with Oxford or Cambridge. This pretty much decided me that I should apply to RAF Cranwell.
Sporting Achievements I was not outstanding. I made the 3rd XI school cricket team – being the only player batting at number 11 who hit a “six” – and the house Rugby team. I tried my hand at Boxing, but when your opponent has a reach six inches longer than you, this can be tricky!
Friends Unlike Kenton, I only have one friend from Kings with whom I would stay in touch. Hugh Slater was one of those who travelled with me on a ski trip party to Ischgl in Austria at the end of the last term. I remember getting horribly drunk on whisky before we boarded the train at Victoria station. Hugh was a good guy (he liked to be called Hugo) and went to Magdalene College, Cambridge University: we met post school on a number of occasions, and he was the my best man at my first wedding in 1976. Unfortunately we have not remained in touch. A more detailed acount of life at the King’s School in my day and written by Anthony Marsall (who I do not remember) can be found on the OKS website.
Interesting People. Kings produced some very accomplished pupils who went on to do great things. On the cricketing front (my particular interest to this day) in my time there was Charles Rowe – who played for Kent – and a little later, David Gower who had a tremendous career in Test Cricket. Close to Luxmoore was one of the Kent County cricket grounds, with a large oak tree within the boundary – I spent many hours there watching the cricket. On the social front, one of the King’s pupils was Brian Faithfull, whose sister Marianne achieved her own notoriety. When I was at Kings the “Sixties” revolution was in full swing, but unfortunately it bypassed me completely – although we all played Rolling Stones records and smoked “illegally” – normal cigarettes not pot!
Worst Memory There is one memory that still haunts me to this day, although most people would not understand why. I was playing in the house Rugby team for Luxmoore – I was full back – and we had a strong team with some of the School 1st Team players. A scoring opportunity arose where I was on the right wing with a clear run to the try line, and the ball carrier was one of the 1st team members (Devlin I think his name was) Scoring a try would have been a huge triumph for me and would have made a big difference to my “standing”. But – and I think deliberately so – the boy concerned did not pass the ball and was tackled, and the opportunity lost. We did win the match but this was scant consolation to me at the time.