Growing up in the boarding house

.Any aging, former Portsmouth Grammar School boys may remember the school’s boarding house, fondly nicknamed ‘The Shack’. Dad, who was classics master at the school, took over the running of the boarding house in 1951 when I was 18 months old.

‘The Shack’ was a large and somewhat dilapidated villa on the seafront in Southsea and during term-time it was home to 50 boys from the age of 11-18. In those days, many naval officers wanted to keep their sons at the school while they were posted abroad.

Dad, in overall charge as well as still teaching at the school, was assisted by two bachelor masters. Mum ran the domestic side of things helped by matron and cook. Matron looked after me in the mornings when sometimes a treat would be to go into the big kitchen and make jam tarts. After lunch, mum would take over and we would listen to ‘Listen with Mother’, followed by an outing to meet up with other mums and toddlers at the Ladies Mile.

In term time, it was largely an institutionalised life. The boys or boarders all had a cooked lunch at school so after school they had high tea which consisted of beans or spaghetti on toast or macaroni cheese and large urns of tea with thick slices of white bread and marg. The dining room was in the basement where I sat in my high chair. The only treats were when one of the boys had his birthday and mum would bake a sponge cake and we would have jelly and blancmange. I still shudder at the thought of the blancmange skin in my mouth. The boys all had tuck boxes at the start of each term containing a stash of chocolate. I never saw any of that but, sometimes, on their birthday, the mums would send treats to be shared.

I lived at The Shack with my two older sisters until I was five so my memories are scanty. There was a posh-for-Pompey restaurant opposite, complete with doorman in a red with gold braid uniform. More than once, the boys got in trouble for throwing bread rolls at the poor chap. Getting in trouble in those days meant the cane from dad – which seems odd, looking back, as he was the kindest and mildest of men. Fire drills were a major highlight as evacuation involved climbing out of a top window onto the fire escape – elf and safety nowhere to be seen. One firework night, a few of the older boys decided to make their own fireworks – clearly no one died but that’s as far as my memory goes.

When I was five the school decided the big old house was no longer viable so we moved with one of the masters to a smaller place with just twenty boarders. I remember the boys’ rec room; there was a record player and a library of Jennings, Arthur Ransome and Billy Bunter books. I often joined the boys in the prep room and swapped stamps from my growing collection. I also acquired a number of older girls as friends who took to doing handstands on the lawn outside the prep room. Girls just didn’t wear trousers in the 1950s. One boarder, now famous, started his first group in the garage with a double bass made out of a tea-chest, a washboard and thimbles and bog paper and comb. He went on to become a fine singer and harmonica player.

The good life came to an end when I was eleven. The number of boarders was dwindling and my parents gave up the boarding house. My older sisters were married by this time and my brother away at boarding school himself. Thus, from having twenty older brothers I became a virtual only (lonely) child.

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