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WHITSUN

What does it mean to you – the reader? What is its relevance today – another holiday perhaps, or bringing people together, through support or friendship? Maybe strengthening the family community or pretending to enjoy an early summer picnic consuming an egg sandwich in post war limp grey bread?

If one was unlucky we would have two sandwiches and a cake.

This is my experience: From the age of 12 I was sent away to my second boarding school which was completely different from the first – which could have been the 1945 version of Dotheboys Hall, life was so harsh. In comparison life at this second school was heaven. It was also co–ed. Whitsun at this second school was for the benefit of others far less fortunate, offering them the opportunities which we took for granted in the main I suppose.

Prior to Whit Monday we pupils would forego the Bank Holiday preparing for “The Visitors”. As a public school we had established a mission with St Anne’s Church in Limehouse, a greatly deprived area in what was left of the London Docks after all the bombing. This Mission had been established many years previously before the war and was part of our life whether we liked it or not, despatching parcels of clothes throughout the year, with toys at Christmas. However on Whit Monday – this was the big day.

A special train was hired from the LMS Railway to depart from St Pancras station to arrive at Harpenden station at 9.30am before being parked up for the day in the sidings awaiting the return journey usually about 8 o’clock in the evening.

We would watch the arrival of our guests, at least four hundred and fifty grandparents, mothers and fathers and children aplenty marching up from the station. The children always seemed faster than the parents who were faster than the grandparents.

Tea and orange juice would be provided with the option of bread and dripping or cake to sustain them until lunch. We were not allowed any of this – it was for the guests. Thereafter we had to escort small groups around the school and entertain them until lunch time; Parents with motor cars would congregate on the gravel and offer car trips around the countryside to see the cows and horses. Sheep which were rather thin on the ground in this part of Hertfordshire were special, particularly lambs getting a lot of attention.

A lot of the children liked hanging out of the trees and climbing, which we were never permitted to do so that irritated us a bit. After a good lunch the sports started. Cricket, rounders, tennis and, for the brave, swimming against a background of many sorts of races besides the fun ones like egg and spoon, sack and three legged ones etc, until all were worn out by the time it was time for ‘High Tea’. Following this we had a service in our chapel for all denominations who wished to attend, conducted by the vicar of St Anne’s together with our chaplain and the chapel would be full to the brim, standing room only in fact.

After the service, which usually lasted an hour, weather permitting there would be some presentation between the Visitors and us; votes of thanks and of course lots of cheering and clapping. It all ended up much nicer than we had anticipated before they arrived, friendships had been created or renewed and strengthened.

This was Whitson 1946 style and beyond until the year I left.

At a given signal everyone started to migrate to the railway station accompanied by many of us already thinking about the next year’s visit. If not then it was the thought of the huge litter pick facing us the following morning and replacing the collapsible chairs (which used to pinch our fingers) back in the shed for another year.

That was Whitsun meant to us, sharing with others what we were fortunate to have. On reflection I think that we all had a good time and without our girl pupils it could never have been so family orientated. A coeducational boarding school equated to a very happy and contented school.

Stuart Wilson