Anthony Provis OH 1940-45

Memories of Life at Blundell’s, 1940–45

First Memory of Blundell’s

The first memory of School is the sheer panic I felt going down the Pavilion steps to keep wicket for a scratch Blundellian XI with Derek Chapman (1936-1940) Captain of Cricket at First Slip. The opposition was Cullompton Cricket Club, the pitch was on Big Field, and the date an evening in May/June 1940 and I was a 13 year old, a scholarship candidate down for three days from a small prep school near Bradford upon Avon.

I do not remember anything about the game, but I cannot have performed too badly as, well past my usual bed-time, I was invited by OH’s Monitors to join their supper of scrambled egg.

Six scholarships were on offer, all named after Blundell’s’ Worthies of the Past. With the basic school fees of £150 per annum, the winner of the one Major Scholarship of £100 pa saved his father two terms’ fees, and the five boys awarded £50 pa each saved one term’s fees. I was fortunate to have one of the latter in Classics, £20 more than my elder brother with his £30 Exhibition in Mathematics.

First day at Blundell’s

I arrived for my first day on 17 September 1940 by car, the only time as the journey from home in Dorset and back used up two months ration of petrol coupons. Trunk and tuck box followed PLA (Passenger Luggage in Advance) entrusted to the Southern Railway Company, Great Western Railway Company and the Somerset and Dorset Joint Stock Railway (‘the Slow and Dirty’). The tuck box contained a small tin of mandarin oranges in syrup to be eaten three weeks later on my 14th birthday. How different to my elder brother’s pre-war hoard of biscuits, cakes, and other goodies that helped, with personal belongings, to fill his tuck box.

My academic experience

My first ten days was hardly a peaceful introduction to public school life. Moving into and out of three Lower Vth forms at regular 72 hour periods would be be called stressful in modern times, but the final promotion to Upper Vth Form A (UVA) on the 10th day was a boon because it put me – given a fair wind – on the programme leading to the Oxford University School Certificate a year later in 1941 and the Oxford and Cambridge School Examiners’ Board’s Higher School Certificate in July 1943. Papers for both these Certificates were set and marked by university dons without State interference and were accepted by the Ministry of Education as reaching the appropriate national standard. My wish to move later from Classics to History met with strong opposition from the new Headmaster who threatened to take away my scholarship if I persisted. This I did without losing anything. In my last term’s report my Sixth Classical form-master commented that my eventual £80pa award from St John’s College, Oxford in 1945 was a commendable achievement but a pity it was in the wrong subject. I received no financial benefit as £80 was deducted from my Government Grant as an ex-serviceman.


On the third Sunday of my first term, between Evensong in Chapel and one hour’s Sunday prep, the traditional OH initiation welcome to ‘new bugs’ took place. Members of UVA decided to remove any thoughts of superiority I might feel over the other newcomers to OH by my promotion to UVA and chose me to be the victim. My trousers and pants were duly removed, my bare behind was anointed with black boot polish and I was stuffed bottom first into a metal rubbish/coal bunker and roasted in front of the prep room fire.

Living conditions

There was one House for Day Boys and six for Boarders. Living conditions in each were spartan with OH extremely fortunate to have been given two modern bathrooms for 50 plus boys, completed in the summer of 1939 before the outbreak of WW2. Two of the dormitories in OH stretched east and west with windows at both ends, always open it seemed in cold weather, and limited central heating. Each bed had two school blankets and one personal rug for warmth which could not be augmented by a dressing gown even in the coldest weather. Every Saturday night in winter months we used to find a parcel of clothing on each bed containing a clean shirt, white collar, vest, pants and socks. These, after lights out, became foot warmers, which were hurriedly tidied up before the Monitor in charge woke up.


My second term in January 1941 began with an arrival at OH very late, the House in darkness, all boys in bed, with the House master waiting with a hot meal ready. The cause – an Air Raid warning with all train movements to and from Exeter St Davids GWR station halted. I sat alone in a empty train whilst a few other travellers were in the station bar. When the sirens sounded the All Clear the last train to Dulverton set off to find all intervening stations such as Tiverton and every Signal Box manned en route many hours after normal closing time.

I was rudely awakened the next morning after a delayed sleep to find my next door bed neighbour saying the Servers bell had sounded and I’d better get a move on as ‘you are a Server in Hall’, the first news I had had of such a task. This was, in fact, an historic occasion marking the end to the practice of boys eating three meals a day cooked in their Houses, which presumably had started with the move from Old Blundell’s in Tiverton to the new School buildings on the hill. It was a rude shock as it meant an end to having breakfast in the OH Dining Room. This now became a walk to and from the new Feeding Centre for all meals and in all weathers with little covered waiting areas for those with or without waterproofs on.

OH, FH and SH, with Milestones (only at lunch), were in the former Gymnasium. North Close, Petergate and Westlake were in a single storey annexe constructed in place of three open air Fives courts without access to and from the Quad. OH and FH had one door facing Big Field, and the other five shared the door opposite SH’s ‘back door’ in the Quad. Everybody sat on tables of ten, by House and by seniority in the House. Each table had a server for a week of three meals a day, a duty taken in turn by everybody save Monitors at a High Table where they were joined by the Housemasters for lunch, but not on Sundays. The Headmaster had his Table at lunch to which his guests and sometimes School Monitors were invited. Servers for these High Tables were juniors selected by Monitors, a somewhat daunting task for the former with the Headmaster involved.

Each Server was responsible for laying up and clearing tables, for collecting containers of cooked food and returning empties, and for bringing to breakfast and/or teas two separate screw topped jars containing the rest of an individual’s rations of butter and sugar left after the major quantities had been used for cooking. On no occasion was it reported that some-one’s ration had been ‘stolen’, for which there were frequent opportunities, a plus mark for schoolboys’ ‘honour’ in my opinion. I used to pour my pitiful sugar ration into a Glucodin tin and take it home where a fruitful kitchen garden enabled my mother to produce jam which returned to school with me.

The Head of School ordered the doors to Hall to be shut and, except when the Headmaster or Senior Housemaster was present at lunch, decided himself when meals were over and everybody had to stand up. A short Grace in Latin began and ended every meal, six times a day, seven days a week, so 504 times in a 12 week term.

The food was adequate in quantity but monotonous. The catering manageress deserved the highest praise for the way in which it was prepared and served from one central kitchen, transported to each table hot when necessary and in the right quantity. The only disaster I can remember occurred when at lunch one day her attempt to add variety to the menu by offering us a northern English ‘delicacy’ of tripe (the lining of a cow’s stomach) and onions, the composition of which was ‘off ration’. One look at it swimming in a greasy gravy, was enough for every table to reject it. We thought it was very funny, but it was not a joke to the caterer, Miss Talbot, faced with hungry Masters as well as boys. I do not remember the alternative she provided at such short notice but I am sure she coped well from limited stocks of tinned luncheon meat e.g. spam.

A Masculine Domain

Blundell’s in 1940 was almost entirely a male stronghold with only one female scientist on the teaching staff. That number increased by 100% to two in 1944, a replacement scientist and a young and very attractive member of the English department, the only teacher without a degree. I was never taught by either and I now realise that throughout my life there, I would have had conversations with five women only – Sissy B (my Housemaster, Mr Batterbee’s, sister), the House Matron (‘the Hag’), the Matron and Sister at the San, and the Tuck Shop manageress (Tom Jennings, the Head Groundsman and Cricket Professional’s wife).

Crime and Punishment

It was also authoritarian – punishment by cane being in the hands of the Headmasters NV Gorton and RL Roberts, the seven House masters, a number of School Monitors for dealing with mis-demeanours outside the Houses, and House Monitors within them. Both Headmasters were beaters, boys predominantly sent by Form Masters for continued poor performance in the schoolroom, probably due to the then unknown dyslexia, though Gorton did give 6 each to two senior boys caught thieving explosives from a nearby quarry. My Housemaster, whose reign had begun pre WW1 to which he went as an officer in the Royal Artillery, had given up the chore, whereas another could not do enough of it, even using the blackboard compasses in his school room for fun when teaching. There were Houses where the practice by Monitor was more common. In OH certainly in my last five terms there was only one for failing to accept a monitor’s instruction to stop fooling around in his dormitory. There was a return to normal when a new House Master who disapproved of beating delegated the task to monitors.

Sporting Life

The major sports were rugger in the winter term and first three weeks of the next for the Inter-House matches followed by cross-country running leading up to the three Russell Steeple chases and then the Athletic and Relay competitions at its end. Cricket followed in the Summer Term. Shooting, tennis and swimming were non-competitive activities with squash in the one court and restricted to older boys.

Rugger was of much the greater interest than cricket. Attendance on Big Field matches with other public school teams was compulsory for those not involved in outdoor activities elsewhere. These spectators were marshalled on the south side touch line exhorting the Blundell’s XV to greater efforts, greeting their tries with loud applause and the opponents’ scores in dead vocal silence but a sporting handclap. When playing a Navy side like Dartmouth Naval College, to the normal shouts of ‘Come on Blundell’s’ we added ‘and sink them’, an impolite gesture but wholly justified.

The pecking order for respect had Captain of Rugby at No 1, winner of the Senior Russell at No 2 and the Captain of Cricket 3rd. The Head of School (which I became in September 1944) was way down unless he happened to be a boy’s Head of House. When later in life I met two OBs of my days, both solicitors and ex North Close, I was interested to hear from one of them that I had told him to stop eating an apple in the main corridor. Such is fame!

School Colours

Mr Sampson, the School’s Archivist, in the Blundell’s’ Diary recently traced the history of Full Colours. He states that in the 1930s, boys had to ‘earn them’ instead of being a member of the XV when all members were included. In my case, this was so true. I played for the First XI in 1942 on many occasions until catching chicken pox requiring isolation in the San which prevented my attendance at the last school match that year against Sherborne. I received my cap at the first match in 1943.

The privilege that followed the award of a First Colour, which was entirely in the hands of the appropriate Captain, were similar to those of School Monitor except where the Dining Hall duties were in force. These included hands in trouser pockets as well as coat pockets, the wearing of the official white sweater with coats open, queue priority in the Tuck Shop, open access to the swimming pool and walking on Big Field. Mr Sampson in his article made a particular point concerning the lack of public recognition of academic excellence. I cite Oxbridge Scholars as such. Winners of these Awards received Upper Sixth Membership with unrestricted access to Tiverton, which they would have probably enjoyed already, and both Headmasters gave the whole school an afternoon off school.

Sporting Difficulties

Shortages of petrol for civilian purposes caused difficulties in finding coaches to transport the First XV and First XI to away matches to Clifton (evacuated to Bude), to Taunton School, to Downside and to Sherborne. Travel by train was the answer. If the opposite side could not provide transport from the station to the school, a much shorter journey, we had to walk. This was no major hardship for the First XV as the normal suitcase could cope with rugger kit including boots. It was a different chore for the First XI with bats, pads, batting gloves, boots and whites, with two members of the side per leather bag, with three bags required for the team. The distance for example between Taunton School and the station seemed endless especially when we lost. And then we had to climb back from Tiverton station to School.

Train times to and from Downside at Stratton on the Fosse were so inconvenient that the 1943 First XI had to spend the night before distributed amongst their Boarding Houses. The match started at the unusual time of 1100am and ended in time for us to get home during the evening. With a Downside player facing the Blundell’s fast bowler in full flight, the Abbey Bell tolled for the first of 12 strokes. The immediate reaction of the batsman was to drop his bat, remove his gloves and do a complete turn to face me keeping wicket with the Abbey directly behind me in his sight. Nobody had warned us because no match between the two sides had ever started in the morning. We sheepishly took off our caps and waited. After the 12 strokes the batsman took up his bat, replaced his cap and turned about asking the umpire at the other end for a fresh guard.

Many, many years later I asked somebody from Downside how often this event happened. ‘It was the Angelus’, came the reply, and ‘we only did it when heretics were present’.

The Impact of World War 2 on Blundell’s

There were in 1941-45 no Half-term breaks, no Speech days, no Prize Giving ceremonies, and no official House photos.

The war played an integral part of daily life at School. There were its visible signs such as the Blackout, restricted lighting on the main road and paths throughout the site, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) single level building on the field between NC and Milestones in which to take cover if any enemy aircraft attack was imminent (it never was), and the trench dug into the Games Field opposite OH on the other side of Tidcombe Lane. That was there if any low flying German fighter plane approach to machine gun anybody on the surface.

A glimpse of war

One memorable night we were awoken when the sound of a British Night Fighter firing tracers above Big Field at a German bomber which was obviously lost on its route to Plymouth or Bristol. Everybody was out of bed and crowding windows with Sissy B in the back – pleading for us to keep away from the windows – sensible advice that we ignored. We never heard the outcome of the aerial combat.

Thinking of OBs

The Radio and National newspapers which had few pages due to the lack of newsprint and strict government censorship of detailed information on the War Effort. Every day in Chapel however, the names of OBs serving King and Country, of those reported Killed in Action, Missing and Prisoners of War were read out and prayed for. There were as well boys with parents caught abroad in Malaya and Hong Kong in particular as civilian prisoners of the Japanese under harsh conditions. And there were boys who had fathers away in the Services. One in OH, whose father had been a GP in Bridgend in South Wales before volunteering and becoming a Lieutenant Colonel in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) in charge of a Field Hospital for the wounded as the British Eighth Army moved forward, and then back, and then moved forward for good in North Africa.

At home in 1940 there was the real threat of invasion by the Germans along the South Coast and in 1943/1944 plans of the British and Allied Forces invading the north coast of France. There was constant propaganda from the Ministry of Information against anyone talking openly about their knowledge of actions taken by the military in defence or attack that might be of value to the enemy. A favourite advertisement often displayed the Government message ‘Be like Dad, keep mum’, which would today be regarded as sexist no doubt.

Another censorship rule required any Outside Broadcast never to announce its position. It often happened that the Head of the BBC in the South West chose Evensong on a Sunday broadcast from Chapel – a son of his was in Petergate.Knowing that this would occur sooner or later we used to sing PH Francis’ hymn written by a former very distinguished headmaster of Blundell’s. This included a verse lustily sung by the whole school but not entirely wholeheartedly which had the words asking God’s blessing on those who ‘founded for Thy Glory each Ancient School and Minster tall’. Any OB wherever he was would recognise the source and know he was in our thoughts.

‘War Work’

The loss to the Armed Services and to more lucrative war work of indoor and outdoor staff employed by the School was more than covered by no cost members of the Fourth and Fifth Forms freed from fagging duties in the Boarding Houses. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were spent by their Seniors in the Officer/Junior Training Corps (OTC and JTC). We were marshalled by the School Porter to perform cleaning, dusting and scrubbing of all form-rooms, laboratories, Dining Hall and corridors. The outside gangs under the Chief Groundsman/Cricket Professional Tom Jennings, covered the paths, lawns and pitches. Sweeping up leaves was the most boring job I have ever had to do in my life.

More senior boys were involved with potato and sugar beet harvesting on neighbouring farms and the local golf course. This was arduous at the best of times – it was never a fine weather activity. Clad in entirely inadequate working clothes, namely rugger kit with bare knees and feet in gumboots we were packed onto lorries provided by the local branch of the War Agricultural Committee and dropped off at the most windswept and soggy fields in Devon, or so it seemed to us. We had haversack rations but no water bottle, limited WC facilities well away from farm buildings, and no shelter. The local farmers’ main interest was to bring in the crop so the rate of picking behind plough-shares powered by horses/ancient tractors was set by him and supervised by School Monitors. Their contribution to manual labour might be insignificant in comparison with us but being older than us their hourly rate of pay was greater than ours, the overworked pickers. This was deemed unfair. Handling the sugar beet on one of the Golf Club’s hills was the more arduous, with the same rate of pay.

Military activities

Membership of the Corps was compulsory for all. Affiliated with the Devon Regiment, its officers regularly visited us to supervise Cert A which was taken after a year’s service. This involved drilling a squad, marching it and bringing it to a halt at the correct moment when the right foot, or was it the left, passed the other. We had battledress, rifles with bayonets but no live ammunition until much later in my career when the Home Guard was formed as a national service organisation. I have still a document signed by George RI (Rex Imperator i.e. the King) which states ‘in the year when our Country was in mortal danger, Anthony Provis who served 1 year and 68 days gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be’. Mr Abigail, the School Chaplain and Housemaster of Milestones, the Day Boys House, commanded the JTC in the rank of Major. As a member of the Choir I never entirely accepted seeing the Chaplain at Sunday Morning Prayer coming into the Vestry to don clergyman robes above his army uniform before processing into Chapel to preach brotherly love to all nations. After the service, he hung up his robes, mounted his bicycle and supervised us learning how to throw mock grenades at German soldiers.

In summer months the Corps was much more interesting. One year, the whole JTC was taken by hired train from Tivvy to Rewe, dropping half the contingent at Bickleigh to act as defenders against the advancing enemy up the Exe Valley. When we left the train, one boy had loaded his rifle with a blank cartridge, which he unfortunately fired at the wrong place and at the wrong time. The Major sent him back to School on foot to await sentence. I have no doubt that a member of the public seeing somebody in khaki and carrying a rifle walking alone would have given him a lift back to Tiverton.

Other JTC officers who were masters included Captain Jonathan Lee (Signals Officer), Captain FG Swan (the Bursar and Cert A candidates), Lieutenant KG Edwards (an OB and Housemaster of SH; Recruits), 2nd Lieutenant WW French (Geography, and Junior Courses) and Pilot Officer JC Vickery (an outsider in charge of the Air Section). They were all entitled to be saluted by JTC members. I am uncertain whether they held commissions from the King.

Summer term also heralded full day battles up and down the hills between the School and Bickleigh culminating in one night exercise up Newte’s Hill which began after Prep one evening at 10pm and ended at 3 am. One year, the unofficial target for one team was the kilt of the Head of School, JES Russell, who was also Captain of Rugger and of Cricket without being awarded his colours. He was inherited by the new Headmaster whom he disliked and for whom he refused to take off his kilt. This he had never before displayed and the 1943 First XI photo was cancelled as a result. I had a private photo of the Team in ordinary clothes with Russell and his kilt in the centre.

Forging Friendships (and a marriage)

During my last Term, my parents paid their second visit to Blundell’s. This included lunch with the Headmaster and me in Hall on the Saturday and a bus ride to the Fisherman’s Cot in Bickleigh, still a favourite eating place, on the Sunday. When the time came for the return journey for Evensong in Chapel, the Provis family of three headed the bus queue with the Holloway (FH) family, also of three and unknown to me, in second place. The bus arrived with only 4 empty seats so my father and I decided to walk back, leaving my mother and the three Holloways the four seats so that Holloway Junior would not be late for Chapel. No-one would worry if I, as Head of School, missed Chapel, but as a junior Holloway might have been punished.

Starting work as a Management Trainee in a GKN Steelworks in Cardiff in 1949. I was waiting for a bus when the Holloway family passed me in their car. For some strange reason Mr Holloway recognised me, leading to the formation of an OB Club in South Wales with a Committee of four: with Peter Holloway (FH), David Hunt (P), Richard Parkinson (NC, a later Governor of the School) who were all new boys from Cardiff in 1944, and me. We ran the Club for some 12 years, with an Annual Dinner to which we invited a different Master from Blundell’s each time to be the Guest Speaker. They arrived at Cardiff Station at around 6pm, were met, walked to a nearby hotel. were fed and then escorted to the station for the train back. A considerable chore for them and for which we were so grateful.

It was through the Holloway family that I also met the girl who later became my long-suffering wife, and still is after nearly 65 years!

Last Night at Blundell’s...

I was putting on my pyjamas in OH for the very last night at school when I was summoned to Blundell House by the Headmaster to whom I had said Farewell earlier in the day. I left him after 11pm to return to OH, passing the Clock Tower en route unaware that two Westlake boys were tampering with the clock mechanism accessible from Classical Sixth’s form-room. To the Headmaster’s surprise, the Clock struck 13 at midnight.

At the First Big School Assembly the next term, Roberts asked the culprits to own up. They were two of his star pupils, already major scholarship winners to Oxbridge. Set 3 hour essays each on ‘Bells’, they submitted their work on ‘Belles’ with an extra ‘e’. He saw the joke.

...First day up at Oxford – echoes of Blundell’s

Mr Batterbee (OH Housemaster) never appeared on the morning we left for the station to return home, so the last Master I saw when I left Blundell’s in March 1945 was the Head (RL Roberts). On my first day up at St John’s, Oxford in April 1948 after demob from the army, I was sitting on the grass in its famous garden with John Sturges (SH), the only OB, I believe, who was not called up to service in Army, Navy or RAF. Instead, he was sent down a coal mine as a Bevin Boy without the right of appeal, Bevin being the socialist Minister of Labour. Together with a number of ex-servicemen, we were listening to a gramophone playing classical music when an obvious don approached us and said to us all ‘You young (?) gentlemen should know that any music in the College’s gardens is forbidden. Please stop.’ When he was out of hearing range I asked Sturges who he was, he replied ‘Don’t you know, that is Bloody Bob’s (RL Roberts) elder brother. He is a don here.’

Anthony Provis
27th January 2017