Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boy School – The Music Room was converted from a World War II bomb proof First-Aid and Poison Gas Clearance Station
I listened to the Proms concert last night 20th August 2016.
Valery Gergiev conducted the Munich Philharmonic in Ravel’s Bolero and Anthony John Sargeant was transported back 60 years. It was a ‘Proustien’ Music Moment.
It is 1956 and I am twelve years old. There was no serious music in our home, although my Mother could play the piano and used to buy sheet music of popular songs when I was younger. We even had an upright piano which was bought from Jones and Higgins Department Store in Peckham. Also my parents had just bought our first 3-speed record-player 78, 45, and 33 rpm records. The sort that had an auto-changer so that you could stack 7 or 8 records above the turntable. When the first record finished playing and the pick-up had moved out of the way the next record in the stack would be released and in the case of heavy 78rpm records it would come crashing down on to the turntable and whole record-player and the cabinet on which it stood would shake
But with no serious music at home the ‘Proustien Music Moment’ came at my grammar school Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School. The school had a strong musical tradition created by the single full-time music teacher Mr (Archie) Smith and his predecessors. There was a full scale School Orchestra(supplemented with a few instrument playing members of staff). A Steinway Concert Grand piano, a gift from the Haberdashers’ Company, stood in the main hall and was played everyday for Morning assembly. A separate brass band (from which I developed a taste for Sousa marches). There was also a large School Choir which together with the Orchestra performed The Messiah in my first year, and Elijah in my second: for which choral works in a boys’ school our pre-pubertal soprano voices were conscripted – there was no question of ‘joining the choir’ we were simply required to take part. Almost every lesson in the run up to the performance was dedicated to rehearsing small boys for the chorus. But after the public performances we were the beneficiaries of more relaxed music lessons.
I should now explain that the music ‘rooms’ were separate from, and just below, the main school buildings presumably this had the advantage that other classes were not disturbed by the music making nor by the frequent beating of small boys’ bottoms by Mr Smith for any misdemeanor. It should be pointed out that this was the 1950s when corporal punishment was commonplace in many schools and probably most homes. At Aske’s most teachers used corporal punishment for such things as failure to do homework or talking in class. It went unrecorded, unremarked and was unexceptional – just part of school life. Each teacher had favoured techniques and implements for these informal classroom punishments but mostly it took the form of a plimsoll whacked across a boy’s grey trousered bottom at the front of the class. In contrast formal canings, which were recorded in the Education Authority’s official punishment book, were relatively rare and only administered for the most serious offences. Mr Smith’s ‘informal’ technique was particularly distinctive – the boy would stand facing him to be bent forward and his head gripped between Archie’s knees then taking hold of the waistband of the miscreants trousers he would pull the boy up onto his toes stretching his trousers over his bottom before administering however many whacks he thought appropriate with a flat piece of wood. It was, having witnessed it on many occasions but never having suffered it, a punishment to be avoided.
But back to the music rooms. The two linked rooms were part of a bomb proof First-Aid Station and Gas Clearance Station built just before the Second World War. At that time there was a genuine concern that the Germans might use poison gas when bombing civilian areas. The structure was built in the lower part of the school grounds and the whole structure was half buried in the slope of Telegraph Hill on top of which Aske’s School sat surrounded by dense Victorian Housing (see figures 1 and 2).