James Elsby

1936 – 1943

James Elsby

The Last Years of Croydon

The idea that Croydon was a small school would have mystified the small boys who experienced the fine, spacious buildings and the extensive grounds, but the size of the property was not matched by the number of pupils. I came there in September 1936, but all schools closed after the Christmas holidays because of a poliomyelitis outbreak and that, combined with family movements, resulted in my lessons not resuming until October 1937.

Miss Dorothy Wells did the remarkable job of teaching all the junior boys aged between five and nine, Primer 1 to Standard 2 in the same room. Claude Skelley was headmaster and, despite being known as Bomb, with a monocle that made him look rather fierce, he was quite an amiable person. He taught the seniors, and an assistant master the middle forms. The boarders were looked after by the kindly Matron Hill, and that completed the staff.

The day began with an assembly in the Gym, where well-known hymns such as Onward Christian Soldiers, and For Those in Peril on the Sea were sung to Miss Wells’ accompaniment. This was followed by prayers and sometimes a homily from the headmaster. I remember a long and particularly solemn talk on the first day of term after the war started.

Most boys boarded, but there were a few of us from around the bays. My contemporaries included Robin Adams, John Yaldwyn, Ian Hazlewood, Jack Checkley and Peter Bush. Apart from Peter, all these went on to Wellesley until Standard 6. Boarders were kept occupied over the weekend –on Saturday evenings Mrs Skelley held a Shakespeare class, which was followed by cocoa and biscuits, then on Sunday we attended Matins and Evensong at St Martin’s Church in the road behind the school, the services being conducted by the Vicar of Eastbourne or a lay reader. The afternoon was spent in the classroom writing a letter home.

The grounds seemed vast. There was a large vegetable garden in the northeast corner of the property, with the tennis courts below and, in turn, the field extending to the road and the beach. The field often became waterlogged in winter but had usually dried out sufficiently by sports day (not before we had crawled across it picking the longer stems of grass the mower had missed!) Beyond the tennis courts was a rose garden, an overgrown wooded area bounded by a stream and an ideal place for boys to play. Between the tennis courts and the field was a stand of mature macrocarpa trees which, after negotiating a tall fence, one could climb – in retrospect a rather dangerous activity. Of course the main feature was the immaculate triangular lawn with the perfect Norfolk pine at its apex.

I don’t recall much about organised games, but boxing was promoted, even though most boys were unenthusiastic. Good manners and courtesy received much attention and we were taught how to raise our caps to ladies and seniors. I recall a session of ‘cap drill’, with the headmaster standing in the centre of the tennis court while we circled around saying “Good morning, Sir” and raising our caps with the opposite hand so that our faces were not obscured.

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The school picnic took place early in the summer term place at Camp Bay, beyond Burdon’s farm, on the way to Pencarrow. We travelled by car or bus, and then walked the rest of the way, but the most popular form of transport was by sea. The school had a large dinghy with an outboard motor. Boys and stores were loaded on and, with Dick Skelley, a medical student, at the helm, we set off – without life jackets! Later in the year, several exciting days were devoted to preparing the Guy Fawkes bonfire on the beach. After the fireworks, the chief spectacle was the headmaster letting off a couple of large distress rockets! Sports day was a more formal and social occasion, attended by parents and some school neighbours.

School numbers gradually declined and, by 1939, had reached about 28; Standard 1 had just three pupils. That year we visited the General Motors factory in Petone as guests of the father of one of the boys. We all signed the visitors’ book and received a facsimile of it as a souvenir of the visit and of the school roll. The prize giving was held on the last day of the school year in the dining room, the large room on the south side overlooking the front lawn. Most of us received a prize, even my four-year-old sister for winning the visitor’s race on sports day. The prize giving was the last day of Croydon School.