Dapper's trials and tribulations at castle boarding school

A castle setting, disgusting eating trials involving insects and worms, unsympathetic hosts... No, this is not I'm A Celebrity – it's I'm a boarding schoolboy of yesteryear.

A young Richard Harper, inset, who boarded at Croft Castle
A young Richard Harper, inset, who boarded at Croft Castle

And it was into this other world, cut off from loved ones and normal civilisation, that Richard Harper entered at the tender age of just three.

Life at an English boarding school was to shape or scar many a young life, and for those who cried in misery at the experience there was no comforting hug from supportive colleagues. On the contrary, their tears were more likely to attract mockery and harsh punishment.

Mr Harper, who lives in Cannock and turned 90 in June, has written of his boarding school experiences in a memoir. It is called 'Grace and Flavour at Croft Castle' and a donation from sales is going to the Midland Air Ambulance.

Richard Harper turned 90 in June.

Croft Castle is now a National Trust property and he recorded a verbal account of his wartime schooldays there which is played to visitors, and the feedback from that motivated him to write his book.

His parents put him into St Elizabeth's School at Bullingham, Hereford, which was run by Catholic nuns. His father was Catholic, and his mother was Church of England, but the family had no religious leanings and did not attend church. However, St Elizabeth's had a reputation for offering a sound education.

"I went to school, boarding, when I was a bit over three, in autumn 1934," says Mr Harper.

The family home at the time was near Pattingham.

"Grace and Flavour at Croft Castle"

"In 1939 the junior school, including me, was evacuated to Croft Castle. From that day and for the next five years the war caused no visit to or from home – there was no petrol and all private journeys were prohibited – and eventually letters too were banned.

"I saw or heard nothing from my parents for that entire period. We effectively forgot them. I found it strange when, in 1944, I met these strangers again."

Mr Harper says he was shocked by the severity and hard discipline displayed by the nuns, most of whom seemed cheerless, cold and unwelcoming, which over the years did not change much.

There were those children who became increasingly isolated.

Bullingham

"Signs of homesickness or self pity shown by any one of us gained Sister's strongest disapproval and was not permitted. We quickly learned that lusty tears, had they worked at home where they might have brought attention and sympathetic warmth, were pointless here at school where they brought only harsh punishment.

"Weeping, always a very private matter and which demanded no comforting, and therefore never to be confused with crying, was somehow understood and accepted. The majority, who were not feeling homesick, were inclined to mock those who did."

One rule banned children from using Christian names, but in any event nicknames prevailed, with Mr Harper's being, for no reason he can now think of, "Dapper".

A classroom at Bullingham

Enforced schoolboy rituals included drinking ink, chewing the dregs of inkwells, and peer pressure to eat earwigs, spiders, beetles, wasps and worms.

The advent of war in 1939 saw the school buildings requisitioned by the army and the school evacuated to Croft Castle, south west of Ludlow. The Croft family with their servants kept the grand rooms as their domestic quarters for much of the war and, according to Mr Harper's account, saw the young arrivals as unwelcome.

"Whatever romantic notion of the castle we might have had very quickly vanished. Once having become attuned we could cope and were happy with unheated rooms and dorms and cold bedsheets and pyjamas."

As no new school uniforms were now being made, as factory production was directed to making uniforms for the armed services, a system of repair and recycling was introduced, and as each boy outgrew his uniform they were given hand-me-downs from anywhere they could be sourced.

Richard Harper as a schoolboy – "Dapper" to his pals – at Croft Castle in about 1942 in recycled school uniform.

A photo of Mr Harper at school in about 1942 shows him in a frayed jerkin, a frayed open-necked shirt, and a man's waistcoat.

"To us, clothing and laundry, now less complicated, became simpler and thereby much better."

As to news of the war, the Irish nuns kept their young charges almost entirely in the dark. Richard learned of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 through overhearing a crackling wireless coming from one of the castle rooms.

"We knew nothing of this officially and no mention of this, or any unsettling current event, was ever made in the classroom. We were disappointed that our nuns failed to show interest in any inquiry. Perhaps honest protection of our sensibilities was their intention.

"More likely is the surmise that, as neutral Irish, they neither knew, nor wanted to know much, of the war's activity and might have felt wrong in informing us of something that might be biased or untrue. Either way, we were left to our own imaginations, mystery and rumour."

The end of the war saw Croft Castle returned in full to its owners and Mr Harper says the school was disbanded, as so much structural damage had been done to the old school buildings at Bullingham that they were beyond repair.

Despite the hardships of those years, he says: "One thing is certain, school gave each of us a kind of belief in ourselves. This was not the particular gift of our school, but the product of being continuously together. It was said that we would either sink or swim. We fashioned each other and the resultant gaining in self confidence was the main benefit."

The book can be bought through Mr Harper's website at dapper925.co.uk or direct from him at Bromfield House, 70 New Penkridge Road, Cannock WS11 1HW, with cheques payable to Dapper 925. Cost is £9.80 plus £1.95 postage.

Richard's subsequent life after leaving school was nothing if not varied, and he feels that the independence he developed by his lockdown at school was an asset.

His activities have taken in horse racing, engineering, selling ship chandlery, marketing jewellery in the Far East, working for the government, and retailing.

He developed keen interests in bloodstock breeding and motor rallying, where he enjoyed success nationally and internationally as both navigator and organiser.

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