‘My Memories of Abbeylands 1919-1966’

Mary Elderton (centre) with her parents & brother Bill.

Mary Warne Watkins (1916-1994) was the daughter of Merrick Beaufoy Elderton (1884-1939) and Evelyn Marjorie Elderton (née Warne) (1889-1965).  Mary lived at Abbeylands from 1919 to 1939 during her father’s  housemastership, and from 1955 to 1966 during the housemastership of her husband, Geoffrey John Bromehead Watkins (1907-1992).  Following the death of Mary’s father in 1939 her mother remained at Abbeylands as housekeeper to John Hervey Randolph (1898-1975) until her retirement in 1946.


Several kind successors at Abbeylands have asked me to put my memories on paper, and I have hesitated to do this because I think that instant history or autobiography is suspect.  The following pages are merely an attempt to show how the actual buildings of Abbeylands have altered in my lifetime there and of course I have added a few personal memories connected with those buildings.


My parents took over Abbeylands from the Rev. and Mrs H.R. King (parents-in-law of Cecil Day-Lewis, later Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Poet Laureate) in September 1919.  My father [M.B. Elderton] had returned from the First World War, but he had been a master at Sherborne before 1914, including being School House tutor.

Abbeylands, c.1910.

My earliest pre-Abbeylands memories are when we were temporarily living in Brooklyn House [Cheap Street], now Mr Sherwin’s dental surgery.  I remember my father painting a bed for my brother, born in 1918 and about to graduate from a cot to a bed.

My father was a do-it-yourself man and considered eccentric in that he liked carpentry, painting etc., and helping with the chores of looking after children, now considered the natural job for a father, but not then.  I well remember, when I was nine or ten, going round to Abbey House to “help” my father bath the Parry-Jones children, who were our next-door neighbours, after the death of Mr G.M. Carey.  Mrs Melvin [Elizabeth Parry-Jones (1929-2019) married John Turcan Melvin (1916-1999)], the eldest Parry-Jones child, told me that she remembers this perfectly well.

My parents when they moved into Abbeylands, had plenty of money troubles.  An incoming housemaster had to buy from his predecessor all the furniture down to the last chamber pot, all printed with the School coast of arms!  All housemasters also had to collect tuition fees for the Governors, although they paid rent and rates and their teaching salaries went down to the lowest scale – about £200 a year.  Of course this was a throwback to the days when boarding houses were kept by individual masters in their private houses.

When my father succeeded Mr King there were about forty boys in the house, Judge Hobson being one of them [John Basil Hobson (1905-1985), Abbeylands 1920-1923].  There was one bathroom containing three baths, one indoor lavatory for the use of the boys and a washroom next door to the Day Room, and lavatories in the Barge Yard.  There were five studies for the ten senior boys and the Day Room housed the rest.  Both studies and Day Room were heated by coal fires, cleared, laid, lit and maintained by fags supervised by the house man.

After 1919 my parents realised that the house must be extended; this was because my younger brother [Michael Lapidge Elderton (1920-1969)] was born in 1920 and my sister [Clare Marjorie Elderton (1923-2008)] in 1923 and there was not room for the Elderton family on the private side, and I well remember my mother in early 1923 saying “Where are we going to put this baby?”

Ground plan of Abbeylands in 1920 (by W.R.L. Hayman, Abbeylands 1917-1921).

The Governors agreed to buy the Cheap Street property, which was a corn shop, and so enlarge the private side.  This is one of my vivid memories.  I was with my Nanny in the bathroom overlooking the private side, now a boys’ bathroom.  A workman called up, and said, “We have found Roman remains sometimes.”  Nanny said, “You might find them here,” and indeed that is what happened.  A Roman well, which the boys in the house and I were allowed to look down before it was shut off and which, I imagine still exists, underneath the patio outside Miss Cropley’s sitting room.

The work involved in taking over the corn shop was done in two phases.  First, the top floor was rebuilt with an archway from the landing halfway up the front staircase up two steps into a long passage, which led to the end of the old shop, about roughly opposite the leather shop halfway up Cheap Street.  This gave us three bedrooms, a bathroom and a lavatory.  Above this were several attic rooms, one of which my father used as a carpentry room.  Eventually, when I demanded a room to myself, I had one of the attics.  Before then we children shared night nurseries until quite a late age because of the lack of space for a largish family.

The second phase of the takeover of the corn shop was very exciting, as the mediaeval archway just outside the front door was discovered.  This must have been the original entrance.  Beyond this were built a nursery, a downstairs cloakroom, large housemaid’s cupboards, a maids’ sitting room, airing cupboard and nursery pantry.

The garden was now immensely enlarged and opened up, making it a garden on three different levels.  The huge wall that had been the boundary between Abbeylands and the corn shop, making the west-side of that end of the house very dark, and giving you the feeling that, when you approached the “old garden”, as we called it for some time after the alteration, you were going through a very deep tunnel.

The other excitement was the discovery of what we called the (Jacobean) “nursery staircase”, which led from the long passage to the hall outside the nursery, which had French windows leading onto what we called the “new garden”.  We had an enterprising Nanny who took part of the new garden in hand, and the bed for so long covered by an air raid shelter was a beautiful flower bed over the Roman well.  It is so nice to see that Miss Cropley and Mr Glen [Robert Glen (1926-2008) housemaster of Abbeylands 1973-1983] have brought it back to its former glory.  I should perhaps add that the old garden had a tennis court used by boys as well as the family, and a magnificent pink chestnut tree planted by Mr Hetherington [William Lonsdale Hetherington (1845-1912) housemaster of Abbeylands 1872-1880], the first housemaster, which has only recently died.  We used to enjoy sun-bathing at the top of it on a fairly makeshift raft!

Long Dormitory, Abbeylands, July 1921 (photo by S.J. Olivier, Abbeylands 1920-1923).

To sum up, after the corn shop extension was complete, the nursery, originally in what is now the drawing room, was moved downstairs with its own suite of pantry, airing cupboard etc.  The old nursery became my parents’ bedroom.  Before that, they slept in No.6 dormitory where my younger brother was born, thus leaving an extra dormitory for the increasing number of boys.  The present housemaster’s study, which indeed was also my husband’s study, was the drawing room, and my father’s study was the little room next door used by house tutors in our time and, I believe, now.

My chief memory of that time of change was the very happy atmosphere.  Abbeylands was sometimes known as “Happy Lands” or “Baby Lands”.  My mother had an excellent domestic staff, headed by a formidable daily cook, and resident maids who slept in the attics above the boys’ dormitories, supervised by the Matron.  They all used the one bathroom used by my parents and us children next door to No. 6 dormitory, and doubtless, when the extension was completed, the whole family had a greater sense of space and infinitely more washing facilities, although by present day standards they would be considered pretty sketchy.

Abbeylands in the 1920s after the timber & plaster work had been revealed.


During my father’s time as housemaster the numbers of the house increased.  He aimed to get them up to fifty, then considered a viable number.  The improvements for which he was responsible included (not necessarily in chronological order):

  1. The building of what was called the senior dayroom beyond the wash room. Before, this had been a potting shed and gardener’s lavatory.  This improvement gave extra living space for junior boys who had little hope of getting a study for years to come.
  2. The so-called “new studies” were built over the changing rooms on the Abbey House side of the barge yard. I remember my husband saying that it was as well to be on friendly, co-operative terms with his colleague in Abbey House, as a bomb could go off in the new studies, and we might not hear it if we were in the Cheap Street end of the house.  Incidentally we once paced the frontage of Abbeylands from the Tudor part to the boundary of Abbey House and discovered that it was about the same length as the façade of St Peter’s at Rome.  In fact Abbeylands is a house never purpose built, but added on to as circumstances demanded and very largely one room thick.
  3. The dining hall was enlarged by the inclusion known now as the alcove table. Before this the Dayroom has a large cupboard next to the Dining Hall known as the “Black Hole”, where boys’ trunks were kept until the building of the new studies provided new storage space.  The inclusion of the “Black Hole” into the Dining Hall gave comfortable space for at least twelve or more boys.
  4. During my father’s time electric light replaced gas lighting throughout the house at my father’s expense.

There was no central heating except in the new studies, run rather inefficiently off the hot water boiler.  Coal fires in the studies and Day Room, and if very cold, in the Dining Hall persisted until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Hall (prep) at Abbeylands, July 1921 (photo by S.J. Olivier, Abbeylands 1920-1923).

The chief domestic prop on the boys’ side was the house man.  When my father succeeded, he was “Old George”, then getting pretty old.  He served the house for fifty years and was succeeded by Woods, “Woodie” to the family and “Bertie Woods” to the boys, [William Henry Woods (1898-1971) was houseman at Abbeylands from 1922-1971, he succeeded ‘George’ who was houseman 1872-1922] and ex-Marine of the First World War, who remained houseman until 1968.  He served very valiantly in the Auxiliary Fire Service in the Second World War.  I remember him when I was a child as he married our first Nannie [Beatrice Maude Weed (1898-?)], and he was still houseman when my husband took over in 1955. He often addressed me as “Miss Mary, Madam I should say.”  Many old boys have told us how he befriended them when they were new boys; and of course like a college porter he remembered many generations, and old boy parents were pleased to see Woodie as a link in continuity on the domestic side of the house.  At his funeral three of the Abbeylands housemasters he served were present: J.H. Randolph, G.J.B. Watkins and J.H.P. Gibb.


On the outbreak of the Second World War, we were warned that a trainload of expectant mothers was to be billeted in several of the School houses, including Abbeylands.  I well remember helping to make up all the beds in the Day room Dormitory, and thinking how unsuitable in every way school boys’ beds were for expectant mothers.  In the end they never came, and we found out later that the engine driver forgot to stop at Sherborne and went on to Exeter.  In fact the beds were filled the next day by boys in the house, as the Headmaster [Alexander Ross Wallace (1891-1982)] had warned parents that the School would reassemble immediately war broke out to avoid the School buildings being requisitioned.

John Hervey Randolph (1898-1975).

The black-out became compulsory for all buildings immediately on the outbreak of war, and I well remember my father personally supervising and indeed himself making blackout frames for the whole of Abbeylands, a pretty formidable task.

My father died as the result of a street accident on 11 December 1939, the last day of the first term of the war.  His untimely death at the age of 55 led to the appointment of J.H. Randolph [John Hervey Randolph (1898-1975) housemaster of Abbeylands 1940-1955], who was a friend of both my parents, and who ran the house throughout the difficult war period, and afterwards until his retirement in 1955.  As he was unmarried in 1939, my mother stayed on as his housekeeper until 1946, when she retired to her own house and J.H. Randolph married [In 1946 he married Dorothy Elizabeth Eyre (1913-2014)].

As my husband was in the Army, I lived intermittently at Abbeylands, sometimes for quite long periods, until 1944, and that is why I know something of the running of the house during the war years.  Of course no building could be done during the war except for the erection of air raid shelters, of which two were put up at Abbeylands, one outside the Dayroom window and the other outside what is now Miss Cropley’s sitting room, after the one and only air raid that Sherborne experienced.

I well remember J.H. Randolph hanging charming reproductions of paintings by old Dutch masters instead of the un-aesthetic photographs of cricket and football groups, the members of which could mean nothing to boys in the house at that time.  These pictures must have made some artistic impression; I know that in our time boys often remarked on our pictures, especially a reproduction outside my husband’s study of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco, which they had plenty of time to examine while awaiting their turn to go in.

Abbeylands Dining Hall, c.1945.

After the war J.H. Randolph and his wife persuaded the Bursar to build much needed boys’ bathrooms and lavatories in an extension at the West end of the Dayroom Dormitory and the Annex.  They had the Dining Hall panelled, and very good oak tables installed as a memorial to Old Abbeylanders killed in the Second World War.  This was a most imaginative project and as a result the Dining Hall had great dignity and style, and I am glad, in spite of the coming of central feeding, that the room still keeps its original function in that the House meets there for a snack in the evening after house prayers.

Abbeylands, 1946.  During the war vegetables were grown in the garden and this photograph was evidently taken in the cabbage patch!

Another improvement the Randolphs achieved was the installation of central heating, but only on the ground floor on the boys’ side of the house.  The Governors did not consider the comfort of house master and their families very important!

The Randolphs had five children, including one lot of twins between 1947 and 1954, so found themselves short of space as my parents had done in the 1920s.  However they managed valiantly with considerable discomfort; J.H. Randolph had his study in what had been our nursery, now Miss Cropley’s sitting room, and my father’s little study, now a house tutor’s room, was used as a dining room for the children who had their day nursery in what is now the drawing room.


Bert Ridout, Clerk of Works 1935-1968.

It was strange to go back to Abbeylands as mistress of the house after spending so many years there, on and off, since 1919.  What I found very helpful was that I remembered exactly which switches were connected with which lights, and which boiler worked which hot water system. I remember having to argue with Bert Ridout, the redoubtable Clerk of Works, who refused to believe that we could run the private side on one boiler, thereby reducing the hot water system from three to [?] boilers, and I sometimes wondered how much fuel I saved the School by insisting that the third boiler was quite unnecessary.  Bert Ridout admitted an honourable defeat on that point, but we could not persuade him to take down the air raid shelter outside the nursery. He said that the outside wall of the Jacobean staircase would fall down if we risked it.  I wish he could have lived long enough to see how wrong he was!

When we came to Abbeylands our two elder boys were both at boarding school, and our youngest less than two years old.  He was installed in what had been our nursery with a wonderful nanny with whom we had nursery tea on a Sunday, just as our parents had had with us in the same room.  The elder boys when on holiday often veered towards the nursery because Nanny was a marvellous person at human relations, especially with adolescents.  Indeed, if I may digress, the elder boys had such affection for her, and she for them, that when they married and had their own families, Nanny went and stayed with them, often helping out in an emergency.  She also got on very well with the domestic staff, and after Charles went to prep school she became Matron, and I remember the School doctor saying that she was the ideal matron for a boys’ school boarding house, and certainly Old Boys always asked after her.  She died as she would have liked, with no illness, getting up one morning a few days before Christmas, having sent off her Christmas presents to us all.

Abbeylands, July 1921, showing the ‘spyhole’ window seat (photo S.J. Olivier, Abbeylands 1920-1923).

We decided to use the Randolphs nursery as our drawing room mainly because it had some sun and a very effective fireplace, which I well remember from the time when it was my mother’s bedroom. There was also a window seat overlooking Abbey Road which became known to the boys as the “spy hole”.  When they came out of the house door, the drill was “Look left, right and up at the spyhole”!

We used the Randolphs drawing room as my husband’s study and my father’s study for the House Tutor, although we never aspired to a resident one.  We used two of the attics on the private side for our elder sons’ bedrooms, although I often felt they would have had little chance of escaping in the event of fire.  My father’s old carpentry room made a delightful bed-sitting room looking down Cheap Street.

We tried to get both air raid shelters removed but only succeeded in the case of the one outside the day room windows, which made the day room so dark that artificial light was needed all day.  The cost of demolition in 1956 was £4 higher than of building it in 1940.  My husband made the space now provided into a patio garden, with rambler roses and an exit into the main garden.

The pre-war tennis court had been transformed into a vegetable garden during the war, so we turned one half of it into a small croquet lawn which gave a lot of fun to the senior boys in the house, and the other half became a beautiful rose garden, in which the boys took quite a pride.  While having a look at it after prayers one evening while the junior boys were going to bed, my husband heard a stentorian voice in the bathroom shout out loudly, “I must say one thing for Geoff, he does grow superb roses.”  Needless to say, he was immediately earmarked as a future Head of House, and is now quite a distinguished soldier.

The school had grown considerably during the war, and many boys had to sleep out for lack of space in spite of Elmdene (now Wallace House), the waiting house which we had run from 1948 to 1955, and which took 32 boys.  The sleeping out had to continue until the servant problem became so acute that we decided to rely on a shift system of daily women, with on resident assistant cook who slept on our side of the house.  As a result we turned the old maids’ bedrooms into a dormitory and the old cook’s bedroom into a music room, to which the father of a boy in the house very generously presented an upright piano.  At the same time my husband got three more studies built over the bike shed.

I think that during our time we managed to get the whole house redecorated.  The Bursar needed some persuasion, but the fabric had inevitably been neglected during the war.  The roof was in a very poor state, and I remember climbing round it with the Bursar, and he gloomily said that he hoped he would not still be Bursar when the house had to be re-roofed.  When the thaw eventually came after the great freeze-up of Spring 1963, so much water poured into the Dining Hall that the boys had to drag all their meals through the hatch and bolt back to eat them in their studies and the Dayroom.

When The Digby was gutted and rebuilt as a school boarding house [1964], we assumed that house feeding would continue as School policy.  At the same time, because of the shortage of resident help, it was becoming essential to have some way of cooking outside the house kitchen, especially as we liked to entertain senior boys at weekends, when help was difficult to come by.  So we got what was known as “Woodie’s shed” converted into a small kitchen adjoining our dining room.  I so remember having to break it to Woodie that his shed must go, although we got him installed in the new disused little boiler room by the nursery pantry.  When he turned out his shed he revealed something like a piece of social history, as it was full of objects dating back to my own childhood, because he never threw anything away.  The old machine that was used to clean the knives before the days of stainless steel was still there; an extraordinary lighting fitment I remember as a child; a couple of flat irons and countless other things.  Certainly the end of Woodie’s shed was the end of an era, just as the creation of a private kitchen was the beginning of a new one.

Mary Watkins.

Abbeylands today.

See also:
History of Abbeylands
Sherborne School’s boarding houses

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