This account was written by Peter Currie in December 2012 and part of it appeared in the OS 116th Annual Record November 2012:
By 1960 it had been decided that Sherborne School needed extra boarding accommodation and discussions began as to where a new house should be built. Few will know that it was very nearly not The Digby at all. It was originally intended to build an entirely new house, which was to be located at the southern end of the property now occupied by The Green. A distinguished London architect [Lloyd] was appointed and I was designated as the Housemaster. Working closely together, we reached the point where every last detail had been considered and provided for – such as ensuring that the main passage was long enough to provide 72 hooks for boys’ overcoats, that the linen room accommodated 72 separate compartments (in those days, boys were required to supply their own linen) and that the kitchen quarters would be equal to all requirements (the idea of central feeding was not to implemented for another fifteen years).
When all was complete, the plans were costed. It transpired that the overall cost would require considerably more than the maximum that the Governors were prepared to spend. So it was a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ to see how costs could be reduced. At the time, this task seemed to be a tedious and disappointing necessity. Events were to show, however, that this was a providential interruption. Eventually, sufficient modifications were made to the plans to bring the total costs down to an acceptable figure. Building contracts were drawn up and the final go-ahead was due to be given at the Governors’ Meeting on a Saturday in June 1962.
On the Tuesday preceding the meeting, the Headmaster, Bob Powell, called me in and passed me a letter which had just reached him. This was from The Digby Estate stating that the company concerned with The Digby Hotel had decided to close the hotel. The Estate, as owner of the freehold, was therefore enquiring if the School would like to purchase it. (The hotel had been running at a loss and had been kept going by the profits of the only other member of the consortium to which The Digby belonged, The Queens Hotel in Penzance, of which the manager at the time was, by astonishing coincidence, my own cousin). I confess that, after all the work that had been put into devising a new building, my initial reaction was to suggest that no mention of this letter be made until after the Governors’ Meeting at which they would authorise work to start. But an hour’s study of the plans of The Digby which had been provided made it abundantly clear that this represented a far better opportunity to create an impressive new boarding house, with wide corridors and high ceilings, offering a civilised environment. And so ‘The Digby’ was born.
There then followed a considerable amount of work on how best to convert the existing layout to meet the needs of a boarding house by knocking down partition walls to create day rooms, dormitories and so on. (The state of the kitchen area and of the staff quarters would have given a modern Health and Safety official a life-threatening fit of horror!) It was immediately obvious that certain requirements (boys’ studies, housemaster’s accommodation, and staff block) could only be met by additional building. This and other matters relating to the work to be done required a few more months before everything was settled. The deed conveying the Hotel and its grounds to the School at a cost of £25,000 was signed on 29th January 1963, and the builder moved in shortly afterward.
Thought could then be given to the wide-ranging issues concerning the interior of the building. The introduction of an up-to-date heating system throughout was later to make a striking impact; the panels of the doors which had remained unblemished through 95 years of their existence now all developed sizeable cracks when exposed to modern comforts! Other internal requirements had a less dramatic effect, but all required careful thought. Such matters ranged from the provision of beds and blankets to a choice of appropriate flooring. (It is pleasing to note that the linoleum then laid down on the passages and elsewhere still, fifty years later, doing a remarkable service). Other things requiring attention included the provision of books for the house library and the acquisition of a croquet set for the garden.
All these, and the multifarious other matters involved were completed in time to open the doors of The Digby to its first members in September 1964 [Michaelmas term began on 18 September 1964].
All this preparatory work had, of course, only one purpose in mind – the creation of the best possible environment for those who were to become members of the house when it first opened, and for their successors. At that time, these arrangements achieved a quality of life a long way above those in the other houses; no one, for example, had hitherto experienced single studies, of which there were about ten. Predictably, to meet ever higher expectations, other houses later raised their standards until they equalled, or surpassed, the facilities of The Digby which could, however, take pride in its place as the forerunner of ‘modern’ living conditions.
A great deal of thought was given to the question of recruitment for this new house. It was decided that the identity of those who would form the two top years (the Sixth form) should not be considered until shortly before the house opened, but that work to invite entries for the junior years should be tackled at once. Consequently, early in 1962 the Headmaster wrote to all parents whose sons were already entered for the School for September 1962 and onwards, asking if they would like to change the entry from their present intended house and send their sons instead to the new house (which of course at that time had no physical existence). It is relevant at this point to note that at this period (the early 1960s) entries were almost entirely in the hands of individual housemasters, with only very few on a central list with no preference for a particular house, and that entry books were at least nominally full until well into the 1970s. It was the intention that those entered for the School during 1962-3 (there was still a fresh entry in each of the three terms) would do to the house for which they were currently entered, in the knowledge from the outset that they would be moving into the new house when it opened in September 1964. Those arriving at the School in September 1963 would all go to what was then Elmdene, the “waiting house”, where boys were accommodated for a term or two when their chosen house did not at once have room for them. (Elmdene did not become a full boarding house, as Wallace House, until 1977). Once the house had opened, the existing pattern for entries would, of course, be followed.
Response to the Headmaster’s letter produced more names than could be accommodated. This provided an unexpected opportunity for me, as the housemaster, to ensure that the initial entry to the house would provide a balanced range of talents. It also meant that parents whose main motive in choosing a ‘new’ house was to ensure that their son would find himself provided with ‘every mod con’ could be gently squeezed out; I was concerned that all boys should come with the intention of using their talents to help create a thriving new community. To achieve this I invited all parents who had expressed interest to come and discuss the future with my wife and myself. By spending an hour or so with each family (looking back, I cannot imagine how, alongside my normal teaching and other commitments, I managed to find the time!) we were able to establish that both sides could happily work together on the challenges of this new community, and to identify their son’s particular talents and enthusiasms so that the new entry might produce a valuable and necessary mixture.
To foster a sense of ‘belonging’, during the time these boys spent in their ‘temporary’ houses, we invited them to come in groups to our home for breakfast on Sundays or at other convenient times. At a period when the arrangements of the School’s daily life gave little opportunity for boys to become friendly with those in other houses, this helped considerably in developing a sense that all were in this new venture together.
There remained the crucial question of how to identify those who would make up the top two years of the house. It has been decided that, during the Lent term of 1964, the Headmaster would address all boys then in the Fifth and Lower Sixth forms, and also write to their parents, encouraging them to consider making a move to the new house. During this period, I had decided that I must maintain a discreet silence, especially since any lobbying of promising individuals might needlessly create bad blood with their present housemaster. So I sat back and awaited results. I confess that privately I was fairly certain that a large number of the volunteers would come from boys who had been disaffected with their present situation (and who might well feel the same about me after about three weeks!)
In the event, the outcome was triumphantly different. Of the 21 senior boys who joined the house in September 1964, more than half were, or became, members of various school first teams; a number achieved open awards for Oxbridge; two became Head of the School. All were to make some contribution to the atmosphere of the house. Thanks to their efforts, the house attained a sense of unity and purpose astonishingly quickly (I was recently asked how long it took for The Digby to acquire an identity, supposing it to have taken two or three years. My answer was that it had not been more than three weeks at the outside).
With the identity of all members of the house now established in May 1964, it was important to establish a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the new community. One of the main ways in which this was achieved was through the methods adopted to determine how best to arrange the multifarious aspects of house life on a daily basis. These covered everything from fire drill to the supervision of ‘hall’ and dormitories, and from arrangements for house games to the running of the house library. In existing houses a new boy (or a new housemaster) would find all such matters an established part of daily routine; for The Digby, with no previous existence, all had to be invented from scratch. This gave scope for doing things differently from the existing norm in the other houses in cases where a new approach seemed appropriate. Those who would become the two senior years of the house were divided into small committees; they were allotted the task of coming up with ideas of how best to arrange one or more of the many different aspects of house life. They then reported back to me, and between us all such matters were finally established.
Three examples will suffice. At that time, every house had, pinned on the notice-board, an elaborate set of ‘house rules’, listing all manner of misdemeanors, each with a set punishment for any failure to conform. It was decided that The Digby would do away with all such procedures. Instead, it would be the task of the house prefects to confront miscreants and explain why their actions were anti-social or in other ways undesirable. Should it be felt that punishment was needed to reinforce the point, this was left to the discretion of the prefects. In this connection, it should perhaps be noted that beating was never admissible, although it was still a common practice in the School as a whole, where, quite often, there were automatic sanctions, such as ‘accumulating three black marks involves a beating.’
Two other examples typify the innovations. The first was more trivial, but none the less sensitive, and involved dress. At that time, a boy was at all times (except of course for games) expected to wear the school uniform of grey suit, white collar, and school tie. It was decided that in The Digby, once a boy had no reason to leave the precincts of the house for the rest of the day, the could (within reason!) wear his own clothing.
Another change was over the appointment of tutors. Hitherto, each house, besides its housemaster, only had one House Tutor who stood in for the Housemaster when needed. There seemed no reason why every boy in the house should find it possible to feel relaxed when talking to one or other of these two figures; this suggested that life for the individual would be improved if several other members of the staff became part of the house community. Thus it was that the arrangement of having several ‘tutors’ was first established. These and other changes to the existing order of things met with the disapproval of other housemasters, who felt that I was being unwise, or even irresponsible. It was thus with a certain amount of wry amusement that we noted that, before long, almost all our ‘innovations’ became common practice. (It has been somewhat similar when Alec Trelawny-Ross took on Lyon House fifty years before, although here Lyon House tended to go its own way for much longer, to the extent that it was known in some quarters as ‘Ross’s College’).
There is no question that the decision to involve the boys in determining the arrangement for running the house (even though, when appropriate, I was able to introduce ideas of my own while subtly giving the boys reason to think the ideas were theirs) was a significant factor in encouraging them to view the house as ‘theirs’ with a consequent determination to make it work. Privately I had feared that many would be determined to establish the arrangements with which they were familiar in their present houses. But in the event, they showed themselves to be remarkably objective and fully able to support changes which struck them as an improvement on what they had hitherto experienced.
I had been determined to ensure that an atmosphere existed in which academic study outside routine working hours would be the norm. Evidence that this proved valuable may be seen in the fact that within five years of the house opening, no fewer than 12 people had won open awards at Oxbridge, and for some time this standard was maintained, with two or three more each year. I was also concerned to create maximum opportunity to develop other talents. As an example, the School had recently decided to offer one term’s free tuition in any instrument. I was thus enabled to persuade almost every boy to ‘give it a go’. This helped to ensure that music, too, became a respectable and respected, activity, instead of one that was pursued by a few slightly strange individuals outside the general run of school life. But the episode which perhaps best illustrated the enthusiasm that went into making the house a success was to be seen on the rugby field where The Digby, which in this first term has a smaller nucleus than the other houses, had to put out a team which, apart from four valuable members of the School 1st XV, was made up of people with no sort of claim to rugby distinction. Such was their determination to prove themselves, however, that at the end of the very first term they reached the final of the senior inter-house competition. Their success encouraged the rest of the School to take The Digby seriously.
One of the most important features of those early years was that members of The Digby learnt to consider what impact the actions of one individual might have on others in the community, so that it became natural to take account of other people rather than solely to pursue one’s own interests. While this was, of course, true in other houses, it is tempting to feel that nowhere else was a positive and constructive approach to life so clearly in evidence. For many years, now, The Digby has, to most people, been just one of the School’s eight houses. But for me as Housemaster, and perhaps also for the first members of the house, it was a privilege to be involved in its early development, and it remains a delight to look back after fifty years on that ‘first fine careless rapture’, (though perhaps, in the light of all that has been here written, it was, in fact, the opposite of ‘careless’).
Peter Currie, December 2012.
Peter Thomas Currie (1922-2014).
MA, Exhibitioner, Trinity College, Oxford, 1941-1942, 1945-1947.
War Service (Captain) 1942-1945.
Oxford University Hockey Club (captain).
Scotland Hockey XI.
Assistant Master (Modern Languages) at Sherborne School, September 1947-July 1982.
House Tutor (Westcott House), 1947-1958.
Master in charge of Hockey, 1951-1962.
Housemaster of The Digby, 1962-1972.
Acting Headmaster, 1974.2.
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