Plumtree School -
PLUMTREE IN THE ‘50’s – A FEW PLEASANT MEMORIES
as recalled by Alan Howard (Gaul 1952-1958) - December 2002
My wife tells me that nothing is more boring than someone else’s memoirs. I would hope that this story brings back some fond memories, a few bad ones perhaps, but in general mostly good ones! What started as a couple of pages has grown considerably, but please read on !
I arrived as a Newboy in 1952, dressed in full school uniform (a few sizes too big) at Bulawayo station, changing from the “Hartley” train to the Plumtree “express” (which as I recall took about 3 hours for the 60 odd miles to Plumtree). Standard school uniform was khaki shirt and shorts (hat as well!), or greys in winter, and whites on a Sunday unless out on an exeunt. Once on our way, all Newboys were rounded up for an introduction to initiation. To some, depending on the seniors involved, this was extremely traumatic. Tales of being dangled out of a window to check the wheels, or of having the donkey strap hooked up, looped around your neck and being told to jump off the basin all seemed to be founded on truth and at that age was pretty scary ! Fortunately I was only subjected to a fairly intensive interrogation. Arriving at Plumtree, the station shop with Mary Jones (I think, and her younger sister), and outside, tethered by a long wire to the large tree, was Matilda the baboon, and then the long walk to Gaul. I had had the mixed fortune of attending Whitestones in Bulawayo for two years so travelling “alone” by train was not a new experience, but now I was a Newboy again.
The 1952 Newboy intake numbered around 50 to 55. Initially, I only remembered about 20, obviously mostly from Gaul. However, having prevailed on a very helpful Neil Coetzer, IT Dept and Glenn Hudson, OP Liaison Officer at school, the full list, and that for 1953 (attached at the end) actually filled the majority of memory gaps ! Surprisingly, of all these guys, I have only seen one since leaving – Rob Elliott-Murray, and of other OP’s, I have seen very few.
The main sport during initiation of course was the marula chase and the gall of having to pick the rock hard green marulas for the seniors to pelt at you as hard as they could. There were variations; at the back of Gaul, 3 laps round the tennis court with the seniors in the centre; or a run down a path lined with seniors; and then at the end of the marula season, the final massed cross-country chase. If you ran like a rabbit as some did, you got well ahead and weren’t even hit, but I couldn’t for the life of me run with any skill so I got nailed pretty heavily, until from boredom, the seniors passed me for new game. I then stopped and walked back to the House ! Additional after supper entertainment included duck walking or caterpillar walking from the Dining Hall back to Gaul. Of course there was always the odd bully who delighted in making life miserable, taking advantage not only of size, but also of seniority, to be totally obnoxious. Seniority was always a very important part of life at Plumtree, and even if physically capable, one could not just up and punch out a senior without incurring the wrath of other seniors. Our resident bully was Ben de Lange and he was exceedingly unpopular with his juniors to say the least. He occupied the study between the top two dorms and amongst other things, used to call us in two at a time to “dog fight” for amusement ! Initiation ended with a final “Newboys concert” sanctioned by masters and prefects who attended to watch the final humiliation (checking that no one died, I suspect!).
Fagging for two years was not all that arduous. There was perhaps a certain status if you fagged for the Head of House or School. Duties included polishing shoes, spooning and polishing cadet boots (this was a real art – if overdone they cracked), ironing, tidying the study, organising coffee, filling water bottles, catching grasshoppers for their pookie, generally running errands, etc. I fagged for Tony Pithey and John ? Stubbs. There were a few abuses but not many. As “Bunter” I had to do a few workouts in the boiler room !! I know that most of us looked forward to our fourth or fifth year when we would have our own fags !
The Dining Hall was arranged in quarters by House, each table of 10 having a spread from senior to junior. I understand this arrangement changed in about 1960 with boys of the same vintage at a table. The most junior’s responsibility included marking the block of butter into 10 equal portions, or dividing grapes equally onto 10 saucers, etc., for the head of the table to have first choice, and believe me, when you are the last to take; you became a master at dividing equally. Another finely honed skill was maximising the content of the rationed spoon of sugar at breakfast ! The standard joke was that meat was delivered on a cart drawn by two donkeys (this part was true!) – but returned with only one ! Our Cook Matron, whose name escapes me, was an absolute star. She would batter and fry the catch of bream (cleaned and filleted) from Sunday’s fishing at a local dam. Truly delicious. The ultimate was not just to catch enough fish to feed your table, but the whole house, and this we managed a couple of times!
The Sunday exeunt system permitted a minimum of four guys to declare where they would go off fishing, or whatever, for the day (after chapel, that is!) with a “picnic” lunch provided – hardly the greatest, but quite adequate. The success of a fishing trip often depended on selecting a suitable site and laying down ground bait on Saturday afternoon. The ground bait, purchased at one of the local villages, consisted of a bag of msipu; the mildly alcoholic residue from beer making, which attracted the fish to the site.
Bicycles (or grids) were not only essential transport, but sport as well. Mudguards came off, and emergency braking effected by standing on the rear wheel with foot up against the rear fork. Very efficient, but shoes ended up with odd grooves in them. Bike “touchers” was a high speed game with a short stick as “tag” and on one occasion when I was “on”, I shot round by the pool, turning between Grey and Lloyd straight into an oncoming master’s car – Mr Davies – ANY other teacher would have been preferable, I mean, he used to threaten to throw pupils out of the classroom window if they dared talk in class – anyway, after I’d hurtled over the bonnet and dusted myself off, I was dragged, limping, to my Housemaster and banned from riding my bike for 6 weeks – as if I could, the front wheel looked like Pacman in full flight ! Amazingly, there was a local black bicycle maker who lived and worked in a little tin shack not far from the Village who managed to get the wheel back into shape for a minimum charge.
Apart from the Tuck Shop, our off-meal appetites were appeased in a number of ways. The local Village bakery made divine currant buns at two for a tickey. Late night raids on the kitchen orchard for mangoes (negotiating the hedge of prickly pears) or the Head’s orchard for grapefruit. Purchasing various franchised products, the most popular included four or five varieties of fudge, Turkish delight, and sherbet. Franchises were handed down from brother to brother or “purchased”, and were fiercely guarded in terms of recipe and monopoly. At a weekly pocket money of 1s3d, any extra income was indeed a bonus. Of course, there were always plenty of ripe marulas in season, and mulberries. Another profitable franchise was hair cutting, and some guys became really skilled barbers – I think it cost a shilling or 1s6d – thereabouts anyway ! Since short back and sides were compulsory, this was a captive market.
In Gaul, junior dorm was bottom left of the entrance, middle dorm above it, senior dorm above the prep room on the right, but the coveted positions were on the upper front verandah. In those days it was not closed in with windows, but open with roll-up canvas blinds - a bit cold in winter, but glorious in summer. The front “gardens” were pretty primitive until Mr Coventry’s arrival. He organised the landscaping using labour (impots dished out at the drop of a hat – sometimes literally !) and his old dilapidated open-backed truck collecting rocks, soil and cattle manure. We were justifiably proud of what we accomplished by the ‘54 Sports Weekend. The truck was also used as transport for camping on Rhodes & Founders or Easter weekends for example. The two ground floor studies in Gaul were great for wine making as they had built in “cellars” under the floorboards. Marula wine was a natural of course, and the enormous mulberries available from Grey also made a very acceptable wine (and quite potent) – although disastrous for one guy who stored the bottles, along with his “whites”, in his shower room locker, and they “went off”! The stains took a bit of explaining!
Few Rhodesian schools, and I suspect elsewhere, could boast such a range of animals raised safely in captivity. Falconry was very keenly followed for several years. Even ostrich were reared and taken home to the farm at the end of term. Alan Savory raised genet cats and a variety of buck. I myself had several kittens. Under Mr Meara, herpetology was popular – until a gaboon viper escaped. White rats and white mice abounded, and an occasional hedgehog and squirrel. Many teachers of course had dogs, most having the freedom of the school.
Crawford the crow (the smaller black variety) disappeared as suddenly as he arrived. He may have been a pet at some stage because he had little fear; flying at will into classrooms and occasionally, to the glee of pupils, into the Dining Hall. I remember the old squash court had chicken wire over the top and the ball would occasionally get through. Getting it down involved tossing your racket up to bounce the ball until it found a suitably sized hole to drop through and the game continued. On one occasion Crawford walked across the wire, grabbed the ball, and flew off across the main cricket field with two of us in hot pursuit. He eventually got bored and dropped it. His other pastime – which nearly cost him his life – was to tease captive eagles or falcons during feeding time by pulling at their tail feathers until they dropped their meat, then he would nip round, grab it, and fly off. I believe he was saved from angry talons on more than one occasion. This accounted for his seemingly un-aerodynamic appearance with numerous wing feathers missing.
The photo of the (Gaul) prep room (courtesy Walter Zucchini), with Bishop Gaul above the trophy mantelpiece brings memories of the greatest little pet of all – the pookie. I’m sure so many will remember them – by day in your top pocket; during class, in the desk; at night (if you had a study) totally distracting you from homework; and when necessary, carefully bathing them in a plastic mug of warm soapy water and dusting them off with Johnson’s Baby Powder; and every day hunting for grasshoppers and moths. The senior/prefect in charge of prep would call for all pookies to be put on the Trophy mantelpiece where they played for the duration, streaking Bishop Gaul with their urine as they dabbed their feet for grip. Ahead of the glorious aroma of the first rains across the field came the flying ants – a pookie’s favourite food. Windows were left open long enough to saturate the prep room, then closed, and the pookies allowed to gorge themselves – what fun. Of course, everyone knew one’s own pookie ! I believe they are now “royal” game and one needs a licence to have one. There was an unwritten law when catching your own pookie - never take more than half the litter from the nest – seemed to work OK.
My academic career suffered mixed fortunes. At Whitestones I had had the dubious advantage of two years of geometry, algebra, Latin and French, which were started again from scratch in Form 1 at Plumtree. I was in the “A” stream, and by the time I got to Form 3A, my academic advantage fell from being in the top 5, to the bottom 5 in a class of about 30. At this stage, as an “experiment”, the bottom 11 were relegated to Form 4A “Remove” instead of going straight through to C1, and were housed in the dressing room behind the stage. I was horrified, especially since when we got to C1 we joined the guys a year junior to us – so to save face I really had to pull my weight academically. I wonder if that system is still operational ? One thing that miffed me somewhat was that everyone did Art and Woodwork for the first 2 years, but the “A” stream dropped them from Form 3. I always felt that the more “intellectual” A’s were far better suited to Art than the B’s – snobbish!! – but to continue with Latin for God’s sake ! I’d have far rather done Art – even woodwork, and I couldn’t cut a right angle for love nor money !
Another aspect of academia was the detention system. After classes on Saturday mornings, the school assembled in front of Beit Hall where special announcements and detentions were read out. Detentions were carried out after assembly and one lost the privilege of an exeunt to the Village. Three or more detentions in one week earned “cuts” administered by the Headmaster immediately after assembly. Mr Rolfe was amazingly inaccurate. I know of one chappie who used to look back over his shoulder during the swing and got hit on the back of his head – Mr Rolfe, who had the habit of clutching the back of his neck with his left hand, said, in a sonorous voice, “Not counted !”. The next stroke ended behind the knees, and again, it was “Not counted !”, so the poor guy ended up getting 4 for his trouble. Fortunately I managed to limit my confrontations with our next incumbent Headmaster, Mr Pattison.
Mrs Pattison was involved in music somehow. She had a cello. At about that time – circa 1956/57, there was an up and coming pianist (whose name escapes me) and we were trying to put together a dance band of sorts. I managed to borrow the said cello – with new strings specially obtained from Bulawayo – and by using an earphone strapped to its back, plugged into the school public address amplifier, had an “electric bass” for our amateur trio. I cannot comment on the quality of the music, but we had a lot of fun.
Major sports were cricket, tennis, swimming and water polo with winter sports of rugby and hockey, but no soccer. Cliff Coventry coached hockey enthusiastically, but unless one showed early talent one very rarely played as there was only one field. I moved to swimming and water polo. My harassed mentor – Bill Cordell (Grey) – had to put up with continuous pestering to play water polo, and I ultimately became School Captain in my last year. I kept fit through winter by alternating between the 2nd and 3rd rugby teams depending which team travelled away for the fixture – had a girlfriend in Bulawayo! My athletic prowess was virtually zero. I couldn’t run to save my life and I hated compulsory cross-country. For athletics, one qualified for the “A” mile for limited places, but the “B” mile consisted of every 3rd year and higher NOT in a final of any other event. I ran once and came last, though technically I didn’t even finish as we lined up in order from the finish line to be counted! Thereafter I made sure that I got into the finals of shot putt, discus or javelin. Of course, the Sports Weekend was always great fun – and still continuing I believe - we slept in the oddest of places to accommodate parents, sisters and girlfriends. We were waiters at meal times and the tips were great – in fact “waitering” sessions were often up for sale, gambling on the forthcoming tips !
The “cattle sales” were an odd tradition providing opportunities to practice heterosexual social graces. For the two or three occasions during the year when the school hosted the opposite sex, a busload each from Townsend and Eveline schools would arrive and if one didn’t have a regular girlfriend and had volunteered as an escort, one was arbitrarily paired off with one of the young ladies. It was equally horrifying for both sexes to look on a sea of pimply faces wondering which was “yours” for the duration.
Cadets was another traditional institution, along with the starched uniforms, polished leathers, mirror-like boots, and “Bisley” – when the master/”Captain” used to get most excited when the odd stray rabbit had the temerity to cross the range and became the new target! Remember the old bolt-action 303’s and foot-long bayonets ? There was also a biennial 10 day combined schools cadet camp at Nkomo barracks (I think it was) a few miles outside Salisbury on the way to Sinoia. It was a bit of a laugh really and the “Sea” cadets never stood a chance with their canvas boats on the dam – they were always sabotaged !
The Bush was the only place where smoking was permitted and which required even the Headmaster to call for permission to enter this, the prefects’ sanctuary. I remember a couple of us juniors were called in to clean out the fish pond of platties and the biggest I’d ever seen must have been a foot in diameter. On another occasion, as a House Senior and Acting Prefect for a spell on a long weekend we gambled for cigarettes. I was fortunate never to have been caught smoking or drinking home-made wine as these were both serious offences. I believe Milton had a similar prefects’ common room smoking arrangement though not as well sited as the Bush.
The teachers that I recall were :
Cliff Coventry – a very enthusiastic maths teacher & hockey coach, and Gaul housemaster (from ’53 or ˝ way ‘thru ‘52) who was responsible for many hours of impot labour collecting soil, rocks and cattle manure in the most dilapidated open-backed truck you can imagine, getting the grounds landscaped just before the Sports weekend of ’54 I think it was. The same truck was used over Rhodes & Founders as transport for the camping weekend. He could give mean cuts ! I featured frequently in the punishment record book. I believe he left to teach at Chaplin in Gwelo but I’m not sure when. (Recently passed away in New Zealand at 82- see his Biography). It was only when I saw his obituary that I realised quite a few boys had also spent time in Hartley Junior school. I was there for ˝ of 1947 and for 1948 before going to Whitestones in Bulawayo.
Mr Coffee – maths also for a spell. Didn’t have a lot of class control!
Mr van Wyk – science, in the early ‘50’s. He was a large Afrikaans man who used to run the Saturday evening bioscopes. He had a bull terrier (I think), and once just before movies started, his dog and a bull mastiff got themselves into a death grip at each other’s throat - neither letting go – and with one hand, picked both up and held them underwater in the central quadrangle fish pond till they let each other go. Transgressions in class were dealt with by him standing on your foot so you couldn’t back away, and pinching your arm while making his point – talking of which, he once broke the blackboard compasses on my rear for not finishing homework – it made more noise than pain, but scared the hell out of the next guy who hadn’t done his homework either!
Barney Meara – biology. Very enthusiastic, supported herpetology, and was rumoured to have been in a Japanese concentration camp.
Mr Conroy – history. A short Scottish gentleman and ex Royal Navy engineer I believe, and who was first Housemaster of Hammond House. For some reason he liked me, but despaired when I failed miserably in History. He was there in 1952 and I’m fairly sure still there in 1958.
Mr Davies – English. He was of Welsh extract. He was certainly teaching till 1954. He often threatened to throw pupils out of the window for talking. Taught us Chaucer – but we weren’t allowed the ruder stories! I think most of us were somewhat overawed by him.
The Barretts – Charles Barrett never taught me, but Mrs Barrett taught piano in my first year. I wasn’t a good musical pupil I’m afraid, but she was ever the patient teacher. Shortly after, a young attractive lady (whose name escapes me) came to take over these duties.
Mr Badenhorst – woodwork, and also supervised swimming and water polo. I seem to recall that he and the young piano teacher had a thing going – whether it went further I do not know.
The Turners – I had very little to do with the Turners, but I remember Mrs Turner getting the juniors to behave like the sweetest little girls on stage ! She was very theatrical.
Tony Goodburn – French & English. He and his wife Moira resided in Grey House. She in fact was younger than the oldest boy in the school when they arrived (circa 1956) – Dyson Lovell, I think it was. As a matter of interest, I believe Dyson went on to become quite a good film producer/director in the States. Moira had been to RADA in London and assisted Mrs Turner with all the dramatics and make-up etc. A couple of us used to visit regularly when we had off periods – we were allowed to smoke ! Have subsequently found that he went on to St Stephens College around 1967. At the time I had no idea that his nickname was Noddy!
Mr Edgar Smith - English. He was married to a German or Austrian lady, and in August 1955 they, together with Cliff Coventry, chaperoned about 25 boys on an extended trip around Britain and Europe. His contacts in Europe were plentiful so we got to see a lot of schloss’s and museums. We stayed for a few days in a small village in Austria called Mayrhofen which had a College of languages, and which, 20 years later on a visit with a friend, had grown to a sizeable ski resort. In all we had 8 weeks over there – an extra 2 because of problems with the ships (we sailed both ways Cape Town/Southhampton). A truly amazing trip – more details have been submitted separately for publication on the Web!
Scripture (or Religious Instruction these days I believe) – I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember the teachers’/Chaplins’ names other than the nick-names of two – in 1952, we had “Spirit” - said with a definite lisp - who wore a hearing aid and was teased by mouthing a question, and when he turned the hearing aid up, shouted it at him – we weren’t very nice in 1A. Actually we got away with murder as we were then the furthest classroom from the Headmaster! The other was “Moose” in 1955 in 4A Remove behind the stage. The blackboard was mounted on one of the double doors immediately behind the teacher’s chair and when unlocked one could swing the door open inwards – with blackboard attached - using string tied to the bottom of the door and gently pulled – it was head height. I don’t think he caught on! We could also pick the padlocks of the cupboards, and sometimes we could get about 8 of the eleven of us into them before he noticed. We weren’t very nice in 4A Remove either!
Some others whose names I have obtained from a couple of other OP’s are:
Mr Wilson – PT; Mr Eastham – Geography; Mr Moss – Science; Mr van der Merwe – Afrikaans; Mr Kuhn – Afrikaans or Latin?; Ian (Poll) Campbell – English, rugby and cricket.
Newboy List for 1952
GAUL: B.C. Atterbury; Rob W. Elliott-Murray;
Keith C. Gibson; Alan P.S. Howard; A.N. Kennedy;
Peter ? Kilburn; Dave E. Morgan; W.P. Norvall; E. (Eric ?) Pattenden; Ian G.R.
Pattullo; Anthony (Tony/Jakes) J. Stokes; Ossie R. Vaughan-Evans; Dave W.
Day Boy: P.S. Cawker.
GREY: J. Boyce; P. (Martin?) M.W. Farina; N.T. Haddon; P.A.V. Hall; R.I.V. Hall; Mike J. Hood; D. (Johnny) J. Johnstone; Philip R. Munro; John C.M. Nash; E.B. Parker; I.W. Rodger; R.H. Snoep; John N. Stokes; D.F. Wells.
MILNER: R.H. Cripps; R.B. Davidson; J.R. Dixon; A.A.J.
Gorringe; A.J. Harvey; I.M. Hume; H.R.J. Kennedy;
W.D.C. Reed; R.H. Stirrup; W.M.P. Wood.
Day Boy: M.A.T. Hughes.
TOTAL: 49 plus 4 dayboys
Newboy List for 1953
GAUL: Terrence W.
Gibson; Peter J.M. Griffiths; Chris Hay-Pluke; Mike Kilburn;
A. (Ant ?) J. Kimble; Rob D.W. Lanning; C.C. Lilford;
N.G. MacKenzie; R.T.O. Tilly.
Day Boys: T.L. Cawker; A. (Anthony?) F.H. Grace; Neville A. Lee.
LLOYD: A.A.C. Fletcher; H. (Harold?) A. Meldrum; D.J. Pearce; A.T.B. Piers; C.J.M. Scott; J.A. Sibbald; W. Wharam; D.L. Williams. Day Boys: B.W. Murgatroyd.
MILNER: M.J. Fowlds; R.G. Kay; C.R. Leah; P.J. Leah;
J.W. Margesson; H.S. Melvill; H.W.T. Munn-Mace; R.W.W. Sargent; T.W. Rackham;
R.V. Stone; B.A. Van Tonder; J.B. Whitehead.
Day Boys: V.L. Good; J. Harris.
TOTAL: 54 plus 7 dayboys
Last Updated : December 18, 2002