Plumtree School - Old Prunitians

Extracted from The Prunitian 1998. Written by his son, Richard Barrett.

Charles Reginald Barrett (1903-1997)

e served the School for the lengthy period of 36 years and was Housemaster of Milner for 16 of them.

My father was born in Fulham, but when he was still very young the family moved to Hampstead, where they lived on Rosslyn Hill. He was the eldest of three children, two boys and a girl. His father, Charles William Barrett, was a builder who built a number of terraced cottages in Hampstead and later became quite prosperous. When my father was a child, the family was not well off. However, at William Ellis School he was a sufficiently gifted pupil to win an open scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he completed the natural sciences tripos, specialising in Physics. Surprisingly, he failed to obtain a very good degree at Cambridge. An important factor in this was ill-health, leading to his hospitalisation for a mastoid operation and continuing after that - penicillin had not been invented. He also said that, while he had worked hard, he had not really known how to study.

Why my father became a teacher is not clear, but it was a good decision. Initially he spent an unsettled year at Wellington School. This experience, together with ill-health, led to his emigration in 1927 to Southern Rhodesia  where for 36 years he was a teacher at Plumtree School - again a decision which he never regretted. 

Hammond, the Headmaster at Plumtree, was a "bit of a snob" and made sorties back to the UK to recruit Oxbridge graduates. Indeed, my father used to claim that as a Cambridge graduate his standing in the School was very high until it became known that his father was a builder! A year or so after arriving at Plumtree he met my mother, who had come north from her home in Cape Town to be the school's music teacher. They married in 1931.

In adulthood my father was 5'5" in height, but once was described by a doctor as "perfectly in proportion" ! In his early forties he looked in his early twenties. He dressed like one of the boys in khaki shirt and shorts, stockings and shoes. There is a story that once while he was reading the Milner House notice board at the beginning of term one of the boys, mistaking him for another, slapped him on the back and asked him if he was glad to be back.

The school he joined was set in a small village of the same name, Victorian in its close-knit relations and strong sense of propriety. The main thoroughfare ran between, on the one side, three department stores, a butcher, a Post Office and an hotel and on the other side, the Railway Station. At the Station was a cafe which would sell anything that could be crammed into its confined space. The cafe was the first place in the village to sell ice cream, an event of some significance to my brothers and me as at home we did not have a refrigerator. (The ice cream came by train from Bulawayo, and from where we lived we could hear the train coming and, jumping on a bicycle, race it to the Station.) On the other side of the railway line were superior residences - including those of the District Commissioner, the Chief of Police, the doctor and the vicar - and a Country Club. At the centre of the village lived the oldest residents, Mr. and Mrs. McGee; Mrs. McGee was a key figure in village councils.

In 1947 the King, Queen, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret visited the School during their tour of Southern Africa. This was a time when the Royal Family was held in considerable awe and very popular in view of its exemplary behaviour during the war. In preparation for the Royal Visit the main thoroughfare through the village received a tarmac surface and subsequently its name, Kingsway.

The School was a boarding school of about three hundred boys, many of whom were the sons of farmers. It had magnificent grounds and buildings including Beit Hall, built in a classic Greek style, and an attractive Spanish­style church. Beit Hall served as assembly room, theatre and weekly "bioscope". There were thirteen playing fields. Modelled on an English public school, Plumtree was probably in its heyday when my brothers and I were pupils there. It excelled in scholarship, sport and "cadets". In terms of scholarship it would regularly capture about half of the Beit bursaries which assisted Southern Rhodesian youth to study at South African universities. My father's role, by then, was that he exclusively taught Sixth Form mathematics and physics and it was the science side that particularly flourished. He once said that early on at Plumtree he was almost sacked because of an inability to keep order. By the time he taught us discipline was not a problem, but neither was he a disciplinarian - classes were held in a relaxed atmosphere.

My parents had three sons and, much later, a daughter. Charles was a family name and they duly made it Roger's second name and my first. The son of my father's younger brother, George, was also named Charles. On my mother's side, one of her brothers was Charles and so too his son. Thus my father was delighted when Charles was the chosen name for the Prince (and I remember talk of writing to Buckingham Palace to say so !)

On the outbreak of World War II teachers in Southern Rhodesia were told to stay at their posts. Plumtree was relatively isolated and therefore a safe place to be but with three small children times were hard financially, given the level at which teachers' pay remained until in 1948 the government doubled their salaries. During the war my father was placed in charge of the school's Air Cadets and as children we enjoyed watching the occasional Tiger Moth, used for training purposes, take off or land at the tiny local aerodrome. By the end of the war the school had an extensive Roll of Honour as school­leavers tended to volunteer immediately for one of the armed services. When, after the war, memorial school gates were erected the boys were expected to touch their hats on each occasion that they passed through.

At some point the family acquired a 1932 Vauxhall which had previously been the property of the Anglican Church. Given the family's financial resources, this was intended to be used sparingly and only for longer journeys, a restriction which was the source of some argument between our parents. My father drove the car very carefully and, to our exasperation, never faster than twenty miles an hour on the 60-mile trip to Bulawayo. The problem was that if you broke down on the strip-road to Bulawayo it might be an hour before another car came along. The rule of the road was that when two cars passed each was entitled to one tarmac strip for one of its pairs of wheels, and since the sides of the road could be quite soft the process was mildly hazardous. I remember an occasion when the driver ahead, from pure malice, would not give way - blissfully unaware of the fact that with us in our car was the Chief of Police.

My brothers and I attended Plumtree School and my father taught each of us Mathematics and Physics. He decided, and we were grateful for it, that in school we would be treated just like the other boys. Thus, for instance, in class he called each of us by our surname. During most of the eleven years when one or more of us attended the school, he was Housemaster of Milner House and in that capacity made the excellent decision that we would each participate fully in the life of the House. Hence, we attended morning and evening assemblies, rested on our beds after lunch, did our prep at the same time as the other boys, went for cross-country runs and were required, in common with them, to take a cold shower first thing in the morning ! The result of all this was that we found ourselves feeling sorry for the several other dayboys who were much less well integrated into the life of the school.

From my father we each inherited the nickname "Bobe", short for "Bo Ben". The origins of this he did not like to admit, but we believe it derived from "Bold Ben" and was a reference to the contrast between his diminutive size arid the strength and clarity of his voice. However, he was basically a soft-hearted and gentle person, very kind to our servants.

In his will my father described his vocation as that of "schoolmaster" and indeed the word "teacher" is an inadequate description of his duties at Plumtree. Teachers at the school were expected to play a major part in the life of the school outside lessons. For sixteen years he was Housemaster of Milner House and for about half of that time was Deputy Headmaster. He was also in charge of school tennis. As a Housemaster, along with two Assistant Housemasters, a Matron, cleaners and gardeners, he was in charge of and responsible for 70 boys aged between eleven and eighteen. Milner, the oldest House, is unique in that it is in the shape of three sides of a square, with the Housemaster's quarters situated in the middle. The other three Houses have the Housemaster's quarters in a secluded setting at the end of the building. I am sure my father liked the arrangement at Milner, which meant that the life of the family was closely interwoven with that of the House.

The high point of the school year was Sports Weekend. Over sixty parents and others stayed for the occasion in Milner House, the boys surrendering their beds and sleeping on the floor. Each morning my mother prepared tea for all these guests. Inter-House athletics started on Friday afternoon and continued through Saturday, culminating in a tug-of-war competition on Saturday afternoon. On Friday night the school performed a Gilbert & Sullivan play, and on Saturday evening there was a House garden party followed by the School Dance. To round the weekend off on Sunday morning the parents accompanied their sons to church before leaving for home.

My father continually received cards, letters and visits from Old Boys of the school and particularly those of Milner House. A striking instance occurred two years ago when a letter arrived, followed by a visit, from an Old Boy who was in Milner House between 1938 and 1942 (when my father was an Assistant Housemaster).

Given his duties, my father seemed to us in term-time to be mostly closeted in his Housemaster's Study. He did not often engage in idle chit-chat and, perhaps partly because of his dual role as father and schoolmaster, familiarity on the part of his sons was not encouraged. He did, however, provide words of warning or consolation when needed and these were always well chosen and much appreciated. As we grew up we also appreciated his readiness to admit to having made a mistake if he felt this to have been the case. When my sister Jane arrived he became much more the indulgent father, as perhaps was natural, and her relationship with him was a much freer one. (With Jane being much younger than us we, her three brothers, also spoilt her a bit as well as teasing her.)

In the school holidays my father could relax a bit. We recall with pleasure camping at Dutchman's Finger, visits to the Skinners' farm and longer visits to his sister Mildred and her husband Mac in Umtali and to our mother's relatives in Cape Town and Pretoria. Mildred had followed my father out to Africa, achieved high rank (equivalent to brigadier) in the Women's Royal Army Corps during World War II, and later married an army officer who became Headmaster of Umtali Boys' High School. A feature of these excursions was that we did not bother to lock up the house whilst we were gone - there was, after all, virtually no crime.

Our best holidays were in the Cape and part of the pleasure was getting there. At a later stage we might travel by car, spending five days over the journey. Usually, though, we journeyed by train which took two to three days. The family would share a compartment which comprised of six bunks and a wash-basin, the lower bunks doubling as seats and the other bunks and the wash-basin folding away when not in use. With the middle hunk, care needed to be taken to close the window so that you could not kick anything out. At the risk of a smut in the eye from the engine, one of the joys for a child was hanging his head out the window to see what lay ahead, and we also liked the excitement of standing in the open bays which connected the carriages. At major stops everyone got out and walked around, and as we three boys collected stamps we might look for a Post Office. Meals in the dining car were excellent, and to call us to a sitting a steward walked up and down playing the appropriate tune on a xylophone. In the evenings, a steward made up our beds.

My father liked to relax with a crossword puzzle and was a competent chess player. He played the piano and could sight- read well. When younger he played squash and ten­nis and in later years golf which he continued playing into his eighties. He loved gardening, smoked a pipe for many years and, in retirement, learned to cook. In spite of the school's location in a small farming village, he never developed much interest in hunting and fishing. He never, for instance, owned a gun, believing it to be more a source of danger than protection. Our many cats, as it happened, protected us against snakes.

Socially, he probably found it unnecessary to be really intimate with others, communicating his innermost thoughts only to my mother. However, they were a popular couple and had some very good friends at Plumtree. To mention a few, there was Herbert Brooke, who farmed in spite of having lost a leg in World War I, and was a cousin of the poet, Rupert Brooke. Next, there were the Skinners, who owned a large farm near Plumtree and who said that if ever someone else's house appeared on their horizon they would move. Later, there were Jimmy and Olive Robertson, Jimmy being a consultant surgeon in Salisbury (now Harare) and Olive rising to become a Rhodesian Senator. Finally there were Harold and Felix Westwood who joined the school in the fifties, Harold eventually taking over my father's record for length of service to the school.

The school was a big part of my father's life. Although after retirement he continued teaching for a further fifteen years in Battersea, London until he was 75, it was not the same. On embarking on this last stint of teaching he worried that in the different environment of an Inner-London school he would not be able to maintain discipline. He need not have. One reason for his continued success was his optimistic outlook. Although a realist, he believed in the power of the teacher to achieve good, even when confronted with less receptive pupils.

In latter years St Mary's Church, Wimbledon became an important part of my father's life. He distrusted a highly emotional approach to religion and also disliked religious fanaticism, observed at close quarters when his younger brother George married into the Plymouth Brethren. Whilst he had a strong sense of the mystery of life, he would get on with things rather than spend much time pondering it. Essentially he believed that "by your works ye shall be judged" and he had a great respect for the work of the missionaries in Africa and the padres in the two World Wars. The Anglican Church's lack of dogmatism suited him too. He loved the latter's history and beauty and its fellowship. He was a very stable, down-to-earth person, sincere and straightforward in his dealings with others and able to transmit to his children a sense of order and a feeling for family history.

My father's final seven weeks were spent in hospital, mostly in Kingston Hospital. Frustrated with his frailness, he could still look back on his life and say, "I have been lucky". Speech became an effort, but his face would light up when visited by a member of the family and on the last occasion he waved a goodbye. He never showed any fear of death and in the end he was ready to go.

He once described himself as living for work and his family. He was very successful in his work and took good care of his family.

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