“Hello. My name is Tom. I'm seven years old, it's 1948 and I'm on my way to my new school in Somerset. It's a boarding school and it's the first time I've been away from home.”
We all love a good story, don’t we. In 2011, I oversaw the Perrott Hill School alumni, and it was my privilege to meet some of the ex-pupils and delve into the history of the school itself, which is when I came across a photo of a little boy whose smiling face leapt out at me, and I knew he had a story to tell.
From school records, letters, and notes, I managed to piece together Tom’s journey, both physically and emotionally, and when I sent it to the grown-up Tom, with a writer’s caveat that it was as accurate as I could make it from the information I had, he replied:
“my version might be ‘accurate’, Sophia, but your imagination is sacred and should not be compromised.”
The Story of Tom Clack’s Schooldays
I'm smiling but I'm not happy; my shirt collar is just a little too tight and the sleeves of my blazer just a little too short. My mother had to order my new uniform a long time ago so it's all a bit too small now. My suitcase is crammed full of everything I like; my mother packed it for me; I hope she remembered to pack Arthur. Mum warned me I might be teased, but I take him everywhere; he may be a little worn around the edges and his arm has been repaired many times, but he belonged to dad so he's a very special bear to me. We boarded the train at Waterloo, my sister is very quiet, she's wearing her new hat and coat that were bought specially for the trip, but I think she'd rather be in her summer dress and sandals. Mum keeps telling her off because she is fidgeting so much. There are a few other boys on board, and we are all in the care of one of the masters from the school we are going to.
I hope I will like the school. I'm trying hard not to cry.
We arrive at Crewkerne train station on Wednesday 8 September at 11.30 in the morning, this was the first time I'd been on a train in England; the trains in India aren't very nice but my uncle said now the trains have been nationalised in England, it's going to lead to problems and will probably end up like India. I hope not because I like train journeys, especially when we go rushing through the countryside and I can see the steam whooshing past the carriage window and the whistle blows loudly as we go through a tunnel.
We didn't have much to eat on our way here so I'm pretty hungry, everyone keeps saying 'there has been a war you know, there'll be rationing for months to come'. Apparently, the school gardens were turned over to vegetable patches during the war and they still have them, so maybe there will be plenty to eat at school.
I have a big lump in my throat, but I mustn't cry. My father told me that when he's not there, I have to be the man of the house. He hasn't been around for a long time now.
[Tom told me his mother was widowed, so it is likely his father was either killed or had gone missing during the war].
It's very hot and I want to take my blazer off, but mum says I must keep it on. My socks feel tight round my legs. I wish I was at home running round on the farm.
There's a poster for North Wales on the wall and the picture shows a river rushing over rocks and a man fishing; I'd much rather be there than standing here waiting for a taxi to take us to my new school.
My school cap is very prickly and it's making my head very hot and itchy.
The taxi driver struggles to put my trunk into the boot, it's quite heavy and the car sinks even lower when we pile onto the back seat. The driver knows where the school is, he has already taken a few boys there. I sat next to Westropp who had started the term before. He was very kind and friendly and took me under his wing.
Mum looks straight ahead but reaches out to hold my hand, as she does, she looks down at me and smiles.
It's a quick journey and we're soon there. The school looks like an old manor house, and it's surrounded by gardens and fields.
There are two grown-ups standing at the front, we think it's the headmaster and his wife. She looks alright but he looks scary. I hold mum's hand tighter.
When we get out of the car, my mother chats to the headmaster and then I'm called over to shake his hand. He's very tall and has bristly eyebrows.
Suddenly a group of around seven boys appear from the side of the house; they've got a football and invite me to play a game. I was just about to run off with them when I'm told I have to go to my dorm to unpack.
All too soon it's time to say goodbye. My mother gives me a hug and says dad would be very proud of me. I didn't mean to, but I burst into tears, I hold onto my mother so tight, I don't want to let go. She strokes my hair, like she does when I'm not feeling very well. When I look up, I can see she's crying.
"I don't want to stay mum, take me with you."
Then someone else comes into the room and I can feel my grip being loosened and before I could do or say anything, my mother and sister have gone and I'm sitting on the bed with the headmaster's wife.
"The other boys are outside playing football. Find your shorts and games shirt, get changed and go outside. We'll have lunch in half an hour."
I was glad to get out of the tight uniform and very excited about my new games shirt because it had a picture of a dragon on the front.
After I'd changed, I ran downstairs and outside, perhaps mum would still be there, waiting to take me home. But there was no one there, no one except the seven boys who were running up and down and shouting at the top of their voices. My three older sisters had promised to play football with me before I left home, but they forgot to, so I was very excited to play for the first time at school and I had the best game ever.
My grandfather who grew coffee in India, had sent me a small hand made Indian football to take to school. I was enthralled with this treasure, until I arrived at Perrott and realised it was tiny compared with the real thing. People were quite polite about it, but it went straight into my tuck box, deflated in every way, and stayed there!
A boy called Spencer burst into tears in the first game, because his side lost, and for the rest of his time at Perrott, he was known as “Waterworks”!
Oddly, the new boys didn’t cry in the first term, I think we were all in shock. The real home sickness hit us at the beginning of the second term, no idea why.
Before bedtime, we were allowed to sit in the headmaster's study, and he told us what was being reported in the news; we talked about the British pilot John Derry who had flown the British De Havilland 08 Fighter plane faster than the speed of sound.
The eight of us went to bed after that and chatted excitedly about being a pilot. We were tucked in by Mrs Grundy, and her sister, Miss Henry, who was the matron, and she wore a pale blue uniform with starched white cap and apron with an upside-down watch pinned to it. They were nice, but in a starchy, no-nonsense way. Mr Grundy was likewise very nice, and very tall with long bristly eyebrows which were a bit terrifying.
Arthur sat at the top of my bed.
I didn't cry.