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News > Alumni News and Profiles > John Rees (O39/43) Reminiscences

John Rees (O39/43) Reminiscences

Here, John Rees, remembers his time as both pupil, teacher and Housemaster at King's. David Graham (O60/65) and Marcus Hill (O60/65) also play tribute to John.
John Rees Remembers his time at King's
John Rees Remembers his time at King's
My time as a Pupil

I had come down in the Spring of 1939 to take the scholarship exam ( my very nice Prep-school Headmaster drove me down) and I remember, after life in Bristol- Clifton, seeing the town nestled in the valley, as we breasted Creech Hill, thinking what a lovely rural comforting setting it was. One vivid first impression was of the wisteria over Old House doorway in its tumble of colour. I managed to get a scholarship and began in September, two weeks after my fourteenth birthday and the outbreak of war .

I suppose my father expected war which was why I was sent away from Bristol as it was a likely target. As an only child I was looking forward to companionship. My ideas of boarding were drawn from the weeklies; Gem, Magnet (my generation will remember them!) and probably Kipling’s Stalky and Co. I was more excited than apprehensive.

I don’t remember much of my arrival. My parents did not accompany me. I got on a train in the evening in September and arrived alone.
I was pleased to be behind the wisteria in Old House, whose housemaster Peter Vesey was a  deeply kind man. Not very tall, but very large around the girth with a good head of white hair. He was a very good and enthusiastic cricketer (which was a bond since I was dedicated to cricket.) He also played the cello. He would practise after lights out, playing in the chimney breast.  I think he thought the sound would drift like smoke out and away up the chimney. Instead it was richly amplified in the hollow behind him! We all called him ‘the old man’ and he started every remark with a nasal ‘EE’   When there was a riotous rumpus, it would be ‘Ee, what’s going on?’

There was a tradition that we could light the fires in the two fireplaces in the upper dormitory twice a term which usually encouraged a free for all. ‘Where’s the old man?’ one asked cautiously. Up popped Peter Vesey ‘Ee, here I am.’ he said.  There were about 120 boys when I arrived, but over 200 when I left four years later. Old House was a family, and Peter Vesey very much a protective father of it. The Old Library was used by the whole sixth form, and occasionally became rowdy, but he never believed ‘his’ boys were responsible- embarrassing when we wanted to be counted among the guilty!
The War

Thinking back, I now know I was very lucky that all my schooling happened during the war. Apart from the nightly blackout and the rationing, we were not immediately conscious of the war, but it impinged in undefined ways. You were conscious of the wider world so that the petty smaller things did not merit attention. There was a concentrated sense of an oasis that gave shelter and security but also fostered an intimacy in relationships with staff who might suddenly disappear, or other boys whose brothers would! It lent a sense of freedom. Small things come back vividly. I do remember you could book a boiled egg at tea once a week, and I did that! An egg was a real treat.

A very kind senior in Old House, Geoffrey Archer, left and within a year was flying Lancaster bombers over Italy. He flew a return over the alps with one engine! The downing of a German plane near Alfred’s Tower was one excitement. Another, more serious, was a German bomber returning towards the channel and offloading all his bombs over Sherborne. He hit the primary school, but luckily the children had left quarter of an hour earlier, or the carnage would have been devastating.

Rupert Martin was Headmaster throughout my time. He was tall, very elegant, with a kind of natural charm, although asthmatic and with odd nervous ticks. When you were with him, he gave you the impression you were the only person he wanted to see. Perhaps his asthma was the reason he could not enlist. He was a boy at Shrewbury and a good soccer player who played for Southampton, or Portsmouth, can’t remember which.  He wore his headship very lightly, but occasionally let rip.

When one of the old boys, Strickland, who had joined the RAF, buzzed the cricket field in his spitfire during a match, only just clearing the pavilion, Rupert was incensed.. and marched away to write to his commanding officer. We all thought it very friendly heroism! Strickland was killed in action soon after. We were surrounded in the memorial hall by names of the first war dead, and suddenly it was being continued by those we knew. We became part of history and in a kind of way we knew it. It gave a sense of purpose that no longer exists, and can’t. It sharpened life, undoubtedly.

The state of the nation and the preservation of liberty underpinned everything and intensified everything good and diminshed the trivial. Sorry. (This was for the tears that sprung) It was all so free, you see. Because it was so precious.

If you were in the CCF (It wasn’t called that then- I can’t remember what it was called) you went to visit various military establishments and I recall the excitement at Yeovil Naval Air Station, sitting on the wings of a spitfire and listening to the mechanics working, and continually effing and blinding. I had never heard such explicit oaths so cheerfully dropped along with the spanners!

I think because of the war, boys were perhaps more mature and Rupert was very elastic in allowing some liberties. One boy, appropriately called ‘Slaughter’, was seen by Rupert carrying a shot gun behind pigeon tower. ‘Game good today? was all Rupert asked before passing on. He was like that. In that way we were very trusted. There was a wonderful craggy woman near the West End who secreted beer in her cottage and had us in on Saturday nights. At  the Red Lion in Brewham, Ma Dene regularly served the older boys and Rupert called on her to remonstrate.’ No, no the boys never come here’ she said.’Well who are all those?’ asked Rupert pointing to the photographs on her wall of many he knew. As long as you contributed, owned up, and caused no-one else any difficulties he usually thought words were enough.

Staff recruitment must have been a real problem. I had John Tyndale to teach me maths for one term after which he joined up for a distinguished career in the Gloscesters. Then a teacher from Sunnyhill came but was not really up to it, so I more-or-less taught myself. Tom Tremlett was a good and scholarly history teacher, and Alan Yates Brown ( whose father wrote The Life of a Bengal Lancer) taught languages. But academic standards probably suffered because of the pressure of war and staff departures. Teaching was rather haphazard, so you had to be more self-reliant and find your own ways.

I also remember being somewhat prepared, very delicately, for life to come by Peter Vesey who offered me novels dealing with both romance and sexual encounters. They were very chaste but I knew he was educating me for a new arena to come! As a man who had never married, his care was unstated and thoughtful. I hope, in some ways, he prepared me for Housemastering myself when it happened later; part father, part mentor.
School Career and School Standards

I have no idea why I was made Headboy. I think it may have been a rather ardent evangelical stage I was going through (under the influence of a Matron in another House) Anyway. cricket took over when I was made Captain and religious matters faded. Being Head had no obvious responsibilites beyond escorting the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I remember asking Rupert Martin what I should call the Bishop:
‘My Lord’ the first time and then Sir’ Bit like the Queen’s ‘mam’.

It was Rupert who wangled my entry to Oxford on a Services Short Course of six months because my results had not been brilliant but he persuaded them that we had not received much teaching. I remember Jess, the College Porter at Queens, who had known Rupert at Queen’s, as an undergraduate saying when he first admitted me ‘Ah, you have the charm of Mr Martin’s School!’  King's was known for its friendliness, not renowned, but fundamentally a kind of civilised relaxed ease.

When I returned to Oxford to read History, after the war was over, Jess greeted me ‘Nice to have you back, sir’. Those are such good memories.

My own war in the Marines was travelling to wondeful Ceylon, and having a batman who called me ‘sir’ and who did everything, and seeing something of the world. I remember pawpaw and pineapple for breakfast sitting close to the beach and breakers in the Officer’s Mess. I spent much time in search of parts for engines, and almost any expressed desire procured by an inventive Sinhalese who probably lifted it from someone else- their loyalty knew no bounds! I do think conscription gave us all not only the discipline but opportunity to encounter every class, background, and talent. A couple of wonderful Geordies in my squad; I learned so much from them, the ‘can do, will do’ of those who had had so little comparatively. My services only lasted for two years but I’d say I was never happier. No active service and very privileged.

The Marine training at Deal was fairly punitive, but absolutely fair. Anybody over arrogant or pushing boundaries was likely to be sent on an Arctic Convoy: Indeed one was! I joined two separate squads for training owing to being hit by an American lorry on a country lane in the blackout. I doubt he knew he had hit me, because he didn’t stop. I was sent to the Naval Hospital with a badly shattered knee. That delayed active service until the war was almost over. I never regretted failing the eye tests for the Navy, and being taken in by the Marines. Its demands were exacting. but its comradeship made accepting them natural.

One thing I should mention is that when I was back at Oxford there were five of us in my college from King's. That is quite an indication: Five in one college from a very small school. Perhaps the reason was also a by-product of the war because although we had had rather interrupted teaching, many boys who would have gone to St Paul’s, Eton or Westminster had come to Bruton because of the bombing. So very bright boys probably compensated for other things and made the most of its rural safety.

The war also made a difference when Oxford happened; we were much the oldest undergraduate intake, and again it intensified the privilege of being there and of study itself. We were very much the lucky few. I took study much too seriously and I remember Lord Franks, the Provost dismissing me saying ‘Work less, think more Mr Rees’. I should  have heeded that more than I did.
As a Teacher

My first post was achieved by offering my services to Geoffrey Sale, after graduation. I had no teaching qualifications but a simple letter did it. I taught History and some mathematics, coached cricket, hockey and rugby, ran the scouts (very badly- I was soon relieved of that) and I also got marrried. It was a taxing life, which meant you were really married to the school. Marking history essays took up most nights until midnight. Looking back, I now appreciate why most of the staff were unmarried. My house tutors, Gerald Cooper and Andrew Leach both were bachelors. As was Basil Wright who I was with throughout both school and Oxford.

It was not until later when I taught at the Girls’ Schools (Sherborne and Leweston)  where teaching was all you did, that I looked back on the regime at King's, (and almost every boys public school) that we all accepted. It was almost a devoted monastic legacy, I suppose. My first wife and I lived in a small cottage behind the Royal Oak on Coombe Street, but work was dominant, and in my case, obsessive.  I was almost always ill during the holidays when I could afford to let go. There was no remuneration for heading a department or any extra duties, so it was hard on my wife; she hardly saw me, and nor did my two children. That has given me much regret.

Some highlights stand out, mainly extra curricular events. I remember a performance of Carmina Burana which was the final concert given by Music Director, Robert South, as he was due to leave. It was such a contrast to the rather staid performances of Lieder sung by the likes of Peter Piers, that had bored the boys rigid. I remember thinking Robert might have thought of such excitement earlier! Music was, at that time, an unfamiliar world to me. There were occasional boys who played, like a boy in Old House - Pat Ovens who was an accomplished oboist, and Marcus Hill proficient enough with his tuba to get an audition for the National Youth Orchestra, but the Music Department was not to the fore. I recall being asked to provide a taxi to collect ‘a musician’ due to perform from Castle Cary Station. The matron obliged and went in a mini to collect a very tall man with a very large instrument. Paul Tortellier managed to fold himself in two and somehow they managed the cello. That was rather embarrassing.

I taught for twelve years before being offered the Housemastership of Old House.
Life as a Housemaster

Just as I was lucky being a boy in the war, I was equally fortunate to be a Housemaster in the sixties (from 1960-68).  In a way the atmosphere of the sixties recaptured that of the war. Again the wider world impinged. There was an energy of ideas and an exciting vitality. You felt the ground was moving. Sometimes I had to balance the claims of a boy against his parents. I remember one who was determined to join the Aldermarston March. His father forbade it, but I admired him for wanting to; so I solved the problem by not noticing his disappearance!

The role of a Housemaster is partly being parental but knowing where to stop. I am not sure I always got that right. There was one I was very fond of who came back soon after he had left, with hair on his shoulders. In those days long hair was taboo and I gave him a telling off for it. For that I am deeply ashamed. I overstepped the boundaries and hurt him gravely. It still haunts me!

I don’t remember any conflicts with a boy.  One or two crises like acute appendicitis, and the anxiety of an ambulance, and the decisions about when to accept a boy’s determination to play rugby after illness. I relied on Jack Taylor, the doctor’s experienced instincts which were almost always correct. Nari Mehta’s mother (tipped to become the Indian High Commissioner) arrived in a yellow Rolls Royce with a coat of arms on its door to discuss his progress with a formidable good looking Indian called Bilimoria. I felt very much it was my progress under scrutiny!

A Housemaster touches on lives beyond the classroom, through both the family and the enthusiasms, which you have to take as they come. You stay still and the world comes to the door. That’s a kind of metaphor for all my life at King’s, and since!

I think Old House did cause some jealousy from other houses, not sure whether it was its antiquity, being the original school. It’s stones, garrets, fire escapes, and the Jacobean staircase in Plox came close to a kind of Harry Potterish romance. I remember A.L Rowse admiring it when he came to give a talk.  Old House does have a magic. I have never seen the changes made. Not sure I want to. It is better left untouched in the mind. It remains a world apart.

The high point was through the relationships with ‘my’ charges, boys in the House. Some still keep in touch. I recall a fantastic production of A Man For All Seasons when Everard O’Donnell played Cromwell with incredible maturity. It got a rave review from a London critic. He might have gone into acting rather than Law, but he succeeded at whatever he tried. In fact very few of ‘my’ boys failed to make their mark; all very individual, but each seemed to carve out their own worlds, in one way or another; they were very individual. Being close to them was a great enrichment for me.

My decision to leave and go to Cambridge to St Faith’s was a terrible mistake. I suppose I felt I had to ‘branch out’ and possibly seek a Headship; one did feel that in those days, and King's had been central for perhaps ‘too long’ in career terms.. The error of the decision hit me as soon as I woke on the flat fens of Cambridge on the first morning.

Getting back to the West Country was all I thought about. Coming back to the area enabled me to enjoy the school, the cricket and the rugby without being responsible for any of it. You could say King’s has always been home. Our succession of dogs would say so and they did better than I did in knowing never to cross the boundaries!

I have been blessed, and was particularly warmed in recovering some of my charges in recent years. A few kind ones still keep in touch but I have outlived many, which should not have happened.

This mug was presented to John and his good friend Mike Hall as a thank you for constant match attendance by the first Rugby Fifteen in 2017.
David Graham (O60/65) tribute. ( CEO of his Family firm, Birchalls; Five generations in tea – India, Ceylon, Kenya and Rwanda)


Many years ago and after an absence of far too long, I organised a re-union at The Goring Hotel in London with John, which included Marcus Hill, Phillip Mitchell and Nari Mehta. It was a wonderful and celebratory occasion with early drinks, lunch, tea and a return to the bar. It ended well into the evening when the concierge passed a worried message from JR's daughter enquiring about his whereaboutsI Since this time we have had the good fortune to meet more regularly and Peter Dobson has been able to join us. It is a rare privilege to remain in touch with our outstanding Housemaster.

September 1960 was his first term at Old and our first term at Bruton. He was and remains a guiding light and through those important teenage years he was an anchor, particularly to those of us who had parents far away from the UK. Roll call every night, followed by prayers and once one moved into the upper and lower dorm, he visited us each evening before lights out. Firm, fair and kind with an ability to overlook some of our more stupid exploits - a perfect combination which made our years at KSB such fun and with so many very happy memories and friendships. The perfect platform from which most of us have made a pretty decent success of life. Thank you John for all your patience and great influence, it will never be forgotten.

Marcus Hill (O60/65) Head of Old House 1965 Tuba player and St Mary’s Church Organist while at school! Later teacher at the International School, Sherborne.
 At least 30 years had passed since I left King's in 1965, so you can imagine my surprise when walking up a backstreet in Sherborne after work, a familliar shuffle morphed into John Rees. In fact, at that moment no years seemed to have passed at all; here was my Housemaster, the man who had stood in for my parents who were abroad, who guided me with charm and patience (taught me with even more patience) and moulded the whole house into a family. I believe we all felt the same.

I, for one, tended to avoid breaking house or school rules because if one did, inevitably at the crucial moment Mr. Rees would mysteriously appear. We were not frightened of his punishments, but I think we respected him to a degree where we didn’t want to let him down, just as we wouldn’t want to let down our own parents.

I am lucky to live close enough to the Rees’s to visit them easily. When I go I can be sure of a good chat and fascinating stories. I thank him for then and now.

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