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three pairs of lovers with space



Brian St. John Inglis (31 July 1916 – 11 February 1993) was an Irish journalist, writer and television producer who spent almost all his life in England.

His memoir, Downstart: The Autobiography of Brian Inglis was published in 1990 by Chatto & Windus, London. Presented here is all that is of Greek love interest, that is most of the fourth chapter, “Salopian”, concerning his schooldays at Shrewsbury, one of England’s nine official public schools, which he attended from the Summer term of 1930 to the Lent term of 1935, so aged the usual 13 to 18.[1]

4  Salopian

There cannot be many public school housemasters who have been the subject of a full-scale biography; but Michael Charlesworth's  J. B. Oldham, published in 1986, is a sympathetic account of a man who led a life which 'whatever its importance, was extraordinary’. Charlesworth only came to Oldham`s Hall as a new boy the term after Oldham retired; but when he returned to Shrewsbury to teach he found Oldham still school Librarian, and came to know him well. The fact he was not in the house under Oldham has helped him to present a more balanced view of this character than any of us who were under his charge could have hoped to give.

James Basil Oldham had entered Shrewsbury at the same time as my father, though neither of them had any recollection of the other. An elder brother had acquired the nickname of ‘the Gash’; Basil - perhaps because of a certain slurring of his voice - became ‘The Gush’. He was to find it had stuck to him when, after Oxford and a scaled-down version of the 'Grand Tour', he had an invitation from the headmaster to return to Shrewsbury for one term to teach history, a subject then held in such little esteem that in the History Side, formed from boys specialising in the subject, he had only three pupils.

The temporary appointment, however, was renewed, term by term; and when the number of boys began to increase following the arrival of the polymath C. A. Alington as Headmaster, he was not merely brought in to the permanent staff but encouraged to build the new house that was needed, out of his own pocket - on his terms: he would be the housemaster, and have the lease for ninety-nine years. This appeared to ensure he would remain housemaster until he retired. In the meantime, he determined to make his house outstanding not in terms of sporting or scholastic achievement (though he would have welcomed that, too), but in producing the Right Type of Boy.

Godliness and manliness were the qualities to be sought after, ‘along with Loyalty and a sense of Duty’, Charlesworth recalls; ‘team spirit' summed up all these qualities. This, Oldham believed, required a degree of intimacy with those boys whom he was prepared to trust, far closer than most housemasters would have approved. He actually described himself as homosexual. The term had only come into use in the 1890s; he employed it in its initial sense of preferring male to female. In his case, this was an understatement; he would occasionally show signs of having a physical aversion to women. When it became clear that certain boys were likely to provide him with suitable material, he would take them on trips abroad where, to facilitate the process of getting to know them, he behaved as one of them, while still imposing his rules; a cold bath, or shower, first thing every morning, after which he would put on socks and boots and then shave, before finishing dressing. A heavy drinker of whisky himself, he let his boys drink what they wanted to; we would occasionally be invited to a formal dinner in his section of the house, and given sherry before, and wine with, the meal.

J. Basil Oldham in old age

If this system was going to work, Oldham decided, he must show that he could leave the day-to-day running of the house to those in whom he had decided to place his trust. He went to great lengths to avoid interference; if he wanted something, or someone, he would open the door which led from his section and wait there until a boy appeared, before asking him to do whatever was required. He would not even call out, if no boy happened to appear for a time. Only last thing at night, by which time everybody would be in bed, did he come round for a ritual “lights out”.

As a result, Oldham had little idea what was happening in his house. He did not realise - not, at least, until it began to dawn on him after his retirement - that the loyalty and team spirit which he inculcated were interpreted by his chosen few as being not to him, but to them. For any of us to tell 'the Gush' about what was going on in the house illicitly, because of his misplaced trust, would have been as unthinkable as telling our parents. This conditioning was startlingly effective; I would not have dreamed of telling my parents that after the Dragon School, Shrewsbury for the first couple of years was a hell for anybody who was not an exceptionally gifted footballer or cricketer.

In one respect it was the worse for me, through arriving in the summer term as the only new boy in the house. Oldham benevolently invited me to arrive a day early, to get used to the feel of the place before the rest of the forty-five-odd members of the house arrived, but, being busy, he despatched me to wander round ‘the Site’, the area enclosed by the school’s bounds. Beside the school hall, named after Alington, I encountered another new boy from Riggs Hall – Haydon’s House; we fell into conversation, and it turned he came from Dublin. Ball had an agreeably friendly with him; how lucky, I thought, to fall in with a likely friend from the start.

During the time we shared at Shrewsbury, I was never to speak to Ball again - except on the mail boat back to Ireland; and when I took to returning on the B & I boats from Liverpool even that connection was lost. There were few more rigorously enforced conventions than that the boys from different houses must not be seen together, however close friends they might be from their prep school or in the holidays.

Brian Inglis in ca. 1960

When we ran a ‘John Bull's Schooldays’ series in the Spectator, from 1958 to 1961, it was the recollection of the first day, and the first term which followed, which I used for my contribution. This prompted Oldham, who was meticulous in corresponding with ‘his’ boys, as he still thought of them whenever he saw their names in print, to protest that the housemasters could not be held responsible for the ‘taboo’ as he called it; it came from the boys, and had been there when he himself arrived at Shrewsbury. He had not himself approved, he insisted, ‘but as you know as well as I do, it is hopeless to try to break a rule boys have set up for themselves.’

There could hardly have been a more abject admission of failure; yet clearly Oldham still did not realise it. Housemasters in fact condoned the taboo, partly because the general system of letting the boys make their own rules meant that the housemaster would not be required to keep discipline himself; partly because if two boys from different houses consorted together, it might be for, or lead to, sex. By the time I arrived Oldham's had developed into the most boy-controlled house in the school; and this was particularly unfortunate for those boys who had come just before me and those who came just after. We had Watney to fear.

Watney[2] was a house monitor, with ample scope for indulging his appetite for beating younger boys with a 'swagger cane' or, in his bedroom, a slipper. Every Saturday night he would conduct what were known as ‘colour exams’ in his bedroom, asking what ‘colours’ footballers or rowers were entitled to wear (the First VIII had no less than nine varieties) and going on to ask esoteric questions about the school and its jargon until enough victims were lined up for his satisfaction.

In Oldham's, though beatings were frequent, only Watney was feared. He even had a cruel face, with a cruel look on it. I have never loathed anybody as much as I loathed him, and I doubt whether there was any other boy in the house, younger than Watney, who did not feel the same. We would fantasise what we would do to him if, by some quirk of Fate, revenge became possible. As it happened, one who suffered under Watney, and for longer than I did, was to have the opportunity to obtain some sort of revenge. ‘I hated Watney,' John Malins told me some thirty years after he had left Shrewsbury. By that time he had become a consultant, and one day Watney had been wheeled into his hospital with terminal cancer. It would have been difficult to pity anybody so pitiless; but John had wryly to admit ‘He made a good death’.

Canon Harold Athelstane Parry Sawyer, Headmaster of Shrewsbury, by Hugh Goldwin Riviere

Yet, in retrospect, I can see that Watney looms too large in memory; he was the exception in Oldham's. The recollections of writers who were at Eton, say, at the same time, or Marlborough, suggests that we were relatively lucky. As for schools in Ireland, the evidence is that boys there were far worse off, with the masters as the tyrants. In English public schools there were very few Wackford Squeers left in action. The Headmaster of Shrewsbury, Canon H. A. P. Sawyer, plied the birch rod occasionally, and housemasters were allowed to beat their boys, though they seldom did. At Irish schools the pandybat was still being wielded as freely and as savagely as it was by the prefect of studies at Clongowes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

More soul-destroying than the licensed bullying at Shrewsbury was the regimentation. […] At Shrewsbury, particularly in the first two years, our time was never our own. Games were compulsory, at least once a day, except on Sundays; and at other times all ‘douls’ - as fags were known, from the Greek for slaves – had to hang around the house in case they should be called upon to carry out some chore. […]

Enjoying games as I did, they were one of the two pleasures of Shrewsbury, the other being sex. I was later surprised to find that some boys managed to go through their public schools from start to finish without being aware of the prevalence of covert homosexual activities. In Oldham's, homosexual encounters, or the fantasies they conjured up, were pervasive, welcome as lending colour and life to an otherwise drab emotional existence. Public displays of feeling were not encouraged, except for the enthusiasm generated by watching a school or house side storming to victory. Laughter was allowed, but tears were taboo - girlish. Privately, orgasm was the peak experience.

My introduction to the facts of life as met with in a public school was provided by Oldham soon after my arrival. The system he had adopted was to leave a message with the new boy’s bedroom monitor that after lights out, the new boy was to be sent down in pyjamas and dressing-gown to Oldham's study. The summons was greeted with glee; the new boy would be told what to expect and how best to answer leading questions designed to elicit embarrassing information. Oldham would be waiting in his study, also in pyjamas and a dressing-gown which, he explained, was intended to make the new boy feel at ease. Inevitably it had the opposite effect.

Shrewsbury School nmk
                                                                           Shrewsbury School

As a boy, Oldham had been told that masturbation led inexorably to insanity. He had seen no reason to change this view. It was also ‘bad for training’, inducing lassitude and poor performance in football or cricket. Mutual masturbation with another boy, he warned, would lead to the immediate expulsion of both. I might find, though - Oldham continued, relaxing - that an older boy would be taking an excessive interest in me, without actually making any physical advances. Affection of this kind was common enough and could be tolerated unless it began to look ridiculous, in which case when he came to hear about it he would tell both boys gently not to be silly. He would get them together for this purpose, he explained, visibly relishing the idea, as if it had given him vicarious delight to intervene in this way in the past.

Becoming serious again, Oldham concluded the lecture with a warning about possible encounters in the holidays. He actually told me, as I had been assured he would, ‘never touch a woman’ – by which he meant picking up a prostitute; the consequence would be a painful venereal disease followed by madness and death. He then settled himself comfortably back in his chair; did I have any questions? Of the various possibilities that the dormitory wits had supplied, the safest seemed to me to ask about the mystery of the voice breaking at puberty. Visibly disappointed, Oldham brushed it aside and I was allowed to escape back to bed, there to regale the others with a report of what he had said.

What he had said about masturbation meant nothing to me, a state of innocence that was soon remedied. One of the boys who had come to the house two terms earlier was a member of the species I was later to encounter when working in newspapers as ‘the office bicycle’. He enjoyed mutual masturbation, and he liked variety. He, and those of us who accepted his advances, took hair-raising risks, retiring to the tiny room where boots and shoes were cleaned, or even the cupboard where top hats were stowed during the week. In a few cases sex was openly indulged in; Watney had a boy who would be ordered into his bed. But nobody in my time was caught; or if anybody was, it was not reported to Oldham.         

The junior paperchase at Shrewsbury, 1923

A year later, Fate was to make an even more important intervention. When the summer term began in 1932, Oldham was a worried man; after a few days he left for a ‘rest cure’. One of the boys in the house, John Vaisey[3], had not appeared at the beginning of the term; now he returned. Gradually, rumour had it that the two events were connected. What exactly had happened between Oldham and Vaisey has never been made known; but, at a stroke it ended Oldham’s career as housemaster.

He had become fascinated by book bindings, and occasionally he would ask boys from the house whom he was grooming for positions of trust to come and stay in a hotel with him, wherever he was conducting his investigations. When he asked Vaisey to come to stay in London, his homosexual feelings had got the worse of him - not, in all probability leading to anything more serious than kissing the boy, but it was enough to appal Vaisey, whose chief interest at the time was football. Vaisey’s father had been killed in the First World War (as John was to be in the Second); but, unluckily for Oldham, John’s uncle was a leading Q.C. Told what had happened by John’s mother, he had written to the Headmaster to say that John could not return while Oldham remained in charge of the house. Sawyer, realising what a scandal there would be if Oldham stayed and the story got around, told him he must go. Oldham was shattered. Charlesworth recalls how the night before he left he asked Rowley Hill, who was  head of the school as well as of the house, to come to his study; according to Hill, ‘the breaking point had come and the last [45] shred of his restraint vanished. He threw his arms around my neck, buried his head against my shoulder, and wept as I have never seen anyone weep.’ Only when Vaisey returned did Hill learn why.

Shrewsbury School Inprirational teaching 1935
                                                     Inspirational teaching at Shrewsbury, 1935

Oldham still had a powerful card in hand; the lease of his house. The compromise was reached by which he could continue to be the school Librarian; he would be given a capital sum, and an annuity in return for the surrender of the lease. He came back to the house for the annual ‘Bumpers’ celebration, at the end of the house rowing races on the Severn; a tense occasion for all of us, but it passed off successfully.

My last term at Shrewsbury ended, as such terms traditionally end in school stories, in an agreeably golden haze. […]

Douls in my last year did not, I hope, feel so oppressed. […] Beatings by monitors had almost ceased; colour exams were abandoned; there was less segregation between the age groups, so that friendships could be formed without incurring suspicion.

When I heard of my scholarship, at the end of the following term, it never crossed my mind that I could, and should, leave. Sopwith’s House[4], Richard[5] recalls, was ‘one of the happiest in the school’. It was the happiest, I would think. It had enfolded me. I did not want to escape from our collectivity.

Besides, I was in love with a younger boy. For a monitor to be ‘crashed’ on a doul was fashionable. There was rarely any sexual consummation, but this did not prevent the affairs, while they lasted, being highly emotionally charged; pleasurably, though gooily, romantic.


[1] Shrewsbury School Register, vol. II 1908 to 1958 by H. N. Dawson, p. 153.

[2] “Watney, Arthur John, MBE” was admitted in the  Summer Term 1927 and left in the Lent Term 1931 (Shrewsbury School Register, vol. II 1908 to 1958 by H. N. Dawson, p. 135). Most likely he was the boy of his names born on 15 May 1913 (Burke’s Landed Gentry (1937) p. 2379) who died on 27 February 1967, and therefore reached 17 during Inglis’s first term.

[3] “Vaisey, John Roland Maddison” had been admitted the term before Inglis, Lent 1930. A praeposter by the time he left, Lent 1934, he later became a schoolmaster and finally a pilot in the R.A.F. and was killed in action over  Germany in 1941 (Shrewsbury School Register, vol. II 1908 to 1958 by H. N. Dawson, p. 153). Born in June 1916, he was thus 15  at the time of the events recounted.

[4] Inglis’s house had been called Sopwith's since J. B. Oldham had been replaced as housemaster by S. S. Sopwith.

[5] Richard Cobb, author of A Sense of Place (1975), another memoir about Shrewsbury.




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