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Water Pistols at Fifty Paces

Dick said all right and he went about looking for houses and found one. Well, then, he started the school off and his sister Betty Tibbits came and did the housekeeping.

Such were the circumstances in which St Philip’s, a small private school in South Kensington, came into being, as described more than forty years later by the widow of its founder in a taped interview with the present headmaster Harry Biggs-Davison. The year was 1934, and Richard (‘Dick’) Tibbits, it seems, had been approached by Father Talbot of the Brompton Oratory with the suggestion that there was need for a Catholic boys’ prep school in the area. So Mr Tibbits, a Catholic convert himself, decided there and then to start one.

You may well be wondering where all this is going, so let me explain. One Monday morning an e-mail with an attachment arrived at Slightly Foxed from Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Knowing Ysenda as the author of a delightful book on her grandmother, the author Jan Struther, creator of the idealized wartime housewife Mrs Miniver, we opened it with some interest. It contained the first two chapters of a school history – yet no ordinary school history, it was immediately clear. It made us laugh so much we begged for more, and there followed months in which we waited eagerly for each new chapter in the saga of St Philip’s. It was like waiting for vital instalments of The Archers, but much funnier and more gripping – irresistible in fact. We decided we had to publish it.

But still, a school history – even the history of a somewhat unusual school? ‘As you live through its story in these chapters’, the author, a present-day St Philip’s parent herself, promises her readers, ‘you’ll be taken on a meander through the twentieth century. War, rationing, smog, mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, strikes, Thatcherism, the first computer: you will encounter them all through the lens of a small Catholic prep school in South Kensington.’ And it’s true, Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School does indeed hold a fascinating mirror up to the changing face of middle-class life during a large part of the twentieth century.

Yet even by the standards of small prep schools St Philip’s seems always to have been somewhat eccentric – right from the moment when we first encounter Mr Tibbits, setting off in his temperamental Humber Tourer, ‘popping, banging and emitting clouds of smoke’, to pick up his first pupils; weaving his way across the Thames to Battersea, striking north again to Belgravia, and thence finally back to home ground in South Kensington with a car full of boys. It was, as Ysenda observes, ‘a novel way of recruiting families to a new school: to offer to be both headmaster and chauffeur’.

It’s hard to select from a story so rich in incident and character, but certain images stay vividly in the mind: Mrs Tibbits, the founder’s wife and helpmeet, in later years often dressed in a nylon housecoat even during the day, chain-smoking her habitual Benson & Hedges; Mr Tregear, the French teacher who, in his outfit of  black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers, ‘made Kenneth Williams look like a truck driver’, feigning a heart-attack when the School Inspectors came; ‘Bunny’ Newell, one of the first masters at St Philip’s, ‘a boozer of the worst sort’ according to Mrs Tibbits, who ‘used to come in at eleven crawling on hands and feet upstairs and blundering about the place’; and who in the end, predictably perhaps, ‘had to go’.

Outings were a bit unconventional too. Many an Old Boy, interviewed by Ysenda, remembers with nostalgia the Box Hill Picnic (with water-pistols) which took place every year on Ascension Day, when the boys ‘poured out of the coach and raced down the hill on foot or slid down on their bottoms to fill up their water-pistols from the stream. Then they raced back up the hill and squirted each other and the teachers till all were dripping. Then back down the hill again for a refill.’ ‘It was un jour de fou,’ remembers Lady Antonia Fraser’s son Benjie.

Others remember the occasion when Mr Atkinson – Mrs Tibbits’s nephew, who succeeded her husband as headmaster – took them to the England v. Australia Test Match at Lord’s, but made them leave half-way through because England were doing badly. As one of them observed, ‘It seemed a strange example to set to a group of 11-year-old boys.’

You may be wondering whether any actual learning took place during those early years at St Philip’s – years when the phrases ‘Health and Safety’ and ‘National Curriculum’ were mercifully unknown. The remarkable thing is that it did. In fact many old boys attribute their success in later life to the school’s influence. As the historian Adam Zamoyski, another Old Boy who was there in the 1960s, puts it: ‘Ninety per cent of the teachers at St Philip’s were certifiable. They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.’

Outstanding among these was the eccentric Hugh Barrett-Leonard, later to become one of the best-loved Oratory Fathers, who, according to the Rt. Hon. Gerard Noel, was ‘quite uninhibited as a teacher. He would act out parts of Ovid and Homer, and would rush up and down the classroom declaiming the words.’ And Roger Taylor who, without even a science O level, in the 1970s introduced Saturday science lessons to the school. ‘We’d make gunpowder,’ recalls another former pupil nostalgically. And at the end of every lesson ‘he’d drop a wedge of sodium into a large water vessel and it would spin round and explode’. (There were, one notes, ‘no safety goggles to speak of’.)

But these are mere passing glimpses of the whole St Philip’s story. Much was to happen between the death in 1967 of Mr Tibbits (overweight and also a heavy smoker – 1,200 Players a month) and the arrival of the present head Harry Biggs-Davison, who finally took up the reins in 1989. The school by then was in danger of closing, the reclusive Mr Atkinson having no idea how to meet the challenge of the new glossy prep schools that were opening up all over London, or, indeed, of the new kind of demanding professional mother who was now on the scene. (Once, when a mother rang up during a staff lunch at Christmas to complain about something, Mr Atkinson ‘simply jumped up and down on the telephone’.)

Things clearly had to change, and change they did. Today the school is still going strong and is hugely popular and academically successful. Yet even now, as Ysenda observes, you have to be a particular kind of parent to choose it for your child – one for whom glossy ICT suites and indoor swimming pools just don’t cut the mustard, and not the kind who ‘can’t stand narrow corridors, steep staircases, pictures of the Pope and a garden without a football goal’.

Despite a brave bid to expand by moving to the site of the old Marist Convent in Fulham in the 1990s, St Philip’s is still in the original red-brick terrace in Wetherby Place purchased by Mr Tibbits when he ‘went about looking for houses’ in 1934. It is a place heartwarmingly lacking in the material paraphernalia that nowadays is often seen as the most vital aspect of a school.

So Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is not only a gloriously funny window on history. It raises questions about what we think of as education, too.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 31 © Hazel Wood 2011
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 15: Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School


About the contributor

Hazel Wood’s memories of prep school are mercifully dim, but she does attribute her later career in the words business to early Latin lessons.

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