The Two Miss Watsons - Memories by Christopher Howell
Archive Collection ref..SA/CA/RDL/03/03
Christopher recalls the several staff, all having the formal name of Miss Watson, that he knew during his 10 years at Caldecott 1961 - 1971.
The Autumn 2014 Newsletter reported the recent death of Audrey Watson. Since information seems a little vague, I think I can add something regarding her “second” Caldecott career. As recalled, she had been “an early Miss Hill” in the 30s or 40s. To those of us who came to the Community in the 1960s – 1961 in my case – it was difficult to imagine that it had ever been without Miss Hill. But it had, and sooner or later even the Miss Hills of this world move on. So, for my memories, Miss Audrey was the first “post-Miss Hill”.
This would have been around 1969 or 1970 – my last year was 1971. It was a difficult period for the Community. Apart from Miss Leila’s own semi-withdrawal and her death not long after, a whole host of long-standing staff members – Miss E., Miss Travers, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Ruhl, Mr. Gladstone and Miss Hill herself – all felt the time had come to retire. Not all at once, but over a period of about three years the shape of the Community had profoundly changed. By the time I left, only Miss Diana and Major Clark, and of course Miss Dave, of those with roots going back to the war years, were still soldiering on. Indeed, apart from these, I am fairly sure that only Betty Rayment, Desmond Draper and maybe some of the kitchen and garden staff, were left of those who had been there when I came. Even James King had arrived half-way through my first term. To this list could be added Miss Dave’s irascible golden retriever Lady. That must make something like a 90% turnover during my ten years in the Community.
Most of the long-standing members I’ve mentioned belonged to that category of person of whom it is darkly said, “the place will fall to pieces without them”. In some areas of the House, all hell was indeed let loose, but Miss Audrey saw to it that the transition to the post-Miss Hill era went smoothly. I think I am right in saying that she had been running a hotel in the meantime, though she had never entirely lost touch with the Caldecott. It would be nice to relate some specific, even spicy, anecdote: in truth she was not a “personality” like Miss Hill. Her voice does not still ring in my ears fifty years later as Miss Hill’s tends to, though I do remember her kindly but firm tones. She was extremely efficient, however, and in some ways she brought about a few quiet improvements. You could no longer tell which day of the week it was just by looking at what was on the breakfast table, and Camp Coffee was finally laid to rest.
In one way, the transition from Miss Hill to Miss Audrey was symptomatic of the times. Her description as the “domestic bursar” tells us quite a lot. Quite possibly there were various new laws and trade union regulations about job descriptions of which the Community’s young charges were blissfully unaware. The older guard were all true to the opening salvo of the Caldecott Charter, read out by Miss Leila once (or twice?) a term at Meeting. “This household is a community”. They may have stuck principally to their particular areas, but they were everywhere and knew everything about everyone. Miss Hill, for example, took surgery and looked after the sickrooms on Miss E’s day off. Sometimes she deputized in the dormitories. In saying that Miss Audrey stuck to her job description I don’t mean to belittle her. Rather, Miss Leila’s concept of a community was increasingly at odds with labour relations as they were conceived in the era of Harold Wilson.
One of the problems of setting down memories is that each recollection brings a host of others in train. Having recalled one Miss Watson, my thoughts turned towards another, completely unrelated. And incidentally, though I’ve called this article “Two Miss Watsons”, there were actually three (at least). Desmond Draper’s predecessor as head of the junior school was also a Miss Watson. This was before my time, so maybe someone else will offer their memories of her?
Relatively few ex-Caldecottians will remember Miss Joan Watson. I don’t think her stay was very long. She had been in charge of the middle class in the junior school for a few years when I arrived – the first class was in the hands of Margaret Robson, while Desmond Draper was headmaster and taught the higher class. The nursery class had been the domain of Miss Diana (Diana Howarth) for many years and remained so for many years to come. I was eight when I came to Caldecott, so I went straight into Miss Robson’s class. My year in Miss Watson’s class was her last, so I dare-say she was at Caldecott for not more than four or five years.
I noted above the transition from staff with a community concept to staff who stuck to their job description, and I must say Miss Watson was one of the latter. She had a cottage somewhere beyond Sellindge – not one of the Brabourne estate cottages in which the teaching staff were usually housed, and a bus-ride away. She didn’t stay on to have supper in the house and I certainly don’t recall her standing in for the house staff on their days off, or joining in the house activities generally. These are all things that her successor Muriel Morris regularly did, so probably she left more memories behind her. I remember Miss Watson’s cottage because, in the run-up to her departure, some of us went out there to help her pack her things into boxes. She had a piano in there, and apparently part of the wall had to be taken down and rebuilt to get it in and out. We were plied with drinks and cakes for our services, and it is really a curious thing how nice some of the grimmer members of staff could turn out to be – when they were leaving. For I have to say that Miss Watson was not especially loved. Nicknames can be revealing. “Cloey” (Mike Clover), “Bing” or “Bingy” (James King), “Robbie” (Mrs. Robson), “Droopy” (Mr. Draper), even “Ruly” (Miss Ruhl) and “Aggie” (Miss Travers) all seem to imply a certain popularity with their charges. “Wotty” somehow rings differently. “Wotty” had a rich, head-nurse sort of voice and a rather stiff deportment. After Miss Robson’s much more imaginative approach to teaching, the move up to Wotty’s class seemed a move backwards in other ways. She was a firm believer in the “three Rs” (reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic”). Nothing wrong with that, but she failed to make them very attractive.
And yet there was more to Wotty than that. She had her arts and crafts side. I remember her for three things.
Firstly, dancing, which I hated.
Secondly knitting which, oddly enough I liked. Wotty was not alone in teaching knitting to boys and girls alike – on Sunday afternoons Joyce Murdin, in charge of the Junior Study, had us all sitting in a semicircle round the fireplace, listening to “Dixon of Dock Green” on the radio and either knitting or doing raffia. But with Wotty I learnt a range of different stitches and even learnt to follow a pattern. I left behind me the world of scarves and egg-cosyies. My masterpiece was a navy-blue Balaclava helmet which I later proudly lent to a staff member, one David Carver, for an afternoon’s tobogganing. I never saw it again, David Carver merely remarked blandly that he didn’t know where it was. I left part of myself with that Balaclava helmet …
And then there were the bamboo pipes. Guided by Wotty, we cut down a stick of bamboo to the right size, bored holes in it, gave it a cork mouthpiece and, lastly, painted it a pretty colour, and lo and behold, we had a sweet-toned instrument which could play a scale like a recorder. I still have two of these, similar in pitch to a descant and a treble recorder. Wotty herself had a lower-pitched one and got some sort of ensemble work out of us. As each hole was bored, Wotty sent us over to Betty Rayment in the music room to check the tuning. Taking them out today, I find them too out of tune to give any pleasure. Presumably fifty years of heat and damp have warped the wood and wrought havoc with the tuning. A pity, because the sound they make is still sweet and true and they look very pretty. I may not have appreciated Wotty’s “Three Rs” greatly – I remember Mrs. Robson’s and Mr. Draper’s classes much more clearly from that point of view – but I do have these nice souvenirs of the work we did with her.