08 August 2016

If you are ever in the Margate area this museum is a must-see. We found it quite by chance on a trip to the Kent coast last July. Click the Read More for an image gallery. To quote from the museum...

BCG Cover final 26 10 20 2My Interview at St Mungo’s

March 1971

Although more than a year has passed, I vividly remember the day of the interview. A car arrived at the farm one Friday morning. The driver was very polite and held open the door for Mother and me, and we travelled in the back like royalty. The car was incredibly quiet compared to ours and I might not have realised we’d set off if it hadn’t been for the potholes on the farm track causing the car to sway from side to side. It was a bit strange riding in the back with Mum, and I think she felt the same, because she isn’t normally grumpy. The seat leather was shiny and very slippery and I slid backwards and forwards for a while until she told me rather crossly to pack it in.

After twenty minutes, our car turned off the Larksbridge road and sped down the main drive towards St Mungo’s Hall. The school is invisible from the main road because the Hall is situated at the end of a long, curving driveway lined on both sides with tall trees. As we passed down the drive, Mum said she remembered coming here as a teenager with Grandad when he ran the coal merchants, gathering acorns in her jumper to take back for her pony while he delivered coal to the Hall.

As we drove on, I could see football goals and rugby posts off to the right, and a lake shining in the distance. We passed cattle, huge and pure white, grazing under clusters of ancient, stag-headed trees. On our farm, in our small, walled fields, they would have looked stupid and out of place but here, pastured under the ancient oaks, they looked completely at home. I looked forward to telling David all about them.

Because the drive curves it wasn’t until we’d almost arrived that I could take a proper look at the building itself. Along the front, tall, fluted stone columns supported a classical Greek pediment, and grand steps led up to massive double doors. Three rows of tall windows looked out over neat geometric gardens and a stone balustrade edged the roof. I remembered one of Grandad’s war stories was about a fire; perhaps that explained why, above many of the windows, the pale stone was smudged faintly grey.

The car didn’t stop in front of the house, but veered sharply right and then turned left, through an opening about half way down the side wall, to enter a large courtyard. So far we hadn’t seen a single person, let alone the swarms of schoolchildren I had imagined, all dressed in their smart St Mungo's blazers and walking purposefully between classes clutching armfuls of books. I wondered where they might all be hiding.

We parked in a line with five other cars. “Do you think we’ll get the grand tour?” my mother said, and giggled, rather nervously I thought. The driver jumped smartly out and opened the car door. He gestured for us to join a group adults and children who stood in the middle of the courtyard, blinking and looking up at the rows of blinded windows.

A woman, who introduced herself as Mrs Spencer, the Principal’s secretary, came out and led the way into the school. The interior of the house felt noticeably cooler than the day outside. I don’t know what I had expected to see exactly, old furniture and chandeliers I suppose, but it was nothing like that. Some of the rooms we passed through had the high ceilings and ornate plaster mouldings you might expect in a stately home, but many were simply ordinary looking, with unremarkable office furniture; others weren’t so very different to the classrooms of our village school.

Eventually, we emerged into a huge open space that formed the truly impressive entrance hall. High above us, a glass dome admitted brilliant shafts of sunlight. Two wide, richly carpeted staircases swept up opposite walls. As we crossed the entrance hall, I detected the low rumble and occasional shout of massed children’s voices, and when we passed a set of open double doors, I discovered why there had been no children about when we arrived: it was lunchtime.

After our journey had continued through several more rooms, we were finally ushered into a long, sunlit room that looked out over the front gardens. The room’s central space hosted a row of huge tables, set out with a buffet that looked like it could have fed us twice over. Someone had placed a row of dining chairs against the opposite wall.

Mrs Spencer gave no indication as to what we should do and promptly disappeared through a door down at the far end, leaving us standing in the centre of the room, silent and slightly uneasy, judging by the adult foot shuffling and darting glances at nothing in particular. None of the adults looked particularly well dressed; they were just ordinary, like us. I suppose I expected us to stand out, but we did not.

Mrs Spencer reappeared and approached us, followed by a tall man dressed in an Army officer’s uniform, very distinguished-looking with a full head of iron-grey hair brushed back off his forehead and a grey moustache. Under his arm, he carried a leather-bound book. I guessed he might be a few years older than Dad, which put him in his late forties or early fifties. As he reached the centre of our gathering, the group parted and then reformed into a semicircle around him. “May I introduce you to Sir Julius Terry,” Mrs Spencer announced.

The man looked down at each of us children and smiled, and it was a kind smile. His first words sounded warm and hospitable, his voice rich and deep. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and welcome to St Mungo’s School. I am Julius Terry, the school’s Principal. As some of you will know, I also founded the school, and although I am answerable for my decisions to a board of trustees, you can be sure that at St Mungo's the buck always stops here. Please forgive my appearance, by the way. I don’t normally dress like this, nor do I march around the school giving orders, you’ll no doubt be pleased to hear.” He leaned forward, towards a girl near the front and smiled benignly, then winked. There was some polite laughter before he continued. “I have a meeting with the MoD this afternoon and I’m hoping the uniform might help with the negotiations. The Army are interested in leasing part of the estate to test new vehicles and to train their drivers – something to do with the terrain being of ‘a sufficient degree of ruggedness’.”

He turned to a girl standing in front of me. “That means it’s quite hilly!” he stage-whispered, to more laughter. “Myself, I think the likeliest reason is that we are situated right next to Warchester Barracks and the Army can’t be bothered to drive any further. Whatever the reason, it could mean some much-needed extra cash for St Mungo’s.”

I wondered how much longer we would have to stand here before we could eat. I think Sir Julius must have noticed me fidgeting, and he fixed me with a penetrating look over the top of his half-moon reading glasses, his blue eyes still and curious. Then he returned his attention to the group and continued. “So, please don’t finish the food, ladies and gentlemen or I will have twenty hungry soldiers and civil servants to appease later this afternoon. After you have eaten, each of the children in turn will receive a call from Mrs Spencer. After the interview, you may tour the school. I have some young people standing by to show you around. You may go anywhere in the school, except for occupied classrooms or offices marked private, and you may talk with anyone you wish, adult or child, providing they are not obviously busy. Enjoy your meal, and children, I will see each of you again a little later.” He turned and retraced his steps towards what I imagined was his office, stopping to help himself to a cocktail sausage as he passed the table.

“Well, he seems nice, doesn’t he?” Mum said as we sat eating. As she held up a cocktail stick, holding a square of cheese and a pineapple chunk, I noticed that her hand trembled slightly.

“Mmm,” I replied through a mouthful of sausage roll. I had put far too much on my plate and thought suddenly about the hungry soldiers and imagined them looking incredulously at a sea of crumb-strewn platters with only the odd curling fish paste sandwich or Scotch egg dotted about here and there. “Bloody kids!” one of them would bark.

We were, I felt sure, in the part of the Hall restored after the wartime fire. The ceilings were plainly plastered and the walls painted an institutional shade of beige. No red wallpaper or fancy plaster mouldings in here. The marble fireplace had cracked in several places and lacked the ornate carvings that surrounded those we had seen on the other side of the grand staircase.

I hoped we would get a chance to look at the science labs while we were here. I thought back to the time when it had been a top-secret research centre and tried to picture the Hall, buzzing with Army personnel bustling here and there as secret scientific work of great importance to the war went on all around. I wondered where they had kept the great radio transmitters, and imagined rooms filled with huge metal cabinets, stiff with dials and gauges and glowing radio valves. Would I turn out to be clever enough to work on something secret, a task that perhaps no one else could do? I imagined myself marching around in a starched lab coat, a forest of pens and pencils sticking out of the top pocket, stopping here and there to peer at a dial, then flick a switch or push a button. That is when I wasn’t barking commands or offering sage advice to my eager staff.

My imaginings were about to run away again but hearing my name brought me swiftly back to the room. “Sam Smith. Would you come in, please? It’s your turn to see Sir Julius,” Mrs Spencer had called me from the Principal’s door. There were only a handful of children left – I must have been daydreaming for some time.

The Principal’s office was plainly furnished, rather like Miss Trent’s back in Finlow, except that this room was enormous. Several long tables stood against the back wall and a suite of soft furniture had been arranged around the empty fireplace. On the opposite side of the window to Sir Julius’s desk sat Mrs Spencer, with her telephone and typewriter. Behind Sir Julius’ desk hung a painting of a huge black horse. Its mount was a man in military dress. I thought I could see a family resemblance and deduced the man might be either Sir Julius’s father or grandfather – probably the former, to judge from the cut of the uniform.

“Do you like horses Sam?” Sir Julius began. “It’s just that I can see you’ve taken an interest in the painting of my father.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so. We have a couple of ponies on the farm that David and I ride. He’s my brother…”

“Yes, I know. Another clever child, I believe, although not in your league.” Sir Julius looked behind him at the painting. “It was my father’s dream to start a school here, you know. He returned to St Mungo's from his Army service in 1928, convinced, from what he’d seen that the British Empire was run by pen pushers, crooks and ninnies, and that the simplest remedy would be to educate and train a new elite who would administer the Empire with wisdom and compassion. A rather unfashionable aspiration in these times, don’t you think? Turn on the TV and you see every chat show filled with people spouting claptrap like ‘there’s no such thing as right or wrong’, and ‘if it feels good then do it’. As if a moral code was merely a question of personal choice.”

“So, is that why I’m…?” I faltered.

Sir Julius looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression, and then sat back in his chair and gave a dry chuckle. “Good heavens, no! You’re not here to learn how to run the British Empire, Sam; that was an idea from my father’s time. Besides, there is very little of the British Empire left. Still, something of his enthusiasm for education must have rubbed off on me, because here we are.”

“You always were the idealist of the family,” a disembodied voice announced from a wing chair that faced away from us towards the fireplace. A man dressed in an Army captain’s uniform rose and turned to face us. He fished a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, took one out and tapped it on the box.

“Sam, this is Alec Terry, my brother. He’s the brains of the family, according to him that is. Alec, please don’t smoke in here, there’s a good chap.”

Alec Terry thought about this, and then put the cigarette away. “I hear you’re good with machinery, Sam. Think you can fix this?” He reached under the chair and brought out a brightly coloured cylindrical box about the size of a large waste paper bin. The box had been decorated with fairground scenes and emblazoned on the lid were two words I didn’t recognise: ‘Le Manège Enchanté’. “It’s a mechanical toy I bought in Paris for my daughter, but it doesn’t work properly. Must have been damaged on the flight. Take it with you and see if you can fix it. You can give it back next time we meet.”

Never one to refuse a challenge I took the box. The man had incredibly long, bony fingers and very white skin. His face held a smile but I didn’t feel any warmth behind it. Then he turned his back and resumed his seat by the empty fireplace.

I realised I had said hardly anything during the interview, but Sir Julius appeared to be quite happy. “It was good to meet you, Sam. I like to meet all our new students before they start. I don’t teach in the junior school, so it might have been a while before I could have put a face to the name. Term begins on the 4th of September. A letter will arrive for your parents with everything you need to know. Goodbye for now, and have a good summer.” We shook hands and Mrs Spencer showed me back to my waiting mother.

It was settled then. I would begin at St Mungo's after the holidays, which gave me a few months to get used to the idea and a whole summer break to feel nervous. Mother asked how it went, and then suggested we go for a wander before we ran out of time. The car would return us to the farm at four o’ clock.

Mrs Spencer pointed out our guides: a boy and girl about my age, to judge from their heights, and who, dressed in their smart blue St Mungo’s uniforms, glowed with self-confidence. They introduced themselves. “I’m Paul Hobson,” the boy said, giving a stiff bow. He was a similar height to me but about three times my girth; as Mum would say, obviously someone ‘who liked his food’. He had a pleasant face, cheerful and avuncular, like a miniature adult. He squinted through round, wire-rimmed glasses at his list of names. “And you are Sam?” I nodded.

Then the girl performed a small curtsy. “Olivia Casey.” At first, I thought she’d said ‘oh leave yer case here’, and must have looked a bit confused as I put the toy-box down on a chair. She spoke with an accent I did not recognise; only later did I learn that Olivia was a Dubliner, born and bred. I thought the whole introduction thing a little eccentric and wondered distantly if that was how they trained St Mungo's students to greet every visitor.

“Anything in particular you’d like to see?” the boy asked.

“The science labs,” I said immediately.

“Good choice!” the boy replied heartily. “To the science department first, then. Olivia, lead on!”

Mum said, “Sam, I’ll see you in the courtyard at four. No point in my coming with you; I wouldn’t have a clue what I was looking at. I’m going to look for a cup of tea.”

The boy and girl led the way along corridor after corridor, then down some stone steps and across a grassed area to a separate building, with the boy talking all the way. “So, you’re interested in science?” He then answered his own question. “Well, obviously you must be. What’s your poison? Biology, physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy?”

I felt a little panicky and completely out of my depth, sure that whatever I said in reply would expose my hopeless ignorance. I realised I actually knew very little about science, but I’d long held a feeling that its study would be exciting, and for me a lot more interesting than finding out about foreign countries or famous battles. Science was something you did, rather than something you just looked up in books and then wrote about afterwards. After all, science was about how my world, or the universe even, actually worked.

Fortunately, before I could think up a reply the girl spoke. “Give Sam a break, Hobbo. We’re not all science nuts like you,” she said. A slim girl, thin almost, and so pale that the blood vessels at her temples showed faintly beneath her translucent skin. She wore her black hair centre-parted; pushed back behind her ears, it hung straight down almost to her waist, an unmoving black cascade. I imagined she would be quite freckly in the summer months, and it would suit her.

“What do you like, if it’s not science?” I asked her.

“Me first love’s poetry,” she said. “WB Yeats, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning, the Liverpool Poets. What about you? D’you have a favourite poet? Do you write any poetry?” She smiled a warm, infectious smile and waited placidly for my reply.

By this time, I felt I must definitely be in the wrong place. I realised how little I knew about anything much, apart from chickens and cows and farmyard mud. How was I going to stay afloat among such knowledgeable children? My unease was not lost on the girl. She clashed shoulders and smiled. “I’d never heard of them poets either when I started here. Don’t worry; we all feel like that at first, us scholarship kids. You’ll be surprised how quickly you pick things up and begin to find out who you actually are, a little anyway. Most of the teachers here are great. Some are a bit old fashioned, but they all know their stuff.”

“These are the senior labs,” Hobbo announced as we pushed through a set of double doors. “Science isn’t one of St Mungo’s strongest suits, it must be said, but the labs are well-enough equipped for all that. They’re locked, of course – some dangerous gear inside.” My face must have shown my excitement and disappointment. I stared in through a window of reinforced glass. Long rows of, dark wooden benches filled the room, each work place incorporating a sink and twin gas taps. “A chemi. lab, obviously,” I heard Hobbo saying. It may have been obvious to him, but what did people actually do in there, I wanted to know. “We don’t get to use these labs until senior school. Instead, we use the general science labs downstairs, but I thought you’d like to have look up here first. Want to go inside?”

“I thought you said they were locked,” I said, puzzled. I was still trying to work out what ‘kemmy’ might mean.

The boy tapped the side of his nose and reached into the inside top pocket of his blazer, brought out a Yale key on a piece of string and let it dangle between us.

“Yer thieving tink,” I heard the girl say. “We’ll have to be quick, mind.”


Back at the farm that evening, I told David all about my visit as we washed down the milking parlour. “They even have a telescope – a big one that can see the outer planets, and other galaxies. There’s an astronomy club, and I can join if I want to.”

“Sounds fun,” he replied. “Tell me again about the cattle in the park.”

“They’re huge and pure white and have proper horns. White Parks are supposed to be the oldest breed of cattle in England, going back to the Saxons.” Trust David to be more interested in the livestock than the science labs.

We finished our jobs and went back inside for supper. Mum had disappeared off to the living room to watch Coronation Street and Dad had gone out to a darts match at The Boat, so we had the kitchen to ourselves. David helped himself to a slab of bread pudding to have with his cup of hot chocolate, while I finished the last of the peanut butter biscuits along with my milk. We sat together at the big table, and as we ate, I searched my memory for more things to tell him about St Mungo's. He munched contentedly and hummed quietly to himself. “Think you’ll like it then?” he said between mouthfuls of bread pudding. “Better than Finlow Primary?” I heard no envy in his voice, only curiosity.

“It’s different, that’s for sure,” I said. “Children come from all over Britain to go there, imagine that. And I’m from only around the corner.”

“So, what was the best thing you saw?”

I thought, and then remembered something. Reaching under my jumper and into my shirt pocket, I pulled out a small folded envelope. I squeezed the envelope so that David could see inside. He peered down, and then took the envelope from me and tipped some of the contents on to the Radio Times. After a few moments spent examining the bright blue crystals, he said, “It’s copper sulphate, right, not plutonium or something? Well, why is that special? There’s a tub of it in the chemical shed outside.”

“I know that,” I replied. “Ah, but this is contraband: stolen copper sulphate. The boy who took me round pinched it from a science lab. He thought it pretty special, so I guess that does make it special, doesn’t it?”

“Sounds like he was trying to impress you. He a townie?”

I nodded. “He’s from London; he builds his own radio sets.”

“What’s that written on the envelope?”

“It’s the name of a book. The girl said I should read it, that I’d like it.”

David read the envelope. “Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I’ve heard of it; never read it, though. Hang on, I think it might be in Dad’s ‘Readers’ Digest Classic Book Collection’ in the living room.”

“The ones that have never been opened, do you mean? Probably sandwiched between Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“Sounds painful. Well, seems like you’ve made a couple of friends, anyway.” He finished his drink and rose from the table. “Eddie came round looking for you earlier. I said you’d phone him.”

“What? Oh, yes. I’ll phone him. Tomorrow, it’s a bit late now.” I tidied up and put the envelope back in my pocket. It was Saturday tomorrow. Eddie could come over and I’d tell him all about St Mungo’s and he could tell me how the Beatles Club went today. Perhaps I’d even make a start on Tom Sawyer.


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