THE VICTORIAN MANSION BY THE THAMES

If you are an Agatha Christie fan - as I once was - you have surely heard of Monkswell Manor Guest House of Mousetrap frame. According to Mr. Schmidt, a master at Carmel, this Guest House of Agatha Christie’s, was based on the Victorian mansion which was to become Carmel College’s “main building.”

Let me begin by describing this large Victorian mansion. I don’t remember the name of the person who originally had it built. However it was later sold to a man called Gould. I understood from Mrs. Ackworth, who had been a cleaner there since 1918, that Gould was Jewish, and that originally there was some sort of dome on this building. Gould however, felt that it made it look churchy and so he had it removed. I asked her whether he had a Synagogue in the building but she answered that he was not a religious man.

When in 1939, World War II was imminent, Gould sold up and went to America. The building was taken over by the United States Military. Incidentally, when one of Carmel’s teachers, Mr. Murray Roston, was in hospital, he met a man, who on learning where he was teaching, asked Mr. Roston, whether the nissen hut was still standing. Apparently, it was in this nissen hut that some important planning for this war took place. Mr. Roston invited him to come to Carmel and give a lecture on the place, which he soon after did. A summary of his lecture appeared in the next edition of the Carmel magazine.

This three story main building was in red brick and when we first came to Mongewell, the walls were covered with ivy. Later it was removed, since such ivy weakens the walls. The rooms on the top story were attic rooms, where there was at least one wall which sloped.

The main entrance to this building was through two enormous cooper and glass doors. In the course of the years, the copper on these doors developed a patina, which beautified them. Someone gave an order to remove this half a century old patina, and the Senior Master, Mr. Romney Coles, was most upset about this. Being a Chemistry teacher, he could appreciate what a patina was on copper. Pupils were not allowed to enter by this door. They had to use the side door on the eastern end of the building.

On going through this main door one came into the big hall. If you tried turning on a light switch in this room, you would find that it would turn on a light at the other end of the hall. We discovered that the reason for this was that Gould was frightened that someone was at the other end of the hall who wanted to do him physical harm and he thus arranged the lights accordingly!

On the western side of this hall was a beautiful wooden staircase up to the first floor. If you wanted to use it, you had to become a member of the staff or a prefect.

There were also a number of very large rooms leading from this big hall. One of them was beautifully wood panelled and this became the school library. Someone had caught a big fish near the school and this was stuffed, put in a glass case and stood on the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Before the era of radiators and central heating, people had a coal or wood fire in each room. Even by the 1950s, Carmel had progressed beyond coal or wood fires.

Next to the library, there was a sun lounge, which we called the loggia and this became the newspaper room.

Opposite the library was another large hall, which was the staff room. Pupils were never allowed in this room and could only see what was inside from afar, when a teacher entered. There was an occasion when a teacher gave us a “Torah lesson” in the staff room. It was probably on a Shabbat. One of the pupils not only took the opportunity to read the staff’s private notice board, but he even asked the teacher why a certain notice was not there. The teacher was rather annoyed at this! One parents’ visiting day, my young brother aged then about three, calmly pushed open the door and ran in “where angels fear to tread.” I had to embarrassingly run after him to remove him from this forbidden territory.

Another large room leading from the eastern side of the big hall was used as a lecture theatre and as a public examination room. For the first term at Mongewell, it served as a dormitory.

Whilst I was at Carmel, the library considerably expanded and the staff room became the fiction library, whilst the staff then moved to the lecture theatre.

From the eastern side of the big hall ran a corridor the whole length of the building. The first room in this corridor on the right hand side was the Principal’s study.

I should add here that all the time I was in Carmel, there was no-one with the title of “Headmaster.” Rabbi Rosen was the Principal. Whilst I was in the school, I never thought about this question of titles. Only when I read the book “Memories of Kopul Rosen” did I understand what had happened. When the school was established in 1948, Rabbi Rosen agreed with those who suggested that he should be Principal and not Headmaster. Indeed a Headmaster, a Mr. James Ewart, was appointed, but he soon left. No new Headmaster was appointed.

In his study, Rabbi Rosen had a big kidney shaped desk and on one side of it were bookshelves. There were also other bookcases in this room. Amongst his books was a beautifully bound Talmud, which had been presented to him - I don’t remember by whom.

However, the most interesting object in this room was a chair to “trap people.” When one sat on this chair, two metal semi-circular rods would roll over one’s legs, thus trapping the unfortunate person until someone came to his rescue! To the best of my knowledge, this chair was never used to “detain” a misbehaving pupil! However, if for some reason, boys were in his study whilst Rabbi Rosen was not there, they would sometimes play with this chair, trapping each other in it. I understand from one of Rabbi Rosen’s sons that this chair was purchased at some auction.

When in the mid 1950s, Mr. David Stamler was appointed vice-Principal, another, but not so elaborate desk was added to this room by the side of the window ledge. Mr. Stamler built up a card index of the boys in the school in which he wrote the various good and bad deeds done by the pupils, and this was kept on this window ledge. One pupil, whose name was right at the beginning of the alphabet, when he was in this room, succeeded in opening by the tiniest amount the drawer of this card index and was able to read his card! (Don’t worry, it wasn’t me - my name begins with the letter S - I couldn’t have possibly opened it that amount undetected!)

As one continued along this corridor, on the left hand side was located the school office and it was run by Mrs. Walker. She had a brilliant son Jeffrey, who was already in the fifth form when he was only 12 years old. (The average age of the fifth form was 15-16.) Originally the sign on her door read “School Bursar.” This was probably a misnomer, since a few years later, when the school appointed a bursar, called Captain Lunzer, Rabbi Rosen specifically pointed out to the school that this appointment did not affect Mrs. Walker’s work. The sign on her door was accordingly changed to “School Secretary and Cashier.” It seems likely that with the appointment of Captain Lunzer, people were asking whether this was to Mrs. Walker’s detriment.

Beyond this office was a staircase leading upstairs to the dormitories. This was the only staircase which the pupils were allowed to use.

The next room on the left hand side was a washroom which was completed soon after we arrived in Mongewell. It contained about ten toilets and about twenty washbasins. Why they installed so many washbasins, when the dormitories were upstairs and there were washbasins upstairs as well, was always a mystery to me. I am sure that they didn’t have a surplus of money at that time! There was also a large cubicle with about eight showers but no partitions between them and next to it a room with four baths. The baths were the “baby type” where the back half was about one foot higher than the front half. Maybe the school was frightened that the pupils would drown had they installed normal baths!

Opposite this washroom was the linen room. Every pupil was assigned a cubicle where his clothes were kept. There were large laundry baskets where one would put one’s dirty clothes. The linen room staff would sort it out, list out what each pupil had put there and send it off to the laundry. When it came back clean, they would put the clothes in the pupil’s cubicle.

At first I don’t think there was any limit as to how often one changed one’s clothes. When, however, the bursar started work, all this changed. For example, only one set of underwear and socks per week, one set of pyjamas per fortnight, and only one sheet could only be changed per week. If one exceeded his quota, the extra laundry costs would be put on one’s bill.

At the end of this corridor was the only public telephone in the school. Maybe “public” is not the correct term! Pupils were forbidden to use it without permission. Today with everyone walking everywhere with cell-phones, such a restriction is hard to fathom!

In this area of the building, there was also an annex where the domestic staff lived. Rabbi Rosen once announced that if any pupil would go into the room of a member of the domestic staff, then that member would be dismissed.

Now let us move up to the first floor. Most of the rooms on this floor were dormitories. The two largest rooms, dormitory 4 and dormitory 9 held about fifteen to twenty boys sleeping on double bunks. It was almost like the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” [When I visited the school in the mid-1970s, there were only about 6 boys in one of these rooms, yet they complained to me that it was crowded.] The other dormitories were smaller rooms and only had about 6 - 8 boys sleeping in them!

There was a boy called Ellis Korn who spoke beautifully and Rabbi Rosen would use him to show visitors around the school. But he was given instructions not to show them the dormitories! (You can understand why!) He told us that it was the dormitories that the visitors specially wanted to see and he would answer them that he needed special permission to do this.

The last room on this floor was a large double room which served as a apartment for the Rosen family. Rabbi Rosen and his wife lived in one room. On one side were their beds and on the other their dining room/lounge. The second room was a bedroom for their three sons. One should mention the great praise due to the Rosen family, after living in a spacious house in north-west London, to then live for about a decade in one room, first in Newbury and then in Mongewell.

It was towards the end of my stay at Carmel, that there was an addition to the Rosen family - this time a girl, Angela Fay. When she was born, Rabbi Rosen related to the school of a Headmaster who only had sons and said that if he were to have a daughter, he would grant an annual day’s holiday to his school on her birthday. But he never had a daughter and so his school never got this extra annual holiday. Rabbi Rosen then continued that because he now had a daughter, there would henceforth be an annual day’s holiday at Carmel on her birthday, which would be known as “Fay Day.” Whether or not, this was kept up, I don’t know.

Opposite the Rosen’s flat was a room which was used as a sanatorium. It had about two or three beds in it. A few years later the sanatorium was removed to the annex of the gymnasium.

The second floor could be called the “attic rooms” since they were directly under the sloping roof and so the upper part of at least one wall was sloping. If one was sleeping on the top bunk one had to be careful not to bang one’s head on rising and shining in the morning.

The rooms on this floor were smaller than those on the first floor and there were about 6 - 8 pupils in each room.

Another brick building, built I think towards the end of World War I was the gymnasium. This consisted of the gymnasium itself, which, when we first arrived in Mongewell, was poorly equipped with climbing frames. Later, far more gymnasium equipment was added and a basketball pitch was also set up there.

There was also a court with wood panelling all over the floor and walls which was built for some American sport. But it was so like a squash court that we used it accordingly.

In front of the gymnasium was an outdoor swimming pool which had been badly neglected. We however managed to use it.

An annex to the gymnasium was the “long dorm” in which about 20 boys slept and in front of it was the Shul for the Preparatory school. The upper story of this annex first served as the residence for the Ellman family. Mr. Ellman was the mathematics teacher - no-one could play him up and get away with it. Instead of a large mark book which others teachers used, he recorded all his pupils’ marks in his pocket size diary. A few years after we came to Mongewell, he left and his apartment became the sanatorium.

A school is not only sleeping and playing sports. Some pupils would like this provided they were adequately fed! One needs a place to learn and to eat. All the time that I was in Carmel, this we did in prefabricated huts.

Near to the western side of the main building was a long prefabricated building which served as the classrooms. The various laboratories were in two prefabricated huts. Soon after we came to Mongewell, they were named the “Isaac Wolfson Laboratories” and a sign to this effect was erected. However, it soon came down. I understood, (but maybe this is incorrect) that Isaac Wolfson did not like his name on such huts.

The dining hall consisted of two huts which had been joined together. At the southern end of this dining hall was the kitchen which was divided into two sections - one for milk and the other for meat. Two hatches joined these kitchens to the dining room. When we came to Mongewell, the entrance to the dining room was in the course of being built and, within a few months, there was a vestibule with a long washing trough for netillat yadayim (washing of the hands) before the meal.

This dining hall had a strange feature. One of the huts had four supporting beams on its ceiling and the other one had five. Soon after we came to Mongewell, Rabbi Rosen came into the dining hall and said he would give some tuck to the first boy who could answer this riddle. He explained that he had asked the reason for the different number of beams on the two huts, and had been given the answer, “Because of the echo.” The riddle was, what does this answer mean? The solution was, that five in Hebrew is written as “hei” and four is written as “daled”. This spells the Hebrew word “hed” which means “echo.” I don’t know who, if even anyone, got this tuck.

After a few years, the roof of this dining hall developed leaks all over the place. (The poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Break, break, break, On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!” could easily have been adapted to this situation, “Drip, drip, drip, On my cold baked beans and tea!”) Fortunately within a very short period, the roof was retiled and this source of water from above ceased.

There were also a few other huts scattered all over the grounds. One of them served as a study block for the sixth form who certainly slept there, and I hope, also worked there.

There was also a preparatory school for boys aged 7 to 11 and it was planned for them to be situated in a building to be known as “north court” situated as its name suggests in the northern part of the grounds. When we arrived it was in a state of being refurbished and only after about three months were the prep school able to move in. Until this time, they were located in the top story of the main building.

To maintain a building and estate of this size required an extensive domestic staff - cleaners, kitchen staff, maintenance men and so on. Some of these staff had worked on this estate for decades. There was Ted Weatherall who was in charge of the boilers and he had been there since 1910. There was Mrs. Lucy Ackworth, who had been a cleaner there since 1918, although she once told me that during the Second World War she was called up for war work, but she came back after the war. There were two maintenance men named Bumpus and Sansom; I don’t know whether they were on the estate before Carmel arrived. I once asked the former whether he was Bumpus and he answered “I am Mr. Bumpus.” There was a worker called Martino. I don’t remember what his function was, but in his spare time he gave haircuts to the boys.

On the question of haircuts, the “official” barber to the school, would periodically come in the evening to the school, and would give haircuts, or if I recollect correctly “scalp” - the boys. This was done in the washroom adjacent to the first floor dormitories.

One of the items of upkeep on a building is periodic repainting - especially in a school. It was when we returned after one holiday, that Rabbi Rosen said to us, “If you tell a Jew that there are fairies, he will believe you. But if you tell him that the paint is wet, he will touch it to make sure.” He added that he was telling us that since the painters had turned up late and as a consequence there was wet paint in the school.

Whilst talking about painting, let me relate an incident regarding the pillbox which was in the school grounds near the Thames. When I was in the junior part of the school, I, together with some friends discovered this pillbox. We decided that we would paint it and then maybe it would be our dormitory! One of the maintenance staff gave us some brown paint and together with a broom head (we had no paint brush), we began to paint it. However we soon got tired of this idea!

There were also extensive grounds in the Carmel estate - 70 acres of them - but when we arrived in 1953, they were in a poor state of health. At one part there was a sudden change in levels and this caused the accumulation of a large quantity of rain. However, after several years of hard work by the groundsmen, they were turned into an admirable state. Another problem was that certain local farmers had grazing rights on these fields. Rabbi Rosen explained to us that they had to be given a year’s notice at Michaelmas (which occurs on 29 September) to terminate these rights.

The River Thames was the western boundary of the school and there was a tributary which ran through the school and it went under a bridge as one approached the main building. Swans graced this River. (If they were unmarked and mute, they were the property of the Queen of England, in partnership since the late the 15th century with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies.) About five yards from the river, white posts were set up and beyond that point was “out of bounds.”

This was the state of the school when I arrived in 1953 and also for the next few years. Periodically a “master plan” for buildings of the future was put on the school notice board for the pupils to see and realise that one day in the distant or hopefully, in the not to distant future, they would have more luxurious facilities. In fact the architects seem to change as the years went by and so did the details of the “master plan.”

On one plan were the planned houses for Rabbi Rosen and Mr. Stamler. Pupils must have made comments about this, since Rabbi Rosen said to the school that they obviously seen these houses on the plan, adding, that it will cost Mr. Stamler and himself a lot of their own money.

Whilst I was at the school, building actually began The first two dormitory blocks, the sanatorium, six hard tennis courts and a new sewer were built.

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