Memories of Howstrake Camp Pt I
by Tom Lambert

First published by the Blue Band magazine

As far as is known, apart from John Trendell's clinically factual chapter in his 'Operation Music Maker' and ex BdCpl Don Flounders' splendid memoir, no authorised history exists of the period that the Junior wing of the RNS of M spent at Howstrake Camp in the Isle of Man between 1941 and 1945. In this our Centenary year I offer the following article, which does not attempt to redress that situation, but shows, by photograph and description, what life was like for the boys during that time. I was one of those boys and remember the period with great fondness for it was one of the happiest and most formative periods of my life. I was the junior member of 78 Squad which joined in 1941, the year in which the School was billeted there.

Howstrake Camp was what was laughably called a Holiday Camp. That is, it was originally a place where families went for their summer break to get away from it all. Nobody seems to know when it was built but it was along the lines of those early camps built by Billy Butlin, famous progenitor of the cheap holiday encampment. Perhaps a local entrepreneur built it for unsuspecting Manxmen? It was a brilliant idea to commandeer it for use as a School of Music, on the outskirts of civilisation as it was, where few people might be expected to complain of noise levels. During our time there it provided low cost, low maintenance accommodation of the sort that one might expect to find at Dartmoor or other similar houses of corrections. Several hundred boys lived there over the period and despite the Spartan conditions seemed to relish it as some sort of adventure. I know I did. The splendid photographs that follow will go some way to show their daily lives. For this we are indebted to Peter Brain who retrieved them from his father's belongings and gave me permission to use them for this article. It would therefore be less than just not to include a few words about the photographer. At the time he took these pictures he was a First Class Bandmaster serving as the French Horn Instructor at Howstrake. He served there between 1943 and 1945. He had joined the Royal Naval School of Music on his 14th birthday in 1923. Born in Gosport he was the eldest of five children, one of whom also became a musician in the RNS of M and who was killed in HMS Bonadventure when it was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1942. As was common in those days, between the two Great Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, Bandmaster Brain served in many ships and was more often than not at sea during most of the period from completion of his training until his appointment to the Junior Wing in 1943. We are fortunate that his interest in photography left us the following record of that period.

Pic 01
  1. The first picture in the series shows Bandmaster Brain with two of the WRNS stewards, that is to say that these Naval laThedies were stewards for the SNCOs who were staff and instructors at the School, not, I repeat not, for the benefit of the Boys who quickly had to learn what 'cooks' was all about - the fetching and serving of meals. This duty stayed with them all their service life until modernity caught up with the Navy/Royal Marines in the form of a central messing facility - the dining hall. On reflection, the rating that these WRNS carried was OS, standing for Officers' Stewards so I don't think that the instructors really qualified, but it would not surprise me to learn that this benefit had been 'wangled' in some way or another. Of course, there were half a dozen or so bona fide officers anyway and it could well have been that an 'arrangement' was agreed upon by all groups. Whatever, all the boys' domestic arrangements were part of the everyday learning process.

Pic 02

Pic 03

Pictures 2 and 3 (above) show the upper part of the camp and the nearby countryside in both summer and winter; very often it was hard to tell the difference! The Irish Sea is in the background and had to be negotiated by ferry to get to the mainland, making escape from the island all but impossible. Almost inevitably, when seasonal leave came around and the boys were taken down to the ferries the seas would be a heaving maelstrom of white horses and the six or eight hour journey to Fleetwood would be a nightmare of moaning bodies, the stench of oily engines mixed with the all pervading and ever present aroma of Manx Kipper. "Oh they can't take that away from me". The main gate was at the top of the roadway in the foreground through which all boys passed on their way in and out of camp. The eagle eye of the duty NCO would always detect the wrong angle of a cap, any other uniform discrepancies too numerous to mention and, horror of horrors, if a boy had been foolish enough to imbibe a half pint of very watery beer down in the capital of Douglas. The pathway down the hill was often negotiated by PTI Cpl Spike Sullivan, at high speed, on his bicycle, usually terminating at the tennis courts at the bottom, where he would athletically leap into the air, legs astride, and the bike would crash into the wire netting surrounding the courts. Sullivan, a very popular NCO, would look about as if nothing untoward had happened, adjust his dress as they say, and head for the gym and the day's work. His Boss, Colour Sgt Micky Hunt was another character, whose favourite saying was, "Go on Boy, 'it me, 'it me". He had been the Corps Heavyweight boxing champion for many years and used to take us all for lessons in the gentle art of self defence. If he thought you weren't putting all you had into it he would exhort, Go on Boy, 'it me. If you did manage it he would have a laugh and if you didn't, you got a fairly stiff jolt from a left jab.

Pic 04

Picture no 4 shows the dining hall, with below it the laundry and bathroom. The laundry had the very latest equipment for clothes drying, being a huge tub with on the right side a large wooden handle which when rotated caused the inner tub to spin at speed the idea being to create centrifugal force to spin the water out of your wet clothes. It was quite astonishing to be able to dry a set of underwear and a pair of pussers dogs (grey issue socks) with only three or four hours' worth of manipulating the handle. The snow bound picture shows what great fun was to be had running from your room to the bathroom for your weekly bath, need it or not!



Pic 05


Picture 5 speaks for itself, Band Drill training, most of which was done at the halt it being somewhat easier that way. The interesting tripod, or sheer-legs in Naval parlance which can be seen in the background, was the means by which the instructors won every tug of war competition throughout the Island and which they took very seriously indeed, training every forenoon before breakfast and hauling on the rope against literally tons of dead-weight. How they ever gave any instruction thereafter remains a mystery, most of them, bless their cotton socks, were heavy drinkers and even heavier smokers.



Pic 06



Talking of instruction brings into the frame picture No 6. This picture is very interesting indeed as it shows the very enlightened approach by the authorities to the need for sound proofed private practice spaces. This notion was taken up by the Royal Academy of Music some years later. Notice the amount of space around each player and the very pleasant greenery and gorse all around. The only slightly disturbing part of the picture is the evidence of the electrified fence at the top. This provided a necessary deterrent and prevented mass break-outs which occasionally threatened. Can anyone of the era name anyone in the picture? The instructor is Bdmr Beecham (no relation) who used to coach the Dance Band.




Pic 07


Very similar is picture No 7. In this picture Band Boy Chris Taylor is second from the left. He subsequently became a Captain, Director of Music, and was a very fine trombonist. On his left is Band Boy M A G Hadley (I think) and again I think Band Boy John Borrington. The other chap I cannot place but no doubt I shall hear all about it soon.The instructor appears to be Bandmaster Nutty Duncan, an exceptional player, a particularly fine pianist who, in later life was Director of Music of the Fiji Police Band. Oh what fun it was to have trombones roaring in your ears as you practised the clarinet a few metres away!





Pic 08

Picture No 8 is a quite illuminating one. It shows a number of features which are of great interest the first of which has to be the three clarinet students in the foreground. The one closest to the camera, unless I am very much mistaken is Band Boy Paul Neville, who, nobody will need reminding, went on to become the Principal Director of Music after Sir Vivian Dunn retired. He and I went to the Royal Academy of Music together and I have considered him a friend for sixty years. Next to him is, I think Titch Comber, and whilst I know the other one, age prevents me from naming him. The other feature which will interest first time viewers is the avenue between accommodation blocks. These were the rooms that Band Boys lived in, possibly sixteen to a room, just about the size of your average sardine tin. The pipe organ arrangement is not, in fact, a pipe organ at all but rather the means of heating the rooms in the winter. Super (ha ha) heated steam was carried from the boiler room by means of these pipes, consider the distance alone from source, and you will get some notion of how ineffective they were. They were, on the other hand a very good means of heralding the arrival of an NCO, so that if you banged on the pipe in the end rooms the reverberation continued all the way to the far end thus warning you to beware.

Pic 09

Picture No 9 is one that I expect will cause a good deal of speculation. With a magnifying glass and a powerful torch I have been able to name 8 or 9 Boys including DEW Smith, Eddy Stigwood, Johnny Quaye, Ginger Yates, Johnny Browning and a few others whose names slip in and out of memory. The Section Leader with the clip board towards the tail end of the queue could be, repeat, could be, my old friend Bill Hamley but maybe not. This shot seems to have been taken at the RT or Sports field, but if so, we are standing on the wrong side of the field for the run back to the camp. It was customary to check that everyone was present and hadn't magicked themselves away during the games period, hence the Section Leaders with the clipboards. Despite the relatively happy mood of the picture there seem to be a good many Churchillian Victory signs being accorded the photographer, perhaps he was asking for too much forced cheerfulness. The RT Field was about a mile and three quarters from the camp so that even when you had finished soccer, rugby or whatever there was still the run back to the camp, with Kippers for tea at the end of it, having had them for breakfast and lunch, with the prospect of having them for dinner, or supper also. Very health giving, if somewhat boring, especially after four weeks of the same diet in the season. How many Boys can you remember and name?

Pic 10

Picture No 10
is a pretty special one showing as it does the beach which lay between the camp and the playing fields, which were reached by the pathway to the rear left of the picture. The Camp, if you can imagine it, was to the bottom of this picture, reached by a flight of about 350 roughly cut steps. The Boys in the foreground are looking upwards to the bottom of the steps where the photographer is obviously standing. In the effort to save water, and of course, the heating thereof, the boys swam here almost every day of the year. The water was icy, but icy, the fellow in the rowing boat wasn't really on lifeguard duty, just trying to keep warm. I don't think he could actually row and a glance at the picture seems to confirm that. The rocks around the coast were bountiful in crabs and lobsters, if you knew where to look you could always make a few bob by catching them and selling them off to the SNCOs who had the only facilities for getting them cooked. At the right times of the year I reckoned to treble my measly 4 bob a week in this way. The beach was the coastal terminus of Groudle Glen, a most beautifully quiet and heavily wooded valley which ran quite a way inland. A small stream ran through it emerging on the far side of the beach just where the path up the hill begins.

Pic 11

Picture No 11 shows the afternoon run down the steps, across the beach and up the other side to the RT Field. You will see all those snivelling wretches that wanted to get there first, perhaps half a mile in front of their colleagues, mostly older boys who had the 'bin there, done that' attitude and didn't intend to run unless the PTI got serious about it… It can easily be seen how rugged the terrain is and how unforgiving to young legs, no matter how fit. I can't honestly say who owned, or lived in the house which is featured on the side of the hill, it certainly didn't belong to the camp. Now I expect someone will say 'Oh Yes it did'. The little stream that flowed out of Groudle Glen can be seen in the lower centre of the picture, and over which we had to pass to get to the path up to the field. It too, was icy at all times of the year and the source of much discomfort both going and coming.



Pic 12


Picture 12 shows two of the officers responsible for discipline and training at that time. The very jaunty looking fellow in Khaki with the Flying Officer Kite type moustache, was Captain George Keen, the Director of Music, a man of great patience and forbearing. He could look very fierce under that moustache but I rarely ever heard a cross word from him. His Deputy (not the man in the picture) was Lt A C Green the famous arranger of Sunset, a splendid minor composer who retired into a job as the BBC Music Librarian. He conducted the Boys' Orchestra, in which I well remember playing a delicious little piece of his called Moon Maiden. I wonder if it is still extant? The other officer, is a Commissioned Bandmaster (a rank which no longer exists) one Dougie Jarman, a very pleasant, somewhat scholastic man which is evident from this picture.

Click [Here] for memories part II


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