Woodlands Housemasters

  • J.R. Eccles (1905-1935)
  • L.A.M. Parsons (1935-1954)
  • J.K.Day (1955-1957)
  • W.S. Andrews (1958-1972)
  • S.G.G. Benson (1972-1982)
  • A.H. Cuff (1982-1984)
  • R.F. Evans (1984-1990)
  • D.C. Hamill  (1990-2005)
  • F.J.V.R. Retter (2005-2019)
  • J. Sharrock (2019-Present)


Woodlands – the early years

When J.R. Eccles first arrived in Holt in 1900 he wrote to his mother describing a number of “nice-looking houses with pretty gardens”. One of these was Woodlands, which was to become his home from 1905 to 1935. During its first fifty years as a boarding house Woodlands had only two housemasters, Eccles and L.A.M. ‘Max’ Parsons. Consequently, it has always been a house of long-standing traditions with a strong sense of continuity.

The House began with 19 boys at the Weybourne Spring Hotel, the boys travelling to Holt by train each day. In 1905, after Woodlands had been enlarged and converted for school use, forty boys moved in. Eccles was only 34, “immensely vigorous and energetic”, although the boys no doubt thought him much older.  His regime in the house was described by one OG as “austere and Spartan”, but underneath his rather frightening exterior, “he was the kindest of men”.  The OG continues, “I think that in my early years, if not later, one could fairly say that J.R.E. was Woodlands, and Woodlands was J.R.E.”

According to one master, in those early years Woodlands was the leading house at games, almost always winning the cricket championship, probably the best at hockey, but never winning the rugby. The house also took the lead at acting, and thanks to “J.R.E.’s force and drive”, was about the most hard-working house in school work.

Eccles had very high personal standards of punctuality, tidiness and behaviour, and expected the same of his boys. Corporal punishment was seen as a failure, as it was based on fear, instead, he trusted his boys to take responsibility for their own behaviour. Uncompromising in stating what he wanted, Eccles did not suffer fools gladly. One mother wrote asking if her son could wear a grey, rather than the usual black overcoat, and received the following note on a postcard, “Black is Black – J.R.E.”

When Eccles announced his retirement in 1934 he received numerous letters asking him to reconsider. Ill health prevented his return, however, and Rev Parsons was asked to stand in for him, determined to make few changes to Eccles’ system. By this time, numbers had grown to 49, making it necessary for 8 boys to sleep on the private side. In 1935 Parsons asked the governors to consider adding a new dormitory, kitchen wing, and bedrooms for domestic staff. Building of the Bay dormitory began the following year.

Also in 1936 the old changing rooms were converted into a common room called the Eccles Room. The Observatory became the new music club, complete with comfy chairs, a gramophone and a few classical records. The donation of a Hillman-Minx engine by an OG led to the formation of the engine club. Other activities included carpentry, discussions in Parson’s study, poetry readings, and even dancing on the lawn! The first house newsletter was produced in 1940 to keep OGs overseas up to date with news at home, and every year a house tour to London was arranged in order for boys to experience life outside school.

A visiting parent was struck by the family atmosphere in Woodlands, noting Parsons’ enthusiasm for his job and the constant flow of visitors. The same parent asked a friend’s son who was about to go to Gresham’s which house he wanted to go into. The boy replied “Woodlands, because the food is so good!” Parsons was always with the boys, at meals, at games, in their studies and dormitories. Always willing for boys to visit his family on the private side, he helped break down the barriers and encourage a sense of cooperation for the good of the house.

Woodlands at War

In the summer of 1938 the government took precautionary measures to ensure the safety of the population, and boys were issued with their own gas masks. Each house had its own shelter. Woodlands’ was opposite the front door of the gym, dug by relays of boys after prep and on Sundays. Every boy had to have by his bed at night a pair of boots, an overcoat, and his gas mask. Practices for going to the shelter when the alarm went off were popular as Mrs Parsons would have hot soup and biscuits ready on their return.

During the summer holidays of 1939 the night-time blacking out of all windows and skylights was ordered. Curtains were made for all Woodlands windows by Mrs Parsons, her daughter and three friends. When evacuation began, Woodlands became temporary home to forty East London children, playing cricket and swimming in the baths. Boys were soon encouraged to take gas masks to lessons in case of sudden gas attack. No games were possible in winter, except at half-holidays. The Woodlands’ allotment was started, on which the boys planted potatoes and vegetables.

Exile in Cornwall

On 2nd June 1940, Parsons told the boys that the School would be sent home for three weeks as the situation in France and Belgium was worsening. Some boys(18) who were unable to return home stayed on in Woodlands and lived a ‘holiday life’. On 13th June the boys were told of the move to Newquay and began packing. It took six days to ferry everything to the station and pack beds, desks, books, etc onto a special train.

On Wednesday 19th June a group of boys from Woodlands set off in three cars for Newquay. When staying overnight at Taunton, there was great excitement as the first bombs were heard! Arriving at the Bay Hotel, they found the contents of the School stacked up on the terraces, and had until 24th to get ready to receive the house. The School took over two hotels – Woodlands, dayboys and Kenwyn shared the Bay Hotel with lovely views over Fistral Bay. The boys soon settled down to their new life. The nearby beach proved ideal for hockey and football, and excellent for surfing. Classrooms were made in the hotel, as well as a gym, carpentry shop and armoury.

A new tradition of ‘Saturday Nights’ began, when games were played in the dining room during winter terms, tennis in the summer. An extremely rough sounding game which was a combination of basketball, rugger and all-in-wrestling, was played on the beach, both in the water and on the sand. The Woodlands boys soon persuaded other houses to join in the after dinner games, and continued the idea on their return to Holt.

When not in lessons, boys were kept busy carrying out repairs to the hotels, sweeping roads, and working in gardens in Newquay. The tradition of house drama continued with plays such as Busman’s Honeymoon in 1941, when the cast stayed on at the end of term to perform in aid of the Newquay War Weapons Week. Plays were also performed in local hospitals to entertain wounded soldiers.

Return from the West

In December 1944 permission was granted for the School to return to Holt. Woodlands was already habitable when the boys arrived. Photographs hanging on the mantelpiece in each room were used to put it back together as it had looked before. The Eccles Room was a sad sight, though, there was dry rot in the panelling and a good deal of furniture had suffered through flooding. During the exile, the School and houses had been taken over by the military authorities. Woodlands became a bathhouse and dormitory for sixty men. After four years of occupation, much repair work was necessary, as walls had been broken and staircases torn up for firewood. Compensation was received two years later, however, and restoration work soon began. One OG commented on the disruption of wartime, “It would be true to say that we learnt from our exile a certain freedom of life which we have been able to bring back with us to Holt and the effect of this freedom has been wholly good.”

The Gelder Bequest

John Gelder was a boarder in Woodlands from 1936 to 1941. He enjoyed success with a number of team games and shooting at Bisley, and was one of the boys evacuated to Newquay. In his letter of recommendation to Clare College, Cambridge, John’s headmaster said of him that “he is a boy of character in whom I have every confidence.” After Cambridge he joined the R.A.F. and was soon flying reconnaissance missions over the coast of Norway and Sweden. Being shot down over Sweden was fortuitous for John, as it was here that he met his future wife, Gun, becoming engaged shortly before returning home.

Gresham’s held fond memories for John and he maintained an interest in the School throughout his life. Having benefited from a scholarship, he possibly wished to reciprocate for his good fortune by leaving a large sum of money, as well as a fascinating collection of memorabilia to his old School. A legendary record keeper and hoarder of treasures, John’s collection of photographs, exam papers, rifle score book, medals, house newsletters, etc. now reside in the School Archives, helping to build up a picture of life at Gresham’s in those wartime years.

The Sapwell Diaries

J.I. Sapwell was a boarder in Woodlands from 1917 to 1922. Through his diaries he has left us a touching and humorous account of boarding school life in the 1920s, some of which I am sure many pupils today will be able to relate to.

Extracts from the 1921 diary

Jan. 22nd “My hair is going to the dogs, it will not lie down properly and has got a sudden stubborn fit, it is a great nuisance.”

On the same day Eccles inspected the boys’ shared studies – “His verdict on ours was ‘a bit more habitable than usual’. I am sure he is prejudiced against us in that way as our study is really quite nice and I cannot see what else we can do to it without spending a lot of money on it.”

Jan. 23rd Sunday “In chapel I sat in a two-seater almost next to J.R.E.(Eccles) He bawls the hymns and quite spoils everything by singing so loud.”

Jan. 28th “The mornings are terribly dark and gloomy when we get up. I nearly always awake from sweet dreams into the stern reality of school.”

Jan. 29th “At tea time I had a large parcel from Mother containing my mackintosh, box of coloured chalks, pair of skates, a pot of marmalade and a cake of soap.”

Jan. 30th “After Prayers I went to J.R.E. and made a little confession to him dating from last summer term, which I found out relieved my mind a lot.”

Feb. 3rd “I am afraid I have got a cold coming on, but I am doing my best to kill it before it gets hold properly. I slept with a sock round my throat last night and also gargled. The funny part was that the maid reported to Miss Williams(matron) that I had been sick. I have just had a beastly dose of quinine.”

Feb. 5th “There were several ‘blotto’ men in the road singing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ while we were saying our prayers which was rather disturbing.”

Feb. 9th “Miss Williams nearly had a fit when I told her I was keeping some(cockroaches), she said one might escape and multiply!”

Mar. 30th “The House is in a feverish condition, the excitement of the play combined with the University boat race and the sports.”

Mar. 31st “J.R.E. got in a frantic bait(temper) with Barr for not sitting down quietly where he was told, I have rarely seen him in such a flap.”

Dec. 20th “After breakfast I packed my bag and than went down to see the 8.30 off. There were the usual enthusiastic scenes and dozens of little explosive caps were placed under the train.”

Woodlands Debating Society Minute Book 1955

Mar 20 Debating the subject of coeducation being the perfect education.

Segregation is harmful and unnatural. Children should learn how to get on with the opposite sex, as boys and girls are increasingly on the same intellectual level.

Opposition claimed that it had already been tried in England and found to be less than perfect. Girls should be ‘holiday pastimes’ and not ‘school distractors’. Behaviour would be worse as the boys would show off!

Result: 21 against, 19 for

Other subjects debated included :

Sport plays too large a part in our lives; Blood sports; The English cup of tea will prove the downfall of her industries; Tom Brown’s schooldays were better than our own; Emigration.