January 1944. I am aged eleven.
My Mother and I are finally in St Dominic’s Open-Air School.
The room has a clean smell, something like Sunlight soap on a washday at home.
There are two other boys sitting with their mother. One of the boy’s is crying, his mother is holding him tightly, she is near to tears as well. I look at them wondering what will happen to us when our mothers have left.
On the shiny table I can the reflection of the lady who is talking to mum. Her dress is of black cloth, which looks to me like the blackout curtains at home. It rustles in just the same way as it moves. She has a black hood like the ladies in the church in Eastworth Road. The heavy chain around her waist with a large crucifix at the end clatters on the desk whenever she reaches across.
She has smiley eyes but her face is dry and very pink, she is asking Mum lots of questions, and now turning to me with her whole face smiling says.
“Master Weguelin, we will all get along fine if you just follow a few simple rules.”
Not only did she pronounce my name correctly, she wrote it in large letters on a box for my few belongings without asking me how to spell it.
My Mother ruffled my hair and gave my chin a lift and left without a word—I think she was too sad to say anything. I watched her through the window, she was drying her eyes as she walked down the hill and around the corner.
Now it was my turn to be sad.
The two other boys joined me later that afternoon in our dormitory, one had all his hair cut off, he had fleas in his hair. That could also have been me; our school always had some-one with fleas, but my hair was clean, coming as I did, directly from St Peter’s Hospital.
We were taken up to the canteen for tea and met all the other boys, I was asked by one boy if I was related, I had no idea who he thought I was related to.
Several weeks later, when we were singing a Vera Lynne’s song that was printed on some scrap paper. I found on the reverse side of the song sheet, a photo of the founder of the school.
Her name was Mrs Claude Watney-Weguelin, the extremely wealthy widow of Claude Watney, the brewery tycoon. Then the widow of Bernard Weguelin, some sort of uncle of mine, also very rich.
I was in the home for seven months. While there I saw aircraft flying over towing gliders on their way to D Day. Later a doodlebug being chased by a fighter plane. It exploded on a distant hill, the shockwave took a minute to reach our hill and the classroom windows. They really rattled, it could have been terrible if they had broken as we were standing close to them watching the drama.
A recent internet search for St Dominic’s found this story. In the 1920’s, a home for delicate boys on the South Coast was destroyed in a storm, A Nun was killed trying to save the boys. Mrs Weguelin, a devout Catholic, allowed all the boy’s and Nun’s to stay in her large house in Surrey.
Later she passed the whole estate over to the Catholic Church and renamed it St Dominic’s Open-Air School.
I still smile when I think of the boy who thought that I was related to one the richest women in the country.
It’s even funnier when I found out that I was—but fortunately very remotely, otherwise I would never have had the delight of growing up in Chertsey.