ZYGMUNT SOBOLEWSKI REMEMBERS DIDDINGTON &  LILFORD SCHOOLS

Text by Zygmunt Sobolewski, written with the assistance of Alicja Świątek Christofides, 2010.

 
 

Diddington School, near St. Neots, situated in what was then Huntingdon but is now officially Cambridgeshire, was one of a handful of boarding schools for Polish children in the UK after WWII. Its full name in Polish was originally ‘Liceum i Gymnazjum Męskie Imienia M Kopernika’ (translated as ‘The Nicolas Copernicus Boys’ High School’). As I understand, it was originally intended to cater just for boys right up to the age of 18 but the number of pupils gradually dwindled as, increasingly, younger children were integrated into English schools. As a result, several Polish schools amalgamated and Diddington joined up with Lilford. If I remember correctly, it was around 1953 that Diddington pupils moved to Lilford in Northamptonshire.  Also, girls from other schools which were closing down due to gradually depleting numbers, had started to join us earlier on so both schools gradually became co-educational. (See The Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain)

 

Diddington was comprised of Nissen huts which were typical of those in many Polish Hostels around the UK at the time. There is hardly any sign of the former school now, not even from Google Earth.

 

The Headmaster of Diddington School, General Zażycki , was replaced in 1953 by Mr.Bornholtz, as shown by his signature on this hand written certificate presented to me with a book I received as a prize on the 12th of July, 1953

At school, where we lived as well as studied, we had to find ways of entertaining ourselves outside class. Sport and music provided extra-curricular activities but some of us also found our own amusement. Like several of the boys, I used to keep jackdaws as pets. There were woods nearby where we used to look for newly hatched jackdaws and then we would ‘adopt’ them. We took them to our hiding place in the woods where we had made nests for them. We fed them worms and watched them grow. We had to keep this ‘hobby’ secret; we would have got into deep trouble with the Director, as we called General Zażycki, if he ever found out. For us, it was just bit of schoolboy naughtiness and fun. I remember that one day some jackdaws flew in through the top window in the dining room and took some bread which was put out on a table. Our Director saw this and was furious! He had no idea that we bred jackdaws. Luckily for us, he never discovered our secret.

We had a very talented drama organiser in the form of Father Henryk Boryński. He was an excellent organiser and director; he put on many shows which developed our acting and singing talents. We then performed the shows at several other schools. One show involved bicycles on stands brought onto the stage and I also remember a scene involving giant sunflowers. Some of the productions were also put on at other schools. I always felt Fr Boryński was wasted in the school- it was obvious to us he could have done so much more in the theatre.

This card shows a group of boys dressed as ‘górale’, in the folk costume of the mountain regions in southern Poland. The show was ‘Jasełka’, to celebrate Christmas. In the foreground is Eugeniusz Chyłek, who was later chosen to star in ‘Johnny on the Run’, which became a well-known feature film. (He now lives in New Zealand.) I am pictured next to him pointing upwards to the crib scene with angels in the top left-hand corner.

 

One day we saw a rather frightening side to Fr. Boryński, when in our class of fairly innocent 12 and 13 year-olds, some boys sat on the same bench as some of the girls - normally, boys and girls sat separately. In a flash, he exploded into a fit of hysterical anger, shouting and screaming at the boys, accusing them of perversions we had never heard of.  When we moved up to the next year, we found Fr. Boryński hadn’t returned. Rumours flew round the school: one theory was that he had been murdered by another priest he didn’t get on with. Another scandalous rumour said he had been murdered by – what must have seemed the arch enemy to us - Communists! We never found out what happened to him. Fr Boryński was officially declared a ‘missing person’ in 1952  and was never found, dead or alive.

 

A group of schoolboys who were in both Diddington and Lilford.

 

Front row, from left Zięmba, Reda, Grześkowiak, Dobrowolski (nicknamed ‘Dziki’) and Pietrasik.

 

 In the back row are: Szczygłowski, Pigłowski, Włodarczyk, Spólnicki, Cichorz, Radałowicz, Łagowski, Morawski, Adamczyk and two boys on the end whose names I cannot remember

 

All the teachers were Polish except for Miss Woods, the English teacher. Before the war she had worked in the British Embassy in Warsaw and spoke, or at least, understood, Polish. I remember picking horse mushrooms which grew in the surrounding fields for her and being rewarded with chocolates!

Though the difference between a ‘grammar school’ and a ‘secondary school’ was never explained to us, on the last day of Year 3, when I was around 14, I was asked by Mr Mietrzykowski, one of my teachers, whether I would like to switch to the grammar school. (I presume my performance and results warranted this.) Without understanding the implications i.e. that I would be able to study a wider range of subjects and thus have more career choices later, I said, totally naively, that I “didn’t mind”. Mr Mietrzykowski, asked me to see him about it. Unfortunately, I totally forgot about the arranged meeting

On the first day back from the summer break, when I was just about to start Year 4, Mr Mietrzykowski asked me why I hadn’t come to see him. When I explained, he told me to fetch my books and to change over to the grammar school. I then started subjects I hadn’t studied before, such as Latin and algebra. I was held back one year as I had catching up to do but then carried on, just a year later than others in my age group.

A particular incident stands out in my memory. It was the day I received a book called ‘Niezłomni’ as a prize, which was presented to me by General Anders on his visit to the school, around 1953. I remember there was a line of us waiting to greet him. He shook my hand and gave me the book which he had signed. Sadly, the book got lost many years later when I gave it to my mother to read when she was in the former St. Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting; unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to this book

 

LILFORD SCHOOL

 

People may think of private sector schools as places of privilege but  certainly, the premises of Lilford School were far from that image: the classrooms were housed in Nissen huts, with dormitories for about 20 boys to a Nissen hut. I remember we each had a wardrobe next to our beds. When they joined us, the girls had sleeping quarters in the Hall itself, so they had rather grander living accommodation.

The Nissen huts where we had lessons, and where the boys slept and ate, were made of corrugated metal which was painted a grim black on the outside. We had Polish food cooked for us and served in the dining room. There were no uniforms for pupils at Lilford but as the pictures show, the pupils generally dressed smartly.

This picture shows some of the teachers and pupils in the school’s heyday, with a Nissen hut in the background

 

Mietek Tomkiewicz was quite a hero: at the age of 12 or 13, after several attempts he managed to escape from Poland, where he had lived with his mother, to the UK. He achieved this by walking and getting lifts out of Poland and crossing from East to West Berlin by convincing the Russian border guards that he was the son of a Russian General. In England, he went to his father, who had been demobbed from the Polish army in 1946. I met them both when  Mietek’s father brought him to Diddington School in 1952 and asked me to look after him. Mietek and I sat at the same school desk and together with Gienek Chyłek, we became known as ‘The Three Muskateers’. We remained close friends until we left school.

 

A typical Nissen hut which served as a classroom. My friend, Mietek Tomkiewicz, whom I used to call ‘Tomek’, is pictured with me.

‘The Three Musketeers’

left to right: Gienek Chyłek, me, and Mietek Tomkiewicz.

My friend Mietek Tomkiewicz and me in front of the entrance to Lilford Hall,

 

Gradually, the numbers of children attending these schools started to dwindle. Younger Polish children were learning English and so were able to integrate into English primary, then secondary modern and grammar schools. There was therefore eventually no actual need for special Polish schools on linguistic grounds. As the number of boys decreased, schools were amalgamated- Diddington, and Lilford in fact, were merged. A similar pattern emerged with girls’ schools, and so when a girls’ school closed, the pupils went to other schools such as the one at Lilford and thus it became co-educational. The school was a secondary school, a grammar school and a technical school all in one.

 

I don’t think I was the only one who did not understand the difference between a technical school, a secondary school and a grammar school. In those days, after taking the 11-plus examination, pupils went either to a ‘grammar school’, a ‘secondary’ school or to a ‘technical school’. The grammar schools prepared pupils for an academic route, while the other two prepared pupils for more vocational training. The school leaving age in those days was just 14.

 

Lilford Hall, although an impressive building, was neglected when the Polish children lived and were taught there. I remember the pigs on the farm used to wander right up to the door! They were owned by the farmer, Mr Winterbotham, if I remember correctly. The actual owner of Lilford Hall emigrated to South Africa, in the 1900s, we were told.

 

Along with other boys, I learnt to swim in the river. When weather permitted, the PT teacher, called Mr  Kluk, took us for swimming lessons there. I also remember an escapade when I ‘borrowed’ a canoe from the boathouse (something which we were definitely not permitted to do!) and nearly drowned when the canoe turned upside down. Luckily, I managed to get the canoe to turn right over to right itself so I could breathe again. I could also have got into serious trouble with the Head, Pan Bornholtz, who was very strict. For instance, anyone caught smoking was instantly expelled.

 

The boathouse by the river where we learnt to swim.

I had lots of friends at the school: here is a picture of a group of us, with Grześkowiak on the accordion. Chołaj is on the left in the front row and myself next to him. Also in the photograph are Spólnicki nicknamed ‘Szkapa’, Włodarczyk, then lower, Tomkiewicz, Jagiełka, Szczygłowski (who subsequently anglicised his name to ‘Finch’, and towards the back, Radałowicz and Podhorodecki.

 

Another teacher I remember was Miss (Pani) Otwinowska. She later became a nun and went to Pitsford, where she taught alongside the other Polish nuns who ran this well-known convent school. Mr (Pan) Sheybal taught my class Maths. The Biology teacher, whose name unfortunately I cannot remember, had the misfortune of not being able to identify where noise in the classroom was coming from. So, if he heard chattering on the right, he would frequently tell off quite innocent pupils on the left. This often caused hilarity and weakened his discipline over us. 

 

We found entertainment and an outlet for our energies in school sports, the stage productions, music, and also, I must admit, in the pranks we played! For instance, we used to catch snakes in the countryside around the school and play tricks on others with them. I once put a snake in a girl’s drawer causing her to scream loudly. Predictable schoolboy mischief it may have been but it is one of my enduring memories of the sort of thing we got up to in our spare time.

One of the shows put on at Lilford School.

 

One of the advantages of having girls’ schools amalgamating with boys’ schools: we had partners for social dancing! Here I am dancing with Danka Mielniczek. 

 

Getting up to ‘adventures’ was not just my prerogative: some of my classmates, joined me in secret ‘hunting’ activities, particularly in catching partridges and pheasants which we shot with catapults. Then we cooked them in secret in the woods and sometimes in the dormitory, with improvised cooking equipment i.e. in an adapted tin and some wire, lowered into a school heating stove, and then eaten with furtive relish!

 

Housemasters would regularly come round the dormitories checking that lights were out. I remember that on one particular night, one of our group, Andrzej Radałowicz, was not ready in time,  jumped into his bed with mud-covered plimsolls and smelly socks and pretended he was asleep. The Housemaster was not so easily fooled: Andrzej was forced to get out of bed and to  get washed as required.

 
 

Our group of friends having more boyish fun: Mietek Tomkiewicz is caught holding Greszkowiak’s face. I am on the extreme left, on the edge of the picture. Chołaj is on the extreme right. Solecki (deceased) is in the middle of the photograph with Lipiński in profile (I think he is now an academic in London)

The ‘ revolutionary council’, as we thought of ourselves!

 

Amongst my other recollections of my time at Lilford is a 2-week school trip to Paris, where we stayed in a monastery in the Latin Quarter. In the photograph taken with the Eiffel Tower in the background, I am second from left, bottom row.

 

 
The other photograph, was taken in the grounds of Versailles. A group of us had an escapade involving a rowing boat, forbidden swimming in the ‘Les Grandes Eaux’ and an extremely quick change of clothes to escape the gendarmes who were chasing us!
 

Our teacher was hardly seen once we arrived and with our very limited language skills we had to fend for ourselves on our sightseeing outings. One particular day, I had to deal with another pupil’s crisis. Gutman (whom we called ‘Guciu’) managed to lose his camera. As he didn’t speak any French at all, I tried to help him at the police station, with my own extremely limited French. I had to complete a form for him but the only word I knew on the form was ‘noir’, which gave the gendarme dealing with the case a good laugh.

 

During the holidays every pupil used to go home from Lilford to different Polish Hostels. For me, home was Fairford Hostel, but I also used to stay with my older sister in Swindon  or my other one in Wooton-under-Edge. I once spent my summer holidays working at the American airbase at Fairford. I earned £8 a week there, which seemed a fortune compared to the wages of adults from the Hostel working elsewhere. The American officers whose rooms I cleaned were very kind and tried to tip me with cigarettes and whisky! One offered to take me on a night flight but I was too shy to accept. (I will never know whether he was serious or not.)

 

LILFORD SCHOOL TODAY

Today, all that is left of the Nissen huts at Lilford in which the Polish children had lessons and lived during term times are the foundations, as visible from this Google Earth picture (December 2nd 2009).
 

Above: at the site of the former classrooms.

 

I went back in 2008 to the site of Lilford School with a former pupil, Zbyszek Buras. The only places we could recognise were Lilford Hall, the church, a path, and the River Nene running nearby.

 

The grand Hall is still there: it is in the background in this photograph taken on our visit in 2008.

Zbyszek Buras and his wife (left| and centre) with me by the river, in 2008

 

This is one of the songs we used to sing at Diddington when Fr Boryński directed us in the school shows. (It accompanied the sketch with bicycles on the stage.) It invites listeners to join a cycling club and to go touring through the countryside. Though I only heard the song once, I picked it up easily and have remembered it to this day.

‘Kto bawić się wesoło chce,
I zwiedzić cały świat,
W nasz dziarski klub niech wpisze się,
A będzie z tego rad.
Bo czy kto zna rozkoszny szczyt,
Na kole pędzić w cwał,
Nie jeden by za taki spryt,
Fortunę całą dał.
 
Dzyń, dzyń, tra la , tra la la,la,la,la,la,
Tra la,la, la,la,la,la,la,la,la
 
   
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