Basil & Judith Benson
Physical Education teacher & Coach school 1st. XV
At the very outset of this biography I wish to place on record and state as the author that I am completely biased on this subject because, like many of the staff, Basil and his wife Judith did so much for me during my five year span on the Hill back in the late fifties and early sixties. Not only during school term time, but also on occasions during school holidays. Certainly in my latter years on the Hill in my out of school hours I could be found at their home most days and at weekends.
Basil was born on the 8th May 1932 at Tyldesley in Lancashire. Tyldesley grew to prominence through cotton and coal during the industrial revolution. The town is a close neighbour to Wigan and Manchester. Land reclamation and new housing developments have changed the face of its outlying areas now, but the centre still retains the atmosphere of a bustling market town.
Basil's father held the rank of sergeant in the local regiment - The Loyal North Lancs - serving during the Great War (1914 -1918) in Mesopotamia.
Basil's father was a sergeant in charge of a Lewis Gun Team during this long drawn-out campaign. The fighting in appalling conditions was initially about protecting British oil interests, but later gave rise to visions of glittering prizes in the capture of Baghdad, and the crushing of the Turkish Empire.
On retirement from the army, Basil's father gained employment with Manchester Corporation as a water engineer.
Basil's mother was the daughter of a farmer who, like most women of that day, dedicated herself to the family and building the home. Basil was educated locally at Leigh Grammar School, which at that time was separated into a boys' and girls' grammar school in the town.
It was in 1950 at the age of 18 that Basil decided to become a teacher, and in 1951 he gained a place to attend York St. John University.
On completion of his studies in 1953 - and knowing the subject that he wished to major in namely Physical Education - he applied and gained a place at the prestigious physical education teachers' training college at the University of Leed's Carnegie College. He graduated in 1954. His sporting interests are depicted by his blazer badge in the picture above which was taken in the summer of 1961 by the school swimming pool.
It was Summer Term of 1954 that Basil joined the staff on the Hill. Certainly by all accounts it was not too long into his career on the Hill that he was introducing new activities to us boys of that day. (As recalled by a former pupil, John Glover, who left in 1956). When Basil Benson joined the school he introduced basketball and he managed to persuade Teddy Cooper, who was Head by then, that it would be in the interests of the school for some of us to see the Harlem Globetrotters who were appearing at Wembley Arena in London.
At this stage I think it is only fair to point out to those readers who never met Basil, that at 6' 3" plus he was about the right height for a basket ball player him self.. Truth be known he was also a very keen and ace Rugby Player ( Rugby League that is) and, along with Mr. John Essame, Basil could have graced any international rugby team's scrum in a line-out of that day. Certainly it was his major sports subject. He put in many out-of-school-hours coaching and schooling individuals. This he did with the Norwich House senior boy Richard Gostick who became the first Kingham Hill School Boy to represent his country and play for the English School Boys' 1st XV.
How proud we all were: none more so than Teddy Cooper, Basil Benson, and John Turner - Richard's house master. But who was it that just spotted the raw talent in the lad, schooled and developed this with extra coaching sessions then introduced him to the local town rugby club Stow-on-the-Wold?
Then that Friday came when Teddy Cooper came into School Assembly carrying a white cake box as we all sat in our forms, row by row. Richard's England Cap was passed in its white cardboard box like a cake passed from boy to boy, row by row, form by form, until we had all had the opportunity to hold and view this England Cap. Oh how proud we all were at Richard's achievement. Even more so when Teddy proclaimed a school holiday to celebrate the occasion. Practice makes perfect was a maxim even our teachers would adhere to. Often Basil the Boot Benson would be seen out on the Rugby field practicing kicking, both place and drop kicking, like some modern day Johnny Wilkinson. Basil earned his nickname from being able to drop a goal from anywhere on the half way line.
Readers should be reminded that at that period in the development of Rugby Union in the 1950s it was frowned on to do anything else but "Run with the Ball". If my memory serves me correctly, did England not win a world Cup as recently as 2004 by doing just that - a dropped goal? Basil went out of his way to motivate all of us boys to pursue any form of physical activity - whether it be fencing or water polo - if we showed the slightest glimmer of ability in any particular sporting direction.
Basil came to the Hill as a bachelor and lived in Severn House with the other members of the bachelor staff during the 1950s and 1960s. He would have been well cared for by that much loved and appreciated house keeper Mrs. McLean.
Basil was deputy House Master to Bradford House, together with Mr. & Mrs. Meerendonk. Also Two OC for the School's Combined Cadet Force (Army Cadets only at this time). This was first under the command of Captain David Gooding and then Captain Tom Bowker who both had the good fortune to be House Masters for Sheffield House.
Basil (left) and Mr and Mrs Meerendonk
In my second year, around 1958, Basil met Judith Peel, who worked as a secretary in Morton-in-the-Marsh, another local Cotswold's market town.
The courtship flourished for two years and on occasions we caught a glimpse of Judith during that time. In 1960 Basil and Judith married and the new Mrs. Benson joined the staff and came to live with us on the Hill. Basil had to move out of the bachelor accommodation and he moved into Swansea House just across from Sheffield House. This house had been converted into two apartments, each with separate entrances.
This recent photo (June 2007) of Swansea House shows little has changed. The door in the picture was the entrance to Basil & Judith's home. The garden on the side of the house in this picture was first cultivated by the historian as a fourteen year old orphan schoolboy in 1960.
Basil and Judith both encouraged and gave him the opportunity to earn pocket money by paying him the princely sum of one shilling and three pence per hour to work in his out of school hours in their garden. He also looking after Basil's other love in his life - two Labrador puppys: Nina and Nelson. (Nelson is seen with Basil in the opening photo of this article.)
As early as the Christmas term of 1961 Judith was taking an active part in school life. The Head of Music Mr. David Wetherill [who coincidently also married in the same year as the Bensons and lived next door in the other apartment in Swansea House] with Basil, as the producer, continued the School tradition of directing one of W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan's Operettas. This was Iolanthe in my first term. I seem to recall that it was H.M.S. Pinafore, under the then directorship of Mr. Stewart Brindley, gave me my first introduction to classical music. Mr. Brindley recently informed me that he was also Director of Music for The Pirates of Penzance, and Trial by Jury. So W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan's Operettas became a part of school life and our education.
Yes, on the 8th & 9th December 1961, as our next illustration shows, Iolanthe was produced. This program does not lie! Who was or who was not a Fairy? For certain Mrs. Judith Benson was the only female participant as the fairy Queen. Now Judith's, inclusion was nothing to do with the fact of being the producer's wife. Oh No! the truth is only two weeks prior to opening night, the lad who was cast in that role of Queen of the Fairy's, who had been working hard all term on this, sadly his voice chose to start breaking. Overnight, Judith was seconded into this role. Without flinching, nor protesting Judith, put her heart and soul and her usual 110% she gave into learning this part. Being a quick learner, no one but no one, certainly none of us boys knew, and the audience had no idea of this late inclusion, to save the day. Nor that Judith went on a crash course, for the role to learn and perfect the part. With the producer of this production Basil her husband, also her next door neighbor being the Director of Music Mr. David Wetherill no chance of a respite from the role.
[Click to enlarge programme] Programme of KHS production of Iolanthe. (Dec 1961)
Judith saves the day and fills the role of Queen of the Fairies.
It also transpires that Basil performed on stage because Duncan Kinderman, who played Private Willis (of the Grenadier Guards), could not sing a note.
Act II started with Basil costumed as Private Willis singing a solo the "Sentry's Song". He promptly marched off after this solo only to be replaced by Duncan, kitted out in the same uniform and moustache. Now some of us who where in that production on stage never realised this even took place.
Who is Private Willis in this scene?
Fifth & Sixth year boys become peers of the realm. The bearded one is now the historian.
Ironically a later generation of Kingham Hill boys did produce a life peer. Also the lad in this picture second from the end on the right was awarded the national honours of an OBE and MBE.
Not only was Judith a professional secretary, with a fine singing voice and a willingness to get involved with school activities, but she was also an excellent cook, as I can confirm from my later days when I stayed with them in their home during my out of school hours and outside term times. Oh yes, I can still remember some of those meals - my first introduction to real Italian cuisine. These were a far cry from those substantial meals provided by Dixie Dean in the school dining hall.
I must also mention that Basil was keen on some of the country sports: shooting for certain he was keen on. One school holiday I was invited to stay with Basil and Judith, returning early to the Hill and staying in Swansea with them prior to the start of term.
The occasion being to accompany Basil and his father in law, Christopher Peel, on an organised shoot down in Herefordshire. Mr Peel was the owner of a Jenson 541 - the forerunner of the Interceptor - a real beast of a car, renowned for its workmanship and engine. Of course back in the early sixties British mechanical engineering was still renowned worldwide.
On the way to the shoot (boys being boys) on an open, straight piece of road the car was duly put through its paces. How thrilled I was, and how the adrenalin flowed when Basil mentioned casually that we had just exceeded 105 miles per hour. I opened my eyes! Yes, even today, I still remember like most boys do the first time they travel faster than that magical 100 mph.
I mentioned earlier to you that Basil went out of his way to motivate all of us boys to pursue some form of physical activity.
Well again I was privileged to have his one to one personal tuition with Gun Sports - Rough Country Shooting. However, some forty-five years have passed and I am now released from my vow of silence that I made to Basil back in 1961 about this next incident.
It occurred almost at the end of the school holidays, whilst I was still staying in Swansea House with Basil and Judith. Soon I would have to move across the road and back into Sheffield House when term started again. I was asked what I would like to do the following day. My choice was "shooting please, Sir". So it was arranged and I was loaned Judith's gun. A Damascus steel double barrelled hammer gun 4.10 gauge.
Now the school grounds were part and parcel of the Heythrop Hunt's hunting grounds. The Heythrop Hunt had hunted with packs of foxhounds since 1835. The Heythrop's 'hunting country' still spans Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. At that time Fox hunting was one of the major country pursuits. Furthermore, the chairman of the Heythrop Hunt, just happened also to be the chairman of our school of governors and Trustees, Colonel Tom Roche Q.C..
Permission was duly granted for master and pupil to have a day's rough shoot, starting our way around the edge of the fields by Plymouth House, then working our way up through the plantation on our way to Top School. Then after lunch heading for the plantation behind the bachelor masters' accommodation in Severn House.
I remember that day well. It started with a dash into Chipping Norton to purchase cartridges. Basil treated me to 50 cartridges for the 4.10 at the princely cost of 10/9d - ten shillings and nine pence (about 54p in modern money). At that time we had no minimum wage and the average man earned less than five pounds per week.
We returned to the Hill and shooting commenced. Basil banged away at a couple of wood pigeons, winging one and forcing them to change direction. I recall loosing off a couple of shots but to no avail. By lunch (that Judith had prepared for us) I was walking along the edge of Sarsden brook in the hope of some game. I was pretty despondent not having bagged anything at all. Basil reassured me that on some days rough shooting can be slow and no quarry taken. Still every cloud for me that day had a silver lining. Later in the afternoon we were working our way around to the plantation from Greenwich House across the back of Severn House. Basil suggested that I should enter the plantation by Mr. Ball's Gap, then make my way up slowly towards Daylesford, and anything that I was to startle I should drive out to my right. I was not to shoot at it though, but to leave that to Basil. Similarly, anything he was to flush into the plantation - hare, rabbit etc. - that crossed my path and to my left was fair game for me to bag. Off I went like some white hunter - Allan Quartermaine perhaps from all the best Boys' Own stories. If memory serves me I seem to remember Basil banging away a couple of shots at something first.
Then as I neared the centre of the plantation, heading into a soft breeze, I caught a glimpse of movement directly in front of me. It caused me to bring the butt of the gun into my shoulder tight to my cheek and bring back both hammers at the same time, just as Basil had taught me. I froze looking dead ahead only to be startled by the largest dog fox that I had ever seen at such close proximity. It must have been the same size as Mr. Meerendonk's golden labrador, Sandy.
Quickly I recalled the bantams' pen of the young farmers' club that had been raided last term. I also wondered if the hunter became the hunted. I was not going to wait and stare out this noble beast, nor give him the opportunity to charge at me. No, I waited until he was about ten paces in front of me and just as his head turned to his left and to my right I fired off one barrel just as he leapt to my right. Getting near to that spot where the path branched off towards Severn House, there lay my quarry - a large dog fox. Seeing a slight twitching movement, I dispatched the remaining barrel.
In a flash Basil was by my side and concerned for my well being. I was so proud, but also a little saddened having made my first kill in life.
No head was severed nor sent to a taxidermist to be stuffed and mounted on some oak plinth for me to display my trophy to all my school boy chums. Nor was a stern telling off given. I was told to guard the carcass while Basil went off to fetch his car, a Wolsey 1500, and a sack. On his return this noble beast, too heavy for me to lift, was put into the sack Basil had brought back with him and then placed into the boot of his car.
You see, I had committed the most cardinal of sins in the hunting world. I had ordained to shoot a fox on the Heythrop Hunt's manor and whilst under the supervision of one of Colonel Roche's own teachers.
I was sworn to secrecy lest Basil was to be sacked for allowing such a heinous crime to be perpetrated and in his presence.
That evening a large deep hole was dug in the Swansea House garden and the fox buried without ceremony. Then a large iron manhole cover was placed on top to stop the local dogs from digging up the carcass.
How times have changed! Now, in 2007, it's illegal to hunt foxes with hounds, and the only way they can be culled is by shooting them.
There is much more I would love to share with you about these two wonderful people who did so much for me personally, as well as those others on the Hill in their time. But I will always cherish and savour my memories.
Basil & Judith left the Hill the same year as I did in 1962. Basil went on to become a Deputy Head Teacher in a Primary School. Then he became head teacher at Ducklington School from 1966 to 1976 and later at Wychwood School from 1976 to 1984. Both of these schools are in the English county of Oxfordshire.
They have a family of three children: Richard born 1963, Ruth born 1965 and Timothy born 1968.
Article produced by John D. Timmins from his first-hand knowledge. He was the boy that Basil & Judith did so much to give him something of a normal family life outside of his school hours.
Left: Basil Benson examining photographs displayed at the October 2007 reunion on The Hill.