Rugby: the Natural History Society
As soon as I arrived at Rugby, I made a beeline for the NHS that is the Natural History Society. Quite why I already knew that archaeology was my thing I do not know – I had been doing classics at Akeley Wood but I have not up to this point done any archaeology. I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. And archaeology was part of the Natural History Society.
The NHS was one of the great glories of Rugby with a history going back a century or more. It had its own premises, a medium-sized house just behind the Old Speech Room which was the school theatre and which became my premises. When you went in, there was a nice library just inside, with a fine collection of books on natural history and then upstairs there was a good collection of beetles and particularly of stuffed animals, and it was the smell of stuffed animals that dominated the whole house. The great game hunter F C Selous was one of the great figures and his aura dominated the place.
However many other activities had been packed in under the umbrella of the NHS. . There was there was a vivarium out on one of the playing fields where people could keep animals. It even had a snake pit, though thankfully nobody decided to keep the snake there in my time. There was also the meteorological station. In my final year I became the secretary of the NHS which meant I was the head boy, and I had to fill in on some of the activities, so I did my share of metrology, recording sunshine and rain which we had been doing for over 100 years. There was a glass ball with a space behind it for a strip of paper which recorded the sunlight: when the sun shone, it burnt a line on the strip of paper.
However one of the great glories was the astronomy section, as we had our own observatory just opposite Tudor House, at number 4, Horton Crescent. This was was an ordinary house which at the bottom of its garden had an observatory. The observatory was circular and contained an 8 inch telescope which was in effect a tube 10 or 12 feet long. The roof had a double panel which would open up when you wanted to observe, and the roof could be trundled round by turning a wheel.
I joined the astronomy section and I had to read a book and pass a test to demonstrate my knowledge of astronomy. One of the boys in my class called Jeans, and was in fact the son of the astronomer Royal Sir James Jean and also his wife, who was a famous concert pianist. The husband wrote a book for the wife on the Mathematics of Music which I read and have lived with ever since – it explained what the Well Tuned Klavier means.
We even had the old school star, which is Eta Cassiopeia, the sixth star in the constellation of Cassiopeia which is the constellation in the form of a W which appears overhead throughout much of the year. Eta Cassiopeia is in fact a double star and over the 75 years that we had been observing it, the two stars had gone nearly 3/4 of the way around. Apparently there are tens of thousands of these double stars and it is possible to apply to a double star office somewhere and be allocated a double star for observation. This we had done 75 years before and it meant that every year we had to do our double star observation.
And of course we also observed the moon, which with an 8 inch telescope becomes a very large object indeed. We used to go out in the evening after the ‘dics’, or final prayers, having obtained permission from the housemaster. But the housemaster was a little forgetful, and sometime she would forget that we had gone out, and would lock up for the night, and we had to climb a through a window in one of the studies. There was a boy a year below me who was a very keen astronomer and he showed me how to do this.
There was also a railway section which had a large room full of a very extensive Hornby Railway layout. It was also possible to do Trainspotting. Rugby was an important railway junction, and moreover it had the national test station for steam locomotives, where steam locomotives could be tethered on wheels underneath and then pound away and remain stationary while their output could be measured from the wheels underneath. I never went down there but apparently it was an awesome sight to see a steam engine going at full speed and being stationary – and very noisy too. My friend David Drummond, with whom I I shared a study for 7 of the nine terms in which one had to share a study, was a stalwart of the railway section and became the secretary when I became secretary of the archaeological sex. Dave was a good friend and I was very sad when I heard that he was killed in a car accident in Kenya in I suppose the 1980s together with his wife, leaving behind a young family.
I joined the archaeological society which had a couple of rooms on the upper floor right at the far end as I remember. The secretary when I joined was Tom Fawcett. I remember the name but nothing more. However to my disappointment he was not digging at Tripontium, the Roman station on the Watling Street which was the nearest Roman site, but instead he had taken up with Deserted Mediaeval Villages, which proved to be very far-sighted. At rugby there was a further education college, where there was a young lecturer called Maurice Beresford who had begun investigating deserted mediaeval villages and realising that they did actually exist on the ground, because at time they were thought to be a Tudor myth. Famously he went poking around on a well preserved mediaeval village at Wharram Percy in Yorkshire where John Hurst, a rising young inspector at the Ministry of Works came out and ‘caught’ him trenching along the walls, which was quite the wrong way to dig. They then set to work together for the long forty-year excavation at Wharram Percy, and eventually I was to get many good articles for Current Archaeology from them.
On to National Service