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Memories of Peterhouse by Bob Owtram

BOB OWTRAM 1970 - 1984

My appointment
Anne and I arrived at Peterhouse at the start of the third term of 1970. My previous career had been 14 years as an Administration Officer in the British Colonial Service in Nyasaland/Malawi. I had been offered the post of Bursar in succession to John Beaumont following an interview in March with Bob Williams, Chairman of the Board, and two Board members plus Bruce Fieldsend. I was also asked to take on either the work of maintenance or estate management and chose the latter being less likely to lead to disaster.

My predecessor in this post was George Cross. In the event my choice proved to be a wise one. I inherited a Vespa scooter from George, which carried me around the estate for several years and was then replaced with a lighter and larger-wheeled Honda. To be able to leave my office and get out into the bush to inspect the dams or mark pine trees for thinning, as well as to supervise playing fields and other estate work, was a welcome respite when financial matters became too oppressive.

The Chapel roof
The first item on my agenda was the Chapel roof. This had been built with poorly designed timber trusses and the weight of the roof was causing the apex to sink by something approaching a foot. Engineers had been called in to sort out the problem and when I arrived I found large bluegum poles propping everything up. Steel girders were then inserted and the roof allowed to fall back onto them. The rest of 1970 was largely a matter of finding my feet in a new environment and getting to know and be known by the staff.

The Carpentry Shop fire
One incident that stands out in my mind from that first year was a fire in the Carpentry Shop in the middle of one night. We were living in a house down near the Staff Compound and were woken up by a telephone call. Once awake it was easy enough to hear the fire which sounded like a cannonade of shots as the asbestos roof shattered, not so easy to gather my wits and think what I should be doing about it. By the time that I arrived on the scene other members of staff had taken charge and brought things under control with hosepipes and help from a line of boys with buckets passing water from the staff pool. Luckily not too much of the building nor too many items of value had been lost. It had been handled so efficiently that I was left to ponder whether this sort of incident was routine at the school!

The staff
At that time the school was as near full as one could wish, some 370 students in the five Boarding Houses. The effect of sanctions following on U.D.I., declared in 1965, were not too serious and security was not a problem. The school was in the very capable hands of Bruce Fieldsend who had succeeded Fred Snell two years earlier. Other staff of long standing included John Hodgson (Hodgy), John D(avidson), John G(reenacre) and John Coates. "John" seems to have been a useful name to have. Indeed, as I write this, John D and John G are still there after some 40 years, the former with a short break elsewhere.
Phil Ward was also there in 1970 and is still on the staff while George Martin, Peter Ginn and Sandy Singleton were already there and remained during all the years we were at Peterhouse. Archie and Anne Kennedy were the in 1970 and, despite a brief time back in Scotland, are still living on site in one of the two retirement houses built in recent years and, I am told, referred to as "Jurassic Park". Michael and Barrie Hammond live in the other. Michael was teaching at Springvale in 1970 before moving to the Vumba to become Headmaster of Eagle School until its closure in the war years. He then moved to Peterhouse where he became Housemaster of Malvern.

Other staff who were there before 1970 and were with us for several years during our time included Martin Graham, Paul Brodsky, Archie Larthe, George Morton, Colin Johnson, Pat Hogg, Eddy Hilditch, Guy Holland, Joe Porter, Phil Taylor, Ian Walker and Fergy Ferguson. Some of these, sadly, are no longer with us. I may well have left out some and, if so, I apologise. There are also, of course, some who joined in the course of our time there and were either still there when we left or had moved earlier. They were all valued friends and I shall not try to name them all as, inevitably, some will be left out.

Petrean members of staff
I must mention Ivan Jacklin who was the first "Old Boy" to join the staff followed by Edmund Katso and Andrew Hall, who was to become the first Housemaster of Snell House in 1984. I think I may also be allowed to mention Robin Cox who had two periods at Peterhouse and on 5th December 1981 was married to our daughter Jane in the school Chapel and at our house which staff wives organised and the catering for which Dorrit took off our hands. Since then I have worked as Bursar under Robin's Headmastership at Phuthing School in Johannesburg from 1991 to 1993 and, happily the family solidarity remains intact.

Admin staff
In the office I found Audrey Simpson and Margaret Watson. Later came Ben Benzies and Barry Anthony assisted by Panna Haskins, Larry Etheridge and Shirley Shaw. Sadly, all but the last three have now passed on. They all gave me enormous support and precious friendship.

Dorrit Bekker
On the catering side I found Dorrit Bekker controlling the kitchen when I arrived in 1970. School caterers are normally birds of passage but Dorrit was still there when I left 14 years later and continued at the school for many years thereafter. Dorrit tended towards severe deafness which she used at times to great effect. I remember standing in her office when she was ringing our friendly butcher; she ordered a large quantity of steak and the butcher could be heard pleading that he had no good steak. Dorrit ignored him totally and said "Right, I'll collect it after lunch." By the afternoon he had found her steak from somewhere, it was easier than trying to argue.
Dorrit's teas at sports events will not quickly be forgotten either, chocolate cakes, cream buns, bacon rolls - you name. How lucky I was to have her there, never quietly but always efficiently providing everyone with super meals.

Anne Butterworth
In the laundry Anne Butterworth reigned with a staff of some 15 people who seemed to remain unchanged year after year. One of my abiding memories of Annie was the ever-present war between her and Peter Ginn whom she accused, quite unjustly, of shooting her sparrows in the laundry yard. The number of birds that her 14 cats must have killed were never acknowledged. Philemon was the number one in the laundry who in later years when Anne left became the Supervisor. In between, for a short period we had Val Sutherland whom I remember as having been very much into the occult or super-natural world. If the laundry was not always whiter that white, I am sure that on occasions her staff were.

Zambian students
From 1970 to 1974 there seemed little to worry about. However, events were already beginning to unfold which would lead to far more difficult times. Out of the 300 or so students well over 100 came from Zambia. These Zambians travelled to and from school each term by bus. I recall that there were normally three buses hired for this purpose serving both Lusaka and Kitwe areas. So long as the Border Control posts operated normally there was no problems, but came the inevitable day when relations worsened and the transit became traumatic. I cannot recall just when this happened, but there was a time when, first, the boys had to walk across the border and change buses and then it was closed all together. Naturally the number of Zambian students dropped from over 100 to almost none, a few stalwarts still opted to fly to and from school.

87 varieties of "No"
As a result of this catastrophic drop in enrolments, the school faced financial disaster. Belts were tightened and the Bursar became known as the man with 87 varieties of the word "No". This period was to last for a number of years and the fact that the school was able to weather the crisis is due almost entirely to the faith which its Board of Governors under Bob Williams and the Executive Committee showed in it as well to the determination of Bruce Fieldsend and the co-operation of his staff. Two members of the Board stand out in particular, John Carter, Chairman of Delta Corporation and of the school's Executive Committee, and Syd Hayes, Chairman of T.A. Holdings and of the Finance Committee. They, together with the help of other members, set about raising very considerable financial donations from Commerce and Industry within Rhodesia. With this help and with sacrifices by both staff and students, the school survived until enrolments once again rose to more acceptable levels towards the end of the decade.
The effect of all this, however, was not entirely negative. With the decrease in student numbers it became easier for staff to get to know both the students and the parents. The school itself became a much closer family and Liza Fieldsend ensured that staff wives got together regularly and were given tasks to do to make the school function efficiently on a social level.

The Guerrilla War
As the "guerrilla" war escalated incidents were taking placed well within the country's borders. In 1974 membership of the Police Reserve was increased and school teachers were required to join and to undertake 14 day call-ups during two holidays out of three somewhere around the country. Staff wives also joined the Reserve. Much of this service was both dull and demoralising, but it did provide a chance to see parts of the country one would never otherwise visit. Again, it allowed staff to get to know each other pretty well. No-one on the staff was lost or badly hurt. On one occasion near Mtoko I was driving a heavy lorry when we detonated a landmine: In my well-padded driver's cab I didn't even realise it was my vehicle until I found it wouldn't move; one rear wheel was some 50 metres away in a mealie garden. Those sitting in the back, however, were both deaf and sore for a while afterwards.

During term time there were often daytime call-outs or night-time road blocks to be manned. It was not too long before incidents were recorded close to the school, on the main road between Peterhouse and Marandellas and also not far to the east towards Macheke. School transport was restricted to daylight hours and Police Reserve staff with loaded FN rifles had to accompany the vehicles. Each member of staff who was in the Reserve kept his rifle and ammunition available in his house. As a result of all this any school event such as a play or concert meant that parents had to stay overnight at the school and once again staff and parents got to know each other far better. But sadly, the war also meant that a number of young "Old Petreans" were killed or maimed on active service soon after leaving school and the news of each such event was a cause of almost familial distress. It seemed no time since they had been playing Under 14 games or climbing in the Chimanimanis. This latter B Block expedition also had to be abandoned for several years and only re-started in 1980 with an ad hoc expedition to the Pungwe area of Inyanga followed by the normal expeditions to Chimanimani again in 1981.

It also became necessary to erect a security fence around the school. This fence was made of gumpoles and barbed wire and stretched for some 3km around the outside of all playing fields, Monkey Hill, and staff housing. Unsuccessful attempts were made to grow Mauritius Thorn along it. The Dining Room windows were also coated with a plastic film to prevent flying glass should there be a rocket or mortar attack. Happily there never was one. The nearest attack to the school property came on 9th November 1979 when Kingsley Harris, a member of the Marandellas High School staff, was ambushed and killed in his car on the Council Road close to the south-east corner of the estate. This was mid-afternoon during games and the explosions and firing sounded all too near. Several of us went down the road, in the armoured "Batmobile" which the school Police Reserve Section had acquired, to react to the situation and I well recall the shock of finding the car and identifying the body inside. It was a very sad day as he had been a good friend to many of us.

Sanctions begin to bite
As sanctions began to bite harder, it became difficult to obtain new equipment of various sorts and bit by bit machinery wore out. It became difficult to keep the gang-mowers repaired; decent crockery was unobtainable and we descended to using blue plastic plates in Hall. Necessity is ever the mother of invention and we were fortunate to have Tommy Haskins as Maintenance Manager for much of the time. Tommy set to and manufactured a rotary mower comprising 3 belt driven rotating discs to be drawn behind the tractor. This made it possible to keep the playing fields cut to a reasonable degree until we could replace it with a more professional machine. Again, we had two large rollers, hand-pulled, for cricket wickets. Tommy cut one of these drums in half to make two rear rollers and used the other for the front roller. He created a superstructure and fitted a garden mower engine with chain drive to the rear rollers and steering mechanism. Lo and behold, Peterhouse had its own mechanical roller, slow admittedly, but effective.

Transport was always a problem. When I arrived we had a Leyland bus, a smaller Isuzu bus and a small pick-up truck for maintenance work. Spares were hard to get and when the Leyland bus got older we sold it, I think, to Waddilove which had no transport, and bought two second hand buses. These were a pretty fair disaster and were seldom, if ever, both in working order at the same time. Once again Syd Hayes came to our rescue and arranged for the donation of a Leyland vehicle which had been used as a mobile demonstration workshop for Leyland Motors. Seats were fitted into it and we had a beautiful new bus which, for reasons only schoolboys know, came to be called "Meatloaf". This was still in daily use when I left in 1984.

The second dam
In 1975 despite the restrictions already mentioned, the school managed to build a second dam in the vlei running eastwards towards the Council Road. This was essential because the existing dam was inadequate to provide sufficient "red" water for irrigating the fields. It was certainly a pleasure to have something positive to think about and plan. I hasten to say that I was not personally responsible for the engineering design and the actual construction. During this year we also linked up all the boreholes on site with a single ring-pipe and installed a chlorinator above the final borehole. Two of the squash courts were also renovated with wooden floors - what a pleasure. The other two were similarly treated a year or two later.

So we survived until 1980 when elections were held - 1979 had seen the "Muzorewa" elections - but these were the proper elections. Suddenly life for the future looked brighter. Bruce Fieldsend made a quick trip to Zambia to try to regain lost ground and, early in 1981, an Appeal was launched. An Australian Firm was brought in to set up the Appeal and sufficient funds were secured to build a new School Hall which was completed by the end of 1982. By common consent and desire it was named "The Fieldsend Hall". Immediately this had been completed work started on a Sixth Boarding House which was completed in time to start operating in January 1984 under the name "Snell House". The fact that this house was required shows how quickly the enrolment had increased. Indeed, by 1983 we had a small number of day students coming in both from our own staff Compound, and also from Dombo Tombo Township in Marandellas. This latter development was not a total success since discipline and attendance tended to be "by preference". During this period of development we also carried out work in the Boarding Houses to provide bed-studies for the Sixth Formers, a long overdue innovation.

New athletics field
In 1983 we embarked on a new athletics field above the main cricket oval. We were fortunate to receive generous help in the way of earth-moving equipment. Mero, our small but great-hearted wall builder set to and built the stone terraces along the sides. His was a never ending task of collecting stones from down on the estate and building walls and drains all round the school extending along the main drive from the Pyramids on the main road down to the bottom fields. I recall that 1983 was a terrible drought year. We had no water to water the fields. One memorable cricket match was played against Prince Edward when Graeme Hick was in their team: All players were requested to wear "tackies" so as not to tear up the wicket. I had to request Graeme Hick to do likewise, despite his unhappiness at the prospect, but he accepted with good grace. I did not then imagine I was telling a subsequent English Test player to get his big boots off.

By that time I knew that I needed to return to Britain to help look after my parents who were then well into the "eighties" and I had planned to leave at the end of 1983 when our younger son, Ian, had written A Levels. However, as Bruce had also decided to retire then it was decided that I would stay on for one more terms to help the new Rector, Alan Megahey, settle in. This I did and found myself once more facing major developments. This time it was to start on the renovation of Springvale School across the main road which was to become the new Prep. School for Peterhouse. It was all go and I was, in fact, quite relieved when the time came to hand over to my successor, Wade Roebuck, and let him continue the project.

Our fourteen years at Peterhouse were amongst our happiest and I am truly grateful to all those who helped make it so. To Bruce Fieldsend I owe great thanks, his wisdom, guidance and quiet efficiency made my own work much easier to accomplish.
I must ask the indulgence of anyone who reads this as it all happened some years ago and my memory may well have played me false in certain respects. It is, in any event, only intended to be a haphazard collection of "memories" and is not supposed to be a resourced history. John Coates and Archie Kennedy produced a well-researched history "Peterhouse- The First Twenty-Five Years" in June 1980 which also covers much of this period.

I have kept my pocket diaries which are largely filled with such trivia as what transport was needed each day and which members of staff had run out of firewood, but also have brief references to some of the items which I have included. Apart from these diaries I now have no way of checking on the things which I can recall. I must also apologise for the fact that my memories are mostly of staff or of impersonal facts, such is the life of a Bursar. If you do not meet students daily in class or on the sports field it is hard to get to know who is who and tie names to faces. My work in the "Book Room" where I not only handed out and took in text books, but also issued pads of paper two or three times a week against a House List kept for the purpose helped me a little in this. Bruce and Liza seemed to know every boy by name within a week or so of his arrival and I guess it is largely a matter of mental discipline. I fear that I fell short of their standard.

Bob Owtram
March 1998

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