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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


My parents were married on 27th November 1914 in the tin church in Rangoon, Burma. They were intending to spend their honeymoon in Mandalay, 300 miles up the Irrawaddy River. After the ceremony my father had some business to attend to before catching the river boat, and on reaching the landing-stage he was alarmed to see the boat, with my mother already on it, receding into the distance. His shouts were in vain; the captain, unaware of the situation, tried to comfort my mother who was in floods of tears. "I'm sorry madam, I can't stop the boat now. But don't worry, your husband will catch up with us tomorrow." This was the culmination of my father's two-year courtship of my mother in Oxford; he entered the Burma Civil Service in 1912, and had to wait another two years for her to join him there. However he did catch her up, and I was born on 26th August 1915....


....Not, however, in Burma, but in the house of my grandfather, Sir William Schlich, in Oxford. He was born in Darmstadt in 1840, but left Germany in 1868 for India, where he later became Inspector-General of Forests. He settled in England towards the end of the century and founded the Government School of Forestry at Cooper's Hill, near Windsor; this was later transferred to Oxford University, and my grandfather became its first Professor of Forestry. His first wife was English, the daughter of the lexicographer Sir William Smith; they had one daughter, my Aunt Gertrude, and then his wife died suddenly. Later in life he married again; his second wife was Mathilde Marsily, the mother of my mother and my Uncle Willie and Aunts Eleanor and Elsie. The Marsily family originally came from Italy, moving during the nineteenth century through France, where one of my ancestors had a position at Napoleon's court, to Belgium, where they settled. They were a large family, and I have many Belgian cousins to this day. So that although my mother was born and brought up in England I have no English blood-from her side of the family.

My father's family came from Cullompton in Devonshire; Searle is a Saxon name which has something to do with arms or armourers. However my ancestors were woodworkers and violinmakers - and also apparently bums and layabouts, which may explain my father's attitude to me when I wanted to take up music as a career. However my father's father was eminently respectable; trained as a musician - he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists - he became an Anglican clergyman and held posts at Teachers' Training Colleges in London and Winchester, before returning to the parish of Netley Marsh near Southampton. He was the third Searle to be called Humphrey - it was a family tradition for five generations for the eldest son to be given this name.                       Sir William Schlich with baby Humphrey
He published some anthems and sacred choral music, the
authorship of which later caused a little confusion in the British Museum.

My mother had come back to Oxford in the middle of the First World War so that I should not be born in the tropics, which was considered unhealthy for European children at that time. However she returned to Burma after my birth, and my brother Michael was born there in 1917, apparently without any ill effects. I was brought up mainly in my Oxford grandfather's house; they could afford a nurse for me, and my aunts looked after me devotedly, as did my grandparents. My grandfather was in semi-retirement by this time - he was 75 when I was born - but he still did a lot of University work and continued his writing; his book - Schlich's Manual of Forestry - was the standard work in English on the subject for many years.
Oxford was peaceful in those days. We were met at the station by horse-drawn landaus, and the Morris-Oxford and the Morris-Cowley cars which were being manufactured just outside Oxford by Mr. W.R. Morris (later Lord Nuffield) did not yet appear in sufficient quantities to disturb the academic calm of the city. (My mother remembered Morris as the proprietor of a bicycle shop in Holywell before the First World War). My grandfather's house was opposite the Parks, and I was often taken there in a pram, or later for walks. (I remember a German aeroplane appearing over Oxford on one occasion, and my nurse rushing me home in terror). My Aunt Gertrude used to play the piano, and I would enjoy listening to this, though I can't pretend that I showed any musical aptitude at that time. My grandfather was very kind to me and sometimes allowed me to use his typewriter; I loved the smell of cigar smoke in his study.
My mother brought my brother Michael back to-Oxford in l919, and then returned to Burma. I did not in fact meet my father till 1921, when both my parents returned to England, and my youngest brother was born in Oxford. Thereafter my mother used to come back every two or three years, and both parents every five or six until my father's retirement in 1936. But I don't think that my brothers and I felt any resentment against our parents for their absence; we were well looked after by other relations, at any rate until our Oxford grandfather's death in 1925. We also visited our other grandparents, at first at Wood Green in North London and later at Netley Marsh. Grandfather Searle played the piano well, as did my father's sister, Aunt Phyllis, who was living with her parents at that time. Mendelssohn was a favourite composer of theirs, but my grandfather had a large library of other scores, ranging in time from Bach and Handel to Elgar, which were a great help to me later on.
My father was not in the least musical, but he had a good brain, winning scholarships to Bradfield and New College, Oxford, and he was also a fine athlete in his youth. My mother was one of the first women undergraduates at Oxford, and it was there that they met, while she was working as a Home Student. Although she was supposed to be chaperoned, she sometimes managed to go for long walks with my father in the country round Oxford, roaming the fields which Matthew Arnold described in "The Scholar Gypsy". Late in her life my mother heard a performance in Oxford of Vaughan Williams' "Oxford Elegy", in which these words are spoken to music, and she told me how moved she was by the memories of her courtship. She was a very pretty girl in her youth, and also something of a rebel. Both she and my father were very intelligent, and their marriage, which lasted for over fifty years till my father's death in 1965, was extremely happy as far as I know.

At an early age I was sent to the kindergarten at the Oxford High School, a short walk down the Banbury Road from my grandfather's house. -After this I went to the junior department of the Dragon School, also in Oxford. This was a fairly tough school and I didn't enjoy it very much. The junior school was co-educational - when one of the girls went on to Cheltenham Ladies' College and was asked by the sports mistress: "What is your favourite game, Penelope?" she replied stoutly: "Rugger".

In 1923, my Uncle Willie, who was then a bachelor, and his sister, my Aunt Elsie, decided to set up home together in London. He was working there as a civilian in what was then the War Office (now Ministry of Defence). They found a tall, narrow house in Parliament Hill, near Hampstead Heath, which was ideal for walks. My brothers and I moved in, again with a nurse to look after us. I enjoyed London; I went to a day school called Heath Mount in Heath Street, which, as I later discovered, had been attended fifteen years earlier by Evelyn Waugh. I was interested to find that the same morning ceremony which he described in his memoirs still continued. Before 9a.m. the boys were lined up, in school order, round the walls of the gymnasium. Precisely on the stroke of the hour the entire teaching staff would appear in academic robes, headed by the headmaster, Mr. J.S. Granville Grenfell, a stocky figure of somewhat nautical appearance with a small pointed beard. He would say: "Good morning, gentlemen" (the oldest gentlemen being aged 12), in reply to which we dutifully intoned "Morning, Sir". He would then read out rewards and punishments for the day. If any boy was to be caned Mr. Grenfell would point his finger at him and say: "Boy, go to my study and await my presence". The double doors were flung open and the wretched boy would totter out. It was also a fairly tough school, and the prefects were issued with squares of rubber linoleum with which to beat young offenders' hands. Still, I preferred it to the Dragon School, perhaps because of its agreeably crazy atmosphere.

After a short time at Heath Mount it was decided that I ought to be sent to a boarding school. My uncle's old headmaster, Ronald Vickers, was still in charge of Scaitcliffe, a small preparatory school at Englefield Green near Windsor, and, apparently hoping that I would gain a scholarship to a public school, he agreed to accept me for half the normal fees. Of course I was unhappy at being sent away from my relations and home, and there was a certain amount of bullying of the younger boys by the older ones, but once I became used to the circumstances I was not too miserable. Mr. Vickers was a headmaster of the old school; if the boys did not do their Latin prose properly he tore up their exercise books, threw them out of the window and administered fifteen strokes of the cane to the authors. As a result we all became rather proficient at Latin prose, not a very useful accomplishment in later life, but necessary then in order to pass the Civil Service entrance examination, the goal of all our studies from the age of eight onwards. I became quite interested in Latin and Greek, but was hopeless at maths and later at science; I also had some piano lessons which my grandfather Schlich paid for, but had not yet become passionately interested in music. The school had pleasant grounds, and we used to be taken for walks in Windsor Park in the summer. Once every year we walked en masse to the spot where King George V and Queen Mary changed from a motor car into the State Coach which was to take them to Ascot Races. We doffed our bowler hats (which had to be bought for wearing on this one occasion only) and sang the National Anthem. As my parents didn't feel like buying me a new bowler every year, mine must have perched ludicrously on the top of my head by the time I left Scaitcliffe. Most of the boys there went on to Eton; among my schoolfellows were Richard Sharples (later tragically murdered while Governor of Bermuda) and the naturalist James Fisher.

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