Plum Jam and Slapstick

Lionel Hemsley’s school days

Beach Photo

It is hard work finding evidence for the thoughts and feelings of children in the past.  Letters and diaries are rare and often don’t survive. However, this year I was delighted to meet Lionel Hemsley, who had kept a precious stash of documents from his schooldays during the Second World War. I was even more delighted when he offered to donate them to the Museum!

Lionel Hemsley with school friends. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley with school friends. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley (smartly dressed for the beach). Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley (smartly dressed for the beach). Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley with his sister. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley with his sister. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley playing with his sister. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

Lionel Hemsley playing with his sister. Image (C)V&A Museum, London

As well as letters from friends and family, Lionel had a number of novels he wrote as a child, and lots of programmes, tickets and scripts from comedy shows he devised with friends. This wonderful trove is now the Hemsley Archive.

Lionel’s story of wartime childhood, evacuation, and radio entertainment starts in 1939:

“The first main event in my life was at the age of seven when I went to boarding school. On the 2nd September 1939 War broke out. We were on holiday on the East coast near Great Yarmouth, a place called Scratby. Because of the war breaking out, we didn’t go back to Croydon where I had been in a kindergarten school with Miss Miles in her private home, two classes, one up, one downstairs!”

To keep them out of danger, Lionel’s parents sent him and his sister to Chipping Campden Grammar School, a boarding school in the Cotswolds.

“We arrived on November 5th. We arrived after heavy snow and my father’s car went off the road and punctured the petrol tank, so I had his company in the local hotel for two or three days. I had some humbugs in a paper bag which I kept in my pocket for probably months and months afterwards without eating them, as a reminder that my parents had disappeared or gone. I hated this first term in school. I felt all the emotion being drained out of me.

I remember, each Sunday, we sat down in the school dining hall, to write letters home. And of course the first letter I wrote ‘I want to come home’ and the prefects who looked at the letters said ‘No, you can’t put that’. However, I enclosed a large number of drawings, and hidden in the drawings were the words ‘I want to come home’ several times. Unfortunately for me they had no effect. So there I was.”

Lionel passed most of the War at Chipping Campden. He can remember the bombers going over on the night of the Coventry air raids, but most of his recollections revolve around food.

“At Chipping Campden, the headmaster’s wife was in charge of the catering, and we had exactly the same menu for the same day of the week. We always knew on Thursdays there wouldn’t be a dessert at lunch, there’d be an apple and cheese. And on another day there’d be tapioca, which was regarded as frogspawn and not very popular. And marg, I don’t think we saw much of butter. The margarine was put on a plate and you sort of helped yourself to margarine. The jam was always plum, so I can no longer eat, well I can eat plum jam but I wouldn’t by choice. Put me off plum jam for life.

One of the nasty things they did was put Epsom salts in your sugar ration. Each week you put out an empty jam jar and your sugar ration was put in that by the matron, and they were put on a big tray, you know, on the trays, for you to collect your own. We must have had our name written on a label I suppose, and they’d put ENOs in which of course ruined the sugar [ENO salts was a common laxative]. It was a tranquil kind of bullying I think. And I remember being depressed by it and how my spirit was bucked up no end when my parents visited and probably the problem sort of disappeared.

I was a vegetarian. When I was about three or four, I found it not possible to eat meat or fish; I don’t know whether that was psychological and unconscious, I certainly had nausea anyway, and so my mother didn’t force the issue. At school they tried to force the issue, and I remember sitting for over an over after lunch eating this fish a morsel at the time, until eventually the assistant matron Miss Toser said I needn’t bother. And they never tried to force me after that. But under the rationing system I had a large chunk of cheese in lieu of meat coupons, in fact I had coupons for nuts as well, and I’d keep this large chunk of cheese in my locker and cut a bit off every meal, and I had cashew nuts which were very tasty. Under the rationing system if you were a vegetarian you had a presumable equal amount of protein in extra cheese and nuts instead of the meat coupons.

But what I did add to my food was marmite. I was very keen on marmite, and I popped a bottle in the pocket of my grey suit and carried it around all day, so that’s why my sister said I smelt always like marmite, so I had my own pot of marmite all the way through, because it really made even the most horrible margarine edible!”

When he was eleven, under advice from the headmaster, Lionel moved to the more academic Kings School Bruton, where he found himself mixed in with boys from a school called Eddington House.

“…which was a Prep school evacuated from Herne Bay, which had been emptied out during the War. Anyway, by the time I arrived at Bruton, the school was in one of these medieval almshouses founded in, I think, the 1600s and there were still old ladies living there. There was a chapel there where we had services and I can remember reading the bible once with the old ladies paying full attention. There were two very large classrooms with a wooden sliding door and this had a stage in it where the headmaster or teacher, usually sat when giving lessons.

The Hippodrome was the concert party that I set up, and goodness knows why the other boys joined in, but anyway, we used to use the stage and we’d sing songs and read poems. I can’t remember what the singing was like! And I think there were probably humorous sketches. It was named after a BBC programme, with Enoch, Ramsbottom and Lovejoy, who were comedians. I called myself John Henry, which was the name of my father’s favourite pre-war comedian, who had a sidekick called Buttercup.

So the group of boys, Ian Luetchford was Buttercup, Tilman was Ramsbottom, Hudson was Enoch, and Dallas was Lovejoy, performed in all these things.

At the end, when the War ended, and we, the whole school moved back to Herne Bay. Now the boys that were supposed to be going to King’s School, some of those stayed behind, but some didn’t like it, in particular didn’t like the Housemaster and his wife – particularly his wife who was an old battle-axe. We had no desire to stay so about half the final lot who started the next term at Eddington House were from Bruton.

Back in Herne Bay, the Hippodrome got a bit more ambitious, and though I don’t quite recall where we did our performances, one of the huts at the school, a big hut, had a stage in it, so we might have used that. But we certainly used that for the pantomimes. Amongst my written stuff I’ve still kept, what 67 years from then, is Billy Bunter, Robin Hood, who rescued the Babes in the Wood, and Cinderella, and I guess we also carried on with the songs and things, because I’ve got a book of songs, about half of which were written in Bruton, and the other half at Herne Bay.”

These production notebooks, scripts and programmes suggest a mad-cap, anarchic comedy style. Utterly unsupervised most of the time, Lionel and his friends made their own fun, inspired by those BBC comedians and movies like Hellzapoppin’.


In this era of frequent moves and disruption, the boys kept in touch by letter. Insulting, brief and riddled with spelling mistakes, reading the earliest letters feels like eavesdropping on a partly incomprehensible world of schoolboys! As they get older, conversation turns to School Certificates, university and careers.

Hemsley letters 147 Hemsley letters 148 Hemsley letters 149 Hemsley letters 150 letter 5 letter 1 letter 2 letter 3 letter 4

Lionel’s full story, including memories of his house in Croydon being bombed, writing novels in the sickbay of the school, and going to university aged 17, has been recorded and is part of the MoC Oral History archive.

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3 thoughts on “Plum Jam and Slapstick

  1. Coral Harrow (nee Hemsley) says:

    I was with Lionel but over the road in the girls boarding house( later a hotel “Seymour House”) I never realized how homesick he was as he never told me. We often met up at playtime in the Grammar school. Years later when we went back to Chipping Campden school we noticed that neither of us were entered on the school Roll until sometime later long after our arrival in November 1939. I assume because we were under age. At one point we were both writing to “Sparks” in the Navy & I knitted him a grey scarf ( full of holes I should think as I was not a great knitter!) I was 8.5 years old when we arrived & Lionel just 7 years old. We would not have been sent there but for the war as we lived too near Croydon Airport. In June 1944 our house was hit by one of the first flying bombs.

  2. Coral Harrow (nee Hemsley) says:

    At the time that Lionel was moved to Eddington House (evacuated to Bruton Somerset) I was also moved to Bruton to Sunnyhill School (now Bruton School for girls). We were up on the hill & Lionel would come & visit me bringing his latest story asking me to correct his spellings! Many of his stories were illustrated too. Sometimes I was invited to tea down at the Sexey’s Almhouses where his prep school had accommodation. The boys had to serve me politely! The standard of teaching in Bruton was far higher for me unlike Chipping Campden they were not so affected by staff being called up to serve in the war. I was not a vegetarian like Lionel. Some food we had came from America. This was large cans of orange jelly which was spread on pastry to give us vitamins. Our food was also more tasty in Bruton as the cooks had more ideas on catering with the rations than in Campden. However we had “war work” such as planting potatoes or peeling the vegetables for lunch. I remember VE Day in May 1945 when the radio announced the end of the war. We all bounced on our beds! I stayed at school until 1949 when I went to Homerton College in Cambridge to study to be a teacher. Lionel went to Bristol University to study to be a vet. He went on to Emmanuel College in Cambridge afterwards for a further 2 year course.

    • John Tilman says:

      Hello Coral
      I was at Bruton with Lionel during the war and afterwards at Herne Bay until 1947. I met up again with Lional and other Bruton boys in 2016 but understand that he has now retired to Australia full time, so I don’t have an address for him. I would love to hear news of him and if you are in touch, please send my regards
      John Tilman

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