Me and the School Chapel
by George Hayter
AT ALLHALLOWS I spent not far short of one-tenth of the working week in worship.
If you were at school around the 1960s, you probably spent a similar proportion of your time in the chapel. See if you agree.
This is how I worked it out. Morning chapel (including hymn practice on Saturday mornings) lasted about 20 minutes per day, in other words, two hours each week. For most of my time (1965-1970) pupils also had to attend a service lasting about 45 minutes twice each Sunday. That bumps up the total time in chapel per week to 3.5 hours. That equates to about nine per cent of the average working week.
If you agree with that figure of 3.5, you can go on to multiply it by 36 (the number of weeks we were at school each year) and then multiply that by the number of years you were there. That gives you your total hours spent in worship. I was at Allhallows for five years, adding up to 567 hours.
Lots of people didn’t see much in the chapel but my house, Venning, was allotted the front few rows of pews in the lefthand half. Younger pupils sat at the front of each house and so in my first year I was in the very front row, an arm’s length from Rev Leech and not much further from Mr Hewan.
Suppressing giggles was almost the only source of enjoyment, along with the wildly enthusiastic singing of just a handful of hymns. The whole school raised the roof on those few popular numbers. You might remember the rip-roaring one that went: “Feed us now and evermore [pause] evermore!”
But during psalms, most of the congregation stood in silence, as if taking industrial action. Few liked the boring psalms and juniors soon learned to follow the example of the bigger boys, folding their arms and leaving their psalters unopened.
New boys all had to audition for the choir. I was a tone-deaf atheist too shy to be upfront wearing something like a dress, so I needed to fail my audition. When music master Alan Thomas pressed a note on his organ I deliberately croaked. Whatever organ note Mr Thomas tried, I missed it by a mile, croaked, ran out of breath, and pretended to choke.
Since 1962, the Beatles and Stones had been wearing their hair ever longer and most boys wanted to follow the fashion. The headmaster had other ideas and told any boy with hair over his ears that he must visit the peripatetic barber on his next visit. Before each service, Mr Hewan stood outside the door, casting an eye over the coiffure of each boy entering the chapel.
My mate Peter Callender was the envy of many. He had the longest hair in the school. He used to hook it behind his ears, plastering it with saliva so it stayed there when he walked past the headmaster.
Allhallows rock bands performed in chapel services occasionally. I remember laughing at the novelty of drums set up between the choir stalls and seeing classmates toting electric guitars next to the lectern. Few didn’t smile at the part of the otherwise staid service when drums thundered into the opening bars of the rocking Small Faces chart-topper All or Nothing.
Assistant chaplain Rev Michael Drew came from a working-class parish in London’s East End. He had a liberal approach and when he arrived at the school in 1966 he introduced occasional house chapel services, devised and conducted by pupils themselves. My friend Simon Anstey and I volunteered to do one, taking the places at the front of the chapel usually occupied by the chaplain and the headmaster. We were both mischievous rebels. We persuaded our colleague Richard Banfield to interrupt our prayer for the school’s wellbeing by shouting from within the congregation: “What about the workers?”
Banfield’s heckling was followed by a tape recording of comedian Peter Sellers saying in a posh voice like our housemaster’s: “Yes, what about the workers indeed?” There was more nonsense and at the end of the service, we accelerated towards the exit. Then we broke into a run, fearful that we would be expelled for ridiculing religion and insulting the school. But no one took offence!
After my 567 hours in it, I have a soft spot for the chapel. My affection includes the carved wood screen which stood behind the altar. That reredos is lying neglected in a disused church on the edge of Honiton. Searches and pleas to find the intricate woodwork a permanent home have so far failed. Local churches, the museum and the secondary school in Honiton have all been tried. Got any ideas?