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Granville Bantock at The Actors' Orphanage

There are times when the tabloid press take delight in attempting to destroy the reputation of past or current heroes of the entertainment world. The posthumous Noël Coward that most of us know is no exception. So it was with a growing sense of joy that we read Granville Bantock’s chronicle of his life between 1930 and 1947 and discovered the largely unsung work of Noël, his friends and contemporaries who did so much for the well-being of orphaned children. Part of the recent Coward Exhibition at The National Theatre gave details of his work at Langley Hall and Silverlands and it is this personal testimony from those orphans that strikes home and makes us realise the consistent concern and care that Noël showed to the young of the less fortunate of his profession.

Over the next few editions of Home Chat we will be including the memories of Granville and NCS member Carole Barzilay who both attended the orphanage including extracts from Granville’s chronicle. In this first piece Granville sets the scene for his placement at Langley Hall and provides extracts from his research on the formation of the orphanage and the early days of Noël Coward’s involvement.

It was summer 1930. I was four and a half years old and my brother, Paul, just nine and a half. My father, Leedham Bantock, had died two years earlier leaving very little money, by now it had all gone and my mother was pondering our future. Our small semi-detached house was, luckily, paid for so she was determined to keep it as our home, but without income the situation was desperate. My Uncle Granville was visiting us and I vaguely remember grown-up talk in the living room He and his younger brother Leedham had been very close, so much so that I was named Granville. He was very concerned for our future and tried to persuade my mother to let him provide for us, but she would not agree to such a burden on him.

My father’s last position was General Manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London. All his life he had been an actor and playwright and had written the last few pantomimes for the theatre up to his death. He had been a good friend of the Melvilles who owned the Lyceum and it was they who suggested to my mother that Paul and I should be sent to the Actors’ Orphanage where we would be well looked after and educated. It was decided, with Uncle Granville’s approval, that when term started in September my brother and I would go to the Orphanage; the Melvilles had made the arrangements.

My mother knew that with her two children out of the way she could earn money by taking in lodgers. She had agreed with the orphanage to provide all our clothes and to make a yearly contribution towards our keep. Our house in Richmond was ten minutes walk from the station which she considered an advantage in attracting the right type of paying guest. She was thirty-eight years old and a very practical person, having come from a large family in Norfolk where her father was the village rector. She was eighteen years younger than my father whom she had met when she was a Gaiety Girl on the London stage.

I remember the first Sunday in September when my mother took us to the orphanage. We left our house, which I was not to see again for almost a year and took the number sixty-five bus to Ealing Broadway station, from where we caught the local G.W.R train to Langley, Bucks. The orphanage was just five minutes from the station so we walked, soon coming to a high brick wall which we followed until we came to a large wooden gate in which was set a small door.


We entered through the door and walked to the main entrance to be greeted by Mr. Mowforth, the headmaster, and Miss Gardiner, the matron. Our luggage had been sent in advance. After a while, my mother said goodbye to us, promising to come and see us on the first visiting day, always the last Sunday of every month. I must have howled when she left. The Actors’ Orphanage was founded in 1896 in Croydon, Surrey, to provide a home for the children of actors and actresses when one or both parents had died, or for homeless children of the stage if born out of wedlock, and where there were no means of financial support within the family. In 1915 the orphanage moved to Langley Hall where, during the following years, additional buildings were constructed to provide everything possible for the benefit and well being of the children. The President was Gerald Du Maurier.

There were about thirty boys and thirty girls at the orphanage aged from six to sixteen; the educational and living arrangements were strictly segregated, even at meal times. Langley Hall, a fine old building built in 1628, had been added to and there were many other buildings in the grounds. A theatre stood below the girls’ classrooms which could be quickly converted into a gymnasium. There was also a sanatorium and chemistry laboratory.

In the several acres of grounds there were cricket and. football pitches for the boys, and netball and tennis courts for the girls. The boys’ end of the grounds also included a large kitchen garden and orchard and our whole area was separated from the girls by a high brick wall and metal railings. The boys had two classrooms and two dormitories, each divided into age groups of six to eleven and twelve to sixteen. The girls were divided in the same way. For sporting activities, the children were divided into two houses; the House of Austin and the House of Nettlefold. Mr. Austin had once been The Bursar and by then a very old man, he lived in special accommodation in the main building. Mr. Nettlefold was a committee member and had been very generous providing some of the additional buildings that made the orphanage selfcontained as a home and school.

At four and a half I was the youngest orphan and it must have been a considerable shock to be taken away from my mother and a comfortable home, to be left in such a large establishment with so many complete strangers. Matron decided I was too young to be put with the boys so I lived with the girls. I was given a bed in the younger girls’ dormitory where I was to remain for at least a year. I was not to be the youngest for long, however, for soon another boy joined me in the dormitory aged only two. A regular pattern of behaviour had developed in our dormitory after-lights out, and when all was quiet in the building; the girls would pair up, sharing one bed. After a while the odd girl out, who was just five and a half came into my bed. We cuddled for some time before she and the others returned to their own beds. I would look forward to bedtime and cuddles with Jenny, for most probably, this was the vital factor that enabled me to adjust to the orphanage in the absence of my mother.

Later in the text Granville describes the first visit by Coward to the orphanage...

I vividly remember Noël Coward’s first visit to the orphanage to see the children: he came into our playroom with a box of Mars bars, one for each of us. We couldn’t believe it - it would have taken us a whole month’s pocket money to buy one. He spoke to us and sat down at our old honky-tonk piano and played - it sounded terrific.

He came to see us whenever he could, sometimes accompanied by very glamorous ladies. He once came with Ivor Novello and three lovely ladies of the stage who were in beautiful dresses and large hats. They might have been Evelyn Laye, Diana Wynyard and Mary Ellis. Not long after Noël Coward became President there was an incident in the boys’ end. Mr. Mowforth the headmaster was becoming very unpopular with the older boys. He was a strict disciplinarian and would cane on the hand even if school work was poor. On this particular day he decided to test the fire alarm system. At two in the afternoon he sent all the boys to the dormitories and told us to get into bed. The alarm bell sounded so we quickly dressed and assembled in the courtyard. We were not quick enough so the exercise was repeated. Mr. Mowforth was addressing us when the very elderly Mr. Austin came into the yard. A verbal battle royal started, with the two men going at it hammer and tongs. Mr. Austin instructed the headmaster to call off the exercise and continue with classes, but the older boys decided to mutiny and boycott his classes. They prepared a plan to beat up Mr. Mowforth and throw him in the village pond just outside the main gate. Mr. Howells, the other master, heard about the plan and forbade it, but the older boys did not attend classes. News of the disturbance quickly reached Noël Coward who dropped everything and came to see us. He was very cross and assembled us in a classroom. The lecture on behaviour lasted an hour, or so it seemed, and when finished he demanded that we all return to our classrooms. He did, however, listen to an older boy’s grumbles and was shown a very bruised hand caused by Mr. Mowforth’s cane. When he had gone I felt very ashamed, hoping that he would stay as President. We younger boys had not been involved in the mutiny, the older ones saw to that. My brother too had not been involved although he was an older boy and so became unpopular for a while and was much bullied.

With the coming of Noël Coward, Langley Hall changed; it seemed all of a sudden but actually it was gradual. Suddenly, though, I enjoyed the dinners, there were no more cold baths and boys and girls could mix in complete co-education. A new headmaster appeared, the Reverend Ruegg, and a new headmistress, Miss King. There were additional masters and mistresses, yet our darling Matron remained. She had no qualifications but years of experience which was probably worth much more. She had just one treatment for all aches and pains ... senna pods, we would dread reporting sick! Every summer evening we would watch her from our dormitory window, pristine in her uniform, walking the school dog Paddy around the walled garden. She was a grand lady, loved by all, who helped me considerably during the early years at Langley Hall.

I enjoyed playing games, there were cricket and football for the boys and tennis and netball for the girls, also the girls had a badminton court, but then ... a new boy, Gerald, arrived at the orphanage and brought with him a rugby ball and a pair of boxing gloves.Mr. Howells the sports master decided that the boys would play rugby and box each other during the coming winter season. It was not a success. I hated both activities and so did most of the boys, so these sports were dropped.

At Langley Hall, another sporting highlight in the summer was the cricket match against the Actors’ eleven and we all anticipated a great day from the moment the marquee went up several days beforehand. Frank Lawton, an old ?‘boy, would bring along a team of fellow actors but best of all, he would bring his wife, Evelyn Laye. She was so very beautiful and I would follow her everywhere. She would organise the teas in the marquee, helped by dozens of ladies from the London stage. It was one huge party for all those connected with the theatrical profession who had given their time and money for the benefit of the orphanage. It was a glorious day in the calendar, with actresses everywhere, summer dresses and of course, leather on willow.

The cricket was very serious and a good game always developed, our pitch being one of the best in the district. Boys would dread the call “All on the roller”; it was a huge one requiring the efforts of at least fifteen of us, consequently the actors considered ours the best wicket they played on during the summer. I enjoyed the cricket which was always of a very high standard, as many as two hundred and fifty runs would be scored in an afternoon’s play. I especially enjoyed Rex Harrison and Hugh Williams asking me to bowl to them in the nets, but best of all, I guess was Evelyn Laye serving the tea. Another really good cricketing day was When C. Aubrey Smith came with his team; there was no marquee but plenty of visitors and tea in the pavilion.

Noël Coward had his own big day in London - the Theatrical Garden Party, organised by him to raise funds for the orphanage. There was always a huge turn out and he would make sure any famous film star in town would attend and sign autographs. Older children from the orphanage would help on the stalls and my brother Paul would act as a special runner, being at Noël Coward’s side at all times. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were friends of Noël Coward and they opened the 1937 event.

Whilst the Actors’ cricket match was the big event of the summer, at Christmas time it was the children’s’ pantomime. We would be coaxed and encouraged by professionals from London and we put on a very good show, mainly for parents and local people. I enjoyed acting but Matron thought it might strain my weak heart so it had to be ushering instead. This was an enjoyable way of helping, showing visitors to their seats and receiving a penny tip for doing so. I had never been so rich. The 1937 pantomime was the twenty-first and proved to be the last, the biggest and the best. My brother played a leading role and at sixteen he was the eldest of the cast. Noël Coward was very pleased indeed with the show and together with Leslie Henson arranged for the second year running, three special matinee performances at the Gaiety Theatre in The Strand. The Lord Mayor came to one performance and afterwards to the dressing rooms. He was so pleased with the show he invited all the children to tea at the Mansion House which was a marvellous occasion.

Noël Coward enjoyed a close association with the Lord Mayor in 1937 and they both attended prizegivings at the orphanage that year, the Lord Mayor giving the prizes. I won first prize for gardening (interested children had been given a small plot to cultivate), my vegetables being judged the best. The food being so much better now there was no need to steal from the kitchen garden. Growing my own just filled the bill and I developed a taste for raw vegetables that remains with me today.

We were very lucky orphans; Noël Coward and his committee were doing wonders. The real treat for me each year was the visit to London to see the latest Ivor Novello show. He would meet our coach party and tell us all about the drama, joining us backstage afterwards for tea. He was such a delightful man, I remember, and he would fuss about us all the time arranging for chocolate and ice cream during the interval. The dramatic stage effects, and of course the music were right up my street. If my heart strengthened, perhaps I could get involved when I grew up... there were lots of other coach -trips during the year to museums and historic places.

The Reverend Ruegg, the new headmaster, was far more liberal than his predecessor, most probably on the instructions from Noël Coward and the committee. It was pleasant to be able to mix freely with the girls and it was not now considered to be cissy to play tennis with them, or just to sit on the grass and chat. The Reverend relaxed the long-standing rule concerning visiting on Sundays, and any child wishing to go home on Sundays could do so after church, or parents could visit.

The Reverend only taught religion but would spend a lot of time wandering around the classes, peering at our work. He developed a nasty habit of standing behind me and twisting my ear until my eyes filled with tears, doing the same to other boys as well. I think it was after the summer holiday when I had been ‘gated’ for a Saturday, for some minor misdemeanour, and had given my pocket money to another boy to buy my weekly supply of gobstoppers.

The boy went to the village shop and on returning through the gate, he bumped into Reverend Ruegg who enquired what was in the bag. “They’re gobstoppers for Granville” replied the boy, “I have spent his pocket money”. The Reverend took the bag and instructed the boy to order me to report immediately to the headmaster’s study. He gave me a severe dressing down stating that if one is ‘gated’ one doesn’t give pocket money to another boy for the purchase of sweets. “That must be a brand new rule” I said, “that’s insubordination - take down your trousers and bend over”, he responded, furiously.

After a few strokes of the cane, I stood up and snatched it, hitting him as hard as I could several times before grabbing the bag of gobstoppers and running from his study. He did not come after me or call me back, nor even mention the matter again, but he did write to my mother. He did not know, he wrote, how Paul could be so good and I so naughty. When I next saw my mother she seemed to think I deserved the caning, but my brother was non-committal. I was extremely hurt by this and wrote to Noël Coward but did not post the letter. As time went on it became obvious the Reverend Ruegg was misbehaving; another child wrote to Noël Coward, this time posting the letter.

The Reverend was dismissed. As 1938 progressed rumours were plentiful concerning the orphanage moving to Chertsey in Surrey and sure enough, after the summer holiday we all reported to Silverlands on Holloway Hill.

Next time: the move to Silverlands and evacuation to America during the War Years. With our thanks to Granville Bantock, who is the nephew of the composer Sir Granville Bantock, for allowing us to use these extracts from his chronicle.© The Noël Coward Society 2006