This true story was told to me by my Dad as part of his schooldays memoirs. Many years after his death, I was able to check it.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was compulsory in Britain for parents to send their children to school, otherwise they could be punished even with imprisonment. For that reason, my father was sent to a boarding-school, remaining there until he was 14 years old.
The school was a bare brick three-floor Victorian building of the mid-1900s in South London.
Besides normal lessons, boys learned carpentry and girls embroidery and cooking. It was one of the first training Centres in England, with the intention of giving students a chance of becoming skilled workers.
Meals were served in the school's Great Dining-room. It was so magnificent that it was equivalent to that of a baronial castle. The walls were covered in mahogany, with centre pillars of marble and a parquet floor. The long tables were prepared to receive 450 pupils besides all the staff. There was a stage and a statue of Queen Victoria in a corner. The other side was dominated by a pipe organ. It was used daily, when everyone sang thanksgiving to the Almighty for another day and meal. There were also musicals when the organ went at full blast.
However, there was a problem: the organ was not electric power generated — I was unable to find out whether the school had electricity at all —. The instrument worked with air pumped into it by pure muscle strength of the students, one of them my Dad. Normally there would be two boys alternating among themselves in pumping the organ. They would remain behind it and the one that was resting would calve his initials on its wooden back panelling.
Researching on Internet, I found an Old Scholars Association and got in touch. It is obvious that all these old scholars had been at the school many years after my father. It is interesting to say that I exchanged letters with a lady who had been there in 1915, when she was two years old. Now at 95, she is still active as Vice-president of the Association.
In one of her letters to me she wrote: "The Organ in the Main beautiful dining Hall was a splendid instrument. I too used to pump it sometimes and I remember all the carved initials. Sometimes I forgot to pump and then it would wheeze to a stop!"
The school doesn't exist any more. It was demolished in 1963 to give place to a residential enterprise. One building remains though, that had been the Director's residence. Some years ago we were there, and thinking that it still had something to do with the school I rang the bell and a janitor appeared. When I asked him if there was an organ inside, he looked at me as if I were insane. He had been working there for ages, that building was a government entity and, of course, the was no organ there, only various offices. Imagine asking such a question!
I was only able to find out the meaning of that small building when I made contact with the Old Scholars Association years later.