Dateline Canford School, September 1957: We paraded three-deep, facing John of Gaunt’s Kitchen. Our group, a “right shower” of first-term Canfordians, might have been extras in a Carry On film as we shambled into a platoon for our first Combined Cadet Force (CCF) parade. Earlier, Corporal Cousins had lined us up in the Armoury to hand out illfitting kit and boots. The ticket on my bundle read, ‘Battle dress, surplus, cadets, male, for the use of’. ‘Surplus’ sounded intriguing. We searched our khaki for bullet holes.
Drawn up in shrunken or baggy uniforms, we prepared for inspection. First came the sharp click of an officer’s heels advancing along the lines, pausing from time to time to make pointed comments about brasses, boots and blanco before moving on. After what seemed like an age the officer, Lieutenant S. Pantlin, R.N., followed by Regimental Sergeant Major James, stopped before the cadet to my left (a good friend at Canford and ever since). The officer’s heels described a precise right turn. His left eye carefully quizzed the sorry specimen before him.
“You didn’t shave this morning, boy.”
“I don’t shave yet, Sir.”
“You do now!” The inspecting officer turned on his heel again, ignored me and moved on.
That was my introduction to Lt. S. Pantlin, R.N. (Ret’d), O/C Canford School Naval Combined Cadet Force. That was all any of us would learn about Lt. Pantlin during our time at school. Even his initial was a source for speculation. We called him ‘Plug’ because he had served in the Yangtze Basin. (Most of my life would pass before I learned that he had been wounded at the battle of Jutland, hence the splinter that cost him his right eye.)
From Canford School to Life
Long after I left Canford I discovered that Lt. Pantlin ran through my personal history. Briefly, after my birth mother was killed in 1943, my family and Portsmouth’s naval community immediately rallied around. Despite the family’s mourning, the attitude was very much the standard: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. I’m told that within two hours a charming lady, Kate Bryan, arrived at my grandparents’ house. A quiet, take-charge woman, she became my nanny for the next two years. The Navy paid her wages.
By the early 1970s, Nannie was looking after daughters of the Canadian Equerry to the Court of St. James. When the de Lotbinìere family returned to Ottawa, Nannie went with them. That gave her the opportunity to take the train to Toronto and visit my wife and me from time to time. She told me things I had never known and will never forget: The first, “You never missed a feeding, dear. I got there right away!” The second, “I used to sing Welsh hymns to you in the Parkers’ Anderson shelter to drown the ack-ack.” Her third comment left me stunned: “I always knew what you were doing at Canford School. Sidney always told me when we met.”
I owe a great man a great deal
“Sidney”? I was nearly thirty when I discovered that Nannie was Sidney Pantlin’s cousin, and that my commanding officer at Canford School had materially affected my life—twice. Stationed in Portsmouth, when he heard the news of my mother’s death he hurried to my grandparents’ home on Pitreavie Road— apparently he had served with my grandfather on H.M.S. Repulse in 1924—to offer condolences and practical help. With my grandparents’ consent, he summoned his cousin, Kate Bryan, to my crib. Lt. Pantlin not only brought a nanny to me within hours. Fourteen years later, when my father’s application to Canford School went missing, he interceded with the headmaster to ensure me a place. I owe a great man a great deal.