New book shines light on ‘spartan’ way of life at Highgate School boarding house

Arctic temperatures, bread rolls that felt like bombshells and incessant runs over Hampstead Heath were formative experiences for the boys who passed through The Lodge.

For well over a century the boarding house at Highgate School was a home from home for thousands of public schoolboys and a punishing way of life that has since vanished.

A new book authored by three of The Lodge’s former pupils is now shining a light on a forgotten age of boarding school discipline and order.

Coming Second Doesn’t Count is a collection of memories from a variety of boarders who bedded down within The Lodge’s four walls from the pre-war years through to the swinging sixties and an era of unprecedented liberalism among the boarding house ranks.

Cedric Pulford, 74, was a fresh-faced 14-year-old when he took his first cautious steps into 4 Bishopswood Road, The Lodge’s base from 1929 until its closure in 1991.

“The coldness we took for granted, we just put up with it,” said Mr Pulford, one of the book’s co-authors.

“It was spartan in regard to the lack of privacy in terms of showers and baths. They were all in one room completely in the open.

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“Pubescent boys are very self-conscious in that regard and I don’t think that would be tolerated now.”

Dietary provisions for the boys at The Lodge were also fairly primitive.

“We had bread rolls for days out, known as Brownlow bombshells, they were fairly inedible. It was basic!

“There was also a strong emphasis on runs all the time, whether you wanted to run over Hampstead Heath or not. It was regarded as a good thing to do.”

At the head of the house between 1929 and 1957 was H. J. Gibbon, a “traditionalist” and the most revered housemaster in The Lodge’s history.

As the longest serving of all housemasters, “HJG”, as he was known, has his very own chapter in the book.

There are also chapters dedicated to the house’s move to Westward Ho! in Devon after the outbreak of war in 1939 and the importance placed on sport instead of arts and culture.

According to Mr Pulford, “HJG” once described theatre as “nothing more than prancing around on stage”.

The book also documents the dawning of the 1960s and liberal attitudes in The Lodge, with rumours of drug-taking among some boys and housemasters turning a blind eye to boarders enjoying the odd pint.

In 1991, The Lodge closed as a boarding house, and soon after Highgate School became entirely a day school, in light of dwindling interest in the boarding school model.

“It served its purpose at its time but it has quite rightly evolved into a new model of boarding today,” said Mr Pulford.

“For me, it was four years of not really liking it but I think it has equipped me to do the exciting things that I have in my life. Independence is what it has equipped me with.

“A lot of the products of the boarding system say it’s given them self-confidence. It gives you the kind of self-confidence that allows you to hold your own in any situation.”

Coming Second Doesn’t Count is available from Highgate Bookshop, Highgate High Street, or can be bought online at