Errol Flynn’s Barnes Period

By Ajax Bardrick


A handful of sparkling stardust from the glamour of old Hollywood fell on an obscure corner of South West London this week with the solution of an enduring mystery of the film actor Errol Flynn`s early life in the district.

Flynn was the biggest star in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, achieving fame through films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Sea Hawk, which made him the heroic swashbuckling buccaneer of Hollywood`s golden age. However, 10 years before his arrival in Hollywood he had been Leslie Flynn, a wayward 14 year old from the other side of the world in Australia who had shipped over to London with his father dragging him along to the capital on some business that he had to conduct there, wondering what he was to do with the boy who found himself being transported from the exotic surroundings of his childhood years on the shore of Tasmania, with the roar of the sea where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet coming off of the South Pole, to board in a small shambolic boys` private school in the Putney district, which he described as drab, grey and grim looking. It has been known for a number of years since the publication of his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways, shortly before his early death from exhaustion in 1959, that the silver screen star had spent a part of his youth in a school in the locality which he called ‘South-West London College’, but its actual location was obscured by his siting it ‘off Putney Common`, with the vague location as ‘somewhere between Putney & Hammersmith.’

The puzzle as to its location has defied writers and historians studying the screen actor`s origins before he tore a blaze across the Hollywood firmament, leading some to speculate as to whether it existed at all as Flynn described it, but it has now been solved by a dusty half-forgotten old trade directory from the mid 1920s stored at the Wandsworth Borough Archive on Lavender Hill during research into the star`s early years. In the frail pages of an obscure small business circular called the ‘Wandsworth Directory 1925’, listed in between ‘Sanitary Engineers’ and ‘Servants` Registry Offices’ under ‘Scholastic’ was found an entry for ‘South West London College (Mr. E.H. Burbidge, Principal), No. 99-101 Castelnau’, confirming the veracity of Flynn`s account and locating the long gone school amidst a line of regency villas on the road leading up on to Hammersmith Bridge.

Although expressing no other feelings in retrospect than the misery of his time at the school which he said were two of the most dismal years of his life, he devoted several pages of his autobiography to provide a carefully drawn portrait of it, describing how its cheerlessness was indicated by window-ledges lined with empty flowerpots and matched by the meagre fare at meal times, and how the boys were crammed into the dormitories for want of space. He also left vivid portraits of the staff such as the Headmaster, Mr. Burbidge: … old, fat and terrifying and glaring at you like a toad; and another teacher who had: sloppy clothes and a kipper-footed gait and spent most of his time stalking the school`s better looking boys (who were in turn anxious to stay one step ahead of him) with an ominous intent and a lecherous smile, who would leave the school`s employment under a cloud after having shown an unhealthy interest in the boys in the school`s cricket team for reasons other than cricket. Flynn further described parading from Barnes across the bleak wasteland of Barnes Common into Putney and through its streets as the boys went off to church each Sunday in a 2 by 2 column, creating a colourful sight in their uniforms of striped trousers and blazer, with straw boaters for the Summer months being replaced with top hats in the Winter; and also the subsequent loneliness that he experienced in a strange place far from home when finding himself discarded by his parents and left in the school alone with all of the other boys having departed for the holidays, and he found himself with nothing to do but wander around its empty class-rooms; and how this abandonment and the resentment that it caused would mark his character in his future passage through the world.

He left the school after 2 years in 1925, and headed back to Australia and a subsequent meteoric future that awaited him of fame and wealth at the summit of Hollywood before he would burn out in a self-destructive pursuance of sensual excess; but the building, which today makes two private houses, that encompassed South West London College remains with its own memory of its role in the life of one of cinema`s icons.

Ajax Bardrick,
London, 14.Oct.2008

2 thoughts on “Errol Flynn’s Barnes Period

  1. Very interesting story. Brings back some great memories.
    I had 3 sisters who loved Errol Flynn, and the day I turned 13..all four of us were teenagers for a short time.
    Once they pencilled a “Errol Flynn mustache” onto my young boy face, and dragged me to the cinema to watch ..maybe Robin Hood or another hero type…and their pretty girlfriends made a fuss of me ?? (bad luck we never had cameras in those days.)
    I did watch many Errol Flynn movies and he was a sort of hero to me ..until Lawrence Harvey came on to the scene..I mean screen.


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