A Tale of two Nottinghamshire Grammar Schools
Retford GS 1941-1943, Henry Mellish (Bulwell) 1943-1947,
Retford GS again 1947-1950.
I have to go back slightly to my Retford primary school in Grove Street,
which Sir Frederick Milner accomodated for a bit during renovations.
We had just reached Retford in 1939 when war was declared. My father was a
sergeant of police there when I gained an award to RGS. We lived in
Bigsby Road from where there was back route to RGS avoiding most of the
town. I had stripped down and renovated an old bike and often ran the
gauntlet of unfriendly youths through this rougher part of Retford to get
to RGS. As it was necessary to wear school uniform, especially the cap (!),
this route taught me the rudiments of survival. I can remember refugees
from Leeds in Retford but nothing about the presence of Yarmouth GS.
Small world, though. In the middle of the night after the big Paphos
earthquake of 1996, we were sitting on the beach, unable to sleep due
to the aftershocks, when a couple joined us, who turned out to be from
Retford and the husband had been to Sir Frederick Milner. This took
our minds off the shakes for a bit !
Otherwise, I don’t remember a great deal about this early RGS period but
the names of staff endure forever. CWP-R (The Wag), of course, ’Mac’
McFerran (who could forget him?), Taffy Jones, Beasley, Charlton, ‘Tash’
Illingworth, Boss Hammond, Howard Bartley, etc., etc. Not to be forgotten
is waiting outside the New Block in the early morning until Mac swept round
the corner to open the doors and the ensuing absolute, deathly silence!
Howard Bartley’s English teaching was excellent and I became reasonably
good at essay writing. I was sent from another class to his one day, to
request a long window opening pole. I asked him ‘can I borrow the pole ?’.
What do you mean?, he responded. I was dumbstruck. He explained – I know
you are capable of borrowing the pole but what you should have said is
–‘please may I borrow the pole’. I have never forgotten that.
Chemistry was new and fascinating thanks to Taffy Jones. In contrast,
I found physics rather sterile and boring. Jim Beasley started RGS at the
same time. ‘My son Jim’ became a sort of catch phrase that was actually
used to address Jim and some lads were very good at using Beasley senior’s
particular form of speech when rendering it. This was probably a bit
offensive but Jim took it all in good part.
I can remember queuing outside Boss Hammond’s workshop. He was difficult
to get used to and seemed a bit of a tyrant at times. ‘Where are your
manners boy- in your boots ?’ - comes to mind and I had some difficulty
in using his technique of deciding perspectives by measuring angles
holding a pencil in the air towards the object to be drawn. Wag had his
own special way of teaching maths and I came to appreciate this especially
in my second spell at Retford later (below) in the 6th Form.
I was just getting used to all this and combing the Dukeries on my bike as
well, when father announced late in 1942 that he had been promoted to take
charge of Eastwood (of DH Lawrence fame) police station and we would be
moving there soon. This happened sometime in 1943 and it proved to be a
tough wartime job. I was transferred to the Henry Mellish Grammar School
in Basford, travelling there on the GNR line from Eastwood to Bulwell. I
had an uncle who was an engine fitter at Colwick just outside Nottingham
and was occasionally taken there.
Mellish was a nice school, but being sited above a colliery, was subject
to subsidence and water leaks, which meant, especially in winter, that we
were often sent home. My interest in railways really began then. The
Nottingham to Pinxton GNR line was not of much interest but the Midland
railway main line from St Pancras to Glasgow ran through Langley Mill, just
down the road in Derbyshire. I did my train spotting on the elevated
station at Langley Mill and at also at Shipley Gate, where one could stand
on a footbridge and see exactly what went on in SG signal box. On there
alone one day, the signalman invited me down. So, using that contact I was
soon a regular visitor at several boxes along that line, which was very
busy, especially during the coal shortage in the fierce winter of 1946-47.
One of my friends from Heanor Junction signal box transferred to very busy
Toton Junction box and I even managed to sneak in there on some Saturday
afternoons. All a lot more interesting than homework!
I took School Cert/Matric in the summer of 1947. My father had just
announced that he was transferring to Worksop to take charge of the Dukeries
area, so he actually collected me from school immediately after the last
exam. I shook hands with the Headmaster and so it was goodbye to the
Erewash Valley and Henry Mellish and hello again Retford GS, to which I
transferred to take Higher School Cert. Thus, I joined the Worksop
Retfordians on the early train to Retford. Naturally, we gentlemen of the
Lower 6th were required to guard the interface between the lesser mortals
behind us and the young ladies of the Retford Girls High School in front,
which we did with zeal.
The return to Retford was a bit miserable at first. I missed my peers at
Mellish and certainly the Erewash valley signalmen. But I chatted to one
of the signalmen at Worksop East (on the level crossing) and soon became a
regular visitor to the box. A signalman at Shipley Gate taught me to play
Chess and I passed this on to my friend at Worksop East, who became much
keener on Chess that I ever was!
The food at the Retford British Restaurant was mediocre and I later took
sandwiches, which I ate sitting on a bench in Retford Park in sight of the
town hall clock, so that I would not be late for afternoon lessons.
Travelling on the train, I came to know Worksopians Jeff Simpson, whose
father kept a butchers shop in central Worksop and Brian Stanford, son of a
railwayman. We were taught with Jim Beasley so the four of us spent much
time together. I have yet to locate Jim on the 1947 pupil panorama but
Simpson and Stanford are prominent and standing together, back row Nos 6
and 7 from the left, respectively, in section 4704. I am not in this photo
as I did not return to Retford until the autumn of ’47.
Wags maths teaching took a bit of getting used to. He would do a couple of
examples on the black board and then we just did examples constantly in
pencil on a thick ‘jotter’ exercise book. Occasionally, he would sidle
(always wearing mortarboard and gown) along the narrow gap between the
belfry benches and one felt his gaze from behind, followed by a snort of
derision and then an elbow in the ribs to make room for him to sit. He
then proceeded to demonstrate how the problem should be solved. Actually
this worked remarkably well and most of us did extra maths at home just
Across the Great North Road from school was a row of linked terrace houses
with access to the rear through occasional tunnels through the building.
One of these properties was occupied by an elderly gentleman my friends
called, I think, ‘Jesus’ Ford. He made a living doing odd electrical jobs
and charging batteries. I never smoked but Beasley, Stanford and Simpson
liked a puff and we would sneak across the road to Ford’s so they could
chat and smoke. Problem was getting back to school again without being
spotted by Mac, who was known to frequent hostelries over that side. Heaven
knows what would have happened had we been seen but we were lucky!
When we at last had a school canteen, I remember a lad who had upset Mac
being dragged out of there by an ear and told ‘go eat grass’. I never
understood the relationship between Wag and Mac, who seemed to be such
totally different characters.
So at last we arrived at the Higher of 1949 and we all did well. Beasley
and Stanford had places at Christ’s and Queen’s Cambridge, respectively,
conditional on doing their national service first. Jeff Simpson fancied
agricultural science and went off to U.Wales at Bangor. I stayed on,
supposedly to prepare for university entrance scholarships but this was a
myth as I already had offers of places to do chemistry at Queen Mary
College London, or King’s College London. Father moved again just after I
took Higher in 1949 and we now lived in Sutton-in-Ashfield police station.
So I was alone at Retford, a sort of ‘celestial’ super 6th former, looked
on in awe by those still coming up to Higher. I believe some people may
have taken Higher twice to see if they could get better subject grades but
I thought that tempted providence and resolved never to take an exam twice.
After Higher, I did chemistry sometimes in the back room of Taffy’s lab and
extra maths in the belfry.
1950 was a strange year. My weekday began with an early bus to Mansfield,
connecting to the East Midland single decker for Ollerton, Tuxford and
Retford, where I arrived ca 09.30 in nice time to miss assembly. But the
return journey by that route was slow and tedious. It soon occurred to me
that as I was just another bus pass pupil and the total distance was about
the same, why don’t I get on the Sheffield Traction bus to Worksop with the
Worksop contingent, changing in Worksop to the East Midland for Mansfield.
This route worked very well and so thereafter, I completed my circuit round
the outside of the Dukeries, maintaining my social life in Worksop as well,
although I no longer lived there. At this stage, lunchtimes at school were
occasionally enlivened by RAW (Tony) Longden tinkling on the hall piano. One
or two years behind me, Tony followed me to QMC, where he gained a PhD in
physical chemistry and ultimately headed a technical college in
Wolverhampton. Tony, who I see occasionally and lives on the Thames at
Wapping (near to the famous Prospect of Whitby) kept in touch with RGS for
At the Speech Day in the summer of 1950, I watched the proceedings from a
balcony, musing that I’d never had a book token or anything. Shortly
afterward, Wag appeared in the belfry and expressed disappointment that I
hadn’t been to maths recently. In my first ever attempt at higher diplomacy,
I explained that I had been doing extra chemistry and although I had greatly
enjoyed maths, mainly due to his teaching, I had decided that I wanted to do
a degree in chemistry. He accepted this gracefully and appeared again a few
days later with the news that the Bescoby Scholarship, available alternately
to prospective arts and science university attendees for 3 years, had just
become available to a scientist and he intended proposing me to the
Governors. So I duly attended on the Governors for interview and took the
prize with me to London.
So, my school days drew at last to a close in the summer of 1950 and I began
to prepare for the new adventure in London, having finally accepted the
offered place on the BSc Special Hons Chemistry course at Queen Mary College
(QMC). Several years later I became a biochemist of sorts but that is
To complete this account, Beasley and Stanford took up their degree courses
at Cambridge around 1951. I lived at that time in the QMC men’s hall of
residence at South Woodford, on the main road to Cambridge, so I
occasionally spent weekends with them in Cambridge. Sadly, Stanford died
sometime in the 80s. Jeff Simpson went on from Bangor to U.Aberdeen. In
the undergraduate days, he and I hitch-hiked in southern France, all round
the Irish coast and in Scotland. He then went off to Uganda for a time and
later joined CSIRO’s Division of Plant Industry in Canberra. I lost track
of Jim Beasley. I have an idea that he joined Phillips Electricals in the
Crawley but this may be wrong.
How lucky we all were!
Gerry Brooks, October 2009.