When I was ten years old, I sat the examination for a place in grammar school, and later in the year left Langold School.
But my association with it was not finished, as we shall see later on.
A few of us are sitting at desks, concentrating on the exam paper in front of each of us. Mr. Phillips is the invigilator. It is our first formal exam. It is an arithmetic paper, which has ten questions in all, some of which consist of several parts. The first questions are the easiest, calling for skill in adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying numbers. The problems became progressively more difficult, calling for an understanding of money, fractions, rations, and so on, and requiring the ability to interpret a question with understanding. We are given an hour to complete the paper, and then Mr. Phillips collects them. He will send them to Nottingham for marking.
There are other parts to the exam. Dictation, a comprehension test of a piece of prose, and a composition.
We are the first group of children from this school to try for a grammar school scholarship. Not everybody tries. Not all are interested. My parents are very interested. They badly want me to succeed. At the conclusion of each test, they ply me with questions about the exam and what I had done.
In due course, a letter arrived from the authorities announcing that I had passed Part 1 of the exam, and that I was to present myself for Part II at the grammar school in Retford on such-and-such a date. On the appointed day, accompanied by my mother, I presented myself for this part. This was a viva voce examination. I entered a room and found myself in the presence of three examiners. They asked me a number of questions about myself, probably to put me at my ease, and then asked me to read a poem. I recall that it was about a nettle, and about how grasping a nettle tightly was the way to avoid being stung. When I had completed the reading, they asked me questions about the poem; what did this word mean? What was another word for that word? What did it mean, in the poem, when it said this or that? After which, I was excused. A few days later, the result arrived in the mail. I had won a full scholarship to King Edward VI Grammar School, East Retford, to start at the beginning of the school year in September, 1929.
A full scholarship meant that your tuition fees would be paid, and, in addition, your travelling expenses. In my case, these were quite a lot, for in order to get from Langold to Retford, I had to take the bus from Langold to Worksop, a distance of five miles, and the train from Worksop to Retford, a further eight miles. Each term, I received a pass for the bus, and one for the train, which I showed when using these services. Costs of travel must have been substantial. The costs of tuition for a day boy were eight pounds a year. In those days, it was possible to purchase a place in a grammar school. In fact, many of the boys at Retford were fee-payers, sons of merchants or professional people in the town, or of farmers in the surrounding villages.
Beginning in September, 1929, I started a period of seven years of schooling in Retford, leaving in 1936, to continue my education in the University of Sheffield. Life was now more rigorous than I had previously known it. Time was taken up with travel, there was homework, and we had school six days a week. Furthermore, there was much more competition for high marks and top positions in the class.
The routine rarely changed. At 6:30 a.m. I was roused by my mother, washed, dressed, and went down to breakfast. She had a fire going, and breakfast ready, usually bacon and egg. Goodness knows what time she was up all those years. After breakfast, I collected my satchel containing books and the homework done the evening before, put in the sandwiches my mother had made for my lunch, and went out to catch the 7:30 bus to Worksop.
Two bus services shared the Langold to Worksop run – Imperial and the Flower of Blyth. Both had two buses. The imperial buses were blue and were based in Carlton, a village half way between Langold and Worksop. The Flower of Blyth buses were red. Their owners were the Glovers, who lived in the nearby village of Blyth. I travelled with them for seven years, so they knew me and I knew them. Our favourite Imperial driver was Archie. Small, with blonde curly hair, he would urge his bus along at a fair clip, especially down the sand hills part of the journey, much to our delight. The Imperial employed conductresses on their buses, the Flower of Blyth was self-contained in this respect. Percy Glover’s mother and his wife were their conductresses, the mother a thin, tall, serious lady contrasting with her daughter-in-law, a cheerful, country woman, stoutly built and with rosy cheeks, with a word for everyone. I never saw her angry, or put out, or out of sorts, even when she had a busload of boisterous school children to manage, for as time went on, and more scholarship boys and girls came from the village, and as children travelled on the same bus to the Central School in Worksop, things could get crowded and pretty hectic. But she was always the diplomat, always ready to take charge, and smooth things out.
The bus stop was at Doncaster Road and Wembley Road, opposite the Co-op, whence it left at 7:30. Everybody knew who should be on the bus, and if anybody was missing, the bus would wait to see whether the missing person was late. Meantime, information was exchanged, and the reason for the absence might be discovered. At all events, we started off, picking up passengers along the way, whether they were at designated stops or not. I should point out that the passengers were not only school children. There were also people who worked in Worksop. Some of them were not much older that we were when we started. Probably they were shop assistants. Frequently, they used the time to give their neighbour an account of the picture they had seen last night, complete in every detail.
We picked up passengers all along the route – a few at the Working Men’s Club opposite Church Street, more at Costhorpe opposite the entrance to the pit, a group at Carlton Green, then quite a crowd at Chapel Corner a few yards on, a couple at the Carlton War Memorial, one at South Carlton, and then two sisters at the Toll Bar. These latter were the Hollingsworth’s. They had a long walk to get to the main road, and the bus route, and many a morning we waited while these two figures ran along Odie Lane to catch the bus.
We arrived at Worksop station at about eight o-clock, and joined a sizable crowd already there. The platform was divided between boys and girls, all in school uniform. The girls occupied the half near the engine, the boys the other half. There was no intermingling, although there were lots of flirtatious glances. While we waited for the train, we would stand around on the platform, or stroll up and down. In cold weather, a few would crowd into the third-class waiting room where there was a fire. Order was kept by prefects, who clamped down on any unacceptable behaviour.
When the train pulled in, a scramble ensued for seats. The first priority was to find an empty compartment, the second to occupy it with one’s friends. There were a few adults on board, and, in retrospect, I feel sorry for them. Whatever peace they were enjoying, or hoped to enjoy, was shattered by this noisy, chattering mob, oblivious of everything save one another. All safely aboard, the guard would wave his lamp and blow his whistle, and the train would pull out of the station.
The trip of eight miles took about 20 minutes. There was only one stop, save when it was foggy, and that was at Checkerhouse Station, a lonely spot, with nothing in sight but one farm. Here each day, we picked up and dropped off one boy, Willy Howard, who lived at a nearby farm. Activities during the trip were varied in the extreme. Most talked about last night’s visit to the cinema or about the dance band radio music, some read comics (These were the so-called “penny dreadfuls” - “The Wizard”, “The Comet”, and the like, which featured serial stories about heroic figures like The Wolf of Kabul, who constantly prevailed against villainous characters using his faithful clicky-bah (cricket bat) as his weapon, or not-so-heroic figures like Billy Bunter, a fat, bespectacled nitwit of a boy, a boarder at Greyfriars School, totally concerned with “tuck” (food). Despite their name of “penny dreadfuls”, these comics cost twopence. Once read, they were exchanged for others, which one had not yet read. A few boys, who had not done their homework, tried to get it done, preferably by copying the work of someone who had done it. Boys, usually senior ones, who wished to make contact or maintain contact with a pretty face at the other end of the train, would lower the window and lean out in the hope that his inamorata would do likewise. If she did so, they would gaze upon each other, or even wave, but this could lead to misunderstandings, as there might be quite a few couples doing the same thing. Frequently, our swains received no other reward for their troubles than a face full of coal grit from the engine.
Smoking was a fairly common practice. For this you needed a compartment to yourselves – no grown-ups. Pipe-smoking was not uncommon. I had a pipe for some time, half of its stem missing, that was easy to conceal, and in this I would smoke St. Bruno Flake, the brand, not surprisingly, that my father smoked. I don’t recall it as a pleasurable experience, but there was certain cachet to being the possessor of a pipe, and being able to produce large volumes of smoke. For the more athletic, usually the younger ones, there were such diversions as bouncing around on the seats and hanging from the parcel racks, even getting on to a parcel rack. It was said that one boy, a senior, had once left his compartment at the end of a carriage via the window, clawed his way round the end of the carriage and re-entered the compartment through the opposite window. Whether this was done to impress a girl or for sheer devilry, I do not know. I have no proof that it was ever done at all, but, considering some of the characters in our group over the years, it does seem probable.
The train pulled into Retford station, its load of schoolboys and schoolgirls eager to disembark, and we all took the subway, which ran under the main line, and so out on to the street. Very occasionally the train would be delayed by fog, and entering Retford, there would be much stopping and starting, accompanied periodically by the explosion of charges set on the lines to help guide the driver. Great care had to be taken before our train, on its course from west to east, crossed the main London to Edinburgh line, along which thundered the great non-stop express trains such as the Flying Scotsman. Of course, we were delighted by the delay as it provided a change from the usual morning routine, and a few minutes off classes.
We had to walk about three quarters of a mile to school. For the first quarter mile, boys and girls followed the same path, although always on opposite sides of the road, the girls on the left, the boys on the right hand side. When we came to the bridge over the river Idle, the girls went off to the left, and we turned to the right and over the bridge. At this intersection there was a World War 1 tank. I wonder if it is still there today. We now followed the road until it joined the Great North Road, and brought us to our school.
School uniform was important. The girls wore hats, dark blue gym slips and stockings. Our uniform was the school cap and tie, and whatever clothing our parents chose to clothe us in. Everyone carried a satchel for books, pens and pencils, and lunches. Our caps and ties were purchased at a clothing shop called Loseby’s in Carolgate, the main street in the town. The caps were green with two crossover red stripes and a badge on the front bearing our school coat of arms and motto – "ex pulvere palma" (out of the dust, the palm of victory). The tie was striped red and green horizontally. Prefects’ caps were all green, and were tasseled. You always wore your cap and tie, travelling to and from school, and when in town. If you were spotted capless or tieless by a master, you were for it. To neglect or to forget to put on your tie was unthinkable, and the cause of great distress.
I only knew it to happen once. It happened to a boy called Johnny Williams. His family ran a ladies’ clothing store on Bridge Street in Workshop. Johnny was a dreamer, seemingly disconnected from the world around him, a “weed”, who didn’t seem to be much use at anything. Anyway, one day, on the way to school, somebody noticed that he was not wearing a tie. The news spread like wildfire. “Williams has forgotten his tie.” Poor Johnny, alerted to his predicament, elected to carry on to school, where he spent the day trying to hide his deficiency by placing his hand over the vacant spot, and, of course, being found out from time to time. Being compelled to wear your school colors wherever you went was supposed to display a pride in your school, but another effect was to make us easily identifiable should we be up to any mischief.
The Great North Road was the main route from London to north-east England and then to Edinburgh. It ran past our school and into Retford Market Square via Carolgate, a narrow road with barely room for two cars to pass. Carolgate was the main shopping thoroughfare lined with banks, butcher’s, tobacconists, clothiers, bakeries, and sundry other places of business. The town square was, in fact; a large square area, which housed the weekly market. It was bounded by the town hall, municipal offices, a pub or two, Spencer’s valuers, estate agents and auctioneers, some solicitors’ offices, and numberous large shops. Behind the town hall was the Corn Exchange and animal pens where farmers met on market days to buy and sell, exchange gossip, and, not infrequently, to conclude their business by having a few drinks, and going home market merry.
Off to the right as one left Carolgate and entered the square was a road that led to Howard’s Temperance Hotel and Café just a few yards away. I mention this because, on occasion, we would lunch there. Everything was neat and clean, the waitresses dressed in black with white pinafores and small white hats. We often opted for the cheapest offering, a plate of chips, hot and crispy, for threepence. The more affluent could get a full lunch for ninepence, and that included such delights as apple or pineapple fritters. Alas, my visits to Howard’s were few and far between, as I took sandwiches to school.
Leaving the town square were two roads. The one on the left led to West Retford; the one on the right to Cannon Square. Here was the East Retford parish church, where any special celebrations of the school were conducted.
These, then were the parts of Retford that we came to know well; Carolgate, the Town Square, and Cannon Square.
On arriving at school in the morning, usually at about twenty minutes to nine, we stood around in the playground, or read the notices on the boards in the cloisters. There were the House notices. We had four houses; Edward, Overend, Foljambe and Mellish. I was in Overend. The notices usually consisted of lists of teams for inter-house games of football or cricket. There was also a school notice board.
This too bore the names of players chosen for various teams, this time for games or competitions against other schools. These included Newark Grammar school, Lincoln Grammar, Lincoln City, Mansfield Grammar, and Mansfield Brunts School. Besides football and cricket, there was cross-country running versus the students at Kelham Theological College. We invariably lost in this competition. These students were hardy and tough, and much too strong for us. They entertained for this race, and would place their first seven players out of eight before the first of ours. After the race, and a shower we were shown to the refectory for tea. We were seated at long tables, given a pewter plate each, and served with jam and great hunks of bread. Very Spartan, indeed!
At nine o’clock, the duty prefect rang the bell, and we repaired to our classrooms. If we had outerwear, we deposited it in the cloakroom on the way. The teacher took attendance, later to be collected by the duty prefect, and we then trooped down to the gym for assembly.
At this point, the prefects work over, the teachers repairing to the common room.^ Each prefect had charge of a form. His responsibility was to see that everyone was present, and that the form was orderly. As we entered the gym each form made a line across it, the juniors at the front, and the seniors at the back. The prefects stood at the end of the line, checked attendance, and maintained order. If you were messing about, you might get a clip across the ear from the prefect’s notebook, or he might give you fifty lines, to be handed in the following morning. Anything more serious might require you to see him after assembly for a heart-to-heart talk.
All being assembled, a period of quiet expectancy ensued, and in due course the magisterial procession would enter and align itself across the gym and facing the school. First would come the headmaster in academic gown and mortarboard, closely followed by the duty prefect, and then the masters wearing academic gowns.
The proceedings opened with the duty prefect stepping up onto a dais and placing the Bible opened at the reading for the day. He would then begin: “The lesson is from St. Matthew (say), Chapter 6, Verses 1-10, or whatever it happened to be. He then read the lesson, hoping not to stumble. There were passages that struck terror into the heart of some, e.g. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” could easily result in a disastrous transposition of aitches, consequent mortification to the reader, and the delight of some of the assembly.
Mostly, however, it went well. The prefect, having concluded the reading, and having thankfully proclaimed; “Here endeth the lesson”, closed the Bible, and stepped down. The Head then took his place, gave us the number of hymn, the piano gave us a few introductory chords,, and away we went. Then he led us in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This was followed by announcements by the head, and any of the teachers who had anything to report. This completed assembly. The staff walked out, and we returned to our classrooms to being the day’s work. Usually the first period would be in our own classrooms. After that, we would move to different rooms, according to the needs of the subject; the physics lab, the chemistry lab, Mr. Hammond’s room for art and woodwork, and the gym for P.T.
School began at nine o-clock, and ended for lunch at noon. We reassembled at one thirty and worked until four. There was a recess both in the morning and in the afternoon, that is, except for Wednesday and Saturday, when we started at nine and went till twelve thirty. The afternoons on these days were set aside mainly for games. There were inter-house games, in which everybody was supposed to take part, except for the school teams, who played against other schools. We had a club called the H. & G. S. – the Historical and Geographical Society – which organized activities for those afternoons. I was a member, and remember visiting villages, and looking at churches. We visited Southwell Minister, famous for its magnificent chapter house, and the village of Laxton, the only remaining example in Britain of the medieval three-field systems of agriculture. I remember too, going to Derby, to tour the Rolls-Royce works, and see Bentleys and Rolls-Royces being made.
The other use of Wednesday and Saturday afternoons was detention for those who had in some way transgressed during the last day or two. It worked like this. If you did something in class that warranted punishment, or if you failed to do something that you should have done, such as homework, the master sent you down to the masters’ common room to fetch the detention book, in which he entered your name, the nature of the offence, and the duty you were required to perform during the next detention. On the next subsequent Wednesday or Saturday, you presented yourself to the detention room at the appointed time together with the other delinquents. A duty master in charge checked the attendance, and you served your time in a silent room. It was a miserable experience at the best of times, but especially galling on a warm summer’s afternoon, when the others were outside playing a game and some lucky beggars who had not been put down to play in inter-house games, had gone home. There you sat doing assigned work, or writing lines. No movement, no talking, hardly a breath of air, as you pined for the time of freedom to come.
The organization of the school was hierarchical, with the headmaster at the top of the pyramid as it were. Many of his duties were taken on by the assistant head, who dealt with the common room, that is, the assistant masters. Below the masters were the prefects. These were boys in the sixth form; they were selected by the head. The head prefect was the head boy of the school. The prefects performed duties in return for which they enjoyed certain privileges. I have already mentioned the duty prefect for the day. He started the day by going to the headmaster’s study, a large room containing a table, chairs, books and papers, and usually a fire blazing in a large ornate fireplace. The headmaster, incidentally, lived in the school, together with his wife and daughter, so the study was part of the living quarters. On the table in the study, the duty prefect would find a Bible inside which was a slip of paper. Opening the Bible at this place, he would find the lesson for the day written on the paper, and the Bible open at that place. He would then take a little time to read through the passage in preparation for the morning assembly, and, having done so, would leave the study and stand by to ring the first bell.
This bell was set up high on the wall at the end of the cloisters at the entrance to the masters common room and the headmaster’s house, and was rung by means of a rope which came down to shoulder level. After assembly, the duty prefect would go round the school, collecting records of attendance from all the classrooms. Thenceforth, throughout the day, it was his duty to ring the bell for the beginning and ending of classes. Prefects helped to maintain order in school. They could admonish and, if they wished punish by giving lines. Quite commonly, they cuffed offenders over the ear. Four of them were house captains. If a boy was a repeated discipline offender, he might be made to appear at a house captains’ meeting and might be given the slipper. In return for helping to maintain discipline and good order, prefects were rewarded with little privileges. Of course, their position as a select few gave them status. They had a different relationship with the staff from others; they were accepted as near equals in many ways. They were also permitted to do things not allowed to others. It was customary during breaks for the boys to walk a circuit round the school, but only in a clockwise direction, never counter-clockwise. Only prefects could do that. The prefects were allowed to meet in the belfry, and at any time they wished. Others only visited the belfry on the occasion of house captains’ meetings. Prefects could enter the New Block by the same entrance as the masters, and at any time they chose, which the hoi-polloi had to use the other door, and then only after the bell had rung, whatever the weather. At the bottom of the pyramid came the rest, the lower forms, at the very bottom. The younger boys were in Forms 1 and 2. They were all fee payers, Scholarship boys came into Form 3A and 3B, mostly 3A. A year senior were 4A and 4B, then Remove A & Remove B, then 5A and 5B, and finally should you be successful in your matriculation exams, you entered the privileged world of the 6th Form, where you could be groomed for responsibility; head prefect, house captain, prefect, cricket captain, soccer captain, etc.
The headmaster was Mr. Pilkington-Rogers. As I have said, he lived in the school. His household was a large one that included not only his wife and daughter, but several boarders. Mrs. Pilkington-Rogers was assisted in the job of looking after the boarders by matron, several kitchen staff, and Andrews, the gardener and general handyman. Mrs. P.R. referred to her husband as Pilks; we mostly called him Pills, though not to his face, of course. She was much in advance, flitting about that part of the school, always busy, and with a preoccupied air. The daughter we rarely saw, as she was attending Cheltenham Young Ladies; College.
P.R. was a small, wiry, energetic man. I cannot recall seeing him smile. Whenever you saw him around the school, he was usually moving at high speed, his head forward, and his gown flapping behind him. He was feared for his strict disciplinary measures.
He used to teach some mathematics classes, but, because of school business, he was often delayed, and the class left to its own devices. On one of these occasions, a boy named Brown – his family owned a piano shop in town – diverted his classmates by lighting a cigarette. Unfortunately for him, the head suddenly appeared as out of nowhere, and Brown was caught in a halo of smoke. The head fired him on the spot. Expelled for good. He was tough with parents, too. There was no diplomacy, no beating about the bush. If a boy’s performance was judged unsatisfactory, a scholarship boy in particular, parents were summoned, and were told that, if better work was not forthcoming, his place would be given to someone else. This happened to a boy who started at the same time as myself. He was one of those who attended the oral examination on the same day as I did. Ramscar was a bright lad, but given to getting into scrapes. He just couldn’t seem to help himself. Eventually, after having received several warnings, he was given the boot.
As a junior, I lived in fear of P.R., because of his teaching method. We had him for arithmetic in 4A and I, for one, looked forward with dread to those classes. Often he was late to class, sometimes he did not turn up at all. On those occasions, we lived in an agony of suspense, hoping that the end of the period would arrive before he did. Sometimes, we were lucky; more frequently, not. In essence, his method of teaching us arithmetic was simplicity itself. He would assign us a number of problems in the textbook to be solved for the next class. When the class came, he would look down the class list, pick a name, and that unfortunate would then stand up and describe how he had dealt with the problem. How we hoped we were not the victim!
The head would sit at his desk and look out of the window, waiting for him to begin, while we watched in state of frozen fascination, keenly aware of what would inevitably follow:
"First, sir, I multiplied 473 by 37.03"
"Why did you do that?"
"Well, sir, I thought that it was necessary to do that, before proceeding to the next stage."
A prolonged pause.
"Well, sir, one could not determine the cost without first doing that."
Another prolonged pause, while the head still looks out of the window.
The boy quickly sits down, evidently greatly relieved to be spared of further punishment at the hands of his inquisitor.
"See if you can shed some light on this."
Clark is non-plussed, and stands tongue-tied, having started out to approach the problem in exactly the same way as his predecessor.
Clark mumbles something. P.R. tilts his head and puts his hand to his ear. Clark repeats what he has just said. The head looks out of the window again, a look of suffering patience on his face. We all feel dim.
"Anybody", he says, ignoring Clark.
Nobody volunteers. He returns to Clark, who is still on his feet.
"What are we trying to find out? Read the questions. What are we asked to find?"
"The cost of the loan, with compound interest at 7½% sir."
"For how long?"
"Fifteen years, sir."
"So, how do we state the problem?"
Clark has no answer or, if he has, it gets a response of "Gibberish", or "No, no, no!" The head gets off his chair, walks to the blackboard, and picks up a piece of chalk.
"What is the problem?"
Clark repeats what we all now know. The head then writes on the board.
"Let X = the amount."
He then leads us through the stages of finding the answer, about three lines in all. And so to the next problem, and a similar process of interrogation, and in this manner we come to the end of the lesson, but not before we are assigned half a dozen problems for homework, from that wretched textbook whose problems are so knotty and so full of catches. What blessed relief that that’s over for another week.
Pills, as we called him, was a traditionalist, an elitist. Education at Queen’s College, Cambridge, he had taught at Shrewsbury, one of the great English public schools; and he brought some of that “uppercrust” feeling to Retford. He emphasized gentlemanly behaviour. His Board of Governors was heavily larded with local bigwigs, mainly landowners; the chairman of the board was Miss Mellish, sister of the previous chairman, Sir Henry Mellish. The Mellishes were the squires at Blyth, considerable landowners. The family had made its money in the port wine trade with Portugal before joining the squirearchy. Distinguished visitors at Speech Day were of the same class, or perhaps old soldiers. I remember receiving a prize from the Earl of Cavan, a retired general. The head took a great interest in the game of cricket, although I never saw him field a ball or wield a bat; but he studied the performance of the school team, and frequently would write an account of the most recent game, and this would be posted on the notice board for all to read. He must have led an arduous life, most of it hidden from us. He was responsible for about a dozen boarders; he exclusively dealt with parents; he must have had continuous dealings with the governors and with the bureaucrats of the Nottinghamshire Education Committee, who were responsible for funding the scholarship boys. All this, in addition to the everyday running of the school of about 350 boys. In this he was greatly assisted by the assistant headmaster, Mr. McFerran, who played a large part in the day-to-day operation of the school.
The Reverend W.P. McFerran was not your usual stereotypical parson. He was not solemn and proper and rather humourless. He was, rather, mercurial, funny, and, as a teacher, unconventional. It was he who took charge on special occasions. If we had to be organized to march down to East Retford church in Cannon Square, or, if a visiting lecturer, with his slides and projector, was to to speak at a hall a couple of hundred yards up the road, and we were to attend, it was Mr. McFerran who organized things, and saw that they were carried out efficiently. At such times, he was a model of inefficiency, almost ruthlessly so; impatient with any show of inefficiency or slackness. Incidentally, he was the only member of the staff who didn’t have a nickname invented by the boys. In the classroom, he could be entirely different. He taught geography, or, more correctly, he was supposed to teach geography. In reality, he taught geography for about half the time, the remainder being devoted to his reading to us of Rudyard Kipling’s “Stalky and Co”, and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. These readings were interspersed with light bantering talk in which he revealed to us that he knew the nicknames of all the other teachers. One way and another, he would have us in fits of laughter. But he permitted boisterousness to rise only to a certain level, at which point he would cut short the proceedings and set us to work reading the text, or map-making. If he really wanted to cow us, he would take up a cane, and march up and down the aisles, occasionally bringing it down with force upon a desk. We knew how far we could go, and this served him well, for he was, from time to time, inevitably drawn out of class to attend to school business. As for the geography, I suppose he devoted as much time to it as he thought was needed to pass the end of term exams. I have always felt in his debt for the introduction he gave us to some of the funniest books in the English language.
Mr. Calvert taught us Latin. He was a large, flabby man, who suffered from a chronic catarrhal condition, which caused him to snort a lot. The boys imitated him. His name was Robert; we called him Bobe. He lived out in West Retford, near Clark’s Dye Works, and rode a bicycle to school. Mr. Calvert was easy to caricature. Besides Latin, his great passion was Acrostics, a kind of word puzzle, in which one is given two words from the vertical side of a square, and then one is given clues to find the words, which join the sides to each other, line by line. He took great pleasure in demonstrating to us how he had solved the most recent problem in the Sunday paper. This could often take the best part of a lesson. Another of his idiosyncrasies was his praise of his daughter, Margaret, by his telling a most precocious and intelligent child. We were regularly treated to accounts of her most recent achievements and to pearls of wisdom that had issued from her lips. We never met this ‘wunderkind’ in the flesh, but we all felt that we knew her well, and her name was bandied about a good deal in jest;
“You’ll never guess what Margaret did yesterday….” “Why, Margaret could have done that in half the time…..”and so on.
But, for all his foibles, Mr. Calvert was liked and respected, because he treated boys with respect, and, whenever you saw him in town, as he sailed along on his bicycle, you would always get a cheery wave.
Mr. W.F. Lewis was the master responsible for R.I. throughout the school (Religious Instruction). At that time, there were only two compulsory subjects by law; R.I. and P.T., though, of course all schools taught the other subjects. Mr. Lewis was of medium height, rather portly, and with a perfectly round head. He was known to the boys – and Mr. McFerran – as “Tubby” Lewis. He was always immaculately turned out, not a hair out of place, or a button undone, and there was an air of calm about him, possibly because of his constant association with the scriptures. He spoke perfect English with more than a trace of a Welsh accent, which we were not slow to imitate. When he was not actually teaching scripture, he liked to talk about the virtues of deep breathing, which he constantly practiced. He would have us sit upright, and take deep breaths, which we then would hold until told to release. At the same time, he would tell us how while walking to and from school, which he did every day; he would take great draughts of air and hold these until he had walked a given distance. He put his good health down to these exercises. His lessons were not very interesting – not to me at least. The only aids were the Bible and a map of the Middle East, neither of which was, at that stage in my life, terribly exciting. I can remember with painful clarity the tedium of studying “The Acts of the Apostles”, and attempting to maintain interest in the journeys of St. Paul. But his calm manner and eagle eye put us on notice that he was in charge, and I never saw any kind of incident in his classes.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Mr. Marsh. ‘Boggy’ Marsh (what else?) He was a youngish man, rather small and with an earnest expression, which was accentuated by rather thick lenses in his spectacles. He had light brown wavy hair taken straight back with no parting. Whether it was his comparative youth, and consequent lack of experience in handling young barbarians, or whether he lacked that essential, indefinable quality that schoolboys instinctively recognize and respect is hard to say. The fact of the matter is that he just could not get control of the class. It was not even that he had control, and then lost it. He never had it from the outset. The result was that he was forced into a continuous running battle with his charges to see who should be in charge, and, unfortunately, the mathematics he was there to teach tended to fall by the way. I have seen the same performance many times. It is the beginning of a math lesson. The class is in the room, and Mr. Marsh has not yet arrived from his last lesson. The place is a scene of disorder. Boys are bouncing around the room, books are flying about, peashooters are in action; the noise is at a crescendo.
The boy who is at the door keeping ‘cave’ spots Mr. Marsh approaching, and calls out this information. The din is so great that he is not heard, and the noise and confusion continue unabated. Mr. Marsh arrives, and stands in the doorway, hoping that his presence will result in order. In this, he is successful only in small measure. He then makes a dramatic gesture by flinging out his arm, and bringing his wrist watch directly in front of his eye. This is to indicate that the time is now being counted, and will be added on at the end of the day. This helps, and slowly order is restored and he is able to get on with the lesson, though not with the same respectful attention that was given to Mr. McFerran when he took charge. It helped, because we hated to be kept in after school, those of us, at any rate who had to catch the train. School finished at 4; o’clock. If you were let out promptly, you scurried out and along the road to the station, where you caught the 4:16. If you were delayed, even by three or four minutes, you missed the 4:16 and had to wait for the 4:42. And though the difference was less than half an hour, it meant that you missed your usual bus at Workshop Station, and so arrived home quite a bit later than usual.
Mr. Hammond – ‘Boss’ Hammond to us did double duty as art master and woodwork master. He occupied a long room next door to the gym, which was divided into two parts. One half was furnished with rows of desks and a blackboard; the other half contained woodworking benches and all the tools of the craft, including a glue pot, whose molten contents gave off a smell of horse bones that permeated the whole room. Mr. Hammond was probably in his late fifties, a thin, wiry, taciturn man. His face was thin and narrow, and, in profile, he closely resembled a North American Plains Indian. My time in his classes was completely wasted. On the woodworking side, one started by planning a piece of two by four about a foot long; one then graduated to making a small box; that was where the glue came in. I never succeeded in completing the first process. I would plane a side, and, hoping it would pass muster, would take it to the ‘Boss’. He would raise it to eye level, and look along it with a square. Then, invariably, he would pencil a mark on the place where more needed to be taken off to get the side level. Back to the bench. More planning, interspersed with bouts of hitting the plane with a hammer to reset the blade, and back to Mr. Hammond. Eventually, one’s work would be passed, and marked with a penciled tick to indicate this. Now, one repeated this process on an edge, and this eventually proving successful, one started on the other side. By this time, the situation was that one had a very thin-looking piece of four by two, and an abundance of shavings on the bench and the floor. It was at this stage, that one ceased to address the task seriously and the emphasis shifted from planning to messing about and skylarking. Mr. Hammond had a pretty sharp eye, and, of course, lots of experience with mischievous schoolboys, and eventually he spotted you “in flagrance delicto”. You were then sent to one of the desks, given a poetry book, and assigned a poem to learn by heart and recite to him later. I learned very little in woodwork, and even less, if that is possible, in art. Art lessons were dull and totally unrewarding.
They consisted mostly of drawing with pencil. We would be seated at the benches on stools, given a pencil and a sheet of paper, and required to draw objects set up in the centre of the room; a bucket, a cone, a cone and a cube together, and so on. First we drew the shape; then we put in the appropriate shading. Later, a boy would be seated in the centre and we would draw his head; and, finally, we made a square design, first drawn, and then coloured, consisting as Mr. Hammond, in his introduction to the project told us, of straight lines, parts of circles, and graceful curves. From time to time, in all these exercises, he would have us put down our pencils, while he gave us some pointers. I remember, for instance, his showing us how to start drawing a human head by sketching an egg shape, and then where the eyes and ears were in relation to the whole and to one another. His other role was to walk round the room looking at the work in process. He carried a sharp pencil, and leaning over one’s shoulder, he would, with a few deft, sharp strokes, correct what you had done so far. This was invariably followed by a lot of rubbing out, and, in effect, restarting the work.
All of this resulted in no improvement in woodworking skills, and no appreciation of the arts, on my part, although, it must be said, that I did learn a few poems by heart.
We all referred to him as ‘Polly’ Beasley. He was a strange-looking man. Something, possibly a stroke, had affected his left side, so that when he walked he leaned forward with his left arm hanging down by his side, and loped along bouncing from heel to toe. Also, the left side of his mouth was pulled down. When he laughed the effect was grotesque. His mouth distorted and the laughter by a rhythmic shaking up and down of the shoulders. All this did not affect his teaching. In his physics lab, all was well organized. Nor, despite his physical disabilities, was there any discipline problem, although outside the classroom, he was probably imitated and lampooned more than any other master.
Mr. Hay was the senior history master. He was small, with a mop of dark hair, and a small red button nose. He was a good teacher. He insisted on careful work; a great believer in the Socratic method, he was a rigorous questioner. He taught us to think clearly and to write clearly, but he made us use our imaginations too. He had us write limericks about famous historical personages, and scenarios of dialogue on famous historical occasions. We had his respect. Besides being a good teacher, he was an accomplished cricketer, wielding an elegant bat. His one pronounced idiosyncrasy was his habit of gasping. Whether this was due to habit or to some disability I do not know but it earned him the nickname of ‘Gasper’.
‘Beaky’ Graydon taught English and Music. His nickname came from the fact that he had a long, aquiline nose. Like Mr. Marsh, he had trouble with discipline, particularly in music lessons, when his attention was divided between the piano and the music and the class. He was given the assignment of preparing us for choral singing at school functions, not an easy task, given the material both musical and human, at his disposal. I remember the difficulty he had in teaching is the ballad “Phaudrig Crohoore” (Patrick Connor), getting us to fit the words to the music.
“Oh’ Phaudrig Crohoore was a broth of a boy, And he stood six foot eight, And he stood six foot eight, And his arm was as round as another man’s thigh, For Phaudrig was great…”, and so on.
We were not very successful, largely because we did not try very hard. We were not interested in Phaudrig and his exploits. English classes were better, but Mr. Graydon had trouble with discipline, boys calling out with smart answers, or reading books under the desk, or playing chess on the little cardboard sets we had, or doing homework from a previous class, or resorting to a hundred other devices known to boys.
“Charlie” Charlton taught junior History and French. He was sturdy, well set up fellow, an excellent cricketer, and even better soccer player, who was a considerable asset to the staff in the Masters v. School match. Not a particularly good teacher, a bit lazy intellectually I thought, he was popular with the boys because of his easy manner, and of course, also because of his sporting ability.
He came to the school during my second or third year as senior mathematics master. He was a strict and efficient teacher who took no nonsense. He had no time for humour. I never saw him smile, let alone laugh. The lesson started the moment he entered the room and continued till the second that the bell rang. Years later, at the end of Pilkington-Roger’s term, he became headmaster.
He was there for the last couple of years I was there. Young, dark, ruddy, and handsome, he was referred to as ‘Herr’ Dow. Possibly because he taught us German and Spanish. He lodged at the McFerran’s, and one would see him at lunch-time crossing the road to visit the pub. In the afternoon, he would breathe beery fumes over us as he pronounced guttural German words. Sometimes we would get him to talk about beer, about which he seemed to be an expert.
He called it Tolly. An easy-going type, possessed of a rather aristocratic manner, he treated us and our antics with cool disdain. Not long after he came to the school, he married Stephanie Spencer, a daughter of the Spencer family, important in the world of auctioneering and sales of land and country houses.
His initial was A, but we never knew what it stood for. We knew him as ‘Spug’. He was the senior French master, a bachelor who spent all his holidays in France. A small man, with receding hair, and a face, through years of practice no doubt, able to shape itself to produce and express the sounds of Parisian French. He was meticulous in getting us also to produce those sounds – the nasal sounds of ‘en’ and ‘on’, the distinction in the pronunciation between e (grave) and e (acute), and especially the French ‘u’ (I can hear him saying now; “Purse your lips as if to say ‘o’ and then say ‘ee’. He laboured hard and long at his task of teaching us a smattering of his beloved French with only, I am afraid, modest results, many of us seeming to have a deep-seated inability to grasp it’s grammatical and syntactical rules.
Mr. Stansfield taught French to the lower forms, and so we did not know him as well as we came to know Mr. Spencer. He had a habit of calling boys to his desk in order to review their work, and the buzz went around that it was a good idea, when so summoned, to stand a fair distance from him as he had roaming hands.
The Chemistry Master
Strangely enough, although I can see his face and hear his voice, I cannot recall this teacher’s name. Perhaps, that is because much of what he taught was incomprehensible to me. His domain was the chemistry lab. which always had a sharp, chemical sort of smell. At one end was a raised platform, behind which was a blackboard, on which he wrote the data he was dealing with, and from which he continually invoked us to silence by his constant cry, uttered more in hope than in anger, I am sure; “Oh! Shut up at the back!” The mysteries of his science were never revealed to me. The theory was a closed book, and the practical work and experiments never seemed to work out right. Maybe that was because there was too much skylarking, and activities that were not in the curriculum, like sprinkling iron filings in the Bunsen burner flame, or concocting nasty smells from the various bottles at our disposal.
About 35 of us started at Retford in September, 1929. We started in Form 3A, and nearly all of us stayed together until we sat the School Certificate examination four years later. Only one or two fell by the wayside, or left the area. In that time and place, before the car changed everyone’s lives, people rarely moved house, and then, only from one place to another within the same community.
Within that circle was another smaller circle. These were the classmates who took the train from Worksop to Retford with me over the years. We spent much time together on the station and in the train, on the way to and from the station and school, in the classroom, and on the sports fields. A few stand out in the memory; Reg. Clark, Jack Watkinson, ‘Dewdrop’ Atherton, Ramscar, Geoff Lidster, John Brumyce. Reg Clark was a heavy-set, swarthy boy. I remember seeing him first at the oral exam for the scholarship, accompanied as I was by his mother. He was an only child, I think. His father was an undertaker with premises right in the middle of Worksop at Curr’s Corner, the intersection of Bridge Street and Newcastle Avenue, under a large sign proclaiming; “George Clark & Sons, Undertakers.” He was a good all-round scholar, but not much use at any sport. Too slow and stolid but he was well-liked. I doubt that he followed his father into the funeral business. The last I heard of him, he had married one of the Hearst girls from South Carlton, one of two who won scholarships to Retford High School. Jack Watkinson was small and slight; he was fair-skinned and blue eyed, and fair-haired.
He never seemed to have a hair out of place. A neat person, I envied him his beautiful hand-writing, so round and neat, and even. A conscientious worker, I never knew him to come to school with his homework incomplete; he even started to do it on the train going home, whilst most of us were busy skylarking or resting from the rigors of the day. Atherton’s family had a shoe shop and shoe-repair business on Bridge Street. I think we call him ‘Dewdrop’ because of the shape of his head, which was large, and a perfect oval. He had calm blue eyes in a face of a yellowish color, topped with a mop of tousled hair, the while giving him a somewhat eccentric appearance. He walked with long, bouncing strides, looking ahead unless distracted. As a scholar, he was noticed for his mathematical ability. If we were faced with a difficult problem in geometry, or algebra, or perhaps something from physics or chemistry , we took it to Dewdrop, who resolved it quickly and without apparent effort. I was always surprised that he was no good at French, when he was so clever at mathematics. Johnny Brumyce’s father was manager of the Midland Bank, which was situated kitty-corner from Mr. Clark’s establishment at Curr’s Corner. Johnny was a good-looking gentle character, who drifted along at school. Unfortunately, his father was known to some of the masters, and this seemed to cause them to urge him on to efforts, which he did not seem to want to make. Hugh Lidster came from a family of monumental masons. Brammer and Lidster’s workyard was near the station, and as you walked down Bridge Street into town, you passed close to gravestones in various stages of completion and a variety of graveyard ornaments, vases,etc.
He was a small, wiry, feisty character, touch and independent. Ramscar I have mentioned before. I met him, too, at the oral exam in Retford. His mother and mine sat together as they waited for us to go into the exam room, probably more nervous than we were. Ramscar was bright but a bit of a skate, and, in the end, he didn’t measure up to Retford’s standards; homework not complete, disruptive classroom behaviour, broken school rules, and poor attendance led eventually to his dismissal. And I never saw him after that.
This small circle was merged into the larger circle of 3A when we got to school. There may have been some fee-payers in this class, but I fancy that we were all scholarship boys. So, for the first time, I came into contact and competition with good scholars. At Langold, there had been comparatively little competition, at Retford the situation was entirely different, and one was hard put to if one was to keep up, and appear near the top in the lists of marks which were posted on classroom walls from time to time.
Some came from Retford itself. Roy Scott, a good all-round scholar, thin and wiry, fair complexioned, with sparse blonde hair plastered close to his head. His father was manager of the Midland Bank in Carolgate. His brother, Kenneth, a year senior to us, was a real brain, winning a scholarship to Cambridge where he took a double first in History and Law, and became a lecturer in Law. Oscar Bingham was from Retford, too. Oscar was good in all subjects, Eric Salmon lived hear the station; we passed his house every day on our way to school. He had the misfortune to have a wry neck, so he was always looking at one askance, but his nature was gentle. He was a pacifist, a position he defended stoutly when later we argued about what policies our government should adopt to meet the growing threat of the European dictators. Johnny Parkinson’s father was Canon Parkinson, of East Retford parish church, where the religious parts of our school ceremonies were celebrated. Johnny was flabby, large, ponderous, slow-moving, and with a high color; a harmless and inoffensive boy. He had an unfortunate tendency to blush easily. Poor Johnny. I remember on one occasion, when the class was behaving badly, someone broke wind rather loudly, and as the sulphurous fumes spread slowly around the room, the master - I don’t recall now who it was - was foolish enough to demand that the culprit own up. Nobody did. The master repeated his demand. Still nothing. Boys now started to look around the room, obviously speculating as to who the guilty party was. After a while, Johnny’s face had become a bright scarlet, and the whisper went around. Parkinson. Look at Parkinson. Betrayed by his weakness, he sat there helpless, the focus of speculative, accusing eyes. But he did not confess. And he was right not to. He was not the guilty party. I happened to know. But he got the blame just the same.
Two of our brightest came from Bircotes, both of them, as it happened, the sons of shopkeepers there. Geoffrey Bray was very good at languages; English, French and Latin were his forte. He had a rosy complexion, and a head of carefully, combed hair that was so fair that it looked almost silver. His manner was gentle, almost effeminate. He was no good at sports, but was always near the top in the class lists. Kenneth Brure was a tall, sickly-looking boy, rather too thin. His face was lacking in color, except for his nose, which was perpetually red; and thick eyebrows which met over his nose gave him a severe appearance. He was, in fact, not strong, but his mind was active enough; he was good all-round, but very good in mathematics and physics.
The rest who spring to mind came from the villages in the countryside outside Retford, old established farming communities deeply rooted in the soil for centuries, their names telling of their Sax and Viking origins; Blyth, Bawtry and Barnby Moor; Ranskill, Torworth, Lound, and Sutton; Mattersey, Everton and Wiseton, Walkeringham, Beckingham and Gringley-on-the-Hill; Clarborough, Clayworth, Sturton-le-Steeple; North and South Leverton, Treswell, Cottam and Rampton; Eaton, Gamston, and Askham; West Drayton, West Markham and Tuxford; Laneham, Cottam and Torksey; and so on, the boys’ names reflected the same history; Boole, Gilson, Tebbatt, Fenwich, Drake, Howard, Lee, Guthrie, Henstock, Taylor, Dyer, Haunch, Cairns,……The sons of farmers, farm labourers, smiths, village parsons and shopkeepers. I wonder now what became of them. It’s hard to imagine that the survivors are in this year of grace, 1996, old men of seventy eight or seventy nine; I think of them as I see them yet in my mind’s eye, sixty odd years later, noisy, energetic, boisterous. They are preserved in time like insets trapped in amber, caught in time and made immortal.