A Heathen Century

All Old Heathens reading these accounts are welcome to send comments or memories of their own to the Editor.

Heath in the Thirties

First impressions of any boy entering Heath in the early thirties must inevitably have been of O.R.A. Byrde, the headmaster, a gentleman of robust proportions. He was to be seen each morning standing in the front entrance hall wearing striped trousers, black jacket and waistcoat with chain across his ample abdomen and watch in hand whilst Henderson, the caretaker, tolled the school bell for five minutes until the hour of 9. In some undecipherable manner he managed to create a wonderful spirit and pride in the school amongst teachers and boys without exhortations or the tactics of a sergeant major. Perhaps four lines of verse written by one of the boys summarized things:

Old Oscar was a kindly man;
The school he simply loved it.
He never had to open a door
Because his tummy shoved it.

Most of the boys came from local primary schools where they had been the top performers and were from a cross-section of the population, but four or five would be from the Junior School whose parents were more affluent and tended to leave to go to boarding school at the age of 13 years. The Junior School was situated at the east end of the ground floor corridor beyond the headmaster’s study, was accessed by a door at the head of a flight of steps from the playground and was out of bounds to boys of the senior school.

Intakes were divided into two forms IVbi and IVbii according to age and after the first year progressed to IVai and IVaii. I never understood the origin of this nomenclature and it was never explained!

Each day began with Assembly of staff and boys for a quarter of an hour followed by classes of three quarters of an hour duration with a quarter hour break at 10.45 am; so morning school finished at 12.30 pm. Most boys went home for lunch and afternoon school resumed at 2 pm finishing at 4.15 pm. There was no school on Wednesday afternoons, but school on Saturday morning.

Sport, particularly rugby, was greatly encouraged and fixtures with other schools frequently occupied Wednesday afternoons and sometimes Saturdays. We even beat Crossleys 50–0 on 17 November 1937!! There was an Annual Sports Day held at Spring Hall each June and a cross-country race. The lack of a swimming pool handicapped this sport though we did go to Woodside. On the other hand, having our own fives courts encouraged many, particularly those who did not enjoy the larger team games.

Head and shoulders of D.J.D. Smith
D.J.D. Smith

Beginning of the autumn term in 1935 saw a new headmaster, D.J.D. Smith. He was as different as could be in both appearance and demeanour from O.R.A. Byrde, but still managed to maintain all that had been achieved by his predecessor.

Discipline at Heath was good in the thirties though we were not a group of angels. I recall the class I was in drawing our desks into a solid phalanx at the back of the classroom so that a teacher whose first appointment it was could not get amongst us — he announced that he was leaving at the end of term to make a fresh start! I also got into trouble once by going to school wearing a green tie of which I was very proud before going to an away fixture and returning to a house soirée. The prefects apprehended me, removed my tie and replaced it with a filthy narrow school one! I only ever heard of one case of bullying, that of a boy known as ‘Baby B--n,’ who I understand used to be forced into a corner of a cloakroom whereupon his bottom was pinched! There was never anything of the magnitude about which one hears almost daily in the 21st century and I am sure that we had never heard the word ‘truant’ let alone played it!

Heath was a pioneer school in the development of trips abroad. The first was to Belgium in 1936 on which I was unable to participate as we had to be aged 14 or above. The following year we went to France and travelled down the Loire valley visiting all the chateaux and other places of interest. Our first night was in Paris where we had heard that what are now called top shelf magazines could be freely purchased. Having done so, there was a rumour that they would be confiscated by customs; so we returned to England with them stuffed down our trousers! It was on this trip that three of us went to a fair in Blois. There I met a girl with whom I have corresponded for more that 60 years, whom my wife and I met in the Pyrenees with her husband and whose daughter once stayed as our guest in England. A contribution by Heath to international relations!

Heath had always encouraged us to have French correspondents and it was on this visit that I met mine with his sister and father on the train journey back to Le Havre. I doubt if any of us had been abroad before — package holidays were in their infancy — but I am sure that our horizons were greatly extended.

In 1938 we ventured even further going to Roman France where we visited such sites as the Pont du Gard, the Pope’s Palace in Avignon, the huge Roman arena in Nîmes as well as many others. It was on this journey that we went to a bull fight expecting to encounter blood and death. We found it very tame and even boring as it was fighting in the French style where ribbons are attached to the bull’s horns and a rosette between the horns. The matador has a claw over his knuckles and has to snatch a ribbon or rosette for which he gets a financial reward. Should he fail to stimulate the bull to charge, a compère increases the amount of the reward in an effort to encourage him.

The house system was a strong feature at Heath in the thirties. Boys were divided into four houses — Heath, School, Queens and Kings — on joining the school. Healthy competition was encouraged on the rugby and cricket fields as well as on Sports Day held at Spring Hall, the Swimming Gala at Woodside Baths and the Annual Cross Country Race. Social events were also held and my own house, Queens, held a Soirée every Shrove Tuesday. In the Sixth form, which was comparatively small as only a limited number of boys went on to university in those days, there was a debating society, the Favourites, which met every Friday afternoon. This was an excellent institution as it not only developed debating skills, but encouraged those of us in the three Sixth Forms of Classics, Science and what was called Modern which included English, History and Languages to appreciate different points of view and not become too insular.

During the thirties there were two major building developments. A science building was erected between the fives courts and the gymnasium which greatly increased the facilities for such studies which had previously been undertaken in rather cramped conditions at the west end of the first floor corridors. The second building was really an extension from the west end of the main building with an arch over the road and provided an arts block.

In 1939 a serious situation was obviously developing in Europe and I imagine it was for this reason that no springtime visit to a European country was arranged. In the summer vacation, however, a school camp was arranged in Somerset. On 11 August six of us from the Sixth form left on our bicycles to ride to the camp site and act as an advance party to help in erecting the camp. We took far from the most direct route riding down the Great North Road to Cambridge then across country to Oxford, Wookey Hole, Wells and Cheddar Gorge. We cycled 394 miles in six days and even found time to visit sites of interest en route. The declaration of war with Germany on 3 September put an end to our plans to cycle back home by a western route and we struck camp returning on Tuesday 5 September, by train from Bridgwater.

I think it would be fair to say that, although there was no panic, people did not know what to expect. We were asked by D.J.D. Smith, the headmaster, to go to Princess Mary’s High School for Girls to dig trenches. What on earth was expected I cannot conceive. Were we gallant boys from Heath going to defend the fair maidens of P.M.H. against the invading German forces?! The following week we went to the Parish Church to fill sand bags and there were A.R.P. rehearsals. After a couple of weeks, however, things settled down and life in Halifax and Heath returned very much to normal.

It did, however, affect my own life as I was registered to begin studies at Leeds University in 1940. I was, however, advised to ask if I could be admitted a year early. My request was granted; so after three weeks back at school the 5 October 1939 was my last day at Heath.

To summarize Heath in the thirties one has to appreciate how different life in general was. The early thirties were dominated by economic depression whilst growing apprehension about German intentions clouded the later years. There was no TV, no computers, few cars and holidays abroad a rarity. Masters and boys alike arrived on foot or by public transport. I recall the sensation when a newly appointed teacher arrived in his car. We boys entertained ourselves by sporting activity, indoor games such as billiards and bagatelle, going to the Shay or Thrum Hall to watch professional sport or to the Palace Theatre for variety shows and the cinema though even the Odeon and Regal did not open until 1938. All this meant that our lives were very much centred on Heath. Not surprisingly perhaps because we had gained our places at Heath through competition at primary school I think we all appreciated that the route to success and happiness in life was to work hard and play hard. Though no-one ever preached this to us at Heath it was unquestionably encouraged and Heath was a very happy community.

Bryan Wade [Heath 1932–39]