Reminiscences of Heath in the 1950s

Walking about ten miles in a group which includes Grayham Smith [1952–1959] on the first Saturday of each month allows him the time (we don’t walk all that quickly!) to apply considerable pressure upon one to contribute to this rag. Reminiscences of Heath in the 1950s is what he’s after; so to get him off my back, here goes!

1951s 1B had Syd Fox as form master. He was keen on his Ancient History of the Middle East and on Latin and he was inspirational in these subjects. I remember him caressing brand new text books in which there were photographs of reliefs in stone of bearded Assyrians. He made us feel proud to be the books’ first users and privileged to be about to embark upon Ancient History. He had us rolling our Rs in Latin to impart a true Roman accent into our puerile utterings. He was so enthusiastic. At the end of that first year of mine at Heath he left to take up a post at Bingley where I am told he had a successful career. It was Heath’s loss.

One day in 2B neither the quiet Archie Littlefair nor Tishy Holt as a stand-in could take our French lesson; so the prefect Douggie Gillett (also a fearsome wing forward) was sent to take the class. Like Syd Fox, who had tried to give us Roman accents, so Douggie tried to give the lads of West Yorkshire a French accent by having us repeat over and over again something that became fixed in my memory even to this day: Avez vous vu mon canard.

Then there was Music with yet another possessed individual, Mr Pilcher. How did he maintain such enthusiasm in the face of tone deaf pupils such as us? I recall, in perhaps 3B when voices were beginning to break, the poor man spending countless lessons trying to get us to sing the light and fast moving Trout. The result was never better than awful.

Swimming lessons at Park Road baths produced some incidents. The master taking us for the period before swimming had to allow us out 10 minutes early and the one who would be taking us after swimming had to allow us back 10 minutes late. For some reason this was always done grudgingly; if I had been one of the masters I would happily have had less time in front of such as 3B or 4B. With the two concessions this provided an hour to run the prescribed route (up to St Jude’s, around Bell Hall and along Arden Road to the baths), undress, swim, dress and run back. The things which went on in that hour!

Macho guys raced to be first in the pool. This involved using illicit routes through the streets behind St Jude’s. However, there were some for whom swimming was scary and the last thing on earth they wished to do. Their journey to Park Road was always beset with twisted ankles and helping old ladies across the road to ensure the minimum of time in the pool. The return journey had its own diversions: an enjoyable illicit smoke (usually those who had raced to be first there), the delights of the shops behind St Jude’s which at break times were strictly out of bounds and therefore must sell forbidden fruit. Interestingly, those slowest to the pool were amongst the earliest to the shops with their twisted ankles. For some, including myself, St Jude’s shops were too far away to satisfy the raging hunger of a quick swim at Park Road. We went for total route non-compliance and headed out of the baths down West Parade to a small bakery where currant teacakes, hot out of the oven, could be bought.

Lack of time made it impossible to race back up to Park Road and return to school by the prescribed route. So, taking care to avoid being seen by the headmaster of Trinity Junior Boys’ whose study window overlooked the bakery and whom we believed would report us to Walter Swale seeing that we were not on the prescribed route (paranoia for a teacake!), we quickly made tracks, eating as we went — along South Street, The Boulevard, Love Lane, Well Head Fields (ignoring the easier route to Sparrow Park as it would have us approaching school up Free School Lane instead of downwards and masters may be watching!), The Cat Steps and alongside the Infirmary’s maternity ward to rejoin our classmates in Free School Lane.

Some swimmers, for the foregoing or other reasons, were late for their next period. All masters protested about the lateness but Bill Charlton used it as another excuse to chastise us.

Heath in the 50s was fortunate to have such a wonderful array of masters. C.O. Mackley (COM), the perfect gentleman who actually addressed us as gentlemen! He was respected by everyone. Larry Owen who, with his erect presence and booming voice, should have been speaking in debates in ancient Athens or Rome rather than teaching us Greek and Latin. Alan Carter had youth and still played rugby; so he tended to be accepted as ‘one of the boys.’ Polly Hallowes’ enthusiasm for maths would send his voice into falsetto every lesson — or was it our misbehaviour? Biddy Taylor managed somehow in his quiet and gentle way to get some interest in poetry and Shakespeare. Then there was the excitement of turning halfpennies into shillings in mercury solutions behind ‘Kettle’s’ back. I’ll never know how that seemingly frail man, Hewson, had the guts to stand in a laboratory all day with form after form determined to set fire to the place with Bunsen burners or to blow it up with illegal experiments. ‘Nuffer’ Morris, in his faltering style, could make physics so easily grasped that one felt an understanding of the Universe was possible. Placing one foot carefully after the other whilst wearing his waterproof Weldschoen and walking and speaking rather slowly but purposefully was clearly part of Harry Birchall’s method of commanding one’s attention. That he did this is patently obvious from his outstanding record at Ilkley 7s in the 50s and 60s.

To have such an array of inspirational and dedicated masters could not be a fluke; it had to have all to do with the most inspirational of them all, the head, Walter Swale. He led the masters and the pupils magnificently by personal example and made us all proud to be Heathens.

The Fifth form concentrated the mind on ‘O’ levels and the great release from studies was playing rugby and aspiring to follow in famous footsteps to success at Ilkley. I had to wait until a second year in the Upper Sixth, going for better grades at ‘A’ level a second time around, to have the honour of seeing my name on the red ink team sheet posted by Harry Birchall. The biggest disappointment I had at school was not the receipt of notices of failures at ‘O’ level which put a place in the Sixth form in jeopardy, but to be injured in the final 7s practice at Kensington in 1959 and not to be able to play on the great day when yet another success was achieved.

Rod Collins