Seven years a Heathen


These reflections are the result of coming across a photograph of the pupils and staff of Heath Grammar School taken in May 1939. I’d started at Heath in September 1938 leaving in July 1945. A grammar school education was not usual in my family, though my sister had recently finished at Princess Mary High School. All my cousins left school at 14.

Three boys from Queen’s Road Junior School went to Heath, one or two to Crossley & Porter; some girls went to Princess Mary and some to Crossley’s, but financial considerations prevented some who had passed the 11+ from taking up a place. A number who didn’t pass went to the Modern School and some on to the Junior Technical School. The thought was that you had ‘passed’ or inevitably ‘failed.’ The notion of selection for the most appropriate form of secondary schooling had to wait to the 1944 Education Act.

1 Starting

In addition to the intelligence test, prospective pupils were interviewed at the school of their choice. So one afternoon I went to Heath and was seen by a small panel.

We had to take some exercise books. In mine was a composition about Richard the Lionheart. As I’d been asked, ‘What do you want to be when you leave school?’ and had answered, ‘A history master,’ I was asked about the king. Maybe what I said clinched my place, for I doubt that I had scored all that heavily in the IQ test.

My first day at Heath was inauspicious, almost disastrous. The new boys were assembled in the gym, seated on benches. Our names were read out in alphabetical order; first those for the A form were read. (We were asked to reply.) My two colleagues with surnames starting C and E were in the A form. I did not hear mine. Then those in the B form. I sat waiting to hear it, having a sinking feeling that I’d failed to answer. Sure enough, when it came, that’s what happened and sheepishly I had to go to the master and say, ‘Sorry, I missed answering.’ Many years later when I was in a position to organise how pupils were organised in groups on starting secondary school, I was determined no-one should face that embarrassment. As building work was still going on, our form room was initially in the library. We were seated in alphabetical order. Our form master was B. S. Fraser [Heath 1937–1940] who taught us history and English.

Secondary, that is, grammar, school education was not free. That had to wait to the 1944 Education Act. For those offered a place, there was a sliding scale of fees dependent on father’s income. My father was somewhat put out having to pay a proportion of the fee, for we were by no means well off.

There were additional costs, the blazer and the cap, and not wearing the cap led to getting lines from the prefects. There was PE and games kit and we also had to purchase some text books. We didn’t carry large numbers of books around the school. They were kept in our desks, secured by a padlock. The knowledge that our parents were sacrificing was I believe a spur to trying to do well.

When a friend of my mother’s heard I was in the B form, she told her, ‘He won’t do well there; he needs to be in the A form.’ I didn’t scale the heights of academic achievement in the first year, partly owing to a prolonged absence in the second term.

In the end of year exams I finished mid table, something like 13 out of 28 or so. When there were some problems with A form and corresponding demotions 1939 was the last time a booklet was printed and distributed to parents showing from the end of year exams the position of every pupil in every subject in every class.

2 Moving up

W. L. Dudley [Heath 1925–1945] was our new form master in the second year and I liked him very much. He taught us Latin and geography of which he was in charge. One recalled maxim was, ‘You can have mountains without rain and rain without mountains.’ Sadly ill health caused his retirement in 1944 and he died in December 1945 aged 60. He had been at Heath since 1925.

For the beginning of the third year we were required to make a subject choice between German, geography or Greek. My preference was for geography; the school proposed Greek. I did German. I did not regret the choice.

The end of Year 2 saw us drop art and woodwork which was no heartache for me. In woodwork I had chosen to make a six hole egg rack. Somehow it took me all year which even with absences was a long time. In the last lesson I nailed it together. We still have it.

The second year saw an improvement in my performance reflected in a higher class position, 5th or 6th I think.

From Year 3 our form master was Arthur Holt [Heath 1930–1966]. My form position improved. I got to 3rd. That gave me a desk in the back row of the form room where we were seated in class position. I held on in Year 4. Being in the B form meant taking five years to School Certificate. The A form was fast tracked in four. Taking five was right for me.

In year 3 we still had music. This was singing. We were taken by a retired teacher who had returned to cover for absence. He also taught Latin. Mr Gornall [Heath 1941–1947] exists still in the memory from one lesson.

Teacher: Hanson, you’re not singing.
Hanson: No, Sir.
Teacher: Why, boy?
Hanson: My voice is breaking.
Teacher: No matter. Sing up.
warbling ...
Teacher: Hanson, do stop singing if that is what it is supposed to be.

I always struggled with maths. I just didn’t understand Dr Brown [Heath 1934–1945] who taught me in Years 1 and 3, and he couldn’t understand how anyone could be so dim. It was left to Tom Withycomb [Heath 1931–1947] to get me a pass in School Certificate. This was achieved by a credit in arithmetic and passes in algebra and geometry. How algebra was passed is a mystery. Learning the theorems and getting enough constructions right secured the geometry one. The B form did general science, the A form the three separate sciences. Getting a credit in general science secured matriculation.

In the fifth form I was taught by C. O. Mackley [Heath 1931–1961] for history and English (language and literature), A. Holt for French and German, M. W. Wathams for Latin, T. Withycomb for maths and I think Mr Whorwell [Heath 1939–1943] for general science. I did sufficiently well in School Certificate to enter the sixth form and prepare for higher education.

3 The staff

Nearly all the teachers in the 1939 photo had nicknames. Some were their first names: Tom (Withycomb), Larry (Gain), Harry (Birchall), Ben (Young). Others were obvious: Mustard (Coleman), Whisky (Haigh). The origins of the others were more mysterious: Biddy (Taylor), Tishy (Holt), Oddygrunt (Brown), Tough (Owen), Onky (Peace), Pop (Dudley). Second master Phoenix was known as Bill Stinks (he taught science) and D. J. D. Smith [Heath 1935–1946], the Head, was the Beak. The one who didn’t seem to have a nickname was C. O. Mackley. The 1939 photograph was the last time all these teachers were together at Heath for in September war broke out.

4 The war

From the very first there were changes as staff were called up. One of the first was Harry Birchall [1936–1973] and his replacement, C. H. Place from Crossleys, served for the duration. Others left at regular intervals. The Head seems to have done more teaching; he taught us one year for Latin. For most of the time we were taught in the major subjects by those teachers who remained at the school throughout the period.

1944 saw a major change with the arrival of Mrs Kathleen Newton [Heath 1944-1946] who was the second woman to teach at Heath. I had the pleasure of being taught by her in the second year of the sixth form for general studies. Another in the sixth form was Dr Morel [Heath 1941–1946] who was a refugee from Nazi Europe. He may have had some difficulty in the main school but we appreciated his scholarship.

The impression remains that the war had surprisingly little impact on our education though no doubt we missed out on many extra-curricular activities. For some time we carried gas masks and in the first few months there were practices to the air raid shelter under the bus garage. We took a lively and intelligent interest in events and the teachers fostered this, helping to develop an objective view. In one English lesson when we were required to prepare and deliver a short talk on ‘the thing that most interests me,’ one member of the class spoke on ‘Propaganda’ and a very fruitful discussion followed. As time went on and the war in Europe drew to a conclusion we were particularly interested in events in the Far East, for that was likely to be the theatre of war into which we would go. Then the two atomic bombs were dropped.

One sad reminder of the fact we were at war was when in assembly the Head had to announce the death in action of old boys. At first most of them were names to us but as the hostilities continued there were those who had been in upper forms when we arrived. Their names are recorded by the memorial gates in Free School Lane. From time to time we were assembled to hear a recruiting talk by officers of the armed services. In view of what took place later there was a certain irony in listening to an ex-Colonel extol the virtues of serving in the Indian Army.

School day started with assemblies in the main hall. This was an act of worship with a hymn (from the Public School Hymn Book), a bible reading (by a prefect) and prayers. There was usually a Prayer Book collect which we had to learn by heart and repeat together. For a chapel boy at first this was strange but I’ve never forgotten them for which I am now grateful.

During the war groups went to farm camps. There was potato picking in Lincolnshire. In 1943 I went harvesting to Barrowby Grange near Kirby Overblow. We were still awaiting the results of School Certificate and for those of us contemplating the sixth form there was a hint of changed relationships as, in place of surnames, we were called by our own first names as C. O. Mackley taught a number of us how to play bridge.

Two years later the camp was at Eardisley in Herefordshire [see Farm camps 1 and Farm camps 2]. A small group of us were deputed to travel a day in advance of the main party to get things ready and take some equipment

We were not a good choice for when we arrived we realised that the cooking equipment was missing. We had left it at Stockport station platform where we made one of several changes. When we sat down to eat the Head who had travelled by car reminded us in his usual quizzical way that we could have had a hot meal. The equipment turned up next day. We had decided to show we were now ‘Old Boys;’ cigarettes would be produced and we would light up. However, before we could DJDS produced his cigarette case and offered us all one, to which we all replied, ‘No, thank you, Sir.’ Mrs Newton [Heath 1944–46] was one staff member in the fortnight I was there. This was fuller evidence of her involvement in all aspects of school life.

We had travelled to Herefordshire on V. J. Day. On the last lap by train from Hereford we were accompanied by a carriage full of South Wales Borderers who had been celebrating and gave us their version of a number of Welsh hymns. Although the war had ended, there was uncertainty about our future destinations. The camp took place while Higher Certificate results were awaited and we didn’t know whether we would be called up or be able to go into higher education.

5 Sixth form

The two years in the sixth form were hugely enjoyable. One reason was, apart from re-sitting any subject from School Certificate, the first year was free from any exams. Choosing to enter the Modern Sixth meant taking two main subjects, History and French, and two subsidiaries, English and German. The syllabus for a subsidiary subject meant it could be covered in one year and the exam was taken in the second. This gave the opportunity to explore them widely and ‘Biddy’ Taylor took us through a masterful survey of English literature from Saxon times. German was equally stimulating. Dr Morel shared his love of German literature, especially Goethe and Schiller.

History was my chief interest and the history ‘boys‘ sat round a table in the library with C. O. Mackley holding court. The Oxford and Cambridge Board’s syllabus covered English history from 1485 to 1914 and European history from 1494 to 1914, plus a special subject on William Pitt, the Elder. This was a good foundation for later study. C. O. Mackley must have thought I was worth persevering with for with a few others on Friday evenings at his ‘digs’ he introduced us to political philosophy from classical times onwards. Prose and unseen translations and set books of plays and novels meant French was an equally rigorous syllabus. We also took a General Studies paper.

We sat the Higher Certificate exams in an empty school which had broken up for the summer holidays to meet the change in the date of Halifax Wakes. Despite failing English subsidiary through getting the contexts in the Hamlet paper wrong, I did OK to proceed to higher education.

And there was the Favour-ites, not teacher’s pets, but the sixth form society named after the school’s founder. It met on Friday afternoons, starting in school time, for which two periods were set aside, and continuing later. While attendance was expected, it was voluntary. I’m sure any who did not share in it lost out. There were play readings, debates on formal motions, as well as less formal motions pulled from a hat which you had to talk to; there were mock trials and elections. It was an enriching and growth experience giving the opportunity to speak in front of colleagues and thus confidence boosting.

Shove half-penny was a further opportunity to waste time. One day suddenly a figure swept in and swept everything onto the floor. ‘Gentlemen, you can do better than this,’ said C. O. Mackley.

6 Prefects

As a traditional grammar school of its time Heath had a well-established prefect system. For an eleven year old it was not easy at first to distinguish who were teachers and who were prefects. In these early days many prefects seemed to have a position of authority almost surpassing that of the staff. Many of them, in their plus fours, looked as old as some teachers (there were some new boys who called prefects ‘Sir’) and of course in a short time they were in the armed forces.

As time went on the prefects became almost contemporaries; any vestige of the sense of awe disappeared. Then came the time when one found oneself in the position. While later in the state sector the system either disappeared or was a much less selective one, I confess that this provided a further opportunity to exercise responsibility. From time to time prefects were deputed to sit in with classes when a member of staff was absent.

Not that we always behaved with due decorum. We had been given a small room on the top corridor as a Prefects Room which we decorated. Some of our number used it as a smoking room. There were some high jinks. On one occasion a game of blind man’s buff on the corridor was interrupted by the Head on one of his tours of the school. He was not convinced by the explanation to see if we could find our way in the dark when fire watching.

We had a number of disconnected private study periods which tended to be called ‘free periods.’ Frank Parker [Heath 1938–1945] and I spent a couple going through the more rousing hymns in the Methodist Hymn Book until our singing so disturbed the class next door that a member of staff politely yet firmly requested an end to our devotions.

7 Discipline

Throughout the school this was firm but fair. You quietly discovered or were told who not to play up. On one occasion with some mates I’d been gossiping in an English lesson and was singled out as the ring leader. I was told to stand outside in the corridor. The Head on one of his prowls met me and gave such a wigging I don’t think I misbehaved in future.

For a time we had a temporary teacher whose discipline was not strong. We had desks with seats attached and in one lesson we played dodgem cars moving the desks around the classroom. Another time there was a mini snowball fight in the room and some hit the blackboard near to which the teacher was standing. Such occurrences were isolated events. For most of the time our ill discipline was reserved for the upper deck of the 29 bus, though this was mainly boisterous, inconveniencing the adult passengers. The conductors were quite capable of dealing with it. In any case most of us were aware that should our parents get to know we would be dealt with.

8 Games

The school day started at 9 am with assembly in the main hall. Morning school lasted to 12.15 with a 15 minute break. Afternoon school was 2 pm to 4.15 pm with no break.

On Saturday mornings school ended at 12.15. As there was Saturday morning school, there were no lessons on Wednesday afternoons. This was to enable games to be played against other schools. Wednesday also gave the opportunity to go to the ‘flicks.’ The best seats in the matinees at the Regal or the Odeon cost 6d. In my early teens I saw lots of films.

In the early years rugby in games lessons was played on Manor Heath. The school’s rugby ground was Kensington but towards the end of the war we played at Ovenden Park. We played cricket at Spring Hall and also used King Cross ground for cricket fixtures. Crossley & Porter played in Thrum Hall. This was an imaginative move by the clubs and one I’ve been surprised does not seem to have been repeated in my experience.

In the first year sixth I played occasionally for the school 1st and 2nd XVs. I suspect my father’s assessment on seeing me play was accurate. ‘He’s like Doodles at Blackpool Tower Circus; he runs around and does nothing.’

I performed better at cricket. I gained my 1st XI colours though my debut for the school 2nd XI against Crossleys at Brownfield was an abject failure — caught second ball in the slips for 0. My last innings for the 1st XI at King Cross when I scored 36 not out enabled us to draw a match which had earlier seemed lost. Next day I went down with mumps. I don’t think the two events were linked though it was not good preparation for Higher School Certificate a few weeks away.

As sixth formers we had use of the fives court and, while not all that proficient, it was enjoyable exercise.

In our first year we had swimming at Park Baths. This required a mad dash to and fro, right out of the school site down Heath Road across Well Head into Love Lane and across King Cross Road.

9 Boys

Heath was very much a male society. Apart from Mrs Newton at the end of our careers, Kathleen Place was the only female in the school. Girls for most of us were strange and mysterious creatures. My father firmly believed that for adolescent boys they were a major distraction from work.

At Christmas 1944 the sixth form held a social to which sixth formers from Princess Mary were invited. Afterwards a number of us sang carols alongside Miss Scott’s house which did nothing to improve relationships.

At the Eardisley farm camp when a number of us were fancying our chances with the local girls, Mrs Newton gave some positive guidance on relationships as we young men were about to go into the wide world either to college or into the forces. Years later this served as a reminder that in a mixed school the role of women teachers was as, if not more, important for the boys as for the girls.

10 Some individuals

As I have rarely gone back to any organisation once I have left and have not joined old schools associations I’m largely unaware of the achievements of my contemporaries or of the whereabouts of those on the 1939 photo. Three names who were predecessors and who were on the Honours Board in the Entrance Hall had later on real meaning for me.

Harold Eyre [Heath 1928–1935] was an exhibitioner at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, but joined the navy and was lost at sea. I later discovered the very high regard in which he was held as an undergraduate.

Roy Belford [Heath 1930–1938], who was a legend to new boys, had won a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. Later when he returned from war service to resume his studies, I had the great pleasure of meeting him and discovering the legend was real.

Donald Hudson [Heath 1926–1935] went to St Catherine’s Society, Oxford, in order to train for the Baptist ministry at Regent’s Park College. His family lived near us and at the end of the second term my parents recruited him to sort out problems I was having with Latin. This he did and my sudden improvement almost left Larry Gain speechless. Many years later I valued Donald’s insights and common sense in Baptist circles.

In my time four ‘History Boys’ of C. O. Mackley’s Modern Sixth became Head Teachers. Tony Barrett [Heath 1934–1944] was in Liverpool. Cedric Kaye [Heath 1942–1945], who came into the sixth from Elland Grammar School, Bernard Wilkinson [Heath 1934–1940] and myself were all in Gloucestershire. Bernie and I shared a platform at an educational forum in the lovely Cotswold village of Painswick and he informed the audience we were both Heathens! I added I believe he was on duty watching those who came for interview as prospective pupils and ushered me into the Head’s room as I stood waiting after knocking on the door.

11 Conclusion

Heath was no academic ‘hothouse’ but it was a good school in the best meaning of that term. It provided for all its pupils and the implication made by my mother that members of the B form received a second best education was not true. Most of what was offered was sound; it was up to us to take and use it. The possibility of higher education was offered to all and we were glad to have students from the Junior Tech coming into the sixth form and they were totally and quietly integrated and involved.

The Honours Board was a reminder of what was possible and there was pride when the Head in Assembly announced that individuals had won Hastings and Brackenbury scholarships.

Looking back I’m convinced that within the limitations that existed, some resulting from the War, I received as good an education as anyone had a right to expect. Four years after leaving Heath I qualified as a teacher. My intention and inclination was for a post in a boys grammar school. I started teaching in a co-educational comprehensive school which launched me on a very different but hugely enriching career.

Raymond Hanson [Heath 1938–1945]