Memories of Heath 50 years on

I entered Heath Grammar School in 1957, one of five successful pupils from Queen’s Road School, though the only one of my fellow Queen’s Roaders whose name I remember is John Broughton.

My father had been at Heath in the 1930s and five of the teachers whom he had known were still there, Mr Owen, the classics master, ‘Tichy’ Holt, the French master, Mr Taylor, the English master, Mr Peace, the Art master, and Mr Birchall, the gym teacher, though he had not actually taught my father. If my memory serves me, he also mentioned that he had been in the Scout Troop and the model railway club at Heath.

My father told me that at that time, when boys were 14, they left school, started wearing long trousers and started to smoke. So, when he came home on leave from India where he was working, he went to the parents’ evening and told one of the masters, ‘Biddy’ Taylor, I think, that I had given him the opportunity he had never had while at school to smoke in the hall.

In 1957 I was living in Mixenden next door to the son of a Probation Officer who was in the fifth form. Mixenden was then quite a desirable location — my primary school deputy head lived there. I remember getting the uniform and the 20 rules — or were there really only 19 because the last one was that ignorance of these rules was an offence?

We travelled down from Mixenden on the bus, collecting fellow pupils on the way, and we would call in at a café just below the bottom of Pellon Lane which had a jukebox on which we could hear the latest releases. We only had Radio Luxembourg to keep us up-to-date, no pirate radio stations let alone Radio 1. We then made our way to the old Halifax Building Society building where the West End bus would take us the rest of the way — or rather it wouldn’t because we were supposed to get off in Pellon and go round the other way to the school which we rarely did. So we were supposed to get off one stop before the school.

I mentioned the journey on the bus because one of the pupils who joined us on the way down was a musician who was enthralled by the visit of Shostakovich to England. We were all terribly impressed by Shostakovich because we had learnt in music that Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler hadn’t been able to get beyond nine symphonies but Shostakovich had just published his tenth.

At that time we went to school on Saturday morning and had Wednesday afternoon off in order to support the rugby team though most of us went home instead. Homework was incredibly civilised compared with many of the arrangements I have encountered in schools since. We were given two subjects a night and homework for each subject was supposed to take up to 30 minutes. It was stressed that, if we had not finished it within 30 minutes, we could get our parents to send in a note saying we had been unable to complete it in the time. I don’t know if anyone ever did; I don’t remember ever having homework that took more than 30 minutes per subject. In later years the number of subjects per night was increased but, as I recall, the 30 minute limit remained.

I was in 1B with Mr Guy who taught us Latin and Ancient History. As an aside, we started with Ancient History and progressed through English History in years 2 and 3 and I happened to leave Heath to go to India just when we had done the Tudors arriving in India to find that I would be studying British Commonwealth History from Queen Elizabeth. So I received a continuous historical narrative over the two schools I attended up to O levels.

I sat next to Paul Thompson in 1B and we used to play chess during boring lessons, the travelling set being on the bench between us. We managed pretty well but, unfortunately, Mr Guy had a habit of strolling round the classroom and on one occasion he walked far enough round the class to catch sight of our chess set; so we had to stay behind after class for suitable punishment. I don’t think we gave up; I think we just learnt to be more careful.

During our first term Sputnik was launched and I remember Mr Swale, the Headmaster, who taught us geography, going through the proofs that the earth is round and adding the launch of the Sputnik to the list. I later learnt that his approach to geography was very old-fashioned but I do know all the headlands and all the rivers of Great Britain.

The chemistry master was known to us as 'Kettle;' years later I met Mr Guy in Halifax and we were reminiscing when he referred to 'Kettle' as 'Kettle' much to my surprise; only later did I learn that he was always carrying the kettle because the only source of fresh water for the staff room kettle was in the chemistry lab.

In 1957 the new gym and canteen were being built and, for lunch, we all had to walk down to Clare Hall school and back. However, when the canteen was completed, I didn’t think much to the quality of the food and, instead of handing in my shilling dinner money, would spend it on a crisp or OXO teacake at the tuck shop down the road instead. The tuck shop was a fine institution which we could visit during break and at lunchtime.

The gym was a different matter; Mr Birchall introduced us to circuit training but in a way I have never encountered since. As I recall, at the start of the term, he timed us round each element of the circuit and then he halved the amount we had done at each element and we had to do that amount at the start of each gym session. Though I have never been very good at sport, I enjoyed the rugby because we were taught the tactics of rugby in a way which made great sense to me and enabled me to enjoy the game so much better. I also enjoyed playing touch rugger as a serious game but I was most interested in fives which, with basketball which I learnt in India, were the games I have most enjoyed playing.

We used to go swimming at Park Road baths and it was well into the second year before I achieved the full length expected by Mr Birchall; the following week the roof fell in (perhaps shock that I had finally achieved a length) and I did not go swimming at school again until I was in India where we had an outdoor pool 6,500 ft up in the Himalayas with a view of Kangchendzonga — a slightly different experience from Park Road!

However, the highlight of going to Park Road baths was the return journey since a slight detour would take us past the back of a bakery which would sell us teacakes fresh from the oven for 2d, whereas they cost 3d in the tuck shop.

In our first year there was no ability streaming but in our second year, Latin, Maths and French were taught in streamed groups and I encountered ‘Tichy,’ the legendary French master whose last classes of each term always started with the instruction to open the book at a particular page and do a particular exercise which was followed by pleas from the class for a story; after token resistance, he would give in and tell us a wonderful story, usually of French origin.

In my second year, I remember an elderly geography teacher who often got into a flap. If someone misbehaved he might send them to stand outside the Headmaster’s office but we soon realised that he only did this when he knew (or thought he knew) that the Headmaster was out. At the end of the class he would go up to the lad and say he was fortunate this time and that he might not be so lucky next time. I remember at least one occasion when the Headmaster did return unexpectedly and the miscreant got more than he, and the teacher, had bargained for.

In my third year I encountered ‘Polly’ Hallowes. He would confiscate sweets from boys found eating in class and then eat them himself in front of the class so much so that some boys would deliberately arrive at his class with sweets to eat. So on the last day before I went to India, I stopped working in his class. When he asked me why I wasn’t working, I said I wanted one of the sweets he had confiscated. After a bit of banter, he gave me one.

When I returned from India I spent a term back in Heath and remember the way that Mr Swale addressed all the sixth formers by their first name from day one, having addressed them in the lower forms only by their surnames.

My work has brought me into contact with many mature students who have spoken about their experiences of school and I have been struck by how civilised Heath was — none of the problems with teachers or fellow pupils that so many have described. There was a lad who used to try to bully people but I met him alone in a corridor on one occasion, stood up to him and was never troubled by him again — I never heard of him troubling anyone else though victims don’t always say that they have been bullied.

John Hudson [1957–1960, 1962]