Extracts from a letter by Norman Sunderland

Thank you for sending me the Heath booklet and past HOBA newsletters. It was gratifying to learn that the Old Boys Association still functions and I have had a lot of pleasure from the articles by masters whom I knew way back in the 30s and messages contributed by Old Boys.

I did in fact join the Association when I left school in 1937 and continued membership after my release from the RAF in 1946, but lost touch with the school when I left Yorkshire some years later. Alan Brearley and Clifford Marshall, both in my form, remained life long friends. Sadly George Lassey and Alan Waring lost their lives in the war. Mr Byrde was Headmaster in 1932, rather a terrifying figure I thought. He rebuked me sternly at an entry interview for not helping to milk cows on my father’s farm, but an awareness of David Copperfield and other stories by Charles Dickens apparently won the day. It is a measure of my youthful naivety that the most persistent memory of Mr Byrde is of his breaking down at morning prayers in announcing the abdication of Edward VIII.

Mr Phoenix was probably the master I most respected. There was a sense of fun in his classes. He always referred to me as Sunderbus but, despite the raillery, certainly instilled a lot of chemistry ...

My clumsiness over French, with an abysmal pronunciation and the occasional schoolboy howler, must have caused dismay to Arthur Holt, but he it was who encouraged me to perform Mozart with him (when he found I could play the piano) and got me together with Eric Harrison, one of the school’s star pupils, with a view to playing a Mozart double concerto in duo. I was not in Eric’s league and, though we tried, the dream never came to fruition. Eric was to become a highly rated professional pianist and I remember him performing in a Henry Wood promenade concert. About that time I gave up piano lessons in favour of the organ and later took up a teacher’s position for a few years at St Mary’s Church, Illingworth.

Mr Holt also introduced me to opera. On the school’s first European trip to Belgium he took some of us to hear Gounod’s Faust at the Brussels Opera House. For a humble farmer’s lad who had not ventured far from the Wheatley valley that experience was overwhelming and it led to much more opera going over the years.

Photography was my job in the RAF and produced a splendid collection of aerial pictures which were shown at an Old Boys meeting and captured the interest of Mr Gain. He borrowed them, presumably to give some verisimilitude in his lessons. The same photographs were subsequently purloined by the Professor of Botany at the University of Leeds, from which a series of slides were made for use in her varied lectures and talks.

The circumstances of war changed my outlook on the future. I felt ill at ease with pharmacy which I had taken up after leaving school and accordingly abandoned it when the Government, through its post war Educational and Vocational training scheme, gave me a grant to pursue a degree course, ostensibly to take up teaching. I thus began reading biology at the University of Leeds in 1947. On completion of a PhD I was invited to join a small research unit in the Dept of Agriculture in Oxford where I stayed for four years. I remained in genetic engineering and worked at the John Innes Horticultural Institute near Hertford and then East Anglia concentrating on reproductive cells.

The 70s became a frantic decade for me with invitations to speak at International Conventions at universities all over the world, the most interesting being China in 1978 — a far cry from Beacon Hill and millstone grit but a fitting tribute, I hope, to Halifax Education Committee for the reward of a Borough scholarship.

Norman Sunderland [Heath 1932–1937]