Russell’s reminiscences

My arrival at Heath Grammar School in coincided with that of Lt Col Walter Ronald Swale, TD as Headmaster. He was tall and had a military bearing, emphasised by a bristling, dark grey moustache and shiny shoes. Make no mistake — he was a disciplinarian. You could choose the cane with which to be beaten from the selection in his office and the school was no worse for it.

Every morning we had an assembly and all trooped into the school hall in form order — youngest at the front — and sat awaiting the appearance of ‘The Headmaster.’ When he did make an entry, wearing his mortarboard and gown, we all rose and stood until he arrived at the lectern and commanded us to sit down. The routine always followed the same pattern, beginning with a hymn. The choir sat on the stage and the grand piano was played by Eric ‘Biddy’ Taylor. There followed a reading from the Bible, normally given by a senior pupil. Company orders and sports results were reported by The Headmaster and then came a second hymn, after which the Headmaster would depart as we rose again respectfully.

To aid the hymn singing, every boy in the school was issued with a small, maroon hymn book which would just slip into a blazer pocket. It was much used in a secular way for community singing by sports teams travelling to away fixtures on Jim Hoyle’s ‘charas.’ Very mellifluous it became over the year!

One of the Headmaster’s favourite hymns was For all the saints who from their labours rest which we sang regularly in assembly and at the end of each term and it featured at his funeral service. There was a very strong chance, too, that he would read I Corinthians 13:1–13 and the words of that memorable passage about faith, hope and charity remain within the very weft and warp of my being. Another of his favourite end of term readings came from the Forsyte Saga — the passage where Jolion Forsyte dies in his garden with a fleck of thistledown on his moustache and his faithful Labrador dog at his feet. It made a very great impression on one young lad at least.

However, before I venture any further into the memories of the 1940s, I must report the ritual to be performed by all the boys living outside the boundary prescribed by Halifax Passenger Transport — the buying of bus passes! Before the beginning of each academic year — or perhaps it was on a term by term basis — those of us who lived beyond walking distance of the school queued up in the Halifax Transport offices on Huddersfield Road with the required fee to buy a bus pass, green in colour, which allowed us to travel without paying a fare on the buses to and from school. I remember that the girls in the office always seemed a miserable bunch but dealing with a hoard of young men would test the patience of Job, particularly as they were keenly ogled by the elder brethren.

Having acquired the bus pass and ridden to school (standing if an adult required a seat) on the first day of the autumn term, the new boys hung about in the yard, resplendent in their new blazers, caps and ties which had been purchased along with all the other kit — rugby shirts (claret and gold), gym vests and blue and white shorts — at no little expense of cash and clothing coupons. To save coupons, my cap was ‘pre-owned,’ as they say these days. Luckily, it fitted me. Eventually, the sixty new boys were sorted into two forms — 1A and 1B. The younger boys were in 1B. There was no academic distinction, just age. Our form master in 1A was Frank Haigh, who played the ’cello and who very soon threatened to impale any miscreant on his ’cello spike. He also taught Latin to the new boys and I remember that the future and imperfect conjugations of the verb amare — ‘to love’ — were a mystery to me. Fortunately, my dad remembered a bit of Latin from his school days and so my first Latin homework was completed without many tears. Who will ever forget amo, amas, amat etc. and I can clearly recall translating the sentence, Caesar puellam amat — a rough translation being: ‘Caesar loves the girl.’ Not a bad introduction to a boys’ school.

All these first year boys and about 300 others had to be fed each day and the responsibility for that fell to Mrs Scratcherd and her staff of ladies, all clad in white overalls. Mrs Scratcherd was grim-looking lady with grey hair tied back in a bun and who peered at her charges through wire-rimmed spectacles. She did, however, have a heart of gold.

The canteen, or dining room as some called it, was where she had her domain and it stood in a corner of the back lawn. It had no pretensions because it was a concrete Nissen hut. You entered by double doors to be greeted by the kitchen and the serving hatches on the right and two ranks of rectangular tables with benches along two sides and chairs at their heads. These were for the table monitors whose job it was to ensure equal shares — not easy. The masters sat across the end of the room and were served by miscreants working off their punishment. Lunch was always preceded by grace, said in Latin if Arthur Owen was on duty.

In the 1940s each and every schoolchild was entitled to a third of a pint of milk a day — free — and the corner of the canteen was the repository for the daily supply. Milk was to be drunk at morning break. Most boys did take it but some did not drink their ration and it was reported that a particular youth — who shall remain nameless — once drank thirteen bottles passed on to him by others.

Perhaps it was the free supply of milk that kept us all fit but the limits of that fitness were tested to the uttermost by the machinations of Harry Birchall, the sportsmaster. He implemented a series of sports standards for every age group in the school and we all had to run 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards and a mile against the clock and do the high jump, long jump and hop, step and jump against prescribed standard distances. If you managed to hit the targets you won house points.

The house competition — Heath, Kings, Queens and School — continued in rugby, cricket, fives and nature studies, the latter not attracting much activity. The highlight of the year was Sports Day at Spring Hall, when the school had the afternoon off and where all the would-be athletes competed for their house. The games produced the Victor Ludorum, the boy who was the most successful in winning events in any or all disciplines, including putting the shot, throwing the javelin, discus and cricket ball. Successful athletes received a card from an invited local dignitary which commemorated their success.

Arriving at the beginning of the autumn term, our first experience of games was a double period of rugby when we all changed at school and trotted to Manor Heath where there were two rugby pitches. Those who showed a bit of talent and inclination played on the top pitch whilst the rest, who would have preferred to be doing nothing, played a desultory game on the lower pitch.

All this activity produced an under 14 XV which progressed to a Colts XV and ultimately a First or Second XV. All teams played competitive rugby against other local schools, with, of course, cricket in the summer.

Although competition was fiercest against Crossley and Porter, the favourite trip was to Woodhouse Grove because, being a boarding school, they produced good teas — poor bathing facilities (two to a bath in a small cubicle) — but good teas. Throughout my time at Heath — in under 14s, under 15s and First XV — we were beaten only once by Ermysted’s away at Skipton.

With the gift of hindsight, I see that the days at Heath were very happy, though not without trials and tribulations if the mysteries of maths, languages and science were beyond your capacity to cope. Those who struggled most were put on the dreaded ‘daily report’ — a document that had to be signed by the teacher at the end of each and every lesson with a comment about performance — ‘satis,’ ‘poor’ etc. A series of poor reports led to an interview with W.R. Swale, TD, MA and that could be very daunting.

This measure was indicative of the school’s aim to achieve excellence — successful as the honours boards attest.

All in all it was a wonderful experience for a young lad to attend a school with a fine reputation for learning, sports, discipline and manners and to end up with a group of life-long friends, all influenced with the same ethos and equipped for life. I, for one, am extremely grateful for having had that opportunity.

Russell Smith