Memories from the 50's

My first memories of South well are of attending the audition/entrance exam for a choral scholarship in 1949 at the age of 8. I distinctly remember answering the question, ‘give the opposite of the word POOR’ my answer ‘POSH’.

My arrival at the boarding house Sacrista Prebend the following September was truly memorable as being the most awful day of my life up to then. The headmaster Mr. Rushby-Smith seemed to have an aura of immense power and authority from the very beginning. After a struggle holding back the tears saying goodbye to my mother - I was struck by a dreadful feeling of loneliness and homesickness as I seemed to be the only young boy there (I must have been one of the first arrivals) - as I saw a big man with long wavy hair and wearing a sports jacket I said, ’please sir - where do I go now?’ I forget his response but I discovered that he was in fact just one of the house prefects! These awesome beings had a common room above the old garage/stable block - in it they had a billiard table, radio and armchairs! I was to get to know this room very well myself 7 or 8 years later. I also soon discovered that I was the youngest there by at least a year.

At Sacristan, where the headmaster also lived with his family, there were 2 large dormitories (called Player and Moseley) each with about 7 beds either side of a large landing accessed by a very grand staircase (which was not used by the boys). The dorms had polished wooden floors and each had an enormous ornate gothic window -there was no central heating, and in the winter it was not uncommon to find ice forming on the inside. These 2 rooms were to be my bedrooms for the next 3 years.

The daily routine started at 7.15 am when Mr. Rushby rang a large hand bell downstairs and we had to muster on the landing in dressing gowns and slippers for a headcount - woe betide any tardy soul. In the summer if it was good weather we often had to go up the garden and plunge naked into the lily pond! After a free for all washing, dressing and making beds we went downstairs for breakfast at 8am (the hand bell was used for mealtimes as well). Grace was said before and after each meal, and breakfast would consist of cup of tea, cereal or a chunk of lukewarm porridge, bread & margarine and marmalade and, best of all - a cooked dish consisting of a fried sausage or bacon on I/2 slice of fried bread - this would be nicely congealed and if one took off the bacon/sausage and spread marmalade on instead, you could imagine you were eating a jam doughnut. Bare in mind that post war rationing was still in use and boys had to bring their food ration coupons with them each ½ term. All the boarders at this time (of which there were about 40 or 50 out of a total school complement of 183) used to have their meals at Sacrista (apart from the main school dinner). The other boarders had dormitories either on the top floor of the main Georgian school building on Church Street, or at West Lodge almost opposite Sacrista -that was where Mr. Don Fox lived with his family. There were 2 housemasters at this time Mr. (Taffy) Thomas and a somewhat younger Steve Pulford. Mr. Thomas was an ebullient confident man, and Steve’s somewhat gruff exterior made him seem rather daunting to us young ‘minnows’ - but as the years passed it became apparent that underneath there was a heart of gold.

Straight after breakfast about 8.30 we choristers would be escorted in ‘crocodile’ by senior choristers to the song school, which I believe, is now the Trebeck Hall. There we would be coached and rehearsed under the masterful and kindly direction of Dr R J (Bobby) Ashfield - a superb organist, composer and Rector Chori (but strangely he had a terrible singing voice himself). Under him we learnt the art of breath control and phrasing, which together with his emphasis upon clear diction, are attributes which I try to pass on today to the various groups I am involved with. The Minster choir then consisted of 12 choristers and 6 lay-clerks, as well as 7or 8 probationers, and 4 times a year we boys would proceed to Messrs Kirkland & Lane (solicitors) to each be presented with a cheque, £3 for ordinary choristers, £4 10s 0d for medal boys and £6 for tippet boys (those with the red shoulder cope), probationers (probs) of course received nothing until they had progressed to fully qualified chorister. Imagine the feeling at the age of 10, the very first time you were handed a cheque made out in your own name. The choir would be required to sing at evensong 6 days a week, Matins and a later service on Sunday evening - Tuesday being the only day off. After practice we would then join the main school for assembly and then to prayers in the Minster. After school at 3.45 pm- the choristers would again rehearse in the song school prior to evensong at 4.15 pm. The tea bell rang at 5.15 pm, boys would be on a rota to take turns in laying and clearing the long wooden tables which had wooden benches for seating.

Once or twice a year there would be a play being performed in the old Trebeck Hall (adjacent to the back gates of Sacrista where the primary school is now) There would be great hilarity when boys would enter in their costumes for tea - especially if it was for a female role. There would also be times when boys who had been playing in a rugby or cricket match would arrive late, often bearing the scars of a hard fought battle. After tea would come prep time from 6 - 7.15 pm normally supervised by one of the housemasters, then up to the tiny chapel next to the aforementioned senior common room, where there was a very ancient harmonium used to accompany a hymn. (I was later to become quite adept at practicing my jazz technique on this instrument). Then it was suppertime which usually consisting of a mug of hot milk, cocoa or Bovril and a biscuit or perhaps a delicious slice of bread and dripping (with the brown gravy bits).

7.30 was bedtime for the youngsters supervised by a housemaster and lights out at 8 pm. It was often the custom for Mr. Rushby to creep up the stairs to check if there was any misbehaviour (i.e. loud talk or even worse!) to be severely punished by use of the very handy bedroom slipper on the backside (I seemed to get more than my fair share of this for the first few years - I can’t understand why, because I was usually so well-behaved). A common practical joke played in particular on an unwary new boy was the ‘apple pie bed’, this was achieved by taking the bottom end of the top sheet and folding it in half with the bottom end folded over the top of the blanket and tightly tucked in to look absolutely normal. It would be considered extremely funny by everyone else especially if the hapless individual was quite energetic and the sheet perhaps rather well worn, resulting in a sheet with a huge hole and an uncomfortable night for one with the added problem of explaining the matter the next day.

Friday evenings were cub and scout activities and most boarders joined, at least to start with as it was considered a welcome change of routine, however, this was taken quite seriously by most of us and Steve Pulford was in his element as a tower of strength and inspirational leader of we intrepid adventurers, campers, hikers and badge- bagging knot makers. There were occasional lapses in this creative character- building regime however, for instance when Neil Lakin and I managed the use of initiative during a ‘wide game‘ and decided to make a break for freedom by artfully covering our tracks by way of Fiskerton and ending up in the pub at Bleasby. We were fortunately rescued from a terrible fate by some more-mature scouts with bicycles who conveyed us back under escort to the school.

Saturdays were usually considered the best time of the week. In the morning after breakfast there would normally be some form of organised activity such as team sports, but if you were slightly older you could perhaps get permission to form a club such as a debating society, or music appreciation group and convince the relevant authority you needed to hold regular meetings in the Minster café or at Pop Ridgeway’s tea room over the sweet shop, where there might just happen to be one or two girls and perhaps a woodbine or two might be consumed. Meanwhile we younger ones in the early days had to parade before Matron who tried valiantly to remove all evidence of the week’s mealtimes from the front of our blazers with ‘Dabitoff’ and a clothes brush.

During Summer we would often help picking fruit in the garden for Sunday dinner - I think a lot used to find it’s way prematurely to it’s destination well before then. In the Autumn we would also help Mr. Rushby collect apples from the great number of trees in the orchard - these would be sorted and placed on straw lined shelves and used throughout the winter - there were many delicious varieties no longer seen any where.
After lunch, weekly pocket money would be doled out at the handsome rate of 1shilling (5p) which together with your sweet coupons you could immediately invest at Ridgeway’s sweet shop and proceed to consume all your capital within the next 2 hours. We were permitted to go for walks in pairs on weekend afternoons as long as we gave our names and approximate destination. For the choristers this did not give much time before choir practice and evensong, so many a time boys would arrive late and out of breath with knees and shoes covered with mud. We would go on to sing angelically in the Minster with muddy shoes peeping out from under the cassock and leaving a trail of dried mud as further evidence.

Once you reached 4th form status you were allowed to keep a bike and this greatly increased your independence, range and variety of activities Saturday evenings were exciting times for all - there would be opportunities for club activities and games such as table tennis or best of all, for youngsters just a romp in the ‘wilderness’- the big garden at Sacrista - donning bib & brace overalls and gumboots, hordes of young terrors would form groups and attack the shrubs and undergrowth to create dens of varying degrees of complexity and rigidity, rival gangs would then attack or jealously guard their territories. These creatures were generally known as troglodytes. There was a certain John Bannister whose claim to fame was as an expert den builder and whose fearsome reputation, courage and skill both over and underground earned him the nick name of Trog - I often wonder what became of him - perhaps he did well in the construction industry.

Tree climbing was also a favourite pastime and even swinging from branch to branch was quite common place but not officially recognised, not very safe really as I discovered at the age of ten after a fall and breaking my elbow, and creating a pitiful scene by wailing incessantly. The doctor strapped it up and off to Newark hospital the next day for a whole week enjoying the attention of all the lovely nurses. On return to school with my arm in plaster from thumb to shoulder, I was able to use this to good effect on the heads of any smaller fry who might have got in my way. A favourite Saturday night’s activity was a game of ‘murder’ in the school building. Basically one person would be secretly given the role of murderer, and another selected as a detective. Everyone else would then spread out all over the rooms and corridors of the building. At some point all the lights would be turned off and there would be total blackout- you could see absolutely nothing and had to move by groping your way along walls etc. The murderer would then select his victim and proceed to ‘kill’ his victim by making appropriate contact - the victim would then be told to count to 10 before letting out a ghastly scream at which point the lights would come on and everyone had to stay exactly where they were whilst the detective did his investigation and collected witnesses etc, Everyone would then proceed to the main hall where the detective would make his arrest and the court would then proceed to try the accused. Great fun!!

Sundays were generally more subdued, all dutifully changed into our Sunday best, the choristers would be kept pretty busy and generally out of mischief mostly. The rest of the boarders had to attend at least one service and this was generally Matins with Methodists were permitted to attend the chapel, which was conveniently situated just outside the side gate to Sacrista. After lunch Mr. Rushby would read out the dreaded points tally for the previous week. This was a system where Housemasters and prefects could deduct a number of points for a misdemeanour and enter this in a report book and Mr. Rushby would allocate appropriate punishment accordingly. A total of 6 points lost in a week automatically entitled you to receive at least‘ 3 of the best’ in the HM's study at school next morning. I only quite recently discovered that you could actually receive plus points for certain acts of good behaviour - but as I don’t think I ever got any, it wasn’t a big issue for me.

In winter when there was enough snow we would be allowed out to sledge on Lowes Wong, (still just a field then) The Rope Walk or on Burgage Green - impossible nowadays - but there was no real danger from traffic in those days. Occasionally the whole boarding house complement would be allowed to trek off to the Ideal Cinema to see an approved film - and we didn’t mind what it was because there was no TV then and it was great escapism. Minor health ailments were generally dealt with either by Mr. Rushby or the matron, and would consist of nose drops for a cold, medicine for a cough, dressings for cuts and scratches, splinter extraction with a needle .etc - major things obviously were referred to the GP.

A unique aspect of being a Minster chorister was that you had to ‘stayover’ after the rest of the school had broken up for half term, and at Easter and Christmas. These were great times and we didn’t really feel homesick because we had so much relative freedom as long as we were present for the various choir practices and services. On Easter Sunday Mr. Rushby would present us each with a hand painted hard-boiled egg with an impression of our face (they were very good) as he was an accomplished artist. Christmas was the best though with a party at the Provost’s Residence, and on Christmas eve we would go out carol singing with Mr. Rushby and carrying oil lamps on the ends of poles - visiting houses and establishments all over town and usually ending up at Dudley Doy’s house for some of Mrs. Doy’s scrumptious hot mince pies.

From 1954 Hill House was acquired and became the new main boarding house with 2 housemasters Steve Pulford and Adrian Officer plus a matron. West Lodge and the school building were no longer required and Sacrista became the choristers’ boarding house, with three 5th form boarders selected as prefects. Inevitably discipline became slightly more relaxed. About this time, boarding school fetes started to happen and I distinctly remember a young lad named Bernard Jewry forming a small band in which he played a ukulele - he was quite good I was told - perhaps he went on to pursue a career in the pop industry - who knows? - anyway there’s not much of a future there.

In my 5th form year I was privileged to be selected as one of the three prefects at Sacrista, along with Tommy Taylor and Stan Rule - this proved to be the happiest time for me at Southwell. Our housemaster was Chris Harris who I believe had just joined the school at that time. He was so relaxed and informal and had a way with pupils that just did away with the need for imposition of authority- as long as he was left in peace to read the Manchester Guardian from cover to cover.

This was the time when dancing classes were being allowed in the school hall on Saturday evenings - the tutors were mostly 6th form pupils plus Tommy Taylor, who I could never figure out how he came by all this knowledge, living in the sort of enclosed environment we had endured. Any way - what a turn up - we could now officially not only meet with - but dance with GIRLS. We would trip the light fantastic in quicksteps, tangos, waltzes and foxtrots (I never could master those) and even a bit of jive - mostly to the sound of Victor Sylvester, Sid Phillips, Dave King, Fats Domino and the like - all on 78 rpm discs! Ah! Those idyllic moments - imagining you were Fred Astaire one moment and next the shy young lothario taking his girl home via Shady Lane.

Being a prefect at Sacrista then was a position of trust and responsibility, a status we occasionally took advantage of. We once decided to try making our own wine - so we acquire all the ingredients (raisins, sugar and yeast) mix them all up in water and dispense in bottles and leave to ferment, place said bottles in a safe place where no one will find them (under the altar in the tiny chapel next door) not much going on there nowadays - just occasional jam sessions on the harmonium - keep an eye on them and after a while place corks in bottles and leave to settle before straining. After a certain length of time - a series of small explosions was heard and a considerable volume of liquid appeared over the floor of the chapel and common room getting dangerously close to the stairs and the outside which would inevitably lead to some very difficult implausible explaining. Fortunately we were able to mop up and destroy the evidence before discovery. Another time we felt like having a Saturday out in the big city of Nottingham - so with the test match on at Trent Bridge we asked Chris Harris if he could hold the fort to enable the three of us to go to the match. We had a great day out at a cinema and stopped by the occasional pub (Stan was a strict Methodist and only had lemonade) then bought the latest evening paper to check on the match write up and score in case we were challenged, and then returned via rail (steam of course) and ‘Paddy push&pull’ to the Station in Southwell.

There was of course the unforgettable and incomparable Ernie Pallister who nurtured his tiny brood of fledglings in Form 1 (later the Junior Dept) with the help of his ‘flannel hammer’ and a fatherly demeanour that equipped us all so well for the cut and thrust of secondary education. The annual Christmas tea party with his family at Landseer Road was so endearing to us young boarders cut off from their own families at that time of year.

This just about wraps up my disparate ramblings and remembrances of a bygone era - as Steve Pulford put it, ‘savour those moments now because they will never pass this way again‘ and a comment passed at Steve‘s memorial gathering, ‘weren‘t we lucky to have been at Southwell Minster (Grammar) School at that time and to have been able to receive a first class education in life from such a small and highly dedicated group of ‘professionals.’

Colin E Baker (1949-57)

You can hear more from Colin by following ‘A Choristers 50’s Musical Hero’s’