Wartime Grammar School

I well remember it was one day during the Easter holiday, 1940, the year of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. I was nine years old, and not a little apprehensive. I stood at my father’s side while he rang, by appointment, the bell of the front door of the Southwell Grammar School. I was aware that this was to be a significant event in my young life. In fact, it was to be one of the most important events of my whole life. It was hoped that I should be taken on here as a pupil.

For nearly five years I had walked a mile each day across the fields from our farm on Edingley Moor to the little Church of England primary school in Kirklington. While I have happy memories of the daily walk, the games in the playground, and of my little friends in the infants’ room, I cannot recall that I ever learned very much there beyond the “times-tables” and a variety of hymns. Thanks to my mother and my aunts I could already read and write pretty well before I started school, and may have been left somewhat to my own devices while Miss Nickerson, the infant teacher, concentrated on those less fortunate. That thin, bespectacled spinster lady, so patient and kindly, was as near to being a saint as anyone I could imagine. Years later I found that she had, in the 1930s, cycled daily to this job from Newark for about thirty-five shillings a week, poor soul. Through the partition between us and the room where the big boys and girls were, we could hear the strident voice of the Headmistress, the stocky and muscular Miss Smith. All too often we heard the crack of the cane, and the cries of the afflicted. At the age of ten, I would be promoted to this hell-hole. I was sore afraid.

Looking back, I believe Miss Smith was probably a very good teacher, using corporal punishment only when it was called for. It was normal practise in those days. However I had begged my parents to move me to some other school before I was murdered. I had in mind the primary schools at Edingley or Farnsfield, both quite close. Instead, my father’s friend Bob Pratt, who lived at Rampton Prebend next door to the Grammar School Headmaster’s house in Southwell, had strongly advised that we should apply there. A very bad bout of measles three years previously had left me with a paralysing stammer and other miserable afflictions, and as my parents thought it unlikely that I should ever be robust enough for farming, an education to fit me for some other career seemed indicated. So here I was, to be looked at and assessed.

The door was opened by an elderly, bespectacled, lantern-jawed figure in a baggy pepper and salt tweed suit. We were ushered in, and led to the Head’s study, for this was none other than the Head himself, Reginald Matthews MA. My first impression, that he looked as fierce as Miss Smith, was lessened by his friendly remarks, and by the way that the eyes behind the glasses were twinkling with amusement. A lot later I realised that this was doubtless because my mother, for some reason of her own, had kitted me out in, of all inappropriate things, jodhpurs. Mr Matthews pulled my leg over this for the next five years. “Watts” he would say slyly, “surely you can answer this question, - you’re a bit of a gent!” I never minded this mild sarcasm, for over that period I developed the same respect and affection for “Codge” (as he was nick-named) as I had had for Miss Nickerson. On this occasion he merely asked me a few questions which I cannot now remember, then told my father that I could start in the second form, - which then was the lowest form, - after the Easter holidays. Subsequently a visit to Dowse’s outfitting department fitted me out with more appropriate school clothes, with the Mitre blazon. On the first day of the new term I took my place in the sunny ground-floor classroom overlooking the Cathedral grounds, where on summer days we could watch the burly sexton, Mr Paling, chugging up and down with his ancient motor-mower. Three other new boys started with me on that day, Dawes, Bevell, and Cooper. We had our new schoolbags, gas-masks, and identity cards. I could hardly believe it. I was a grammar-bug! I had to get used to being a member of a semi-monastic institution. It was to be five years before I spoke to a girl again, barring the occasional cousin.

The Minster Grammar school is an ancient foundation, one of the four or five known to be the oldest in England. Its written records go back to 1313, but as a song school it is probably as old as the Minster itself. For some hundreds of years it coached those aspiring to go to Oxford or Cambridge, usually with a view to ordination, in Latin and probably Greek grammar. There were changes in location in the town, and many greater or lesser vicissitudes, which the school survived. Its history deserves a chapter of its own. By 1946 there were already plans for a new and more commodious building, which was opened some years later. At the time of writing there are plans for further re-structuring, for the school now occupies, inconveniently, two widely separated sites. The building that I was to be taught in must have been in use for about a hundred years.

Compared with the tiny Kirklington School the building was huge, and it took some time for me to find my way around it. Probably Georgian, it was in red brick, though most of it built on a stone plinth that had once carried the former timber-framed dwelling that had been the home of the old Chantry Priests. It appeared to be in three main blocks, between Church Street and the Minster precinct. The one on the churchyard side had three stories, with cellars beneath which were our air-raid shelter if need be. This large block held the Head’s study, library, dining room, one classroom, and the kitchens on the ground floor. On the first floor were two more classrooms, the staff room and a study for Mr Doy the deputy head, and at least one dormitory for the boarders. The top floor had two more dormitory rooms and bedrooms for whichever house masters were in residence, also I think bathrooms. The only room I ever had to visit on this floor was the book-room, high up at the far corner of the building. Here were kept the text-books for various forms, most of them pretty elderly and well-used. It had, however, a feature which fascinated me, - a primitive fire-escape. It consisted of a long strap (it must have been nearly thirty feet to the churchyard outside) coiled on what was presumably a spring-loaded barrel. A card posted up alongside gave instructions for its use. You had to put your arms through loops at the free end of the strap, open the window, and simply jump out. In large letters the placard insisted: “DO NOT HESITATE, IT IS PERFECTLY SAFE”. But I never heard that anybody ever risked it.

The adjacent block on the street side, beneath which was a boiler room to which we never penetrated, contained the high-ceilinged Hall, complete with small stage, with a large classroom above it which at that time accommodated the third form. It had previously been the science lab, but a brand new laboratory, built in the yard, was opened at the same time that I started at the school. Next to the Hall on Church Street, beyond the little entry which led to the front door, was a more recent brick building of two stories, with two classrooms above, and the woodwork shop below. Out in the yard, as well as the new lab, were a narrow building which combined changing room, washroom, and toilets, and an open-fronted bicycle shed. There was also a flagpole, seldom used. I must say that there was a pleasant sort of old-world elegance about the school, plain as it was. The rooms were well-proportioned, and each had a nice fireplace, though there was now a central heating system with large-bore cast-iron pipes and radiators. The sash windows mostly had folding shutters on the inside, and door-knobs and finger-plates were of shiny brass. Until a year or two before, the Headmaster and his family had lived in the building on the churchyard side, but they now occupied Sacrista Prebend on Westgate, with some of the younger boarders. This attractive old house had been a gift to the school, I believe from the Player family, for that purpose. In the school yard, semi-circular steps led to the main school door, and broad cement steps led to the landing. Here could be found the notice board, and a working barograph instrument under a glass case. A passage led off to two classrooms in the newer block, while another took you over the end of the Hall to a further set of cement steps to the third form room. On this topmost landing was also a narrow room, formerly the chemistry store room, which was used as a sort of museum, with various interesting items laid out on shelves. I remember a vicious-looking locust insect, and a jar labelled “Copra”. I don’t know how old this stuff was, but it still tasted all right. In addition, there was a small room overlooking the front door, which eventually served as the Head Boy’s bedroom and study, the sixth form tutorial room, and the prefects’ conference room, all at the same time. There were at least four other sets of minor stairs, and with floors at different levels, and all sorts of corridors and passages, it seemed to me to be a veritable labyrinth, most of which I was not to explore until quite recently. Mr Wahlers, the diocesan architect, kindly took Malcolm Johnson and myself all round the building to see the modern internal reconstruction into offices. I think we felt saddened.

What had been the woodwork shop is now the HSBC Bank. The new laboratory, in which I spent most of my time for two years in the sixth form, is a cafeteria. As for the changing room block, it has been completely demolished (which perhaps was no great loss) and replaced by the Minster’s smart new gift shop. The old Hall is now an exhibition room. I forgot to mention the gym, which was some distance up town, somewhere behind Mosedale’s bakery, and was reached from Queen Street via various alleys. It was quite well-appointed inside, but the roof of the lean-to changing room was not waterproof, making it damp and mouldy. This was knocked down years ago to make room for a car-park behind a new Co-Op store. Currently both store and car-park have been bulldozed clear for some further municipal scheme. I ought also to mention the Song School, which lay across the churchyard and was chiefly the concern of the choristers, though while in the second and third form we lay brethren used to attend occasionally for singing classes. As for the sports ground, that was at Brackenhurst, half an hour’s march away. Known as Top Ground, it was an excellent playing field, and very old established, the young Lord Byron is said to have played cricket there. Finally, there was, and still is, the Norman Minster itself, dominating the school and the elegant prebend houses. Here the choristers performed, and built up a fine reputation for church music. For several years the whole school filed across to the Minster each morning for a brief service, -first in the nave, but later in the choir, which was big enough to hold all of us. Alongside the Minster, and probably part of the original palace built for the Archbishops of York, - the rest of which is now in ruins, - is the Great Hall, a large medieval upper room lit by stained glass windows and embellished by portraits of long-gone ecclesiastical dignitaries. It was here, towards the end of my time as a pupil, that the speech day ceremonies were held, that had formerly taken place in the school’s own rather plain Hall.

It took me less time to get to know the staff, for there were so few of them. Codge, for so I shall call him for old times’ sake, should, I believe, have retired at the outbreak of war, but due to the inevitable difficulties caused by conscription he stayed in harness until it was over. He was obliged to take more classes than a headmaster would normally expect to do, and in the lower forms he taught English, Latin, history and art. In fact he was a talented water-colourist. He could be strict if the occasion demanded it, but in class he was invariably a genial and interesting lecturer. I can still visualise him coming into a Latin class with the greeting “Salvete, pueri!” and our response, “Et salve, magister!” At dinner time, he carved the joint, if there was one, for the seventy or so boys who dined in school, and was an expert at this craft, for it always worked out exactly. For a few years I had the good fortune, with one or two other boys, to dine at his table and enjoy the benefit of his conversation. Mrs Matthews was brisk but kindly, and acted as matron to the boarders as well as being in charge of the catering. There was also a Miss Hazel, a quiet young lady whom I understood to be engaged to the Matthews’ son Robert, who was in the Air force. Robert, whom I never knew, was a fighter pilot based in Malta during the desperate defence of that island, and was shot down, his spitfire crashing, it is said, in Valetta harbour Despite his age, Codge took part, clad in yellowing whites, in the annual cricket match between the Staff and the School. The whole school went up to Top Ground to watch these matches; it always seemed to be sunny and hot, and I remember we dug for pig-nuts with our pocket-knives in the long grass of the outfield, keeping an eye open for any ball that might be slogged in our direction.

The deputy headmaster, Dudley Howard Doy, was a Norfolk man who taught mathematics throughout the school, - except the second form. A noted rugby player in his youth, it was he I think that introduced the game to the school years before. He had been a flying instructor in the RFC in the first war, and had been badly injured in a flying accident caused by the jamming of the control wires by the falling of an insecure counterweight while flying solo. He was a very well-known figure in Southwell, and enormously respected. In class, he had a thundering address and a dominating presence. No-one ever misbehaved in his lessons, or missed doing one of his preps (homework). I am ashamed to say that I was in awe, not to say terrified, of him from the very outset of my school career, which may go some way to explain my poor showing in maths. I believe he was a kindly man, who liked boys, and that it was never his intention to intimidate anyone. Sadly, he died too early to enjoy a well-earned retirement. I attended his funeral, and it happened to be the last time I ever saw Codge.

When I started I can remember only three other full-time staff, though there must have been a science teacher who was not concerned with the second form. This may have been Mr Rose, or a Mr Eccles, both of whom I heard of but was never taught by. I know that Mr Eccles went into the Air Force and was killed, for I remember Codge making this announcement. The ones I do remember were John Ball, affectionately nicknamed “Pill”, another rugby player, who taught English language and literature, and history; Gilbert “Georg.” Thomas, whose mother tongue was Welsh, and who taught geography; and Alan Yates, who taught French and could have taught other languages besides. Alan married Betty, the sister of a distinguished old boy and war hero Michael Suckling, the Coastal Reconnaissance pilot who located the doomed German battleship Bismarck, but later was killed in action. This happy couple still live in Southwell, Alan is ninety, but has changed so little it is difficult to believe it. There must be something in the nature of an elixir in the local air, for at ninety Charles Doughty (see below) was still putting in a pretty full day’s work at his joiner’s bench.

Until, I think about 1945, we had to attend school on Saturday mornings. This seemed an imposition at first, but in the second form, where having started at Easter I was confined for a year and a term, the last period on Saturday morning was looked forward to with eager pleasure. This was when one of the masters, first Codge and later the new master Mr Stocks, read us a story. Codge began with “The Wind in the Willows”, and he had the gift of suiting his voice to the characters of the self-effacing Mole, the bold and confident Water Rat, and the dim-witted toff, Toad. Mr Stocks, that stern, serious, and darkly handsome gentleman, chose “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped”, - and was an equally good reader.

Once in the third form, or rather 3b for the form had been split up to cater for those who like me were a bit slow on maths, there was a further treat on Saturday mornings. We, and after morning break the fourth form, had a double period of woodwork with Charles Doughty, a professional joiner from Oxton, and an old Southwellian himself. I loved the woodwork shop for I felt at home there, among the tidy benches, the wall-racks of shining tools, and the wet grindstone on which we learned how to sharpen a plane blade or chisel, to be honed off on an oilstone to produce a razor-edge. Charles would thunder “Keep both hands behind the cutting edge!” and I remember his words now whenever I am sharpening or using a tool. Some of my relations had been joiners and wheelwrights whom I had watched at work, so for once I was on familiar ground. Starting with simple joints and techniques, we were allowed to choose our own projects, and many a good sledge or book-case was produced in this department.

Besides the teaching staff there were the more domestic workers, the chief of whom was certainly the plain-spoken, elderly, Mrs Slack, the cook. Though most of the town boys went home for dinner, and some of those who travelled brought packed lunches, I and about thirty of the other day-boys, and of course all the boarders, had school dinners. Considering it was war-time, and many things were rationed or in short supply, “Ma” Slack never failed to produce hot and quite ample nutritious two-course meals. Our only beverage was water, but of that we were not stinted. Ma had an assistant, a rather aloof young woman whose name we never learned and who was never known to speak, but who evidently gave satisfaction for she was still there when I left. Ma’s husband, Mr Slack, was the caretaker and boiler-man. He was never known to engage in conversation. Sadly he died after I had been there about three years, but very shortly after Mrs Slack married again to another elderly gentleman Mr Umber, who became caretaker in his turn.
Tom Umber was a little more communicative, but a shade less efficient than his predecessor. Captain Francis, the organist and rector chori at the Minster, was chiefly the concern of the choristers, of whom there were I think sixteen at any one time, besides the half-dozen adult singers, or lay clerks, from the town. After the third form, we non-choristers had nothing further to do with this rather peppery but enthusiastic individual.

Apart from the staff, full- or part-time, there were other more or less familiar figures, of whom the most visible were the Minster clergy and other officers. The first bishop that I remember, - and I’ve seen half a dozen come and go, - was Henry Mosley. In fact he was the only one of the lot that actually looked like a bishop, for except when robed up in mitred glory he was never seen without Episcopal mufti, that is to say, gaiters, apron, and a broad-brimmed shovel hat. Always cheerful, if he met you on the street in school uniform he would stop you to ask your name, and how you were getting on at school. If satisfied with the answers, he would as like as not tip you sixpence, with a blessing. Sixpence, which would keep you in Mosedale’s buns for a week, was a blessing in itself. His successor, Dr Russel Barry, was a profound academic and thinker, the first thoroughly intellectual person that most of us had ever met. Though more remote than Henry, he took a benevolent interest in the grammar school. We tended to see more of the provost (nowadays called the dean) who at first was Mr Conybeare, a very nice man, whose successor, the very reverend Mr Heywood, became a familiar figure, enthusiastic but a shade controversial. Besides these notables there was a Vicar Choral, Mr Howells, and a curate, Donald Mann, both of whom I later got to know well through their youth work. Another memorable clergyman was Eric Wheeler, a time-served wheelwright before he took to the Cloth, who kept a horse, stabled for a while at our farm, and rode to hounds when he had the chance. He was a friend of Codge’s daughter Ruth, who also rode. He left to become an Air Force chaplain, occasionally, and unofficially, flying out with bomber crews on operations. After the war his cure was the parish of Steeple Bumpstead. Finally there were the Governors, most of whom only put in an appearance on speech days. Some were Minster clergy, while others were town worthies. I can remember Mr Kirkby, the grocer and provender merchant, and Miss Becher, a member of a once very notable local family of ecclesiastics. I think one of the Caldwell brothers, who owned the Greet Lily flour mill, and Sir Bill Starkey, may also have been governors. On one occasion Admiral Sherbrooke VC, from Oxton, showed up at speech day, but I don’t know if he was a governor. A hero of the convoys to Russia, he wore an eye-patch over one eye, was shown over the school, and made a speech.

After the summer holiday of 1940 we returned to school to find that of the original staff only Codge, Mr Doy, and Mr Doughty were left. Mr Ball, Mr Yates, and Mr Thomas were all in the forces. To replace them came the temporary teachers, some of whom were replaced themselves during the next five years. There was Mr Stocks, teaching French and Latin, whom I have already mentioned. Equally memorable was H.C.A.Thomas, - no relation to the missing Gilbert of that ilk, - who though essentially a mathematician taught science most efficiently from the third form upwards. Clever with his hands, he personally constructed much useful laboratory equipment, including a highly sensitive mirror galvanometer, and was popular for making and demonstrating gunpowder. He was, I believe, the founder of the Common Wealth Party, which put up a candidate in the first election after the war but was not successful. There was Mr Clelland, a Scotsman, who taught English and geography, and who being a bachelor resided at the school. His speciality was the midland valley of Scotland. Soon after this there arrived Mrs Holland, our first lady teacher, who took over the English, and I think History. By the time I was in the fourth form, another lady had been engaged part-time to teach art. This was the attractive Miss Theda Jones, always very stylishly and fashionably turned out considering the war-time clothing shortages (it was the period when dirndl skirts were considered “arty”) and who was a great authority on medieval architecture. With her we went sketching all over the Minster, and learned a great deal. Mrs Holland, whom we were all rather fond of, left and was replaced by John Howard Ogdon, the father of the famous but tragic concert pianist of the same name. We knew him as “Sinjun”, as he several times reminded us how to pronounce the name “St John”, quite forgetting that he had done so already. Clearly living on his nerves, he was a chain-smoker, nicotine-stained to the wrist, and of rather uncertain temper at times, but a good teacher and exceptionally well-informed. While some members of this emergency team certainly had their peculiarities and personal problems, much credit is due to them for keeping the school going during the war, so that our education I believe suffered not at all.

We were very conscious of the war all the time. There was the rationing of food, clothing, furniture and petrol, in fact all purely private cars were laid up for the duration. As we outgrew our original uniforms we were allowed to dress as best we could as long as we were presentable. The long, combed-back hairstyle adopted by our idols, the fighter pilots, became fashionable. There were very strict blackout regulations, which led to our first fatality in 1941, though this was not at school. My father’s employee, Jack Brothwell, a reliable farm worker who lived-in, after a period as an enthusiastic Home Guard, joined the forces and became a tank driver in the Eighth Army. His replacement, Sam, who lived at some distance and was allowed petrol to get to work, died one night when the dimmed headlight of his motorcycle failed to pick up the straying cart-horse into which he crashed. Our tank-driver himself was hospitalised for most of the rest of his life by head injuries sustained when his tank was blown up in Italy. Nearer home, one night in August 1940, our own farm was straddled by nearly 200 incendiary bombs, none of which hit the house, though some fell and burned out within a few yards of it. I was put under the stairs with an old gentleman who lived with us while my parents and Jack went outdoors to check for damage and to try to put out the fires. In fact you couldn’t, water or shovelfuls of soil had no effect on the thermite alloy. Miraculously damage only amounted to a few yards of burned hedgerow and a few stooks of wheat. By this time lights were coming on up in the village, and either the same raider or another came back and dropped eight fairly small high explosive bombs among the houses. None of these did any harm either, to speak of. We were afraid that such attacks might become regular, but they were not repeated in Edingley, and their purpose was obscure. Some said the target was the new Eakring oil wells, others proposed the railway at Rolleston Junction. We shall never know. My new baby brother was born a month later, distinctly hyperactive, which my mother ascribed to the massive dose of adrenalin she must have sustained at the time of the raid.

Also in 1940 a Miles Magister trainer plane made a crash-landing in one of our fields, and a platoon of the Welsh Guards was billeted on us for a week to guard it from souvenir hunters. The pilot had not been hurt. Later in the war, squadrons of bombers from the many airfields to the north of us were to be seen nightly, heading for their targets in Europe. Late one summer evening (there was an extra hour of British Summer Time during the war) my father and I saw a returning Halifax, straggling behind the others that had already passed over, burst into flames, break up in the air, and crash a few fields away. This spot is now marked with a memorial. Cycling to school one morning along Kirklington Road, near where a searchlight unit was established, I came across the smouldering remains of a bomber strewn from one end to the other of one of Starkey’s fields. It was said that in attempting an emergency landing it had hit the high tension electricity cables along the top of the Norwood ridge. The crew were Polish, none survived, and there is no memorial. Above us daily were seen the aerobatic Tiger Moths from the Fleet Air Arm School at Syerston. Here, after the war, our classmate Mick Hayes qualified as a pilot. After surviving the Korean conflict, he needlessly perished in a futile peace-time operation near Malta. Another event in 1940 was that a surveyor, a Mr Greville, was billeted on us for a month while he and his chain-man surveyed the whole of Edingley Moor, including our farm, very minutely indeed. He professed not to know the reason for this. Some supposed another airfield, others a shell-filling factory. In the end nothing ever came of it, perhaps because of the unusually high water-table on the Moor. Altogether, it was a period which gave everyone, even schoolchildren, plenty to think about and plenty to do. My own contribution, outside school hours, was helping on the farm in such ways as I could, (I could milk a cow at ten, and at twelve even plough if some-one would crank-up the tractor for me), eventually taking over the farm’s garden and “digging for victory”, i.e. growing stuff to supplement the rations.

While on the subject of vegetables, I recall that in the Autumn during the war our school was called on to provide gangs for potato picking, all in aid of the War Effort, a theme that was pressed upon the nation continuously. Nothing was wasted, scrap metal was hunted down, and the most elegant houses lost their front railings to be turned into armaments. We saved paper, for Codge insisted that any scrap of waste paper with nothing on one side would suffice to write test answers on. Displaying an old envelope, he would explain that even this would provide wads for two cartridges. Old clothes, and sacking, became marketable commodities. My mother, who could knit a pair of khaki gloves in an evening, found time to belong to a group that produced comforts for the troops. Everybody seemed to be doing something for the war effort.

I must mention the evacuees. At home we had two mothers, with about five children, from Sheffield billeted on us. The children might have settled, and got over their incontinence, but the mothers were horrified at the countryside. The farm is a bit remote, with not another house in sight. At that time our only modern convenience was the telephone. We had no electricity till 1955, no gas, no mains sewerage, and until 1951 all our water was pumped up from wells. Most outlying farms were about the same then. The mothers stuck it in total silence for two days, then fled back with their broods to Sheffield, which was subsequently very heavily bombed. Only one evacuee in Edingley, Alan Hammond, stayed for the duration and came to the Grammar School. One day we arrived at school to find the yard filled with a large contingent of green-blazered boys, members of the evacuated Worthing High School. I think they stayed for a term or two, but they remained quite distinct from our lot. I don’t know where they slept or fed, but they had their own lessons in the Hall, the library, or in any other apartment that might be available. When they did depart, easing the congestion, one of their number, John Clarke, stayed behind and joined us, eventually marrying the sister, Enid, of Peter Pritchard, one of my other classmates. So the war did a bit of good to somebody.

In 1945 the war at last came to an end, though rationing and austerity did not. I was moved up into the upper fifth, Mr Doy’s form, in which we were eventually to sit for the Oxford School Certificate. As a matter of fact Mr Doy did not particularly want me, for though after an undistinguished start, and spending two years in the fourth form, I had pulled my socks up considerably in the lower fifth (or the “Remove”), and been in the top three in every subject except maths, - in which as usual I was bottom of the class. The school, and especially Mr Doy, were proud of their record of never having had a failure in maths in the school certificate. If you were thought likely to fail in maths, you didn’t take the exam at all, at least, not at Southwell. When term started I found I was posted to remain in the lower fifth, and consequently might as well just leave. My parents appealed against what seemed to them unjust, to the new headmaster, Basil Rushby Smith. Poor chap, it was his first day, and he clearly felt morally obliged to overrule a decision of Mr Doy. In fact, they were old friends, for Mr Rushby Smith had previously worked at the school as a junior master. Well, he did overrule it, for which I owe him thanks. I suspect it was partly to establish who was Head.. Codge might not have done, for it was recognised that he tended to defer to his Deputy Head. In the event, Mr Doy did his best with me and I did pass in maths, with distinctions and credits in everything else (we took seven subjects) and achieved matriculation grade. I then took French and science for two years in the sixth form. Suddenly it began to seem like a different school.

As Head, Mr Rushby Smith was a strong character. While he may not have engendered the same warm affection as Codge had done, he firmly reshaped and modernised the school. I should mention that Codge and Mrs Matthews retired to Chelsea, where he enjoyed a long retirement during which he was sadly widowed. He was always delighted to see old pupils. I guess both Codge and Mr Doy were fundamentally Victorians. For example, Codge once had the idea, a very good one, of starting a school parliament as an introduction to the democratic process. He was Speaker, and two members were elected from each form. The first session was held. Next day, enquiring how the parliament had gone, I was told that it was dissolved. It seems that “Pep” Philips, on behalf of the fourth form, had asked if sex instruction could be included in the curriculum. This brought the whole thing to a halt for good. Mr Rushby Smith did introduce the subject, in fact he taught it himself. On another occasion, Mr Doy spent twenty minutes giving the most fearful dressing-down, in public, to a lad who had been seen with a girl while wearing his ATC uniform. He then stormed out of the classroom, abandoning the lesson, quite evidently overcome with genuine disgust. Mr Rushby Smith encouraged the senior boys, including the boarders, to attend the very proper and well-run Youth Discussion Group, a mixed club, held at Burgage House every Friday night. Eventually I overcame my shyness and joined this group myself, finding it a formative and indeed civilising experience. I suppose we all had our little “crushes” from time to time, but how dull life would be without them. We all ended up as nice, well-balanced people, didn’t we?

By the end of 1945 our temporary wartime teachers had gone, and we welcomed back Mr Ball, Mr Yates, and “Georg” Thomas. There was a new science master, Frank Jefferson Winn, an ex-officer from Durham, with whom I was to spend most of my time while in the sixth form. Mr Pulford, a great sportsman, who had been one of the senior boys when I had started in 1940, came back to teach physics and applied maths, remaining at the school for the rest of his working life and eventually becoming deputy headmaster. Now retired, he is still a familiar figure in Southwell. During my year in the upper fifth our English teacher was Miss Eva Gibson, an elderly but animated lady with a deep tan, who had been an Anglican nun and a missionary. She was also a good artist. Though rather jolly, she was another Victorian, at least she was sensitive to the proprieties. Our school certificate English Literature texts were Keats and Shelley, “A Tale of Two Cities”, and “Macbeth”, - most of which I believe I can still quote at length. However, our old and well-used play-books were withdrawn, and replaced with a new bowdlerised version with various improvements. For example, the line “Nature, like a rebel’s whore, twice damned…” was replaced by “Nature, like a rebel’s wench,…” which was a bit pointless; we all knew perfectly well what a wench was. There was one other addition to the staff, an administrative one, in the shape of a school secretary. This was Miss Jackson, a pleasant, studious-looking young lady, who may have been a little overawed by the overwhelmingly masculine environment. She was, as I recall, never known to speak.

Incidentally, I remember that she was provided with a typewriter, though I don’t know that Codge, who must have had to do his own paperwork, ever had one. Till then the only conveniences that the school possessed seemed to be the phone and an old Gestetner duplicator on which blurred and inky exam papers were laboriously reproduced by hand cranking. I suppose that as in farming the burden of official bureaucracy and form-filling was being stepped up. Compare this equipment with the computers, copiers, scanners, audio-visual aids, and electronic calculators, not to mention the television and Internet facilities, that are available nowadays in the smallest village primary school. We can hardly imagine life without them. During the war there was no televisions, and only two wireless channels, - though at least they were good, for there was no Pop music. Once or twice, on our old accumulator-powered set, I tuned by accident into Hamburg, - or wherever it was, - to hear the drawling, lying tones of “Lord Haw-Haw”, otherwise William Joyce, the traitor, formerly one of Oswald Mosley’s blackshirt street fighters. We are not, I think, a particularly bloodthirsty nation, but I doubt if a tear was shed in England when that bastard was strung up.

There were more innovations. One was the setting up of a first form, the precursor of what later was to be the Junior Department. Now a prefect, some of my time was spent in acting as a sort of nursemaid to these diminutive infants, some of whom have since done very well. Another bright idea was the institution of the “Company of Service”, an idea which I believe was borrowed from some public school or other. It had a solemn send-off with a dedication service and a pep-up sermon. The first couple of dozen members were chosen by the Head from such as were of good repute, - including me, of course. Membership carried certain privileges, only one of which I can remember, which was that you were totally immune from punishment. This was rather negated by the fact that if you misbehaved again you were kicked out of the Company. I am not sure that it ever did much good, though I may be mistaken. At least I was never kicked out. About this time I was elevated to Milk Prefect, at the risk of my becoming drunk with power. I oversaw the distribution and return of the one-third pint bottles that were later discontinued by Mrs Thatcher. It was before homogenisation, and there was real, delicious cream in them. There were always half a dozen spares, which were consumed by myself and one Key, a tiny first-former with an infinite capacity, who needed building up. The wartime ethos of wasting nowt had taken firm hold on our consciences.

A new subject was introduced in the sixth form, Current Affairs, conducted by the Head. It was at these periods that he initiated us into the mysteries of procreation, not all of which came altogether as a surprise to some. (Frank Winn made a point of explaining it again, more scientifically, to us biologists). He invited speakers, such as the Bishop, and we ourselves were encouraged to make presentations. The one I best remember, by the late Eric Bust, was on the work of the undertaker. In addition, we were taken on excursions. We visited Messrs Boot’s factory, Player’s, Metal Box, and went down Cinder Hill coal mine. That was really getting down to basics. On one memorable occasion we had a day at Nottingham Assizes, our eyes standing out like chapel hat-pegs at some of the evidence. At Stratford, we saw the young ingénue Claire Bloom play Ophelia. On a lighter note, Mr Yates re-started the foreign trips at Easter, beginning with a week at Brussels in 1946, - no evidence of any rationing at all there! – and Jersey in 1947. These journeys were undertaken on British Railway steamers, the Channel was extremely rough on both occasions, and sea-sickness was almost universal. When we called at Guernsey, which I was unaware of, I was actually pronounced dead by some of our party, to Mr Yates’s dismay. Obviously, I got over it.

One time-honoured custom was revoked. Since time immemorial, at morning break, virtually the whole school used to charge up town to purchase a penny bun, scone, or muffin from Mosedale’s bakery. These were hot from the oven, and before sweet rationing you could get a penny bar of chocolate at “Boss” Summers’ which you could stick inside, where it would melt into a delectable goo. But cars were coming back on to the roads, and too many pedestrians going about their lawful occasions were being seriously inconvenienced. It was therefore ordained that one honest, elected bun monitor from each class should henceforth should go and collect the goods for such of his ravening mates as had trusted him with their bun-money.

Other regular customs were fortunately retained. Amateur dramatics had prospered under Codge, who was himself a keen performer. I had admired him in “School for Scandal”, “The Rivals”, and other Restoration dramas. “The Importance of Being Ernest” had been a particular success. Under Mr Rushby Smith, who usually directed, we became more modern, and went in for Bernard Shaw. You would not think it possible to enact “The Devil’s Disciple”, much less “Androcles and the Lion”, requiring a gladiatorial arena, on a stage about sixteen feet by ten, - but we did it. And after years of being debarred from acting because of my stammer, I made my debut, and in a title role, too. I was the lion. Charlie Johnson, then the head boy, was Androcles, and together I think I may say we brought the House down, with clever little bits of feline business! Yes, my dears, I am an old thespian, and have trod the boards! Of course, being a boys’ school, we had to stretch a point to convert some of our number into females for the purposes of the plays. Even this we accomplished, and very fetching some of them were, especially when sprayed with a bit of perfume. We also held an annual school concert, for we had plenty of musical talent, including a number of really accomplished pianists and organists, notably Raymond Long, Bryan Doxey, and John Martlew, all of whom played the organ at our morning services in the Minster. Much later there have been Andrew Burr, now a cathedral organist, and Alvin Stardust who despite the odd pseudonym is a very competent musician. The choristers always did well. There were comic turns too, and I have visions of the audience in fits when Pat Atkins did his Stanley Holloway monologues. At various times, we held mock trials, and mock elections.

There were some extra-curricular activities. Membership of Miss Barbara Wilkinson’s Youth Discussion Group I have already mentioned. We put on the odd show, and I have vivid memories of doing the play “Campbell of Kilmohr”, directed by Malcolm Johnson who also took the role of the villainous Campbell, in the old original Trebeck Hall, which had a decent stage. The play was set in the Highlands after the ’45, and I played a seedy Edinburgh attorney. I only had four lines, but I loved the costume; why don’t we still dress like that? One of the young ladies, a particularly nice girl, was the niece of Eric Blair, otherwise George Orwell, while two of the cast, one boy and one girl, became priests. At about this time all we members of the Group, many from the school, and about half the rest of the population of Southwell were recruited to perform a famous Passion Play in the Minster at Easter. Written and directed by a Rev. Marson, rector of Granby, it was an epic production and ran for a week to full houses. My part was that of an old, blind, beggar, and though I only had (fortunately) one line, or to be exact, seven words, my speech opened the play. Led on to the set, the market-place in Jerusalem, by my little grand-daughter, - Enid Barratt, suitably ragged, - I held aloft my little wooden bowl and whined “Alms! Alms, for the love of God”. The good-natured temporary Jews and Romans entered into the spirit of the production to the extent of contributing to this appeal, for by the end of the week I had collected about five bob in coppers. This would have been enough to take Enid to the pictures, only I didn’t have the bottle to ask her. It was a wonderful experience, though, quite unique.

One or two people joined the Youth Hostelling movement, for Burgage Manor at that time was a youth hostel. Sporting activities, notably Southwell Rugby Club, attracted the older pupils, while for a few years there was a flourishing School Scout Troop. I lived a bit too far from town to join this, but many in my form did, and vied with each other in earning all sorts of proficiency badges. The aim was to achieve an armful, - they were displayed on the sleeve. Quite a few boys joined the Air Training Corps, one of whom was Peter Wendels, my friend and desk-mate for three years. A keen aero-modeller, he was inducted into basic gliding in the ATC, and between us we seriously started, at the farm, to build our own full-sized glider. I had calculated that it could be towed into the air by our tractor, which had a high top gear. By a merciful providence this project was never completed, for in the first place we ran out of old tea-chests, and in the second my father put his foot down.

There were regular visitations. One, during the war, was by a mobile gas chamber, into which we were herded to check our gas masks, and to go through the drill of “testing for gas”. There was also a periodic medical examination, the first of which I well recall. It took place in the library, (which had “School” and “County” sections, open one lunch-time per week). Stripped down to underpants and socks, we went in one at a time to face the visiting practitioner. Having peered down my throat, and tapped my chest, imagine my dismay when he thrust his hand down my pants, gripped my private parts, and ordered me to cough! This request was superfluous; my cough was involuntary. Horrified at having been in the toils of this evident pervert, I was too shy to report the assault. Later I discovered that his action was merely the standard test for an inguinal hernia. For forty years I have two of these, -from lifting sacks I suppose.

At one of these inspections, feeling like Oliver Twist asking for more, I managed to get out a request to know if anything could be done for my stutter. The only reply was an indignant grunt, but a month or two later I, and another lad, Scrimshaw, who was also elocutionally challenged, were called to the study where Codge, a bit doubtfully for such a thing was unheard of, handed us bus passes to Newark and one shilling and sixpence each to get our dinners at the British Restaurant, - a popular wartime institution to feed the Masses. We were then to attend at the Technical College for speech therapy under Miss Mary Dolman, Head of Drama. “Under” was correct, for we had to lie prone on the floor, while she strode about over us, intoning relaxing mantras. It was possible to relax to the point of dozing off, which earned praise. I attended every Wednesday for three years, possibly malingering for it did me no good, but I recall being obliged to notice that Miss Dolman wore bright green stockings, which I thought astonishingly avant-garde.

Once a year we welcomed a cheerful Frenchman, whose name escapes me, who did the French Oral examinations. My stammer exempted me from this test, despite which (for French was my best subject) I achieved distinction both in School Certificate and Higher.
Once or twice a photographer appeared to take the Group Photograph. I have one in front of me now, of 1946. What with all these events, and Speech Day and Sports Day, the seasons passed with always something to look forward to. By this time, the only thing I didn’t look forward to was leaving.

On the whole I had been happy, especially in the sixth form, where we began to be treated like human beings, or at least students, rather than as school kids. While there had been one or two rowdy or insolent individuals I can never remember any real bullying, such as I had been led to expect at the outset. In fact some of those whom I had been actually warned to avoid as a youngster turned out to be quite friendly and even helpful. My bad stammer, which might have caused me to be victimised as “different”, was never so much as noticed, so far as I could see. We were very much a family-like community. Also we were rather formal. Christian names were seldom used, always surnames, unless the boy happened to have a nickname, as many did. I got my own in the first week, as I listened to some conversation by the steps that led down to the boiler room, - I could point out the very spot. Something prompted me to blurt out some facetious comment (I forget what it was) which Wright felt so apt that he fell about laughing. “Ho-ho!” he croaked, “Witty Watts”. It stuck, and I was never called anything else for eight years. Even now elderly friends hail me with it. Sadly, as the years have rolled in, much of the wit has rolled out, - but at least it afforded me some sort of identity, nondescript as I was, for among my peers I remained otherwise undistinguished.

I could write a book about my former comrades, in fact only the possibility of actions for libel prevents it. I have learned that before the war the number of pupils was about ninety, which by the end of the war had grown to about 140. I never counted them, but I think that between thirty and forty of these were boarders. The boys, in fact, seemed to fall into four or five well-defined, and on the whole fairly cohesive groups, some of which overlapped. I have made lists of such members of these categories as I can remember, but will mention no names here as I am sure to have omitted some of them.
The boarders for a start. I think we rather looked up to them. They lived on the spot, in continuous contact with the Head and other staff. We assumed that they were privy to occult mysteries, and Inner Knowledge, that was denied to day-boys. Certainly we could detect that their life’s regime, though benevolent, was somewhat Spartan. They were a well-knit group, I think, with their own rules and customs, and seemed happy about it all. The Choristers were another rather elite body, again with their own strict regime and discipline. They were much respected, for they put in many hours of practise and performance, over and above the academic work that was more than enough for some of us. When I started, apart from a few LEA scholarships, the Grammar School was fee-paying, though the fees were not large, - four or five pounds a term I think, though you might multiply this by forty to bring it to present values. The choristers, numbering about sixteen at any time, for they left the choir when their voices broke, had their tuition free, plus a small solarium, and I am sure they well deserved it. Almost all of them, necessarily, were town boys, though one or two of the boarders were also in the Minster Choir. The school still has a considerable reputation for music.
These choristers were part of a large body of pupils drawn from the town of Southwell, i.e. from within walking distance, mostly sons of local traders. Of course all these lads knew each other, and fraternised accordingly out of school hours. Nearly all of them went home for their dinners. They knew their way around. I looked up to them, too, as a street-wise and worldly group, who were familiar with all the town’s girls, and smoked fags, admirable accomplishments in the eyes of a simple country boy. Another rather elite group were the train boys, from the Trent Valley villages out towards Nottingham. They had their own private jokes and legends, and were thought of as a brotherhood. The fact that they travelled nobly by train, if it was only the old push-and-pull Paddy from Rolleston, rather than by plebeian bus or bike like the rest of us, lent them an aura of aristocracy.

We bus and bike boys, attending daily from Halam, Edingley, Farnsfield, (which sent a large contingent of all ages) and Bilsthorpe, comprised the backbone of the school company, - or so we considered. But among us there was another category, namely the crocks, or the infirm, of whom I was one. Every school has them, at Southwell the only infirmity not represented was obesity, probably thanks either to rationing or to universal penury, neither of which is in evidence today. The towering fever which had damaged the motor nerves to my speech equipment, (and it could have been worse, for the measles can also blind you), had left me limp and short-winded, incapable of sustained physical effort. I was useless at rugger, and though I attempted cross-country, being always at the tail-end, and unfamiliar with the district, I generally got lost. Incidentally, these runs started on the Recreation Ground, and we ran down the alley beside the National School. This was an old-established academy, founded by the “Incorporated National Society For Promoting The Education of The Poor in The Principles of The Established Church Throughout England and Wales”. If these Christians, the “Nashies”, happened to be in their playground as we ran by in our skimpy running togs, we ran the gauntlet of thrown clods, turds, and highly dismissive epithets, necessitating a burst of speed on our part which exhausted my resources of energy at the outset. At Sports Day, I could only attempt the long jump, calling for a five-second burst only, and the slow bicycle race, which is harder than you might think. In fact, I was suspected of being at risk from tuberculosis, then fairly common in farming families who, before general attestation of cattle, drank raw, unpasteurised milk. For several years I attended periodically a chest clinic in Mansfield, and was occasionally X-rayed. After travelling to school on the bus for two years, - and I had to walk a mile to catch it, - I was given a Coventry Eagle bicycle, no gears, and a bit heavy. This did me more good than anything, for by the time I left school, though with a better bike which I still have, I could cover the ten miles to Newark, to the pictures on a Saturday night, in less than half an hour, without getting breathless. Farm work, which in those days was pretty much all manual, finally completed the process of toughening me up, giving the lie to the dismal aunt whom I heard assuring my mother, “John won’t ever make old bones, Ellen!”

I didn’t get to University at that time, for I failed in Biology, a favourite subject I had been confident about. I was aware that I might have made a pig’s ear of the dissection, for the dam’ frog seemed to have been frozen, and we were used to fresh ones. Frank Winn, equally disappointed, suggested that they couldn’t read my writing, which was always atrocious, and still is. But at least, thank God, it saved me from becoming a vet, which my parents wanted but I didn’t. Instead I have enjoyed, (or endured), a life of agrarian toil, watching the familiar rural community being gradually extinguished by Progress, while the vast majority of my contemporaries at Southwell have attained great heights in the professions, industry, academia, the armed forces, the Police, Customs and Excise and the arts. However I did put in forty years of public service in local councils, and finally salved my conscience by graduating in my retirement in geology.

Now seventy-four, I occasionally wander in, with my old bones, for a peep at the old school. I recently read a letter from a Mr Percy, Alan Yates’s predecessor as French master, who when he first set eyes on the building in 1934 was struck by its remarkable resemblance to a workhouse! There may be some truth in that, but he went on to say that he valued the two years he spent in it, in his first job. The eight years I spent there may seem excessive for a mere farmer, but I have never for a moment regretted them, and sincerely value the friends I made there. Now, as Codge would have said, valete, amici.

John Watts, Edingley, 2005