PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF A SCHOOLBOY FROM 1946 TO 1951.
WELLINGBOROUGH GRAMMAR SCHOOL: Home
PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF A SCHOOLBOY FROM 1946 TO 1951.
Dr. David (‘Juicy’ ) Payne. Written in 2006
During the year 2006 there has been a considerable exchange of e-mails concerning the students of the Wellingborough Grammar School of 60 years ago. This includes much discussion about a reunion in Wellingborough in 2007 by the still extant pupils and teachers of those days. In my own modest way I have offered a few confirmatory identifications of individuals from the annual school photographs of 1946 and 1949. Coincidentally, I also identified my own two brothers – Gordon Clifford and Gerald Frederick - on their annual school photograph of 1940. Sadly both have now died.
One of the leading lights of the class identification exercise has been a contemporary and friend from those days and, indeed, the one who first identified me for the study from my own WGS annual photographs. This person is the energetic and determined Peter Eric David (Pedro) Howes, who, despite now living in Germany, has truly done his share of the really hard spade work for the reunion. One of his self-imposed tasks has been to encourage me to contribute in some way. After due deliberation, I thought I would venture something a little different; a sort of exposé of a grammar school boy’s life during the years I attended WGS – 1946 to 1951.
Intentionally, this will vary a bit from the ‘rose tinted spectacles’ view that the majority of old-boys tend to give when reminiscing of what they often maintain were ‘The best years of their lives’. I honestly can claim that that was not so in my case even when looking on the famed ‘bright side of life’. But, perhaps, the little eccentricities mentioned in the article might make it that bit more interesting.
WGS life and the class of 1946.
The first consideration that affected all our school days was the overshadowing effect of the Second World War. It had only ended respectively in Europe on the 7th May 1945 and in Japan on the 2nd September 1945. We, the Class of 1946, entered the 1st Form of WGS exactly a year later in September 1946.
Although the Allies had comprehensively won the war, the whole of the British social and industrial complex was in a terrible mess. Huge areas of the capital city and many of the major conurbations had been ravaged by the German Luftwaffe (Airforce) and lay in ruins. Even Wellingborough had it air-raid scars, including some around the market place. Completely worn out in mind, body and in industrial production capability by over five years of total war, somehow the British nation had to regain its feet and flourish again. Perhaps, even more menacingly, breathtaking levels of international financial debt had been incurred in the prosecution of the War on many Fronts; debt that had to be paid off if Britain’s financial stability and standing was ever to be restored to a level even approaching its former status.
Whilst the war-weary British in 1945 could have had no clear idea of what lay ahead in the period 1946 to 1951, they certainly had not counted on an even more stringent period of austerity. After the War even bread was rationed, although it never was even during the darkest days. There just wasn’t the foreign exchange to pay for sufficient supplies of imported grain. For schoolboys the outlook was equally glum. Sweets and chocolate were strictly rationed (three ounces [85g] per week) and there was no ice cream and little tropical fruit. Cakes and biscuits were also a luxury if and when they could be found in the shops.
It was with this background that money had to be found to keep the Attlee socialist government’s ambitious educational reforms going to meet the anticipated burgeoning needs of peacetime. Pre-war, only 2% of British young people went to university and there was a determination to change this.
To add to the discomfort of severe austerity, the winter of 1946/47 was an absolute disaster across the whole country. Two, short, wintry interludes in December 1946 and early January 1947 were followed by a total freeze-up from 21st January to 16th March 1947, with record low temperatures reaching –21 degrees C.
However, throughout the whole winter, I do not recall me or my closest friends voluntarily failing to walk the daily one-and-a-half miles there and back to school. It was expected and the done thing: one just did it if one possibly could.
In 1946 the teaching staff situation of WGS was critical. Although the war was over, and the former WGS teachers were returning to their posts, the majority of the staff in September 1946 were still those who had valiantly served throughout the War (e.g. Mr Nicholas – the Deputy Head). Others had delayed their retirement for the duration and continued to do so (e.g. Mr Burrell). (In those days teachers’ and pupils’ Christian names were not used in school). The former servicemen-cum-teachers-to-be were still in their universities and were likely to remain so for another two years or so.
I distinctly remember an American teacher of physics who came to WGS for a year around 1948; he wore an American-style light sports coats and slacks, the like of which we had only previously seen on the cinema screen on some handsome film-star such as Clark Gable. Another (lady) teacher travelled the other way as a G.I. bride. There were also several other lady teachers (mainly temporaries) including a renowned teacher of music who must have taught every boy in the school in her time.
The total number of teachers throughout the period from 1946 to 1951 was around 20 at any one time, plus the aforementioned temporaries. They taught an enrolment of around 500 boys – 1st to 5th forms with A, B, and C sets, each around 30 strong, plus upper and lower 6th. The entire in-house administration of the school was carried out by the Headmaster Mr Wrenn and the Deputy Head Mr Nicholas, aided by the long serving and the irreplaceable School Secretary, Miss Bavin. There may have been another lady Stenographer/Clerk at some point, but I am not certain of this.
Only on ceremonial occasions were mortarboards worn by teachers.
Considering the rationing restrictions of the time, the pupils and staff enjoyed an excellent in-house catering service that provided a two-course hot lunch every school day. Definitely no hamburgers and not many chips – cooking fat was always in short supply. But it was always a well-balanced, highly nutritious and healthy meal. The meals were subsidised and I believe parents contributed four shillings per week per boy. But on second thoughts even that amount was a bit much for the pockets and purses of the parents of 1946, so that amount probably refers to a somewhat later date.
At each morning break, crates containing bottles of milk were supplied; one-third of a pint for each boy. But strangely, and sad to relate, quite a few boys did not take their share, but presumably the caretakers and ground staff did not lack milk for their tea breaks.
At some point, probably about 1948/9, Mr. Wrenn authorised the opening of a tuck shop adjacent to the playground. But the pupils of today would find the fare on offer to be very slim pickings indeed. With sweets and chocolate on ration, I seem to remember potato crisps, a sort of fruit bar and soft drinks with one penny returnable on the bottle. Of course, there were no canned drinks.
Most teaching was based around the blackboard. Chalks of various colours, but mainly white, were employed. Of necessity, the chalk was frequently erased, with a wood backed-felt duster amidst clouds of white dust. (For at least one teacher, this duster provided the ideal missile to throw across the room at negligent or erring pupils. As far as I can recall, no pupil was ever seriously injured, apart from damage to their dignity which, of course, was not a greatly respected status symbol of those in the lower forms). By the end of the day both the teachers and their black school gowns were coated with a fine powdered chalk.
I believe there was also one, or more, epidiascopes with which the pages of books, illustrations and glass slides could be projected onto a screen or a white classroom wall.
Each pupil had a small cellophane sachet, wooden box or tin that contained a steel compass, a 6-inch wooden or steel ruler and a standard set of drawing instruments such as triangles and a protractor. Before the widely deplored ball pen (bad for the much vaunted copperplate writing) became cheaply available, wooden pens with brass nibs were standard, and an inkwell was located in every desktop. Some boys showed a natural affinity to the ink and by the end of the days always seemed to get it all over their hands, face and even their clothing. A classic school boy jape was to ‘accidentally’ bang the lid of a desk which sent a fine spray of ink everywhere and over everyone seated close by. Some students with more affluent parents had a fountain pen, so they also had their own bottle of Quink blue/black ink.
The student’s text and exercise books were transported from class to class, and to and from home for homework, in a standard leather satchel supported by a shoulder strap.
The only portable calculation tool available to the student and teacher alike was the slide rule. Now largely obsolete, it was first invented in the 17th Century and was then still widely used by mathematicians, scientists, engineers and other professionals. In 1946 they were exceedingly rare and all the more prized models, which were of German manufacture, had to be of pre-war origin. New ones did not become freely available, at a reasonable cost, until the late 1950’s early 1960’s. With very few exceptions, they were completely beyond the reach of most of the class of 1946 – 51. Accordingly, all calculations were either done by mental arithmetic, or with a pen/pencil and paper.
About once a year a Public Information film unit would visit the school and, amid some excitement, show a 16mm black and white film. The entire school would gather in the Assembly Hall to be shown a documentary of the ‘Nanook of the North’ genre.
I also remember several music recitals by local artistes. None of which can I recall today, or the music they played or sang. Certainly, no ray of inspiration pierced my breast on these occasions. A few musical types found them entertaining but the majority of the boys rather dreaded them. For all I know perhaps some of the staff did so too.
In 1946 I think only the headmaster had a car, so most of the teachers walked or biked to school. Many of the WGS staff lived locally anyway; the headmaster’s house was literally around the corner. Some of the boys also had bicycles, but new ones were scarce and spare parts were hard to find. As the years passed cars (for the teachers) and bicycles (for all) became more plentiful, but I don’t think there ever was a case in my time of a boy driving a car to school.
As the catchment area of WGS was quite large – Bozeat and other quite far flung villages and towns were included - the local Education Authority arranged for the more distant living pupils to travel to school each day by chartered bus. This could considerably lengthen these boy commuter’s school day.
As ever, in my time boys were boys and discipline was rigorously maintained using the then traditional methods – an ethos of what might properly be called ‘Benign Terror’.
The most benign kind of discipline was the ‘Write out fifty lines’ (or multiples thereof) stating “I must not talk in class” etc. Close on its heels in usage came the punishment of ‘Detention’. This involved staying on in class after school – usually for an hour – passing the time in punitive silence toiling at some dreaded task such as learning French verbs, parsing English sentences, or the equally dreaded aforementioned ‘Lines’. However, the sanction of Detention was often seriously weakened by the need for the many commuters to catch their bus home at the stipulated time i.e. shortly after close of school. So detention only had limited application. Being a Wellingburian, with no school bus to catch, my excuse was “I have to feed the pigs”. Which I did.
Finally, came the extreme sanction ‘Corporal punishment’. When the new headmaster – Mr. Wrenn – joined the school in 1945, one of first measures he took was to set some boundaries on this. Nevertheless, the individual schoolmasters still had the right to administer corporal punishment and some chose to, and some did not. The means of administering it varied widely. I can recall unusual items being employed such as a well worn rubber soled slipper and a flat wooden bumper bar from the back of a redundant school-desk, which rejoiced in the name of ‘The Twanker’. There was also one skilled exponent of sleight-of-hand who could administer a very accurate clip around the ear with either hand. (This particular teacher went by the appropriate nickname of ‘Trigger’). The gym teacher would have miscreants tediously climb wall-bars or ropes. The final, final, sanction was to report to the headmaster’s study for six-of-the-best on the palm of the hand grace à la Malacca cane of the Head. Was it all of any use? I don’t think that the cane ever fully reformed any real habitual criminal (though it was still used in HM Prisons at that time), but in my experience it certainly made naughty WG schoolboys think twice.
As for how the ‘Benign Terror’ regimen worked overall, one can only point to its most successful exponent at WGS - Mr. Jake Dunning, the Geography teacher. Although of modest height, slight build and heavily bespectacled, he maintained such a clever and relentless psychological pressure on his classes that you would see dozens of boys literally running along the corridors to his classroom to ensure they were not late. And even the most blasé of the tearaway WGS tyros would be seen frantically boning up on yesterday’s newspaper, just in case Jake decided to hold one of his surprise quizzes on ‘Current Affairs’. What current affairs had to do with geography Jake never said and, as far as I know, nobody chose to ask him. That Benign Terror did work in his hands was proven each year by the outstanding ‘0 and A Level’ results obtained by his students. I am sure he did give some poor (but deserving) boy a beating at some time, but never to my knowledge: this kind of top-level intelligence did tend to travel quite widely and fast. Jake Dunning just never seemed to need to resort to corporal punishment. He merely used his head to outthink unruly schoolboys. Accordingly, he was a really excellent teacher for boys; for girls, I am not so sure his technique would work as well – but I am sure he would have worked something out to suit. Incidentally, he was the only person I have ever encountered who could draw on the blackboard a map of any of the six continents (or any country) without a reference of any kind. Although I never saw him do it, I presume he could draw an outline of the entire globe straight off, given a big enough blackboard and sufficient chalk.
The adjacent Girls High School was the high point of the emotional attention/angst of many of the older boys, although social intercourse, or any other kind, was carefully guarded against. As far as I remember we never formally invited their school members to our school, nor did they invite us to theirs. School Dances? I do not think we were ever indulged in such co-educational dalliance.
As for social etiquette, the only instructions I now recall were: wear your school cap at all times when out of school; take care to doff it to deserving persons; do not put your hands in your pockets and, when necessary, surrender your seat on the bus to a lady or elderly gentleman.
I suppose there were occasions of truancy, but I never heard of a single case in my five years at WGS. Certainly, if I, or any of my close friends, had attempted it, once our parents found out the sky would truly have fallen on our heads. Absolutely unthinkable. A good education was much valued by our elders – maybe the dreaded 11+ constantly emphasised its worth and desirability.
Looking back, in all honesty I would have to admit to being a very ordinary schoolboy. No one in authority saw sufficient leadership potential to decide I was school prefect material, or a sportsman of outstanding skill. In the former case events have proven them wrong, but in the latter they were dead right: I can’t abide team games and hate spectator sports. But, whilst I was no John Hyde schoolboy exemplar, I like to think that WGS gave me the essential grounding to do my own thing, in my own way, with some international success and over 60 scientific publications to my name, most as the sole author.