Last updated: 27 Mar 2009 (amended and augmented when transferred to WordPress in April 2016)
For those whose Latin is rusty, “scribendi cacoethes” means “insatiable desire to write”. While looking that up, I found a very amusing and appropriate poem with that title:
If all the trees in all the woods were men;
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write, and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.
Some recollections of Wednesbury Boys’ High School by W R Swale, English Master at the School from 1926 until 1930
One of the fringe benefits of Life Membership of the Head Masters’ Association is a free copy of the Association’s annual List of Members. This fascinating if slightly unromantic publication lists in considerable detail the vital statistics of all Schools of any consequence and is a mine of useful it somewhat esoteric information. It seemed to me – as it were on the threshold of a nostalgic orgy of stupendous proportions that I might sharpen my appetite by a taste of the present, and I sought eagerly for details of the WBHS of 1977. It took longer than I had expected, mainly because someone seemed to have changed all the geography. At last, after painful research, I found my way through the “Metropolitan County of the West Midlands” through the “District of Sandwell” ( Spiro who?! ) to WEST BROMWICH – WOOD GREEN HIGH SCHOOL, WEDNESBURY: It is listed as a Controlled Comprehensive, with 639 boys and 632 girls. This grotesque mouthful is, I take it, the Alma Mater Old Wodens drool about. As Freddy Coatham’s Latin class of 1926 might have said – “Monstrum, horrendum, informe, ingens”!
The object of the present exercise is, I gather, to contrast the Present with the Past, towards which I offer a few light-hearted reminiscences of four blissfully happy years. The WBHS I knew fifty years ago was young, small, unsung and possibly insignificant: but it was also vital, friendly and efficient. Above all it was a school not a vast bi-sexual sausage-machine. I can’t imagine that my words will reach a particularly wide public, but if my handful of readers enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed the writing, I am more than compensated.
PASSING RICH WITH FORTY POUNDS A YEAR
I have always counted myself exceptionally lucky to have started my teaching career at Wednesbury – and not just at the good fortune of stepping into a senior English post straight from University. In the summer of 1926 I was the proud possessor of an Honours Degree and a Teaching Diploma but so were countless others. Jobs were as hard to come by then as, I understand, they are today. The University term was over, but I was staying on to complete my teaching practice at King Edward’s School, Five Ways and it was sheer luck that I called into the University Club one evening to find that one of my innumerable applications had struck oil. I was summoned to attend for interview at Wednesbury by one C.S.Kipping M.A.
I had seen something of the Black Country during my four years in Birmingham and what I had seen of the Smethwick – West Bromwich – Wednesbury – Darlaston-Tipton -Willenhall Wolverhampton “conurbation” fell lamentably short of the Earthly Paradise. The tram from Snow Hill ground relentlessly northwards, through West Bromwich and the Hawthorns until it paused for breath at Hill Top, a cliff-edge overlooking a witches’ cauldron which the map assured me was Wednesbury. Only the thought of those dozens of unanswered applications prevented me from hopping off to catch the next tram back to Brum. In truth, Wood Green, where I was to report for interview, proved to be distinctly the West End of Wednesbury, with a recognizable park and a mass of solid late-Victorian housing, admittedly a bit moth-eaten and neglected but clearly the legacy of a prosperous New Iron Age. One of these respectable mansions housed my prospective employer and I mounted the steps to the front-door with all the virginal flutterings of a first interview.
It amuses me now to reflect that on that summer afternoon more than fifty years ago I had known only two Head Masters in my life – the loveably unpredictable Welshman who had taught me in my nine Grammar School years, and “Artie” Barker at KES Five Ways where I was doing my teaching practice. (I had just had a blistering row with A.E.B. over the production of an end of term play, though he must have forgiven me sufficiently to appoint me as his Senior English Master five years later!) I therefore had only the vaguest preconception of what C.S.Kipping M.A. would turn out to be, which was perhaps just as well. I have heard people speak of CSK in terms suggesting a mixture of reverential awe and downright terror – an “image” which he was at some pains to inspire. His was, indeed, a formidable presence, with a great domed bald head, deep-set brown eyes and a rat-trap mouth almost concealed under a heavy moustache. I have often wondered if this growth concealed a slight hare-lip: he certainly spoke with quite a marked impediment on certain consonants and his words seemed to emerge from between tightly clenched teeth.
He wore – and, apart from rare appearances on the tennis court I never saw him in any other garb – a rather shiny black suit, black tie over a slightly grubby wing collar and a general air of Edwardian sub-fusc which, when at School, he supplemented with a mortar-board and an academic gown showing distinct signs of age and chemicals. The assorted clutter in his living-room proclaimed him a bachelor, and the presence of what seemed to be a pack of black Labradors suggested the animal-lover. (In later years he turned to cats, who proliferated all over the house to an alarming degree.) During our conversation he smoked continuously, rolling his own cigarettes in a manner unique to himself by shovelling a quantity of shag into a rice-paper, screwing the outside end into a twist resembling the business end of a firework and then igniting the resulting monstrosity into a startling flame. All this, combined with a strong hint of whisky, produced an atmosphere of tobacco smoke, dog and alcohol which I found strangely comforting. After some preliminary chat we set off to view the School, a journey of less than a quarter of a mile, not as might be supposed, on foot, but in a strange and ancient Model T Ford which I had noticed parked outside. The dogs came too, controlled to some extent by a formidable and heavily chewed ash-plant.
I can honestly say that I never at any time found CSK in the least daunting. “Different” he certainly was but at the same time compellingly attractive. In later years I came more and more to think of him, behind the stern and even forbidding exterior, as a kindly, shy and very lonely man. I liked him at first glance, and have never had reason to change that early impression. That the feeling was mutual is confirmed by his offer of the post on his Staff and by the affectionate correspondence he maintained until his death. The salary – on the recently established “Burnham Scale” – was a princely £249 per annum plus a “Special Allowance” of three pounds, presumably in recognition of my Good Honours Degree. To anyone who, like me, had existed for the past four years on a Local Authority grant and the generosity of my parents, this was affluence beyond dreams, even though it transpired that we were paid only three times a year, at the end of each term. Annual increments, payable after the end of the first, probationary, year, were £15 a year – and in 1930 all teachers suffered the iniquitous “Ten per cent Cut”. Nevertheless, new entrants to the Profession in the affluent Seventies may care to reflect that I was able to marry in 1929, buy a newly-built three-bedroom “semi” a year later and bring up three children in reasonable comfort. 0ur furniture for the entire household – much of which is still doing excellent duty to this day – cost me a staggering £150!!
COMRADES IN ARMS
It is hard to be precise after so many years, but I am fairly sure that there were no more than seven of us on the Staff when I arrived in September 1926. Kipping himself looked after Chemistry and Physics – claiming that he knew nothing about the latter subject, which was manifest nonsense in a scientist of his calibre. The only other non-youngster was Evanson, Senior Mathematics and Second Master. Poor Evanson had what the Americans call a “problem” which led to the progressive deterioration of his teaching and ultimate dismissal. In himself a capable mathematician and a most delightful and witty companion, he found the stresses of classroom discipline beyond him and his lessons degenerated into shambles. Kipping, who understood the problem from personal experience, allowed his heart to rule his head and took no really positive action until local scandal had got out of hand. With hindsight, it seems possible that drastic action might have provided shock treatment. All I can say is that I found myself facing a somewhat similar problem many years later when I found it necessary to dismiss a colleague, and the memories are still painful.
Hatcher, senior Geography and later Second Master, always remained slightly aloof and was never “one of the lads” but I shall always remember with affection his striking good looks, beautifully modulated voice and unfailing courtesy. “Modern Languages” – in effect, French – was in the hands of Rutherford, a capable linguist who, it seemed to me, never really enjoyed the pupil-teacher relationship. Surprisingly enough, he rode a motor-bike – possibly under the influence of his room-mate, Keyworth, who was some sort of engineer. Keyworth and I became good friends, and we three had a memorable week-end in North Wales, I travelling as pillion passenger to Keyworth. We visited Snowdonia and Carmarthen, and my recollections of that trip are of cold, wet and terror in roughly equal proportions. Years later, during the war, I became reasonably proficient as a motor-cyclist without ever losing my deeply implanted first dislikes.
The School’s History teaching was in the capable hands of Bill Hey, a distinguished Cambridge scholar and erstwhile cricketer for Nelson, in the Lancashire League. We found common interests in Debating, Dramatics and Photography and together did a fair bit to raise the literary tone of the place. Bill was an ardent reader of “The Nation” – now the “New Statesman” – and under his guidance I became aware of names like Kingsley Martin and J.M.Keynes. During the bleak winter of 1926 we set off together to study the plight of the Welsh coal valleys at first hand, a pretty dismal experience scarcely made any more pleasant by the fact that we had omitted to equip ourselves with the proper footwear for trudging through snow and slush. Later – I suppose it was in the summer holidays of 1928 or 29 – Bill and I joined Alan Turner in a memorable car-camping tour of the West Country. Having recently “done” Blackmore’s “Lorna Doone” with one of my English classes I prevailed on the other two to visit the legendary Doone Valley on Exmoor, where we spent a night of quite unbelievable discomfort.
The other member of the 1926 Staff was Freddy Coatham, whose Durham Degree qualified him for an assorted time-table of History, English, Divinity, Latin and Games. Freddy was a dedicated golfer and was therefore rarely seen in the social whirl of extra-curricular activities of a more civilised kind. Whenever the weather was clement – and frequently when it wasn’t – he would drive swiftly way from Wood Green in the direction of Brand Hall, Sandwell or wherever, encumbered with a vast array of earthmoving equipment. The local Curate – could his name have been Nicholls? – put in some occasional Latin lessons: he had, I believe, been my predecessor as English Master. We had a visiting Art master, whose name I forget, but no Music instruction of any kind, unless one counts the “Sixth Form Chorus” who made the air hideous at what were laughingly called School “Concerts”. There was no Handicraft of any kind during my four years at Wednesbury, unless the Head Master’s Junior Forms’ Gardening could be so described.
“Newcomers”, that is to say arrivals between September 1926 when I came and July 1930 when I left, were Alan Turner, Jack Ede, Joe Cutler and Sam Mangan. Alan Turner, “ABT” to countless Wodens, became my immediate intimate, and our friendship of fifty years has – albeit tenuously – survived the growing obstacles of time, distance and the increasing crustiness of old age! Alan was older than the rest of us – fully thirty, and carrying the unmistakable aura of service in the First War. Although of quite different academic “disciplines” we shared a love of teaching, an understanding of boys and an insatiable appetite for conversation. Apart from that we have always contrived to disagree, often heatedly, on every conceivable subject except religion, personal honesty and County Cricket, the latter only, I suspect, because Wiltshire has never been accounted a First Class County. On the departure of Bill Hey to K.E.S.Retford, the History was taken over by Jack Ede, a Oxbridge double First of gigantic intellect and – forgive me, dear Jack! – total ignorance of the practical aspects of modern living. He made the History Department hum like a dynamo and inspired a host of first-class Historians.
Jack Ede became an enthusiastic supporter of the “Pterodactyls”, the Upper School Debating Society but it was as official Umpire for the First Eleven that he made his chief mark outside the classroom. High-pitched screams of “Owzat?” would be greeted by a long and pregnant pause while his computer-like brain was going through all the possible aspects of the situation before announcing a decision.
Joe Cutler’s arrival met have been the result of an increase in the Staff ratio as he certainly replaced no-one: presumably, CSK had made a successful case for an independent Physics department. Joe was a splendid addition to the Common Room, where his uniformly “half-soaked” attitude towards academic problems was a great source of humour. He was, of course, by no means as dumb as he liked to appear: after a few years he gave up teaching, returned to the University to read for a Medical Degree and spent the rest of his working life in Practice at Northampton. Joe was, deservedly, a great favourite with the boys, not least for his cheerful admissions of fallibility which earned him the soubriquet PJC – ‘Poor old Joe Can’t do it”. His entirely commendable campaign against petty pilfering in the Labs inspired the School cartoonist to depict him as leaving for his summer holidays in Juan les Pins. One of Joe Cutler’s endearing weaknesses was genuine enough: like Richard Steele -“let scholars spell how they will, I spell like a gentleman!” – orthography was not his strongest point. One of his Physics reports described a pupil as being “much too legarthic”.
I think it was at the beginning of my last year at Wednesbury that Rutherford left, to be replaced by Sam Mangan, whose arrival stimulated interest in cross-country running and athletics in general, activities which had hitherto been heavily overshadowed by cricket and football. Two members of the “ancillary staff” call for mention. The School caretaker – the delightful designation “School minder” had not yet seen the light – was Mr Nicholls, a large, saintly lacking gentleman of reverend mien who appeared always in the company of an elderly collie dog of equally benevolent expression. Mrs N. provided dinners for those few boys who could not get home or had not brought sandwiches. Nicholls, it seemed, had been a Regular Soldier in the deep past, accompanying Colonel Younghusband on the famous expedition to Tibet in 1903. No proof of his actual participation was ever produced except that he required little invitation to embark on long and boring narratives of “that Lhasa job”.
His colleague, “Sergeant” Allerston, doubled the duties of Head Master’s factotum and Body-Servant with a more official responsibility for the School’s Physical Education. Whatever qualifications Allerston possessed were clearly derived from Army square-bashing, and his P.T. lessons were therefore limited to a particularly uninspiring kind of “Swedish Drill” uniformly loathed by the unfortunate victims. By nature easy-going, not to say, work-shy, he had the Regular NCO’s in-built capacity to spot the presence of an “Officer on parade” – in his case, the approaching figure of the Head Master – at which times his classes were galvanised into attention by threats of being “reported”. This gave rise to what I still consider the best genuine example of schoolboy wit to have come my way in a long career. As a little light relief in our examination study of “Macbeth” I had instructed my class to comb the Play in search of quotations apposite to life at WBHS. Embedded in the expected mass of association between the Witches’ cauldron and Mrs Nicholls’ mid-day meal was the following gem from some unremembered genius.
“What bloody man is that?”
“This is the Sergeant: he can report!”
NOR IRON BARS A CAGE
I have to confess that WBHS in 1926 lacked the architectural charms of some of the older Seats of Learning: even KES Five Ways displayed some of the grimy dignity of age. On the other hand its small size helped it to escape the ultimate horror of conversion from an old “Elementary School”, relics of which still stand today in parts of London and the North surrounded by iron railings and asphalt playgrounds. Founded in the early Twenties, WBHS was typical of many of the new-wave post-war Grammar Schools in being built on the site of a substantial Victorian middle-class mansion, with the original house as a nucleus and additional buildings dependent on local needs and the availability of cash. “The House” contained the Head’s room and what little there was in the way of administrative offices, a minute Staff Common Room and, I believe, two class-rooms upstairs. Downstairs, I seem to recall one large classroom of almost total inconvenience – was it L-shaped, I wonder? – which also served for occasions like lectures and debates, and School dinners. Somewhere, there must also have been space for books, stationery and the like.
Alongside the old house, and separated from it by a spanking new playground, was the imposing pile of the “New Buildings”. Splendid in bright red brick and yellow stone, these additions had been completed just before I arrived and were still in mint condition, free from the ink-blots, scuff marks and other signs of pupil participation: it is worth recording that graffiti – apparently inevitable on the walls of all schools today – were non-existent. The new block comprised a substantial Assembly Hall, laboratories for Physics and Chemistry, and two – or was it four? – delightfully airy and well-lit class-rooms on two floors. At first sight the Hall seemed a quite superb edifice, until one came to realise what a monstrous white elephant it really was. I speak from long and bitter experience in asserting that Educational Architects are among the least imaginative of the species. Whoever designed the Hall at Wednesbury had one thing in mind – to construct a large, lofty oblong box with a stage at one end and a balcony at the other. In other words, a vast chunk of comparatively useless space devoted to Morning Assembly, examinations, Speech days, an Occasional play or concert – and virtually nothing else.
My own particular Thing, in my own schooldays and especially at the University, was Dramatics. and I was thrilled at the prospect of spreading the light in what was, as it were, my first independent command. For this, there was manifest enthusiasm among the boys and welcome support from the Head Master, but the logistical problems proved to be pretty formidable. In the first place, the stage was at least two feet too high and not raked. Nor was the auditorium floor – as it is in theatres or cinemas – so that members of the audience, unless endowed with giraffe necks, found some difficulty in following the action on stage. There was no proscenium arch and no vestige of stage lighting, nor any electric points to provide any. But the greatest horror lay in the gigantic blank wall at the back of the stage in the middle of which stood an unusually large mahogany door surrounded by a massive and ornate wooden frame. This door – you will have guessed – opened inwards thus automatically removing some four feet of the already small up-stage area. As it turned out, it proved a simple matter to re-hang the door on”lift-off” hinges: more tricky was the fact that it gave onto a class-room behind, presumably for the entertainment of the VIP “Platform Party” at Speech Days. As the class-room floor was naturally at ground level, visiting dignitaries had to negotiate a steep flight of steps to gain the stage and were in grave danger of nose-diving into space on leaving the platform. How we encountered and overcome these and other difficulties will be explained later.
QUITE WILLINGLY TO SCHOOL
When I consider that I write of more than half a century ago it amazes me how many “Wodens” I can recall to this day – and most of them with their school-boy faces attached. The list is like a roll-call: Bakewell, Berry, Cox, Crawford, Crossland, the brothers Dean, Fairbrother, Garner, Green, Humpage, Lynall, McHarg, Perry, Pickering, Robinson, Siviter, Sockett, Thornhill, the Troman brothers – and there met be others lurking in the shadows. Four other names have more lasting associations, and for widely different reasons.
Star pupils in my first School Certificate English class were Henry Treece and Donald Foster, a strangely-assorted couple whose friendship stemmed from their love of “the Ring of Words” and an amused cynicism about the Establishment. Treece, though allergic to the normal forms of physical activity practised by his contemporaries, was strong and tough. At University he boxed as a middle-weight and, as he assured me later, got his first job – teaching English in an Approved School – on the strength of that rather than his Degree! “Foz”, unfortunately, was a pronounced haemophiliac who spent almost as much time in the sick-bed as the class-room and was not only excused but positively barred from all kind of contact games. Both boys were genuine lovers of literature and, already, interesting and imaginative writers, but Foster was, in addition, a vastly talented artist. This gift took the form of an endless succession of scurrilous cartoons against all aspects of Authority. At Morning Assembly his eager co-operation in hymn-singing and other devotions concealed the fact that his hymn-book was, in fact, a dummy in which the printed pages had been replaced by bits of drawing-paper. With the aid of an inch long stub of pencil he reeled off striking caricatures of CSK and other worthies to the vast delight of his cronies during the rest of morning school.
Henry Treece, as every good Woden knows, became famous as a poet and novelist: in the late Thirties he was a founder-member of “The Apocalypse” a group of young men who favoured utopian anarchism, freedom from all political and literary ideologies and a revival of myth. I can hardly claim to have influenced Treece in any of those directions but I treasure the copy of Galsworthy’s Plays he gave me when I left Wednesbury in 1930, inscribed to me “in appreciation of his friendship to a mere schoolboy”. Tough as he was he did not survive middle-age. “Foz”, on the other hand left school to design comic toys for the Chad Valley people, prospered there and as a prolific illustrator in woodcut and pen-and-ink and is now – or was a year ago – Art Therapist in one of our major Orthopaedic Hospitals in Oswestry. He must, by now, be contemplating retirement. He too gave me a parting gift in the shape of a school exercise-book filled with totally irreverent cartoons of every aspect of life at WBHS during our four years together.
Of a slightly later vintage was Alan Cash, a small boy – from Darlaston, I think – who was distinguished by first-rate ability and prodigious efforts. In 1942, as a General Staff Officer, Grade Three, I was forced to endure a traumatic three months in one of the most prestigious Branches of the War Office, in Whitehall. I was told on arrival that if there was anything about the office procedure I didn’t understand – surely the understatement of the century! – I could seek enlightenment from the Chief Clerk, one Staff-Sergeant Cash. Our former roles were thus reversed, and I can but blush to confess that I proved a far less apt pupil than he had been. Since those days, Alan Cash has risen to eminence in the world of Cross-Words. Freddy Madden, one of Jack Ede’s star history pupils, reappeared in very different circumstances. The School in Halifax of which I became Head in 1946 worked to the examination syllabuses of the Oxford & Cambridge Board, and I soon discovered that certain of the History Papers at Advanced level were marked by a Dr.F.Madden, of Nuffield College. Contact re-established, we fell into the schoolboy sin of “passing notes”, I by totally irregular enclosures with the examination scripts, he by equally improper comments on the value of the work submitted. In the interests of Truth and Justice I must make it clear that our uniformly good results in History were the product of first-rate teaching, not personal friendship!
Our annual “intake” at WBHS was, I presume, produced by the “iniquitous eleven-plus” system. Be that as it may, our boys were of good quality, and the standards of teaching at the School produced excellent results in examination terms, if nothing else. By present-day standards the curriculum was limited: English, History, Geography, French, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. We had a visiting Art master but such exotic subjects as Music, Handicraft, Biology, Economics, Classics – apart from a little Latin – were outside our scope. But what we did teach we taught well and His Majesty’s Inspectors appeared well satisfied. 0ur “local” Inspector was a red-faced tweed-clad ex-warrior Colonel Bendall who, even in those my salad days, didn’t strike me as having any great educational significance. Today it is difficult to remember that fifty years ago H.M. Inspectors were regarded by many teachers as Vice-Regents of God on Earth. Many of the older men and women, especially in Elementary Schools, remembered the vicious system of “payment by results” under which a teacher’s salary depended on the performance of his class at a single inspection. It took someone of Kipping’s stature to cut these people down to their proper size.
In those days Secondary Schools were subjected, usually every four years, to the ordeal of a Full Inspection. We had such a visitation in 1927 or 1928. For a school of our size the visiting team was of modest proportions though of distinguished calibre. In addition to Bendall we had two “Staff Inspectors” – Byrne, who had I believe been in charge of English at Eton, and Westaway, the Board’s principal Inspector of Mathematics. The whole ordeal lasted about a week and, as far as we could judge, passed off without trouble. As always, the boys played up trumps and the eventual report must have been favourable. (By protocol, we were never shown the complete findings: each member of staff was entitled to hear merely the parts which referred specifically to him.) One amusing episode sticks in my memory. Enjoying a rare free period during the Inspection I found myself in the Common Room with Alan Turner who was not, I felt certain, usually there at this time. Hastily consulting his time-table Alan realised that he should indeed be teaching a third form! Arriving, late and breathless, Alan found Mr Westaway happily in charge of his pupils and enjoying a rare opportunity to get in a bit of mathematics teaching.
It was many years later before I realised just how much work a Full Inspection meant for the unfortunate Head. My own School in Halifax was larger than WBHS and had a much more intricate time-table and curriculum but the basics were the same. The preliminary paper-work absorbed the best part of a whole term: one of the simpler requirements was a full analysis of the careers of all past pupils during the three years prior to the inspection. I have often wondered how Kipping coped with that. Knowing him as I do I can imagine that the answer was a simple, “Nolle prosequi”.
FLANNELLED FOOLS ETC
Association Football was the winter game at WBHS, a reasonable enough choice considering local allegiances to the Hawthorns and Molyneux. Plenty of large schools in the vicinity played soccer – Wolverhampton, Queen Mary’s Walsall, West Bromwich, Handsworth for example – but it is always difficult for a small, new school to break into established fixture-lists. A further complication arose from Kipping’s refusal to play matches against schools whose Head Masters he disliked – a fairly significant proportion. We thus seemed to play a high preponderance of our games against Bilston Central School, a small school at Brewood near Wolverhampton and “The Orphanage” now the Royal Wolverhampton School – which claimed Gilbert Harding as an Old Boy. The Heads of these three schools were all distinctly personae gratae, and happy relations were maintained. Most of the Birmingham schools affected the Gentlemen’s Code and were therefore ignorant of our existence.
Although green grass has always been in short supply in the Black Country many of our boys were highly expert in the slag-heap kickabout version of the game, and the arrival of Alan Turner added the necessary touch of enthusiasm and expertise. Alan, although thirty-plus, had led Warminster Town AFC to within measurable distance of the F.A.Cup and was still Mr Twinkletoes in person. Under his coaching the school team achieved some notable successes. He also dragooned the rest of the Staff into taking on the boys at six-a-side, a game in which I myself performed with marked lack of success on the right wing. On the one occasion when I might conceivably have scored a goal I was floored by a palpably foul tackle and tore the ligaments of my right ankle so that I hobbled about for the rest of the term and carry the weakness to this day. In my next post, at York, I attempted to introduce rugger as an alternative winter game and broke a collar-bone in the first – and only – practice match. From that day forward I confined my sporting activities to the safer, if sometime more controversial role of referee or umpire.
In summer, on the rare occasions when weather permitted, we played cricket, again with some measure of “Staff participation”. Although a keen and knowledgeable aficionado I was always an indifferent performer owing to an unfortunate inability to see the ball until it was some yards past me. I did, however, cover myself with glory in one Staff Match against the School 1st Eleven. Bill Hey, Cambridge Trialist and Lancashire League player, contrived to run himself out early in our innings and the other batsmen – Alan Turner and Freddy Coatham in particular – also succumbed to ill fortune or keen umpiring for meagre scores. Thus, when I reached the crease, the School’s modest total of around a hundred seemed unattainable. At this point Fate intervened and the School captain suffered a brain-storm. Removing the erratic – but in my case, lethal – fast bowler he substituted a slow left-arm spinner (? Lynall?) who proceeded to feed me dead-slow donkey-drops a foot wide of the wicket and as much short of a length. I had only one recognised scoring stroke – a cross-bat hoick in the general direction of long-on – but for once my eye was in and my dashing fifty won us the match. As I recall, I also managed to cling on to a skied catch on the boundary and would undoubtedly have been named Man of the Match if that vile phrase had been invented.
Athletics, as known today almost in the kindergarten, were as uncommon as spiked running-shoes, the admired possessions of some super sportsman. We held our annual “Sports”, and got suitably excited about the House competition, but it was largely a social occasion with Egg-and-Spoon races for the Ladies and a Fathers’ Race or two. Sack Races, Three-Legged Races and an incredible display called a Slow Bicycle Race were a great attraction but the serious business of collecting entries for real athletic contests brought out all the worst in House Captains and House Masters. It goes without saying that there was no local inter-school rivalry, though the Birmingham Grammar Schools held a splendid annual meeting in the Birchfield Stadium. I cannot recall that we had Swimming Sports at Wednesbury.
The School was fortunate – or, more accurately. a privileged elite were – in having a quite useful grass tennis-court which, as CSK was an enthusiast, was always well maintained. The calls of golf, cricket, personal and domestic problems limited the regular participants to the Head, Alan Turner, Joe Cutler and myself, with a small Praetorian Guard of senior boys and an occasional “mixed’ session. Kipping had, I believe, represented his College at Cambridge and despite his age and the handicap of his permanent indigestion was still a most formidable opponent. Using an ancient racket of the size and looseness of a fishing-net, he relied on immaculate placing and a fiendish use of spin rather then brute force. His service, which appeared to swerve and break several ways at once, was especially disconcerting to newcomers who were, in any case, completely fascinated by the three balls which he clutched in his enormous left hand. On one historic occasion when he was partnering me and guarding the net, my cannon-ball service deviated a trifle and struck him with great force on the back of the neck, whence it rebounded to our own base-line. It is some measure of the man’s greatness that he made no comment, by look, word or gesture. Not so on another occasion when I struck him on the head. I was teaching in one of the “balcony” class-rooms and had confiscated an orange from a pupil early in the lesson. As we all left the room I tossed the offending orange to its owner who, of course, wasn’t looking, so that it sailed gently over the balcony railings to the playground below. A ferocious bellowing revealed that the Head Master had been standing beneath and that the missile had landed on top of his mortar-board! My grovelling apology mollified him but, thereafter, he always introduced me to Governors and other notables as “This is Mr Swale, the Master who hits me on the head with oranges.”
THE SPORT OF KINGS
It is common knowledge that C.S.Kipping was one of the leading Chess exponents of his day, more especially in the Problems of the End-Game, on which aspect he was – along with H.Weenik, who published a definitive work in 1926 – an undoubted World Grand Master. Soon after my arrival in Wednesbury he inherited the world-famous “Christmas Series”, a collection of problems compiled since 1905 by the American Alain White. The sheer bulk of this bequest presented a massive storage problem in itself and I cannot say if he ever completed the herculean task of collation on which he embarked. I have often wondered where the Collection is now.
Inevitably, Chess became an integral part of life at WBHS not only as an “Out-of-School” activity but as a compulsory alternative to “Games” whenever the weather was unsuitable. At such times the Forms concerned were condemned to stay in their rooms for intensive indoctrination into this most intellectual of exercises. No School can ever have possessed so many Chess sets and, in addition, large demonstration boards were constructed, on which the elementary gambits and common forms of end-game were painfully demonstrated. For me – and, I suspect, for a great many Wodens who would have preferred a kick-about in pouring rain and thick mud – this was sheer hell, effectively quenching any earlier enthusiasm I might have had for the game. The dedicated few, of course, throve under this intensive training and few Schools of our size – or, indeed, of any numbers – can have boasted such a body of first-rate youngsters. I seem to remember that John Dean was entered for the National Boys’ Chess Championships and acquitted himself creditably. I recall too, that Kipping persuaded at least one Eastern European with an unpronounceable name to take on a room full of boys in a simultaneous display. During the compulsory Chess periods Kipping would roam the school, advising, instructing and occasionally admonishing. I well remember his anger when he came across a couple of “misherable boys” (as he pronounced it) who had committed the ultimate sacrilege of playing draughts with chessmen! He met his match once when he was called upon to adjudicate a game in which only two pieces were left – the two Kings, standing on adjacent squares!
JONSON’S LEARNED SOCK
In view of the architectural difficulties previously mentioned my dramatic ambitions developed cautiously: fortunately, local professional competition was reflected by the repertoire of the resident stock company, who specialised in Victorian melodramas of the “Sweeny Todd” variety in the down-town flea-pit. Kipping offered every encouragement, although his own preferences ran to “lets have the tongs and the bones”. My current enthusiasm was for the Restoration comedy – I had recently produced Farquhar’s “Beaux Stratagem” on the stage of the Birmingham Rep – but this hardly seemed to suit the available talent, or, indeed the moral climate of Wednesbury (Happy days of lost innocence! One of my pupils gave Shylock the line “How like a fornicating publican he goes” and couldn’t understand why I queried it.) For all these reasons I began our dramatic ventures with carefully chosen One-Acters slotted into the School “Concerts” and thus competing in popularity with the excruciatingly unmelodic “Senior Choir” – “Upidee” etc in raucous unison – and the Head Master’s sensational juggling acts.
We made a quite creditable shot at Lord Dunsany’s “Night at an Inn”, not the easiest play to mount on a bare stage, and had immense fun with the comic scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Recalling my own schoolday acting, I got hold of copies of Anstey’s “Vice Versa” in both the one-act and three-act versions and produced a grossly illegal combination of the two: Bill Hey was a delightfully bumbling Father Bultitude and the “Dorm Rag” scenes were hugely to the delight of cast as well as audience. We had by now persuaded the Authority to provide a proscenium arch and some rudimentary lighting. Looking for a suitable full-length play I had the happy thought of cashing in on the current Aldwych farces and chose “Tons of Money”, hardly Shakespeare but good clean fun. Young Roy Troman made a skinny but otherwise quite delectable Louise and I played the “Ralph Lynn” part of the hero with, I considered, commendable gusto. The audiences rolled about in the gangways and CSK, who attended every performance, narrowly escaped a hernia from excessive laughter.
It’s a poor Grammar School that can’t run a reasonably efficient Debating Society and we had no shortage of aspirants for the pleasure of hearing their own voices. I take credit for devising the name: Bill Hey, and then Jack Ede and Alan Turner, gave stalwart support and we did, I feel, add considerably to the social and intellectual tone of the place. It is amusing to recall, in these days of ferocious economy, that we were able to produce and print fixture-cards: for free distribution to members! I wonder if the Monsters are still not extinct. When I left, the Society presented me with a volume of Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, inscribed on the fly-leaf “From the rest of the Brood on the occasion of his Migration”. Incidentally, it was a meeting of the Pterodactyls that gave rise to one of CSK’s better literary efforts. Having managed to engineer a clash of fixtures – why I cannot imagine as our programme had been published for weeks – he sent me the following note: “I have arranged a Chess match after School next Thursday and now find that you have a Pterodactyl meeting at that time. As it will be difficult to alter the chess match, do you think you could later the latter to Friday?”
THE TUCK SHOP
Billy Bunter was in his prime and it seemed inevitable that our School should have its own Tuck Shop, more especially as Wood Green was no shopping centre. The arrival of Alan Turner, who had spent some years “in trade” stimulated the project, and we soon began to market a variety of indigestible and utterly tooth-rotting comestibles at Recess and in the lunch hour. “Vino”, a particularly loathsome form of soft drink, was a special favourite in the thirstier months. Several of us helped with the daily serving and supervision but ABT looked after the financial side of the enterprise and did all the buying. Profits were immediate and substantial: the first proceeds were invested in the purchase of a lock-up hut with a front flap rather like a London coffee-stall. The whole venture provided me with my first insight into the workings of the Capitalist Society when I discovered that we were getting a discount of no less than 37% from the local wholesalers. No wonder the Great Industrialists of the pre-war era could afford to be philanthropists.
Fifty years on, I still think of C.S.Kipping with deep affection and profound respect, tinged with a little awe. He was, by any standards, unique. The son of a distinguished University don, collaborator with Sir William Perkin in early research on coal-tar dyes, CSK was a first-class scientist in his own right and a forceful teacher of his subject. Just how forceful may be seen in his own words:
“Heard from Rutherford recently: they got poor results in his school. He attributes my results to ‘very strong personal drive’ – usually caused by violent indigestion! I told him, as an example of my personal drive, that I once hit a boy over the head with a bag of granulated zinc. It was most effective, and riveted the attention of the Form!”
He displayed to a marked degree the close personal skills of a born perfectionist: no doubt it was that that attracted him particularly to the end-game in Chess. Physically, he had remarkable talent as a juggler, and I have remarked on his diabolical approach to tennis. In later years he took to table-tennis and was able to outwit boys of twice his mobility and a quarter his age. An entirely self-taught horticulturist – “I am just beginning to recognize the difference between a hollyhock and a dandelion” – he became an enthusiastic grower of dahlias and, in the season, regularly sported a button-hole of gigantic size and variegated hue. A lifelong martyr to indigestion, which, as he ruefully admitted, frayed his temper and left its marks on his sometimes forbidding countenance, he smoked his abominable shag cigarettes incessantly and, when I first knew him, was literally drowning his sorrows to the extent of a bottle of whisky a day. When, as the economic depression deepened, the excise duty on spirits was dramatically increased, he voiced his personal protest by giving it up – instantly and entirely! Although not a motorist in the accepted sense he was a devoted car-owner, first of the historic Ford and later of a not quite so ancient Singer. The Ford achieved apotheosis when, finally doomed to the scrap-yard, it was jacked up next to the cricket scoring-hut as a personal grandstand for its adoring master.
Affectionate admiration cannot blind one to the admission that Kipping had some obvious limitations as a Head Master. His relationship with Authority – in his case the local Governors and the Staffordshire Education Committee – was to say the least, prickly. Charles Gent, the Clerk to the Governors, subsequently became Chief Education Officer in Halifax, and he often spoke of the strained atmosphere at their official meetings and, in particular, of the impact of some of CSK’s letters – which their author referred to affectionately as “nose-enders”! Kipping himself was well aware of the tensions:
“Life in a school can be Hell. Excuse this un-magisterial expression but I have had samples of it – yea, more than samples. There is awful trouble at the Orphanage just now and I am very worried about it: the Head is a great friend of mine and it is a disgraceful business. The Head of Walsall has also resigned after a row. I hope I am not next on the list.”
Except for a favoured few, Kipping had little contact with the parents of our boys and showed little interest in Public Relations with the community at large. Fortunately, Alan Turner’s standing in Wednesbury – as a prominent Methodist and a leading Rotarian – did much to remedy this neglect, especially when he initiated his unique Careers Service which took him into countless homes. There was no Parental Association nor, as far as I can remember during my four years, any organized contact between Staff and Parents. There was therefore little explanation of the real purpose of the exercise. I well remember one fond mother’s remark. relayed to me by a gossipy landlady, after her son had achieved a creditable though hardly sensational School Certificate result: “John has done splendidly. He’s passed all his examinations with Honours!”
Kipping’s relationship with the Staff can best be described as patriarchal, in the full sense of the word: he expected obedience and full endeavour, giving in exchange total support and generous appreciation. Although he rarely spoke about these matters publicly or in private he had a most felicitous knack of acknowledging successful effort by personal note, which always made the extra endeavour seem more than worth while. He had a habit – which, during the war, I found to be almost congenital In Commanding Officers – of issuing generalised Comminations in the form of Common Room notices. This trick was annoying at first until one realised that underneath each notice there was the unseen codicil “If the Cap Fits”! This system of inter-communication had the advantage of cutting down the number of formal Staff Meetings to a minimum, though the few we had were always amicable and he welcomed constructive suggestions. (Thirty years later I clung to this excellent precept in my own School, by holding no more than one Staff Meeting per term – and that in the Firm’s time!) I can recall only one incipient mutiny when, no date having been announced for the Half-Term holiday, it seemed likely that this time-honoured privilege was being ignored. A few of us marched in as a deputation and, somewhat grudgingly, the Old Man relented. He reminded me of the incident years later in a letters “No, I don’t believe in too many holidays, as you may remember. The boys are better at School.”
How does one begin to assess so strange and varied a personality? Mainly, I suspect, from his letters, for he had virtually no small-talk and, even to his few comparative intimates, was hardly a sparkling conversationalist. His humour was simple, flavouring strongly of the Edwardian Music-Hall: one of his favourite quips was “Is your wife entertaining this year?” “Not very”. Alive today, he would not, I fancy, have made much of Monty Python but would have adored Morecambe and Wise.
After I left Wednesbury and again, after the war, until his death we corresponded regularly and I still treasure a selection of his letters. They reveal a sad and very lonely man. I think that my wife and I, for a short time, and then Gladys and Alan Turner for many-years, provided most of his contact with normal family life: he rarely spoke of his own family or home background. One of his letters begins “I am writing this from my wifeless and lonely house”. At some time after I left he moved to a large old house in Wood Green, whose garden adjoined the School playing-fields. I visited him there after the war and found him living in a kind of Dickensian squalor surrounded by a vast array of cats of all sizes and ages and a decided lack of housetraining. He was looked after, if that is the right word, by an elderly woman who “did for him” reasonably adequately during the week but lapsed into alcoholic stupor at the week-ends.
Saddest of all, his letters reveal that he thought of himself as some sort of ogre to boys and Staff alike. If this seems an extreme statement I can only let his words speak for themselves:
“I have altered my way of life …. only VI and VA have access to my room now: other creatures hand notes to the office. I think this aloofness is better.”
“I am afraid I am aloof with many of them (the Staff) and that they are rather in awe of me and think they may get the sack at any moment”.
“Except for a few, the boys are frightened of me and consequently hate me: just a few rise above the frightened stage …. even the prefects are rather frightened. I have always had this horrible characteristic – boys are frightened of me and dislike me. Old Boys for the most part rush away when they see me: I suppose I am too domineering.”
“It is the same with the Staff …. I hope you don’t feel that way about me. I have the horrible kink that it is nice to feel that people are in your power. This is sub-conscious but bursts out in many ways.”
“Life in a School can be such Hell”.
All this is as it may be. To me – young, enthusiastic, impressionable and on the threshold of my profession – he was never less than kind, helpful and considerate. As always, Shakespeare has the phrase:
“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again”.
After forty-five happy – and I think I can modestly claim, successful years in Teaching – I still look back on those four years at W.B.H.S. as among the happiest. No-one could have wished for better colleagues. The boys were intelligent, hard-working and friendly, and the term “Blackboard Jungle” never afflicted our dreams. Where, alas, are the snows of yesteryear?