Last updated: 12 June 2009
In September 1937 when I entered the High School as a pupil, it had been open for thirteen years having begun in 1924 with 51 boys. The original school building was Wood Green House, the former residence of Sir Albert Pritchard, four times mayor of Wednesbury and local manufacturer. New buildings were erected in 1926 and Science Laboratories added in 1932, and so the building that my year regarded as school was mostly only five years old.
The old house which overlooked tennis courts on the side where the classrooms were, was still an integral part of the school and contained the Headmaster’s study, an office, one class room and a room, later used as the dining room when more boys began to stay for lunch after the war started, a small cloakroom for sixth formers. A door which led to the caretaker’s quarters through a small ante room which in 1937 was still used for boys to eat lunches provided by the caretaker’s wife. Upstairs there were two normal classrooms, a smaller room used for sixth form groups, and the staffroom. The house was linked to the school hall by a corridor, (off which there was a washroom), leading to outside toilets, a classroom and cloakrooms, and which lead to the main entrance hall, known as the crush hall where school and house administrative notices were posted. On the first floor were the library, art room, classrooms and the staff cloakroom. There were two more classrooms behind the hall: one on each floor and a chemistry laboratory on the ground floor with the Physics Laboratory above it. In addition to the tennis courts, there were gardens at the rear and alongside the hall and chemistry laboratory.
A triangular area had been surfaced and was used for PT, alongside one side of which were the bike sheds. The whole plot was bounded by St Paul’s Road (which separated the school from the playing field), the railway embankment of the line from Walsall to Wednesbury, (along which ran the Dudley Dasher), and a hedge on the third side. It was therefore set in a very pleasant environment and not like many older grammar schools that were in the centre of the town with no adjacent playing fields.
There were four boys in Park Lane known to me who were at the school, three in the fifth year including Tommy Lamburn, and one in the fourth year. I had been allowed their company over the last twelve months or so, tagging on as a youngster to whatever they did: from kicking in on Lloyds playing fields if the groundsman was not there – we crawled under the barbed wire – to playing a reasonable cricket game with proper bat and a “corky” – a substitute for a proper leather ball (which we rarely could afford, and if someone had one it was much prized). There was one fairly level field with some grass near the allotments to which we repaired if serious cricket was envisaged. An occasional street game of tip cat on a side road in the estate, which was still not completed, might occur if nothing else turned up… Otherwise wandering over the pit mounds exploring the pools for newts, jumping the narrow tributary of the River Tame which ran through the field from Lloyds to Wood Green. This was something I could not do and if they wanted to drop me they could do it that way! Then if one had to do something for his family we would accompany him.
I also knew two boys who were the sons of one of the foremen at the engineering company where my father worked, and they were in the fourth and fifth forms too. This personal contact and having heard them talk about life in the school meant that I had no qualms about going into a new strange experience; in fact I looked forward to it. Had I not been prepared also by my reading “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and “The Magnet” (my uncle’s prize which sat on the book shelves, in the sitting room at my Gran’s), “Cock House at Felsgarth” by Talbot Baines Reed, and numerous similar school stories from the Public Library? I knew how important the House System was, for instance and I knew that I would be in Wood Green House as the system was based on the pupil’s address. Three of my friends were in this house and the other two were not because when they started at the school they lived elsewhere.
The school was not unknown to me as it was just two hundred yards past the church where I was in the choir and Wilf Raybould, who sang there with me, was also going, Another factor in my preparedness for this new experience was that I had been learning quite seriously to play the piano for the past two years — which required a lot of practice — so I was already used to having to sacrifice some of my leisure for more serious things. I was perhaps as well prepared as I could be for opening this new door.
Thirty two of us assembled on that first morning and the register was called by the Senior Master. We answered in turn to establish whether our names were correctly recorded. “Ray”, he called and in my confusion I replied, “Yes Sir, P.C.”. He thought I had said “Percy” which took him aback because it turned out Percy was his name. I was immediately nicknamed “Percy”. I had made my mark.
In those days we had Saturday morning school and it soon seemed normal to me, although some boys always resented it. I liked it because it meant Wednesday afternoons were set aside for games and school matches which we were encouraged to support, rather than going home for the afternoon. If there was no school match then the house matches would be played. We had PT which was conducted by the Sergeant (who had been in the East Yorkshire Regiment in the First World War) and consisted of running round the Triangle between the bike sheds and the tennis courts. If wet, we would go into the hall and do exercises for there was no PE equipment at first and no proper gymnasium until after the War. With two games afternoons, two PE lessons, and games a possibility on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, there was no problem of obesity.
We were also introduced to chess fairly soon as the Headmaster had a national reputation as a chess problemist and believed every boy should learn the game. In 1939 the school was awarded the British Chess Federation Shield for teaching chess.
I soon began to love the warmth of school in mid-afternoon with darkness falling outside and nothing to occupy your mind but your opponent’s machinations on the other side of the board. These games and chess periods were always the last lessons of the day and keen boys could stay after school, until the caretaker kicked you out, and that was a great treat on a wet wintry afternoon, delaying the actual departure and battle against the elements even though I could walk home in less than twenty minutes. Of course that was fine for local boys but one can see a different point of view. If you were a Willenhall boy and came on the train you had a timetable for getting home and delays in the changing room after games could play havoc with this. Also leaving school at 12.30 on Saturday morning must have seemed cruel to someone who had previously had Saturday morning free and had not had the benefit of reading all those stories about boarding school from which the tradition had, of course, come. No wonder the boys from Willenhall were from time to time called up to see the Head about their behaviour on the trains — even to taking the carriage light bulbs out so that the journey was in the dark.
The school day started with an assembly of all the school in the hall. This room had windows down one side from head height upward and honours boards in between each window. The other side had two entrances at front and rear, the boys always entering from the rear and the staff from the front sitting with their back to the stage. Two prefects sat, one at each door, and their job was to close them when the Headmaster had arrived. Boys arriving at the back after this point were officially late. The fourth side had a gallery which was entered from an upstairs class room and rarely used. When the boys and staff were settled, the Headmaster made his appearance complete with gown and mortar board. There was a lectern in position for him where he stood. Having removed his mortar board and placed it on the lectern, he breathed in and sniffed. At an Old Boys Dinner, some years after I had left school, it was revealed by a master that the staff were never quite sure whether it was out of contempt for the staff or the Almighty that the sniff was produced. A hymn was sung, accompanied on the piano in my time by Mr Mangan, the French master, who also took singing lessons with the first year. A lesson was then read by a prefect who had been to the Head’s study earlier and received a hand-written note stating the passage to be read. The Head was well known for his notes, usually written in green ink, and his script was not easily decipherable. If it was a note on the school notice board pointing out misdemeanours by certain boys by name, it did not much matter if the writing was not readable, as the boys would know who they were anyway. However one unfortunate prefect misread the instruction and duly completed his reading of Esther to be met with an outburst from the Head, who roared, “Ezra not Esther”. The re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem had been intended, not Xerxes’s attraction to the beautiful Esther. The Head did not read any notices that day and stalked out, handing his notes to the Deputy on his exit. Whether by design or not, Mr Hatcher had great difficulty deciphering them.
The teaching day then started. Two lessons before break and two after, each of 45 minutes, brought us to 12.30. Break was a quarter of an hour just giving you time to queue at the Tuck Shop for a biscuit, packet of crisps or a sticky pie in a wafer basket —the main attraction of which was the piece of stiff paper on the top which was quickly whipped off and stuck on your nearest neighbour’s cheek – unless he was bigger than you. It called for quick thinking and the skills of a scrum half to find your appropriate target, and then escape in the crowd. The High School was nearer home than my junior elementary school and so an hour and half was plenty to get home, have dinner and get back for a kick-in before afternoon school began at 2 pm. Of course fags — as first formers were known — did not get the chance to kick in at the top goalmouth nearest to the school entrance, but just to be there and see the first teamers doing it was reward enough in itself, and if the ball came to you when watching and a kick could quickly be taken – oh what joy. Then in school for three more lessons with no afternoon break. These were forty minute lessons and the last one from 3.20 was always chess or games in the lower school. On a very wet afternoon the last period might be given over to homework.
The first term was quickly over and ended with a rather old-fashioned ceremony. After the final assembly all the boys queued up to process to the Staff room where all the masters lined up and shook us by the hand, and wished us a merry Christmas. This, I discovered, occurred at the end of every term. Then the braver souls went to the Headmaster’s study for the same procedure, only he sat at his desk rolling and smoking his hand-made cigarettes.
Two happy years were spent in this atmosphere. Given a text book I would try my hardest, so that translation of French sentences became no problem, or even Latin and English grammar, but in Physics we had no text book and I ended the second year with an exam result of 24% and most of that was an explanation of the electric bell circuit! It was decided I should do Latin. Although there was also no text book in Chemistry, for some reason I was not so totally incapable, and although I was never the sort of boy who wanted a chemistry set, being taught by the Headmaster may have had something to do with it, and I never felt completely lost. We did do a lot of practical work in the laboratory, and only stayed in the classroom for a written test or the results of same. We did not study Biology, being a Boys’ school, but nor did we do any practical work such as woodwork. Scripture for the one obligatory weekly lesson, Mathematics, English, Geography, History and Art completed the curriculum. In the first year we had singing once a week and we learned a lot of traditional songs from the National Song Book under Mr Mangan. The Headmaster would, in the summer, come in and ask if there were any “groaners”. These unfortunates had already been placed on the back row and were duly marched out to pick up any stones on the cricket pitch and outfield which might harm the mower blades. In the spring and summer we might also be given a gardening period. This was just a way of giving the gardener a little help. Alongside the hall was the main drive to the rear of the school and there was space for a number of flower beds. Our job was to dig over the beds, removing dead annuals and weeds in preparation for another planting. Spades and forks could be dangerous in unwilling workers hands though, and however much some did not like being in class their behaviour was worse outside.
Nevertheless it was not during gardening that the only serious accident occurred, but on the cricket field and that certainly not the result of misbehaviour. A strong pull to square leg caught the unwary fielder on the mouth resulting in the loss of several teeth and a nasty cut. He may have been too close: he put up his hands a fraction too late, the ball was through and got him. We were all a bit shaken by it as no one had hit the ball quite that hard before – it was probably only the fourth or fifth time we had played with all the necessary equipment of pads, and leather ball.
Punishment was by detention after school or lines. The latter could be demanded by the prefects for such crimes as running in the corridors or cheek. The head did give the stick for serious offences such as taking someone else’s bicycle out of the bike sheds, bullying younger boys or forms of vandalism and fighting, but such things were rare. On one occasion a master, with whom I usually got on very well because he lived in Park Lane and had given me several rides home in his Morris 8, felt I had misbehaved in class and insisted I stood on the waste paper box until the end of the lesson saying that I was “rubbish”. I felt extremely humiliated and I was very subdued for a time after that.
The prefects also had a role on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in compiling a list of boys present supporting the school team. The lists were handed to the Head and the following Monday a notice in his usual green ink would name the boys who had been present. For someone who liked being in the open air it was no problem for me to so turn up. Only twenty minutes walk away and on a Saturday to watch the school match meant I was well on the way to Gran’s without having to go up the market with the family and could always argue that it was expected of me. Of course such school loyalty meant I might have to choose between watching Walsall or the school, but then Walsall were away on alternate weeks and there was not a school match every week anyway. In the second year I would usually play on the Saturday afternoon either for the school juniors or in a Junior House Match. I practically lived at school and certainly in those first two years would not have thought of going to the cinema on Wednesday afternoons. My reward came at the end of the Summer term in the second year when a list of boys awarded their senior caps was posted on the notice board in the crush hall. This was the earliest you could get your senior cap of blue and yellow quarters to distinguish you from “ordinary” plain blue capped boys. I obtained it for good work, chess and support for the school. “Mens sana in corpore sano” suited me.
I returned to school into my third year in the September that the war broke out. From then on school changed considerably. Immediately we noticed one or two masters were missing, particularly the one who had called me “rubbish”. He was immediately called up we were told because he was in the Territorials. He survived Dunkirk, won the MC and came back after the war for a short time with an old English sheep dog which he insisted on taking to school every day. Such eccentric behaviour could only be tolerated from a war hero; unless you were the Headmaster. We of course were fitted with gas masks but that was done at home. However at school we were given the opportunity to go through a van with gas in it to have a minimal experience. We were also shown films of aerial bombardment from the Spanish Civil War which the Sergeant, normally engaged in PE, had obtained to give us some idea of what it could be like if German bombers reached the Black Country. He then made an appeal to us to do what we could in the ARP to help. Air Raid Precautions was the name first conjured up, before the war started for what eventually became known as Civil Defence. He was an air raid precautions instructor throughout the war. Some of the older boys began training to become ARP Wardens, but all we could do at 14 was become messengers. Then an attempt was made to dig some trenches as an emergency measure in case any bombing occurred – unfortunately the ground was water logged after about two feet down. We were all very pleased as the digging was very near the main football pitch. Eventually brick and concrete underground shelters were constructed behind the goals of “the second pitch” as it was known, on the playing field situated on the other side if the road which ran between the school and the field, and we could be evacuated into them in minutes if the alarm went. It did on a few occasions. Though we never experienced any actual bombing, we did once see a bomber fly over and drop a bomb near the gas works at Pleck.
I became a messenger, being the proud owner of a new Hudson bicycle with dropped handle bars, and most of my friends did similarly, even Jack Smith from Park Lane (who was later my best man) joined, although he did not have a bicycle. Teddy Beddard who was in the same class as Jack, a year ahead of me, became a local warden quite quickly, and other friends Alan Owen (who lived in Park Lane) and another Alan (Onions, who was a year below me at school and whose brother was soon to lose his life in the RAF) also joined. On the first occasion that we all assembled for a training session, I met a boy who had been at the junior jchool with me – Joseph Ash.
One of the perks of being in the ARP was that members were issued with a different gas mask with a linen draw-string bag, instead of the cardboard box carried by civilians, and a tin hat, an arm band and a blue overall. Eventually this was replaced by a blue battledress. After some basic training, including how to use a telephone in the dark and a stirrup pump to put out incendiary bombs and fight minor fires, First Aid, and an explanation of the role of the Rescue Service, Auxiliary Fire Service etc, we were either attached to HQ or to one of the Wardens’ posts which were set up in each district of the town. From to time we participated in exercises, either taking messages on our bicycles because telephone communications had broken down or being designated as casualties for others to practise on. Those of us at HQ did duties once a week from 6pm to 6am. This meant in effect, playing billiards or snooker, table tennis or cards until ten or eleven, and then sleeping down in the basement on very narrow beds with extremely tickly blankets. We got refreshments: usually cheese sandwiches and tea. There was enough cheese in the sandwiches to take half of it home to help out with the weekly ration. My education took on a new dimension, as a fourteen year old able to talk with 16, 17 and 18 year-old girl telephonists. Their telephone room was next door to where the messengers slept. We also got to know the rescue men, who were based at the same depot, and who overnight were transformed from denigrated dustbin men to potential heroes and some of whom I knew as fathers of children I had known in elementary school. Others I had seen leading the horses of their dust carts or clearing up after the market. Their language and stories were a real eye opener… One I remember centred on some fooling about at the abattoir with “a bull’s pizzer” which it took a long time for me to unravel!
There was no real bombing in Wednesbury, although there was nearby, and eventually the system changed, and messengers only went on duty when the air raid sirens sounded and returned home when the all clear went. The nearest I came to war action was on one such occurrence, when after cycling up a long incline into a stiff wind, I arrived at headquarters to find everyone in the cellars. I was greeted with, “Didn’t you hear the planes?” and had to admit that I had not, nor the bomb that had landed in the cemetery, just half a mile from home. Unexploded, as it happened. I never took any messages but often stood and saw the red glare in the sky that signified air raids on Coventry or Birmingham. Occasionally we were alerted to the danger of the canals being bombed at the aqueduct—locally “ackerduc”— but it never happened.
At about this time our group of three from Park Lane were friendly with a group of girls from the Commercial School which was quite close to WBHS so although we were not co-educational we did see the opposite sex about sometimes, We might also see each other at Socials which were organised by the various churches and other chapels for their young people. One of these girls eventually married a friend of mine from school but he was not in the ARP or our group because he lived in Tipton. Alan from Park Lane met another girl through this original group and married her. The girl I liked was the daughter of the Civil Defence Officer as he was now called, but unfortunately he left the town and a friend of our family, Les Crouch, took his place – but he did not have a daughter.
By the end of 1941 there had been a number of women teachers and a number of elderly men appointed to replace the men who had joined the forces. Miss Helliwell took over the Art from Mr Legge, Mrs Coleman taught English after Mr Coombes left .When Mr Coatham went, a young Latin teacher named Rigg took his place for a year. Twenty five years later we met at a conference at Culham College when he insisted that I met some of his students to prove he had once taught in school. It was a common complaint from Training College students in those days that their tutors knew nothing about schools! Then in our fifth year the Headmaster taught Latin to the only two of us who were considering University entrance on the Arts side. He had a 50% success rate. Alan Payne was the outstanding linguist in our class and was now regarded as the best scholar; he was also an outstanding athlete, which coincidently suited the French teacher Mr Mangan admirably as he was the only teacher who encouraged athletics. He passed the Latin but I did not. Thanks however to Miss Hollins, an Irish teacher who appeared as I entered the sixth form, I managed to get my letter of credit one year later and thus obtained the necessary level for University entrance. By this time there were only five of the permanent staff left and a lady had taken over in the office for the first time in the history of the school. This was Margaret Russell with whom I had been at school at King’s Hill.
The School Certificate was the examination we were all working towards and we sat the papers in the school hall. My memory is of a wonderful summer which was not ideal for the candidates. I remember drawing a delphinium for the art exam as Miss Helliwell felt anything to do with paint would undermine me completely. I have always been able to joke therefore ever since that “Art was the only subject I got a pass in” – fortunately I did better than pass in everything else except Latin. Not outstandingly good but a satisfactory all round performance and entry to the sixth form had been achieved. Not before I had been blown off course a bit however as most youngsters tend to be at such times. Playing cards for money was nearly my downfall. Not much money, for none of us had much, but having to be at school after examinations, which nowadays is not expected, was resented by some lads. They brought cards to school and surreptitious groups found their way to an external changing hut and set up a card school – “pontoon” was the cry. Many had been the game of innocent brag and pontoon we had had in Reggie Jinks’s shed at the bottom of the garden in the holidays. Next door to the insurance man! But this was for real. Whether it was the Head or someone else who discovered us I can’t recall, but we were banned from school – which was what some wanted. I on the other hand was badly hit, I would have been happy there: net practice or tending my plot in the Headmaster’s garden which I had been doing for the past two years should have kept me out of trouble. The Senior Master “Percy” interceded for us pointing out that the school cricket team would be seriously weakened if the ban was not lifted for the Old Boys Match. So we were forgiven and the match was played with one or two old boys back on leave. The Headmaster was snoozing, as was his wont, in a deck chair placed at the side of the pavilion, next to his beloved score board which he always showed off to visiting teachers who came to umpire, ensuring that they dutifully admired the revolving disks which rattled up the score for the two batsmen at the crease as the total accrued. The small boys who were imprisoned inside were rewarded when the berries had ripened, with a raspberry tea in the Head’s house which was adjacent to the field. He presided and poured the tea. The tale is oft told at Old Boys dinners, to illustrate the Head’s eccentricity, that I was batting, when the Head in order, no doubt, to encourage me, shouted out from under his sunhat “Come on, Ray you can’t stick on 16.” A not too subtle reference to pontoon. So ended the summer term of 1942. Probably it was the end of raspberry teas too, for the Head no longer had a gardener and he had asked a few of us who were local, some two years earlier, if we would like small plots there to grow vegetables. This was in line with the national “Dig for Victory” campaign which was being encouraged and which was the cause of us digging up the lawn at home. Even a few lettuces, beetroot and cabbages were helpful to the war effort, it seemed, and they were certainly welcomed at home. It was from this experience rather than the odd gardening period in school that my interest in gardening stemmed, though I would not have taken it on had I not already obtained some insights from watching and working with my father. If this is part of my psyche then I feel it somehow fits with my immediate delight at seeing the cottage at Cwmystwyth, my love of walking in the mountains and generally not being cooped up.
A new experience was however about to descend on me. My father dearly thought that a sixteen year old should not be wasting his time on seven weeks holiday, and suggested I might like to get some “works experience”. The proposal was that I should work in an office for a few weeks to see what it was like. I went to Guest Keen and Nettlefold’s in Darlaston and worked in the Time Office for a month. The job was checking the time cards of the workers and taking messages — sometimes queries about absence— to the foremen of the various shops. I knew the foremen of two of the shops as one was my godfather and another was one of the choirmen in the church where I used to sing in the choir. This man also lived next door to my grandmother and was a friend of my Aunt Elsie and Uncle Reg. Also at the firm was another friend of my parents with whom I might walk home, as our destinations lay in the same direction, and his son (although two years below me in school) was known to me, as we were in the same House. I did not particularly like going into the workshops, not because of the leg pulling, but because it was so noisy and smelly, and in some very hot. I learned that there were cold heading machines and hot drawing machines in the manufacture of nuts, bolts and screws but the excitement of the technology left me cold. I soon realised that, born though I was in the Black Country, I did not want to be an engineer. However there were compensations as I have usually found in life. Someone knew I played cricket at school and I was invited to fill in for several twenty over evening matches, and then I was asked to play on a Saturday afternoon match at Goodyear’s the tyre company at Wolverhampton. I cannot remember anything other than turning out and on one occasion running into a wire fence which surrounded the ground in an endeavour to take a steepling catch on the boundary. Seventy five years later an arthritic joint in my right-hand middle finger continues to remind me of the incident.
Before entering the sixth form I had another work experience which I had signed up for at school. This was to work at a harvest camp for two weeks at Eccleshall in Staffordshire and we cycled there and lived under canvas, working on local farms or helping in camp. I remember hoeing turnips and wondering at the time whether those I left in the row survived, as the seedlings did not seem very sturdy and the ground was very dry. When the harvesting began it was really hard work stacking the stooks together to dry after the farm workers had gathered armfuls of barley or wheat and tied them with string. It did not seem to bother them of course but our arms got scratched and red from the sheaves, and it was all together hot, tiring and painful. What a joy to get back to the camp site, wash in water from a stream, and lie down on our palliasses… One evening I was part of the orderly team for the day and our leader suggested I might like to make the evening cocoa. I filled a Dixie with milk and water and went into the store tent for a packet of cocoa, poured it in and stirred away. Eventually warm, and ready to serve, the boys line up for their last drink of the day – only instead of cocoa they got milk, water and gravy powder which I had mistakenly poured into the container in the dim light. It was on the same day that I was shown, by one of the locals helping at the camp, how to skin a rabbit. Several had been brought for our evening meal and this man stopped to skin them for the cook. He emphasised the importance of a very sharp knife and it was remarkably easy. However it was a skill which I have never been called upon to demonstrate, probably because first one has to catch the rabbit. I cycled home after the fortnight with a little pocket money for my pains and an experience of hard work and comradeship with other boys from other places such as Rugeley and Cannock. One particularly, Alan Cole — who went back into the sixth form to read arts subjects, and with whom I corresponded throughout his military service until he went to University, and we lost touch. After Higher School Certificate I visited his family for a holiday, by which time they had moved to Lancaster where his father had become station master.
So it was into the sixth form to study History, English and French for Higher School Certificate, with a credit to be obtained at School Certificate level in Latin if University entrance was to be considered. I had already decided that I would like to teach, and having had encouragement from the staff at school, felt a degree was possible which would mean the possibility of a job in a grammar school. In other words, the environment in which I had been receiving my education seemed to me to be one in which I would be happy to earn my living. Later on in life, I met someone who was teaching because he had hated the way he had been treated at school, and felt there was a better way. Somehow his motivation seemed on a higher plane than mine. In my case the staff had invariably been helpful and encouraging, so it was not surprising that I wanted to carry on that tradition. Other school friends also wanted to teach, but had their sights on work with younger children and were set to leave after one year in the sixth to seek places at the training colleges. On reflection I think we were very fortunate. We actually had a master who was interested in what we would do after we left school! He was a member of Rotary and had himself been in a family furniture business before he decided to use his engineering degree to be a Maths teacher. Lucky for us that ABT —as he was often called affectionately— did understand the industrial and business environment into which most of his pupils would go. Of the thirty two who had started together in 1937, only four entered the sixth form for the two year course. We were all on the Arts side and, in addition to the three subjects I took, they also covered Art and Geography. Two of us went on to University immediately and obtained degrees in French and History, one went into the paratroops and obtained his Geography degree after hostilities had ended, and the fourth obtained his City and Guilds diploma in Mechanical Engineering and went into business. Two teachers, one civil servant and one in business – par for the course in the 1940’s for a small grammar school. Two local friends who did not stay on in the sixth became, after banking and accountancy training, an area bank manager and a local government chief executive.
I found working in the sixth form in small groups very interesting particularly as we had upper sixth formers in with us, otherwise an uneconomic use of staff would have occurred. However when my History master seemed to expect me to do as well in essay writing as those a year ahead, I realised life was not going to be easy, At least in our study of the Stuarts I was starting at 1603 and not at 1660 as the upper sixth formers had done a year earlier. I was not ready for such sophistication. Not only did this master teach British History, he also taught the European syllabus as well. On top of that, because of the lack of suitable staff he had volunteered to teach half the English course. This man really was responsible for getting me to University and it is not surprising that I remained in touch with him until his death in the seventies. What should have been two years of steady progress with little to interfere with study, bearing in mind there was a war on, suddenly came to a halt, however, at around half term.
We had played a Saturday afternoon match at Wolverhampton against the Municipal Grammar School and I had cycled back with my friend Stewart Siddons, who lived at Darlaston. I was coughing quite a lot and somewhat out of breath when cycling. The cough having remained with me over the week-end, my mother took me to see Doctor Dingley on the Monday evening. After a longer examination than usual, he called in his colleague, Dr Wilson, and they agreed that I probably had experienced a spontaneous pneumothorax and that one lung had collapsed. They advised that I should go to hospital for an x-ray to confirm this. It was confirmed and I was told that I must rest as much as possible, going to bed early, and eschew all forms of exercise. I had played my last football match for some time. This was a great blow. Ever since my fourth year I had been playing at first for the second eleven and then, from the fifth form onwards, the first eleven. In the fourth year the second eleven captain was a certain Michael Brooks, who was a year older than I was, but we became great friends as we discovered we had things in common, like stamp-collecting, gardening, and enjoyed the same sense of humour, and were both inclined to the left wing. This latter characteristic caused his father much amusement, as he accused the school of influencing us. It is true that some of the staff may have influenced us, for I remember in 1938 how upset our History teacher, JF Ede was at the time of the Munich crisis, though it was rare for any of them, in class, to be really outspoken in their views. However in circumstances such as fire-watching together in the evenings at school, it was much more likely that thoughts on the state of society and “After the war” would be expressed. This extra wartime duty had become essential where buildings were left unattended overnight and the senior local boys and staff were formed into teams for this.
So football ceased, but so also did Civil Defence and Fire watching, the essential activities which legitimately kept us away from home; so essential for fifteen/sixteen year olds. I was in bed by eight o’clock, walking slowly to school, not running after buses and jumping on, as they moved off, by swinging on the hand rail. No going to football matches because of the crowds! Half the fun was dodging round people and running when a space appeared as the thousands poured out of the gates. The change in my lifestyle can be illustrated by the fact that I was given permission, when sitting in the library, the base for sixth formers, to put my feet up on another chair! No cycling to friends and relatives and no strenuous exercise of any sort. Gardening consisted of dead-heading and not much else. Gentle walks were all I was good for. However reading was still allowed and I could listen to the wireless and play the piano. I had ceased to have music lessons by the summer of 1940, I think. At the age of fourteen I was becoming more aware of what was required and, having worked my way through “The First Star Folio” which included such pieces as Mendelssohn’s “The Spring Song” and a book of “Intermediate Studies”, my music teacher presented me with a book of “Exercises Rapides”. At the same time at school there was a brilliant pianist who played anything more or less on demand and had already got a band together. This genius was younger than me and I realised that a technician I might be, but a pianist never. I felt it was time to give up. Harold [Rich, presumably?] one year below me, did later play in the cricket team, of which I was captain, and we were friendly enough to play the “Zampa” overture as a duet in a school concert when I was in the Upper Sixth. I, of course, played the bass notes! Walking to the library to change a book was a real treat, and during the Christmas holiday, I became more friendly with a boy who I had known at school because we were in the same house and because he scored for the cricket team and played chess. He had won a History State scholarship to Cambridge. He had not the slightest interest in games but we discovered things in common, such as Music and politics as we walked to change our books – though sometimes it was too cold for me to be allowed out.
My studies should have profited from my contact with someone seriously studious like “Joe” Ball and that did not happen. I still found myself just managing. Just AN Other sixth former. One of the set books for the HSC was a selection of The Metaphysical Poets and I have often gone back to some favourite readings there, and I did read more widely as a result of my changed life style, but not with sufficient thought. My interest in History was certainly more cemented in to my psyche than before, and I became certain of my desire to read it at University. This interest was political and I also began to discuss political matters a lot more, when friends came to spend a half hour with me. Several friends who had left school after the School Certificate were already at work and, at seventeen, were now looking to the next step of war service. Jack from just below us in Park Lane was in the second year at the Bank and studying for his banking qualifications through a correspondence course, which was a new experience. Alan from Park Lane in the other direction, was working in local government. Others were in the civil service and most, of course, in local companies —making a small contribution to the war effort at Rubery Owen, GKN or the Patent Shaft.
My life was very different from this world of work. With a diet of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe and John Donne and company, it is not surprising that, with time on my hands, I tried my hand at a little poetry and short-story writing, perhaps influenced by reading Conrad’s short stories for School Certificate. However I quite soon realised that my efforts were worthless: clearly I had insufficient imagination and no experiences of sufficient stimulus to form a basis for a literary career.
I had regular checks with the doctor, who had intimated that there was no treatment other than rest, and the lung would re-inflate itself. I also got used to going to West Bromwich hospital for x-rays. However after nearly a year without any improvement, advice was sought from a consultant physician in Birmingham, and he advised seeing a chest specialist. I was now eighteen, and papers came summoning me to a medical at Aston for HM Forces. My doctor was horrified and insisted I took my x-rays with me in case they made a mistake. I had intimated a preference for the navy as Jack, my friend from the bank had also done, but of course I was first rejected by them on the grounds of being colour blind, sent round to the army doctor who looked at my details and then said that he was sorry to say that they could not take me, and graded me C4. So on the advice of the chest surgeon, I entered Wolverhampton hospital at the end of the spring term 1944, well over a year since the start of my condition and a small operation to reduce pressure in the chest was undertaken. After a few days observation I was released and told to do anything I liked physically. The previous summer I had been limited to walking in the park and a gentle roll up on the public Bowling Green with an older friend of 20, who had had a hernia operation. Now another cricket season lay ahead, but also the Higher School Certificate, so essential for my future prospects.
In making application to University I had one consideration in mind and that was to live at home. This was purely on the grounds of cost as I knew that, with two younger brothers, my parents would be worried about future expectations if I was funded through University. As I wanted to teach, I could get a basic grant of £50 a year, and fees would be paid, and this would go further if I lived at home. I only therefore applied to Birmingham University. Unlike today when information on every course in each university is readily available I knew nothing about the University and none of my teachers had been undergraduates there. I was invited for an interview at Edmund Street, the home of the Arts faculty, and duly made my way there. I was interviewed by an elderly gentleman whose main concern was that I had got my Latin entry qualification and that I would not mind doing French, as I discovered that all undergraduates in “Medieval and Modern History” (which was what I was seeking to become) had to take a foreign language for at least one year. The place was dark and dreary on that particular afternoon and had nothing particular in its favour. However having been wished good luck by the gentleman and been shaken by the hand, I vaguely realised I was not being treated as a schoolboy and that, after all, what I was coming for was to study, and the dark Victorian brickwork building somehow gave out an aura of seriousness. We did not have a lot of experience to compare in the sixth form, as Alan Payne went to the same place but to the French department. Stewart did not apply as he had decided to forego taking his HSC to join up, and he left before the start of the summer term. He was full of a jingoist spirit of saving the Empire at the time, but most of the staff and his friends thought he was misguided.
On returning to school for the summer term, I was elected Cricket Captain, and immediately was sorry that Stewart had left as he was the best bowler in the school. If he had not left he would have been captain, for the election was by the fifth and sixth formers influenced by staff. On being told of the decision the Headmaster apparently commented “Oh, yes. Why not Payne?” Alan did play a little cricket, but in fact he was an outstanding athlete and was always sprint training to the delight of Mr Mangan, the French master and only member of staff interested in Athletics. The season was not particularly successful, but Wood Green did win the House cricket trophy under my leadership! The examinations came in a blaze of summer sunshine, and in due course I obtained my HSC in English, History and French, the latter success ensuring that I needed to do only one year’s study of that subject at the University. More cricket was played at the Wednesbury Sports Union which had closed for the duration of the war, but which was made available to a group of young cadet officers on a course at Wednesbury Technical College. They were only too willing to accommodate a few extra keen youngsters. The school had arranged a harvest camp at Gnosall, not far from Stafford, for part of the holidays, and a young master who had joined the staff being unfit for military service with a damaged knee, had suggested I went with him as his number two. Anything that gave me board and lodging and also fresh air was welcome, and a small amount of money could be put aside for the term ahead. An interesting feature of this camp was that Charles Taylor, the teacher, had to fetch an Italian prisoner of war daily to the camp to cook for us. I think he came up from Sheriff Hales, and he was delighted to be away from the camp routine. It was from him that I learned to cook macaroni in a meat and tomato sauce, which is known in our house as “Macaroni a la Spartacco”. I recall some bad weather and I don’t think it was enjoyed by the boys quite as much as my experience two years earlier at Eccleshall. So seven years at WBHS came to an end. Entry to University achieved, health restored, a firm conviction of what I wanted to do and some friendships formed that would last a lifetime. One can not say therefore that it was wasted. I looked forward to University seeing it as a means to the career I wanted. There were changes in the air in this area of social service and I wanted to be part of it. My interest had been aroused by the discussion of the future of educational provision after the war, and the 1944 Education Act (the Butler Act) had been passed in May 1944, promising free secondary education to all, and raising the school leaving age to 15 immediately. I recall that in sixth form discussion, I had spoken about the Folk Colleges in Denmark as a result of some of my wider reading at that time. I remember encouraging my father to send my brother Peter to the Grammar school in September 1944 as he would only have to pay fees for one year. My grounding was over and I looked forward to putting down some roots for my chosen profession.
Philip Ray (WBHS 1937-44)
Postscript: I have just spent a few hours scanning and proof reading this fascinating document so that it can become part of the website. Although Mr Ray left WBHS before I was even born, I can relate very well to the buildings and places mentioned. I also attended King’s Hill Primary School and therefore lived in the same area of the Town. I even think we had the same doctor! The rough waste areas of land where we played, the factory names, the street names, Pleck Gas Works, the tributaries of the River Tame, the Crush Hall, the old cricket scoreboard, the Masters’ names – Percy Hatcher, Sam Mangan, Fred Coatham, Alan Legge….. Even the ‘ackerduc’ (at James Bridge not Hydes Road)! They have all been brought back to life for me! A wonderful dose of nostalgia!
Alan Gutteridge (WBHS 1961-68)
I am indebted to Alan for the huge amount of work he has undertaken to convert the original typescript into a format that I could use easily on the website. [David Perry, Webmaster]