Oxbridge and ex-Public School staff ran our school on Public School lines – as closely as one could for a day school. We had PT every day, vaulting over boxes, doing running somersaults, walking the high beam and everything one can imagine doing in a fully equipped gymnasium, including a shower afterwards. We played seasonal games twice a week, assembly with hymns every morning. Prefects were allowed to thrash, yet no one complained. A strong sense of pride, fostered by a good academic success rate both at school and after, ensured the popularity with parents. The pride was greatly publicised by names on mahogany-faced boards in gold leaf in the Great Hall, that could be read when the message from the platform was too banal. This pride was dented a bit when some Hitler Youth came over on exchange, taught us hand-ball and thrashed us, then proceeded to beat us at tennis. If cricket had not been beyond the German vocabularies of our upper sixth, we could well have be beaten at that too.
There was snobbery between us and other schools in the area which we thought beneath us, which I place squarely at the feet of the staff. We had a woodwork department in which the woodwork master was replaced by a teacher who spoke with a working class accent, worked very much with his hands and had probably come from an artisan background. I suspected he had started life apprenticed to a trade in the North and then had worked hard to reach an academic level. One never saw him in the staff room and rarely, if ever, in the company of members of staff. He taught maths as a subsidiary subject but woodwork and metal work were his preoccupations. We had to choose between learning Classics, or Woodwork and metalwork for Matriculation, I chose the latter, and have never regretted the grounding which has helped me throughout my life, and which made training in the Navy considerably easier. Looking back though, I think tuition in both subjects would have been more beneficial.
It was in my second year the new crafts teacher arrived. Below average height, built like an international rugby hooker, he had hands like vices. He appeared dour. Looking back, and taking into account later experiences with him when we were evacuated, I believe he was probably just reserved. In two terms he single-handedly ripped the workshop to pieces, built steel covered metal work-benches, installed a forge, a lathe, a vertical drilling machine and a plethora of new implements we had never seen before’, while teaching. Then he proceeded to teach us to make EPNS pierced napkin rings, twisted pokers for home fires, the dangerous art of spinning copper – improperly set up, one could lose fingers, ears, chunks of cheeks, as men in the engine Sheds at Crew did, spinning the copper domes for the valves on top of the steam engines. To me it was a period of my schooling I looked forward to every week.
In his store he kept all the expensive and or dangerous bits and pieces which today would walk the plank. Stealing then was not a problem, there was the odd thief who was generally caught and expelled, but nothing was locked up anywhere in the school, except the school shop and the tuck shop. With permission, we were allowed to fix things, as a privilege, and if we had taken on a project which was behind or took more time than allocated, we could work at it in free periods. It was then I discovered him sitting in his office with a cup of tea or sandwiches for his lunch, something the other Staff would not have dreamed of doing, they were entitled to school meals, even when they were not on ‘dinner duty’. I felt sorry for him, a childish presumption based on my own gregarious outlook. In fact, later, I was to find he was a very sophisticated man with cultured tastes and he probably preferred his own company to the racket of the Staff Room.
When we were evacuated in Sussex, he had to try to maintain our progress in metalwork without proper facilities as we would be examined not only on written work but a half-day practical. That first winter in ’39 was fierce and the snow was heavy. One day he came upon some of us trying to make a toboggan out of scrap timber, fruit boxes and the like. He called us into his house, produced some decent wood and guided us in the making of one which would seat three grown boys at a time and was properly constructed with metal runners. Once the ice was broken, we went there on several occasions for tea with his family and it was then that I really appreciated the worth of the man. I have often wondered if he was ever really accepted by his peers at the school, or even whether he wanted to be. All I know is that I owe him more than just matriculation in metalwork.