West Leeds Boy’s High School
A Personal Reflection on Two Grammar Schools
All pupils who were admitted to Year 3 of Cannock Grammar School in 1956 had been told, two years earlier, that they had failed their eleven plus examination.
My father was displeased to say the least. As the minister in charge of St Michael’s, the tin mission church in Rawnsley, passing my scholarship was (sort of) ‘expected’. I had failed and he dismissed it, commenting that “He does not possess the brains he was born with”. That presupposes that he had endowed me with the requisite intelligence in the first place. I privately consoled myself in the knowledge that Ruth Fereday, the one pupil at Hazel Slade junior school who patently cleverer than I, had also failed the eleven plus. The fact was that there were not enough Grammar Schools in the region to cater for those who might merit a place at one.
So I was assigned to Littleworth Secondary Modern School in Hednesford. This was a single storey campus, split in two halves with two courtyards and with an invisible line separating the boys from the girls. The line became visible at playtime by a line of boys who, rather than indulging in exercise, preferred play a game of static I spy, much to the displeasure of the headmaster.
the next two years I trudged, in all weathers, the three miles of coal dust
tracks, over Hednesford common, that led to school. The untimely blue Walsall and District
omnibus only ran every two hours to serve the seemingly remote outposts of
Littleworth Secondary Modern School was fairly easy going and academically unchallenging. There was considerable emphasis on art, crafts, metalwork, drama, gardening, PE and gymnastics so the curriculum was rather like undertaking structured hobbies. The thing that bothered me about PE was the Achilles heel inspection before the freezing, external shower ordeal. After negotiating the coal dust paths of the common mine could never pass that shaming inspection.
I very much wanted to join in the amateur dramatic production performances but inclusion of first years was resisted by older, more mature boys possibly because it was the one event in the school calendar where the boys’ side and girls’ side could come together in a joint enterprise. We ‘freshers’ were however were only permitted to watch rehearsals and the one I most recall was a performance of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’. I recall it because of a remarkable rendition of ‘Say Ye Who Borrow…’ by Ruth Fereday who, it transpired had, at the tender age of twelve, a most remarkably mature singing voice. It was therefore to everyone’s disappointment that on the night of the performance she had a bad cold and the music teacher had to sing the lyrics whilst Ruth mimed on stage. In truth, the Music teacher had an operatic voice and it could well have been Ruth singing, such was the quality of her remarkable voice.
In the second year I did manage to secure a place in the comic line up of policemen in ‘Pirates of Penzance’ which ensured my lifelong passion for things ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’, mildly idiotic and a brief introduction to Theatre.
The three “R”s featured little on the curriculum at Littleworth and English was mainly about pupils giving talks at the front of the class on a topic which interested them. I gave one on a trip I made down the local Wimblebury coal mine arranged by my father’s church warden. My favourite subject would have been gardening as a result of my responsibilities, from the tender age of ten, to maintain our large garden for the purpose of hosting the annual church garden party. Unfortunately I upset the gardening teacher, by causing the premature demise of his precious pansies that he gave me to pot up in his greenhouse, through failing to water them. He never forgave me and I was consigned to hoeing duties for the rest of my time at that school.
Mercifully there were no mid or end of term exams and there was no homework. I spent much of my considerable free-time riding around the Chase on a 28 inch, fixed wheel, second hand, sit up and beg bicycle, bequeathed to my father by a young curate, upon which neither he nor my father wanted to be seen dead. My friend Barry Lomas had a brand new racer with derailleur gears that I envied. His bike was great for pedalling up the steep hills of the chase but my fixed wheel sit up and beg could beat him ‘free-wheeling’ down-hill. Such was my care free life until my parents inexplicably decided that it was inappropriate to have a friendship with someone who did not go to church.
my second year at Littleworth it was announced that certain pupils had been
selected to take examinations for
The gardening teacher was cynical announcing to his class, “I can understand Barry Lomas and Martin Holmes being accepted by the grammar school but as far as you are concerned, Wardle, it’s a complete waste of a placement”. As far as he was concerned I was only fit for hoeing.
The initial preparations for my relocated education concerned the purchase of the requisite school uniform. The prospect of wearing a braided emerald green jacket and matching cap did not bother me. These were symbols of academic worthiness of the time and at least the caps did not have tassels attached that I had seen elsewhere. My greater concern was that my parents might insist that I continue to wear short grey trousers, and it was with some relief that they did not. I was, however taken aback by the gift of a matching emerald green, 26 inch wheel, ‘sensible’ bicycle with three speed Sturmey Archer gears and a chain guard. Not quite the racer that I coveted, but it was a bit easier up on to the Chase and inevitably slower down off it.
Admission to set A of year three of the new grammar school was unique. At thirteen we were the oldest pupils in the school and there were no seniors to look up to. We were told that the going would be tough, that five year’s work would have to be crammed into three and consequently there was no question of taking part in the production of the school’s first play, “A Mid Summer Nights Dream”. I did however get to paint a bit of the scenery, a free standing bit of tree trunk that Mr Morton the new craft teacher cut out of hardboard for Miss Barter the dishy young art mistress.
The Head Teacher, Mr Pomfret laid out very high standards setting a target of nine GCE’s to be achieved and a rigorous programme of homework. I found it distressing, particularly the tasks set by Mr Parkes in maths to manipulate letters to achieve numerical solutions. With no one to help me, my parents only being academics in the matter of spiritual welfare, I struggled.
Any academic enthusiasm I showed tended to be gaffe prone like putting my hand up to tell Mr Draper the French teacher that a Lunette was, “Une dame qui n’est pas exact dans le tête”, and compounding it by saying that a lune was “Un home qui n’est pas exact dans le tête”. In English I was asked to read a passage from ‘The Invisible Man’ where he made himself disappear by drinking a potion. I read, “He took the draft and his finger gradually disappeared”. It wasn’t the only time I dissolved the class, but I kept trying.
Mr Pomfret decided that he needed prefects to help maintain discipline in the school; there had been none at Littleworth. Mr Pomfret’s only resource was year three. I found myself selected and could only think that the reason was that I had a fairly strong physique as a result of pushing a heavy lawnmower round the garden. Prefects’ duties were not exactly glamorous, generally making sure that classrooms were cleared at playtime and caps and berets were worn at all times to and from school. I learned more through that, about the psychology of management, than at any other time in my life. Prefects were required to set an example and one day that caused a problem.
To get home I needed change busses at Hednesford and generally there was just about enough time. More than once I had to jump on just as the Rawnsley bus was about to set off. Missing it meant a two hour wait for the next one or a very long walk over that sooty common. The inevitable happened. The driver saw me run in front of the bus, to make him aware of my presence, and set off. As he drew along-side I grabbed the pole, successfully jumped on the platform and the process my cap flew off. It is amazing what the brain computes in a split second in a crisis. My parents would never buy me a new one; I would “get done” by Mr Pomfret; I would be de-prefectualised. I reached out for my cap, missed it and fell off the platform. The bus driver who had watched the whole incident skidded to a halt and came to the back of the bus, where I was sitting quite composed wearing my cap. No amount of berating affected my composure, I had had much practice at the hands of my father. That driver knew, the conductor knew, the whole bus knew and I knew that he had tried to make me miss that bus, so he didn’t attempt to throw me off.
Three years passed very quickly and by the time it came to take the GCE exams I had amassed sufficient acumen to have a go at seven of them. Some were encouraged to take nine but for me, being “middle of the road” seven was enough. It was a relief when it was all over; May 1959 had been an exceptionally hot month and air condition had not yet been perfected in school halls and the whole business of taking examinations was exhausting. Thank goodness the film production of Great Expectations starring John Mills and Alec Guinness, the book we had had to study for literature, had been on newly acquired telly. Otherwise, as a result of mild dyslexia, I would never have passed it.
The final assembly at the end of term would have been an unremarkable event and I was not paying much attention to it until Mr Pomfret, wearing mirror spectacles so that no-one could see where he was looking, announced that he had appointed a head boy and girl. I listened with passing interest as to who that might be and hearing my name was like receiving an electro-cardiac massage. It is amazing what the brain computes in a split second in a crisis. Surely this is a post for an Oxbridge candidate; I could never match up; I had not even been consulted!
reality, nothing much had changed. Mr
Draper, the French teacher, took me home on the back of his 200cc Bantam
motorbike. That was kind of him as it
saved me that awful bus ride; but it was strangely out of his way as he lived
me, being in the sixth form at
A school orchestra was formed where I attempted to play second fiddle and also a school choir where, thanks to the tin mission church in Rawnsley, I was able to make a singular contribution to the bass line. A group of us put our musical skills into practice at a Staffordshire Youth Orchestra weekend convention at a country mansion (Shugborough Hall?) where we scraped away at an un-harmonious attempt at the slow movements from the Linz Symphony, Eine Kliene Nachmusic and Hayden’s Surprise. A much more harmonious, unscripted contribution was made by the quartet from Cannock Grammar School, with unaccompanied choral renditions of Mr Bailey’s choral works including ‘O who will o’er the Downs So Free’ by Robert Pearsall (see www.youtube.co/watch?v=5vXmVAcozOU ), ‘All in the April Evening’ and ‘Ave Verum’. For a few days the corridors, grounds of the grand palace and conservatories echoed to the sound of music from the CGS quartet, dressed of course in the distinctive school uniform (what else?).
school social life was a world away from the youth club in my father’s tin
mission hut in Rawnsley, which was the centre of 1950’s village community
life. Somehow, I got ‘fixed up’ with a
girl friend called Ann from
After some discrete representation from the Church Warden’s young daughter about my social welfare, I was allowed to buy a fashionable pinstriped suit from the money I had saved as a paper boy for the Hednesford Advertiser. That enterprise had been cut short by the flue pandemic of 1959, in which I was an unwitting carrier, infecting half the population of Hednesford. It may also have been cut short because for a short time I earned more than my father and was deemed to be ‘getting above myself’.
Mr Pomfret permitted the prefects to organise the first annual sixth form school Christmas dance and agreed to the suggestion that sixth-formers from a girl’s school in Litchfield (it may even have been a convent) be invited. It was rumoured that the headmistress of that school disapproved of any liaison with boys, so perhaps Mr Pomfret, being progressive, talked her round. It was a great event to prepare for and one to which I could contribute to by virtue of running such events in the tin mission hut. At least I could supply some vinyl 45’s pop dance records like “Bee Bop a Loo La”. Mr Hoskin’s ballroom and square dancing lessons came in quite useful, the posture of the correct hold having been mastered, and, as I recall it, the girls from Litchfield were well entertained.
was while all these preparations were going on that the coup-de-gras that would
bring down, for me, the curtain on all these activities was delivered. My father was taking up a new post in
dance was a great success and Mr Pomfret’s Christmas service of nine lessons
and carols was a fitting ceremony for my departure from the school. I left Cannock with Mr Morton, the newly
recruited young member of staff, who was going to
had been over the Llanberris pass once, so such scenery as the Pennines was not
entirely unfamiliar, but Holm Moss was like driving up
those days, the descent into
January I attended
Mr Pomfret had introduced me to the school very well; a bit too well as it turned out. I no sooner stepped over the threshold than I was made prefect. Here the prefects had manifest privileges. They were the only pupils permitted to use the front entrances and the upper and lower sixth-form prefects had separately assigned common rooms with sofas and settees. In the fifty years of its existence the school had acquired status and expectation. It expected to win the regional schools rugby championship every year; it had cabinets full of sports trophies from swimming to cricket and expected to achieve at least two places to Oxbridge every year. A well-established Old Boys’ Society was centred around the West Leeds Old Boys’ Rugby Club which they had built for themselves and sponsored. The ethos of that society exerted considerable influence over the school and members held seats on the Board of Governors.
was made to feel very welcome by members of the sixth as much as a curio as
anything else. They wanted to know my
This new academic spectacle was for me bewildering, faintly amusing, self-serving and exemplified by the school motto, “Non Sibi Sed Ludo”; not for self but for school. The regular Army and Airforce uniformed cadet parades that took place in the school yard were amusing. They were commanded by Tisch Bein, the handlebar-moustachioed German teacher, and taken very seriously. There were, however, benefits from joining the military; the sixth-form air-force cadets did get to fly in aeroplanes and it was expected that some of the cadets would become commissioned officers.
I was tested from the outset. Unfortunately Mr Pomfret had let it be known that I was a good swimmer. Needless to say, for four lengths of Armley baths, I was put up against the school elite and came last; exhausted. My training in lifesaving at Bloxwich baths never fitted me up for speed trials. In what remained of that academic year neither the school nor I discovered what I was good at. The head of house reported at the end of it that he was disappointed at my lack of contribution to the achievements of the house; a sting that urged me to do better in the upper sixth.
was a lot for me to get used to, not least the culture, language and attitudes
of this bleak moorland county. It is
well summed up in their great
Hear all, see all say nowt.
Tak’ all, keep all, gie nowt
Hear all, see all say nowt.
Ate all, sup all, Pay nowt,
And if tha iva does owt fo nowt, do it fo thysen.
would not be unfair to describe
was a lot to get used to, not least the common language, dialect and simple
words like ‘owt’ – anything; ‘appen’ – perhaps; ‘clout’ – clothing; ‘na’then’ –
hello; ‘o’reight’ – how are you; ‘side’ – put away; ‘brass’ – money; ‘thysen’ –
yourself, ‘frame thysen’ – get yourself organised; ‘ginnell’ – a narrow alley
and ‘tha’ll niver stop a pig in a ginnel’l – you’re bow legged. To earn a bit of ‘brass’, I became a weekend
milkman and found that an excellent way to learn the geography of
soon discovered that
It was against this background that I decided to bite the bullet for my final school year and live up to its self-serving motto, “Not for self but for school”.
my final year I did discover some useful things I could do and it was
Baptist minister, Mr Nettleship, was recruited to teach scripture for the first
of the Boys’ interests in the exploits of the Monks of St Bernard brought back
memories of Mary Flynne, a devout Catholic, asking Miss Baker what the
‘Immaculate Conception’ was, only to be
told that she would consider it for the next lesson. Eagerly awaited by some, the anticipated exposition
never materialised and no one saw fit to raise the question again. I think Mary genuinely wanted to know the
religious significance of the question, but the boys of
My second opportunity came when the school arranged its annual concert for invited guests. Contributions were invited from pupils but the expected staff contribution never materialised. I suggested the formation of a choir and, as there was no musical tradition in the school, I was left to get on with it. Music was consigned to wooden huts at the far end of the cricket pitch to avoid disturbing the school itself. What music there was ‘in school’ was confined to the one hymn the head teacher seemed to know, “New every morning is the love…” which was groaned at every morning assembly by broken voices. Suggesting a choir to sing in front of invited guests was therefore a high risk strategy and I was no Gareth Malone.
anticipated forming a balanced four part harmony octet of boys I knew from the
Hearing the rehearsals it was assumed by the Head that the concert was well organised by the staff and that their contribution was well in hand and it was only discovered it wasn’t a week before the event. He went round fretting about the invited guests. It was rescued at a late stage by the boys themselves volunteering to read intellectual passages and a few instrumental performances. The expected staff contribution never materialised. The greatly relieved head teacher, not known for expressing gratitude, did so on this occasion. I never did quite understand how it was that the boys managed, or were allowed to manage, their own destiny. I think it was something to do with the hierarchical traditions of the sixth and the fact that they were referred to by the title ‘Mr’, a bit like a surgeon.
It was surprising that the school was not aware of the raw talent that existed within its cloisters. Such talent could have been harvested for school assembly to lead such choruses as, “Thine be the Glory”, but assemblies were seen as an obligatory chore and “Umph” in assembly was not part of the school prospectus.
Sports day was an entirely different matter. It was the highlight of the year when pride was at stake and the elite sportsmen from each house vigorously competed for the coveted house trophy. Hook house was in the running that year but it was close. Not being an athlete, I was content to encourage the team of supreme athletes from the side-lines where I had formed a small orchestra, playing second fiddle, to add atmosphere to the occasion. My unsolicited last minute contribution, for which I had not trained, was to run in the 4 x 400 relay around the cricket pitch which was the final deciding event. I was given a pair of ill-fitting spikes and told that I would take the final leg, be given a substantial lead and in no way to drop the baton, or lose that lead.
I was given a lead, the spikes gripped the turf and hurt like hell, reminding me of my obligation with every stride, and sheer terror drove my legs like pistons to the tape. Perhaps that miraculous strength was down to the power of prayer, as a result of introducing scripture to the school, or perhaps the milk-round. Hook house won that race and house trophy for that year. The scene was like something out of “Harry Potter” and the emotion like something out of “To Serve Them All Our Days”.
were put behind me (so I thought), uniform was discarded, no more
responsibilities (so I thought) and exam results were awaited; and then I
received a letter from the headmaster.
He would like to promote me to Head Boy, for one day in order that I
could make the head-boy’s speech at the Old Boys’ society dinner. The real head-boy would be in
dinner was a long standing traditional black tie affair. It was always held in the large banqueting
hall of the Wellesley Hotel in the centre of
a speech for the Old Boys’ dinner was not difficult because I had plenty of
material in the comparison between the two grammar schools. It was easy to butter up people from
The story of my transition from CGS to WLBS might have ended there but, twenty years later, there was an opportunity to fulfil the obligation of the school motto “Non Sibi Sed Ludo”. The school, by that time, had become ‘comprehensive’ but still retained much of the ethos of the old grammar school including the uniform and motto. The image of the school represented elitism to the City Council who wanted to transfer the boys to the girls’ school, rename it, demolish the old building and eradicate any vestige of its educational influence. The board of governors, which I chaired, was split on the matter and the local councillors, who had never been to a grammar school, hated the place. It was obvious to me that premises were unsuitable for teaching in a modern environment, but the building was a significant and notable landmark in the environment. With a little insider knowledge, I secretly conspired with members of staff to get the building listed. It was, much to the inconvenience of the City Council, but a ‘worthy’ compromise.
school was eventually transformed into maisonettes and is now known as the Old
School Lofts. They tower over the local
community, proudly as a monument to past educational glories. It is likely that, had a young lad from
Cannock Grammar School, not been unwillingly hauled north, the school building,
which is half a mile away from where I now live, and pass on a daily basis,
might not be standing. The question
remains as to which of the school motto’s is the more enduring; to ‘live for
your school’ or to ‘live worthily’.
West Leeds is the school I am constantly reminded of;
J.W revised 2012