My school days started at Hill Street School, now known as "Greenfield Primary", so named after the Greenfield Gardens which it adjoins, and which then was the only public park in Stourbridge.
My first day at school was on a day in late April 1928, soon after my fifth birthday, the school year then starting at the beginning of the summer term, not as now, the autumn one. I recall being taken there by my father, realising only much later that my mother was then seven months into the production of my younger brother Paul. From this conveniently arranged means of getting me off the premises, I infer that 'family planning' was not entirely unknown in those unenlightened days.
I was taken down New Road, along Hanbury Passage, across Worcester Street past Robertson's the vet's and down Hill Street to the school. The school playground at that time consisted of a large stony area, curiously devoid of grass. At a slightly higher level stood the school buildings, and there was a steep unfenced concrete bank from one level to the other, which in later times would have been regarded as highly dangerous and a potential source of 'compensation'.
The school, like so many others of its era, was divided into three, yes three, sex-orientated sections. Nearest the road was the 'Big Girls', furthest from it the 'Big Boys', and sandwiched in between, the 'Mixed Infants'. This sandwiching was designed to ensure maximum separation of the sexes, so minimising any moral dangers which might arise after the age of seven was reached.
And so I was introduced to the Mixed Infants and put in Mrs. Badham's class.
There was a class of even younger pupils presided over by a Mrs. Bate, whose son, Geoffrey was one of my contemporaries. The 'Babies' was held in contempt by us five-year-olds because they had to lie down on camp beds for a while each afternoon.
Of my companions in Mrs. Badham's I have but scant memories. There was a Bobbie Chance, Stanley Carlyle and Derek Watson. Derek had come from Scotland. Where that was, or how far away, we of course, had no idea, but a certain air of mystery accompanied this 'foreigner'. Among the girls I can recall an Elsie Kendrick and a golden haired creature (there's always one!) called Gladys something. Characteristic of girls was their long hair and lack of trouser pockets so that their handkerchiefs had to be pinned to their pinafores or stuffed up their knickers. Both practices I considered to be quite disgusting!
The staff of this establishment was headed by Miss Penzer the Headmistress. She was a lady who appeared somewhat large, but then, most things do to a five-year-old. The effect was, however, compounded by her wearing long skirts which seemed to be made of a heavy Melton cloth and which swirled below her ample diameter.
Her sole function appeared to us to be that of occasionally interrupting lessons to 'see how we were getting on'.
In my brother's time, under her supervision she once tried to quell the terror of thunder by pronouncing that it was 'only two clouds going bump'. On this diagnosis, withering scorn was poured by older siblings whose scientific knowledge included the phenomenon of electrical discharge and whose undisguised aim was to spread even more terror of thunder amongst the tots. Nevertheless, meteorologically, and in a less pedantic milieu, she was more or less correct.
Others on the Infant' Staff were Miss Brown- young with bobbed hair -and Miss Round - comparatively old and wizended with hair in a bun. She must have been at least forty. These two shared the 'Big Room' and taught the two upper classes of infants, one class at each end. Miss Brown played the piano and Miss Round the violin or viola. An early introduction to the concerto.
My mother, having been herself an infants' teacher, had ensured that I arrived at school with the ability to read, write, and tell the time. The advantages befitted our station in life, but this precocity had subsequent disadvantages.
I stayed with Mrs. Badham for a short time, but after one or two terms my literary ability meant my transfer to Miss Round's top infants' class. This meant that all through my school career I was one year ahead of my age group. Consequently I always seemed to be struggling to keep in the middle of the class, winning none of the glittering prizes which, had I been with my peers, might have come my way. Educationalists please note.
Memories of Miss Round's class are vague, but include being taught 'Come, lassies and lads' which caused me some embarrassment. Sitting quite near to me was certain Joan, who, when we reached the bit about 'Johnnie has got his Joan', would simper coyly at me.
Then there was the occasion when we were trained to dance to Humperdinck's 'Hansel and Gretel' and put on a display on someone's lawn - I do not recall whose. That was probably the last time that I was persuaded to trip the L.F.
In the afternoon, occasionally, we were allowed to open the bottom cupboards and extract various educational toys therefrom, and I recall having to go upstairs to do drawing and painting.
In the autumn of 1929, still at the age of six, I was transferred to 'Standard 1' of the 'Big Boys' department and placed under the care of Miss Morgan, who, we were told by a facetious father, 'played the organ'. He thus anticipated Dylan Thomas' 'Organ Morgan' by several years.
This transfer meant a sudden precipitation into a tough, all-male world, apart from two female teachers. Miss Turner's 'Big Girls' were well isolated from us by the 'Mixed Infants' buildings and by an iron fence at the back of the school from beyond which eldrich screams were often heard at playtime. Any interest shown therein was rated a mortal sin by staff and fellow pupils alike, but for different reasons. Encroachment thereon was unknown, the threat of unimaginable punishments being 100% effective.
The danger of simpering Joans had gone for good, to be replaced by a male struggle for supremacy, physical and academic. The trauma was exacerbated by the repeated threat that if you didn't work hard, you would not get a place at the Grammar School. Should you fail to get a place, then you were not worthy of the school, and outer darkness and gnashing of teeth would be mild in comparison with your fate.
School usually started in the morning with an outside assembly called 'lines', to which the throng engaged in dubious pursuits in the playground would be summoned by the ringing of a hand-bell. Hardly ever was this assembly defeated by inclement weather which had to be desperately foul to warrant such a defeatist attitude. Usually the summons was organised by 'Pecker' (Mr. Pearson) who, I assumed, was Deputy Head. When we had lined up, Pecker would give an order which for most of my time at Hill Street I took as "Our Knees", and which was never explained to newcomers. Much later, having acquired some Army jargon, I recognised this as 'At Ease'. However, we did what everyone else did and stood with legs slightly apart and with hands clasped behind our backs. Detecting a slight movement from within, Pecker would then shout 'Shun!' I had always associated this word with people you didn't have dealings with, but soon learnt that it required an upright stance with heels together and an intelligent expression.
The required result having been, in the main, obtained, the Headmaster, Adam Haden would emerge to make his inspection. He was a ratty sort of man with a hairy pimple on his nose which could be quite fascinating. He was quite determined that no-one in his school would enjoy themselves. He insisted that all pupils would salute teachers on sight, even out of school hours. On rare occasions when a teacher was spotted in the street, a sudden interest in a shop window or a dash into Woolworth’s was cultivated in order to avoid this duty.
Haden's inspection was usually followed by a standard pep talk consisting of 'Work Will Win', 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, BUT all play and no work makes Jack a big fool!', concluding with a re-iteration of the school motto: "Upright and Thorough". It is just as well that this motto was not in Latin - "Erectus et Omino" might have been misinterpreted. Then came the inspection proper when those who wore boots in which Adam could not see his reflection, or who showed evidence of not having washed, were liable to be sent home in disgrace - the cause of much smugness amongst others.
On one occasion my father came to the school to get permission for me to have a 'day off' to go with him to London. I probably learnt more about the world on that trip than I would have learnt in a fortnight at school, but Haden's permission was very grudgingly given, with the reservation that I 'could not have my cake and eat it'. This puzzled me, since if at home I was invited to 'have a piece of cake', it was assumed that it was to be eaten.
Miss Morgan, our 'Standard 1' teacher was a staunch Methodist, who not only taught us 'joined-up' writing - known in those less simplistic, yet more alliterative days as 'running writing', but also our multiplication tables, the ten commandments and assorted Psalms which we learnt by heart to the extent that I can identify a 'Miss Morgan Psalm' to this day. Many years passed before I discovered what committing adultery and 'sitting in the seat of the scornful' meant. At that time I had no particular urge to do either so that the caveat against them was rather lost.
She also demonstrated her scriptural knowledge by assigning to certain boys a Biblical appendage to their names. Joe Sidaway was always 'Joseph of Arimathea'. A boy named Thomas was 'Thomas Dydimus'. Samuel (somebody) was given the correct Hebrew inflexion Samu-EL, and Daniel Brown, a farmer's son, might have become heartily sick of having a lion's den mentioned whenever his name came up.
One of the joys of Miss Morgan's class was being asked to 'clean the duster'. The blackboard was at that time wiped, not with the latest patent gadget, but with a household yellow duster. This gradually became so full of chalk that it put more on the board than it took off. Being asked to comply with duster cleaning enabled the favoured boy to go out of class to a wall round the corner and against the said wall, to belt the living daylights out of the duster as well as most of the chalk dust. This gave one's feelings a great deal of relief, assuaged aggressive tendencies, and with suitable cunning could be made to last all of ten minutes.
Another excuse for skiving was 'Please may I leave the room?' One was not required to state the purpose of this request, that being considered indelicate. If too frequent application were made it was likely to be countered with 'No, take it with you.'
Teachers must have derived some satisfaction from such un-called-for sarcasm, and from the blank looks which it engendered among the less sophisticated. Probably it was merely an outlet for their own frustration. Usually, however, the implied threat of a puddle in the classroom overcame any suspicion of skiving. Those who did make it to the lavatories had the pleasure of having the boys' urinal to themselves for practice in 'seeing how high you could.....'. I take my hat off to the architect who designed the outside wall of this unroofed building to be the exact height whereby it WAS possible after a quart of raspberry-ade and an iron self-discipline. The public building research needed to perfect such accuracy must have been awe-inspiring.
Occasionally someone who had over-indulged at meal times, or who had been given an over-large dose of Tisane de Senna, was known to throw up unexpectedly. This ultimate disgrace was dealt with by Mr. Sharman the caretaker, who was 'sent for' - from where we never found out. This colourless, elderly man in a brown bib-and-brace, a battered trilby with an undulating brim, and a sparse, 'old Bill' moustache, would appear with a bucket, shovel, mop, sawdust and Jeyes Fluid, with which remedial action would be taken.
To those not immediately affected (in one way or another) this all provided a welcome break and useful instruction in elementary hygiene.
The next 'move up' came at the age of seven into Mrs. (Carrie) Bridgewater's Class -'Standard 2'. Mrs. Bridgewater was a contemporary, and reputedly a former girl friend, of my father. She sang a fruity contralto in the Lye Congregational Church Choir, a fact which I discovered to my horror once when taken to the said Church. Reconciliation of the image of the weapon-wielding teacher with a 'love thy neighbour' Christian in the same person was asking too much of a seven-year-old.
The family or social connection may have something to do with the fact that I can never remember tasting Carrie's 'persuader'. Whilst most teachers' canes were long and whippy, hers was short and thick. I was never quite sure which was the most effective.
To the staccato accompaniment of the school piano she taught us such ditties as 'Strawberry Fair', 'Oh no, John!', 'The Lass of Richmond Hill' and 'Who will o'er the downs with me?' This was the nearest we ever came to sex education in those days. The real meaning of the lyrics was never explained.
The last named ditty deterred me from marriage for many years. Apparently it was necessary to ride 'o'er the downs - whatever they were, to break down a door which had been locked by 'her' father, or else obtain the key from her mother to whom, for some unexplained reason he had given it, and all the time to face the ire of antipathetic parents. All this hassle to enable you to spend the rest of your life with a girl! It really was not worth it.
The other enigma in this song was the reference to a 'blooming bride'. It was strictly forbidden in most home and school situations to use a derogatory epithet such as 'blooming', especially when it was a euphemism for something else. To do so was not only a mortal sin, contravening as it did the Biblical injunction not to swear, but perhaps more importantly, it was 'vulgar'. The only exception to this was with reference to flowers. Why then could we sing about a 'blooming bride' with impunity?
(A similar difficulty arose with a hymn which made reference to 'the blood he shed'. This illustrates the axiom that what you say or write does not matter, it is what the reader reads or the hearer hears that is important.)
The desks in her class had no back rests. This was not too bad when reading or writing, but the punishment of 'sit upright with your hands behind your head' would, in latter years be classed as torture.
Mrs. Bridgewater’s Class at Hill Street School in 1931
Back Row: John Sidaway, Unknown, Leslie Rich, Unknown, Ken Henwood, Unknown, ? Moseley, Unknown, Unknown, Geoff Oliver, Unknown
Fourth Row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Alan Akehurst, Frank Oliver, Unknown, Ralph Dawes, ? Heathcote.
Third Row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Colin Wood, Geoffrey Wild, Alan Bray, Desmond Jasper, Unknown, Stanley Carlisle, Unknown, James Wood.
Second Row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, John Green, Gerald Pearson, Derek Watson, Douglas Arthur, Daniel Brown.
Front Row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Geoffrey Pearsall, Unknown, Unknown.
At the age of eight I entered 'Standard 3', the domain of one Mr. F. W. Taylor, my first male teacher.
The over-riding memory of his class was of the last twenty minutes of each day when we got out our spelling books. Then until the bell rang, we chanted out the spelling of words from the book until they were firmly fixed in our heads. To this day I never see the word 'MONKEY' without recalling 'M-O-N-K-E-Y MONKEY' being chanted out ad nauseam, and of the difficulty of keeping a straight face. I sat next to Alan Akehurst who for some reason regarded monkeys as a source of hilarity and scratched under his armpits when not observed.
The next move was to 'Tichy' Ellis' Standard 4. Tich was a rather small, humourless man with what came to be known as a 'Bobby Charlton' haircut. He was, I think, a good teacher. His disadvantage was that he had a withered right arm, and whilst he was quite good at writing on the blackboard using his left, he couldn't cane all that hard with it. This made a welcome change and may account for his being a good teacher - he had to be!
In his class I held the exalted position of 'Monitor' jointly with Douglas Arthur. In return for getting to school early, checking ink-pots and giving out pens and pencils, we were allowed to read the Wizard or the Hotspur in the warm classroom until Les Miserables were let in out of the snow.
Tichy had one ability which in these days would be considered quite remarkable. He taught music to a class of boys with no more than a tuning fork, a cigar box ('Take a note boys!) and a Tonic Sol-Fa Modulator. I never found out why, every Friday afternoon, he sent a character called Haddock, or sometimes Yeatman, down to the corner shop for a pennyworth of yeast. His also was the definition of the degrees of comparison as 'Positive, Comparative and Super-LAY-tive'. Someone who volunteered this knowledge after having been moved up to 'Pecker's' class was treated with sarcastic derision and its originator with vitriolic scorn. It was a valuable lesson both in spelling and in the occasional fallibility of teachers.
Tichy was once unknowingly the cause of a great injustice. One, Herbert Smithyman, who wore a holey jersey and who smelt a bit, came in late after the dinner hour. On being asked where he had been, he replied, "Up the Spout, sir." He was then punished, not only for being late but for impertinence, Tichy not knowing that the "The Spout" was a small spring in Wollescote Park.
“Tichy” Ellis’ Class at Hill Street School in 1932.
Back Row: Raymond Smith; Arnold Bennet; Kenneth Henwood; Albert Bartlett; Unknown; ? Yeates; Frank Beale, Unknown, ? Tomkins, Philip Malpass
Third Row: “Tichy” Ellis (teacher); Reg. Reynolds; Stanley Carlyle; Douglas Arthur; Unknown; Ronald Moisey; Leslie Vale; Geoffrey Noke; Eric Guest; Arthur Moisey; Unknown; Herbert Smithyman
Second Row: Eric ?; Unknown; Bert Weston; Harry Willetts; Stanley Heathcote; Unknown; Norman Partridge; Leslie Ames; John Green; Unknown; Alan Akehurst
Front Row: Desmond Jasper; 'Finney' Haddock; Leslie Taylor; Unknown; Ernest Page; Unknown; Unknown; Unknown; Unknown.
And so on to 'Standard 5a', entry to which ensured your getting a place at the Grammar School even though you had to be chastised with whips and scorpions and withered with sarcasm in order to do so. A brooding hatred of the teaching profession entered into my soul.
Before developing that theme, however - there was a relatively quiet backwater called 'Standard 5b', presided over by one Jakeman, into which at that time, were shunted the hopeless cases destined for Brook Street School and careers of road sweeping and dustbin emptying.
Jakeman, (Jacob) was a character with a penchant for wing collars. He was an adherent of some fundamentalist sect and was apt to preach some strange doctrines during scripture lessons.
I never experienced him as a teacher, but as his classroom overlooked the side playground, one could see tea being dispensed to the staff at playtimes. The fact that we, on whom the staff depended for their living, received no such refreshment, has been a source of resentment ever since and accounts for my innate contempt for the over-privileged.
There were, in those days, no 'extra-curricular activities', but various forms of recreation and contest were concomitant with the school day. The recreation area, as I have said, was very rough and anyone who came through the years at Hill Street without some of that playground permanently imbedded in his person was a sissy. That there were no fatal or disabling accidents in my time pays tribute to the innate caution combined with toughness which characterised our generation.
Gang warfare was rampant in the lower part of the rough playground furthest from the school buildings. There were two gangs, headed respectively by Gerald Pearson and Philip Smith. Gerald had the moral advantage in that his people kept a sweet shop in Market Street and so, like most politicians, he was able to inspire loyalty by bribery. Smith was scruffier and tougher, so like most politicians he was able to inspire loyalty by threat. Honours were about even.
The less belligerent, or those who were sufficiently self-confident not to have to prove it, spent time in peaceful pursuits such as 'five-stones' and cigarette-card flicking. The object of the latter was to cover 'his' card with yours when flicking it against a wall. Having done so, you could keep it. It was possible, in this way, combined with honest swapping, to build up a set of cards which could be mounted in a book provided by the Imperial Tobacco Company.
At one period, 'English Wild Flowers' gave way to 'Footballers', who were shown in club strip. It was fifty years later that I eventually discovered where 'Port Vale' was! These delights were supplemented from time to time with marbles, 'Yo-Yo' or 'Diabolo' according the current fad and the possession of the means to indulge it. The possession of a clasp-knife incorporating a 'thing what you gets stones out of horses' hooves with' was a mark of distinction and superiority.
There were more formal attempts at 'Physical Education', but having been born with a natural disinclination to take too seriously the connection between 'developing a sense of coordination' and transmitting momentum to spherical objects, either with my foot or with some wooden extension to my arm, the weekly crocodile to Brook Street playing fields I regarded more as a penance than as a relief from study. For this I was regarded as something of an oddity. I can, however, recall falling backwards into a clump of nettles whilst fielding at long leg.
To return to academic progression we must proceed to consider the creme-de-la-creme known as 'Standard 5a' - later as 'Standard 6' - and Pecker Pearson.
Pecker was the son of the Headmaster of Wollaston School, and his sister married George Burley who was head of history at the Grammar school. (George was an awful teacher. He would probably have made a detailed account of the rape of the Sabine women utterly boring to a class of seventeen-year-olds). This may explain a lot.
Pecker is recalled as a well Brylcreemed character, as was the fashion of the time, with an Errol Flynn moustache. He was wedded to the Hill Street philosophy of 'Education by Terrification'. His first action on entering the classroom was to hang his long flexible cane on the end of the blackboard after giving a convincing demonstration of its strength and efficiency. He then proceeded to push you towards the scholarship exam - and Pecker could push - with said cane - on your hands or your seat - the latter often producing a cloud of dust.
The mother of a lad named Leslie Rich, who seemed inoffensive enough, used to come to the school in a towering rage, borrow Pecker’s cane and publicly thrash her son. We never knew why.
Memories of Pecker's class include the weekly trip to the Public Library. This was made by two 'volunteers' who had to carry a large wooden box of returned books to the town library, about half a mile away, and bring back the same box with a new set of volumes. The volunteers were usually two of the 'toughies' such as Reggie Reynolds (whose father kept the pub next to the Post Office) and Leslie Ames, who liked to show off their strength. Some of us were aware that they were being conned and found it easier to let them do it. (So it is in life, children!)
On the arrival of the new books, each was held up in turn by Pecker, whereupon anyone who desired to borrow it held up and waved his hand, hoping to catch Pecker's eye. The one who, to Pecker, seemed keenest, got the book. The contents did not seem to matter much. The newer the book appeared to be, and the more lurid its cover, the greater was the competition. So much for the inculcation of literary judgment.
One legacy of Hill Street was the conviction that the higher one rose up the academic scale, the harsher became the discipline and the tougher life would become. The extrapolation of this experience meant that anticipation of life at the Grammar School held unknown terrors. It was therefore a relief in later years to find that 'Standard 5a' had probably been the peak of suffering rather than the lower part of an exponential curve.
Perhaps my proudest moment at Hill Street was after being given a 'problem' (arithmetical) as homework. It went something like this: 'A field is a hundred yards long and a hundred yards wide: 1. What is its area in square yards? 2. Another field's dimensions are double that of the first. What is its area in square yards? In the before-school playground, notes were compared. I found myself in a unique minority in having the answer to question 2 as 40,000 sq. yards - and I trembled. Great was my joy therefore to find later that I was the only one with the right answer. This introduced me to the political - and Biblical - axiom that the majority is almost always, and sometimes catastrophically, wrong. This doctrine is not popular with Trade Unions, winners of parliamentary elections, or with General Synods of the Church of England.
My last memory of being a Hill Street pupil was after the dreaded 'Scholarship Exam' which I managed to pass following the application of 'whips and scorpions'. We were in the Grammar School hall after a viva voce examination and prior to our being admitted as new boys. J. E. Boyt, the flamboyant headmaster, enquired whether anyone had been instructed in 'science'. One small, but very rotund character indicated that he had done some physics. This mystified most of us whose knowledge of 'Physic' was confined to the delights of liquorice powder and castor oil.
"What sort of Physics have you done, boy?" demanded Boyt. " 'eat, sir" was the reply. It brought the house down.
The rest is another story.
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004