The Happiest Days? Westbere Road in the 1930s

The Happiest Days? – Gordon Wallwork

Westbere Road in the Thirties

Introduction

I was fascinated to read Kenneth Blessley's account of his time at Haberdashers. Besides provoking some nostalgia, it made me think how interesting it would be to carry the story forward to explore how the School has changed and how boys have reacted to those changes.

My father was in the motor trade. He had a business in Great Portland Street in London, then the Mecca of the motor trade and we lived in Garrick Avenue, Golders Green. In 1936 he took on the north London agency for Armstrong Siddeley Motors and opened a showroom and workshop in Regents Park Road, Finchley where we moved to live over the premises. As he was in the trade we always had a car to take us out into the country in summer weekends and on summer holidays, mostly in boarding houses in Devon, Cornwall or the Isle of Wight. In those days the cost of going overseas put it out of the question for most families,

I joined the School in autumn 1931 aged nine and remained until 1940 when I left to read Civil Engineering at Imperial College. From Golders Green my father would drop me at school on his way to his showroom in London and I would catch the 28 bus home from Finchley Road. Travelling so far from home it was impossible to return for lunch and I was condemned, much to my disgust, to school lunches. When we moved to Finchley I would travel both ways by tram until, under severe pressure from me, my parents judged me sufficiently mature to cycle to school.

Up to the outbreak of war in 1939, conditions and staff at the School remained much as Blessley has described them. Memorable newcomers to the staff were Dudderidge and Webber, for P.T. and Maths, Henderson for Chemistry, Littlewood, an old boy who drove to School in his impressive S.S. Special, for English and Edge, a first rate Maths teacher.

Discipline

Discipline remained good, sustained out of class not only by the prefects and sub-prefects but also by the sixth formers who were granted 'Sixth Form Powers and Privileges', 0The powers consisted of authority to award 'lines' to offenders of the school rules, the completion of which by the offender was rigorously enforced. By modern standards the system might be thought oppressive but it had the advantage that there was little severe bullying either in the playground or the approaches to school and there was no call upon the staff to supervise in the playgrounds during breaks.

There was a general relaxation of rules for the sixth formers who took their duties responsibly, up to a point.There was a strict rule that all boys had to attend school lunch unless they went home. A friend and I arranged, with the connivance of our parents, to say we were going home at lunch time but, instead, found a small baker's shop and cafe in the Finchley Road which we considered remote enough from the School to be safe from detection, There we would buy a sandwich and bun, which was much more to our liking than school meals and, moreover, yielded a saving out of our shilling lunch allowance. We congratulated ourselves on our initiative and acumen. One day, Sturgeon, one of the more formidable masters, walked in to buy something at the counter; he saw us and didn't split on us, but it was a great shock. We didn't go there again but ate sandwiches or tuck in the classroom or library having learnt the lesson that it is sometimes safer to sin right under the noses of the authorities.

The 'sixth form privileges' consisted of being allowed to use the main entrance to the School and wear a white band around our caps (sub-prefects wore bowlers which is not so bizarre as it may seem today because many of them would have adopted this headgear on taking up employment in the city during the 1930s). A more valuable privilege was that roll was not called at school assembly for sixth formers, so many of us non-believers were able to opt out of morning prayers.

Discipline in class was generally good. Some masters were devotees of the cane. One such was Stanley Norton who was the senior games master but who also taught other subjects in the mornings. A railway ran alongside the School and was a distraction to the boys who tended to look at passing trains through the windows. Norton was famous for threatening that any boy doing so would have to count the number of wagons and suffer that number of whacks. I don't recall the threat ever having been put into effect but it achieved its purpose. The boys' general attitude to physical punishment in those days was that it was all good fun and livened up the proceedings in class; unless you were the victim! But even then the pain only lasted a short time and was much preferable to other forms of punishment, such as lines which were usually offered as an alternative at the rate of 25 lines per whack. As writing lines would have taken much more of our precious spare time to complete, they were seldom preferred.

Norton used the cane more freely than most but was, nevertheless, one of the most popular masters. When he died prematurely, a popular subscription raised sufficient money to enable the building of a memorial pavilion on the sports ground,

Blunt, the Head of the Lower School and Maths teacher, was also a caner but Gruner, who taught German and French, used a gym shoe borrowed from a member of the class to inflict punishment. Caning by masters was not widespread and these are the only three who I remember as having used corporal punishment.
The masters who avoided caning were not necessarily more popular. 'Percy' Meadows, who taught 18th and 19th century European history in the dullest manner, would set a chapter of the textbook, which he had written, as homework and each week he would set a test. Anyone not scoring half marks would be given a detention. This was much more deeply resented than corporal punishment. 

No Payne, No Gain

On the other hand there were a number of excellent teachers who produced results while seldom having to resort to punishment of any sort. One of the most remarkable was 'Harry' Payne. He would maintain perfect discipline in his Physics classes and hold the interest of the boys but he was never known to have punished anyone, a remarkable record. While the standard of teaching was generally high, there was the occasional lapse when a poor disciplinarian was hired, but they did not last for more than a term or two before they were replaced.

Then there was the occasional oddball. Hurrell taught English but, instead of concentrating on grammar in the 3rd form, he spent much of his time reading Conan Doyle or Jerome K Jerome to us in class. Perhaps we didn't learn as much grammar as we should but I ascribe what interest I later gained in literature to him rather than to those other masters who tried to arouse my interest by studying, for General Schools exam, Macaulay's Essay on Addison or Pope's Rape of the Lock. (I have always thought this latter to be a particularly inept choice for those teenage boys whose main interest was directed to the study of the sciences). Hurrell was an English teacher ahead of his time perhaps, he did not stay long at the School.

The Curriculum

In the lower forms the curriculum was standardised as Maths, French, English, History, Geography, Latin, Science, Art and Biology or Manual Training (woodworking) I will always remember with gratitude Atkins' battlecries of 'thumbs up' when using a saw or 'hands behind the chisel' and the great commotion which he created whenever he caught a boy not observing them. It would cause great embarrassment to the victim,
as was intended, but we learnt the lesson which, I am sure, saved me much physical injury in life.

In the third form, German was introduced as an alternative to Latin while Chemistry and Physics were substituted for General Science. In the fifth form, the number of subjects was reduced to the six which were taken for the General Schools examination of the University of London, Everyone took Maths, French and English but then specialised on either the 'science or 'modern1 side, the scientists taking three out of Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Geography while the moderns, I believe, took three out of German, Latin, History and Geography. In the sixth form we all took four subjects up to Higher Schools level, specialising in the 'science' or 'modern' sides with the scientists choosing from Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Biology.

A notable absence was any form of music education throughout most of my time, although a music teacher, Howels, was introduced in 1938. An even more surprising omission was that there was no attempt whatever to provide information or guidance on future careers, even for those contemplating going to university. Most boys, unless they had some contact with a member of a profession outside School, would think in terms of continuing at university with one of the subjects they had studied in School.

Cadet Corps and O.T.C.

Blessley has described how the old Cadet Corps was closed down. By about 1936 the political situation in the Country had changed and a new Cadet Corps was formed under 'Dicky' Small. It was largely a signals based Corps. Apart from basic square bashing, the cadets’ main activity seemed to be learning morse code and practising sending messages by waving flags in long or short strokes. It also had a small survey section whose members spent their time surveying the School grounds, and a bugle band.

The following year an O.T.C. of company strength was started under Reg Adams, an English Teacher. I think this must have been considered more 'up market1 so most people transferred to it but some diehards remained with the Signals Cadet Corps which was retained as an independent specialist unit. In the O.T.C. we had parades on Friday afternoon when we did our square-bashing, weapon training and infantry field tactics, and also had an annual inspection by a senior Army officer and field days in Windsor Park. I was a keen member of the O.T.C. rising to the rank of sergeant, and especially enjoyed shooting practice on the .22 range at the School and with .303 ammunition on Rainham Marshes and in the annual contest at Bisley.

We all took Certificate ‘A’ with the promise that on joining the Army we would be eligible for a commission. Unlike in Blessley's time such preferment was considered socially unacceptable by the 1940s and we all joined up in the ranks but, as I had an engineering degree by then and the army was desperately short of sapper officers, I was sent straight to an O.C.T.U. Adams was an excellent teacher and, I believe, was a first rate soldier; as a Territorial officer he was called up on the outbreak of war.

Chase Lodge

With the start of war in 1939 most of the School was transferred to Chase Lodge where it contrived somehow to squeeze into much reduced premises. Only the sixth form science to which I belonged remained and in Westbere Road a detachment of the Auxiliary Fire Service was stationed in the main building. 1939-40 passed fairly uneventfully with no air raid damage to the School and lessons and exams proceeding in the science building as normal. I was a prefect but apart from being the proud wearer of a red blazer, had no significant status or responsibilities as a prefect in the sixth form only environment.

I had little interest in sports so, on joining the sixth form, took the easy option of playing fives on sports afternoons. As this was unsupervised, the nominal fives players tended to spend more time catching up on homework rather than the game. My only sporting interest was shooting in which I was captain of the School ‘8’ and was awarded colours.

By the late 1930s about a third of people were staying on in the sixth form. In good years two or three might gain Oxbridge scholarships and others would go on to university but the majority would still have gone on to employment.

Quality of Education

What do I think of the Haberdashers' education of the time? Looking back I think that it was well suited to what parents wanted. It was an efficient and economically run organisation and the strict discipline enabled us to pursue our studies with the minimum diversions. Although not a 'crammer’ in the strict sense of the term, it was strictly attuned to getting the maximum numbers through the General and Higher Schools examinations with the highest grades. While the better masters inspired us to seek learning and to pursue our studies in the subjects they were teaching, this was to be done on the basis of the information and methodology they provided or the textbooks they issued. 

On the science side there was no 'project' work and no suggestion that we might enlarge our understanding of our subjects by consulting other sources such as books in the library. Although we were not discouraged from doing so, the unspoken attitude seemed to be that we had been provided with all that was essential and looking outside this would have diverted us from the main objective. It was a system which may have achieved the best exam results under the conditions of the time but it ill prepared those of us going on to university. Having been spoon fed at school, we had little understanding of how to study independently.

The Happiest Days?

Were they the happiest days of my life? Not really. The occupation which has always given me most pleasure in life is using my mind and imagination to solve problems in a creative way. Few of us would aspire to doing this on a grand enough scale to achieve any sort of fame but in the classrooms of the 1930s there was practically no opportunity for it even on a modest scale: teaching methods and exam syllabuses were not designed in that way. Mostly one listened to what one was told in class or read in the issued books and regurgitated it in exercises and exams. Later life has often provided periods of dull routine too, but there have been periods during the War and after when I have had the opportunity to be creative in interesting projects and these were the happiest days of my life.

Gordon Wallwork 2000

(First published in the OHA Magazine 1999-2000)


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