Reminiscences of a Schoolboy

During the 2013 Presidents’ Lunch a number of past Presidents referred to a talk I gave at the same function two years prior. For the benefit of all Old Southendians, this is reprinted below.

It is over 75 years since I, a rather nervous boy, arrived at Victoria Circus to join the school.

During the subsequent years, I came into contact with well over 30 members of the staff and most, if not all of them, made a contribution, not only to my education, but to many other features of my wellbeing and character and prepared me for further education, a career, and the ability to do most things myself.

Looking at the staff list that I can remember, many of them had characteristics that have stuck in my memory and I can recall some of the situations today, as clearly as they were when I first met them. Going back to day one. Along with some 100 or so new boys, we were all assembled in the small hall on the top floor at Victoria Circus. There was quite an amount of noise. Then suddenly on the platform at one end appeared a master, who said, in a loud voice, just one word, “HALT!” This produced an instantaneous silence. The master was Clem Edwards, who was a very smart person with round glasses and hair, which was short, appeared to stand on end. This day and this vision are firmly impressed on my memory.

He established a standard of discipline and obedience that was maintained throughout the school.

Although frightening at that time, he made it very difficult for me to learn anything by heart, Edwards was in fact a very nice and agreeable teacher, who was later required, due to masters being called up, to teach some of us advanced maths and I regret to note that he struggled with this syllabus. It was called ‘mathematics more advanced’ and it was School Certificate paper set especially for the school.

I lived on the London Road opposite to Crowstone Road. The one mile journey to school was on the tram. If I got on outside my house, the fare was a penny halfpenny, or if I walked to the Plough it was just one penny. So one walked to the Plough. Later on I travelled by bicycle and achieved 38 mph on the straight stretch just before the school. We all became expert in riding on greasy cobbles between the tram tracks.

My first form master was Mr.Arro, who was the school PE teacher, who also took us for English. I have to thank him for teaching me how to climb a rope. He was followed shortly by Mr. Vandyke.

The weekly sports afternoon, football, hockey or cricket, took place at the sports field at Southchurch. This required the form to take the tram to the White Horse and walk to the grounds.

I was never very good at languages, especially English grammar, Dr. Mepham took us through the Merchant of Venice for School Certificate and Mr Jerram directed excellent productions of Shakespeare plays. We had Mr. Harding, but I cannot remember any of his lessons, although I recall that some were rather loud.

But some of the aspects, of languages, particularly German, some of which we learned by rote, are still stuck in my memory. Mr. Britton was my first German teacher and I can still recite all the rules of German prepositions, which we sang to simple tunes, such as Good King Wenceslas, and also to some drinking songs of doubtful origin. Later, of course, we had Mrs Alexander and everyone learned the words of the Lorelei. Again, at School Certificate, we were required to read a passage in German and I can still recite most of this today from Elf Fussballjugends.

The sciences were my forte. The physics lab at Victoria Circus was on the front of the building facing the road. The cupboards contained some apparatus and equipment from the early days of wireless and a lot of electrostatic items, such as Leyden jars and Wimshurst machines. We had quite lengthy sessions on electrostatics a subject which seems to have disappeared from current syllabuses, although it is still relevant. There is an electrostatic accelerometer in your car that controls the air bag.

Mr. Havis was my first physics master and he had many mnemonics to help one remember essentials.

When dealing with Latent Heat, he asked us to say what we always saw when we went down Southchurch Road. No one guessed this, but the answer was CWS, the Co-operative Wholesale Society. But from then on we all remembered that CWS also stood for Change, Weight, and Specific Heat.

Havis and many members of staff at that time had had difficult and unpleasant experiences in the First World War. Although Havis had been seriously injured, he never spoke of that directly, but commented that if it rained in the trenches, the ‘sea was choppy’. He was an officer in the school No. 640 ATC squadron.

Two other masters taught me physics. Mr Wyatt, who in the first year also taught Geology, another subject that has disappeared, but taught physics as Heat, Light, Sound, Electricity, and Magnetism up to School Certificate. He made the subject very interesting and this was helped by each pupil being able to carry out the experiments. Biology had not arrived and Nuclear Physics had not been invented.

Mr. Wyatt lent me his folded 20 inch slide rule when I was in the sixth form. This gave me a significant advantage in speed of accurate calculations, avoiding log tables.

Mr. Palmer took sixth form physics. His hero was J. J Thompson and quoted his work at every opportunity. This was whilst we were evacuated and he encouraged the few of us in the Upper Sixth to develop our own experiments. There were a number of pieces of apparatus at QEGS that were not in use, so we experimented with polarised light using a saccharimeter and devised a means of measuring the velocity of light using a homemade grating. This we made by dissolving the blue and yellow lines from a piece of Dufaycolor film with cyanide. I wonder how the H & S rules would view this.

On one of my return visits to Southend during the war, Mr Palmer asked me to go to the school; this was of course at Prittlewell Chase after the bombing, and to recover a large glass prism that he valued highly. I found the prism and to my horror a corner was broken off. When I delivered it to Mr. Palmer he thanked me and said. Don’t worry boy; it has been like that for a long time. I was relieved.

Chemistry is a subject that H & S rules have affected significantly.. At both Victoria Circus and Prittlewell Chase the chemistry labs had positions for each boy and each bench had a shelf with a selection of dilute acids and reagents.

Mr R.J, Fox, and Mr L.B.Fox both taught me chemistry and I clearly remember a demonstration of a piece of sodium being dropped into a bowl of water to observe the fierce reaction that took place. This was before eye protection was mandatory, you just stood back. Latterly we had Mr Dickerson, who was an expert in poison gas. I was never taught by Mr Walker, bur he had a reputation for a fiery temper.

For several years Mr Proud took chemistry and he impressed on us a memorable statement.

“Take what you think will be enough and put nine tenths back”. A very useful economy measure.

From early childhood I had attended St. Alban’s Church. It was something of a surprise to meet Messrs George Smith, Britnor, Porteus, and Hutchings in a very different environment.

George Smith and Mr Cattermole taught history. I regret that the only thing I can remember about Cattermole is looking at the back of his head as he wrote.’ A few brief notes’ on the board.

With George Smith we studied the Tudor period and I recall most of that. But History together with Geography, taught my Newman, were the two subjects that I dropped, in favour of Music and Chemistry.

George Smith was the starter at Sports Days. He arrived with his army revolver holster strapped on...

I owe a great deal to the school and to Arthur Hutchings for developing my interest in music. It has been a continuing source of pleasure throughout my life and I still am an active performer.

Hutchings joined the school at the same time as I and the early music classes were mostly singing, but later as a selected subject, we gained a comprehensive appreciation of classical music and the composers. Hutchings introduced me to the school organ and this encouraged me to take lessons, which I did during a period of ill health in 1941.

Hutchings was courting Miss Haverson, the school secretary. For some time during each lesson, which was held in the hall, as the music room had not been built, we could observe just his rear end, the rest of him was leaning though the office window.

One of his extramural tasks was to edit and annotate conducting scores for Beecham. He was a prolific composer and was one of the editors of the New English Hymnal. He was a vice president of the Gregorian Association and I was in the choir that sang the first performance of a hymn tune New Elvet in Westminster Abbey.

He married Miss Haverson. I still have a copy of the Messiah that he gave me. Subsequently, after war service, he was Professor of Music at Durham, then at Exeter. He was a Devon man and retired there.

One could go on. Leonard Britnor. was the Officer in Charge of No 640 Squadron ATC, he taught Mechanics and Applied Maths and organised the forestry camps during the evacuation. He had a very large collection of stamps from the West Indies.

Much has been written about the evacuation, particularly in the centenary book by Harry Carmichael, so I will not reminisce here, but the annual evacuees reunion lunches have been very happy events.

There were a number of maths teachers. I cannot remember the name of the teacher who took Form 1 his initials were R.K.G. In the sixth form we had several. Mr Smith was keen on solving innumerable trig. equations. Then we had Smetham who was very good and I much more recently met him as the retiring head teacher of Palmers School. He was said to have a good cellar.

Katy Short is remembered, by her example of a tea cup not being half full, when the tea was halfway up the side.

Herbert Last taught woodwork and latterly Engineering Drawing, he too was an officer in the ATC.

His woodwork classes have stood me on good stead right up to the present. His associate, Pickstone who concentrated on metalwork, enabled me to repair some clock gearing when I was evacuated.

Apologies for not mentioning everyone and I regret that I cannot put a name to all those initials in my termly reports.

Mr Watson who taught me French for several years and Mr Wilcox who gave me up as an artist.

Mr. Phelps never taught me Latin but I met him on the football field and as the organiser of Dig for Victory in the school grounds.

I was never taught Maths by Mr Porter, or French by M.Decottignes or Mr Brown or Mr.Porteus.

One last story. I had a reputation for being a wireless enthusiast and had built several receivers and tone generators for use by ATC members to learn Morse code. Dr. Moore heard of this and as his wireless had failed, he asked me round to his house for tea and to examine the wireless. Unfortunately the wireless needed a replacement valve, which I did not have with me, but we did have “Buns for tea”.

I have benefitted immensely by having been at the school, especially with building self-confidence. This enabled me to play the piano for many school assemblies and as House Captain and the Senior Prefect to initiate the Science Club and the Music Club that had lapsed due to the war.

Do I have any regrets? Two. I never played cricket for the school, although I was a rather good all-rounder and had been coached extensively by Jim Evans. However ill health and evacuation overtook this and I was never the same player again. And secondly, I was never able to take part in the school trips, as we did not have the accommodation at home to look after an exchange pupil.

Roy Simons (Troy, 1935-43)