School days

“Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”

I saw as a boy – and sometimes participated in – the trouble which smart and lively adolescents can give their teachers, and probably my first career decision was to remove this profession from the reckoning. My unhappy tenure as a prefect confirmed this view.

The victim of our cruellest baiting was a student teacher of Physics to our fifth form (year 11). He had a tough job: our class 5𝛂 was an arts form made up of the higher Latin O-level set. Attitudes were tribal – many of the class were reluctant to learn the sciences – and we had already given this nervous trainee a tough time in his lessons.

So he was pleasantly surprised in double Physics one day to find himself in front of a model class. We listened attentively, we asked relevant questions, and we supplied intelligent answers. You could see his gratification: he started to relax, daring to believe he might after all have this teaching thing nailed.

Then the bell went, marking the halfway point of the double period. That was our signal. There was a sudden outbreak of coughing. Boys started loud conversations. Paper planes started flying round the room. Within a minute the hapless trainee had been forced to bring in our regular teacher, Mr Banbury, to restore order and sit in for the rest of the lesson to maintain discipline.

But there were many masters (as we called teachers in our very traditional school) who could inspire. I concluded that they had to earn respect, perhaps with a touch of fear, before they could move to a more relaxed, informal style allowing some banter. It was a big mistake to try to be too friendly too soon.

There was Mr Wolton, who took over the Maths lessons in our first year when our form teacher – whose main subject was Chemistry – found himself already out of his depth. Seeing me bored with the pace of the lessons, he brought in some extra books for me to work on. I was flattered and enthused, although that enthusiasm didn’t stretch all the way to calculus.

Mr Oldham was a plummy voiced French master – allegedly blessed with the middle name Godolphin – always entertaining and instructive. He told a useful story about how a pupil had corrected him during an oral examination: in response to Mr Oldham’s question “Ça dépend sur quoi?” the boy had pointedly replied “Ça dépend de” So when my oral came, I answered one question beginning “Ça dépend de” and saw a smile of appreciation that his anecdote had landed. He introduced us to Molière and Racine, and inspired me with a love of Voltaire.

School Calendar, Summer Term 1970

Mr Oldham loved to teach, and it showed. Not so with Beery, so called because of his permanently red face. This was likely caused by a skin condition rather than alcohol consumption but we didn’t know or care. He was taciturn, grumpy and unenthusiastic – Van Morrison without the music. In my second year (year 8) Beery set us a task in English of writing a story set on a North Sea oil rig. We were required to fill at least a page of our exercise books: as I recall, my story ran to two and a half pages, and I poured my creative little soul into it. It came back with two spelling corrections and a tiny red tick at the end. That was my feedback.

Nor was his sports teaching more energetic. On icy days during hockey practice, while we were standing around in our tiny shorts, our gloveless fingers frozen onto our sticks, he would demonstrate a technique one-handed, keeping his left hand cosy in his jogger pants. There was also the time that he returned to the school after supervising a cross country run with two boys unaccounted for, although the boys must share the blame for that.

Some thirty years ago my Mum showed me an obituary for this “much loved” teacher in the Watford Observer. My response was uncharitable. I said there had been many excellent teachers at the school, but he wasn’t one of them.

One of the best was our Divinity master Mr (later Dr) Raper, who had a professorial air but remained approachable. When the class had finished sniggering at his name, he taught us about each different religion in turn. Soon he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity. It struck me they couldn’t all be right. But they could all be wrong, and my childhood faith was shaken.

Dr Raper later raised his head above the parapet in the summer of 1971 during a pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr Turner – known to us as Trog. Dr Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot before leaving, or if this incident encouraged the headmaster to move him on.

The year after Mr Raper taught us, Mr Lister – known for some reason as “Fanny” – took over. Divinity was rebranded – for us at least – as Scripture. Fanny was terrifying. A thin, austere figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. He resembled an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

His lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would give us a passage of the Authorised Version to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a test the following week.

It was usually from the Old Testament, full of difficult names and smiting. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it. The pass mark for the test was 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was completely forgotten by the weekend.

“Dusty” Miller was also a disciplinarian. A martinet of military aspect, he taught Maths, and under his iron glare the brightest pupil could fumble his answer and have his ear grabbed. For a while he was placed in charge of set two of five: when the test results of Set 3 nosedived – because nobody wanted to be “promoted” – equilibrium was restored only when Dusty was moved to take charge of the bottom set. He famously challenged someone in the quad, asking them why they weren’t wearing school uniform. The young man replied “Because I’m a teacher.” Dusty could be funny, but as his humour was used to intimidate and humiliate – and because we all knew we could be next – he didn’t get many laughs.

Truncheon no.2, 4th December 1972

Probably the scariest teacher for me was Mr Vale, the woodwork teacher. In fairness to him, half of my fear came from the woodwork itself, my worst school subject by a mile. We decided he must have had a chip on his shoulder, being one of only two masters in the School Calendar not boasting letters after his name. It was double woodwork early on Wednesday morning during the first half of my first year, and I could never eat much breakfast. I’m still haunted by the sound or Mr Vale’s voice: “Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”

The Second Master (or deputy head) Mr Topsfield was another of the older masters. Bald, with a physically tough appearance, he was strict, regarded as enforcer for our younger, outwardly more progressive Head Master. But Topsfield was seen as straightforward and fair, and was respected. One torrential Friday afternoon I was standing dripping wet at the stop after missing my bus when Mr Topsfield pulled up, flung open the passenger door and said “You live in Chorleywood, don’t you Edwards? Do you want a lift?” I accepted, and we chatted as he drove me to my front door. I warmed to his relaxed good humour, and liked him better afterwards. Understandably no teacher would put themselves in that position now, and children must be protected, but still I feel we’ve lost something.

Most older teachers struggled to connect once they were closer in age to the boys’ grandfathers than their fathers. Some, like Dusty and Fanny exercised fierce discipline, and those who did not often became laughing stocks and could have a torrid time. Like the language master who had to endure boys yelling “Cyril!” behind his back. Or the Classics master – who could be an inspiring teacher, but while I was at the school he went from being seen as a likeable eccentric to being the object of ridicule. He liked to place his chair atop the table at the front of class. One day a helpful boy placed his chair there before he arrived, but with one of the back legs hanging half off the back. Thank god the master noticed and adjusted the chair before taking his position.

Harder to comprehend were the younger teachers who persisted although they clearly hated it. Typically they had tried too soon to be seen as friendly, had accrued no respect and could not keep discipline. In many jobs you can get through from nine to five without any enthusiasm and take home your pay, but teaching seems a dreadful career to be stuck in if you’re not suited – each day a parade of humiliations.

Some teachers seemed to be stuck in a rut, perhaps because they had stayed at the school too long. One French master seemed rather jaded. He could be very good with boys individually, but he seemed to hate kids en masse. Even we could tell that his French accent was weak – we had real French audio for comparison – and my French exchange partner from the suburbs of Paris didn’t hide his amusement when he heard it. But this teacher’s real passion was music, and despite plainly finding us all very irritating, he cajoled 120 first form boys into giving rousing performances of The Daniel Jazz and The Jonah Man Jazz. We had a glimpse of his real personality during a fairly downbeat music lesson when to illustrate a point he suddenly launched into a rollicking passage of boogie-woogie piano. He was clearly a man of energy, talent and passion, but most days we saw little of it.

When it was my turn to be a parent at parents’ evenings, I observed my daughters’ teachers with a critical eye – especially perhaps in the case of the older girl, who attended a fee paying school. There was the French teacher who had announced a test in class: when the girls protested that they didn’t want one (“Could we not?”) she had simply backed down. She expressed a wish that our daughter would continue to study French: she hadn’t noticed that our daughter hated foreign languages in general, and French in particular. One Economics teacher had temporarily confused her class by asserting that if you increase a number by 10%, then decrease the result by 10%, you end up back at the same number. We weren’t impressed either, and as we came away from our meeting I urged our daughter “Please tell me you have a good Economics textbook.”

Many of their teachers, like mine, were excellent, but the variation in ability and enthusiasm was as wide as ever. True of any profession, of course, but teachers are particularly exposed. If you’re not up to the job, the kids will find you out: but if you’re one of those with the gift to connect and to inspire, they will remember you with affection for the rest of their lives.


Post script. After writing the above, I managed to track down my second year English exercise book, which gives me the opportunity to test my memory of fifty-four years ago against the hard evidence. There, dated 28th February 1969, is Explosion on the Rig. In fact it is five pages long, not two and a half. There are three spelling corrections, not two. The red tick is not so tiny. And there was more feedback. In the same red ink, he had written “Well done!” with an exclamation mark. Beery, I owe you an apology. R.I.P. sir.

13 thoughts on “School days

  1. I am astonished at the archival material which you have unearthed: my family think that I am a hoarder, but I have only my termly reports from WGS days. But it is fascinating to read these recollections, some but not all of which tally with mine. For example the “slightly jaded” French teacher whom you recall (John Didcock) always struck me as full of energy and enthusiasm, both for French and also music, his great love. I don’t think that he was a great French scholar but he certainly drummed the grammar in very well. I also remember Fanny Lister: I agree he was awful, imposing rote learning through aggressive and sometimes violent discipline which would get him locked up these days. But then I suppose that because of his tyrannical ways I can still remember what the writing on the wall actually was! (I think the comparison with Quelch is a bit unfair on the Greyfriars man: Quelch was after all “a beast but a just beast”, although my recollection of the Greyfriars stories is that the levels of arbitrary violence were appalling.) But I do have very positive memories of many teachers whose names are on the 1970 staff list, and who, for better or worse, made a great impression on me, and no doubt many others.

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    1. Thanks Mike. I prefer to call myself an archivist rather than a hoarder, but there may not be much difference – a complete set of my school calendars takes up a gratifyingly small space. I did like JD, and he was certainly very good with the boys who wanted to learn. You read Bunter (or rather Harry Wharton and the Famous Five) too? I thought it was just me and our Dads’ generation.


  2. Thanks for a very interesting read. I was at WBGS two years above you. I know many of the “masters” you refer too. If Mr Didcock is the French master you are alluding to, I can agree that he was quite poor at French but I did find him enthusiastic as a music teacher. He was also a very nice bloke; one of the few who were prepared to look beyond my bad reputation and give me a fair hearing. Dr Raper and Mr Wightman also fall into that category. Especially for me, Pete Wightman, who really made an effort to treat me well. I didn’t always repay him in the best possible way, but I really did, and still do, feel gratitude towards him.
    Some of the teachers of the more authoritarian type that you mention were, in my eye, sadists. Fanny Lister, Tom Vale and Dusty Miller particularly. I beg to differ on Topsy, or laughing pig as we called him. On my very last day he treated me to six strokes of the cane, which he wielded with enormous profusion and passion. As he said, it wasn’t for anything particular – I had been on my best behaviour since Christmas – but for my accumulated sins. The truth is that he realised it was his last chance to castigate me.
    My class was renowned for being gifted but undisciplined and. to be fair, I was probably the worst. I do believe that the behaviour of pupils such as myself was partly down to the treatment we received from the authoritarian/sadist masters. After being cowed by them we took out vengeance on the kinder teachers, mistaking their decency for weakness.
    Some of the treatment many of us gave “Cyril” was atrocious. We used to hide behind trees in Cassiobury Park and wait for him to pass us with his bike, screaming “Cyril” or a mass of obscenities at him.
    Obviously I cannot absolve myself of blame for my behaviour, after all, nobody else went so far in their rebellion, but I was out of my depth and was made to be aware of it. JJ Thompson (not Beery), Mr Topsfield, Bill Williams, Dusty Miller, and Mr Foulkes (CJ) would all be found guilty today of assaulting me for the treatment I received from them; apart from a brutal caning there punches with clenched fists to my head and torso and hair pulled out in an enormous clump.
    On a positive note I’d like to mention GEG, Mr Greenwell, a man who truly knew how to command respect whilst at the same time oozing humour and kindness. I remember his last day, when the ovation he got from the pupils never seemed to stop.
    Other memories of Geg involve his incessant whistling of “In an English country garden”. He also prepared us for the treatment dished out by older pupils to us “turds”, telling us to report to him of any harassment and that he would soon put a stop to it. My initial interpretation of this was that he would descend upon the offenders with the wrath of God. I later came to think that it was more likely that these villains would just be so ashamed in front of him. He had, no doubt, given them the same assurance when they were turds.
    Hearing of my schooldays experience, you may find it surprising to hear that after moving to Sweden in 1975 I spent 45 years working in schools as an assistant teacher and provider of extracurricular activities. During that time, I’ve done my best to heed the lessons I got from messrs Wightman and Greenwell. I certainly found that the worst punishment I could give to older pupils was just to let them know that I had been made aware of their bad behaviour, particularly towards younger pupils.

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    1. Hi Peter. Thanks so much for your fascinating reply. I guess every boy’s experience will be different according to their own personality, favoured subjects, and their interactions with the teachers. Thanks for your honesty.

      Now you mention it I think I do recall that thunderous ovation for GEG. He retired just two terms after I started at WBGS, and he never taught me. But I was in 1T, and our form room was Hut 2: GEG became a familiar figure passing through our form room because he had some sort of storage room attached. A rare example, perhaps, of an older teacher who could command respect and affection.

      It’s great that after all that you made a career in education. Thanks again for telling your story.


  3. Excellent! Many memories of days at WBGS. I notice on Google satellite view, that somebody appears to have nicked the lovely outdoor pool now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, sorry ‘Anonymous’ was me failing abysmally to log in properly yesterday… and as an added note, I particularly recall the luxurious changing facilities we had at the pool…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent, love the recollections! You have an admirable talent for remembering the details of your school days and relating them in these rather splendid ramblings.

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  5. Comments from Facebook, May 2023

    A brilliant read! I was obviously there at much the same time as you, Rik. And I agree with all your comments re the teachers. I was fortunate enough to avoid Messrs Lister and Miller, but not the appalling Tom Vale. Quite why Trog continued to employ him I do not know. He wouldn’t last 5 minutes these days. (John Ferris)

    Messrs Lister and Miller were violent. Mr Vale less so but he was such a cruel, verbal bully. I did not get that treatment from him but I almost cried at the despicable way he treated some of my class mates. I had Mr Rigg in geography. He introduced himself as “Mr Rigg, otherwise known as Bucket”. A good way to get pupils onside; they are going to find out your nickname sooner or later so you may as well tell them yourself. He also knew how to make his lessons interesting and amusing. My mates called Mr Kershaw (“Crag”) baby face. Once upon a time the school published pictures of some of the teachers as babies. Crag was included; he was truly angelic with long blond locks. (Peter Neal)

    I left in 1959 but recognise many of the masters, I was terrified of the thought of H. Lister for French in the upcoming year, but, for me, we moved from the area in the nick of time. He was deputy Headmaster at the time, see that Mr Topsfield was deputy in the article, remember him taking French in my first year. Note Mr Rigg on the list. Had a bizarre meeting with him in the School holidays in a restricted area on Grimsby Docks. I was with my Grandfather who worked in the dock offices. He said he was organising a school trip on a trawler. (John Firth)

    In summer term 1970 I was spending my final year at WGGS and had friends at WBGS- some names are familiar. Trevor Foulkes was a delight and our Latin mistress and he got on rather well! I believe Mr Hunt was husband of ‘our’ Mrs Hunt( history). What seems remarkable is that my brother was there from 1954 and Fanny and Dusty were regularly mentioned in dispatches back then and reported as being ancient!
    Excellent read , thank you. (Jean Evans)

    I loved reading this. In those days I lived very close to WBGS, so became very familiar with the external edifice – outwardly a grand traditional school in my opinion. I was a school hater, and going into teaching couldn’t have been further from my plans. But, guess what, I went into teaching in my mid-30s, after having my own children, by which time I’d had a few other experiences under my belt. Those experiences served me well, and I believe they gave me a better understanding of the role of a teacher, and I was old enough to understand how to command respect, and also give it – a two-way process!
    I know it is a contentious thought, but the saying goes ‘those who can do, those who can’t teach’. I am a firm believer that most of our teaching profession would do better by getting some broader experience before going into teaching, rather than going straight from school into academia and teacher training, and then back to school again to be on the other end of the stick, so to speak!
    That was a fascinating read – thank you for posting. (Angela Gardner)

    (Reply to Angela Gardner) I too was a school hater. School wasn’t too fond of me either, leading to my expulsion. Like you I returned to schooling after some years in the real world. I moved to Sweden where I worked as a teacher’s assistant and in out of school activities. I got to work with some very good teachers but also some very bad ones. It amazes me that so many seem to be unaware that for a child to be receptive to schooling they must receive spiritual nourishment. (Peter Neal)

    I arrived in 1977 and recognise barely a quarter of the teachers on that list. Whether because of the change to comprehensive status or just (as your recollections imply) many had hit retirement, I don’t know.
    Trog and Topsfield were still running things (by then with Mr Hart). “Killer” Collins endured (“Chlorine gas is a deadly poison. Smell it”), and Mr Oaten was still Cyril. Rycroft, Harverson, Didcock and maybe a couple of others were also around. Still, fascinating to read and reminisce. Thank you. (Gary Shrimpton)

    One moment of delight with regard to Dusty Miller was the morning that he must have been late. Normally he’d ‘scoot’ his bike through Cassiobury Park and be his usual severe self to anyone cycling.
    That morning he was cycling and the park keeper on his moped ‘nicked’ Dusty.
    I was glad to never have been timetabled to be taught by him. (William Brown)

    I recognise most of the names on the staff list and could tell a story or two about all of them. Different times so the likes of Miller and Lister were pretty brutal but not exceptional by the standards of the day and pleasant and enlightened compared to teachers I encountered at primary school. Andrews and Openshaw ran the scout troop, both a bit too hands on. I remember the head announcing in assembly that Mr O had had a stroke. Even the staff joined the ironic laughter!
    ‘Beery’s got a face like a red tomato’! Sung to the tune of the banana boat song. One of many songs about staff I could recall. Jim McCabe was the only teacher I had who I respected and liked. I have him to thank fir a lifetime love if literature. Rycroft on the other hand was a snake in the grass. Played Mr Liberal, got you to confide in him then went straight to Trog to drop you in it. (Andy Pilborough Skinner)

    Excellent! The memories come flooding back. In defence of Mr. Vale, he did build a rather excellent “cricket shelter” at the edge of the school playing field by the tennis courts. However, it now sadly seems to have been demolished to make way for new school buildings expansions. I used to take my packed lunch there at one time with if I recall, Bruce Main and Steve Richards – hot food in a wide flask inspired by Steve’s lunches – prepared by my Mum. Chopped sausages, beans and potato and the like. Mr Vale bless his skills, also inspired my own basic woodworking abilities to at least attempt to imitate some of his. I still have a wooden box that I made in his class, that the remains of my meccano still live in. Still good and sturdy! I also still have various bits of metal work from Mr Mayes that still have uses, but metalwork never enthused me that much. Pottery on the other hand, must have inspired me to a limited extent, as we still have a large brown glazed pottery vase that still gets used, with ‘ffitch 2B’ on the bottom of it. Though I have to admit, it does look rather more like a dug-up remnant of the Neolithic era, than it does the product of a modern education at dear old WBGS! (Clive ffitch)

    (Reply to Clive ffitch) The cricket shelter was known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Mr Vale was responsible for building it during a year when the woodwork room was being refurbed. My parents were horrified that in my first year at grammar school I was labouring on a building site fetching wheelbarrows full of hardcore for this structure. I recall the chain gang singing ‘Tom Vale, Tom Vale, Tom Vale is a b*m’ to the tune of ‘Marching on Georgia’. (Andy Pilborough Skinner)

    Mr Mayes had our entire year make a cold chisel from a piece of steel bar – and yes we were all called urchins! (Laurie Moffitt)

    How interesting to read this. I was a bit earlier – 1960 to 1967 – so some of the staff on that list arrived after my time. But many of them I recall. Some with a remembrance of fear. As a shy child I was terrified of having to stand up and perform in front of the likes of Miller. And as someone who has subsequently gone through 50 years of adulthood without even yet mastering the relatively simple task of knocking a nail into a block of wood, you can imagine how I suffered derision at the hands of Vale. I spent five years of misery, more or less fearful of setting off each morning. It was only the final two years – the 6th Form – that I enjoyed. It was the refuge of subjects you had chosen to do rather than them being forced on you. And I was lucky to have subject masters who were of a completely different generation to the old martinets. My form master, Neil Hart, was an inspirational teacher. (Alan Curtis Williams)

    I don’t know whether this is an apocryphal tale but my brother used to tell us that either Dusty or Fanny would supervise the cross country route and would hide behind bushes and leap out to chase off unsuspecting students who had stopped off for a crafty smoke; trying to run after them, gown flying, bellowing through a megaphone: “I saw you boy! I know who you are boy! You won’t get away with this boy!” (Jean Evans)

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