Everyone told me I would never pass my 11-plus with high enough marks to go to King Ted’s. After all, it was common knowledge that only the brightest 11 year-old male swots in Sheffield could even think of entering the hallowed chambers of King Edward VII School. All the same, it was better to aim high.
And sure enough, when the long-awaited letter arrived, my parents were told that I had achieved a suitable mark to go to the City Grammar School, which was our second choice. Not bad, but not what I had hoped for. Then, a few weeks later, another letter came. As a result of this I was taken to Roberts Brothers’ shop on The Moor and kitted out with a King Edward’s uniform. I could hardly believe it.
I well remember the first day. Well-scrubbed, wearing my new uniform and carrying an outsized schoolbag, I was taken on the back of my father’s motorbike to Glossop Road, where I disembarked and joined the apprehensive throng of fags. We entered the school via the front steps (from then on we were only allowed to use this entrance when arriving late for school - the other doors were locked to prevent us sneaking in unnoticed) and entered the Great Hall, where we were welcomed by the headmaster. Nathaniel L. Clapton was a large, grey-haired, terrifying figure of a man, and although he did not say anything particularly terrifying, his general manner made me want to be back at Malin Bridge Junior. Lists of names were read out, from which I learned that I was to be in form 1(4). Thus it was that, with another 31 boys, I was entrusted to the care of Dr G. Jameson - Latin scholar, scoutmaster and a thoroughly decent man.
It is difficult to convey here the atmosphere of a school of this type in the late 1950s. Not so many years earlier it had been a fee-paying school, and it still had the air of a public school about it. Many of the 40-strong staff were indeed ex-public schoolboys, such as R.N. Towers (head of geography, known as “Bert”) who never gave us homework - it was always “prep.”. Most of the masters wore black gowns, though they did not wear mortar boards (I did, however, once see one, on the headmaster’s table during assembly, when the TV “World in Action” team were filming - something to do with the decline of schools like ours and the rise of comprehensives). Discipline was strict, though not usually unsympathetic, and individual masters varied quite a lot in this regard. The cane was there as the final sanction, and was used fairly regularly. Some masters had that rare ability to keep a class in order without obviously imposing discipline - Wilf Mace, who taught Physics, was an expert in this regard. Others did not seem to worry about discipline, and their lessons were somewhat disorderly - J.E. Thompson (“Jet”), for example, who taught German including “scientific German”. On the other hand, D. Rhodes (“Dusty”) taught geography in an utterly silent classroom - any sign of disorder or insubordination was dealt with swiftly. I don’t think I learned any more geography as a result (I gave it up at 13 in favour of “geometrical & mechanical drawing”).
The various subjects taught at King Edward’s 40 years ago reflected the academic world of those times. Computers were unheard of at school (I remember a group of senior mathematics students being taken to actually see one) and the subjects taught, together with the teaching methods were very traditional. But there were some colourful characters among the staff. There was the red-faced and red-haired Alan Wilcock, known as “Red Fred”, and his fellow mathematics teacher K. Bridgwater. The latter was a real “academic” and a patron of the arts (especially opera and films) who would often devote much of a lesson to a detailed assessment of a production that he had recently seen. He liked his nickname “Ponto” (from the French pont and eau, i.e. “bridge” and “water”). Harry Redston was head of physics, and had been at the school since the 1920s. His nickname (also well-known to him) was “Trotsky”, and really, the resemblance to the old Bolshevik was remarkable. The redoubtable H.T.R. Twyford had been head of the old preparatory school, and he spent his later years teaching French and mathematics to under-13s. He was my form master in the second year and we always got on well, though his ability to teach French (at least to me) was perhaps questionable - after one term with J. Oppenheimer in the third year, my marks improved dramatically. Joe was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, a studious, mild-mannered man who knew how to get the best out of each pupil. I never knew him raise his voice, and he was a superb teacher. He would hold a small assembly for Jewish boys in his room while the rest of us said our prayers, and then they would file into the assembly hall to hear announcements.
The diminutive George “Jock” McKay was head of science: a strange character but quite a good teacher, he also acted as class photographer, and projectionist at end-of-term film shows. Mr V.A. Vout (known as “Eli”) taught “Scripture”, and did it very well, despite an authoritarian streak that showed itself from time to time in a loud outburst, sometimes including biblical quotations. When he left (to become a methodist minister, I think) he was replaced by “Charlie” Baker - and “Scripture” became “Divinity”. Charlie Baker was not too divine - after moving to another school he ended up in prison after being convicted of embezzling school funds. Brian Lockett (alias Lucy) taught English, and was my form master for a year. A nice chap, but then I suppose I am biased - I met him at a stamp auction in the 1970s and we have been philatelic friends ever since. Norman Barnes was everyone’s favourite; a slightly eccentric music teacher, he lived into his 80s and died not long ago. One of my favourite teachers was E.L. Vernon, M.A. (alias “Elvis”), who taught me Chemistry (or rather, tried). I last saw him at his home in Nether Edge, not long before he died at the age of almost 90, and I reminded him of his witty remarks on my school reports. An example from 1964:
He maintains a philosophical aloofness: quips which rock his companions merely raise in him a wintry smile. Chemically, however, he gets even with them, for there he is at rock bottom.
I have never been sport-minded. In fact at the age of 11 I could not even swim, though I was learning, thanks to my Uncle Sydney, a fast-swimming tram conductor who had enrolled me in the Sheffield Transport Department Swimming Club. New K.E.S. arrivals who could not swim were told firmly that they had to learn, and one lesson each week was devoted to swimming in the school’s own baths. While still a learner, I had to wear white trunks rather than blue ones, but I was soon able to consign these to the bin and proudly dive into the deep end sporting my new blue trunks. I think I can still swim - at least, I could the last time I tried, about 20 years ago.
As the “close” was nowhere near big enough for 800-odd boys to do their weekly afternoon of sports, even sharing out the time between the different years, we had to go to Whiteley Woods and Castle Dyke. I hated the latter, where we had to change in an old shed and then play football (or pretend to in my case) on an open hillside, exposed to the elements. They say the coldest place in the world is in Siberia - I reckon Castle Dyke comes a close second. Whiteley Woods was better, with its fine green-painted wooden pavilion (sadly long gone) in the charge of Mr Waghorn and his assistant, Mr Austin. Old “Wag” as he was called was a quintessentially English sportsman who would not have been out of place at Lord’s or The Oval. He could be seen on cricket team photos dating back to the 1920s which adorned the walls of the pavilion, and he loved his job as Head Groundsman. He retired in the 1970s and is now busy organising sports in the Elysian Fields.
Academically, my first years were neither very good nor very bad. Some idea of the perversity of life may be gained from the fact that, during my first year, I would complain, feign illness (and even not have to feign it) in order not to have to go to school. My main problems were languages - French and Latin at that time. Perversity applies here as I am now reasonably fluent in German, less so in French and Russian, can still translate simple Latin, can get by in Italian, Hungarian and Dutch, and even bluff my way in Finnish and Afrikaans. More perversity applies to the fact that my worst GCE subjects were English Literature and History. I am now the proud author of several books on postal history.
I have always had a love-hate relationship with Latin. It is a very interesting and useful language to learn, because many English words stem from it, and of course, a knowledge of Latin helps with French, Italian, Spanish etc. Each time I took Latin ‘O’ level I was told I would pass, but each time I somehow managed to fail. Arthur Jones was my favourite Latin master; he really seemed to take an interest in instilling in me a love of this ancient language, and I really felt I had let him down when (on no less than four occasions) I managed to fail my Latin G.C.E. On the other hand, Arthur Jones also taught Russian, and although I never did this at school, he encouraged me to learn basic Russian - which stood me in good stead when I began to make what was to become a total of 10 visits to the USSR. During the latter part of my journeying in Russia, I moved in philatelic circles there, thanks to my friend (and co-author of books on Imperial Russian postmarks) Anatoly Kiryushkin. As I am a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, and in the philatelic world can put the letters FRPSL after my name, Anatoly used to introduce me as “Comrade Robinson, Friend of Red Proletarian Socialist Labour”...
I have never been an extrovert, and at school I was content to associate with a small group of close friends. At first there was John Hissett, whom I used to see on the bus going to school - he lived near the Royal Infirmary and shared my interest in train-spotting. I also got to know his parents; both of them fine Yorkshire folk, now sadly long gone. There was also Julian Peckett, whom I met at Whiteley Woods when we were both trying to avoid playing football. He got me interested in geology, and we used to go to Castleton on summer Saturdays, chipping away at the carboniferous limestone in search of fossils such as Productus and other bivalve molluscs 280 million years old. Julian later acquired a motorbike, grew his hair long, acquired a hippy-type lifestyle, and sadly died in a car crash in Leeds in 1972. And then there was Chris Gilson and Patrick Burns. Many a happy day was spent roaming the Derbyshire dales with these two, and (as Chris also shared an interest in railways) many so-called lessons were devoted to planning our next trip to Crewe or York. Chris has lived in South Wales since 1969 (and still dislikes the Welsh, despite being married to the very Welsh, and very nice Susan). I see him on rare occasions, but Patrick and I often share a few beers. Patrick lives a stone’s throw from the school, in Brocco Bank. Another old school friend who is still close at hand is Irving Smith; I had somehow managed to work in the same building as him for eight years without recognising him, or vice-versa (he had grown a beard; I had acquired glasses).
Another old friend was Ian Minogue. Ian was always in a (much) higher stream than I was, but we used to have conversations on the bus going to and from school, as he lived at Wadsley, just up the road from me. A patient listener, Ian learned about train-spotting trips, philatelic “coups” and other important aspects of my life (anything but school) and, although I am sure I bored him to tears, he never showed any intolerance. That just wouldn’t be Ian. As things turned out, Ian married my sister - I wasn’t sure if I should be the best man or a bridesmaid...
Julian, Chris, Patrick, Ian and I all did cross-country running in winter, instead of playing football. In my case it was a simple choice - you could get changed after everyone else, change back before everyone else and make a quick getaway from Whiteley Woods. It was also nice to have a pleasant stroll up and down the Mayfield Valley. I remember Ian once suggesting that we re-visit the cross-country course, perhaps running for a change...
The seven years at King Edward’s in some ways seemed to drag, and in others went quickly, but in 1966 I left with 10 ‘O’ level GCE’s and 2 ‘A’ levels, arriving at Doncaster College of Education with teaching aspirations. But teaching wasn’t for me, and I recently retired after 32 years with the Midland Bank-cum-HSBC. I can now concentrate on the really important things in life, such as philately and writing books. I might even start train-spotting again...
Old Edwardians might like to re-read the school song, which was only ever sung on “Speech Day”. To my amazement, I can remember it verbatim.
Tempus est ut concinamus quicquid Edwardensium
nunc adestis, hoc sit omnis thema nostri carminis;
qualis est qui cuique nostrum semper aemulandus est?
ille verus Edwardensis, quisquis humani
a sese alienum putabit, usque consors ceteris
sive gaudebunt secundis seu laborabunt malis.
strenuus labore mentis, corporis non
omnium sententiarum perspicax inquisitor;
semper artium bonarum pervicax videbitur.
A (very) free translation is as follows:
It is time for us to sing together about Edwardians. You are present: let all be here, the subject of our song. What are our characteristics, that are always envied? True Edwardians think of others more than themselves, sharing all in work and in pleasure. An Edwardian is energetic in the work of the mind, without neglecting that of the body; he has a sharp, enquiring mind in all things, always appearing diligent and determined in his endeavours.
What a load of crap....