George Mackay

Tony Hanwell (1949-56) writes:

It was 3M’s that set me thinking. Not the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company but Mackay, Meakin and millionaires [see George Mackay]. Money was a delicate issue in our household. My mother ran a hardware shop near Hunter’s Bar and my father helped himself from the till to finance his visits to the Porter Cottage pub opposite. So by the time I was in 3(1) (see photo link ‘49 intake), I had a daily paper round in the Hunter’s Bar area and a meat delivery round on Saturday mornings. The latter involved a heavy bike with a frame at the front for a large basket. These enterprises gave me some financial independence and helped me finance a girl friend who, had great foresight and consequently is still around (2006).

One filthy wet Saturday morning, I was clad in a bicycle cape and oilskin sou’wester and pushing this beast of a bike along Kingfield Road when, to my horror, I glimpsed NLC at the bus stop heading for school. I nodded but, as usual, he showed no flicker of emotion. On Monday, I got the summons. The fear was deep that I may have overlooked some arcane school rule prohibiting the delivery of meat by KES pupils. “What were you doing when I saw you on Saturday, Hanwell?”  “Delivering meat Sir”  “Don’t let it coarsen you, Hanwell”  “ No, Sir”.  In and out in 15 seconds, more mystified than mortified.

That was not the only contact with NLC. Although as Cornwell states (King Ted’s p.239) “he saw his role as an administrative one”, he did teach Mathematics to me and the others in 3(1) for a full year and I have the reports to prove it. Needless to say, there were no discipline problems - the lessons were conducted in a surreal silence.

George Mackay entered my horizon in Autumn 1953 when he taught Chemistry to 5Sci 1 and then for the rest of my school time (two years) he was both Chemistry and form master to the Science Sixth (see the photo of 6Sc1 54/55). He must have been aware of my out of school employment, for, more than once, he employed me to do some gardening at his house in Bannerdale Road. I doubt if NLC would have approved had he known.

In 1956, the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Sheffield. GM persuaded me to submit a paper on “ The value of the History of Science in a Sixth form science course”. He had pioneered this addition to the curriculum. At that time, I could not put together much in the way of a decent piece of prose, as Gerry Claypole often reminded me, but I had a go. GM took one look at it, said nothing, but took it away and came back with the ‘real Mackay’. The paper was selected and, thanks to him, I got my first taste of public speaking, an interview with the BBC and an item in the press. One of the wonders of science teaching at KES, at that time, was that we had room for such non-essentials as History of Science as well as French, German and English. All this right up to leaving, and in a four and a half day week, since Wednesday afternoons were spent at Whiteley Woods. 

The mystery of how I finished up at Christ’s College Cambridge has remained with me until recently. As I remember, we were wheeled through NLC’s office in short order and informed that, “you will apply for the following colleges at X”. I sat the Entrance Scholarship Exam and had an interview at Queens’ College Cambridge, which ran an entrance syndicate with half a dozen other colleges. I didn’t get into my first choice Queens’ but did win a scholarship at my second choice Christ’s. It is only fifty years later that the penny dropped – GM was a graduate of Queens’. He had never mentioned it!

Interestingly, it was the interviewing tutor at Queens’ who pointed me, instead of to the Natural Sciences Tripos, to the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, which the school, in spite of its Steel City associations, had never heard of.  A further test, the Mechanical Sciences Qualifying Examination was required in order to become an “impure” engineer rather than a pure scientist. I liked that!

I lost all touch with KES during my subsequent business career and was astounded in 1981 to hear that GM was alive and kicking and enjoying his retirement. I fixed to meet him and had an enjoyable reunion dinner with him and our wives. In his letters he fed my prejudice (no longer held) that KES had irrevocably deteriorated.
He wrote  “ You were at KES at a very good time. I think it reached its peak in 1960. When I went in 1951, it was still recovering from the war years but in the next decade it gained more equipment and better staff ……..It took a decade of NLC’s tremendous organising ability to turn KES into something that was unique in terms of boys and staff and atmosphere. Being at KES was the best thing that ever happened to me …….. I have always thought that it was a privilege to be a teacher at KES. However, it had to come to an end, and the gutter-politicians began their squeals about elitism and inequality, and about 1963 those squalid little men like Alderman Ballard and his evil acolyte Christopher Price started the drift towards the comprehensive system.  The staff at KES had the most to lose and, almost alone, they conducted an anti-comprehensive campaign. After about two years it became apparent that KES would be turned into a comprehensive school ……..I was 50 and incapable of adapting myself to a new system ……I decided to leave KES.”

I amused him by sending him the photographs below (which he must have taken during his photography phase) of a Chemistry practical session gone slightly awry showing me, Martin Roebuck and Gugs Gagan without breathing apparatus!


When he returned the photographs he included some poems, which he had written at various times in his life. They reveal yet another facet of this remarkably talented man. I reproduce two of them below, written in 1939 when the clouds of World War Two were threatening.  No further comment of mine is needed. He died the following year, in 1982.

Chris Meakin (in his article on George Mackay) refers to KES’s lack of millionaires. If by that he means the celebrity Richard Branson variety, then he is probably right, but I should like to bet that there are several less newsworthy KES millionaires who dare not speak the word. Unlike the USA, the ethos in Britain precludes mentioning financial success. A piece on this website to the effect that one's KES education plus some entrepreneurial drive allowed one to make “a few bob” (note the euphemism) or even a few million, just doesn’t have the same ring to English ears as “Fellow of All Souls” or “H.M. Ambassador to Ruritania”.  The wealth creating sector in our society is undervalued and KES, reflecting that fact, never saw itself as a cradle of entrepreneurs. I now know what NLC meant when he said “Don’t let it coarsen you, Hanwell”  namely, “Aim to be a Brahmin, not a millionaire!”   I let him down.

GM’s poems:


                                    When cold winds leave the limbs of trees
                                    So dark and naked ‘gainst the tearful skies,
                                    When stranger birds come winging from the north,
                                    When ploughmen carve their furrows on the fields
                                    And bury deep the remnants of the year’s fertility,
                                    ‘Tis time to wonder when the Spring will come
                                    And walk this way again; and with her magic touch
                                    Release the springs of green to flood the earth,
                                    And call once more on all the latent strength
                                    Which lies in buds to burst their covering sheaths
                                    And open on the sun; She will recall the thrush,
                                    Who all Winter long has drowsed and cowered
                                    Amongst the darkness of the woods,
                                    That he may strut and puff his speckled breast,
                                    And pour his liquid notes in sad men’s ears,
                                    Who, hearing them, awake from Winter’s sleep,
                                    And are reborn in some great urgency
                                    To a fresh, unknown, exhilarating world.


                                    And in the morning came two laughing boys,
                                    To seek what gifts the last night’s seas had brought;
                                    To take the fish left stranded in the pools,
                                    The starfish on the rocks, and the cockle shells;
                                    Until their feet had strayed to where he lay.
                                    They stopped, and wondered why
                                    His face should have the look of one in dreamless sleep.
                                    They backed away in fear, lest he should stir,
                                    And fix them with his sightless eyes in just rebuke
                                    For wakening him from such profundity of rest.
                                    They waited for those outstretched arms to stir with life,
                                    Or lift a knowing glance to scan the cloud-flecked skies.
                                    He did not move.  A seabird wheeled above their heads,
                                    And loosed its plaintive call to float along the wind.

Tony Hanwell (Mar 2006) - see for a CV.