E L Vernon, Chemistry

It was the norm at KES for O level to be taken a year early at age 15. About 75% of the intake did this, but there was a price to be paid. Certainly KES was an academic hot house, but it was perhaps not realised by many that the education we received in science up to this point was seriously deficient, especially for such an eminent school. Science was sidelined to such an extent that we were prepared and entered only for ‘General Science’ O level, a single qualification covering the 3 sciences Chemistry, Physics and Biology, an option that would be called Modular Science today; it wasn’t even the equivalent of the modern ‘Double Award’ in Science. It was suitable only to give non-scientists some sort of a grounding in Science, and represented only a third of the full O level course in each discipline. It was an inadequate preparation for Science A level, even if those of us embarking on this course of action perhaps didn’t realise at the time.

The most seriously disadvantaged were those few of us who opted to study biology, and were thus starting from this low base in all 3 A level subjects, 3 A levels being the standard of the era. Most of those opting for A level Science would be doing Physics, Chemistry and Maths, and of course an excellent preparation in Maths had been given. A few even did Double Maths and Physics. There were no other combinations of options available.

It was in these circumstances I was allocated in 1960 at the age of 15 to the tender care of E.L.Vernon, known to us by his proper Christian name, Edgar. Later years called him Elvis. It was Edgar’s task to bring us up to speed in chemistry, as well as having overall responsibility for our care as form tutor in 5 Science ‘V’ – in effect the first year of 6th form.

His white hair probably made him look older than he was, but he was a wise and experienced tutor. He would often challenge us with scientific absurdities, for example in relation to Gay-Lussac’s Law of Volumes, he would provoke the class by asking how it was that such a volume of hydrogen combining with such a volume of oxygen could only produce such a minute volume of water therefore? “You should be jumping up and down with indignity at the inequity of this claim,” he would artificially fume if the response was not immediate.

His lessons were frequently punctuated with quotations from his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan. If a boy introduced an irrelevance into an argument, he would respond with some remark such as, “Like the flowers that bloom in the spring tra-la,  that has nothing to do with the case.”  One of his more memorable demonstrations involved the use of a piece of one of the World War 2 incendiary bombs which had fallen on (and destroyed) St Mark’s Church opposite the school, and which he had salvaged.  Holding it in the Bunsen flame the magnesium casing failed to ignite, but when some powder was filed off it and thrown into the flame, the ignition effect was spectacularly revealed. I wonder if this demonstration would be permitted today?

By the end of our year in 5ScV we were beginning to become more knowledgeable and practical chemists, to be passed into the care of ‘Jock’ McKay, and the same process was taking place in Physics under Charlie Hall, and in Biology with Brian Edwards, both, I think, then newly qualified teachers. It  must have been effective because I passed well after 2 years and even better after 3 years in 1963, with ‘A’s in Chemistry and Biology together with a Distinction in the Special paper in Biology, the ‘S’ paper which had survived from the ‘S’ State Scholarship paper in the previous year’s examination reforms. The whole 3 years biology had been taught by Brian Edwards, whose career then took him away from the school.

What was in effect a three year sixth form was an enormous boon for the ‘triple scientists’ who had been disadvantaged so seriously by the 4 year O level course. It was Edgar Vernon who was responsible for the retrieval process. Towards the end of his career, Edgar qualified with a Masters Degree in Chemistry at the University of London.

That wasn’t the end of his contribution. He gave his talents freely to the dramatic productions for which the school was rightly famed, and was an accomplished photographer in those days of black and white wet chemistry photography. He introduced many of us to the chemistry, physics and art of photography through the Photographic Society, and did much of the school’s formal photography of classes and teams. Though not otherwise connected with the school’s scouts, he acted as photography examiner for the Boys Scout’s badge in Photography. Even in today’s digital age I find myself falling back on Edgar’s advice in composing and lighting a scene. A great deal of his photography is now flooding back to this excellent website which Don Nicolson has constructed. The ‘Vernon’ House style is instantly recognisable. His photographs of retiring staff members would appear in the School Magazine, and the accompanying appraisals would usually, if not always, have been written by Edgar himself. I don’t remember seeing his own ‘valete’. I wonder who wrote it? I must look it up in the School Magazines, now also reproduced by Don.*

*It was T.K.Robinson - see Autumn 1967 edition

David Cook, Apr 2005