School Days

Copyright Keith Foster

One thing I have fortunately been blessed with is a good memory, not necessarily actual dates but I find I easily retain all I read, learn and experience. I only have to either think about a subject or see something that triggers off an ancient memory, to have full and immediate recall of the subject and circumstances behind it. Although everyone says such thoughts are impossible, I can still clearly recall both being both breast-fed and sitting in a babies high chair. Before anyone suggests so, these are not some sort of sexual Freudian thoughts, they are actual memories and very clear ones too.

Although I briefly touched on school life in previous articles, as school days did have such a powerful impact on all of us for the rest of our lives, it seemed worthy of mentioning some of the highlights here.

I arrived in Walthamstow in 1954 having been brought directly from my previous Junior School in Church Road, Leyton. The move was so sudden and unexpected I did not even have time to say goodbye to all my school friends. Remarkably within the last month I managed to trace my best friend from that school but sadly he has a mental block on his school days and does not remember me.

Greenleaf Road Junior School is where I was enrolled the day following my arrival. I think arrangements were made prior to my move to Walthamstow as I appeared to be expected when I arrived there. I recall feeling a little alienated being taken to a class where the teacher and other school children were at that time complete strangers to myself. However children being children it was only took a few days before I had found new friends. I found myself in something of a time warp for my first year at Greenleaf Road. This was not because I was in any way backwards or did not understand subjects, it was simply because they were still teaching everything I had learned a year earlier at Leyton. My teachers seemed impressed with my existing knowledge  and which they still had yet to teach the remainder of their pupils. In the 1950’s each borough, Leyton, Chingford and Walthamstow were independent education authorities in their own right and their teaching curriculum’s did not necessarily flow in tandem with each other.

It was only a few months after my arrival in Walthamstow when out shopping with my mother, I told her I had a pain in the side of my stomach to which she did no more than take me directly to the doctors, shopping bags and all. Although I was unaware of it, my family apparently had a record of appendicitis problems and my mother fortunately knew the symptoms well. Our doctor a gruff but wise man by the name Dr. Belton did not mess around and called an ambulance directly to the surgery. Within the hour I had an emergency operation for a severe case or peritonitis, (ruptured appendix), which kept me in hospital  and confined to bed for six weeks.

Connaught Hospital in Orford Road previously the Old Walthamstow Town Hall is where I was located, I really felt proud when about the second week of my stay I was inundated with dozens of letters and cards on the same day. It would appear that the Headmistress at Greenleaf Road School asked the entire school to write letters to me. Being confined to bed for so long is not easy for a youngster especially as one starts to get better and somewhat fidgety. I recall one day of suddenly being surrounded by an army of nurses during the doctors daily rounds. Even as a child I could sense that something ominous was afoot just by the number of nurses including the ward sister and in the way they positioned themselves around my bed. Before I knew it, four nurses held down each arm and leg as the sister painfully tore a large elasoplast type dressing from the scar on my stomach and then proceeded to cut the stitches off with a pair of scissors. There were a considerable number of stitches as micro-surgery did not exist in those days and I still carry the quite visible scar and stitch marks. My eyes still water at the thought of that day.

The second notable day that I recall during my hospital stay was about a week before I left. Again I was surrounded by several nurses and the ward sister. They told me I had to get out of bed and learn to walk again. This I did not understand as clearly I already knew how to walk, however with the nurses tightly holding each arm as I stood on the floor, my legs simply gave way under me. It is quite remarkable how quickly leg muscles can simply forget walking movements. I felt a little like Douglas Bader as I lurched around the ward trying to drag one leg in front of the other in turn. I was only allowed to exercise for about five minutes but remarkably the next day I found I could walk reasonably normal again but quickly became tired at the effort. Fortunately being a child with the excess of energy one has at that age, I found that my walking was back to normal by the time I left.

I returned to my school the following week to find I had been missed during my long absence and was welcomed by everyone. As normal with schoolchildren there were countless requests to see my scar. With my shirt being pulled out of my trousers top so many times that first day to oblige the scar viewing requests I am certain I must have look like “Just William”.

One of the things I think we all enjoyed at Greenleaf Road was the annual visit by the police road safety unit. This normally occurred during the summer months when it was dry. The entire school would be led into the playground where we would sit in one half. The other half of the playground was converted into a mock street with wooden poles on the ground representing the edges of the pavement.
A black and white striped pedestrian crossing complete with Belisha beacons was also laid out across the dummy road. I like the rest of the boys was agog at the shiny black police car in the playground. It was a Rover with two loudspeakers mounted on the roof. As dated as it would look today, to us boys at that time, it was modern and enthralling, conjuring up thoughts of cops and robbers chases.

Apart from the police in uniform, there were two other members of the team, One was called Safety Sam who would always cross the road in the correct manner. The other was dressed up in a clowns costume and would always make silly mistakes. The police car would make a number of trips along the dummy street with Safety Sam crossing the road observing all the rules of the Highway Code. The climax was when the person dressed in the clowns outfit crossed the road ignoring all the rules only to be apparently knocked down by the speeding police car. Clearly this was very well rehearsed and no one was ever hurt but it did look realistic.

We all knew that one day we would have to sit what was known as the 11 plus exam at our final year in junior school. This was the method that was supposed to determine those pupils bright enough to go to Grammar School and higher education, with the remainder going to a secondary modern school. The simple truth was there were insufficient grammar schools to accommodate large numbers of bright pupils so the system was designed to ensure that great numbers did not pass. Many parents who were wise would ensure prior to the exam, their children studied up on the relevant subjects. I do not recall receiving any special preparatory teaching for the exam at junior school.

I sat my 11 plus exam at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School. This I found  a daunting place to go to. All the teachers wore gowns, something I had never seen before and somehow to myself as a ten-year old, the entire place seemed aloof and snobbish. I did not pass the 11 plus exam, I am reluctant to say I failed as the process was to ensure that only given numbers of pupils filled the limited places at a grammar school. It’s also worth noting that this is the only exam I did not pass in my entire life. As my career progressed I passed all necessary exams and tests. In some ways I am glad I did not pass as Grammar school pupils were required to wear smart uniforms,  which was something well beyond my mothers limited pocket. Although all schools had their own uniform, in keeping with most children at my secondary school, I never once wore one. Duffle coats with wooden peg button and accompanying  duffle bags slung over the shoulder were all the rage at the time and in a way, they made a type of uniform in their own right. Such clothes could be bought cheaply on the market stalls in the High Street.

I expect the inside of a schoolboys pockets are the same everywhere and in some ways not dissimilar to the inside of a ladies handbag on those rare occasions I have been permitted to look into one.  There were bits and pieces for everything, just in case, including scraps of string, a penknife and probably a compass. Some boys proudly sported scout type penknives with the obligatory spike for getting schoolboys out of horses hooves. Every child had a penknife as indeed did most male adults including many females. Thoughts of using a penknife to inflicts a wound on someone else simply did not cross ones mind. They were purely functional items and mainly used for sharpening pencils. How times have changed.

So I entered my secondary school with the grand title of William McGuffie Secondary Modern School but also nicknamed locally as “Scruffy McGuffie”. Like my school mates who also came with me from Greenleaf Road Junior School, we all entered the playground for the first time with a little trepidation not knowing quite what to expect. We knew that the cane was used in this school for punishment and somehow I had advanced visions of school teachers wandering the playground lashing out at any miscreant in sight. There was a number of teachers already waiting in the playground as I entered and to my immediate relief, not a cane in sight. It became clear in reflection that the additional teachers were there to pull new school entrants to one side for induction into the school, as well as protecting newcomers from any school bullies. A number of these did exist like any school but fortunately they were few in number. I do not know if the school had a motto but if it did, I always felt it should be the word “Supersto”  which is Latin for survive.

As one grows into adulthood, there comes a point where an individuals age does not make too much difference to relationships. However to a school child, age is everything, possibly as one has not lived too many of them at that stage. Older schoolchildren in different grades were almost like gods to us in our first year and to schoolchildren, age definitely creates a hen pecking order. I suppose the time one spends at a secondary school is also the period when the most dramatic changes happen to a person. One enters as a child and leaves as an adult albeit a young one. It is a four-year period when puberty sets in, voices break and as a boy, one starts to become attracted to our female school mates more physical attractions than we had previously noticed. After puberty, although we still continue to age and grow, an adult is still recognisable as the same person they were years earlier. However with a child, they undergo a complete transformation in short period of time emerging as completely different and sometimes unrecognisable person to when they first entered school. I sometimes liken it to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.

I found most teachers at the school were quite good in their subjects, it all depended on the individual pupils willingness and attentiveness to learn.

Each morning used to start with Assembly in the lower hall where a few songs were sung, a prayer recited and the headmaster delivered his mini-lecture of the day. I am not certain if this format still exists due to the more modern cultural and religious diversity of pupils today. All the pupils sat on the floor when the headmaster gave his daily address. He did however used to splutter a bit and anyone sitting at the front beneath him would be aware of the fallout from his spluttering. This was one reason the back of the hall was considered a prime position but like of not, someone had to be at the front. As the headmasters address continued, it was possible to see a semi-circle of floor space appearing in front of him as pupils gradually eased away from him. I also recall one morning as the first hymn of the assembly began, a teacher who played an upright piano in accompaniment to the hymn was continuously hitting wrong notes. In the end the teacher struck a loud chord which stopped everyone in their tracks and stood up as he opened the top of the piano. Reaching down into the bowels of the instrument, the teacher removed three beer bottles, one by one, much to the howls of laughter of us all,  except the headmaster who remained stern-faced. The bottles were clearly left there from the night before by a night school that also used the premises. One thing I always remember seeing annually through the windows of the assembly hall was large numbers of policemen returning to the police station further down the road. However these policemen were all dressed in different period costumes of police dress over the ages. Some even looked like the original Peelers outfits. Where they were coming from, or why is something I never found out.

Although nowadays many children are either driven to school or accompanied by an adult, it was normal practice for children to walk to school on their own. The shortest route for myself was along Hoe Street although other longer routes were available. Some of the shops or premises stick in my mind on my Hoe Street walk. Adjacent to the Granada cinema was the entrance to Hatherley Mews which was under an archway formed by homes above the shops. This really was a Mews at the time in the real sense of the word. Shire horses were still stabled in the Mews and used by the Holdstock Bakeries to pull their carts at a time when bread was still delivered to homes like milk. A few of the old stable buildings were converted into small garage workshops, but it was the horses I liked to watch. Their keeper would allow me to feed them a few sugar lumps if I remembered to bring some. If you forgot the sugar lumps, the horses would soon let you know as they learned to recognise individuals and they never forgot they were due for a sugary reward. George White undertakers was another premise I remember. As you passed the premises it was possible to see skilled carpenters making new coffins which they did in the front of the premise. Coffins were still made out of solid wood at that time and the carpenters used to take pride in their work planing and finishing their latest creation. It’s a pity in a way their pride and joy would only be publicly seen for a short time before it was buried forever.

Just before the Granada complex was the school uniform supplier named Henry Taylor which had quite a large shop frontage. Google maps show this site is now occupied by a HSBC bank but the original building is now demolished. The uniforms of several schools were display on dressed dummies in the window including my own. Each uniform was in pristine condition without a mark on it. It seemed strange each day seeing the uniform that I was never destined to wear due to its cost. Sometimes I would travel via Erskine Road to my school and go to a news agent/sweet shop located in the buildings directly opposite Melville Road. There also used to be a public house on the corner of Gainsford Road but all appear to have been converted to housing. The sweet shop sold two of my favourite sweets which were also cheap to buy. One was called flying saucers designed to look like an alien spaceship and which contained sherbet on the inside. The other sweet was sticks of what was known as Spanish Wood, the like of which I have not seen for many a year. These were long twigs of real wood which released a delicious liquorice flavour when sucked. The flavour would last for hours and even when the wood was finally reduced to shreds the flavour still permeated the remains.

Everyone was required to go to school sports once a week whatever the weather. It was a journey undertaken in an old double-decker bus. The sports field was located on the North Circular Road and the map shows part of the sports field still exists next to what is now a Sainsburys supermarket. The grim small concrete building that was an excuse for the changing rooms is however gone. I must say that building is one little piece of history that will not be missed. Dressing only in shorts, singlet and plimsolls whatever the sport and weather did little to enthrall the finer sporting instincts in me. Some pupils of more affluent parents wore football boots but the sports teacher could never apparently see the inequality of a football game played by some of the team wearing football boots and the others wearing plimsolls. There simply was no match. The other problem with plimsolls was kicking the football. These were not the lightweight footballs of today, but more the original heavy balls made completely of leather. Anyone kicking such a ball in plimsolls risked at least a stubbed toe if not worse. I remember once heading one of these footballs, this is easy to remember as I never headed another one again. The force was something like a pile driver hitting the top of the head. I could almost swear I came away a few inches shorter. Cross country running took place in the summer except there was no country to run in. We used the streets instead in what was the forerunner of jogging today. Chingford Road – Westward Road and finally back to the North Circular Road. The hot showers in the changing room in reality were at best tepid bordering on the cold side. The shower area was dark and dingy with a peculiar smell of stale air permanently pervading the place. It was not a long shower born out of necessity and everyone was in and out as quickly as possible. I think the North Circular Road outside the changing rooms was the only road in the borough to have no speed limit. The lamp posts displayed the traditional black diagonal line on a white circular disc and the black line was studded with reflecting cats eyes. Today we call it the national speed limit sign but I am not certain if it was the name used in the 1950’s. In those days there was no upper speed limit on unrestricted roads so it would have been legal for a car to drive at 150 mph on that stretch of the North circular Road. Car technology however was not what it is today and most drivers thought they were going fast if they could achieve 50 mph.

I was in my third year at secondary school when homework was introduced, up until that time homework was unknown. When I arrived with my first homework, my mother took one look at it and told me to immediately put it away. It was my mothers point of view, (with which I do not agree), that as she had never done homework as a child, her children were not going to do it either. She firmly believed that school was for learning which finished the moment one walked out of the school gates. My mother even wrote a letter to the headmaster making her views clear than neither I nor my brother and sister should do homework. A few days later I opened the door of our house in response to a knock only for my mouth to drop open as the shape of my headmaster filled the doorway. To me it was as if God was paying a visit to our house. The headmaster debated with my mother for over an hour the benefits of homework but she stood firm and defiant. No homework under any circumstances. The headmaster finally left and myself and my siblings were the only pupils in the entire school excused homework. Even when teachers reprimanded other pupils for not doing their homework on time, never a word was said to any of my family. I am sure there are laws nowadays that would compel parents to ensure children do homework, but all this was in a different era than today.

On the approach to one Christmas the school arranged  an educational cultural afternoon. This was the only time I ever recall being subjected to culture while at school. The dais in the assembly hall was relocated to a different position on which a string quartet and a rather rotund male baritone were positioned. It was the first time I had seen musical instruments live and the singer wore a bow tie and tails. Again except for films starring Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, this was an outfit that most pupils had never seen before. No one quite knew what to expect or even that the baritone was a singer, I think we all assumed that he was an announcer of some kind. The performance commenced and the man suddenly burst out into the song Figaro from the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Within seconds, the entire school burst out into uncontrollable spontaneous laughter. It was not planned it really was spontaneous. In reflection I expect it just appeared so strange and alien to anything that pupils had experienced before and as such was completely comical. The Headmaster however was furious and leapt onto the dais threatening severe punishment to anyone who continued laughing. This in some ways was a hollow threat in the short-term as everyone had great difficulty in stopping laughing. When we finally managed to calm down, the performance restarted. Most of us spent the remainder of the time with our hands clamped over our mouths trying to stop ourselves from further laughter at what we all perceived at the time to be a comedy act. What the string quartet and the baritone singer thought of our school afterwards I never heard. By strange contrast, my musical tastes have mellowed over the years and I have a large collection of classical music. To me it seems so timeless as well as being pleasant on the ear. Heavy Metal music I never understood and I found myself cringing at the sound of it. I am glad it was a relatively short-lived musical era.

My last year at school also saw a school holiday to Interlaken in Switzerland. I think the cost was £30 which was a considerable amount of money at the time. How my mother managed to save that money I shall never know but she clearly scrimped and saved on her low wages in her determination to see me go. The school issued some weeks in advance of the journey a detailed itinerary in the shape of a small booklet produced on the schools Gestetner duplicating machine. This I read over and over again until I literally knew every word and the places we would visit by heart. Travel was by rail all the way there. First to Dover for the ferry and then onto a French sleeper train to Berne where we switched to the Swiss railway system. I was that excited I did not sleep throughout the journey. Both the French and even more so the Swiss trains seemed to glide smoothly over the rails. This was in stark contrast to the side to side buffeting experienced on British Rail. It was also strange to experience the more human side of teachers on the trip, some who were normally quite stern in the classroom. We travelled to many local places and saw many sights. One evening we went to a casino. This however was not to gamble but to see an evening show also held at the same location. More importantly, it was also my first experience of learning first hand of different cultures and their way of life. Ever since that visit I have always learnt how to say Good Morning, Afternoon or Evening as well as Goodbye, Thank You and Please in the language of the country I am visiting. I find it not only impresses people but also commands their respect. Learning a few words of local dialect is simple but can pay great dividends. One dialect I have learned reasonably well over the years is Illongo from the Philippine Visayas region. Sometimes it amuses me when shopping to overhear loud conversations between two Filipino women who are completely unaware I can understand every word they are saying. I did return home from Switzerland with a small cuckoo clock and man/woman weather station as presents for my mother. I still have them today.

I certainly had mixed feelings when I finally left school at the Christmas of 1960, it was like the ending of an era. In many ways I was glad to have left but it also meant the end of my daily association with school friends. I often wonder if the 11 plus exam really made any difference at all? Now that I have retired I know that I had a very successful career. I also know that education did not cease as I walked through the school gates for the last time, it is in fact a lifelong process. Many of my school mates are spread across the four corners of the globe which was seemingly impossible at the time. I too have travelled reasonably widely not only in Europe but to Asia, the Orient and Australia. When I was at school, international travel was only for the rich and a flight to the other side of the world would take days with overnight stops in hotels. But the world shrank, the last vestiges of Empire vanished and attitudes changed, not always for the better. As for my old school William McGuffie, that was sadly demolished to make way for a social housing development. This means I will never have the opportunity for a nostalgic visit  to wander around those not so hallowed halls again.

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