Reverend Fred Stainthorpe
Memories of the Reverend Fred Stainthorpe – Pupil from 1939 – 1945
In mid-September 1939, a hundred and twenty nervous boys and girls stood in the hall of A.J.Dawson Grammar School, Wellfield in the village of Wingate, Co.Durham, wondering what lay before them. I was one of that number. We had all “passed the scholarship”, although my own progress had not been without incident. Durham County Council required my parents to return an acceptance form to them with my father’s signature over a sixpenny stamp. Not being used to such things, he had omitted to buy the stamp and I was distraught. “You’ve stopped me going to Wellfield!” I said. The must have had a good laugh at this, in my absence. However, good sense prevailed. They received a second form, signed it properly and the way ahead was clear!
The declaration of war had delayed the school year but we were not going to let Hitler ruin our education. A few days before, on the 3rd of September in my grandmother’s house, I had heard Neville Chamberlain’s words “I now have to tell you that we’re in a state of war with Germany”. My grandparents told me to go home and as I did so, I passed some old men sitting on a bench, Going up to them, I said, excitedly, “We’ve declared war!” and ran on. They probably said to one another “Poor bairn! He doesn’t realise what he is saying”.
Wellfield was one of the medium-sized grammar schools which Durham County Council had set up between World Wars 1 and 2. It began its life in 1930. I do not know how old other grammar schools were, although I remember my Auntie Jennie, who later became Headmistress of Shotton Girls’ Primary School, telling me that she had attended Henry Smith’s School in Old Hartlepool c. the time of the First World War. To get there, she had to walk from Shotton to Thornley Crossing, catch a train to Wellfield, take another train to West Hartlepool and then get a bus out to the school. She must have done this for at least five years, if not more!
To go to Wellfield was many children’s dream. It stood in its own grounds, a good way from the road with spacious playing fields and had an aura of redbrick very different from that of its primary feeder schools. Pupils came to it from many surrounding villages – Fishburn and the Trimdons, Wingate, Station Town and Hutton Henry (the school which my wife had attended), Shotton Colliery (my own village) and Old Shotton, Castle Eden and Hesleden, Haswell, Wheatley Hill and Thornley, Ludworth and Shadforth, South Hetton, as well as Easington Village. Those who lived outside a three-mile limit obtained free bus passed. I lived just inside the limit!
The school grew slowly in numbers and statue. Its three-from entry accepted about 90 pupils each year. Thus, other things being equal, only about six children each year came from any one feeder school. This meant that their social milieu changed somewhat. Sadly, I lost contact with some of the boys I had known from Shotton, although I gained the friendship of others from different places. It would’ve been good, though difficult, to maintain earlier friendships on an equal level.
The Second World War’s beginning delayed the school’s opening for about a week. On the first morning, Billy Lightfoot, who had also passed the scholarship, called for me and we walked to the school, wondering what lay ahead of us. That year, the Education Authority had decided to admit a larger number than usual. Long afterwards, I learned that this was perhaps because more pupils were leaving before the age of 16. All parents had to sign a form agreeing to keep their children in the school until that age but it seems that some were sitting lightly on their word. I cannot imagine why they were doing this, as the villages did not offer many employment opportunities. Perhaps some children and families did not appreciate the chances which secondary education offered. Maybe they found the cost of their education too much. My parents must of sacrificed quite a lot for Norman, my brother, and I to spend so many years there although, childlike, this never crossed our minds at the time.
Thus thirty of the eldest of us were, as an experiment, placed in 2R (2 “Remove” – a shade of public school terminology perhaps). The Headmaster, Mr Ingram, told us that they would expect us to do the first three years of the school course in two years. Those who did well would automatically then enter the Fourth year.
This made one feel rather special but some of us had cold water dashed on our pleasure. Vera Stabler, from Haswell, who later became a good friend of my wife and I, once told me that she had gone home that night to tell her family that she had been put into 2R. Her brother Arthur, who was then in Sixth Form and who knew nothing about the new proposals, said scornfully “Don’t be silly. There’s no such form as 2R!” She said, “I burst into tears, saying ‘I’ve been put into a form that doesn’t exist!”
I had already visited the school. On a summer evening in 1939, my parents and I went there with many other prospective pupils. Presumably the Head must have said something to us but my strongest memory is that of the Senior Mistress, Miss Roxby, giving us details of the uniform we were to wear. I cannot recall from where we obtained it (probably the “Store”). New features involved the wearing of a blazer and a school cap and needing a satchel to carry one’s books (and lunch). I suppose I must have felt quite proud to be dressed thus, although I sometimes wonder what other boys who remained in the village school thought of it.
Our parents had signed forms to say that we would not leave before the age of sixteen but those who did so were few in number. Most of us were concerned to do well in School Certificate, not only to gain qualifications for jobs but because we needed at least five Credits to enter Sixth Form. The staff had willing helpers in their pupils and must have enjoyed their work. Looking back, I am impressed with the fact that many of the subjects I took gave me skills and insights into the work I later did.
We found that teachers addressed boys by their surnames but girls by their Christian names, a practice which we might construe as sexual discrimination nowadays. While we newcomers stood in awe of the staff, I was intrigued and puzzled to see some of the older pupils, who looked almost like adults themselves, address them in a seemingly much too informal way. They also carried their books in haversacks rather than satchels. Four years later, having entered the Sixth Form myself, I shared their experience and enjoyed their status.
Our pedestrian journey to school lasted throughout the winter of 1939 – 40. It was a severe winter, with snow piled up along hedges and public transport disrupted. We “plodged” through the snow, sometimes arriving at school late, like many others. Pupils from the outlying villages dependent on bus travel sometimes did not make it. I cannot remember whether the school ever had to close, but we were only there in the mornings. Each afternoon, the pupils of Henry Smith’s School, who had been evacuated from Hartlepool, took over from us. This lasted until the spring of 1940 – the period of the “phoney war” – when the authorities decided to move them home again, in time for the real war to begin. In a sense, we did three years’ study in one year and two terms – a tribute to our genius or hard work or both.
As my family lived just inside the three-mile limit for free travel, I walked to school for the first two terms during the hard winter on 1939 – 40. People nowadays might regard this as cruelty to children but we thought nothing of it. Even so, when my parents bought me a bicycle I was glad. For the next five years, I rode it to school and left it with many others in the bike shed, unlocked and safe. How times have changed!
Wellfield dwarfed our primary schools with its quadrangles, gymnasium and laboratories. Its teachers wore academic gowns (the Head was never seen without his mortar board!) and bore an air of great learning. Immediately, they plunged us into a sea of intellectual rigour. English at first, for example, consisted of analysing sentences into their component parts. This was not very exciting and has passed out of fashion now but at least it gave us grounding in grammar. Nowadays, even some university students are little aware of what nouns, verbs and other parts of speech are.
The school’s song typified its ethos:-
“In the early days when the school began,
And we worked with a will for the future years,
When the child of the moment because the man,
Through the moulding forces of work and play
We toiled and we sweated, nor vainly strove;
Though the end seemed far and the vision dim,
We did what we could our strength to prove
And hope dawned clear o’er the future’s rim,
By going the second mile,
By going the second mile!”
The school was only nine years old, even then, but we sang this and the second verse, which “stood and reviewed the past”, with great gusto in junior forms and a little more self-consciously later on. One wonders how many schools, if any, have their own song nowadays.
Grammar school education meant taking a “quantum leap” in many ways. The primary school at Shotton was a typical good example of its kind but we never plumbed subjects at much depth. Science was elementary and language no-existent. We sang and did bits of drawing but suffered from lack of space and equipment and we had to walk up to the “Rec” to play football. Teachers, too, were without exception not specialists. Most, if not all of them, had probably “just” taken a two-year course at a Teacher training College and none of them was a graduate. Wellfield opened up a different world. We had specialist teachers. Almost all of whom were graduates. Who taught a widely increased range of subjects, twelve in all. The more rarefied atmosphere of intellectual inquiry and academic precision replaced the common factor of “rough” Durham village life. However, the school did not neglect our physical development. We turned up in the gym (again a hitherto unknown experience) once a week and the PE master introduced us to the disciplines of rugby. Nowadays, to have seen thirty or so shivering twelve-year olds on the windswept fields in winter would bring cries of “cruelty to children”, but we persevered and it made men of us. The girls too had to endure similar experiences on the hockey field. Life was hard!
The school day began with Assembly in the hall. We had a limited selection of hymns which we sang with reasonable enthusiasm. Being familiar with many of them, they did not always register strongly with me although the words of “Morning has broken” held a peculiar significance which has remained with me. Nobody would have said that it would become a semi-popular song fifty years later. Entry into the Sixth Form gave us the privilege of reading from the Bible on occasion and Brian Carlson because the accompanist on the piano.
By building a dining room, the school obviously intended to provide meals for the pupils. After having taken sandwiches for a while, I began to take school dinners. This continued throughout the rest of my days and must have been a help to my parents. School meal money was always collected early on Monday mornings and taken to Miss Richardson in the Domestic Science rooms. We sat at long tables, presided over by prefects. The master on duty (I do not remember woman teachers being involved) said grace for us and then sat down by himself to take his individual (and probably better-prepared) meal. The prefects doled out standard portions for the younger pupils, retaining somewhat larger helpings for themselves. Sadly, when we became prefects ourselves, we maintained this habit!
Speech Day was a welcome intrusion into the yearly timetable. The staff mingled with Governors and sometimes the latter were asked to address us. Most of them endeavoured to speak to us in relatively acceptable English. One of the however, a Mr Peet from one of the Trimdons, who had a grandson at the school, maintained his robust “pitmatic” speech, much to everybody’s delight and to Frank’s embarrassment. “Noo, lads and lasses”, he would say “aa hoap ye’ll aal dee well in your lessons”. More exhortations followed in the same vein. We saw members of staff hiding their faces in their gowns while we expressed out appreciation more openly! Frank sat wishing that the floor would open up beneath him.
One year, somebody started the rumour that Stewie (Mr Sid Stewart, our English master, who ruled his classed with a rod of iron and eventually became Headmaster) was going to sing “Lead, kindly light”. This prospect was a likely as that of Attila the Hun becoming a Quaker. In the event, Mr “Benny” Horrocks, who taught Geography, did sing some verses from the Rubayat of Omar Khayyam. One of them sticks in my mind:
“Myself when young did eagerly frequent,
Doctor and saint and heard great argument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went”.
Not much of a recommendation for the courses we were taking!
It was Stewie who took the mangled vote of thanks which I had to offer at our last Speech Day and transformed them into something resembling rational and ordered speech. Members of staff complimented me afterwards on my performance but I did not reveal my sources!
Ultimately, I found my place in the school rugby team, at least in the Sixth Form, if not sooner. We played other grammar schools, including Henry Smith’s, West Hartlepool Grammar School, Ryhope (pronounced “Ryup”), Spennymoor and Bede School, Sunderland. Away matches involved much traveling by United and Triumph buses and a good deal of discomfort in the winter. As usual, my mother had the unenviable task of washing a lot of mud0stained kit almost every week.
I always appreciated and enjoyed the cricket more than rugby. Whenever I smell cut grass, it reminds me of the aroma that greeted us as we entered the school gates on the first day of summer term. Even in the north-eastern summer, it was pleasant to be outside in the nets. Although we did not have much equipment and that in not too good a condition, we managed to practise out stroked ready for the first match. Being in the team meant purchasing “whites” and cricket boots. The latter were a sign that one had really made the grade! I kept mine until quite recently but my grandchildren showed no sign of wanting to have them.
The school also had tennis courts (what an advance on the primary schools!) and in later years, we used them. I did not have a racket but Auntie Jennie gave me hers. While I was grateful for her generosity, I was also embarrassed because it looked old and had a fishtail handle. In those days, every genuine tennis player kept their racket in a press and I thought to myself, “Whatever will the others say when I turn up with a racket wrapped in an oil cloth covering with a drawstring?” Many years later, I came across a tennis press in a church sale. I used it in many a children’s address to illustrate the folly of passing fashions and fearing what people say. Nowadays, nobody uses a press and if they cover their rackets, they use something not dissimilar to what I had!
The specialist subject teachers did their best to instil a love of the subject and mastery of it into our minds with varying degrees of success. Not every mining village lad succumbed to the lure of Latin, for example, or saw its usefulness. After two years, I dropped it but now wish I could’ve pursued it further. No doubt, many other ex-students feel the same.
After a while, I came to know and befriend some of the boys in the class. Brian Carlson from Thornley, Arthur Watt from Easington Village and Brian Metcalfe from South Hetton used to come across to Shotton in the holidays and I visited their homes. They introduced me to a somewhat different (though not higher) way of life. Their parents were not “common pitmen” and their homes were not council houses. They had living rooms as well as kitchens, with small, tidy fireplaces rather than our blazing furnace. So I used to feel a little inadequate whenever they came to us, although my mother always kept the house clean. (Schoolboy snobbery!). Jack Smithson was another of my friends. His father kept a chemist shop in Wheatley Hill and they lived above the shop in what seemed to me considerable comfort. Jack’s brother, Maurice, was a Sixth-former and so I was somewhat in awe of him. Sixth-formers looked almost like adults to us and seemed to speak to members of staff in much too familiar a tone of voice!
The idea of speaking to, let alone befriending, any of the girls in the class seemed incredible! No one in the early years would ever have dared to do this and in any case, I often did not know their names. We addressed them only in cases of absolute necessity!
Teaching methods were formal and systematic. There was no such thing as “Living Latin” or visits to France (not very practicable anyway).Teachers drilled us in declensions and conjugations ad nauseam. However, we did sing French songs occasionally. The A and C streams learned French and the B class studied German. Thus, the words of “La Marseillaise” entered our musical lexicon and we sang it heartily, to honour our gallant French allies. It only occurred to me, many years later, to ask whether those in the B steam learned the German national anthem. While it would have been entirely fitting to hear “Allons enfants de la patrie” coming from a classroom, visitors may have raised their eyebrows at “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles”! My cousin Elsie recently assured me that they did in fact learn and presumably sing it. I wonder if they felt how incongruous this was. It could only have happened in England. Not many German schoolchildren of the time learned “God save out gracious King”!
Like languages, the school taught other subjects in a formal way (at that time no one envisaged any other). We plunged into the abstractions of algebra and geometry, followed later by trigonometry. Later, in School Certificate, we were to sit (if my memory serves me right) three separate maths papers. (Students nowadays don’t know they’re born!).
Science was new to us. We had three large labs for physics, chemistry and biology. I do not recall doing any biology but we all followed a course in the former two subjects. Chemistry interested me particularly. Even before I went to Wellfield, Santa Claus had brought me a chemistry set. Its pretentious packing hid a surprisingly small amount of equipment which enables one to do a few simple experiments but not much else. I was able to grow some copper sulphate crystals and remember going to the chemist’s along the road, seeking to buy various other chemicals for which Mr Fairclough probably had little demand. Physics was a bit more difficult. In fact, it was not until I was in the Upper Sixth that it really “clicked” in my mind.
Woodwork and Art now appeared on the timetable. The smell of the woodwork room always attracted me but the manner of the teacher, “Corker” Dobson, did nothing to increase my self0confidence. I was always unsure whether I had done the right thing and once, after a particularly bad effort at producing a half-lap joint, having misread the technical drawing, he showed it to the class with the remark “You’re not wise, lad!” (A Scottish euphemism for “stupid”). Later, the Government recruited him for the Forces and one Jack Kirtley, a draughtsman form one of the coastal collieries, replaced him. His approach was not as vitriolic as Corker’s but we tented to smile at his dropped aitches and local accent! With his help, I managed to obtain a Pass in the subject. Brian Carlson was a good woodworker and got a Distinction in School Certificate, I believe.
Art was something different. Although I only took it for two years, I cannot recall the master, Mr Morris, teaching me anything. He used to sit us down, give us a piece of paper and say something like “Draw a cow”. Then he would disappear behind a curtain and carry on further lessons (or something) with senior girls. He too had to join the armed forces. Apparently, it did him a lot of good. Yeas afterwards, at a school harvest camp, Jack Goldsborough, a maths master, said in conversation how much service life had straightened Morris up!
Music changed too. In the primary school, we sang quite a lot, mainly folk songs. Our only musical accompaniment was a tuning fork, which the teacher stuck to give us the starting note. Now we actually had a piano which Miss Thombe, the music mistress, played. We had to meet in the hall, sitting on gym benches as the piano and the radiogram were kept there. While we did sing some songs, she also began to play various types of classical music to us. Needless to say, classical music had never figured in our repertoire at home, although my father did play the piano. He had taken organ lessons while a boy and occasionally he would play hymns or popular songs of the day. “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” was one of our favourites. The radio provided our weekly diet of music of the popular dance band type but we knew of no other.
Now staff wanted us to listen to, understand and appreciate different sorts of music. In particular, Miss Thombe played us records of Grieg’s music-the Peer Gynt Suite. While I was not an instant convert, this did begin to give me a little insight into how music portrayed both story and mood. During the first summer term, the English singers visited the school and to give a recital. Full of boyish enthusiasm, I invited my mother and father to come. The evening’s programme was rather highbrow and afterwards I asked them whether they had liked it. “It’s not our sort of music”, replied my dad, which was a powerful yet tactful understatement. I did not invite them to any other musical events!
War’s alarms did not intrude too much into our lives. Hitler was not particularly keen on razing Shotton to the ground. He was more intent on bombing ICI at Billingham. However, we sometimes spent disturbed nights in the most sheltered parts of our house until my father constructed a wood-reinforced shelter underneath our “cree” in the garden. Then when the siren went, we would pass hot hours inside its cramped quarters. It became a family joke for years afterwards. Our next-door-neighbour actually dug a huge hole in his garden, sank his cree I it and covered it with soil. We spent one night there at his invitation but it was too hot and we retreated to our own “better hole”. Such disturbed nights meant that we sometimes arrived later for school but nobody minded too much. Later in the war, the Government gave us a Morrison shelter sturdily built of metal in which one could sleep safely, if desired. On it, I kept all the books I needed for School Certificate swotting.
The war did not disrupt our days either. Air-raid shelters had been dug alongside the school and occasionally we practiced the drill, not too unhappy that it interrupted our lessons! Strips of brown paper criss-crossed classroom windows to protect us from blast and sometimes we could persuade one of the staff to “let us try our gas masks”, which we carried round for some time. In our fourth year, a local farmer asked some of us to help make his silage. A machine chopped up green grass, mixed it with molasses and blew it into the silo where we marched round in circles like slaves, treading it underfoot to help the war effort.
Car-makers profited from hostilities. Many households possessed packs of cards which showed the silhouettes of both foreign and British aircraft and we scanned the skies daily to see what was passing overhead. I kept a diary of those I had seen every day. The father of a second cousin of mine was a member of the Observer Corps and sometimes had bits of information about secret types of planes which we were shortly to unleash against our enemies. For some time the arrival of the “Aeroplane Spotter” was the highlight of my week. Seeing old students visiting the school in uniform impressed us. Hearing occasionally that some of them had died in action sobered us considerably.
As part of the war effort, the school began an ATC (Air Training Corps) unit. This met every week under the leadership of “Scoff” Thompson, one of the physics masters. Its aim was to familiarise pupils with some of the technical aspects of the Air Force life and some of the Unit spent summer holiday tie at a local aerodrome. As I was not much of an “organisation boy”, this did not draw my interest but in the Upper Sixth, someone came to interview us and suggested that I join the unit. Feeling somewhat conspicuous in my forage cap, I attended one or two sessions, gaining a light knowledge of Morse code and the internal combustion engine but my enthusiasm did not last long.
My interest in jazz had not yet begun and I sometimes wonder how it started. Years before, we used to listen to George Formby on Radio Luxembourg and perhaps the jangliness and rhythm of his playing acted as a precursor. In any case, at some time in the fourth year, the Home Service began to broadcast two programmes entitled £The Story of Jazz and Kings of Swing” at 4.30 pm. If I raced home on my boke, I could catch most of them. Unfortunately, my father used to come home from work round about that time and it was not long before he was saying, “Turn this rubbish off!” Occasionally, when such a programme came on in the evening, I would dash down to my Auntie’s house (my mother’s aunt) in the new council houses. She did not seem to mind too much! On one occasion, after having heard some of the records, she said to me, “Bye (a common Durham expression) Fred, you like some funny music!”
The fourth year introduced us to a number of new fellow students. Among them was a tall girl who seemed different from the rest. I found it hard to take my eyes off her at times. The upshot of this was that, thirteen years later, we were married at Church Street Methodist Chapel in Wheatley Hill.
In the fourth year, pupils had to specialise in either arts or science subjects. Accordingly, I dropped Latin and Art and was becoming much more interested in Chemistry. Although still retaining my friendships with other lads, I came to know other such as Alan Smith, Eric Johnson, Stanley Jackson and Dennis Clark. Several of us went on Youth Hostel holidays together during the summers of ’42 – ’45. This was also the period when the school held harvest camps in Piercebridge area, near to Darlington. I wrote about these in “Home and Away”. All of these were very enjoyable and quite inexpensive holidays. We never went away as a family for holidays, possibly because it would have been rather expensive; In any case, I was spending most days helping at my Uncle Harry’s smallholding.
PE (called PT in those days) was an intensive workout, based on the Swedish system of exercises. We began with fairly static work such as astride jumping, arm swinging, running on the spot, touching one’s toes, neck rotation and so on. Then, we moved on to work with the apparatus, such as vaulting, push-ups, rope climbing, handstands, and pull-ups on the wall bars and so on. Finally, we all engaged in vigorous games involving medicine balls. Forty minutes of this induced a fine sweat and we were glad to dash through the showers (hot fist then cold), to get dressed quickly and arrived late for the next lesson! As time went on, I enjoyed this more and more, particularly when Jack Dormand arrived in the Sixth Form as the new PE master. He later became MP for the area and eventually Lord Dormand of Easington. He loaned me a number of 78 shellac jazz records which I tucked blithely under my arm and took home on my bike. Had I suffered and accident in Wingate Slack they would all have been shattered and I look back now appalled at the self-confidence of youth.
My bicycle opened up new vistas. In our fourth year, someone proposed that we went on a Youth Hostel holiday. These places offered simple but cheap accommodation throughout the country and one day, four of us, aged only fifteen, set off southwards. We rode down the A1 (imagine doing that nowadays!) before turning off into Yorkshire, Lancashire and many places beyond. At our destination, Banbury, we celebrated with breakfast in the British Restaurant of hallowed memory. These trips opened our eyes to the beauty of England outside of Co. Durham and I shall always be grateful to my parents for their generosity. I did better than John Prescott, whose failure to pass the 11-plus denied him the bicycle his father might otherwise have bought him.
The war naturally curtailed many other social activities. In previous years, pupils had taken part in Gilbert and Sullivan productions but the blackout put an end to this. Tips abroad were not possible, either, although some of the girls did attend a French course in Harrogate. The school organised harvest camps in the village of Piercebridge near Darlington and for three years in succession we helped to save the nation from starvation. Living under canvas, we dispersed every day to local farms and sometimes members of staff worked alongside us. The farmers paid us 9d (approximately 4p) per hour so we did not make our fortunes, although some of the more generous of them gave their lads a bonus at the end of the fortnight, to the envy of their friends. They were happy experiences.
The school’s population was divided into three Houses, Dawson, Durham and Wellfield in – perhaps other attempt to emulate the Public School system. The resultant rivalries were worked out in Cross-Country ruins, inter-house rugby and cricket matches during lunch hour and the climactic Sport Day. The weather generally stayed fine for the latter enabling the boy competitors to show off their athletic prowess in front of the girls. On or two had already “paired-off” by that time, and became man and wife eventually, making educational gain many-sided.
Otherwise, our only social contact with the opposite sex was at the Christmas parties. We practised country dancing for some weeks before and tried to impress the girls with our prowess at “Strip the Willow”. The school’s radiogram was pressed into service for this and the Barn and the other ballroom dances which we tried clumsily and shyly. This was the only occasion on which we ever saw the girls in anything other than their uniforms.
Without discussing it very much with my parents, I assumed that I would be staying on School Certificate, going into the sixth form and eventually to university. Perhaps they felt proud of their “clever lad” but I sometimes wonder what by brother John made of it all. He had left school at the age of fourteen, having shown no sign of wanting to go to Wellfield, and started work “on the belts” at the pit. He was contributing something to the family finances, presumably, while I and later Norman were making use of them. However, he never said anything.
The thought of the oncoming School Certificate dominated our minds in the fourth and especially the fifth years calling for a lot of work. Public examinations were another leap forward in one’s experience and we awaited the result with some anticipation and not a little nervousness. In order to enter the Sixth Form in those days, one had to obtain at least five “Credits” in the exam. We were at harvest camp when the results came out and my parents telegraphed mine, to my great relief. The way ahead seemed clear. The final day of “School Cert” – woodwork Theory – stands out in a memory. It took place, unusually, on a Saturday morning. For once, the day was sunny and calm, a rare combination in East Durham. As we left the room, two months of holiday stretched out before us. Ahead lay the Sixth Form.
Again, one had to drop subjects to study for Higher School Certificate. Although I wanted to specialise in Chemistry, my results in other subjects were also good. I remember Mr Martindale, the Sixth Form master, looking at them and saying “A strange mixture”, which I felt was a rather odd thing to say. Looking back, the interests which I had in languages and history have both been useful, while chemistry faded away, despite three years’ study at University.
Life in the Sixth Form bought another leap upwards and forwards. We were part of an “elite” in the sense that out of, say, ninety fifth-formers, only fifteen or twenty of us chose to stay on. As we had no Forth Room, we made our home in the library which was the only first story part of the school. For the next two years, our learning was to take place in small groups, sometimes with only three or four in the class. The work too leapt upwards. People used to say that if one could master Sixth Form work one could easily gain a degree, so big was the gap between our earlier stages and now. Instead of “having to give an account of” something for the School Certificate, one now had o “ account for “ whatever. So one needed to think harder, whatever subject one chose. For me, these were chemistry, physics and pure maths at principal level and applied maths at subsidiary level. This was the standard diet of Sixth Form work. It left little free time in the school day and perhaps even less at home. Nevertheless, they were most enjoyable years. Relationships with the staff, always good, became more relaxed. The school gave one certain responsibility as prefects and this did us good.
At the start of the Upper Sixth year, “Pop” Curry, the chemistry master, asked me if I wanted to become the chemistry lab assistant. This gave one the freedom of the lab and did not involve too much work. I used to cycle to school early in order to turn on the machine which produced gas for our Bunsen Burners. It was a pleasant experience to wander round the school before most people arrived. I also had to keep the stock of chemical reagents topped up and do whatever else was required. Other members of the Sixth Form became biology and physics lab assistants also and we benefited from this financially to the extent of 30 shilling per term (£1.50 in present terms but a lot of money then).
VE and VJ days came and went. A letter from the Government instructed me to report for a medical exam in Middlesbrough. Would this disrupt my pans for university? In the end, they graded me as a C3 because of my short sight and the way to higher education was clear. I would have been (fairly) willing to serve King and Country but was glad that the end of hostilities lessened the need for young men in the Forces.
One’s experience then was very different from the present tendency to spend 50% of all school pupils to university. Probably all of us ended up in university or teacher training colleagues but we formed only a small percentage of the school’s intake. This itself was but a fraction of all feeder schools’ population. The majority of Wellfield pupils perhaps had no desire or “ability” to undertake further studies, although some of them went to night classes of one sort or another later on. Stanley Jackson’s brother Eric was one of these. After a day’s work at the pit, he would take the bus to West Hartlepool for an evening’s study, perhaps two or three times a week. He and others like him deserve much credit. I am not sure that I could have done this.
After one left school, our paths diverged and most of us saw little of each other again. However, after I came to Willenhall Comprehensive School and started playing cricket for the staff, I did meet one of my contemporaries. We were playing Chubb’s, the lock makers, at one of their grounds in Wolverhampton. I was standing by the pavilion when who should walk round the corner but Stanley Jackson! He had come to umpire the match. Although he went to Bede College in Durham to read maths, he left after a year and began to work somewhere else. Eventually he had gravitated to the West Midlands, settling in Wombourne, where Jim Dalton, the deputy head of the Comp lived. We saw each other a few times after this but sadly he developed cancer and died.
In 1980, the school held its fifteenth birthday reunion. My wife and I were able to attend this. Norman also came. Nostalgia had a field day. We wandered round the classrooms which seemed smaller than when we used them and gazed at the photographs adorning the walls. Some of the former members of staff were present including Stewie, the English master. He seemed to remember this although he mistook the name of the country where we had worked (the Belgian Congo). Miss Roxby was also there but as a group of women were surrounding her, we did not get the chance to talk. However, I did go to see her years later when she was living in a home in Station Town. Not many of our contemporaries had attended. We were some of the older generation! Nor did we recognise many people. One notable exception occurred when we were standing in the physics lab when a contemporary, Jack (Fatty) Partridge, walked in. I spotted him immediately but he did not know me at first. The then Headmaster welcomed us in the Hall and we got the chance to sing the School Song once again!
In the past few years, one or two former students have renewed contact. Alan Smith, a contemporary from the fourth and fifth year, saw a review of “Home and Away” in a magazine and so he phoned me up. We had a long talk in the course of which I learned that he had become a minister in the United Reformed Church. Previous to this he had been an electronics lecturer in a Nottingham College. Now he has retired to Sherburn and we have met two or three times. Next, David Todd, an old playmate from Shotton Primary School days, rang up unexpectedly, having obtained my number from Brother John. We also chatted for a long time and we were able to meet over a meal in Walsall two years ago. Since then, we have maintained an intermittent correspondence and exchanged photographs. The, through “Friends Reunited”, Arthur Watt another exact contemporary from 2R, got in tough. He now lives in Truro, about as far from Co. Durham as possible and we write to each other occasionally. Finally Derrick Shaw, another fifth form contemporary, got in touch via his son Ian. Derrick was the school cricket captain and now lives in a village near Derby. We now meet and have a meal every autumn. This has whetted my appetite for “old friends” and will try to get in touch with others.
The old building has been almost completely demolished. Gone are the old bike shed, the gym and the plot of land where we grew potatoes for the war effort. Gone are the two cloakrooms, the air raid shelters and the kitchen/domestic science (old name for home economics) room. Homes have replaced the entire space of the old classrooms, quadrangles and labs. Fortunately, the extensive playing field area has been left untouched to remind one of many rugby and cricket matches played thereon.
Only the front edifice of the school remains. At least this gives the impression of a school to passers-by and some of the more prominent early members of staff have had the adjacent streets named after them. This makes a fitting memorial but a better one perhaps is the influence they had on generation of pupils who had their intellectual and social horizons raised and who gained skills which otherwise might have remained latent.
Some would say that one’s schooldays are the best days of our lives. Others can hardly wait to get out of the gates. For me, my schooldays were a good time in many ways. I learned much and made some good friends, although I did not nourish the friendships afterwards as I should or could have done.
The second verse of the School Song ran thus:
“And now as we stand and review the past,
In the light of today face the future years,
We know when have reached firm ground at last,
Far beyond the reach of our early fears;
Clearly we can see the road we came,
And we feel we can tread the path before,
Indifferent alike to fear and fame,
Vainglory and gain alike deplore,
We’re going the second mile,
We’re going the second mile!”
It was thought that Stewie had written these words but I cannot vouch for this.
Reverend Fred Stainthorpe