H.J. Wain (1907-11): Memories of the School

In September 1907 I entered Burton Grammar School as a new boy, and even in those days there was talk of a new school, to be erected finally in 1957. As a small boy fresh from a tiny village school the buildings at Bond Street  seemed palatine, although the manual room downstairs, and the Art room, biology room and staff room upstairs were not added till after my departure in 1911.

My previous education had taken place in one large room, in which different classes, for children of various ages were held. So I found it easy to get lost in the multiplicity of rooms at the Grammar School. The first day I was there I strayed into the wrong classroom and it was sometime before my unwanted presence was discovered. And if the grandeur of the buildings oppressed me, I was awed by the appearance of the masters in their gowns and mortar boards.

Few Scholarships
In those days the number of minor scholarships granted by the Education Authorities was extremely small. I believe that only four per annum were granted by the Education Committee at Burton, tenable at the Grammar School. I know for certain that only two scholarships tenable at the Grammar school were granted by the Derbyshire Education Committee. I remember this very well indeed, for I was placed 3rd out of 527 candidates from various schools in the county and the other entrant from Bretby School obtained seventh place. But a Swadlincote boy obtained a higher place, and the Bretby boy was not granted a scholarship. As he had done so well, however, Derbyshire Education Committee, after some pressure, granted him a scholarship tenable at a school in Derby, to which he had to travel each day from Bretby.

Scholarship Boys
At the Grammar School there was a distinction between “scholarship boys” and those whose parents paid for their education. As a rule  the former came from poorer homes and were not so well-dressed, but the masters made no discrimination, and the majority of fee-paying boys were tolerant, though there were a few little snobs. Probably the latter were envious for usually the scholarship boys displayed a brighter intellect, though not all of them made the grade. On the first day of each term, an official from Talbot & Co. – a partner in the firm being Clerk to the Goveners – attended the school with a Gladstone  bag in which to put the money, and a book of receipts. Each fee-paying boy stepped forward in turn, and handed over £3  6s.  8d., in cash, for there were no Treasury notes in those days.

No School Meals
There were no facilities for a hot meal at mid-day. Those boys who lived a long way from school brought their mid-day meal with them, and ate it in the school yard if the weather was fine, or in the Assembly Hall when it rained. There was no school tuck shop, but buns, lemonade and sweets could be obtained at a shop, which consisted of the front room of a cottage, opposite the school, in Bond Street. At a later date a new shop was built a little further down the street. But pennies were scarce in those days, and few of us were regular patrons.

There were a few “boarders” at the school, i.e. pupils who stayed at the Headmaster’s house throughout the term, and were looked after by the Headmaster’s Aunt. Two masters – the Rev. J. Mills and A. Rigby – who lived some distance away usually had their midday meal with the boarders.

Sporting Activities
Attendance at cricket or football was voluntary, and boys who like myself lived at some distance from the school, were not expected to attend, but any keen boy soon found his place.  Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were devoted to sport, attendance at school on Saturday mornings being compulsory. There was a miniature rifle range in a shed in the playground where on certain evenings, after school hours, it was possible to obtain practice in shooting under the supervision of a master. Similarly there were facilities for swimming in the River Trent near the Stapenhill end of the Ferry Bridge. One evening a week after school hours there was half an hour’s physical training with dumbbells under the supervision of Sergeant Micky Maher. During the dinner hour, rough and tumble games of football were played in the school playground.

No Uniform Dress
There was no attempt at uniformity in dress. The only distinguishing mark of a Burton Grammar School boy was his cap, which was marked with alternate bands of red and blue, each band one inch in width. These caps were conspicuous at a distance, and any boy infringing a rule was careful to take off his cap before doing so! There were no school badges, and no prefects’ insignia, for the good reason that there were no prefects! The school was not divided into houses, and there was no school magazine since the ‘Cygnet’ had temporarily stopped, although a boarder named Drewry and myself tried to start one a new one, by carefully writing out the ‘copy’ and using a gelatine bed. I believe it ran for about half-a-dozen issues!

‘Dickie’ Robinson - Headmaster
In 1907 there were 134 boys at the school, and the staff consisted of the Headmaster and eight assistant masters, Even in those days space was limited, and not infrequently two, and sometimes three masters would teach at the same time in the Assembly Hall, which could be divided into three “rooms” merely by pulling curtains across.

The Headmaster, Mr. R. T. Robinson, M.A., B.Sc., was affectionately known as ‘Dickie’. He had a fierce bristling moustache of the type favoured in after years by R.A.F. officers. But his fierce expression was belied by a twinkle in his eye, and my four years at school laid the foundation of a lasting friendship which lasted until his death. He was just and impartial, and had the knack of imparting mathematical knowledge which stirred the dullest intellect. On occasion he did not hesitate to inflict corporal punishment. Such an incident being a rare occurrence had the greater effect upon the school.

‘Piggy’ Jeffcott - Second Master
The senior assistant master was W.T. Jeffcott, B. A.,  known to generations of boys as ‘Piggy’. Stout of body, ponderous in movement, and sporting a ragged yellow moustache, his brain was keen and alert, and it was a very smart boy indeed who contrived to bluff him. His particular subject was Latin, and with experience gained over many years he had reduced teaching to an art. He seemed to know instinctively what questions would appear on an examination paper, and any boy who was prepared to work benefited greatly, but a shirker felt the lash of his sarcasm.

Rev. ‘Nitty’ Mills
Another interesting character was the Rev. James Mills, who was irreverently nicknamed “Nitty”. His lean, stooping figure was garbed in clerical black or dark grey, and he had a neat grey beard. His watchful eyes immediately detected any slackness in class, and his favourite punishment was an entry in the “black book”. Three entries in this book caused the culprit to forfeit a half-holiday, and subsequent entries led to an interview with the Headmaster. Of all the masters, Nitty was the most frequent user of the book, and if it was not in its usual place in the drawer of the desk in the Assembly Hall, any master needing it would send a boy to see if Mr. Mills was using it!

‘Strongy’ Storer
 Probably the most popular master was ‘Strongy’ John Storer. Small and slight in build, with a ragged
moustache, Strongy had a pair of twinkling grey eyes which missed little that went on. His subjects were chemistry with the higher forms (IV B upwards), and Natural History with the lower forms. The latter subject was his favourite and my regret I had collated Chemistry with him instead of Natural History. But we became great friends, and many specimens from his collection and in the school Biology laboratory were obtained by me. Our friendship continued long after I left school, and we enjoyed many rambles together.

‘Theta’ Rigby
And then there was the lean dark figure of Arthur Rigby, B.Sc., noted for his sarcastic  remarks. His main subject was Physics, and he was nicknamed ‘Theta’ because he frequently used this symbol to denote a rise or fall of temperature during his lessons. Subsequently he became Headmaster of Coalville Grammar School. It was he who gave me my only entry in the Black Book. In practical Physics we worked in pairs, and my partner, a boy called Adams, burned the bottom out of a calorimeter. Theta was very annoyed and gave Adams an entry in the Black Book. Then, turning to me, he said, “I’m going to give you two entries, Wain. Always remember, when you have a fool for a partner, you’ve got to watch him!”

‘Pecky’ Pecquintot
The French master in those days was a Swiss named Pecquinot and nicknamed ‘Pecky’. He possessed prodigious strength, and his favourite trick was to take a batch of impositions, and tear them across repeatedly, displaying a strength of wrist and fingers I have never seen equalled. If he caught a boy not attending to him, he would seize the culprit by his ears and lift him out of his seat saying, “Ach, I will pull your cabbage-leaf for you!” Pecky spoke several languages and once confessed that Welch was the hardest to learn.

Two other masters were the Headmaster’s brother ‘Taffy’, and ‘Paddy’ Wood.

‘Tommy’ Stevenson
‘Tommy’ Stevenson was concerned with the lower forms and I never had a lesson under him. His burly form and twinkly eyes concealed a hidden sense of humour. He was a bachelor, living in lodgings and on one occasion when he was ill, two of his colleagues went to see him. “Front room upstairs”, said his landlord after they had introduced themselves. Pushing open the door, the visitors saw a mound of bed-clothes on top of which lay a wreath. “Good Lord!”, said one of them, “she might have said that he has passed away”. Then a voice boomed out from the bed, “Pleased to see you fellows”. “What is the meaning of this?”, they queried. “Oh, I felt a bit low so I sent for a wreath and lay there admiring it. I feel much better now”. And he duly recovered.

John F. Rose
On one occasion, John Rose who lived in Stapenhill came over the Ferry Bridge on his way back from school lunch. A sudden rainstorm caught him unprepared and he was wet through when he arrived back at the school. As he entered the Assembly Hall, he was spotted by the Headmaster. “Ah Rose”, he said, “you look wet, come along with me”. He took him across to the headmaster’s house and rigged him out with a spare suit of plus fours. John was a fairly big man but with the kneebands of the plus fours fastened around his ankles, he presented a startling appearance which fascinated the school for the rest of the afternoon. He was very glad to change back into his own clothes at the end of the day which had been dried for him.


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