John Clubb: How the War affected the school

ClubbI was evacuated from my home in Manchester in August 1939 to live with my maternal Grandfather, R.W. Clubb who was a long-retired Head Cooper at Bass’s Brewery. When my sister Helen and I came to live with him at 6 Brizlingcote Lane we were 10 and 11 respectively and he was about 87, a widower with living-in housekeeper.

As I had not been at Burton Grammar School before the War, I am not able to make any comparisons. However, I assume the average age of the schoolmasters went up pretty quickly after 3rd September 1939.

My first impression as a new boy was the strong smell of carbolic mixed with the fainter smell of vomit which pervaded my classroom which was close to the place where the daily milk deliveries were left and to the lavatories nearby. An early Form Master was “Chas” Brown who also taught History. A gentle man who, though not fierce, kept our attention and respect. I used to go to school by bike or bus though we had to travel to the few away sports fixtures by train. Most distant venues were KES Aston, Cotton College who, with Denstone Grammar School normally beat us in my time. We used to beat Lichfield, but we were only just beginning to become useful at cricket and rugby at the end of my time at BGS. We always had an excellent Swimming team in those days.

I suppose one thing the War did for the school was to promote the introduction of Sea Scouts and Air Training Corps. The latter did a great deal for me in that it prepared me for what eventually became my main career in the Royal Air Force which lasted until I was 47 years old. Bill Read (Maths and Swimming) was the leading light in the ATC and he had support from Ron Illingworth (Geography and Cricket) and Jake Hammond (French and Rugby). We did Drill, Navigation, Shooting and latterly went on camps at RAF stations (Halton was one I think). We also were given the opportunity to fly as passengers in powered aircraft (my first was a De Havilland Rapide twin engined biplane flying from RAF Hednesford I think) and we did a bit of gliding from Burnaston airfield.

Before the ATC I had been a member of the Scout Troop run by ‘Tweak’ Hearne (Maths and English) – so nicknamed because of his evil habit of grabbing a finger and thumbfull of short hair at the back of the neck of miscreants in his classes. Most painful, but very effective in those days when schoolchildren did not, could not, fight back. The days when parents sided with schoolmasters and, as often as not, added their own punishment if their children were unwise enough to complain of the punishment already meted out in school. As a scoutmaster ‘Tweak’ was excellent and ensured that his charges had plenty of opportunity for rough, well controlled horseplay mixed with reasonable discipline. The senior scouts were given opportunities to control and lead the juniors.

We went on scout camps and school camps which were open to all. Vague memories of both types of camp were that there was plenty of excitement and frequent dramas, but always good fun. The school camps I attended were a farming camp to West Hanney in Oxfordshire (we got there on bikes) and a forestry camp near Lake Bala, North Wales. At the latter I managed to slice a large piece out of my knee with a billhook and, after a few days in bed in a tent, the wound began to smell so that all concerned thought hospital might be a good thing. I finished up in Wrexham Hospital amongst injured troops and, thanks to the newly discovered penicillin, didn’t lose my leg. Incidentally I was there when ‘VJ Day’ (end of the war with Japan) was declared. Despite the forecasts of the Wrexham doctors that I would never play again, I was back playing rugby before the end of the year. Mrs Hearne was also with us on camp and I used to wonder how on earth she could have enjoyed herself with such a rabble as us.

Back to the War. I saw 3 Junkers 86s fly over one day and one night 3 bombs were dropped in Burton but, apart from seeing the searchlights, hearing the anti-aircraft guns and the throbbing engines of the German raiders on many nights as they flew over to bomb various towns and cities in the Midlands, we saw no action – though you may be interested to know that my Mother (who was an Old Girl of Burton High School and died last November in her 107 th year) experienced a Zeppelin raid on Burton in World War I.

We did see the glow of Coventry burning one night. Boys used to bring in to School pieces of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells – I never heard of anyone on the ground being hit. Also, on one occasion during a French lesson (I can’t remember the name of the lady teacher) we were almost blown out of our seats when the bomb dump near Hanley blew up – not, apparently, the result of enemy action. This was later claimed to be the largest conventional explosion of the War. Strangely, we didn’t hear a bang although the noise of the explosion was heard in Manchester, 60 plus miles away. But -as they say- the earth really did move. Our French teacher thought it was an earthquake.

There were fairly frequent air raid alerts when we were supposed to dash into the air raid shelters, but I don’t recall doing much of that after the first false alarm the day war was declared, possibly because most of the sirens were at night. All the School windows had sticky tape across them to prevent injury from glass blown in by explosions. We all had gas masks too, but we didn’t carry them with us at all times as we were supposed to. We quickly became complacent as the War progressed. I’m sure I must have eaten lunch at School, as there wasn’t enough time to get home, but they must have been not too bad, since I can’t remember anything about them – not even where we ate.

I met Thomas Griffiths at a rugby match in Cambridge last week; he was about 2 classes above me at Burton Grammar School and he told me that the 6th Formers were on a Fire Watch roster and took it in turns to sleep on the school premises and patrol from time to time looking for any signs of incendiary bombs (I don’t think they ever found any). He also said that one of the bombs fell in Abbey Street, near to Bond Street and that the bomb blew a bird cage, complete with budgie, through the wall of one of the houses hit. The bird survived unharmed – despite the absence of counselling in those days! My sister tells me that William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw – a British traitor who used to broadcast nightly from Germany) said that Burton had been completely destroyed by the bombing and that beer was running down the streets!

Nothing to do with the War, but a very clear memory was when Mr Frazer, the Headmaster, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in around 1940. He was replaced by Mr Harold Moodey who died in even worse circumstances, but after I had left School, in about 1949 I should think. Mr Moodey used to take our class in Religious Instruction when I was in 5 th Form (1946) and was a wonderful gentle man who took a great interest in my progress (or lack of it) in the last 2 years of my school time and in the start of my career in the Royal Air Force. We exchanged letters for a few months after I had left school and was in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) with the Royal Air Force and it was a great shock when he killed his wife and children and then committed suicide. Never was I more certain that the verdict it suicide whilst the balance of the mind was disturbed was correct in his case. Without doubt he killed his family to protect them from the consequences of his suicide and his state of mind must have been unimaginable – he was such a God-fearing man.

From 1945 onwards there was a sense of change as those who had been in the Armed Forces began to return. I noticed it mainly in the cricket when the newcomers seemed to have decided to take over the annual Masters versus the School match. We, who were loyal to our hero Ron Illingworth and, to a lesser extent, Jake Hammond and Bill Read, felt they were being pushed into the background – particularly as Ron, who usually opened the innings and scored a century, was put in to bat at number 7. I was quite pleased that we beat them comfortably and that Ron top scored for the Masters.


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