When I first went to the Grammar School in late 1946, the underground air-raid shelters were still in place as raised mounds in the area where S and T rooms and the Physics lab were subsequently built. Otherwise, the grounds were open across to M room and the house fronting the main road. Earlier in the year I had visited the school for an interview with Mr Moodey, a very disconcerting experience for a young boy as he had very penetrating eyes with dark rings under them. One was fixed with a long stare as he asked questions. I’d always been good at weighing up people, but this man was unfathomable. Still, I must have done all right as I was accepted as a student, following in the footsteps of two of my uncles, James (Jim) and John Woolley in the mid 1930s.
Some recollections I have already passed on, but one accumulates so many in the 8 years at school.
Mr Nicholson (‘Nick’) the Chemistry master made an impression on us all. Our first Chemistry prac in the Chemistry lab was our introduction, and his piece de resistance ensured that he had our full attention. He had a little trick of putting a tin over the top of a Bunsen burner, with hole in the lid. The lid was at the top of the arrangement. Nick turned on the gas, and as it issued from the hole in the lid, lit it. After a few seconds of course the flame ‘struck back’ into the body of the tin and exploded the gas therein. The explosion blew the lid up to the high ceiling of the lab. Most impressive! Of course he warned us that we should not try this trick! One wonders what present-day OH%S would make of that! At the other end of my time at school, fifth form I recall, Nick came in to the lab chortling to himself and looking mightily pleased with himself. Finally he let us in on the reason for his high spirits. He had just been our seeing off the poisons inspector who had been in to inspect the poisons cupboard. Nick duly took out his keys, inserted one in the keyhole, turned it and swung the door open behind his legs. The inspector looked at the contents of the cupboard, was satisfied, and Nick closed the door and turned the key and removed it. After a brief chat, the inspector left. After recounting this Nick went over to the poisons cupboard, opened the door and pointed to the non-existent lock! The door could be opened by anyone at anytime if they had but realized.
I recall when we had his classes in one of the new prefabs (T room I think – I’ve forgotten which of the pair was S and which was T) Nick, a staunch Communist, would come in with the ‘Daily Worker’ tucked under his arm, and often would recount sections from it that amused him.
‘Jake’ Hammond was a stern taskmaster in Latin, a language I had difficulty with, to the extent of getting a D minus minus for one assignment. This was announced by to me by Jake ‘Congratulations Tanton, you’ve got a D minus minus’ . I was at a loss how I was supposed to respond and simply said “oh, thank you sir”. I thought Jake was going to have an apoplectic fit as he went red in the face and stormed back to his desk!. On another occasion at the start of a lesson we were all standing in a queue at his desk waiting to hand in homework corrections. Jake strode in and as he arrived at the end of the queue asked what we were all waiting for. Mark (‘Dizz) Shepherd muttered ‘fish and chips’ – a comment that Jake heard. To our surprise a brief smile crossed his face before it was replaced with the usual stern countenance.
Norman Jones provided an excellent learning environment in his approach to organic chemistry when we were in sixth form. He would stride into T room for class and say ’Right, today you’re going to make such-and-such a compound. How are you going to do it?’ We would make suggestions for starting materials and the processes to be used to reach the objective. Good suggestions were written on the blackboard, but if a dubious process was suggested Norman would thrust his hands in his trouser pockets, look at the ceiling and suck in his breath. Good grief, what was wrong with that route? Someone would realize the flaw and propose an alternative, and we all learnt from the experience. But it meant that we made sure we knew the basic organic chemistry well, and throughout my working life as a zoologist I found the knowledge I gained of considerable value particularly when dealing with organic pesticides, so thank you Norman!
When I think of the range of organic substances that we mad during practical classes, and the fumes filling the air of the lab as well as the nature of the chemicals we were handling, and safely so because of training, and look now at the Health and Safety restrictions, one wonders how competent chemists can be trained for the future!
During 36 years of lecturing and delivering practical classes, it is quite appalling to see students coming in with no idea how to pipette or burette chemicals, and no knowledge of the basic characteristics of potentially dangerous materials. It seems to have come about partly as a result of fear of litigation if things ‘go wrong’.
On a lighter side from studies, once a week after school for a time during the year the senior years had dancing classes at the Girls High School at Winshill with tuition from Miss Millicent Simmons.
One of the saddest times was at the time of the Suez crisis. One of our fellow prefects, Teddy Ufton,, had left school to join the army after having being in the School cadets. I recall he was commissioned as a Major. Then came the morning when ‘Taffy’ Davis, the woodwork teacher and also the guiding light for the school cadets, stood up at the morning assembly and announced that Teddy had been killed while leading his men ashore during the Suez landings. It was a quiet group that left the assembly that morning.
The other sad moment was when I visited Burton in late 2005 to see that the Bond Street buildings of the old Grammar School, including the house, had been demolished. Those are just a few of many memories. They did engender a thought. Where can one go in Burton now to get a quality education of the sort we had? I suspect nowhere.