Mostly, however, it went well. The prefect, having concluded the reading, and having thankfully proclaimed; “Here endeth the lesson”, closed the Bible, and stepped down. The Head then took his place, gave us the number of hymn, the piano gave us a few introductory chords,, and away we went. Then he led us in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This was followed by announcements by the head, and any of the teachers who had anything to report. This completed assembly. The staff walked out, and we returned to our classrooms to begin the day’s work. Usually the first period would be in our own classroom. After that, we would move to different rooms, according to the needs of the subject; the physics lab, the chemistry lab, Mr. Hammond’s room for art and woodwork, and the gym for P.T.
School began at nine o-clock, and ended for lunch at noon. We reassembled at one thirty and worked until four. There was a recess both in the morning and in the afternoon, that is, except for Wednesdays and Saturdays, when we started at nine and went till twelve thirty. The afternoons on these days were set aside mainly for games. There were inter-house games, in which everybody was supposed to take part, except for the school teams, who were playing against other schools. We had a club called the H. & G. S. – the Historical and Geographical Society – which organized activities for these afternoons. I was a member, and remember visiting villages, and looking at churches. We visited Southwell Minister, famous for its magnificent chapter house, and the village of Laxton, the only remaining example in Britain of the medieval three-field systems of agriculture. I remember too, going to Derby, to tour the Rolls-Royce works, and see Bentleys and Rolls-Royces being made.
The other use of Wednesday and Saturday afternoons was detention for those who had in some way transgressed during the last day or two. It worked like this. If you did something in class that warranted punishment, or if you failed to do something that you should have done, such as homework, the master sent you down to the masters’ common room to fetch the detention book, in which he entered your name, the nature of the offence, and the duty you were required to perform during the next detention. On the next subsequent Wednesday or Saturday, you presented yourself to the detention room at the appointed time together with the other delinquents. A duty master in charge checked the attendance, and you served your time in a silent room. It was a miserable experience at the best of times, but especially galling on a warm summer’s afternoon, when the others were outside playing games and some lucky beggars who had not been put down to play in inter-house games, had gone home. There you sat doing assigned work, or writing lines. No movement, no talking, hardly a breath of air, as you pined for the time of freedom to come.
The organization of the school was hierarchical, with the headmaster at the top of the pyramid as it were. Many of his duties were taken on by the assistant head, who dealt with the common room, that is, the assistant masters. Below the masters were the prefects. These were boys in the sixth form; they were selected by the head. The head prefect was the head boy of the school. The prefects performed duties in return for which they enjoyed certain privileges. I have already mentioned the duty prefect for the day. He started the day by going to the headmaster’s study, a large room containing a table, chairs, books and papers, and usually a fire blazing in a large ornate fireplace. The headmaster, incidentally, lived in the school, together with his wife and daughter, so the study was part of his living quarters. On the table in the study, the duty prefect would find a Bible inside which was a slip of paper. Opening the Bible at this place, he would find the lesson for the day written on the paper, and the Bible open at that place. He would then take a little time to read through the passage in preparation for the morning assembly, and, having done so, would leave the study and stand by to ring the first bell.
This bell was set up high on the wall at the end of the cloisters at the entrance to the masters common room and the headmaster’s house, and was rung by means of a rope which came down to shoulder level. After assembly, the duty prefect would go round the school, collecting records of attendance from all the classrooms. Thenceforth, throughout the day, it was his duty to ring the bell for the beginning and ending of classes. Prefects helped to maintain order in the school. They could admonish and, if they wished punish by giving lines. Quite commonly, they cuffed offenders over the ear. Four of them were house captains. If a boy was a repeated discipline offender, he might be made to appear at a house captains’ meeting and might be given the slipper. In return for helping to maintain discipline and good order, prefects were rewarded with little privileges. Of course, their position as a select few gave them status. They had a different relationship with the staff from others; they were accepted as near equals in many ways. They were also permitted to do things not allowed to others. It was customary during breaks for the boys to walk a circuit round the school, but only in a clockwise direction, never counter-clockwise. Only prefects could do that. The prefects were allowed to meet in the belfry, and at any time they wished. Others only visited the belfry on the occasion of house captains’ meetings. Prefects could enter the New Block by the same entrance as the masters, and at any time they chose, which the hoi-polloi had to use the other door, and then only after the bell had rung, whatever the weather. At the bottom of the pyramid came the rest, the lower forms, at the very bottom. The younger boys were in Forms 1 and 2. They were all fee payers, Scholarship boys came into Form 3A and 3B, mostly 3A. A year senior were 4A and 4B, then Remove A & Remove B, then 5A and 5B, and finally should you be successful in your matriculation exams, you entered the privileged world of the 6th Form, where you could be groomed for responsibility; head prefect, house captain, prefect, cricket captain, soccer captain, etc.
The headmaster was Mr. Pilkington-Rogers. As I have said, he lived in the school. His household was a large one that included not only his wife and daughter, but several boarders. Mrs. Pilkington-Rogers was assisted in the job of looking after the boarders by matron, several kitchen staff, and Andrews, the gardener and general handyman. Mrs. P.R. referred to her husband as Pilks; we mostly called him Pills, though not to his face, of course. She was much in evidence, flitting about that part of the school, always busy, and with a preoccupied air. The daughter we rarely saw, as she was attending Cheltenham Young Ladies College.
P.R. was a small, wiry, energetic man. I cannot recall seeing him smile. Whenever you saw him around the school, he was usually moving at high speed, his head forward, and his gown flapping behind him. He was feared for his strict disciplinary measures.
He used to teach some mathematics classes, but, because of school business, he was often delayed, and the class left to its own devices. On one of these occasions, a boy named Brown – his family owned a piano shop in town – diverted his classmates by lighting a cigarette. Unfortunately for him, the head suddenly appeared as out of nowhere, and Brown was caught in a halo of smoke. The head fired him on the spot. Expelled for good. He was tough with parents, too. There was no diplomacy, no beating about the bush. If a boy’s performance was judged unsatisfactory, a scholarship boy in particular, parents were summoned, and were told that, if better work was not forthcoming, his place would be given to someone else. This happened to a boy who started at the same time as myself. He was one of those who attended the oral examination on the same day as I did. Ramscar was a bright lad, but given to getting into scraps. He just couldn’t seem to help himself. Eventually, after having received several warnings, he was given the boot.
As a junior, I lived in fear of P.R., because of his teaching method. We had him for arithmetic in 4A and I, for one, looked forward with dread to those classes. Often he was late to class, sometimes he did not turn up at all. On those occasions, we lived in an agony of suspense, hoping that the end of the period would arrive before he did. Sometimes, we were lucky; more frequently, not. In essence, his method of teaching us arithmetic was simplicity itself. He would assign us a number of problems in the textbook to be solved for the next class. When the class came, he would look down the class list, pick a name, and that unfortunate would then stand up and describe how he had dealt with the problem. How we hoped we were not the victim!
The head would sit at his desk and look out of the window, waiting for him to begin, while we watched in state of frozen fascination, keenly aware of what would inevitably follow:
"First, sir, I multiplied 473 by 37.03"
"Why did you do that?"
"Well, sir, I thought that it was necessary to do that, before proceeding to the next stage."
A prolonged pause.
"Well, sir, one could not determine the cost without first doing that."
Another prolonged pause, while the head still looks out of the window.
The boy quickly sits down, evidently greatly relieved to be spared of further punishment at the hands of his inquisitor.
"See if you can shed some light on this."
Clark is non-plussed, and stands tongue-tied, having started out to approach the problem in exactly the same way as his predecessor.
Clark mumbles something. P.R. tilts his head and puts his hand to his ear. Clark repeats what he has just said. The head looks out of the window again, a look of suffering patience on his face. We all feel dim.
"Anybody", he says, ignoring Clark.
Nobody volunteers. He returns to Clark, who is still on his feet.
"What are we trying to find out? Read the question. What are we asked to find?"
"The cost of the loan, with compound interest at 7½% sir."
"For how long?"
"Fifteen years, sir."
"So, how do we state the problem?"
Clark has no answer or, if he has, it gets a response of "Gibberish", or "No, no, no!" The head gets off his chair, walks to the blackboard, and picks up a piece of chalk.
"What is the problem?"
Clark repeats what we all now know. The head then writes on the board.
"Let X = the amount."
He then leads us through the stages of finding the answer, about three lines in all. And so to the next problem, and a similar process of interrogation, and in this manner we come to the end of the lesson, but not before we are assigned half a dozen problems for homework, from that wretched textbook whose problems are so knotty and so full of catches. What blessed relief that that’s over for another week.
Pills, as we called him, was a traditionalist, an elitist. Education at Queen’s College, Cambridge, he had taught at Shrewsbury, one of the great English public schools; and he brought some of that “uppercrust” feeling to Retford. He emphasized gentlemanly behaviour. His Board of Governors was heavily larded with local bigwigs, mainly landowners; the chairman of the board was Miss Mellish, sister of the previous chairman, Sir Henry Mellish. The Mellishes were the squires at Blyth, considerable landowners. The family had made its money in the port wine trade before joining the squirearchy. Distinguished visitors at Speech Day were of the same class, or perhaps old soldiers. I remember receiving a prize from the Earl of Cavan, a retired general. The head took a great interest in the game of cricket, although I never saw him field a ball or wield a bat; but he studied the performance of the school team, and frequently would write an account of the most recent game, and this would be posted on the notice board for all to read. He must have led an arduous life, most of it hidden from us. He was responsible for about a dozen boarders; he exclusively dealt with parents; he must have had continuous dealings with the governors and with the bureaucrats of the Nottinghamshire Education Committee, who were responsible for funding the scholarship boys. All this, in addition to the everyday running of the school of about 350 boys. In this he was greatly assisted by the assistant headmaster, Mr. McFerran, who played a large part in the day-to-day operation of the school.
The Reverend W.P. McFerran was not your usual stereotypical parson. He was not solemn and proper and rather humourless. He was, rather, mercurial, funny, and, as a teacher, unconventional. It was he who took charge on special occasions. If we had to be organized to march down to East Retford church in Cannon Square, or, if a visiting lecturer, with his slides and projector, was to to speak at a hall a couple of hundred yards up the road, and we were to attend, it was Mr. McFerran who organized things, and saw that they were carried out efficiently. At such times, he was a model of efficiency, almost ruthlessly so; impatient with any show of inefficiency or slackness. Incidentally, he was the only member of the staff who didn’t have a nickname invented by the boys. In the classroom, he could be entirely different. He taught geography, or, more correctly, he was supposed to teach geography. In reality, he taught geography for about half the time, the remainder being devoted to his reading to us of Rudyard Kipling’s “Stalky and Co”, and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. These readings were interspersed with light bantering talk in which he revealed to us that he knew the nicknames of all the other teachers. One way and another, he would have us in fits of laughter. But he permitted boisterousness to rise only to a certain level, at which point he would cut short the proceedings and set us to work reading the text, or map-making. If he really wanted to cow us, he would take up a cane, and march up and down the aisles, occasionally bringing it down with force upon a desk. We knew how far we could go, and this served him well, for he was, from time to time, inevitably drawn out of class to attend to school business. As for the geography, I suppose he devoted as much time to it as he thought was needed to pass the end of term exams. I have always felt in his debt for the introduction he gave us to some of the funniest books in the English language.
Mr. Calvert taught us Latin. He was a large, flabby man, who suffered from a chronic catarrhal condition, which caused him to snort a lot. The boys imitated him. His name was Robert; we called him Bobe. He lived out in West Retford, near Clark’s Dye Works, and rode a bicycle to school. Mr. Calvert was easy to caricature. Besides Latin, his great passion was Acrostics, a kind of word puzzle, in which one is given two words from the vertical side of a square, and then one is given clues to find the words, which join the sides to each other, line by line. He took great pleasure in demonstrating to us how he had solved the most recent problem in the Sunday paper. This could often take the best part of a lesson. Another of his idiosyncrasies was his praise of his daughter, Margaret, by his telling a most precocious and intelligent child. We were regularly treated to accounts of her most recent achievements and to pearls of wisdom that had issued from her lips. We never met this ‘wunderkind’ in the flesh, but we all felt that we knew her well, and her name was bandied about a good deal in jest;
“You’ll never guess what Margaret did yesterday….” “Why, Margaret could have done that in half the time…..”and so on.
But, for all his foibles, Mr. Calvert was liked and respected, because he treated boys with respect, and, whenever you saw him in town, as he sailed along on his bicycle, you would always get a cheery wave.
Mr. W.E. Lewis was the master responsible for R.I. throughout the school (Religious Instruction). At that time, there were only two compulsory subjects by law; R.I. and P.T., though, of course all schools taught the other subjects. Mr. Lewis was of medium height, rather portly, and with a perfectly round head. He was known to the boys – and to Mr. McFerran – as “Tubby” Lewis. He was always immaculately turned out, not a hair out of place, or a button undone, and there was an air of calm about him, possibly because of his constant association with the scriptures. He spoke perfect English with more than a trace of a Welsh accent, which we were not slow to imitate. When he was not actually teaching scripture, he liked to talk about the virtues of deep breathing, which he constantly practiced. He would have us sit upright, and take deep breaths, which we then would hold until told to release. At the same time, he would tell us how while walking to and from school, which he did every day; he would take great draughts of air and hold these until he had walked a given distance. He put his good health down to these exercises. His lessons were not very interesting – not to me at least. The only aids were the Bible and a map of the Middle East, neither of which was, at that stage in my life, terribly exciting. I can remember with painful clarity the tedium of studying “The Acts of the Apostles”, and attempting to maintain interest in the journeys of St. Paul. But his calm manner and eagle eye put us on notice that he was in charge, and I never saw any kind of incident in his classes.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Mr. Marsh. ‘Boggy’ Marsh (what else?) He was a youngish man, rather small and with an earnest expression, which was accentuated by rather thick lenses in his spectacles. He had light brown wavy hair taken straight back with no parting. Whether it was his comparative youth, and consequent lack of experience in handling young barbarians, or whether he lacked that essential, indefinable quality that schoolboys instinctively recognize and respect is hard to say. The fact of the matter is that he just could not get control of the class. It was not even that he had control, and then lost it. He never had it from the outset. The result was that he was forced into a continuous running battle with his charges to see who should be in charge, and, unfortunately, the mathematics he was there to teach tended to fall by the way. I have seen the same performance many times. It is the beginning of a math lesson. The class is in the room, and Mr. Marsh has not yet arrived from his last lesson. The place is a scene of disorder. Boys are bouncing around the room, books are flying about, peashooters are in action; the noise is at a crescendo.
The boy who is at the door keeping ‘cave’ spots Mr. Marsh approaching, and calls out this information. The din is so great that he is not heard, and the noise and confusion continue unabated. Mr. Marsh arrives, and stands in the doorway, hoping that his presence will result in order. In this, he is successful only in small measure. He then makes a dramatic gesture by flinging out his arm, and bringing his wrist watch directly in front of his eye. This is to indicate that the time is now being counted, and will be added on at the end of the day. This helps, and slowly order is restored and he is able to get on with the lesson, though not with the same respectful attention that was given to Mr. McFerran when he took charge. It helped, because we hated to be kept in after school, those of us, at any rate who had to catch the train. School finished at 4; o’clock. If you were let out promptly, you scurried out and along the road to the station, where you caught the 4:16. If you were delayed, even by three or four minutes, you missed the 4:16 and had to wait for the 4:42. And though the difference was less than half an hour, it meant that you missed your usual bus at Worksop Station, and so arrived home quite a bit later than usual.
Mr. Hammond – ‘Boss’ Hammond to us did double duty as art master and woodwork master. He occupied a long room next door to the gym, which was divided into two parts. One half was furnished with rows of desks and a blackboard; the other half contained woodworking benches and all the tools of the craft, including a glue pot, whose molten contents gave off a smell of horse bones that permeated the whole room. Mr. Hammond was probably in his late fifties, a thin, wiry, taciturn man. His face was thin and narrow, and, in profile, he closely resembled a North American Plains Indian. My time in his classes was completely wasted. On the woodworking side, one started by planing a piece of two by four about a foot long; one then graduated to making a small box; that was where the glue came in. I never succeeded in completing the first process. I would plane a side, and, hoping it would pass muster, would take it to the ‘Boss’. He would raise it to eye level, and look along it with a square. Then, invariably, he would pencil a mark on the place where more needed to be taken off to get the side level. Back to the bench. More planing, interspersed with bouts of hitting the plane with a hammer to reset the blade, and back to Mr. Hammond. Eventually, one’s work would be passed, and marked with a penciled tick to indicate this. Now, one repeated this process on an edge, and this eventually proving successful, one started on the other side. By this time, the situation was that one had a very thin-looking piece of two by four, and an abundance of shavings on the bench and the floor. It was at this stage, that one ceased to address the task seriously and the emphasis shifted from planing to messing about and skylarking. Mr. Hammond had a pretty sharp eye, and, of course, lots of experience with mischievous schoolboys, and eventually he spotted you “in flagrante delicto”. You were then sent to one of the desks, given a poetry book, and assigned a poem to learn by heart and recite to him later. I learned very little in woodwork, and even less, if that is possible, in art. Art lessons were dull and totally unrewarding.
They consisted mostly of drawing with pencil. We would be seated at the benches on the stools, given a pencil and a sheet of paper, and required to draw objects set up in the centre of the room; a bucket, a cone, a cone and a cube together, and so on. First we drew the shape; then we put in the appropriate shading. Later, a boy would be seated in the centre and we would draw his head; and, finally, we made a square design, first drawn, and then coloured, consisting as Mr. Hammond said, in his introduction to the project told us, of straight lines, parts of circles, and graceful curves. From time to time, in all these exercises, he would have us put down our pencils, while he gave us some pointers. I remember, for instance, his showing us how to start drawing a human head by sketching an egg shape, and then where the eyes and ears were in relation to the whole and to one another. His other role was to walk round the room looking at the work in progress. He carried a sharp pencil, and leaning over one’s shoulder, he would, with a few deft, sharp strokes, correct what you had done so far. This was invariably followed by a lot of rubbing out, and, in effect, restarting the work.
All of this resulted in no improvement in my woodworking skills, and no appreciation of the arts, on my part, although, it must be said, that I did learn a few poems by heart.
We all referred to him as ‘Polly’ Beasley. He was a strange-looking man. Something, possibly a stroke, had affected his left side, so that when he walked he leaned forward with his left arm hanging down by his side, and loped along bouncing from heel to toe. Also, the left side of his mouth was pulled down. When he laughed the effect was grotesque. His mouth distorted and the laughter by a rhythmic shaking up and down of the shoulders. All this did not affect his teaching. In his physics lab, all was well organized.
^His directions and explanations were clear, and his experiments were well organized. Nor, despite his physical disabilities, was there any discipline problem, although outside the classroom, he was probably imitated and lampooned more than any other master.
Mr. Hay was the senior history master. He was small, with a mop of dark hair, and a small red button nose. He was a good teacher. He insisted on careful work; a great believer in the Socratic method, he was a rigorous questioner. He taught us to think clearly and to write clearly, but he made us use our imaginations too. He had us write limericks about famous historical personages, and scenarios of dialogue on famous historical occasions. We had his respect. Besides being a good teacher, he was an accomplished cricketer, wielding an elegant bat. His one pronounced idiosyncrasy was his habit of gasping. Whether this was due to habit or to some disability I do not know but it earned him the nickname of ‘Gasper’.
‘Beaky’ Graydon taught English and Music. His nickname came from the fact that he had a long, aquiline nose. Like Mr. Marsh, he had trouble with discipline, particularly in music lessons, when his attention was divided between the piano and the music and the class. He was given the assignment of preparing us for choral singing at school functions, not an easy job, given the material both musical and human, at his disposal. I remember the difficulty he had in teaching is the ballad “Phaudrig Crohoore” (Patrick Connor), getting us to fit the words to the music.
“Oh’ Phaudrig Crohoore was a broth of a boy, And he stood six foot eight, And he stood six foot eight, And his arm was as round as another man’s thigh, For Phaudrig was great…”, and so on.
We were not very successful, largely because we did not try very hard. We were not interested in Phaudrig and his exploits. English classes were better, but Mr. Graydon had trouble with discipline, boys calling out with smart answers, or reading books under the desk, or playing chess on the little cardboard sets we had, or doing homework from a previous class, or resorting to a hundred other devices known to boys.
“Charlie” Charlton taught junior History and French. He was sturdy, well set up fellow, an excellent cricketer, and even better soccer player, who was a considerable asset to the staff in the Masters v. School match. Not a particularly good teacher, a bit lazy intellectually I thought, he was popular with the boys because of his easy manner, and of course, also because of his sporting ability.
He came to the school during my second or third year as senior mathematics master. He was a strict and efficient teacher who took no nonsense. He had no time for humour. I never saw him smile, let alone laugh. The lesson started the moment he entered the room and continued till the second that the bell rang. Years later, at the end of Pilkington-Roger’s term, he became headmaster.
He was there for the last couple of years I was there. Young, dark, ruddy, and handsome, he was referred to as ‘Herr’ Dow. Possibly because he taught us German and Spanish. He lodged for a time at the McFerran’s, and one would see him at lunch-time crossing the road to visit the pub. In the afternoon, he would breathe beery fumes over us as he pronounced guttural German words. Sometimes we would get him to talk about beer, about which he seemed to be an expert.
He called it Tolly. An easy-going type, possessed of a rather aristocratic manner, he treated us and our antics with cool disdain. Not long after he came to the school, he married Stephanie Spencer, a daughter of the Spencer family, important in the world of auctioneering and sales of land and country houses in our area.
His initial was A, but we never knew what it stood for. We knew him as ‘Spug’. He was the senior French master, a bachelor who spent all his holidays in France. A small man, with receding hair, and a face, through years of practice no doubt, able to shape itself to produce and express the sounds of Parisian French. He was meticulous in getting us also to produce those sounds – the nasal sounds of ‘en’ and ‘on’, the distinction in the pronunciation between e (grave) and e (acute), and especially the French ‘u’ (I can hear him saying now; “Purse your lips as if to say ‘o’ and then say ‘ee’. He laboured hard and long at his task of teaching us a smattering of his beloved French with only, I am afraid, modest results, many of us seeming to have a deep-seated inability to grasp it’s grammatical and syntactical rules.
Mr. Stansfield taught French to the lower forms, and so we did not know him as well as we came to know Mr. Spencer. He had a habit of calling boys to his desk in order to review their work, and the buzz went around that it was a good idea, when so summoned, to stand a fair distance from him as he had roaming hands.
The Chemistry Master
Strangely enough, although I can see his face and hear his voice, I cannot recall this teacher’s name. Perhaps, that is because much of what he taught was incomprehensible to me. His domain was the chemistry lab. which always had a sharp, chemical sort of smell. At one end was a raised platform, behind which was a blackboard, on which he wrote the data he was dealing with, and from which he continually invoked us to silence by his constant cry, uttered more in hope than in anger, I am sure; “Oh! Shut up at the back!” The mysteries of his science were never revealed to me. The theory was a closed book, and the practical work and experiments never seemed to work out right. Maybe that was because there was too much skylarking, and activities that were not in the curriculum, like sprinkling iron filings in the Bunsen burner flame, or concocting nasty smells from the various bottles at our disposal.
About 35 of us started at Retford in September, 1929. We started in Form 3A, and nearly all of us stayed together until we sat the School Certificate examination four years later. Only one or two fell by the wayside, or left the area. In that time and place, before the car changed everyone’s lives, people rarely moved house, and then, only from one place to another within the same community.
Within that circle was another smaller circle. These were the classmates who took the train from Worksop to Retford with me over the years. We spent much time together on the station and in the train, on the way to and from the station and school, in the classroom, and on the sports fields. A few stand out in the memory; Reg. Clark, Jack Watkinson, ‘Dewdrop’ Atherton, Ramscar, Geoff Lidster, John Brumyce^. Reg Clark was a heavy-set, swarthy boy. I remember seeing him first at the oral exam for the scholarship, accompanied as I was by his mother. He was an only child, I think. His father was an undertaker with premises right in the middle of Worksop at Curr’s Corner, the intersection of Bridge Street and Newcastle Avenue, under a large sign proclaiming; “George Clark & Sons, Undertakers.” He was a good all-round scholar, but not much use at any sport. Too slow and stolid but he was well-liked. I doubt that he followed his father into the funeral business. The last I heard of him, he had married one of the Hearst girls from South Carlton, one of the two who won scholarships to Retford High School. Jack Watkinson was small and slight; he was fair-skinned and blue eyed, and fair-haired.
He never seemed to have a hair out of place. A neat person, I envied him his beautiful hand-writing, so round and neat, and even. A conscientious worker, I never knew him to come to school with his homework incomplete; he even started to do it on the train going home, whilst most of us were busy skylarking or resting from the rigors of the day. Atherton’s family had a shoe shop and shoe-repair business on Bridge Street. We call him ‘Dewdrop’, I think because of the shape of his head, which was large, and a perfect oval. He had calm blue eyes in a face of a yellowish colour, topped with a mop of tousled hair, the while giving him a somewhat eccentric appearance. He walked with long, bouncing strides, looking ahead unless distracted. As a scholar, he was noted for his mathematical ability. If we were faced with a difficult problem in geometry, or algebra, or perhaps something from physics or chemistry , we took it to Dewdrop, who resolved it quickly and without apparent effort. I was always surprised that he was no good at French, when he was so clever at mathematics. Johnny Brumyce’s^ father was manager of the Midland Bank, which was situated kitty-corner from Mr. Clark’s establishment at Curr’s Corner. Johnny was a good-looking gentle character, who drifted along at school. Unfortunately, his father was known to some of the masters, and this seemed to cause them to urge him on to efforts, which he did not seem to want to make. Hugh Lidster came from a family of monumental masons, Brammer and Lidster’s. Their workyard was near the station, and as you walked down Bridge Street into town, you passed close to gravestones in various stages of completion and a variety of graveyard ornaments, vases,etc.
He was a small, wiry, feisty character, tough and independent. Ramscar I have mentioned before. I met him, too, at the oral exam in Retford. His mother and mine sat together as they waited for us to go into the exam room, probably more nervous than we were. Ramscar was bright but a bit of a skate, and, in the end, he didn’t measure up to Retford’s standards; homework not complete, disruptive classroom behaviour, broken school rules, and poor attendance led eventually to his dismissal. And I never saw him after that.
This small circle was merged into the larger circle of 3A when we got to school. There may have been some fee-payers in this class, but I fancy that we were all scholarship boys. So, for the first time, I came into contact and competition with good scholars. At Langold, there had been comparatively little competition, at Retford the situation was entirely different, and one was hard put to if one was to keep up, and appear near the top in the lists of marks which were posted on classroom walls from time to time.
Some of the boys came from Retford itself. Roy Scott, a good all-round scholar, thin and wiry, fair complexioned, with sparse blonde hair plastered close to his head. His father was manager of the Midland Bank in Carolgate. His brother, Kenneth, a year senior to us, was a real brain, winning a scholarship to Cambridge where he took a double first in History and Law, and became a lecturer in Law. Oscar Bingham was from Retford, too. Oscar was good in all subjects, Eric Salmon lived hear the station; we passed his house every day on our way to school. He had the misfortune to have a wry neck, so he was always looking at one askance, but his nature was gentle. He was a pacifist, a position he defended stoutly when later we argued about what policies our government should adopt to meet the growing threat of the European dictators. Johnny Parkinson’s father was Canon Parkinson, of East Retford parish church, where the religious parts of our school ceremonies were celebrated. Johnny was flabby, large, ponderous, slow-moving, and with a high color; a harmless and inoffensive boy. He had an unfortunate tendency to blush easily. Poor Johnny. I remember on one occasion, when the class was behaving badly, someone broke wind rather loudly, and as the sulphurous fumes spread slowly around the room, the master - I don’t recall now who it was - was foolish enough to demand that the culprit own up. Nobody did. The master repeated his demand. Still nothing. Boys now started to look around the room, obviously speculating as to who the guilty party was. After a while, Johnny’s face had become a bright scarlet, and the whisper went around. Parkinson. Look at Parkinson. Betrayed by his weakness, he sat there helpless, the focus of speculative, accusing eyes. But he did not confess. And he was right not to. He was not the guilty party. I happened to know. But he got the blame just the same.
Two of our brightest came from Bircotes, both of them, as it happened, the sons of shopkeepers there. Geoffrey Bray was very good at languages; English, French and Latin were his forte. He had a rosy complexion, and a head of carefully, combed hair that was so fair that it looked almost silver. His manner was gentle, almost effeminate. He was no good at sports, but was always near the top in the class lists. Kenneth Bryne^ was a tall, sickly-looking boy, rather too thin. His face was lacking in color, except for his nose, which was perpetually red; and thick eyebrows which met over his nose gave him a severe appearance. He was, in fact, not strong, but his mind was active enough; he was good all-round, but very good in mathematics and physics.
The rest who spring to mind came from the villages in the countryside outside Retford, old established farming communities deeply rooted in the soil for centuries, their names telling of their Saxon and Viking origins; Blyth, Bawtry and Barnby Moor; Ranskill, Torworth, Lound, and Sutton; Mattersey, Everton and Wiseton, Walkeringham, Beckingham and Gringley-on-the-Hill; Clarborough, Clayworth, Sturton-le-Steeple; North and South Leverton, Treswell, Cottam and Rampton; Eaton, Gamston, and Askham; West Drayton, West Markham and Tuxford; Laneham, Cottam and Torksey; and so on, the boys’ names reflected the same history; [Boole], Gilson, Tebbatt, Fenwick, Drake, Howard, Lee, Guthrie, Henstock, Taylor, Dyer, Haunch, Cairns,……The sons of farmers, farm labourers, smiths, village parsons and shopkeepers. I wonder now what became of them. It’s hard to imagine that the survivors are in this year of grace, 1997, old men of seventy eight or seventy nine; I think of them as I see them, yet in my mind’s eye, sixty odd years later, noisy, energetic, boisterous. They are preserved in time like insets trapped in amber, caught in time and made immortal.
As I have said, I started at Retford in September of 1929, and for the next two years the school was the centre of my life. What with traveling to and from school, homework – usually about three hours a night – and school games, little time was left for Langold. The boys and girls I had been at school with now became virtual strangers. And so it was with neighbours, for in 1930, my mother achieved her wish, and we moved from Riddell Avenue to Doncaster Road. That meant new neighbours, but there were compensations. One was a field to play in, an open space between Doncaster Road and Firbeck Crescent. Here the local children met to play their games. Another thing I liked was the busier atmosphere on Doncaster Road – more traffic, more lights, and the village shops across the street. To cap it all, we had a neighbour, a young woman with a small baby, who gave you a penny for doing a simple errand, generosity indeed.
A big change came in 1932. I would then be in Remove A. This was the year in which Nora was born. It speaks to my innocence of that time that I was not at all aware that my mother was expecting. The first I knew was that I was awakened very early one morning by the sound of people running up and downstairs, and women's voices. When I got up, I was informed that I had a new sister, a fact, as I recall that was of little interest to me. The only thing of interest was that I was late for school that day, and, when I gave the reason, was not given any punishment. It was just, a welcome break in routine.
But that was not the big change, which was that, after a short time we moved into one of the shops on the front. The reason for this was that my father was unable to carry on his work as a miner. As he told the story, he was not feeling up to the mark, so he went to see Dr. Ryan. At the end of a physical examination, the doctor told him that he was to go home and go to bed. My father replied that he had a wife and children to look after, and he had to go to work. To which Dr. Ryan replied that he would not be going to work in the Pit again. The reason; my father was suffering from pernicious anaemia.
The question now was what to do next. My parents had always been careful with their money, and had a little saved up. But that would not last very long, and then my father would have to go on relief. That prospect was unpalatable to both. They decided to try to get a business going. There was a shop empty on the front, next door to the garage. It had been a betting shop but that business had gone bust, and the shop had lain empty for some time. It has to be remembered that this was the depth of the depression, which had begun in 1929. The coal industry was badly hit. Firbeck Main was working half time, and, in order to spread the work around, miners worked about three days a week so that although every man worked, everybody was poor. The going rate for a coalface worker was eleven shillings for an eight hour shift. The houses in the village were owned by the company and the rent of eleven shillings a week and the electric light charge of one shilling and threepence were deducted from the men's wages at source.
That left a pound or so to feed and clothe a family. Not too bad for a single man, especially one living with his parents to whom he could give a few shillings for his keep. He had money left for tobacco and the odd glass of beer, and a trip to the pictures. But it was very hard for a family. Some men kept a little spending money for themselves, and gave their wives what they thought fit, and some miners' wives were hard pressed to find enough food for their families.
We moved into the shop, and started from scratch. The shop itself was quite small. From the street a door led into the centre. At the back right were two doors, one next to the other. The one on the right led into a cubby-hole underneath the stairs; this was later used for the storage of dry items. The door to its left led into the living room, and to another door which led into the kitchen.
There was little money for shop furniture. On each side of the entrance was a large window which framed an area for the display of goods. In these spaces my parents constructed a framework to hold things for sale. At first, there was little; some items of pottery – cups, saucers, dinner plates were the first, and the sales of these must have been discouraging. My father next built some wooden sloping stands to hold fruit and vegetables; and an old-fashioned scale with its iron weights, ranging from half a pound to half a stone, took its place at that side.
On the other side, on the left as one entered the shop, a dresser and a chest of drawers was put in place to act as a counter, and to hold small items. After a while, the window on this side was filled with an array of sweets, displayed in their boxes.
Gradually, the pots and crockery disappeared to be replaced by fruit and vegetables, confectionery, and by provisions and groceries. The transition was gradual because changes were made only as they could be afforded. Scales, a cash register, a fridge for keeping bacon, a machine for slicing it all cost money which had to be raised out of profits.
Thus, the business changed to one selling groceries, sweets, tobacco, and fruit and vegetables, a process that took time, and did not occur without resistance from some of the other shopkeepers. In particular, Willy Shaw and the Martin's. Mr. Shaw was three doors down from us. He had a nice little grocery business going, and he tried to prevent suppliers from serving us. The Martin's were four doors up in the other direction. They ran a business selling the better quality of sweets and chocolates. But their efforts were unavailing. Keyson Confectionery sold us sweets and chocolates; Nichols & Co. of Sheffield provided groceries, Mr. Godfrey, cigarettes and tobacco. Freestone's Bakery of Worksop called regularly each weekday morning with bread and cakes; John Taylor's took orders for fruit and vegetables, and delivered them twice a week.
Then there were the one-item purveyors; Apollo Mineral Waters, Brook Bond's Tea, Lyon's Tea, the Danish Bacon Company, and the patent medicine manufacturers – Burdall's, Stothert's, and Parkinson's – who packaged and sold inexpensive remedies; two-penny tins of zinc ointment, boracic ointment, penny and two-penny packets of boracic acid powder, Epsom salts, seidlitz powders for indigestion, and small bottles of oils and medicines and tonics – camphorated oil, olive oil, sweet nitre, friar's balsam, Indian bark, and so on.
All these suppliers had travelers who came for the order, which was delivered shortly afterwards. Some we saw regularly, others less frequently. The baker came every day. The tea men came in their vans once a week – Brooke Bond in a little square red van called a Trojan, which had solid wheels and a chain drive, J. Lyons in a green van. Both these filled their order there and then from the van. Mr. Keyworth, Mr. Guite and Mr. Godfrey came once a week. They came for years, and became friends of the family.
Mr. Keyworth – Albert, I think his name was – was founder and owner of Keyson Confectionery. He and his wife ran the business and employed three or four men. Mrs. Keyworth saw to the invoicing and other office matters. Their premises were on Bridge Street, about two or three hundred yards down from the station, right across the road from Lidster & Brammer’s, the masons. I was sometimes directed to go there to pick up needed supplies, usually chocolate bars, on my way home from school. From Bridge Street, you took an alley way which led past a small house, where the Keyworth’s lived, to a collection of two-story buildings. I think at one time they had been stables on the ground level and there was room to turn a vehicle. Their facility was on the first floor. It was approached by a set of very wide wooden stairs. Arriving at the top, you were now in a large airy storage area cum manufactory. In one part were rows of tall broad shelves on which were stored boxes of sweets and chocolates of all sorts. In the other part was a long, wide, table, about waist-high and covered with sheet metal, and implements for converting sugar and glucose into boiled sweets – machines for pulling the toffee and cutting it into the right shapes – humbugs, mint balls, pear drops, etc.
Stacked by giant boiling vats were sacks of sugar and large containers of liquid glucose and the colouring agents and flavourings that transmuted these elements into delicacies.
On shelves nearby were arranged batteries of bottles full of sweets, each bearing the Keyson insignia and the name of the contents. Often when I entered, a batch of sweets was being made and the scene was one of great activity. Then, Mrs. Keyworth would see to my small order. Sometimes, the men would be putting orders together and loading them into the delivery van. But, whatever they were doing, there was always a friendly greeting. Whenever I think of that place, my memory is flooded with the smells of it, of mints, and lemon and acid drops, and pear drops, and malt fingers, smells that had been around so long and were so intense, that they must have sunk into the shelving and the very fabric of the building.
Mr. Keyworth came every Monday, always in the afternoon. On occasion, I watched the ritual. He and my mother would sit at the table in the living room. She would begin by offering him a cup of tea. Then they would begin to look at his samples. They were carried in two or three square leather cases. Each case had a number of drawers which, when pulled out, revealed a number of small compartments. In each compartment was a sample. It was the equivalent of looking at a stock list, but of course much more real. As he pulled out each drawer in turn, my mother would indicate her choices and the number of boxes. And so the order was made up. Most of these lines were the cheaper sweets, twopence a quarter, which represented the bulk of our sales. I remember the favourites; jelly babies, coconut mushrooms, chocolate chewing nuts, licorice torpedoes, marzipan teacakes, cocoanut chips, wine gums, aniseed balls, gobstoppers. And then there was perhaps the best seller of all – Fillery's K.K. toffee, plain, or nut, or nut and fruit – which came in the slab on a tip tray, and was broken up with a little toffee hammer. The order also included little specialty items – usually a ha'penny each – licorice bootlaces, licorice pipes, kali suckers, packets of Barrett's imitation cigarettes, bars of toffee, caramel or licorice.
And we did sell some more expensive confections; Radiance toffee, Palm toffee, Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates, Jordan almonds, Parkinson’s butterscotch and Parkinson’s golden humbugs, Vanity Fair selection, and Barker and Dobson’s buttered almonds and buttered walnuts, and Squirrel gums, which looked delicious, but were hard and tasted of nothing much. And there were specialty items like cherry lips, and silver cachous. All these besides the array of chocolate items; Cadbury’s Milk and Bournville bars, and fruit and nut bars and blocks; and the same from Rowntree’s and Nestle’s; and Rowntree’s whipped cream walnuts, milk or plan (2d); and Cadbury’s Milk Flakes (1d. and 2d.).