Updated 16 Nov 2011

Retford Grammar School

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Memories of RGS

1941-43, 47-49

by Gerry Brooks

6th form 1949-50
Gerry Brooks 1949-50
Dear John Palmer,
I recently strayed accidentally into your Retford website, whilst exploring my early engine spotting reminiscences. I was astonished to see the 'pupil panorama' photo dated June 1947. I was at RGS in 1941-43 and after an absence, again 1947-49, in which year I took Higher School Cert. I left for U. London in October 1950 and held the Bescoby Scholarship 1950-53, which, luckily for for me fell to a scientist in 1950. When I blew up the 1947 photo, I immediately saw the youthful faces of two of my friends who travelled with me from Worksop to Retford. With staff like 'physics' Beasley, Taffy Jones (chemistry). 'Tash' Illingworth Tubby Lewis and, of course, CWP-R (The wag), on the photo,time seemed to stand still. I am still in contact with Dr RAW Longden, who was a couple of years behind me at Retford and followed me to London ca 1952. I think he kept in contact with the school over the years.
I like your web-site,
With Best wishes,Gerry Brooks-
Gerald T Brooks BSc PhD DSc Chem FRSC CBiol FIBiol.

    A Tale of two Nottinghamshire Grammar Schools

    Retford GS 1941-1943, Henry Mellish (Bulwell) 1943-1947, Retford GS again 1947-1950.

    I have to go back slightly to my Retford primary school in Grove Street, which Sir Frederick Milner accomodated for a bit during renovations. We had just reached Retford in 1939 when war was declared. My father was a sergeant of police there when I gained an award to RGS. We lived in Bigsby Road from where there was back route to RGS avoiding most of the town. I had stripped down and renovated an old bike and often ran the gauntlet of unfriendly youths through this rougher part of Retford to get to RGS. As it was necessary to wear school uniform, especially the cap (!), this route taught me the rudiments of survival. I can remember refugees from Leeds in Retford but nothing about the presence of Yarmouth GS.

    Small world, though. In the middle of the night after the big Paphos earthquake of 1996, we were sitting on the beach, unable to sleep due to the aftershocks, when a couple joined us, who turned out to be from Retford and the husband had been to Sir Frederick Milner. This took our minds off the shakes for a bit !

    Otherwise, I don’t remember a great deal about this early RGS period but the names of staff endure forever. CWP-R (The Wag), of course, ’Mac’ McFerran (who could forget him?), Taffy Jones, Beasley, Charlton, ‘Tash’ Illingworth, Boss Hammond, Howard Bartley, etc., etc. Not to be forgotten is waiting outside the New Block in the early morning until Mac swept round the corner to open the doors and the ensuing absolute, deathly silence! Howard Bartley’s English teaching was excellent and I became reasonably good at essay writing. I was sent from another class to his one day, to request a long window opening pole. I asked him ‘can I borrow the pole ?’. What do you mean?, he responded. I was dumbstruck. He explained – I know you are capable of borrowing the pole but what you should have said is –‘please may I borrow the pole’. I have never forgotten that.

    Chemistry was new and fascinating thanks to Taffy Jones. In contrast, I found physics rather sterile and boring. Jim Beasley started RGS at the same time. ‘My son Jim’ became a sort of catch phrase that was actually used to address Jim and some lads were very good at using Beasley senior’s particular form of speech when rendering it. This was probably a bit offensive but Jim took it all in good part.

    I can remember queuing outside Boss Hammond’s workshop. He was difficult to get used to and seemed a bit of a tyrant at times. ‘Where are your manners boy- in your boots ?’ - comes to mind and I had some difficulty in using his technique of deciding perspectives by measuring angles holding a pencil in the air towards the object to be drawn. Wag had his own special way of teaching maths and I came to appreciate this especially in my second spell at Retford later (below) in the 6th Form.

    I was just getting used to all this and combing the Dukeries on my bike as well, when father announced late in 1942 that he had been promoted to take charge of Eastwood (of DH Lawrence fame) police station and we would be moving there soon. This happened sometime in 1943 and it proved to be a tough wartime job. I was transferred to the Henry Mellish Grammar School in Basford, travelling there on the GNR line from Eastwood to Bulwell. I had an uncle who was an engine fitter at Colwick just outside Nottingham and was occasionally taken there.

    Mellish was a nice school, but being sited above a colliery, was subject to subsidence and water leaks, which meant, especially in winter, that we were often sent home. My interest in railways really began then. The Nottingham to Pinxton GNR line was not of much interest but the Midland railway main line from St Pancras to Glasgow ran through Langley Mill, just down the road in Derbyshire. I did my train spotting on the elevated station at Langley Mill and at also at Shipley Gate, where one could stand on a footbridge and see exactly what went on in SG signal box. On there alone one day, the signalman invited me down. So, using that contact I was soon a regular visitor at several boxes along that line, which was very busy, especially during the coal shortage in the fierce winter of 1946-47. One of my friends from Heanor Junction signal box transferred to very busy Toton Junction box and I even managed to sneak in there on some Saturday afternoons. All a lot more interesting than homework!

    I took School Cert/Matric in the summer of 1947. My father had just announced that he was transferring to Worksop to take charge of the Dukeries area, so he actually collected me from school immediately after the last exam. I shook hands with the Headmaster and so it was goodbye to the Erewash Valley and Henry Mellish and hello again Retford GS, to which I transferred to take Higher School Cert. Thus, I joined the Worksop Retfordians on the early train to Retford. Naturally, we gentlemen of the Lower 6th were required to guard the interface between the lesser mortals behind us and the young ladies of the Retford Girls High School in front, which we did with zeal.

    The return to Retford was a bit miserable at first. I missed my peers at Mellish and certainly the Erewash valley signalmen. But I chatted to one of the signalmen at Worksop East (on the level crossing) and soon became a regular visitor to the box. A signalman at Shipley Gate taught me to play Chess and I passed this on to my friend at Worksop East, who became much keener on Chess that I ever was!

    The food at the Retford British Restaurant was mediocre and I later took sandwiches, which I ate sitting on a bench in Retford Park in sight of the town hall clock, so that I would not be late for afternoon lessons. Travelling on the train, I came to know Worksopians Jeff Simpson, whose father kept a butchers shop in central Worksop and Brian Stanford, son of a railwayman. We were taught with Jim Beasley so the four of us spent much time together. I have yet to locate Jim on the 1947 pupil panorama but Simpson and Stanford are prominent and standing together, back row Nos 6 and 7 from the left, respectively, in section 4704. I am not in this photo as I did not return to Retford until the autumn of ’47.

    Wags maths teaching took a bit of getting used to. He would do a couple of examples on the black board and then we just did examples constantly in pencil on a thick ‘jotter’ exercise book. Occasionally, he would sidle (always wearing mortarboard and gown) along the narrow gap between the belfry benches and one felt his gaze from behind, followed by a snort of derision and then an elbow in the ribs to make room for him to sit. He then proceeded to demonstrate how the problem should be solved. Actually this worked remarkably well and most of us did extra maths at home just for fun.

    Across the Great North Road from school was a row of linked terrace houses with access to the rear through occasional tunnels through the building. One of these properties was occupied by an elderly gentleman my friends called, I think, ‘Jesus’ Ford. He made a living doing odd electrical jobs and charging batteries. I never smoked but Beasley, Stanford and Simpson liked a puff and we would sneak across the road to Ford’s so they could chat and smoke. Problem was getting back to school again without being spotted by Mac, who was known to frequent hostelries over that side. Heaven knows what would have happened had we been seen but we were lucky!

    When we at last had a school canteen, I remember a lad who had upset Mac being dragged out of there by an ear and told ‘go eat grass’. I never understood the relationship between Wag and Mac, who seemed to be such totally different characters.

    So at last we arrived at the Higher of 1949 and we all did well. Beasley and Stanford had places at Christ’s and Queen’s Cambridge, respectively, conditional on doing their national service first. Jeff Simpson fancied agricultural science and went off to U.Wales at Bangor. I stayed on, supposedly to prepare for university entrance scholarships but this was a myth as I already had offers of places to do chemistry at Queen Mary College London, or King’s College London. Father moved again just after I took Higher in 1949 and we now lived in Sutton-in-Ashfield police station. So I was alone at Retford, a sort of ‘celestial’ super 6th former, looked on in awe by those still coming up to Higher. I believe some people may have taken Higher twice to see if they could get better subject grades but I thought that tempted providence and resolved never to take an exam twice. After Higher, I did chemistry sometimes in the back room of Taffy’s lab and extra maths in the belfry.

    1950 was a strange year. My weekday began with an early bus to Mansfield, connecting to the East Midland single decker for Ollerton, Tuxford and Retford, where I arrived ca 09.30 in nice time to miss assembly. But the return journey by that route was slow and tedious. It soon occurred to me that as I was just another bus pass pupil and the total distance was about the same, why don’t I get on the Sheffield Traction bus to Worksop with the Worksop contingent, changing in Worksop to the East Midland for Mansfield. This route worked very well and so thereafter, I completed my circuit round the outside of the Dukeries, maintaining my social life in Worksop as well, although I no longer lived there. At this stage, lunchtimes at school were occasionally enlivened by RAW (Tony) Longden tinkling on the hall piano. One or two years behind me, Tony followed me to QMC, where he gained a PhD in physical chemistry and ultimately headed a technical college in Wolverhampton. Tony, who I see occasionally and lives on the Thames at Wapping (near to the famous Prospect of Whitby) kept in touch with RGS for many years.

    At the Speech Day in the summer of 1950, I watched the proceedings from a balcony, musing that I’d never had a book token or anything. Shortly afterward, Wag appeared in the belfry and expressed disappointment that I hadn’t been to maths recently. In my first ever attempt at higher diplomacy, I explained that I had been doing extra chemistry and although I had greatly enjoyed maths, mainly due to his teaching, I had decided that I wanted to do a degree in chemistry. He accepted this gracefully and appeared again a few days later with the news that the Bescoby Scholarship, available alternately to prospective arts and science university attendees for 3 years, had just become available to a scientist and he intended proposing me to the Governors. So I duly attended on the Governors for interview and took the prize with me to London.

    So, my school days drew at last to a close in the summer of 1950 and I began to prepare for the new adventure in London, having finally accepted the offered place on the BSc Special Hons Chemistry course at Queen Mary College (QMC). Several years later I became a biochemist of sorts but that is another story!

    To complete this account, Beasley and Stanford took up their degree courses at Cambridge around 1951. I lived at that time in the QMC men’s hall of residence at South Woodford, on the main road to Cambridge, so I occasionally spent weekends with them in Cambridge. Sadly, Stanford died sometime in the 80s. Jeff Simpson went on from Bangor to U.Aberdeen. In the undergraduate days, he and I hitch-hiked in southern France, all round the Irish coast and in Scotland. He then went off to Uganda for a time and later joined CSIRO’s Division of Plant Industry in Canberra. I lost track of Jim Beasley. I have an idea that he joined Phillips Electricals in the Crawley but this may be wrong.

    How lucky we all were!

    Gerry Brooks, October 2009.

Gerry Brooks writes:
The attached 6th form Gp from 1949-50 is I think the one after that in Joe Almond's text, when Frank Hilder became Head Lad.
Bottom row L-R, Snell, Minnit, Evans, Hider, Blore, ?, Brooks.
Behind me is Feige and on his right Shone:
2nd row, 3rd from left is Orme (Worksopian), others I recognise but sadly cannot remember names at present.

As you see, I have at last reached the bottom row, shortly before falling off into a brave new world.
Hope you can use this one.


----Anyone with more details for publication on this webpage, please email ----
Gerry Brooks writes on 16 Nov 2011:

Hello John,

I have just read the marvellously detailed account by the late Gerald Walsh 1929-36. Gillian Johnston must be congratulated on providing it for your collection. This prompts me to drop you a line. I had no idea previously that Sir Henry Mellish, mentioned by Walsh, had been Chair of the RGS Governing Board at one time and that there was thus a connection between my two Grammar schools.

I keep an eye on your splendid web site recording the history of Retford GS and have noted the collection of the interior pics and recently your exploits on the roof. It is clear that you chaps in year ’57 lacked the discipline of your seniors in earlier years. I also noted the more recent info re future development of the RGS site but still not much indication of what is intended.

Also the addition of the 1933 pupil panorama – notable is the youthful appearance of Mac and Pilkington-Rogers (Wag) although Tubby Lewis and Boss Hammond are just as I remember them later in the 1940s and they were obviously ageless. Wag must have retired about 1950, the year I left. I also read for the first time your account of the career of Bernard Beasley. Taffy Jones looks remarkably youthful in the later picture in which you are sitting next to him.

I have looked closely at the pupil panorama of 1947 several times but cannot see anyone I recognise as Jim Beasley, although Jim, Brian Stanford and Jeff Simpson and I were taught together 1947-1949. I notice that Jim Beasley is mentioned among the mourners at Bernard’s funeral; I remember Jim from the undergraduate days in Cambridge ca 1952 –55 and I know that Stanford died early in the 1980s but have you any information about what became of Jim ? I suspect he stayed with some aspect of physics and so I thought you might know.

Your entry on ‘Spotting at Retford’ takes me back too. Further, the RCTS mystery photo site on their rail tours has many pics to stimulate my web trawls going back to that now distant era. The ECML, with pics of Retford South SB and the dive under reconstruction of 1965 featured recently. I went into South box a time or two during my 2nd spell at RGS and so had fun adding to the comments that are a feature of that website. I also found that whenever I mentioned a signal box in my RGS account, there is a ref back to that account if I key that signal box in. Viewing this RCTS site led to the discovery that one of my signalman friends at Shipley Gate SB on the 1940s very busy Erewash Valley main LMS line, died in 1997 age 93; his son aged 75 sent me a number of relevant photos and we now keep in touch.

As we move through 2011 and I recently reached my 80th birthday, I perceive more than ever that my period at RGS and at the Henry Mellish GS (now part of a Bulwell Academy) was a priceless and lucky experience when one sees the way things are now – and my 16 yr old grandson is currently approaching the thick of it.

I noticed your recent request re Old Retfordians and its good that people are responding. There is now on Google Earth a photo of the façade of RGS in the snow that would make a good Xmas card.
Taken 5 Feb 2009 © Colin Plummer
This atmospheric view of the belfry gives a timeless impression of the school and I can see myself, years ago, ringing the end of lesson bell outside, looking at the clock to get the timing right.

I can see from your tweets that you are keeping nature at bay on the Stour and maybe it’s a bit early but I wish you an enjoyable Xmas and a productive New Year !

Best wishes,

Gerry (Brooks)

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