The Prescotian Webzine

Stuart Sutcliffe at Prescot Grammar School (An article by Norman Allanson for
Liverpool is a very special place and for me holds many fond memories. It was where I was born, grew up and spent my formative years. My family was typical of many of that generation, stable and conventional, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all living in or around the City. My father was self employed and hard working and provided the family with a comfortable, but unpretentious life style. My mother too was hard working attending to the house and family. My sister was three years older than me and I was born at home in March 1940 - consequently I was a 'Blitz Baby'. I can still remember the sound of sirens and the drone of aircraft during the war, and of nights spent in the dank shelter built in the garden of our house.

The years after the war were a period of recovery, both for the City and its citizens. Young as I was I felt there was a

spirit of optimism and a bright future ahead. I am sure that this was a result of encouragement from my parents and the cohesion of our family. Having progressed through Primary School in Roby (now Huyton with Roby) I gained a place at Prescot Grammar school following the 11 plus examinations. I started Secondary education here in the Autumn Term of 1951. The school was founded in 1544 and the motto was 'Futuram Civitatem Inquirimus' - 'We seek a Future State.' It is a motto that I think of often.
  The school was to me, aged 11, very large. Located off the road to St Helens and bounded by a sandstone wall it was approached through iron gates and a large playground area. The school buildings were faced with timber boarding stained black set on a brick plinth. Windows and doorframes were gloss white and the pitched roofs faced with clay tiles. Beyond the woodwork studio and the canteen lay the cricket, hockey and football pitches, which seemed to stretch into eternity.

Having existed for over 400 years the school had its traditions and was conservative in its approach. The Headmaster, Mr

Spencer-Briggs, always wore a 'mortar board' and the teachers their University gowns. Each class sat in alphabetical order commencing with the front row and reading from left to right facing the blackboard - Aikman, Allanson, Badley, Ball, Cox, Cutter… the register rang out each morning the S, T, V's and W's were all at the back. Academic subjects, including the Classics were the order of the day and the Careers Master (who also happened to teach Latin) majored on Law, Medicine, Accountancy and of course Teaching.

Whilst the Arts and Handicrafts curriculae appeared to take second place both of these subjects were taught by exceptional teachers, Reg Walters for Art and Cyril Davies for Woodwork. Each academic year, numbering some 100 pupils, was broken down into three forms, namely a, b and c. It was a simple streaming process that roughly graded the classes to help the cleverer ones to advance and adopt alternative approach for lesser mortals. Stuart Sutcliffe and I were contemporaries and experienced five years of Grammar School life together.

Stuart was born in Edinburgh also in 1940. I understood that his father was a seaman and was away from home quite a lot. He was slight of build and wore glasses. He made up for his stature by being quite assertive in his attitudes and opinions, which sometimes made him a target for the bigger boys in the class. This scenario would sometimes be acted out in the back rows of the classrooms, when the teacher's back was turned or in the playgrounds during morning or afternoon recess. His defence against this mild form of bullying was to befriend myself and my best friend at the time, David Aikman. David and I set next to each other in class and saw quite a lot of each other after school. Our personalities clicked and we always saw the funny side of life. We did not have any trouble with the bigger boys - since we tended to get out of scrapes with our humour - whereas Stuart always tended to take up the argument. He befriended David and I from the beginning and looked upon us as his protectors. There was safety in numbers! He became so grateful one year that he gave each of us a present at the end of term. I can't remember what David received but I was given a book on golf titled 'Homes of Sport - Golf' which I still have. Stuart knew that I was becoming keen on the game.

By the time we reached the fifth form all the pupils with a tendency towards the Arts were in Form VB. This included Aikman, Cox, England, Horton, Lytham, Sutcliffe, and others including myself who were all pretty good at Art. Stuart had a particular fixation on war subjects at the time, with German soldiers, tanks and explosions being prominent in his work. Much use was made of lamp black contrasting with chrome yellow in his compositions. 

Reg Walters, the Art Master would say that collectively form VB contained an amazing amount of talent, a quite exceptional concentration, which he would often extol. Whether it was because of this, or the fact that successive years proved to be much weaker in this regard I do not know, but Reg Walters retired after 11 years at Prescot Grammar School in 1960, to take up a position at St David's, Pembrokeshire, his native land.

Following the completion of the School Certificate examinations in the summer of 1955, the members of Form VB went their different ways. Those that intended to continue with their education and perhaps seek a place in University stayed on at Grammar School and entered the sixth form. Others were keen to start apprenticeships or work and earn some money in various trades and left. David Aikman joined BICC and helped to electrify the railways between Liverpool and London. Michael Cox recorded a pop song, which went into the charts. I cannot recall what happened to the other pupils who left at that time. Stuart on the other hand wanted to go to Art School and paint. He was offered a place at the Liverpool College of Art. I believe it was for a three-year course.

  He was a prolific painter and had a number of works accepted at the John Moores Exhibition, which was quite an achievement. We would meet up during the holiday periods from time to time to compare notes. He was always enthusiastic about his painting and drawing - showing me examples of his Life Class drawings, a facet of the art course, which was not available to us in the upper sixth.

I recall that he told me he had taken rooms near the Art School and had made friends with John Lennon from the Quarry Bank Grammar School, who was keen on music. This was the time, around 1957, when Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle groups were popular—and Stuart seemed keen to join in. I heard that Stuart had painted his room—yellow and black—much to the chagrin of his landlady.

1957 proved to be an important year. Paul McCartney first met John Lennon when John's Skiffle group, formerly known as The Black Jacks but subsequently known as The Quarry Men played at St Peter's Church Garden Fete in Liverpool. The Quarry Men went on to play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool for the first time that year.

In 1957, I completed my A-levels and gained a place at the Royal College of Art in London direct from Grammar School apparently a unique feat at the time.

In 1958 George Harrison, although two or three years younger than John Lennon joined The Quarry Men as a guitarist. In 1959 John, Paul and George entered Carroll Levis' "TV Star Search" at The Empire Theatre in Liverpool and made the final audition.

During the Easter holidays of 1960, Stuart and I met up again and he came to my parents' house in Roby. He told me about playing bass for the Quarry Men with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. He told me that they were intending to change the name of the group to the Beatles. The only connection I could think of at the time was the Beatle Drives my mother would hold for charity. I said I didn't think the name would catch on.

At school Stuart had been one of the first to sport a 'crew cut' hairstyle. It made him look spiky and was in character with his pointed nose, sharp stainless steel spectacles and his general temperament. The relaxed atmosphere of the Art School and release from school uniform allowed more self-expression. This extended to Stuart's approach to haircuts and to clothing - the latter generally endorsing his penchant for black. In letting his hair grow, from the severity of a 'crew cut' it would form naturally into a mop - trimmed at the front to allow for vision. He obviously persuaded others in the group to adopt a similar style.

In May 1960 they changed the name of the group to The Silver Beetles and toured Scotland using the names Paul Ramon (McCartney), Carl (George) Harrison and Stu de Stael (Stuart Sutcliffe), with only John Lennon refraining. These 'stage' names didn't last long! In August 1960, the group finally became 'The Beatles' and, along with their new drummer, Pete Best, made their first venture abroad - to Hamburg.

I saw Stuart very much later that summer, having won a Royal Society of Arts Bursary, which enabled me to tour Europe for an unforgettable ten weeks with a Royal College of Art friend Terry Poole. Stuart told me of his experiences in Hamburg and playing at the nightclubs. The living sounded tough but there seemed to be many compensations. Stuart had met Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer and had also visited Hamburg College of Art where his art works had been admired. In the December of that year other members of the group either left Hamburg of their own free will or were deported for being under age and working in nightclubs after midnight or other alleged, misdemeanours.
It was about this time that I undertook a 'year out' from the Royal College of Art as part of my overall course. Professor Dick Russell was working with Sir Basil Spence on the new Coventry Cathedral and he arranged for my placement within the Practice. The year was a very productive one and Sir Basil was very magnanimous providing many people, myself included, with opportunities to contribute their time, creativity and skills to this amazing and high profile project.

As I was working through term times and vacation periods my visits to Liverpool were less frequent. In any event, as far as Stuart was concerned he had by now opted in his heart to stay in Hamburg with Astrid and pursue a career in Art.

1962 saw the Beatles emerging as a popular group, topping the popularity charts in the local publication Mersey Beat. 1962 saw the consecration of the Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry. 1962 also saw the untimely death of Stuart Sutcliffe, on 10th April, in Hamburg, of a brain tumour at the age of 21.

Whilst our career paths were obviously taking off in different directions, it is certain that our friendship would have continued had he lived. I know that Stuart's mother was very supportive of him and promoted his artistic achievements for many years after his demise.

We all think of what might have been, given different events and circumstances. I am now wondering what happened to all those other members of the fabulous form VB.

Norman Allanson DesRCA, FCSD, is a Partner in the Architectural Practice John S Bonnington Partnership (formerly Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington & Collins) and is currently collaborating with Bill Harry on a project to establish a Mersey Beat Village in Liverpool.

Contact Us | Legal Stuff