Address given at the Old Prescotians' Reunion
Dinner, October 1989)
I warn you that if you wind up an
old schoolmaster and set him upon his feet he is
conditioned to speak for a period of forty
minutes there are such things as double periods.
Perish the thought - you have been warned!
Alec Weston, addressing a meeting of
Old Boys, told a story of a young sheik who had
inherited his father's harem. But I do know where
to begin; obviously with a Saturday morning
almost sixty-three years ago to the day, when a
young man alighted at the King's Arms (now the
Fusilier) battered ad bruised from a Liverpool
tram and asked the way to the Grammar School were
he was to have an interview. The policeman's
parting shot was, "On the right: a wooden
My heart sank; gone was the dream of
a stone-built, ivy-clad edifice to match the
notepaper heading, PRESCOT GRAMMAR SCHOOL,
Founded 1544. I would have turned back there and
then but for the thought of that lurching
Liverpool tram - what Archbishop Downey called
that training ground for Liverpool seamen. As I
reached the end of the houses, there it was; a
long, low line of buildings shrouded in misty
rain and looking more like a chicken farm than an
ancient seat of learning. You must understand
that at this time the school consisted of a mere
nine classrooms, two laboratories, a craft room
and staff accommodation. A gymnasium/hall had
been promised but did not materialise for three
more years. However, the warmth of my welcome
soon dispelled the gloom; and here I must pay
tribute to the friendliness of the people of
Prescot which later, over the years, I came to
In the absence of the gym, the
school bought some moveable apparatus which was
stored in the corridor outside Room 10. On gym.
days the trestle tables were moved out and the
apparatus moved in. Room 10 was normally occupied
by the P.M.F. or Post Matriculation Form,
otherwise, the Sixth. To matriculate one had to
gain 'credits' in five subjects, suitably spaced.
The School consisted of 270 boys aged 8 to 18.
The first three years comprised the prep.
department. I never did understand the system of
promotion up the School which led to some curious
Senior English master, "Bird,
you are behaving like a boy of twelve. How old
This was my predecessor, Mr Corpe,
much more the archetypal English master than I
ever was. On one occasion he banged down a
shilling (5p to the youngsters here) on the
counter of Prescot railway station. "Twenty
Players, please." he said. The return fare
to Liverpool was one shilling and, believe it or
not, twenty Players cost a penny less.
The Headmaster was Mr
C.W.H.Richardson, a gentleman of very striking
appearance - and very striking habits. Picture a
small bald head atop a four inch 'Cambridge'
collar. If I wrap my serviette round my wrist and
clench my fist you will see that he resembled
that cartoon character, Mr Chad. (Wot! No
applause.) The collar covered an over-developed
larynx which produced a voice of stentorian
Teaching in an adjoining classroom
to him was difficult. His lessons were full of
jokes which were much appreciated by one's own
class. This says much for his sense of humour
since his subject was mathematics. the collar
also concealed salivary glands of generous
proportions as the occupants of the front desks
knew to their cost. If he was late for class he
would commence his lesson as he left his room
down the corridor.
"Sin squared plus Cos squared
And in unison the answer would come.
"ONE, SIR !"
Assembly took place in the corridor
outside his room. There was little possibility of
orderly alignment and, truth to say, such
orderliness would have been anathema to him. As
he emerged from his room he would quell any noise
"Easy on the stroke side
"Easy on the bow side !"
It was not that he loved chaos but
that he was suspicious of superficial order. What
was going on behind that facade ? If
chaos were not present he created it. It might be
said that he threw a very nifty spanner.
He was a great man in a crisis. Four
staff away and Charlie, as he was affectionately
known, took four forms at once - any subject -
any level. Unfortunately for me, he fancied
himself as a teacher of English grammar, no doubt
suspecting that the 'literary gents of the
English staff' as he called us, neglected that
branch of the subject. I did ultimately persuade
him that one master should teach all aspects of
the subject to one form.
The school history shows that Mr
Richardson saved the establishment from
extinction in the early years of this century and
took it into the state system. Essentially a shy
man, he used his eccentricity as a shield against
the world. His examination papers were painful to
invigilate. His writing with pen and ink was bad
enough, but his use of the Cyclostyle was
erratic. 'Please , sir, what's the third word on
the fifth line of the fourth question?" He
was full of theories based upon long experience.
His recipe for a maths paper was; four questions
that everybody can do, four questions that nobody
can do and four questions that some can do - and
mark only the last four.
Teaching under him was an
experience which I would not have missed for
worlds........Bless him !
The Second Master was W W Whitworth
who looked more like a Frenchman than any
Englishman has a right to look. Perhaps it was
because he taught French. He was variously known
as 'Wee Willie Whitworth' or 'Weary Willie from
Wigan'. Oddly enough he was our wireless expert.
The duty rota at that time I can
remember so well: Bailey, Chant, Dixon, Hammond,
Hawthorne, Robinson, Stevenson and Wood. The two
ladies were Miss Huckle and Miss Milburn who
later became Mrs. Bailey.
During the early and middle thirties
the Staff remained static. The government had
planned to raise the school leaving age to 15,
trained the necessary teachers and then found
themselves in the middle of a severe economic
depression. With all those spare teachers on the
market, if you had a job you stuck to it. The
exception was the French post. Is there some lack
of affinity between Lancashire boys and foreign
languages? I can testify that their affinity with
their own is not all that secure. Finally, Mr.
Scott arrived and stuck it out until his
Here I should refer to that tacit
understanding between boys and masters on the
subject of written errors: We make 'em, you mark
Each form room had its latin motto.
Room 1 had 'Festina lente' - hasten slowly - and
how lente did some of you festina?
Games took place after school on a
purely voluntary basis, that is, on the part of
the boys. Occasional trial matches were held when
A.N. Other and S.O. Else disguised the identities
of members of Staff. In the early days of my
Prescot career Dixie Dean was the darling of
Everton F.C. Inevitably my first nickname was
Dixie but, after a few excursions as A.N.O. or
S.O.E., I found that this name gradually
disappeared. The other Staff player was often
Ernest Wood, a creditable performer, as befits a
native of Bolton.
Speech Days and Sports Days occurred
in alternate years. Speech Day always included a
Latin oration, together with one French and two
or three English recitations - all to varying
degrees of unintelligibility. Sports Day wasmore
like a village fete than a serious athletics
meeting. The local band played and had their own
race. There was a tug-of-war for the seniors, a
handicap race for Old Boys, egg-and-spoon and
three-legged races for the youngsters. Despite
many suggestions we managed to block the many
proposals to hold a Staff race. I am afraid that
prizes were awarded, without regard to the moral
damage such things are now said to inflict.
An annual event was the Founder's
Day football match which bore little resemblance
to that supervised by the F.A. The whole field
was the pitch. Two, or was it three, sets of
posts ware erected at each end. As many as ten
balls were in play, The final score could well be
Alphas and Kappas 240, lambdas and Omegas 210,
although in this, as in most contests. Omegas
would be likely to be on the winning side.
The thirties were not generally very
happy years, severe economic depression led to
mass unemployment and hunger marches.
Nevertheless, we had our new buildings to exploit
and enjoy. The gym was a nine days wonder. The
dining room made School a much more attractive
place; the food not brought in heated containers
but cooked on the premises. Jack Smith here will
remember the baked jam roll. We now had showers -
and even hot water.
It night be said that during this
period we lost our innocence. Heretofore, our
catchment area had been largely rural.....
Rainford, Whiston, Eccleston, Moss Bank,
Rainhill. True, we had our own vices but they
were of a rustic and therefore venial kind. Now
Liverpool overspill housing estates reached from
Knotty Ash to Knowsley Lane, leaving only the
narrowest of green belts. New sounds began to
breathe o'er Eden.
"What's your name, boy?"
How does one represent Scouse with
Two virile, even virulent, accents
came face to face. It could, be described as the
Battle of the Where's and Here's. The sounds were
still existing side by side thirty years later,
rather like English and French after the Norman
conquest or the muddy waters of the Missouri and
the clear waters of the Mississippi.
At last, the economic climate
improved and depression gave way to moderate
prosperity, triggered unfortunately by
In 1937 Mr. Richardson retired to
his native Yorkshire. No longer would the
corridors resound to his, "Wakken up,
there!" Never again would those running
commentaries on the pictures in the corridors
enliven the recesses on wet days. (Who remembers
'Faithful Unto Death' outside the Physics lab?
Sadly, he did not enjoy a long
retirement. P.G.S. had been so much a part of his
life that when the connection had been severed he
had little purpose in life. I think that boys
like their headmaster to be eccentric and Mr.
Richardson was much loved.
One could not imagine a greater
contrast than that between Mr. Richardson and his
successor, Mr. Briggs. If the one knew a great
deal about schoolboys, the other was an expert in
the running of a school.
Now chaos gave place to order, improvisation to
organisation. Assembly became a dignified
religious service, progress up the School was
decided upon clearly defined principles, absence
notes were vetted, timetables were expertly
constructed. After a few years that inpromptu,
somewhat undisciplined marginally regulated
event. Founder's Day Football disappeared.
Instead we proceeded in dignified fashion to the
parish church. I believe that Mr. Briggs was the
right man at the right time. He believed the
Head's job was to provide the best conditions for
his staff to teach in. All this was achieved only
by a deluge of memos, instructions and timetable
alterations. I remember one, detailing
arrangements for games periods on wet days. It
was headed 'Vice Games' ... ... ... VICE games?
... ... postman's knock, pontoon, strip poker ???
His'z's resembled 'g's and his
references to the buzzer caused mild amusement.
Luckily this was a period of growth.
The new housing estates produced additional
pupils. Prosperity meant more money for
education. I suspect that the demand for
secondary education for greater numbers was met
by reducing the pass standard for the scholarship
New appointments now brought J.H.
Smith to join the English staff and a shy
Margaret Bowley to cope with those pieces of
paper. He had a School of over 700 pupils with a
large sixth form. We began to gain Oxbridge
entries and a scattering of Open Scholarships. We
had joined the league, albeit in the fourth
division. Mr. Briggs was a sociable man and
during his headship the Prefects' Dance was
Then came the War, the immediate
result being an extended summer holiday while we
waited for the aerial bombardment to begin. When
we did resume and our shelters were built, the
instruction in the event of an air raid was that
we should scatter into the shallow ditches
surrounding the field. As far as I remember, only
one alarm was raised during this period and that
was a false one. Most of the School hurried out,
not perhaps following to the letter the
instructions on one of those pieces of paper.
Just as the 'all-clear' sounded, Mr. Briggs was
seen leading out his form in good order,
instructions followed to the letter. Subsequent
alarms drove us to the shelters. Soon, musical
instruments appeared. Anybody remember Riley's
piano accordian? This was short-lived. More
pieces of paper detailed ways in which lessons
could be carried on during the raids. Daylight
raids ceased and the shelters became haunts for
smoking and other nefarious practices.
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