The Prescotian Webzine

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(Part of 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 structure."

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 appreciate.

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 situations.

Senior English master, "Bird, you are behaving like a boy of twelve. How old are you?"
"Twelve, sir."

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 tones.

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 equals..................?"
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 with,

"Easy on the stroke side !" or
"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 retirement.

Here I should refer to that tacit understanding between boys and masters on the subject of written errors: We make 'em, you mark 'em.

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?"
"Vairnon, sair."

How does one represent Scouse with English characters?

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 rearmament.

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? Ed.)

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 examination.

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 instituted.

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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