Forms: 1H (Miss Hickmott), 2H (Mr. Hancock), left at end of second
I suspect that I can lay claim to being one of very few former pupils who was also later a member of the teaching staff. I was a pupil at the old school in Tamworth Road from September 1950 until May 1952, at which point my parents emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand. I returned to the UK in February 1966. By then I was married and had been a secondary school teacher for four years. My wife and I came to the UK on a working holiday, which lasted for almost two years. We were both teachers.
I saw a job advertised at John Ruskin, applied for it and was accepted. I think the fact that I was an old boy went in my favour. At my interview Mr. Lowe asked me if I intended settling in Britain permanently. I gave a somewhat evasive reply because I really didn't know at the time what we would do. Anyway, I was employed from September 1966 to August 1967, and taught Social Studies, English and PE. I then headed off on a second major summer tour of Europe before returning home.
After returning to New Zealand I taught for another couple of years before obtaining a university lectureship in 1970, in Education, at the University of Otago, located in Dunedin. I completed a PhD there while on the staff and then, in 1976, moved to the University of Western Australia where I have worked ever since.
Over the years I have frequently been back to the UK on study leaves, invariably as a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Education in London. I have spent most of that time researching the history of British education policy in India and the Colonial Empire, watching Charlton Athletic FC – as a young boy at John Ruskin my ambition was to play for them professionally - and going around auto-jumbles buying up rare spares for my collection of classic Jaguar motor cars.
But enough of me. Let me go back in time to walking down Tamworth Road in my new school uniform, on my first day at John Ruskin back in September 1950. More than half a century has passed since then but I still recall many vivid memories of those years. Many more were rekindled as I stood in the former playground in front of the old school building last December (2002) on my most recent visit to Croydon.
I turned eleven in April 1950. Prior to going to John Ruskin I had spent a year at Kensington Avenue primary school, which was located in Norbury. In hindsight, it was probably one of the happiest years in my life. We had an outstanding teacher called Mr. Sibley. Not only was he an outstanding Eleven Plus scholarship teacher and a choirmaster of note, but he was also a first rate football coach ... and a Charlton Athletic supporter to boot!
In those days Kensington Avenue was a relatively small school, but we had a good football team and managed to win our way to the final of the primary schools’ cup final. We played Winterbourne, a much larger school, in the final at Selhurst Park (1950) and drew 1-1 after extra time. Each school held the cup for six months.
The Winterbourne team included a chap called
Dobbinson, who also went to John Ruskin, and we became firm friends. I
wonder what became of him? I was delighted in my naïve way to win a
place at John Ruskin because it was the only grammar school that played
soccer! Even then though, I was conscious of the pecking order amongst
Croydon schools. For boys, Dulwich was the ultimate prize followed by
Whitgift Grammar, Trinity, [or Whitgift Middle as it was then called],
Selhurst and John Ruskin.
In the immediate postwar years John Ruskin took in about 70 boys annually, divided into two classes – in my day 1H and 1C. I was in 1H (Miss Hickmott’s class). The other was Mr. Cracknell’s class. We referred to Miss Hickmott as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’. To a tender 11- year old she was an awesome figure. A friend of my family knew of her and said that she had been employed at the school during the war years, and proved such a good disciplinarian with young boys that she was retained after the war ended.
I still recall our first morning meeting with her. We occupied the ground floor classroom at the far end of the building next door to what I think was a commercial laundry! I still recall the awful smell that came from it on occasions when the wind blew in the wrong direction. We were sitting in the classroom awaiting her arrival after our first morning assembly. She duly arrived and we all stood up as was the custom in those days.
She walked to the front of the class, drew herself up to her full height, her back as stiff as a ramrod, and said: “Good morning, boys. My name is Miss Hickmott. On all occasions you will address me as madam. Sit”. And madam it was from that day forth.
She took us for English and French. Her main punishment was endless "lines," which rapidly escalated out of control. She also frequently made us learn a dozen or more lines of poetry overnight for homework in the sure knowledge that we would be tested the next day. For each mistake the line was written out 10 times!
From memory, some senior boys got their revenge on her on at least one occasion that I know of. She cycled to school and at the end of one term several boys dismantled her bike and then sat in wait. (No! It was not me.) She duly came to get her bike. The upshot was that a couple of staff members had to come to her rescue and put the bike together again while the boys looked on from a discrete distance and enjoyed the fun. I don’t think she was very amused.
The boys in 1C had a much better time. Bill Cracknell was a good teacher and discipline was never any major problem for him. We had Mr. Badcock for science. He was unpredictable. Some days he was fine but on others he could be quite vindictive. I still recall my endless frustration at the way he punished the whole class for the stupid behaviour of a few, by repeatedly keeping the whole class in after school.
Mr. Badcock was studying part time at the University of London and on several week nights caught a train to London around 5 pm. It was, therefore, no trouble for him to keep us in until 4.50 pm or thereabouts while he did his marking.
Mr. Peacock took us for geography. He was a kindly soul most of the time, but he also had a temper. I still remember the geological makeup of the north and south downs and how he taught us to read one inch to the mile survey maps.
For Latin we had an ex-naval man; I think his name was Mr. York. We liked him and I still recall some of the Latin he laboured to teach us.
We had dear old Mr. Chinnock for woodwork and metalwork. He was very slow and thorough and each piece of wood we were given had to be treated as if it was our last!
Perhaps the man I remember most vividly was Mr. "Smithie" Smith, our PE teacher. He put the fear of God into every first-year pupil in the gym – we were given 60 seconds to get changed or else the wrath of Hades descended - but it was mostly bluff. Years later I got to know him well as a staff member and he had a heart of gold. I was good at soccer and cricket so that gave me the inside running with him when I was a pupil.
On a Saturday morning playing sport one saw a very different man from the weekday master at school. From Mr. Smith I learned what true sportsmanship is (or was?) all about. On one occasion we were playing cricket and one of our batsmen was given not-out to a catch behind the wicket when he had clearly made contact with the ball. When he was eventually dismissed he returned to incur "Smithie’s" wrath: “Don’t you EVER do that again, boy. When you know that you have been caught you WALK regardless of whether the umpire gives you out or not. I don’t want CHEATS in my team”. Those words have stayed with me all my life.
I wonder how many boys of my time at the school recall Mr. Lowe reading extracts from Pilgrim’s Progress at school assemblies?
Another vivid memory is of how we overcame the rule that prohibited the use of tennis balls in the playground for fear of breaking the windows. We played football at every opportunity with ping pong balls bought at the tuck shop across the road. Inevitably, balls got trodden on but we got very adept at using our teeth to get the dents out. Controlling a ping pong ball was far harder than a tennis ball and probably improved our ball control.
Other memories include the Surrey Street market, Alders at Christmas time, eating pomegranates, going to the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank of The Thames, the walk, often in the rain, to Waddon to play sport, school exams and the working out of a "final class place" for each boy!
I also recall that every Thursday I bought a Mars bar at the tuck shop across the road for 3d. In those days sweets were rationed! Indeed, I have always told people younger than myself that I belong to that generation which, as schoolchildren, were never able to buy chocolate from a machine on a railway-station platform. Nor did we ever taste a real banana, although many greengrocers’ shops had artificial bunches on display.
I wish I had kept my school reports – some of the comments would be worth quoting but totally unacceptable in today’s politically-correct society, but they made their point!
Wet days - and there were many - were always a pain with everyone having to stay inside. I often got very wet cycling to or from school. The short days in winter also meant that it was dark before school ended at 4 pm. Going home in the snow was not a pleasant experience, but perhaps I was lucky. My mother didn’t work so there was always a hot cup of tea and a blazing fire to greet me when I got home. A simple thing maybe, but I have long cherished the memory.
My parents decided to emigrate to New Zealand and we sailed from Glasgow in May 1952. I often wonder how many other old boys of my generation did likewise. The 1950s saw many thousands of British families leave for a new life in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. It was a great adventure for a boy of my age although my first reaction when my parents broached the idea was “But I won’t be able to watch Charlton”. Thereafter, I think I followed the club’s fortunes from afar with a greater determination than ever. The New Zealand newspapers always carried the British soccer results and if you were lucky you could sometimes get the BBC World Service on the radio. Such were the priorities of a young 13-year old transported half way across the world.
When I arrived in New Zealand I was immediately called a “Pommy”. An English friend of mine who was at school with me in the Fourth Form had the perfect answer. In a suitably exaggerated English upper-class accent he responded by saying: “Well at least I’m not a beastly colonial peasant”.
Just what the Eleven-Plus exam achieved is still a matter of debate. The concept of ‘g’ or general intelligence inherited at birth and able to be identified accurately at the age of 10 or 11 is now largely totally discredited, although I am still reminded of a late aunt of mine who taught for many years in Croydon primary schools. She often said that you could pick the bright kids when they started school by their bright attentive eyes! The research by Cyril Burt, on which the theory of ‘g’ was based, was also discredited some years ago on the basis that he faked many of his findings.
Social class clearly played a role in the allocation of children to specific schools in my youth. My father was a fitter and turner, but I still recall the same aunt telling my mother to state that he was an ‘engineer’ on the Eleven Plus application form that parents filled in before we sat the exam.
The results of the Eleven Plus were never made public to my knowledge. Instead, parents received telegrams! The first to receive them were those whose son or daughter had done well enough to qualify for Dulwich College or Croydon Girls’ High, respectively. Then followed telegrams for Whitgift Grammar, and so on down the list. If your parents didn’t get a telegram you had not got a grammar school place.
Even the interviews that we underwent after sitting the exam varied depending on the school to which you were provisionally assigned. Dulwich, Whitgift and Whitgift Middle interviewed you personally at the school. If my memory is correct we were interviewed briefly, somewhere in Croydon – not the school – on something akin to a conveyor belt system! My parents later told me that John Ruskin GS had a reputation in Croydon as being akin to an examination factory. Evidently, Mr. Lowe’s great ambition as the headmaster of a grammar school was to get boys to Oxbridge, regardless of how many others fell by the wayside, and in my day as a pupil many did!
The school had a good reputation for scholarship but most of us came from working- or lower-middle class homes. I have a younger first cousin who won a place at Dulwich. We didn’t see each other for 14 years after I went to New Zealand, but in more recent times we have talked of our respective school experiences. Dulwich was clearly a difficult school in which to succeed unless you came from the right family background and carried the right cultural capital. I doubt much has changed in that regard.
I sometimes wonder what I would have done had my family not emigrated. It is quite likely that I would not have had an academic career. As it was, the day after we arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, my mother arranged to see the Regional Superintendent of Education with me in tow. He was impressed by the fact that I had been to an English grammar school and that I had studied Latin and French as well as maths, physics and chemistry. He also looked closely at my school reports! He then rang the Headmaster of the leading state boys’ high school and a place was found for me. I guess being a pupil at John Ruskin had not done me any harm.
I don’t recall many of my colleagues of 50 or more years ago although I recognised many faces when I downloaded the 1952 school photo from the Alumni website. I was not in the photo which must have been taken after I had left, but I would like to know the whereabouts of Brian Fletcher of the early 1950s era if anyone knows of him or his whereabouts. The one outstanding name that I recall in the upper school in the early 1950s was a chap called Childs, who later became a GP and I gather practiced in the Croydon area.
Croydon had been knocked about during the war years and I cannot say that it ever had any architectural beauty about it when I was young. It still doesn’t! Indeed, I think it is now uglier than it ever was with all the high rise offices and traffic pollution. A walk down Tamworth Road nowadays isn’t the most inspiring of experiences. In retrospect, the old school building may have been preserved as a great example of the school architecture of its day - a beacon of light in a sea of ignorance - but it was a positive slum compared to the school I attended in New Zealand with its broad acres of playing fields, venerable ivy clad buildings, and a river flowing through part of the grounds on the banks of which we often sat and fed the ducks at lunchtime.
I have many happy memories of the year I spent on the staff. I played in the staff cricket team and we had many enjoyable evening games followed by liquid refreshment. I also remember the School v Staff cricket game at Oaks Road. I think we were beaten but I wouldn’t swear to it. The School also had an outing to Wembley Stadium to watch the annual Oxbridge soccer match because an old boy – whose name escapes me – was playing for Cambridge or was it Oxford? Yes! Oxbridge still mattered a great deal to the scholarly image of the school under Lowe’s headship as it had done in the 1950s.
It was in 1966 that I met Neville Graham, a very popular PE master at John Ruskin. With my help he also emigrated to New Zealand. I helped him to obtain a teaching position at Linwood High School, the school where I taught. He proved a very popular member of staff and stayed there until he retired. We still keep in touch. Indeed, he intends to move to Perth, Western Australia, in the near future because his two married sons have both settled in Perth. [See related story.]
During my year on the staff there were two of us from "down under;" the other was Trevor Brentnall from Australia, who was on a one-year exchange scheme. There was also another Charlton supporter on the staff - Clive Wiseman. I wonder what happened to him? The younger staff also had a "tea and sugar" locker that was full of pornographic magazines, and which provided some of them with light relief after a heavy morning’s teaching.
In my year on staff we also had a very attractive young French lass who was studying for some French post-graduate degree. Needless to say, the young males on staff became very keen to learn about French education – and any other aspect of the French for that matter! From memory, her mini skirts kept the testosterone levels of the young staff at near bursting point for much of the year – and she knew it!
In later years I established strong professional links with staff at the London Institute of Education, some of whom frequently visited John Ruskin to watch young teachers in training. From their comments it was clear that the school had a good academic reputation. The school’s subsequent demise obviously touches on a matter of ongoing debate over the fate of grammar schools.
In hindsight, I suspect that the transition from primary to secondary school at the age of 11-plus was probably too young and certainly so as the basis for any enduring academic selection process. Only in more recent times, with increased access to official files, have scholars come to realise just how uneven educational opportunities were across Britain in the immediate post-war years. Your chances of winning a grammar school place were greatly reduced if you lived in a rural county, or if you were a girl. Croydon was one of the better Local Education Authorities in which a far greater proportion of children obtained places in grammar schools than in most other local boroughs.
One aspect of the school that interests me, and which has received very meagre coverage on the website to date, is the period from the school’s birth as a Central School in 1920 through to its elevation to grammar school status in 1945. Is there anyone out there who can supply more details, including any photos? Did the original school building survive the war? Finally, there is the ultimate question of who is going to write a history of the school for posterity? I have in mind not the usual catalogue of former pupils and staff and how wonderful we all were, but more an account of the school’s role in the social fabric of Croydon and how it compared with its rivals. I wonder whether records still exist of the social backgrounds of pupils?
What happened to successive cohorts of pupils in the 1950s and thereafter? How many went on to university, and which universities? Did the school have a science or arts bias in its university graduates? What were pupil attrition rates like in the 1950s and thereafter? These are but a few of the questions that might provide valuable insights into the success or failure of schools like John Ruskin that were established after 1944 to provide greater opportunities in life for able pupils from lower-middle and working-class homes.
One further point to ponder. Was there any deliberate social class element in the fact that John Ruskin played soccer while all the other Eleven Plus schools, including Selhurst, played rugby? There is no doubt that the likes of Dulwich and Whitgift saw soccer as the game of the working class and it carried the taint of professionalism. Perhaps the central school origins of John Ruskin were simply carried over into the grammar school without too much thought to any social class significance. Maybe the answer lies buried away in the Education records of the Croydon Borough archives?
One last memory still lingers with me of the school when I was a staff member in the mid-Sixties. At the end of morning school assemblies pupils filed out row by row as the rest of the school sang that rather moving hymn:
God be in my eyes and in my seeing
God be in my mouth and in my speaking
God be in my heart and in my thinking
God be at my end and at my departing
I am not a religious person but I have always thought that it was a most civilised and thought provoking way to conclude a school assembly. I also suspect that Mr. Lowe would have been heartened to know that at least one old boy remembered it. I also still recall the School song and its memorable words. I have heard many others since but it still compares with the best.
I have taken up far too much space but, hopefully, more old boys of my early 1950s generation will contribute to the body of material that is fast accumulating on the website.
Clive Whitehead, Western Australia, August 2003;revised June 2005 Email