JRGS John Byford Memories
JRGS Alumni Society

John Byford's Memories

John Ruskin Alumnus 1959-66

JRGS Alumni Society




  Forms: 1H, 2C, 3M, 5U, 5B
  Lower VI Arts 2 and Upper VI Arts
  BA (Geography then Sociology) from University of Sussex
  Post-grad year at Liverpool John Moores University.




Eleven plus
How did it all begin? Everyone had to fill in the form before sitting the 11 Plus and the only optional answers were to the question in which candidates listed the schools to which they wanted to attend. Whitgift and John Trinity seemed far out of reach to a New Addington boy in a class of over 50 pupils at Fairchildes Junior School, therefore it was either John Ruskin or Selhurst Grammar. Ruskin was nearer but there was never going to be anything other than one choice, because Ruskin played football and Selhurst played rugby.
   There were three exams and there was also an interview, somewhere near West Croydon, in which I remember Mr. "Joe" Lowe asking me if I’d ever been abroad and the other board members laughing when I replied, “yes, Wales”. Mr. Lowe didn’t laugh, which I should have taken as a sign that he didn’t appreciate wise-cracking, working-class upstarts. Many years later my youngest sister, Frances, while working for Croydon Council in the Education Department, looked up the 11 Plus results for boys in Croydon in 1959; I’d come 100th. I would love to have seen the interview report.

My early days

Selhurst Park

 JB and his son at Selhurst Park

Hewitt’s for the uniform (the shop is still there, an anachronism in the 2000s). The satchel. The pens. Ink. Big round and worn old pennies for bus fares. The early interest in collecting bus numbers. Not long after the 1959 entrants had crept into the playground a new series of "Crackerjack" started, Crystal Palace had started their second season in the “new” Fourth Division and, after watching the football results on Grandstand, a Saturday evening on the box was always the "Lone Ranger," "Garry Halliday," "Bronco" or "Laramie," "Juke Box Jury" (“before a young audience” noted the Radio Times) and "Dixon of Dock Green".
   There weren’t many boys going to John Ruskin from New Addington and I don’t recall it being a particularly fun time (unlike starting at primary school). Homework was the biggest shock, especially for subjects which seemed to have no relevance for 11-year-old boys. In hindsight, the lack of enthusiasm amongst some of the teachers probably had a lot to do with an early antipathy towards Latin and French from which I never recovered. Homework also played havoc with watching children’s TV; "Blue Peter" had been running since 1958 so it was essential watching on a Thursday (along with the aforementioned "Crackerjack," which introduced a new entertainer, Ronnie Corbett). "Whirlybirds" and "Noggin the Nog" made the start of the weekend palatable. Today, it seems ironic that the TV programmes made more of an impact on my first year at John Ruskin than most of the teachers. Mr. Hancock was the sole exception, because he was the form teacher; as for the rest, I have no recollection of any of the academic teachers in the first year. Sport was different because I had aspirations to play football; in reality they were delusions but Messrs Graham, Smith and Hasler made games, how should I put it, “interesting”.

The good, the bad and the ugly

"School days are the best years of your life"... discuss. There are many who would agree that the teachers make the biggest impact on the success or otherwise of our school days. I would like to highlight some of the good, the bad and the ugly teachers who made so much difference to life at John Ruskin. The first of the Good teachers was my class teacher in the second year, Mr. Crowe, who was also our English teacher. He introduced us to the poems and short stories of D. H. Lawrence; he also made poetry interesting and I associate my first experience of other writers from 2C days. Mr. Murray is the second Good teacher because he awakened and developed my interest in history that has remained to this day; more on him anon. There were other Good teachers who never taught me but who made positive impressions, Mr. Cracknell being the prime example. My last Good teacher is Mr. Tucker, who was only at John Ruskin for two years but that coincided with my two years of economics in the sixth form. Not only did he introduce many of us to The Guardian newspaper but also to a rigorous approach to learning. Along with Mr. Murray he provided moral and physical support in the 1966 General Election in New Addington, part of the Croydon South constituency, the Labour Party candidate overturning a substantial Conservative majority.
   The Bad; where to begin? Mr. "Beaky" Cornwell has been immortalised by Derek Smith’s careful collocation of "Beaky’s" sarcastic quips which we roared and hooted at so inflaming him even more. Mr. "Joe" Lowe put me off the works of John Ruskin for life; that Code of the Guild of St George seemed like a manifesto for an intellectual British National Party. But the baddest of the baddies was the Welsh dragon who made "Beaky" look like one of Catullus’s virgin maidens. Mr. "Rhino" Rees was the only teacher who really frightened me, in particular when he was ill-treating other boys: who would be next for the ear twist or the face shoved into the wall or banged into the desk.
   And the Ugly? The Eli Wallach of Upper Shirley Road? Please step forward Mr. "Smutty" Smith, the terror of the Oaks Road playing fields and the man who thought nothing of handing out impossible punishments. My favourite "Smuts" story comes from the beginning of my fifth year when, along with a motley bunch of others who had failed to make the grade in the emergency 5U the previous year, I listened to "Smuts’" proclamation prior to his first Maths lesson. He spoke quietly and softly, and you could have heard a pin drop (and known in which room it had dropped). The world seemed to hold its breathe as he spoke. He told us that he had been teaching maths O-Level for 25 years [long pause] and in all that time [even longer pause] only one boy had failed [pause long enough for your stomach to remind you of what you’d had for breakfast] and he’d emigrated to Australia. True or not, it worked; in the summer of 1964 every one of us passed, and a grade C for me was easily the highest mark I’d achieved in five years of mathematics at John Ruskin.

Poetry in motion
D. H. Lawrence had one period of paid employment in his life, teaching at Davidson Road School in Croydon. Perhaps it was that connection which made Lawrence so much more interesting than some of the other poets studied (at the time we were unaware of the greater connection, between Lawrence and Mr. McLeod, a former headmaster, documented elsewhere on this site). However, there is no doubt that Mr. Crowe’s enthusiasm for Lawrence’s poetry and his enthusiasm for English literature in general rubbed off on many of us. Close behind Lawrence were Shakespeare and Orwell, and behind them … but I digress. Mr. Crowe was enthusiastic about his subject; also enthusiastic was Mr. Murray who believed that history was not only learning who the kings and queens had been but also how and why things happened, and learning about British history from other countries perspectives. Famously I remember his recommendation that we read French writer Maurice Druon’s novels set in the period we studied for A-Level history.

Sixth-form favourites


 JB at Chekhov's grave, Moscow

As we moved on up the school some doors closed (no more chemistry or physics!) while others opened. Geography field trips were for those prepared to labour in the classroom under Mr. Peacock. In return we escaped to such exotic locations as Kemsing (Kent) and Slapton Ley (Devon); unfortunately Mr. Peacock accompanied us to Kemsing and we played hide and seek with him (we hid in public houses while he searched for us). One task involved checking what was growing or to be found on each square of a squared off map of the locale; it should have been a day’s work but our group finished the task in 15 minutes by climbing up the North Downs and using binoculars to identify what was on each location. Emboldened by our success in spending nearly three hours in two different pubs we gathered together the rest of the party to spend an hour in the pub nearest to the youth hostel in which we were staying, which is where Mr. Peacock finally caught up with us. He demanded that the landlord be found and witness Peacock asking each of us in turn how old we were; needless to say none of us were 18. The Upper Sixth trip to Slapton was a more adventurous occasion, as it involved a week at a field study centre with other schools and didn’t involve Mr. Peacock. Messrs Byford, Poole, Rayner and Strelczuk set new records in cider drinking and paid the price with one of the worse headaches I’ve ever had.
   The mock elections: remember them? I wanted to be the Labour Party candidate in 1964 but Mr. Murray had already agreed someone else for the part so we thought it might be fun if I ran as the Plaid Cymru/Welsh Nationalist candidate. Fun? More like hell, especially from "Rhino" Rees, who took it upon himself to break up the very rowdy meetings as we discussed such major issues as to whether the four Welsh football clubs in the English Football League should be expelled in the event of Welsh secession. The result? It’s in the school magazine!

Ave atque vale
Mr. Lowe’s attitude towards me changed when the A-Level results came through and instead of Ds and Es I came up with As and Bs. I re-applied for university and worked for a year, an early gap year but without the travel. The highlight, not necessarily for its pleasurable working experience, was six months as a ward orderly on a surgical ward at Mayday Hospital.
   Nothing at Ruskin, especially educationally, could have prepared me for the rigour of sociology at Sussex; geography at Durham, my second choice, probably would have been much easier. Sussex was near the centre of the Swinging Sixties and the academic line was, if you wanted to study, fine, if not, also fine. There were no lectures, no more than two tutorials a week, with the occasional seminar, but we were expected to read and research extensively and write thoroughly with due regard for the English language. No-one looking over your shoulder as at Ruskin; in hindsight some of our time at Ruskin could have been spent more usefully learning about what to expect at university (plenty of the younger teachers who could have helped there). Perhaps some of the teachers could see the changes sweeping England and had done what they could to open our minds outside the demands of the examination syllabi; to question the status quo. Perhaps that’s what they wanted to do at school, challenge Lowe’s status quo; perhaps it really was Mr. Cracknell who set the agenda once Mr. Lowe had retreated to his study to peruse his “borrowed” Ruskin memorabilia.
   I like to think that teachers such as Tucker, Murray and Crowe gave us a better start than we appreciated at the time; somewhere there’s a picture of me snipped from the Daily Express, an outraged headline above an article fulminating against Sussex students (we were burning the US flag again in protest against the Vietnam war, so Mr. Murray would have approved). The three years at Sussex came to an end far too quickly and while my thesis on football hooliganism was lauded my third-class degree was just about right; I hadn’t had Mr. Smith around to ensure that I passed statistics, which would have given me a II:2. But, and it’s a very big but, as time passes it’s not Sussex for which I get nostalgic, it’s the idea of Ruskin and the solidity of a collective memory.

What happened next

Chornobyl 2001

 JB in Chernobyl

And afterwards there was an institution prepared to accept me for a postgraduate course and I moved effortlessly into librarianship and a long and a productive career in the British Library. Not quite to the top, but near enough to get a nose bleed from time to time. Plenty of highlights that most of the teachers would have been proud of I’m sure: the last but one person responsible for running the (old) Round Reading Room of what is once again the British Museum; running the Newspaper Library and bringing in a £5million lottery grant; taking the lead for the six UK and Ireland legal deposit libraries in ensuring that our interests were met during the passage of the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003, which extended the legislation to electronic publications (the first piece of legislation in this area since 1911); continuing to work with politicians from all the major parties, which remains one of the highlights of my work today. The interest generated by studying the geography of the Soviet Union in the sixth form has never gone away, and I count myself as fortunate to have travelled there many times, initially for work more recently for pleasure. One highlight was being in Moscow during the abortive 1991 coup, watching the tanks roll in then partying in the Kremlin as the coup was toppled, and another visiting Chernobyl in the winter of 2004. And sometimes I put pen to paper, mostly professional (sometimes translated into other languages), though increasingly for fun in football fanzines, both print and electronic.
   Camberwell is, shall we say, an interesting place to live (especially with Jennie Agutter living just around the corner). Closer to where many of us remember, the 130 bus still runs from New Addington past the Shirley windmill, though no longer to Croydon as it continues to Norwood Junction via Woodside, very convenient for Selhurst Park which is where you’ll find me when Crystal Palace are at home. And when the tram takes you on the direct route to New Addington from Croydon there’s a stretch on Shirley Hills where boys on cross country laboured long and hard. Now that’s something from John Ruskin Grammar School I don’t miss!!

Camberwell, South London, January 2005; email

Please send any messages and memorabilia to webmaster
©2021 JRGS Alumni Society. All Rights Reserved. Last revised: 01.01.21