My post-11plus education began in the
August of 1940, just 11 months after the outbreak of World War Two. I
was to find out that war had a dramatic influence on my education and my
personal development into adulthood.
The sight of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of
white paper on his return from talks with Herr Hitler in 1938 -
declaring “I believe it is peace for our time” – remains with me to this
day. It was probably the first time I had become aware of the
preparations for war that had been going on around me at home. Gas masks
had been provided and fitted for size to all citizens (we seemed to have
become “citizens” at this time). It was not too long before it became
apparent to the “experts” that the masks provided for our use were not
considered to be effective and, therefore, we were provided with an
extra filter to tape on to the mask to provide further protection
against a gas attack. It is not suggested that this was a ploy by the
government to raise the awareness of the inevitability of war – but it
certainly did have that effect.
Much of WW2 was also fought by those on the Home Front playing
their part and sharing great losses along with their loved ones in the
armed services. As I was to find, to a very large extent war had an
adverse effect on my academic achievements on one side of the equation
and my personal early development into adulthood on the other.
Interrupted academic progress does not make a good bedfellow with the
perils of war or indeed assist in a steady progress from childhood.
It tends to be forgotten that our democratically elected Government
introduced many draconian steps at that time, which by today’s standards
would result in the Civil Rights organisations having the vapours in
relation to such regulations. A law was introduced that removed the
right of ownership of property and other possessions; meaning that the
authorities could requisition people’s homes, or indeed entire tracts of
land and buildings for military use. The collection of metal railings
and gates from private property to be used as raw materials to assist
the war effort brought little or no protest nor appeals! Every
publication was under censorship. (Free press? Not during war!) Many
parts of the country were out of bounds for anyone other than the
military. During 1944 the build up to the invasion of Europe by the
Allies virtually closed every road leading to the south coast. It was a
military area and excluded all civilians.
September 1939 - preparing for war
On the morning of the 3rd of September
1939, at 11 o’clock precisely, my family gathered round the “wireless”
for the expected speech to be made by the Prime Minister to announce
either peace or war in Europe. It is the memory of his last few words on
the day that still haunt me …… “no such communication has been received,
and therefore this country is at war with Germany”. There was a complete
silence from the family sitting there pale faced and digesting the words
of the Prime Minister with their own thoughts and fears reflected in
their facial expressions. My mother broke a pregnant silence by
suggesting that “a nice cup of tea” would be good for us all! How many
more times did I hear her say that in the next five years?
Not many minutes after Chamberlain’s announcement the very first
air raid warning sirens wailed and near panic prevailed. The extended
family made to our shelter with white faces and visible shock showing.
An uncle and aunt who were with us had forgotten to bring their gas
masks. In haste the interior of our airing cupboard was cleared out and
prepared for them to stand in. The door was closed and the gaps sealed
with pasted paper (one small hole was left that they could seal from the
inside if they found it to be necessary). Luckily the “all clear”
sounded soon afterwards, to significant sighs of relief from the family
and amid nervous laughter.
The air raid shelter that had been planned and constructed by the
family was primarily of steel scaffold poles and hundreds of sandbags.
It had two entrance/exits; ventilation shafts; electric cables for
lighting; six bunk-style beds and was completely lined with floorboards.
A drainage sump had been dug at the lowest point in the garden, with a
channel to it ensuring the shelter did not flood. Later in the war this
shelter was to save our lives; the foresight shown by my family elders
proved to be inspirational.
On 4th September 1939 the mass evacuation of children from London
started. Not a lot of sleep was enjoyed that night. Next day the tears
of parents flowed freely as their children, duly labelled with names and
home addresses, carried their gas masks and small cases as they departed
on trains to “safer” parts of the country. A sense of excitement
prevailed for the younger members of families who were to be evacuated
to safe havens. Many children saw it as just another “school journey”.
Not so with parents and relatives who were left with a deep sense of
foreboding that this separation could be permanent if the country was
I had been sent to Hove in Sussex for safety, and was billeted in
Old Shoreham Road (a supposed safe place near to the dockyards; I think
not). It was not the most pleasant time of my life and within some weeks
I had sneaked onto a train in Brighton station, without being detected
and minus a ticket. I travelled to Croydon, walked to my home in
Thornton Heath, knocked at the door that was opened by a very surprised
and tearful mother! I did not return to Hove.
The fear of gas attacks and other dire predictions thankfully were
not realised and we entered the period known as the “Phoney War”. A
favourite saying of the time was “It will all be over by Christmas”! The
phrase sounds ridiculous now but perhaps that is with the benefit of
hindsight. Memories of the victory in the Great War ("The war to end all
wars") were still embedded in most minds. Tommy Atkins, Jack Tar and
Biggles would return triumphant again was a belief. How false this
belief turned out to be as we were to discover during the next few
It was a time when preparations for what was to come intensified. A
“black out” of all lighting visible from the air was imposed; air raid
wardens cycled the streets at night to ensure that the black out was
fully enforced. Even a small shaft of light from the house would mean a
knock on the door by the warden or a shouted command of “Put that light
out”. Church bells were no longer permitted to peel out their call to
worship, and were only to be used to warn the population that enemy
parachutists were being landed in our country.
All vehicles had to have their lights hooded to prevent enemy
aircraft gaining any possible assistance from them. Kerbstones were
painted white to assist safe walking at night, and the fear that the
enemy might drop parachutists or spies was countered by the removal of
road signs pointing directions to the next town being removed. Any
street name that could indicate an area (such as Croydon Road) was
replaced. Probably all this was done to re-assure the general public
rather than to realistically have any effect on our foe should he invade
our shores as had been predicted.
At the end of September 1940, for the first time in this country a
National Identity Card was issued to all citizens. (I still retain mine
with its number of EJGX 21/4 – just in case?) It was at the beginning of
1940 that food rationing was introduced and subsequently quantities
reduced dramatically as the "Battle of the Atlantic" heightened and the
German U-Boats succeeded to a large extend by sinking many ships
destined to deliver goods to the U.K.
Preparations went ahead with the building of public shelters and
other fortifications at points that would need to be defended in the
event of the enemy invading. Some of these “pillboxes” can still be seen
today in Croydon.
The war was now in full swing across that vital stretch of water
separating England from mainland Europe with the German army advancing
on all fronts through Holland, Belgium and France at a frightening pace.
The final indignity was the evacuation from Dunkirk of some 250,000
British and other troops – mainly by a flotilla of small boats
requisitioned from South Coast ports and manned by civilian sailors. The
evacuation was hailed as a victory by the British propaganda machine and
not the huge defeat it really had been. It was presented as a victory of
the people of a small nation standing up to an evil Nazi regime, and was
christened the “Dunkirk Spirit”. This term was to be used time and again
during that war to revive the population at times when it was needed to
First bomb attacks on Croydon... and
The Battle of Britain
It was in June 1940 that the first bombs
dropped in the Croydon area, at Addington, with no damage reported. It
was to be the first of the onslaught from the air that was to prove so
frightening to all who lived through it. In August 1940, I watched from
the safe distance of Beaulah Heights on the day the German bombers
attacked Croydon Airport. All very exciting from where I was standing,
and a sample of the impending tempest of war on the Home Front. It is
unclear what happened on the RAF base in Croydon Airport that day, but a
local factory adjacent to the ‘drome was hit and the first civilian
casualties of war in Croydon occurred.
We were all aware of the dangers of having the RAF bases at
Croydon, Kenley and Biggin Hill adjacent to our homes. In some way,
however, they were also a comforting force defending us. The population
was to become very proud of each and every one of those brave young
fighter pilots and all the ground staff airmen who fought with such
valour when the conflict, now known as the Battle of Britain, started in
earnest in August 1940.
The sound of aircraft both friend and foe fighting it out above our
heads, the vapour trails outlining the conflict in the sky and the
falling of bombs in the Croydon area was soon to become a daily event
with our streets and parks becoming viewing platforms and our skies a
The London area was surrounded by barrage balloons (huge gas-filled
balloons) that trailed a thick hawser wire that was intended to slice
the wings off any aircraft flying low enough to encounter the wire.
There was an RAF site based on the large green near the Downsview Road
Methodist Church from which these balloons were sent up. The
establishment of this unit obviously brought much excitement to us and
we used to watch the activities of releasing or recovering the balloon
with much interest. One day, with no alert in force, I was adjacent to
the site when out from the low clouds swooped a Heinkel bomber. Its crew
machine-gunned the RAF site with me lying in a prone position as close
to mother earth as I could get. It was over in seconds but to me it
seemed much longer than that. No sooner had the danger passed than I
sped off home on my cycle as fast as I could.
Although it was grim in Croydon, the main target for the bombers
was central London and the dockland area in the eastern parts of London.
The German Air Force decided that the losses they were incurring in
daylight raids were unsustainable in what had become known as the
“Battle of Britain”. The Luftwaffe abandoned the daylight bombing in
favour of a nighttimes Blitzkrieg. On the 20th August 1940 prime
minister Winston Churchill, speaking of this victory by the RAF, said:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so
few”. How right he was! From then on, night after night, the Luftwaffe
bombers attacked the London area and dropped thousands of incendiary,
high-explosive bombs and land mines, damaging or destroying large parts
of the London area including Croydon (then a County Borough of Surrey
and not part of Greater London).
The nightly feared, distinctive throbbing drone of the Luftwaffe
aircraft engines - and the dreaded whistle of the bombs as they rained
from the sky and dropped nearby - remain with me clearly even now. The
common belief at the time was that you would hear the whistle of bombs
dropping, but not that of the one that hits you. I can vouch from
personal experience that is a very correct saying.
On the 21 October 1941 my parents house was partially destroyed and
we were buried in our homemade shelter in the garden – luckily we had
shovels in there and managed to dig ourselves out with the help of
neighbours. We were dazed, bewildered and frightened, but so glad to
have survived. But our house had with little or no roof left, its
chimney stack deposited in a bedroom, all windows smashed and frames
hanging at crazy angles, with both back and front entry doors laying on
the floor amid brick and rubble. All this was too much for my mother who
broke down and wept uncontrollably at the sight of her beloved home in
Amazingly, the bathroom light was now shining brightly as if in
protest at this act of aggression. The arrival of the local ARP (Air
Raid Precaution) warden demanding of my father to ensure that the light
be extinguished added to the unreality of it all. I cannot recall my
father's comforting words to the warden.
The family had now to find its way to the nearest “rest centre,”
and to do so had to walk through any shrapnel falling from the
anti-aircraft fire seeking to shoot down the enemy bombers. With his
usual inventiveness my father found from somewhere a couple of metal
buckets and a few sheets of materials for us to cover our heads as we
made our way, fearfully, to the security of the rest centre. All very
For the next few weeks we lived in the Downsview Methodist Church
hall along with other families that had suffered a similar fate. It was
there that I experienced human nature at its very best. Food was shared,
as was clothing and blankets. A singsong in the evening and a few joint
and personal prayers offered. We referred to it as the Bulldog or
Arrival of Flying Bombs and V2 rockets
In 1944 the first of the Flying Bombs
arrived. Those on the receiving end of V1s (as the Germans called them)
referred them to as Doodle Bugs or Buzz bombs. I was on Fire Watch that
night and called my father to see the sight of what we thought were
enemy aircraft on fire. My father suggested it was some new
had found to shoot down enemy aircraft. We soon realised that the boot
was on the other foot and it was, in fact, a new weapon of destruction
that the Germans had devised and were attacking us with.
The V2 rocket weapon that followed the Doodle Bug was even more
destructive, and to which there was no defence at all. The first V2
rocket landed in North London in September 1944 destroying houses and
killing occupants. There was no warning as these missiles travelled at
three times the speed of sound. It was indeed fortunate for the
population that by this time the Allied Forces had invaded Normandy and
concentrated on the armies advancing on land. They bombed day and night
to capture or destroy the launch sites of both the V1 and V2 weapons.
On March 10 1945 I was in Farringdon Road adjacent to Holborn
Viaduct when one of these undetectable V2 vehicles of destruction landed
on Smithfield market some 400 yards from where I was standing. The
devastation and the sight of the dead or injured were to be part of my
nightmares for a long time to come!
It was not until long after the war ended that it was discovered
that there were some 6,000 of these weapons available or nearly
available, in an underground weapons factory in Germany. Had the enemy
been given a little more time, these weapons would more than likely have
changed the entire outcome of that war. It is a sobering thought and a
cause for thanks that God preserved us.
During the conflict I was just too young to join the armed
services, but as with so many others I wanted to assist in the “war
effort”. I was a messenger for the Auxiliary Fire Service, a
stretcher-bearer in Croydon General Hospital, replenishment assistant in
the Armed Forces Canteen in central Croydon, a firewatcher and headed a
team of volunteers who carried out the installation of Morrison shelters
in the homes of the elderly, infirm or those whose male occupants were
in the armed forces.
This was the background against which my education at John Ruskin
Central School took place - at “War-time Ruskin”.
First days at John Ruskin Central
School... and “ducking the brats”
It was in the autumn of 1940 when my
friend and cousin Edward Evans and I arrived for enrolment into John
Ruskin Central School. I experienced the usual first-day nerves that
everybody has to endure at this first big change in life. The school had
only recently re-opened for pupils who had either returned from the mass
evacuation programme at the commencement of the Second World War - or,
like me, had returned to my own home. My first impression of John Ruskin
Central School was one of (to use one of today’s phrases) shock and awe.
I had entered an establishment where I was amongst the youngest and the
smallest; that was a big shock. Awed because the teaching staff were
all-male (with one exception) and to me at that time to be feared. I had
become used to more sympathetic female teachers at my elementary school
who, without exception, displayed a softer pastoral role.
John Ruskin CS was located in Tamworth Road, West Croydon, having
moved there in 1935 from its original site in Scarbrook Road. The sight
of those very silent, smooth-running trolley buses gliding up and down
the road outside the school (on routes between Croydon and Hammersmith)
was a new experience for me; as was the rattle of the noisy trams that
ploughed through the centre of Croydon.
The Tamworth Arms Public House opposite the School and another
hostelry stood out from the many small shops in the area of Reeves
Corner. The main shopping giants of Allders, Kennards and Woolworths
were a little nearer the centre of town. It was so different from the
environment to which I had become accustomed on the sleepy middle-class
estate, situated between Thornton Heath and Norbury, where I lived.
That first morning the new boys were marshalled into their
third-form groupings in the main playground, keenly observed by the
headmaster, Mr. McLeod, from his favourite position at the top of the
steps near the school entrance, and overlooking the front playground. I
was allocated to form 3C and my cousin Edward Evans to form 3A. My form
master was, I believe, Mr. Myers, a short and stocky academic with a
quiet but positive and severe manner. It was he who called the roll and
explained the school rules and its expectations of us. Edward and 3A had
the same process given to them by Mr. Marsden.
It was on day two that I realised that, as a new boy of form 3, you would
be bullied by the “forth formers”. The cry of “duck the brats” would
ring out loud and clear in that front playground at each break period,
and the water fountain worked overtime as “brats” heads were forcibly
bent low and the tap brought into life. It was not pleasant and was my
very first experience of this “public school” behaviour I had read about
in the comic Boys Own, where prefects had “fags” and used their
privileges unfairly. The ducking of the brats routine was to last for a
few days before the masters stopped it, but the memory of it was to
remain with me sufficiently to cause me to vow that when I became a
forth former I would not join in, but instead would actively do whatever
I could to prevent this unpleasant practice being inflicted on new
With the Battle of Britain in full swing we spent many hours each
day in the air raid shelters at the school. The shelters were the
original cloakrooms that had been bricked up, reinforced and had a blast
wall outside to give as much protection as possible should the building
suffer bomb damage. There was one such shelter at each end of the school
building. No daylight entered these tombs and pupils therefore remained
under artificial lighting for long periods of time during air raids. To
say the least, this was unpleasant and not conducive to easy learning.
In order to continue our
education in the shelters, pupils were provided with “mill-boards”
(compressed cardboard squares) which could only be used by perching them
on one's knees for writing of essays or struggling with maths problems.
These were not exactly the best of conditions to produce good results
but represented an attempt to retain some normality. It should not be
presumed that these “millboards” were not to only remain as aids to our
education for too long! They became a weapon of class warfare being used
in the exchanges of power that were enjoyed between 3A and 3C, each
having its territory at opposite ends of the building.
I regret that I am unable to remember where the staff sheltered at
these times but, wherever that was, I believe they were just as
terrified as we were. Like us, the teachers probably shared the previous
night’s pronouncements of the nightly "Lord Haw-Haw" broadcast from
Germany, predicting the night’s fate or giving a list of ships sunk by
U-boats, or any true or false victory claimed by the Nazis. While he was
ridiculed and despised it did seem that his information was in the main
uncomfortably accurate and therefore an effective weapon in the
propaganda war. The previous night’s broadcast by Lord Haw-Haw (always
announced as "Germany Calling" and pronounced "Jarmany Calling") would
be a daily topic in the schools shelters, and no doubt in the staff room
as well. The real name of Lord Haw-Haw was James Joyce, an Englishman.
He was hanged in 1945 as a traitor to this country.
The commencement of the nighttimes bombing blitz meant that most of
the daylight hours were reasonably free of enemy aircraft and we were
able to use the classrooms for the majority of the time. However, on
occasions it was difficult to even get to school after the previous
night’s bombing. Routes were closed off because of unexploded bombs,
bomb craters or fires still raging and being attended to by the Civil
Defense services. The effect of the previous night’s bombing would
sometimes mean a loss of electricity and therefore the trams and
trolleybuses could not operate. Buses could not be relied upon for most
of the time because of the diversions or serious bomb damage to bus
garages. To get to school, one either had to walk or find an old cycle
to cover the distance by taking any safe route that remained or could be
After a night’s intensive bombing, there were days when either a
master or one or more boys failed to arrive at school. It was understood
usually that they had been “bombed out” the night before. There were
occasions that one or more never did come back.
Local amenities... Wandle Park and
Croydon town centre
It was at about this time
when there had been a pause in the daytime attacks by enemy aircraft,
that an exploration of the local school area became an attraction.
During the lunch break we would go across the iron railway bridge in
Waddon Road to visit Wandle Park. (That same bridge is still in use, but
is now over the Tramlink route from West Croydon to Wimbledon.) Apart
from the Air Raid shelters around the park, it was a delightful area to
be in. A large boating lake was still in use, fed by the river Wandle
that then flowed lazily on its way to the Mitcham area. At that time,
the Croydon Gas Works and its gasholders dominated the skyline – but it
was nevertheless a beauty spot. It provided us with a large grassed area
that invited us to place our jackets strategically to act as temporary
goal posts. A tennis ball would be produced, tempting us to try our
skills at what has since become known as the beautiful game! This was
probably the prelude to the school’s wartime football team revived by
Mr. C. E. Smith when he joined JRCS in 1942 – more of this later.
The shopping centre of Croydon was nothing like the Whitgift Centre
that attracts so many shoppers today. Most of the area now occupied by
the shopping centre was the site of Whitgift Middle School (now located
in Shirley, and renamed Whitgift Trinity) complete with its own playing
fields for rugby and cricket. It was always a pleasure to explore
Croydon during those lunch periods. The danger of air raids, whilst not
as regular as in the early days, was always a possible hazard and an
occasional glance at the Town Hall Belfry was a sensible precaution. The
purpose of this was to see if that Belfry was displaying a green flag
(indicating “All Clear”) or a red flag (indicating that a warning was
still in progress). It is difficult to accept now that, during the war,
the Town Hall in Katherine Street. was the tallest building in town.
Regular war-related presentations were housed on the forecourt of
the Town Hall, for example, to promote the sale of War Bonds or the
recruitment of men and women for one of the civil defence organisations.
A favourite display was in aid of the “Spitfire Fund” - members of the
public were invited to contribute to buy a Spitfire for Croydon. On one
occasion in addition to the arbitrary Spitfire, there was, parked on a
flatbed lorry, a German Me109 (the German near-equivalent to the
Spitfire) that had been shot down in Surrey. Although badly damaged,
this was a great attraction to us boys. The notice alongside said “Made
in Germany – finished in England”. All very patriotic and made us feel
proud to be British.
There were no school dinners provided at Ruskin and if we were
hungry we would visit the local civic centre restaurant where a main
meal of “meat and two veg” could be obtained for five pence in “old
money” (less than 2p in today’s currency). The Government set up these
very basic unattractive food establishments with the intention of
assisting workers to get food if no factory canteens existed. With the
shortages and food-rationing regime in place, the civic centres were
much in demand. At lunchtime, the BBC would broadcast from a factory
“somewhere in Britain” a programme called “Workers Playtime”. The
entertainers were comedians and singers that were popular at that time,
and the appearance of a “war hero” was usually included to encourage the
public to stand firm and help the war effort.
As an alternative to a civic centre meal, we would sometimes use a
“greasy spoon” café near Reeves Corner and obtain sausages and chips
that seemed much more to our liking. The sausages were mainly bread and
bran with a few bits of offal included – but to us it was a rarity and
we always enjoyed that special treat.
School outings were very restricted because of the dangers of air
attacks, but I do remember going to see a Shakespeare play at the Grand
Theatre in South End Croydon. The theatre was not aptly named and had
obviously seen better day, and I am sure a better performance of the old
Bard’s works. There, as in other entertainment establishments, a
performance would be temporarily halted and an announcement made that an
“Air Raid” warning had been sounded. It was then optional whether to go
to the shelters or stay put. The actors in the true style of their
profession remained – the show must go on!
The other establishment that attracted the boys and many others was
Wilson's Tea and Coffee House in North End opposite the Whitgift Alms
Houses (once the Whitgift Hospital). The smell of freshly roasting
coffee beans and baked cakes wafting gently into North End was like a
light shining through very dark times. We never went inside as boys, but
probably looked like "The Bisto Kids" portrayed in the well-known
advertisement as we stood outside enjoying the smell and the window
The JRCS school world... and
Discipline at Ruskin was severe in those
troubled times. Certainly, by current standards it would be seen to be
draconian and totally unacceptable to the present-day generation The
relationship between master and pupil was still at a stage when the
pupil only spoke when spoken to. If he wished to speak in class it was a
requirement to raise one hand in the air and wait for that to be
acknowledged before speaking.
The headmaster (not a term
that is used any more?) was Mr. McLeod, or "Mac", as he was known, was
an imposing figure. Although he had no whiskers, he would have made an
ideal Mr. Pickwick in any Dickens production. The hat he wore at all
times outside the school was not exactly a stovepipe style but not far
off it. As his position demanded at the time, he remained aloof and
distant and much feared. When he decided to take a class and read a
chapter or two from a book, a complete silence fell in the classroom as
his brilliant speaking voice brought the books content clearly to us
all. One day, I remember him beautifully reading a chapter or two from
White Fang. It made such an impression that I managed to get a
copy from the library to read and enjoyed every page.
For those who transgressed any rule, the ultimate penalty was a
visit to Mr. McLeod’s study. There, you had to wait dutifully outside,
absolutely silent and face the wall before being called in for the
“stick”! I was not convinced that his verbal lashing really rang true
when the headmaster said: “This will hurt me more than you”. However,
one visit was enough! For lesser infringements it was a requirement to
miss break-time and some lunchtimes by standing silent and absolutely
still, facing the wall bars in the gymnasium on the ground floor. At
first, it appeared that no master was present and a relaxed mood
prevailed. However, boys were unaware of a small window in the staff
room that overlooked the gymnasium where they were always being
observed; the punishment then repeated the next day. It did take some
time to realise that the staff room spy hole was being used for that
The writing of lines was another punishment used by masters.
Because of the shortage of paper all punishment lines had to contain a
minimum number of words, but the actual number escapes me.
It was Mr. G. Chinnock who introduced us to the world of carpentry
and to the skills that were needed to enable us to make use of “the
wonders of wood”, as he called it. It was very early in those lessons,
when we were being shown dovetail jointing and dowling together with the
safe use of saws and chisels, that he remarked that it seemed likely
most of us would perhaps remember that Joseph was once a carpenter and
that a prayer might just assist our efforts! Mr. Chinnock was not an
academic and as such stood out from the other teaching staff by
demonstrating that skills of the hands did have an importance as well as
the use of the brain. The teaching method he used was simple in that he
demonstrated his craft for us to follow, and was always ready with
individual encouragement and advice when needed.
I have only ever met one other carpenter since I left John Ruskin,
over 60 years ago, that could produce the quality of work of Mr.
Chinnock. "Chin", as we knew him, served the school well over many years
and added value to what was primarily an academic institution. I believe
Mr. Chinnock to be a founder member of our school, having joined Ruskin
in 1920 at Scarbrook Road, Croydon.
Mr. William Cracknell, or "Wally" as we named him, was a tremendous
teacher of English and pushed his pupils to improve in every way he
could. I was certainly not his best pupil by any means but I learned so
much from the man both in improving my English and in the presentation
of my work. In later years when I needed to produce reports, I
remembered his early teaching that the English language was very special
and should be treated and used as such. Those words have come back to me
time and again; I now often use them when talking to my grandchildren
about the importance of the English language.
Mr. Cracknell was also a firm but fair disciplinarian. My main
memory of him was the sight of him wringing his hands like a surgeon
preparing for a surgical operation with his face screwed up (in false
anger) when he saw me with my hand in my pockets (a practice that was
frowned upon at Ruskin). “Oxlade – take your hands out of your pockets,
you horrible little man,” he would bellow. Then followed a lecture on
the need for having a correct posture, dress and, of course,
pronunciation. The man was a Gem whom I respected and remembered long
after I had left John Ruskin.
Mr. Myers was the first teacher that I met when I entered the
portals of John Ruskin. He was a man of small physical stature who was
always approachable and gave advice to any pupil who needed help. He
could bring a class to order with just a glance over the top of his
More fond memories of Mr. Charles Smith
Mr. C. E. Smith arrived at
John Ruskin in September 1942. The suggestion that he had served in the
Royal Navy as a PTI has since proved to be just another boyhood fable.
Mr. Smith brought with him the customs that applied to the armed forces
of the day and the tigerish enthusiasm for the teaching of the need to
be fit and healthy. The importance of this discipline was applied
equally as much in his teaching of the understanding and practical use
of mathematics. His arrival completely changed the methods of control
that we had enjoyed both in the classroom and sports activity. It also
moved the existing school discipline code to a higher level.
To us he was known as "Cyril" (not to his face, of course) although
he also was known by other names such as "Smithy" or "Smuts", etc. His
maths lessons were excellently presented and he had the ability to
adjust his methods to meet the needs of the class. I can still remember
clearly that I had not understood sines, cosines and tangents etc.
before he arrived on the scene, but he remedied it for me. Perhaps it
was the discipline he demanded, or perhaps it was his teaching skills,
honed to perfection, that had just added that extra bit of appeal to us.
As far as sport and PT was concerned, we certainly had entered a
new era. All physical training sessions carried a new enthusiasm and the
targets he set for us were always just out of our reach. Encouragement
in its many forms he offered in abundance, and that wicked smile he used
to ensure a greater effort was part of his “charm”. Prior to his arrival
PT was a relaxing time and not a strenuous exercise period. After his
appointment the change was dramatic in that the exercises were varied
and the tempo was lifted to a much higher level.
Handball was the first new game that he introduced to the School
and it took off at the speed of light. Within a very short space of time
we had House Teams (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) for handball, and it
worked wonders for the morale and enthusiasm of the school.
Mr. Smith reintroduced football to the programme and we had to
train (military-style) to be the fittest team of all the schools in the
area. The ideas he imposed did in fact produce a good standard and the
rewards of that were in the number of matches that we won convincingly.
It has to be said that Mr. Smith was very strict but very clear in his
demands on us, having his very own way in teaching team spirit and the
need for everyone to be an equal part of the team.
On one occasion we had beaten St. Josephs College 12 – 1. It was an
outstanding result and our centre forward Derek Kepler had scored 11 of
the 12 goals. When the team sheet for the next match was published
Derek’s name was not there. Derek and I approached Mr. Smith and pointed
out that the name of Kepler was not mentioned in the team. Looking at us
with his head held slightly back (one of his favourite postures) he
asked how many goals Kepler had scored in the last match? Naively we
unanimously said 11. “Exactly”, said Mr. Smith, “but if you [Kepler] had
passed the ball more to your team mates we would have scored many more
goals”. It was a point well made by Mr. Smith, and understood by Derek
Kepler and myself – if not immediately, we did much later!
The football pitch we used was really a patch of ground on the edge
of Heath Clark School. It housed a tin shed that was used as a dressing
room and only had one cold water tap and a couple of tin buckets as
washing facilities. It really was awful but true to his tradition he
made it feel like Wembley – well nearly.
Mr. Smith became a legend in his own time. Always his own man with
no favourites, he was very strict and successfully imposed his teaching
methods that were probably more akin to a military establishment than an
academic one. Yes – he was a teacher much respected by his pupils and a
legend in his own time as has been reflected in other epistles on the
In 1974 my daughter Lynda joined the sixth form at the school and
from what she has told me, Mr. Smith had not changed his style and was
still very much respected by the students more than three decades after
he joined Ruskin.
Mr. Biggs was the geography teacher for a short time whilst I was
in the “Remove”. It was at a time of great shortage of teaching
materials and the availability of books and maps in his subject was very
obvious. The geography room was on the top floor rear (at the opposite
end to Mr. McLeod's study). The only wall map of the world was on the
same wall as the blackboard, and it clearly depicted in colour red the
extent of the British Empire upon which the sun never set! It showed the
sphere of influence Britain had at that time - a role in part at least
that our former colony of America has now assumed.
Mr. Biggs arose to the challenge of lack of teaching materials by
hand producing on the blackboard, with chalks or various colours, very
accurate maps that he used as illustrations in his lessons. The maps
that I recall most were those of Canada with its borders to the USA and
the Great Lakes.
Mr. Cresswell was, for some reason, nicknamed "Stinker" Cresswell. I
am unsure why this rather unkind name should have been accredited to
him. My memory of him is that he was always immaculately dressed and
well groomed. He had a quite severe nature and held court in class in
the strongest way.
Mr. Smoothey was our art teacher; his lessons were conducted in the
hall at the centre of the second floor. He looked like an artist,
articulated like one and did wonders in the art lessons with the little
and fast dwindling supplies of brushes, paints and paper. I remember his
working with me on a scene depicting trench warfare. In the painting was
a lantern hanging from a post and the shadows of light cast on the
soldiers and their equipment was the key to the painting. I never did
manage to achieve any great result with that shadow exercise, but I
remember the part that he painted as an example and how brilliant I
thought it was. Art galleries always revive the name of Smoothey for me.
Relocation to Swansea ends JRCS school
In the late summer of 1944 the intensity
of the attacks by V1s finally resulted in my father dispatching my
mother, my brother and sister and myself to Swansea in Wales for a
month’s break from the bombing. It was to be the final break for me from
John Ruskin Central School. I remember with great fondness my school
days and all the masters and boys that I have had the privilege of being
I have no doubt that the four years that I spent at JRCS, albeit at
a time of great difficulty, gave me a good grounding for the life that
was ahead of me. I have used our school motto “AGE QUOD AGIS” often, and
built it into my business life in later years.
Both Edward Evans, my friend and cousin, left John Ruskin Central
School for Boys in 1944 unaware that within 12 months it was to be made
into a Grammar School. Edward joined an Art studio until he was called
up for National Service in the Royal Corps of Signals. After
demobilisation he joined his father's building business and on his death
became the sole owner. Edward became National President of the Master
Builders Federation and was eventually awarded the OBE for his services
to the building industry. Now retired, he lives in Northamptonshire.
After leaving JRCS I found employment in the newspaper world for 18
months and then joined the Royal Air Force. Following demobilisation to
G Reserve, I decided that an ability to repair watches would be useful
but soon realised that it was not to be my future. I became an office
administrator for a private telephone company before becoming interested
in logistics with Philips Electrical. I remained with Philips in their
distribution company, London Carriers International, as General Manager
until my retirement in 1990.
My interest in care for the elderly and other disadvantaged people
became focused when I discovered the appalling treatment my mother
received in Care Homes in the final year of her life. Determined to
prevent, if I could, others from suffering a similar fate I became a Lay
Assessor of Adult Homes, working as a volunteer within the Inspection
Unit of Social Services. I was appointed Chairperson for the Advisory
Panel Social Service Inspection Unit until that unit closed four years
later. I am currently a Lay Adjudicator in the Social Services benefit
John Ruskin High School headmaster William Patterson asked me in 1987
if I would consider becoming a governor at the new site in Shirley. I
did. But that’s another story.
Peter Oxlade, February 2005