Memories of Nether Edge Grammar School
Can it really be sixty years ago, that September morning of 1941? It seems much less, that day when I hoisted a leather satchel and gas mask on my shoulder to start the first journey to a new school. I hurried, it would never do to be late. The barrage balloon in the Ashland Road site was already aloft as I trudged past the emergency water tank in the old piggery below the Mrs. Brown’s sweet shop on Archer Lane. Across the road, on the corner of Edgedale Road, the stone outbuildings of another farm lay collapsed on the remains of garaged blue and cream vans of E.C. Bells, the bakers. A bomb had put them out of commission, the last of a stick dropped to straddle a line from the junction of Carterknowle Road and Archer Lane. Four houses were gone too. Ten months before, the penultimate bomb knocked down a pair on Bannerdale and tore the roof off my own home.
I cut off Archer Lane to begin the climb up Needham’s Fields, breathlessly gaining the wooded path behind the wall on Brincliffe Edge. There were trenches then, dug in the stony outcrop by RASC recruits who crammed into the nearby terraces opposite the police box facing the top of Union Road. A last, fretful stretch remained. Down the hill, past the bombed house on the corner of Chelsea Road, until, at Barkers Road, the hubbub of noise from the school yard could be heard. The locals would hear it, too. After six weeks respite, solitude was ended.
There it was, the school where I’d spend the next six years. Once, elaborate railings had graced the low wall, now they were gone, hacked down to provide raw material for the war machine. Sixty years on, their stumps still poke from lead pockets in the dressed stones under less carefully conceived ironwork to puzzle observers having no recollection of the 1940’s.
A new tan blazer, with unsullied badges of red flamed, crossed torches on breast pockets, marked out the new boys. The initiation ceremony could begin. One by one, all ninety of us were herded into a narrow gap between the surface air raid shelter and the high railing which prevented the careless from tumbling into the lower of the two school yards. The Monkey Run, they called it. At the open end, nearest to Union Road, we ran the gauntlet of seniors lined up to howl derision and administer thwacks with knotted scarfs. “Fags” no longer, the second year pupils hit hardest to celebrate a climb up the academic ladder.
The day always started in the Assembly Hall, a minimal, hardly adequate space. Cramming the best part of 500 pupils into the hall would have taxed later exponents who attempt to squeeze a Rugby XV into a Mini. Staff perched on a small dais, pupils lined up in Forms in the rest, shoulder to shoulder. A short religious service preceded a hymn, the notices were read out before we were dismissed to studies. Religious differences were few. Just one or two of the Jewish faith, some refugees from the continent, lurked out of sight until content of assembly was more relevant to their interests.
Precise detail escapes me after so long away. Certainly, the music room and cloakroom adjoined the hall, as did, perhaps, three more classrooms. The bulk of teaching space was in the two storey block fronting on to Union Road, where the Head, Mr. Smith, his secretary and the staff room were located at ground floor level. In the bottom yard, separate from the main buildings, were outside toilets beside a two storey block lining the northern boundary. Below, at ground floor, was a single room into which we were never allowed access. A woodwork, or craft room, I believe, but the scarcity of materials in wartime barred this activity from our curriculum. On top, at first floor, accessed by steep, external stone steps, was the Art Room. In here, samples worthy of exhibition hung from the walls, tins of powdered paint and congealed brushes lay in careless abandon on tables by the Belfast sink, an air of careful disorganisation was apparent. Art lessons, under Mr Parsons, were less destructive. No permission was needed to leave a desk to fill a jam jar with water, or attend the pencil sharpener.
Across Union Road, on two storeys, science labs lay to the right of the entrance. To our delight, in the entrance area, a wooden cradle housed an aircooled, radial engine, part of equipment provided for an Air Training Corps squadron, which shared the premises after hours. Left, in the entrance, was a single, high room, the gymnasium. Not a gym expensively and extensively kitted out with wall bars and climbing ropes, just a bleak, lofty space used at mid-day as the dining room. Pupils, occupying the gym for the first period of the afternoon risked slipping on stewed cabbage or other remnants of the basic wartime meal. We did boast a vaulting horse and some of those long, narrow forms which, when turned upside down, presented a narrow, longitudinal rail upon which balancing tricks could be attempted. The deep cill of the serving hatch was useful for an exercise in hanging upside down, much as a bat does in a belfry. It was never considered necessary to provide cushioning for those with inadequate finger strength, a bruised head was a hazard of PT lessons. As was a sore backside. Our sadistic instructor, Mr. Whaley, who doubled and dabbled as a science teacher, laid out mock assault courses. Mock machine gun fire, simulated by a PT slipper applied to fleshy parts, urged the dilatory into activity.
We had no adjacent sports field. As with visits to Heeley Baths, a session on the football field, or cricket pitch, involved a long trek on foot. Once in the fields in Carterknowle Road, cricket was managed by all, for taking station at crease or square leg demanded no special clothing. In wartime, suitably sized heavy, round toed, football boots with nailed leather studs, were in short supply. An older brother might pass on a pair, the less fortunate could slip around in normal footwear, loiter behind low stone walls, or plague frogs in the small, secluded copse around the pond close by a ‘,shelf,’ cricket pitch cut into the slope behind the old water pump by the top of Glenorchy Road. Once hidden, some had a quick drag on a Woodbine, some hoped for a secretive encounter with the Abbeydale girls giggling on adjacent hockey pitches and tennis courts. More often, secret encounters were frustrated by teachers.
Though lacking suitable attire, few could dodge the annual crosscountry run, a strenuous excursion of four miles, or so, through Ecclesall Woods. Never having trained for such an ordeal, the field soon spread out, leaving supervising staff anxious for the safety of any reluctant participants opting to walk the course as shadows lengthened at the end of a winter school day.
On Mondays, dinner money was collected from those wanting to seek nourishment in the simple meals delivered by a grey, School Meals Service van. Payment of two shillings, (10p), bought a strip of five red ticket-S, each to be handed over for a plate of dubious stew and the ubiquitous boiled cabbage. The best meal was on Friday. A fish cake, mashed potato and beans preceded stodgy pudding in unsweetened, watery custard. For once, it could all be eaten, there would be no discarded pieces of cartilage or sheep’s vertebrae to scoop into the waste bucket. An after-lunch hike to Collins, the bakers on Empire Road, for a top up with off-ration sugar buns wasn’t necessary on a Friday.
For lessons not requiring the special equipment demanded by a geography or science lecture, we stayed in our allocated form rooms. Thirty or so desks were grouped in pairs, all facing the blackboard, all stoutly locked to hold personal belongings. Handed down text books, carefully backed with brown paper, a thick, blue exercise book for rough work, and our subject exercise books, thinner green volumes printed with a panel headed “Sheffield Education Committee². Starting a new, pristine exercise book was always a special occasion. Names and subject would be carefully recorded on the front panel, the first few pages were completed in best handwriting. When the novelty wore off, we returned to illegible scribble, anxious to finish off the daily hour and a half’s homework as quickly as possible.
Pupils were all boys, a mixed lot, all ‘streamed’ after sitting and successfully passing the 11 Plus testing at junior school. Further segregation into A, B or C Forms was done internally to group pupils with their equals in capability. By the second year, anyone finding academic subjects too irksome, could opt to finish their education in more practical pursuits at the Technical College on Leopold Street.
We came from all areas of the city, some from as close by as Barkers Road, Others travelled by tram and bus from areas as distant as Netherthorpe or Bradway. No 4 x 4’s clogged the streets at 4.0 pm, only two of the staff arrived by car when petrol was available. Their vehicles, a 1937 convertible Ford 10, and a similarly aged Morris 8, were parked in the school yard under the horse chestnut trees. On pain of harsh punishment, we were warned never to approach the cars. A caning on the buttocks from the Head was the most severe, and most infrequent chastisement. Lesser offences warranted detention after school or an award of a hundred lines, a written repetition of some facts relevant to the misdeed.
We gave the staff grudging respect, rather than fear them, all but one were adequate teachers. “Paddy” Kershaw, small, stocky, taught English and was easily diverted by anyone introducing the subject of cricket into an exchange of conversation. Len Buchan, another lecturer in English, could reduce anyone found wanting into simpering retrospection with his biting sarcasm. Rumour had it that he revelled in extracting a halfpenny a trick from junior staff lured into his lunchtime Bridge school. Mr Billcliffe taught music, as well as working the City Hall organ, an activity probably more satisfying than trying to instill a knowledge of sharps and flats into unreceptive brains. To aid one’s understanding, he would sing out “No, no! Ta, ta, taffatetty ta!² when correcting a guessed interpretation of a line of minims and crotchets. Each syllable was emphasised with a whack on the head with a wooden backed blackboard rubber. Two of the staff were named Cook. “Puff”, a slim ascetic, with a nickname unrelated, as far as was known, to any dubious sexual orientation, taught German. His namesake, “Jogger”, lectured in Geography. To the joy of pupils obsessed with acquiring knowledge of military matters, some of “Jogger’s” lessons expanded into basic navigation skills, or other content introduced as a dummy run for his after-hours activities with the Air Training Corps.
Even sixty years on it would be ungenerous to name the ineffective tutor. He was a quiet, portly man, an academic who, by all accounts, was fluent in seven languages. His lot was Religious Instruction, a subject hardly enthralling to his charges. Sometimes, egged on by unkinder members of staff who knew of his failings, wastepaper baskets would be balanced above a door to await his entry. Wide eyed innocents could question biblical content, querying the import of words like “begat”, “womb” or “virgin”. Uncertain whether or not the query showed genuine interest, his embarrassed responses might be accompanied by juvenile sniggers or the offer of more earthy explanations.
As the war progressed, younger members of staff disappeared into the Forces, morning notices in assembly more frequently contained sad advice that an old boy had been killed. The introduction of female teachers was unsettling, probably more so in staffroom than classroom. Some ladies were young, hardly older than their pupils. Aided by a protective, fatherly eye of their male equals, the novelty of having a female tutor soon wore off, normality returned retrieving dropped pencils, hoping to catch a glimpse of feminine undergarments became a fruitless exercise. They were up to our tricks and quickly learned to adopt a seated pose which frustrated any such efforts.
All the staff wore gowns, necessary protection for threadbare suits, irreplaceable when clothing was rationed. For pupils, the once obligatory school uniform rule was relaxed. As arms became longer and long trousers replaced grey, flannel shorts, blazers were either handed down to juniors or discarded into a rag collection. Many pupils sported hand-me-downs, like unfashionable, prewar, sports jackets with half belted backs and pleated-pockets. Later, when older relatives were demobbed, a proliferation of khaki, battledress blouses or RAF tunics, stripped of insignia, were proudly displayed on upper bodies.
The best years of our lives? Maybe not, but I¹m not certain things have changed for the better. Certainly, the discipline was not harsh and did us no lasting harm. The school area was never strewn with empty crisp packets, or Coke tins, laying a hand on a pupil never led to an angry parent confronting the staff. More likely they agreed the punishment was deserved, even handed out one of their own. In spite of occasional air raids interrupting sleep, and a shortage of some set text books, we all received a sound grounding in eight subjects, at least, some unappreciated until later years.
We had no computers, or drugs. We never found it necessary to sprinkle four letter words into normal conversation, it would have been beaten out of us if we had. We acquired a comprehension of mental arithmetic to find quick routes to an answer, a facility which has astounded younger colleagues reaching for a calculator to add 2 and 2. Spelling correctly was a necessity, we learned where to use an adverb or an adjective and that the correct form is “different from”, not “different to”, an increasingly common error in the written and spoken word.
There were downsides. At Nether Edge, our sports facilities were basic. Though we were urged to compete, there was no one qualified to encourage, or advise, anyone lacking a natural talent. But neither was there any sense of inadequacy, as later education chiefs have put forward as an excuse to sell off playing fields.
Maybe some better advice could have been given about later careers. When jobs were plentiful, further education was hardly the norm. At the same time, most of us aspired to climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire rather than aim at a professional qualification. But the, few of our teachers had any experience of the big, wide world beyond the classroom … Maybe that’s not changed!