|10 Nov 2023|
In those early war days, the main boys’ school was sheltered in the Lake District, so dear old Dr. Finch, the previous head master, had interrupted his retirement to head up home base. And because many of our male teachers were away on active service, some subjects were taught by no-nonsense women who were very capable.
As an ancient, ever curious ex-Brit, living a life of quiet content with my wife on one of western Canada’s prettiest, trout blessed lakes, I celebrated last year what some folk view as a benchmark birthday. It was my ninetieth. Inevitably this created a whiff of self-indulgent nostalgia, a time to test the deposits in my aging memory bank and to recall the events and the people in my past.
Being an Old Boy of the school, who over the years has enjoyed the printed newsy pieces which are now streamlined into digital transmissions, I wondered how many of my old school mates were still around and where I stood in the tally of Allanian nonagenarians. I therefore emailed the school and popped the question. I identified myself as a wartime scholarship brat, and received a pleasant reply from Katherine Leonard that no, I wasn’t quite up there yet, near the top of the antiquity list.
Despite that news, Katherine suggested that my boyhood experiences of Tyneside in a war which separated our families by lengthy evacuations, plus the challenges of returning home, might be of interest to D.A.S. fans. Was I willing to recall what our school was really like in those bygone days, eighty years ago….the pupils, the staff, the whole learning environment? What challenges had a new scholarship lad faced in an old established public school, which enjoyed a prestigious reputation, plus the expectation of a vibrant future in the surprisingly competitive world of private education?
The whole idea sounded like a pleasurable opportunity to exercise my old brain, so I said ‘Sure!’
Some of us will remember that Tyneside became a prime target for the Luftwaffe, but long before the bombs started to fall, most school kids across Britain had been mobilized to the quieter retreats of the countryside. With my little brother Alan I ended up in the pleasant village of Sedgefield in south Durham, with its magnificent wool-financed church. We were billeted with our formidable tight-laced Victorian relative, Aunt Agnes, who had just taken over at St. Edmund’s as verger/custodian from her recently called-up son. She was the only woman verger in Britain. Quite a distinction. We were immediately enrolled in the sizeable choir and began to sing our hearts out twice a week in evening practice and three times on most Sundays. All this voice training was to come in handy for us both in subsequent D.A.S. productions of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
This was really my first brush with organized Christian faith, because our branch of Greenwells never had a religious bent. We were basically a sober, uneducated tribe of coal miners, working in the subterranean shafts beneath County Durham.
The tradition of our menfolk was to follow their fathers, brothers and cousins into the dangerous business of hewing coal. But my Dad had different ideas. His resolve was cemented when his father was severely injured at the coal face. At twenty-eight my Granddad never walked again and was confined to a rickety wooden wheelchair for the rest of his short life. Without much education but firmly teetotal my father was hired as the new barman in a popular Gateshead pub. Being energetic and newly married, he was soon promoted manager, with the upstairs flat that came with the job. A little later I arrived and have always enjoyed the questionable distinction of being born in the room above a busy public bar!
Ten years later I hadn’t given much thought to the priorities of self fulfilment. But I knew that my folks wanted their two boys to get a sound education and make our mark in life. Their influence to keep us focused was negligible, because for three evacuated years we only met with them for one whole day on their annual summer visit and one special week at home each Christmas. They were busy people in the war effort, but the telephone in those days would have been such a blessing.
Meanwhile my village school’s curriculum was surprisingly well chosen, well taught and provided a more than adequate grounding. The cane was prevalent punishment in those days and always encouraged our good behavior. I became an avid reader and a tenderfoot lover of language, having long outgrown comics and even my favourite ‘Just William’ books. I had graduated to the more mature output of Siegfried Sassoon, John Buchan, et al., so that when the possibility of a high school scholarship back home in Newcastle presented itself, I was more than ready.
My little academic success was a tonic for the whole family and the fun time came when I was kitted out at Isaac Walton’s with the traditional trappings of the properly dressed second former. The big day eventually arrived and I walked all alone and rather scared through those old school gates. It was the start of the 1943 autumn term at Dame Allan’s.
I was directed to a room marked 2X (!) and walked in to find a few lads my own age. One of them sauntered over, cheerfully held out his hand and greeted me with “Hello, I’m Austin Riddle and you must be Curly somebody!” I was totally floored. My unruly shock of hair had been recently trimmed, but not enough to escape the name that I was saddled with for the rest of my school days. Our classroom soon filled with newcomers and I wondered how many of them were also on a scholarship. The large windows overlooked the big square yard, where after lunch, half a dozen separate soccer games would be playing, each with its own marked tennis ball. It was all good-natured chaos, but our kicking game was eventually banned, though I can’t remember why, so we played handball instead, with equal enthusiasm.
In those early war days, the main boys’ school was sheltered in the Lake District, so dear old Dr. Finch, the previous head master, had interrupted his retirement to head up home base. And because many of our male teachers were away on active service, some subjects were taught by no-nonsense women who were very capable. They liberally handed out various punishments, including the drudgery of writing hundreds and hundreds of pointless lines. I earned my share on several occasions. One I vividly remember was a difficult lark, when I hid in the ceiling space above the class with my buddy Bill Slater. On hearing our shuffling’s and grunts, Mrs. Hess interrupted her Latin lesson below and ordered us down. She then doled out the inevitable punishments then solemnly assured us both, that although the human body was supposed to swallow a peck of dirt during an average lifetime, we had assuredly already eaten more than our share. The class was in stitches.
Our progress from year to year was chronicled by a laborious system of term reports, hand written by each teacher and summarized by A.K.Wilson, our small, wiry Head Master, known to his boys at all levels as ‘Spew’. Each document was sealed in an envelope and taken home for priority parental scrutiny. I have actually kept all of mine, but for the Greenwell boys, (my brother was two years behind me), opening them was always a rather anxious occasion, because domestic expectations ran high. I was particularly relieved in one report when my father burst out laughing. A hand written gem by my geography master intoned “This boy seems occasionally inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”. I received a fatherly pat on the back, though my Mom was mortified. I afterwards learned that this classic Disraeli put-down had incensed Gladstone in the House of Commons, back in 1878!
Our teachers were an interesting mix of characters. Most we liked though a couple we secretly lampooned. One though was a legend long before I arrived. The mightily-mustached Henry Mallinson, known as ‘The Major’ from his old war rank, strode our corridors at long-legged speed with his black robe billowing behind him. He was a terrifying sight for us new boys, often bent on retribution. He once propelled me from the dining hall in disgrace by holding my ear in a vice-like grip.
In closing these few lines, I remember a couple of scandals which rocked the school during my years there. One of them is worth mentioning. An indignant report was received by our Head Master from the Theatre Royal, that a disturbance by a rowdy bunch of fifth-formers up in the ‘Gods’ had actually driven the lead actor, the formidable Donald Wolfit, probably touring “ Lear” at the time, to stop the show. He had stood tall, arms raised, at the front of stage and his rebuke was gleefully reported by the media. “Children of the gallery,” said he, in his magnificent baritone, “WILL YOU PLEASE BEHAVE!?” We soon learned that our livid Principal had summoned the culprits and meted out severe punishments, including much caning, to each and every one. He had also alerted their parents! Some rumors even circulated the possibility of expulsion for the ring leaders! After that particular episode, group visits to outside events were strictly supervised.
The bonds we Greenwell boys forged in our Dame Allans’ years were strong and lasting. They equipped us to choose careers that were enjoyable, challenging and rewarding. Those scholarships that were awarded to us so long ago, opened up a world of opportunity. We gratefully made the most of it.
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