In Three Parts:
Memories of Childhood in Birmingham in the 1940s and early 1950s
Life at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1951-59, and
Anecdotes from Barclays Bank Trust Company Limited 1959-97
Illustrated with family photographs throughout
Harebells on the Common
A Birmingham Childhood Remembered
1943 – 1951
First edition, February 2006
Second edition, October 2023
Cover illustrations show the crests of:
The City of Birmingham (where I lived and worked from 1940 to 1972),
King Edward’s School, Birmingham (attended 1951-59)
Barclays Bank (my employer from 1959 to 1997 - and who still pay my pension!).
My childhood home: 165 Stechford Road, Hodgehill, Birmingham
Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells
And sights, before the dark of reason grows
Summoned by Bells
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A Shropshire Lad; XL
Contents of Part One
Early Years My first hazy memories – 1943
Wartime Birmingham Air raids; trams and buttered toast; shopping and the cinema
South Wales Holidays Farms, seaside and “The Resurrection”
Domestic Life in the 1940s Clothes, wash day, Christmas and starting School
Worries about Health Tonsils and small boy stuff. Discovery of a chick
A Hard Winter Snow and fog, 1940s style
School Days Amberley Prep School; first glimpse of stocking tops
Children’s Hour Wireless, and Ladies to tea: I meet the constabulary
A Balanced Diet Meals, rationing and days out
The King Passes by Glimpses of the King and of Russian leaders
Changing Times Impressed by the news and also by Silvana Mangano
A New School Moving to King Edward’s,
The End of an Era A Festival, a Funeral and a Coronation
These pages include some memories of my childhood, dug out of the deepest recesses of my mind, concentrating where possible on episodes which illustrate how life in the 1940s differed from that we know today. I have tried to choose incidents which might amuse, but including topics both serious and saucy: all part of the process of growing up in the post-war era! I hope this account entertains others and ring bells in their own memories. The 1940s were a grey world of coal smoke and gas-lit streets, of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, Spam* and steam trains, mangles and woolly vests. There were no mobile phones or DVDs, no televisions or refrigerators, no foreign holidays or central heating, no computers and very few motor cars. But it was the only world I knew as a child and I was well content with it.
(* Spam was tinned meat and had nothing to do with computers!!)
Fifth birthday, 23rd June 1945.
The war in Europe is now over and I am sitting on the big red engine made by my father.
With my parents in the back garden in 1940 and 1942
PRETTY BLUE LIGHT was flickering, just within reach and looking so attractive, so tempting. I reached my fingers up to touch – and: O-U-C-H, “Mumm–e-e-e-e!” The light was the flame of a burner on the gas cooker which had attracted my innocent curiosity. I would have been only two years of age, but luckily the impact was fleeting and no lasting damage was done. But the incident remains in my memory as possibly my earliest recollection. It was probably early in 1943, a time when others across the world were experiencing far greater suffering than my rather trivial burn.
Then there was the occasion which stayed in memory as being the first time I ever saw my mother wearing trousers. It was the cold night of 23rd April 1943. I was not yet three years of age. The air-raid siren had just gone and my parents and I were in the dining room, the windows securely covered by the thick blackout curtains made by my mother, who, in an effort to relieve wartime austerity, had trimmed the hems with decorative tapes of green and gold. For no particular reason, I was sitting on the cross-bar beneath the dining table. We were about to go into the cold night to settle down once again in the air raid shelter. It is a memory inextricably tied up with the below-ground smell of damp earth and of the methylated spirit lamp that illuminated our tiny shelter, built into the garden rockery. The event can be dated accurately, because it was the first air raid for several months and thereafter raids ceased in the Midlands. There are other associated memories: waiting before an air raid, the tension tangible in the anxious atmosphere: being told not to suck my thumb after playing on the floor “because of the danger of picking up germs” – or was it Germans? The words were puzzlingly similar to a two-year-old.
We cling to our early memories as the starting point of our life’s journey. The underlying theme from those days was war: war against a society so evil it is now hard to realise that it existed in Europe within my own lifetime. But my parents protected me securely from that unseen horror, providing an environment of security and stability. Thus, even though I grew up in a world of bombs and death, I can look back with nostalgia to a happy childhood. With the exception of my loyal but silent companion Edward Bear, almost everyone and everything I knew and cherished in those earliest years has been swept away by the passage of time. But they remain alive in memory, vivid if intangible, enabling me to make a return journey to my past. There I can once more relive those infant events and encounters, recreating for a moment the images of childhood.
I was an only child, born on 23rd June 1940 at 1.35
My mother had been born in 1904 and came from Welsh farming stock, but her mother had died in childbirth. Consequently, for several years as a baby and toddler she had been passed around an array of aunts, until, eventually, her father remarried. It must have been an unsettling childhood for her. She left home at eighteen years of age and had taken up nursing, first at Newport in South Wales and, from 1929, in Birmingham. There she met my father who had been born and bred in the city, although prior to the 1790s his family’s roots lay in the village of Harlaston, near Lichfield (hence the family name, originally De Harlaston). My father was born in 1906 and had lost both parents while still a child, his mother dying in 1915 and his father in 1919. A maiden aunt became responsible for his upbringing and he was sent to boarding school at Hanley Castle in Worcestershire, so his childhood too was far from secure and settled.
Castle Bromwich Church, where I was Baptised. The Church in snow, January 1963
The Church is an attractive neo-Classical building dating from 1726-31 and is Grade I listed.
Like most children, I have many random early memories: a ride in the pram, a harsh word here, a tumble there; of the fun when my father surprised me by hiding in the pantry, and of the panic when I wandered off to explore alone while my mother’s attention was distracted in the local butcher’s shop. But unlike the air raid memories, those cannot be dated. Then there are those wonderful impressions left in the childhood mind by patterns; shadows on a carpet; enchanting floral designs on curtains or wallpaper. Wallpaper played a significant part in my life at an early age. After lunch each day I was put in my cot for a sleep, but there was a time when sleep would not come. I lay awake and was bored. Through the bars of my cot I could see a small irregularity in the wallpaper. I recall teasing at it with my fingernail. Oh joy! I could peel a little bit off. A bit more effort and off came another inch. This was the most satisfying thing I had ever done. I set to work with gusto and can still remember the sensuous pleasure of peeling off strips of paper. Eventually, my mother arrived to check on her sleeping infant, only to find a joyous child surrounded by shreds of paper. Suffice it to say that I was never put down for another afternoon nap.
Paper of a different sort provided further entertainment when my mother, unable in wartime to obtain the usual brand of toilet roll, bought instead a box of interleaved lavatory paper (always hard and shiny in those days). I was fascinated by the apparently endless supply – pull out a sheet, and, hey presto! – there was another. Anxious to get to the bottom of this (sorry!), I kept on pulling sheets until the lavatory floor was invisible beneath paper and the box was empty. Once more, I was surprised to find that my mother did not share my interest in research into paper production.
1943: Ready to go shopping: my 3rd birthday: on the big red engine
There were always Lupins in the garden on my birthday
It is to my parents’ credit that the nocturnal trips to the air raid shelter caused me no major worries, other than frustration at my father’s refusal to let me have a battery in my torch. I suppose he had an understandable reluctance to let me wave it in cheery greeting to the Luftwaffe flying overhead. The war was, despite my own lack of concern, the inevitable background to life and everyone told me how everything would be “different when the war ended.” News was so dominated by the war that I believed that when peace came “news” would cease. I now look back, amazed at my good fortune in being so well insulated from the horrors of those years. My only memories of the end of the war are of a street party close by and of an unpleasantly hard toffee apple on VE night at a small funfair erected for the occasion on nearby Hodgehill Common. Toys were largely unobtainable until a few years after the end of the war, and magazines would often carry advertisements for items such as electric train sets, so desirable to a small boy, but they were marked “For Export Only”. Consequently, most of my toys were made by my father, including a handsome wooden train and a soldiers’ fort. I was lucky that because my father’s work was connected with aeroplane production he was not liable for military service. He did, however, have to work six (and often seven) days each week during the war, plus nights spent fire watching. Consequently, he was something of a rare figure in my early years. Another result of the war was the occasional visit from a Polish airman, befriended by my parents and some of their friends. I was puzzled by an adult whose knowledge of the English language was smaller than my own.
Some manifestations of war did cause me alarm. There were sinister gaps in nearby rows of houses where willow herb grew among the rubble left by bombing raids. Sometimes an interior wall was left standing, exposed to the elements, leaving the last residents’ taste in wallpaper for all to see. There was also the vast ruin of the sauce factory to be seen from the tram going into Birmingham. One bomb landed less than 100 yards from home, sucking open the French windows: I was too young to recall the incident, but the damage to the window frames remained evident until they were replaced twenty years later. There were baleful barrage balloons moored nearby on Hodgehill Common and, from time to time throughout the war, convoys of tanks would pass our house, driven under their own power, the steel tracks making a deafening racket on the road surface and sending me scuttling indoors in search of quiet. Worst of all were low flying aircraft, which terrified me by day and haunted my dreams at night. In 1940, while only a few months old, I had been in my pram in the garden when a plane came over, flying very low. My mother rushed outside and looked up in time to see a plane with the German cross and (she said) a Nazi pilot peering through the cockpit window. She grabbed me in terror and fled to hide beneath the stairs. (The pilot, probably equally terrified, was apparently soon brought down some miles away). Of course I can have no recollection of that incident, but did my mother’s terror somehow impress itself into my slowly developing mind? Even today, the sound of a jumbo jet climbing overhead can provoke an involuntary and momentary shiver.
Wartime Picnic with the Godsall family (left) – location unknown, alas
This photo is proof that there were happy, light-hearted moments during the war.
But suits were still de rigeur, even on picnics! Jill, sitting between her mother and mine, later became a professional pianist and remains a friend in the 21st century.
A 1930s postcard showing Coleshill Road crossing Hodgehill Common.
Less than a decade later, I would be here picking Harebells for my mother.
But there are
pleasant memories too; of lazy summer
afternoons when I picked Harebells for my mother on the nearby grassy common,
and of shopping trips to town. In “Summoned by Bells” John Betjeman
recalled his childhood as “safe in a world of trains and buttered toast”: in my world trams and buttered toast were the features which linger in the
memory. We went shopping by tram and my
mother always concluded the afternoon with a call at “Pets’ Corner” in Lewis’s
department store, to see the monkeys and parrots, followed by coffee and hot
buttered toast at the Kardomah café. After I started school the trams in their
attractive dark blue and primrose colours became a vital part of my daily
Left: The tram stop where I waited for the tram home every afternoon after school, (which was behind the hedge at the left). (photograph by Ray Wilson)
Right: the lower deck of a tram, showing reversible seats.
October 1950: The last tram on the No. 10 route, as seen by the long-defunct Birmingham Gazette.
I had travelled this route daily on my way to and from school and sorely missed the trams with their fascinating character: a souvenir ticket (“Ha’penny child’s”) reminds one how inexpensive tram travel was in the 1940s.
A special treat in the summer holidays would be the tram ride to the Lickey Hills on the Worcestershire border: a twelve-mile journey across the city, taking over an hour. Tram seats had reversible backs so that one normally sat facing the direction of travel, but one could leave a seat unreversed enabling a party of four to face one another as a group, just as on a train. At the city centre terminus passengers left the tram at the front while new passengers boarded at the rear. This gave small boys the irresistible temptation of treading on the driver’s pedal which mechanically sounded the gong – the tram’s warning equivalent of a motor horn. For the latter part of the journey from the city to the Lickey Hills the trams forsook the streets for their own reservation, bowling merrily along through the sunlit trees at speeds approaching 40 m.p.h. We would lean happily out of the window, taking care to retreat as other trams passed close by in the opposite direction. Once at the Lickey terminus everyone would want to rush off to the hills, but I would try to linger and watch the conductor placing the trolley pole on the overhead wire for the return journey; no easy task if the sun was in his eyes.
to the centre of
Holidays in South Wales
holidays had been confined to annual trips to my grandparents who farmed in
Paddling in a rock pool at Southerndown, 1949; and by the Morris 8 motor car after changing for the beach in 1950 (note the old AA badge on the car’s radiator grill).
As a small
child I was bored by the journey to
The wild and dramatic scenery of the Beacons was, for me, the high spot of the journey as it signalled our entry into South Wales. For several miles the road lies above the 1000’ foot contour and at Easter 1947, after the severe winter snowfalls, only a single passage had been cut through drifts which towered above our car. On two occasions our journeys were impeded by serious flooding. By contrast, one hot day of summer in the early 1950s, we memorably detoured through the Forest of Dean, passing the historic Speech House, to emerge deep in the wooded Wye Valley near the imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey. The idyllic situation must have inspired the Cistercian monks who worshipped there so long ago, just as it inspired Wordsworth who, after visiting Tintern, wrote of “ the still, sad music of humanity”.
On the way to South Wales: floods near
the progress of a gypsies’ vardo on 3rd October 1958
At Gilfach my grandparents did not occupy the traditional farm house, which was deemed too primitive, but lived in a double fronted Victorian villa (“Oak Cottage”) 200 yards away. This was scarcely any more luxurious. Electricity was confined to the downstairs rooms, so I went up to bed by candlelight (logic decreed that as one only slept upstairs, there was clearly no need for electric lights there!), and I settled down to sleep with an embroidered text above my bed saying “Simply to Thy Cross I cling”. There was no hot water and no cooker: my grandmother, a tiny, Chapel-going lady, had to rely on the coal fire with a traditional oven alongside, producing wonderful meals. In the bedrooms there were chamber pots beneath the beds, and marble washstands with china jugs and basins which would now be collectors’ pieces. Of the primitive outside lavatory arrangements at Oak Cottage, the less said the better. But some farmhouse facilities were far more exotic, with a long walk to the privy in the orchard where one might find a commodious building offering accommodation for two patrons seated on a timber bench side-by-side, and (in one memorable location) even a three-seater for that special social occasion!
Staying at Gilfach introduced me to farming routines almost unchanged over the centuries. I would accompany my grandmother to collect eggs warm from the chickens who roamed free on the bracken-covered hillside. I would watch my grandfather with other local farmers as they dipped or marked the sheep. I would play with his sheepdogs, who, when they thought duty called, would abandon me and rush off to attend to the sheep which they found more absorbing than a small boy. On a fine summer’s evening Grandad would put me on Ginger, his old mountain pony, for a ride up to the paddock: I felt like a maharajah. Grandad was a kind and thoughtful man and his sheep were almost as dearly loved as his family. In a decade of wars and atomic bomb development I remember overhearing him say to a farming friend: “I worry about the future for these boys” (i.e., my cousin and me). How amazed he would have been at the comfortable and fortunate lives we have led, when compared with the struggles his generation experienced.
But one Welsh journey in 1945 was alarming. We set off to a remote Welsh valley to find the farm which was to be the home of Auntie Maud and Uncle Len, then newly-married. Signposts were still almost non-existent following the war. Cloud and fog clung to the mountainside and the drenching rain drifted across in soaking sheets. As the Morris climbed slowly into the all-engulfing mist, with a sheer drop of 200 feet at the side of the road, we passed whitewashed signs on the bare rock face: “Prepare to meet thy God”. Was this to be our final journey? But when we reached Gelli Farm I found a place which was to me, as a city child, close to heaven in more childlike ways: 3000 acres of freedom.
Gelli farm in the 1950s: A cow approaches, ready for milking as young riders look on.
In wet weather such farmyards would be a sea of mud and wellington boots the only possible footwear.
At Gelli I could escape into a carefree world of the imagination with mountains to climb and streams to dam – Everest and the Nile lay before me: who cared if my shoes and socks were soaked through, or if the forgotten chicken’s egg, placed carefully in my trouser pocket, smashed when I went sprawling in the tussocky grass? But in those drab, chill post-war years, the unimaginative adults were more concerned about the lack of electricity, the enormous fireplace with its chimney open to the sky, and with the ivy growing indoors on the damp, peeling, farmhouse walls.
Initially Gelli farm lacked any modern mechanical aids and Uncle Len relied on horses, not just to ride when gathering sheep, but also as everyday local transport. Once, about 1947, when we were staying there, he received a message (by runner? – there was no telephone then) to say there was a dead sheep by the roadside in Abergwynfi. So a horse (Leicester by name, a rather spiteful animal) and cart were prepared and I set off with my uncle to retrieve the dead sheep, the only extended horse-powered working journey of my life! I was so impressed by the experience I later wrote it up in a school essay, much to the chagrin of my mother who seemed to feel it reflected badly on the family!
Throughout the later 1940s and all through the 1950s my grandfather would stay at Gelli for a few days from time to time to help out at shearing or other busy times. Horse and dogs would be essential once he arrived there and began helping with gathering the sheep. His generation never took to motor transport, so when it was time to start he would mount Ginger, call his dogs and they would all set off from Gilfach across the bleak mountain tops for the twelve mile journey, following the old drovers’ tracks which had been the traditional routes for farmers for many centuries. To my grandfather this was more natural than following the motor road round the valleys which was half as long again and, even then, busy with motor traffic. But farming methods were soon to change, even in the Welsh mountains, so Grandad was perhaps the last man regularly to use the old drovers’ roads of South Wales.
Grandad about to set off from Gilfach on Ginger
Other favoured destinations when we stayed in South Wales included Barry with its wonderfully tawdry funfair and its miles of docks, then alive with shipping, and Mumbles with its electric railway around the bay from Swansea. Nor must one forget those day-long steamer trips when the Glen Usk, the Britannia, and the splendid new Cardiff Queen would take us to Somerset or Devon, landing us at far away Lynmouth or Ilfracombe, and once continuing on into the stomach-churning Atlantic swell to land at Lundy Island.
In those childhood days central heating was almost unknown and only one room in a house would normally be heated, by a coal fire, although the kitchen might also be warm from cooking. Thus, for much of the year one expected to be cold as soon as one moved away from the fire and going to bed on a winter’s night was an especial ordeal. So instead of wandering about the house (as is now customary) in shirtsleeves, I would as a child wear thick woollen underclothes (knitted by my mother – how did I tolerate wool next to the skin?), a grey shirt of a substantial Viyella-type material, a long-sleeved woollen pull-over (also knitted by my mother) and a heavy school blazer. I quickly learned the knack of taking off pull-over, shirt and vest in one go, ready to be put on in similar manner next morning, saving time and exposure of one’s skin to the bracing winter morning air when intricate ice patterns decorated the inside of the bedroom windows. There were usually two blazers on call: one was new and too large and was worn to school, the other was old and too small and was worn about the house and for play. School caps, scarves and gabardine raincoats were added for out-door excursions in all but the warmest weather (and sometimes even to the beach if there was a chill wind). By contrast, short trousers were de rigeur up to 13 years of age. In consequence, knees, habitually exposed to the elements and to frequent close encounters with the ground, were frequently chapped and scarred. Older men would hardly ever be seen in shorts unless on a camping holiday when their appearance suggested they might be home on leave from the East African Rifles.
With a fire in only one room, winter Mondays were especially miserable to a child, because Monday was washday and if the weather was wet the washing would be hung to dry on a clothes-horse in front of the fire. I recall Monday, 23rd December 1946 as the longest and dreariest day of my life. Outside it was cold and damp. There was steaming washing arrayed in front of the fire, the windows were running with condensation and my mother was busy, pre-occupied with ironing and mince-pie manufacture. The rest of the house was chilly and unwelcoming. I was bored and bad-tempered. I wanted Christmas to come quickly, but time seemed to be at a standstill. Eventually, after what seemed more like two weeks than two days, Christmas arrived and brought a rarity: a red clockwork engine, number 6161: no rails, for the war was but recently over and toy production was limited. Soon after breakfast tragedy struck, for the engine, on a fully wound spring, shot across the floor like the proverbial bat from Hades, and wedged itself underneath the sofa, crushing its tinplate cab in the process. There were tears, but my father was on hand to administer repairs, and the engine returned to service in fair, if not pristine, condition.
Presents at Christmas arrived mysteriously, during the night, in a pillow case at the foot of my bed until I was thirteen years of age, by which time the identity of Father Christmas had long since been established. One wartime Christmas, my main present had been a Golliwog, carefully made by my dear mother, arranged with his head peeping out of the pillowcase. No political correctness in the 1940s! Notwithstanding the war and its associated militaristic attitudes, I was never allowed a toy gun and once when someone gave me a water pistol, it disappeared very rapidly. Violence and aggression were not to be part of my upbringing.
165 Stechford Road: the frontage in 1956 and the new pond in 1949
I had started school in May 1945, shortly before my fifth birthday. My parents chose to send me to Amberley Preparatory School, a small private school on Coleshill Road about a quarter of a mile from home, although it was later to move a mile further away to Ward End. I seemed to get on well, but after a few months had some sort of minor breakdown (which I do not remember, and which was never discussed, although I do recall hearing myself described as “highly-strung”!) Thus, for a couple of terms I only went to school in the mornings. I had been attending school for scarcely a year when I was required to take part in an event which would not have been out of place in a novel by Dickens. The school was a small affair in a Victorian house, run by two unmarried ladies, Miss Major and Miss Ainsworth. Sadly, quite soon after my arrival, Miss Major was diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness. At her request, as a farewell gesture, the entire school (about fifty children) had to process slowly through her bedroom on the top floor. As children we accepted this strange ritual as just another everyday event, but my mind now gives it the quality of an event in a Dickens novel or, maybe, a sentimental Victorian oil painting, vast and dark: “Miss Major’s farewell to her young pupils.”
A curious quirk of my early childhood was that for several years most of my playmates were girls: there simply weren’t any boys of my age living locally – had something been put in the water? Names of girls living within a few hundred yards that still spring to mind include Jill, J’Ann, Judith, Juliet, Jackie, (all those Js!), Norma, Wendy, Iola, Lynne, Hazel and Beryl. Oh, there was one boy, Timothy, but somehow we never hit it off.
Many random memories were acquired over those early childhood years, often involving smells: lilac blossom and wellington boots, privet hedges and coke boilers. But when I was five I experienced a recurrent bad throat with associated nasal problems. So, in accordance with the contemporary medical practice of removing all such evidently unnecessary items of anatomy, I went into the Birmingham Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids taken out. This was a major upheaval for one who had so far led a very sheltered existence. It thus became the first event in my life to imprint itself on my mind complete in almost every minor detail, from beginning to end.
For a start, it was unprecedented in those days of petrol
rationing to go into the centre of
But I soon had my revenge. For the first (and, I believe, only) time in my life, I got a girl into trouble. On emerging from the anaesthetic I had a raging sore throat. I uttered those famous childhood words: “I want a drink of water.” The ward was under the control of a Sister who appeared to be related to Wagner’s Valkyries. She told me firmly that I could not have a drink. A few minutes later a pretty young nurse passed by. (Even at five years of age, I could appreciate a pretty girl). I repeated my request and she kindly produced a drink. Ten minutes later the Valkyrie flew past and noticed the empty cup (of a celluloid-type material – ugh!). “WHO gave you that drink?” she demanded. I remember my reply. Precisely. Word by incriminating word: “the NICE nurse gave it to me.” The sharp intake of breath seemed in danger of making the walls implode. The Valkyrie mounted her invisible steed and stormed off on a punishment mission. For the first, but not the last time in my life, I knew I had said the wrong thing.
In the years following the hospital visit, health matters gave me several worried moments. I suffered the usual childhood ailments in turn – Whooping Cough and Chicken Pox one year, Measles and Mumps the next. But my most serious health problem in childhood occurred at about seven years of age, when I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, which was dubiously blamed on the bland wartime diet in my earlier years. It meant that for several years I was not allowed to eat any fruit unless all the skin and pips had been removed. A far more serious worry in the 1940s was tuberculosis, then widespread and often fatal. Our neighbour’s daughter and the brother of a school friend had both contracted the disease in their late teens and had been in sanatoriums for many months. Happily, they both recovered, but the fear of being carted away from my home in such circumstances did not bear thinking about.
Then there was an absurd worry, typical of the fears teasing a small boy’s mind in a sheltered and solitary childhood. This began when I noticed a rather personal difference between me and the other boys who knelt to contribute to the hospital’s communal chamber pot. Similarly, I noticed that I differed from my cousin with whom I shared an occasional bath when he came to stay. Despite being a subject of immense fascination to growing lads, it was not the kind of thing discussed in the best circles in the 1940s. But I had overheard talk of children born with deformities and thus, for several years, I worried anxiously about my apparent abnormality and whether it had potential for future problems. Eventually, communal school showers revealed that the difference schoolboys knew as “Cavaliers and Roundheads” was, after all, not uncommon. It was to be over fifty years before I learned that in those pre-N.H.S. days the required surgery had been performed not in hospital, but one afternoon on our kitchen table by Dr Lillie. There was no anaesthetic for the infant patient, but the genial Scots doctor had (as my mother tartly observed) first fortified himself with rather more whisky than seemed advisable for one about to wield a surgical knife. Such operations were then encouraged for claimed hygienic reasons and were doubtless a welcome supplementary source of income for a G.P. I might add here that in accordance with the prim standards of modesty of the day, I was even longer to remain ignorant of the far more interesting structural differences between males and females. My parents had a small female nude statue on the mantelpiece, but I attributed its lack of masculinity to natural reticence and decency on the part of the manufacturer. Once, when I was about nine, a girl who was a playmate persuaded me to strip off for her edification, but, alas, despite her promises, reciprocal facilities proved not to be on offer, so in an era when nudity was never seen in public my innocence was long to remain intact!
But in 1946 there was another event of much
greater amusement to a five-year-old than health or bodily matters. The week before I went into the Ear, Nose
and Throat Hospital my mother and I had found a day old chick. It was squatting, fluffed up against the
cold March wind, on the pavement of an otherwise deserted suburban
A Hard Winter
recollection of the 1940s is complete without mention of the heavy snowfalls of
1947, arguably the hardest winter of the twentieth century. Even in suburban
An old-fashioned winter: Stechford Road, seen from our front drive entrance
Dad clears the drive with Mom’s encouragement and I get ready to build a snowman
Sadly, we have no photographs from the 1947 winter when snow depths made those shown above quite trivial!
Fog was another winter evil in cities in the 1940s and 1950s. All factories, offices, shops and private houses burnt copious amounts of coal for heating. In still winter weather the pall of smoke hung in the air and drifted downwards, merging with any slight mist, to cause an impenetrable fog with visibility cut to ten or fifteen feet. It would penetrate indoors. Outside, it would paralyse traffic and even make it difficult to find one’s way on foot. Most traffic would cease and my father even had to walk ten miles home from his office on one occasion. We would be led from school in a crocodile on foot, although occasionally a tram would crawl slowly through the streets. A side effect of the fog was that the brick and stone of city buildings became blackened, and it did not do to inspect one’s handkerchief after blowing one’s nose!
During the hard winter of 1946-7 my school moved to larger premises, permitting a modest expansion in numbers. The buildings were surrounded by extensive grounds with shrubberies and winding paths, ideal for the childhood games of hide-and-seek. Five to eight year olds were taught in an imposing Victorian house but nine and ten year olds were housed in a Nissen-type hut built in the grounds for the Auxiliary Fire Service during the war. The two classes within the hut were separated only by a pair of large hessian curtains, drawn back at play-time and for lunch. A large coke boiler provided the communal heat: a low railing prevented us from coming into contact with its scalding sides and served as a clothes horse for damp coats on wet days, thus ensuring that the hut was filled with the objectionable smell of damp wool mingled with coke fumes. My school life in those days generally lacked excitement; mile-stones included the early, tentative, steps in writing and the daily recitation of multiplication tables and imperial weights and measures (“22 yards make one chain, ten chains make one furlong”, etc). Writing at first involved using chalk on miniature slates, but later one graduated to dip-in pens with which to practice “pot-hooks”. Reading found one exploring Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, and such old world delights as Talbot Baines Reed’s Adventures of a Three Guinea Watch. Art merged with nature study as we produced seasonal drawings of catkins, sticky buds, bluebells or autumn leaves. To discourage us from developing a whiny Brummie accent we had elocution lessons from the aptly named Miss Homfray. I remember the first poem she taught us: A little snowdrop grew in my garden bed,/ All dressed in white / She looked about / And shyly hung her head. Those who pronounced the last line as “Shoyly ‘ung ‘er ‘ead” failed to impress the demanding Miss Homfray (who didn’t like being referred to as Miss ‘Um-free).
I managed with little effort to keep at or near top of the form in most subjects and usually received good end of term reports, even if they often described me as “fidgety”. The most critical observation (at ten years of age) was that “he should learn not to make sotto voce remarks”: whatever had I been overheard saying about one of the teachers? Hymns were engraved in our minds at the morning assemblies: on the Wednesday nearest our birthdays we were allowed to choose the hymn. The girls usually went for “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “There is a green hill far away” (why was it without a city wall? – very puzzling when one is eight or nine), or “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”; but the boys generally favoured “Onward Christian Soldiers”. These did seem more lively than the dreary “The day thou gavest Lord has ended” which so often turned up at Christ Church, Burney Lane which my mother and I attended at rather irregular intervals. Christ Church was a modern building, far less attractive than the parish church at Castle Bromwich, but much nearer to home. A Midlands celebrity preacher was Canon Bryan Green, Rector of St Martins in the Bull Ring in Birmingham, who was a highly regarded evangelist. Mother and I went to hear him twice at Christ Church and felt slightly cheated that he preached the same (lengthy) sermon on both occasions! A local pillar of the Church was a prim elderly spinster with the appropriate name of Miss Perfect. At about six years of age I was taken to be introduced to her (rather like being ceremonially presented at Court) and she commemorated the occasion by giving me a New Testament.
Amberley Preparatory School: Fancy Dress competition at the Church Hall on Hodgehill Common, Christmas 1948
My mostly tranquil school life suffered one significant interruption when a girl in the class complained that another girl, called Yvonne, had stolen her fountain pen. The Principal, Miss Inshaw, made enquiries and the pen was duly found secreted in the top of one of Yvonne’s black woollen stockings. The poor silly girl was expelled, causing a frisson of excitement through the class. I had not previously encountered the world of theft and expulsion, nor, come to that, the world of stocking-tops: sensations all, to an eight-year-old.
Manners were an essential part of one’s education in the highly structured society of those post-war years. One did not speak until spoken to. As boys, it was impressed on us that we must treat ladies with respect at all times, a practice still faithfully kept by some of my generation. A gentleman should raise his hat on meeting a lady, should hold the door open for her, allowing her to go first, and should always stand whenever a lady entered a room. On crowded ‘buses one should always offer one’s seat to a lady. Conversely, real ladies did not go into pubs without a male escort, nor did they smoke cigarettes in public. Elocution lessons ensured that we spoke correctly and avoided colloquialisms, especially “O.K.”. Swearing in company was almost a capital offence. One might just hear one’s parents say “damn” or “blast” under serious provocation, but the words were not permitted in a child’s vocabulary. “Bloody” was used by men only in the most extreme situations and would certainly never have been allowed on the wireless. Stronger language still, nowadays common-place, was largely confined to the working man in his own environment and would never be heard in public. Just once, a boy called Gilbert used such a word to me. I asked my mother what it meant, but she didn’t tell me. I was, however, forbidden henceforth to go to Gilbert’s house, which was a pity as he had a very good train set.
Although I had a small circle of
friends at Amberley, much of my leisure time was spent alone, contentedly
reading or playing with my Hornby Dublo electric train
set, or happily riding my blue Hercules bicycle around the quiet
suburban pavements. I am told I learnt
to read when I was three by finding Music
While you Work in the Radio Times!
After Rupert Annuals and Enid Blyton, I graduated to Arthur Ransome books, ‘Bunkle’
adventures and the ‘
My form at Amberley was quite small, about fifteen to twenty pupils, of whom most were girls. One young friend was J’Ann Page, who moved to Somerset about 1960, but with whom I re-established contact in 1985 through a neighbour of my parents who had remained in touch. J’Ann was a lively girl and we often enjoyed a threepenny ice cream as we walked home from the tram on the journey back from school. But the world is not yet ready for the curious tale of how her socks came once to be lodged high in one of Stechford Road’s sycamore trees. In the years 1949 – 1951 two boys in particular were my firm friends: Derek Silk and David Yates. On leaving Amberley we inevitably drifted apart, but happily got together again on several occasions in the 21st century, thanks to connections made through the internet. At school, we tried to pass ourselves off as a “gang”, modelled partly on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories and partly on Jennings, with a dash of Dick Barton – Special Agent, courtesy of the BBC Light Programme’s serial at 6.45 each evening. We wore our fashionable “snake” belts, but of our daring exploits little remains in memory. My most serious misdemeanour arose when I was “dared” to knock on someone’s door near the school and run away: I was caught and Miss Inshaw duly administered a stroke with a ruler on the palm of my hand, almost certainly the only time in my life that I suffered such physical punishment. Truth to tell, the public humiliation was the worst aspect of the incident.
(Schooldays continues below, after Dan Dare)
The view from 165 Stechford Road
The view looking into Hodgehill Road in the early 1950s, soon after the introduction of the
service in October 1950, but before replacement of the 1930s-style lamp posts
by tall modern lighting. When my
parents bought the house in 1932 it faced open fields with a view to
The view of the back garden shows the lawn around which I rode my Hercules bicycle,
with the rockery beyond (into which the air raid shelter had been built for the duration
of the war) and behind which there was a small vegetable garden.
Some childhood souvenirs:
Clockwise from the top:
An excerpt from Radio Times: wireless programmes for 24th February 1951, including Jennings at School;
the cover of Enid Blyton’s weekly Sunny Stories for November 1948;
one of Arthur Ransome’s decorations from the pages of Swallows and Amazons;
a page from Bunkle Butts In, by M. Pardoe (1943), with illustration by Julie Nield [The ‘Noises in the Night’ were intruders in the secret passage!]
Extracts from an early edition of Eagle, showing Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.
Art work, by Frank Hampson, was always of a high standard; the stories often contained a discreet didactic element and schoolboys enjoyed the humorous side as evidenced by the bluff Lancastrian approach of Digby, Dan Dare’s batman.
School days (continued)
Our ‘gang’ got into the local sand quarry one weekend when it was closed, climbing through a fence near a sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. But I was not cut out for a life of crime and for weeks thereafter I was convinced that every knock at the door would reveal the house surrounded by Scotland Yard men come to arrest me for trespassing. In any case, with my bouncing mop of unruly curls, big brown eyes and (in summer) white ankle socks I never cut a very macho image. Another boy in the class was Alan Smith but he was destined not to be part of the ‘gang’. Sadly, he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis so he wore surgical boots and walked with difficulty. He was unable to join in most of our games. His life was to be short and sad, but to the rest of us his condition was a fact of life and we selfishly continued with our games while he looked on. Only later did one begin to wonder what his thoughts must have been.
Because of the small number of boys, sport scarcely featured in the school curriculum and, although a few boys liked to kick a ball about, football was not the obsessive interest it became in later decades. As an only child I grew up happily uninterested in games and other competitive activities. Dad did once take me to see Aston Villa play when I was about seven, but I was hit painfully in the face by the muddy ball when it strayed into the crowd. The return home of a mud-splashed and blood-stained child incurred maternal displeasure, so the trip was not repeated. There were swimming lessons once each week, involving the tram ride to Woodcock Street baths. By the time one had changed – always two boys to a cubicle – there was time for only about twenty minutes in the water. But afterwards came the best bit, a cup of hot chocolate and a tiny slice of swiss roll in the café. School P.T. exercises took place out of doors in fine weather only, evoking the memory of the row of girls in front bending to touch their toes, thus providing a momentary glimpse of their navy blue knickers as they leant forward. A little more exciting was the occasion during a game of ‘tig’ when I lunged to touch Angela Moran and inadvertently (honest, guv!) succeeded in pulling off her wrap-round skirt, thus revealing a tantalising hint of feminine delights – though in those innocent times that was a country which would remain terra incognita, completely off limits for twenty more long years.
At ten years of age I suffered the first pangs of interest in the opposite sex. For a while I took to eating my sandwiches with one of the girls and we would wander around the school grounds at break and lunchtime having earnest discussions. I endured some taunting from my two chums in the ‘gang’ who clearly did not understand affairs of the heart. Then, at the end of term, she broke the news that she would be leaving and so the school “gang” member-ship went back up to three.
Meanwhile, childish fun went on as before. Birthday parties continued until I was eleven. Organised by my mother, there were games, always including “pass the parcel”, then there was tea (actually Corona “pop” and birthday cake), and then some wild running about in the garden until it was time to finish. Parties were always mixed, but activities usually seemed to divide into boys v girls. The girls always wore party frocks and had ribbons in their hair, looking as pretty as a picture. They would surely have grown up into wonderfully attractive young ladies, but by then our ways would have sadly parted.
Birthday party 1951: back left: Derek Silk, RHD, David Yates,(“the gang”)
back right: Norma Page, Stella Richardson, Myrtle Pridmore
front: Keith Hickinbottom, J’Ann Page
“ Children’s Hour ”
Out of school, music was my most lasting discovery of those early post-war years, destined to develop into my life’s main leisure interest. Ours was not a musical household and I am told that my favourite piece of music during the war was called “Pistol Packing Momma”, long since erased from my memory. But, like most contemporary middle-class children, I was an avid listener to “Children’s Hour” on the BBC Home Service (no television in those days!). Many of the items were introduced by tuneful extracts from classical music, some of which etched themselves permanently into the mind. Said the Cat to the Dog opened with an extract from Walton’s Façade and “Music at Random”, a series of talks by Helen Henschel, began with the main theme from the last movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. One serial used Sibelius’s En Saga. Another drew briefly on the music of Shostakovich, and, with the help of Radio Times, sent me on my first voyage of discovery to the newly-developed Third Programme. (I remember, however, being seriously bewildered by the music encountered there – not for the last time!) At Christmas 1948 I first heard John Masefield’s Box of Delights with music from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s delightful Carol Symphony. Box of Delights was to be repeated in 1955, before being transferred to television in 1984, each time with the same music. But the piece which I enjoyed most was one used to introduce a children’s adventure serial broadcast in 1947 called Bunkle Butts In. I was hooked by the first “thriller” I had encountered (I still have the book!). The music, Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, entered into possession of my brain and started me on a lifetime’s enjoyment of classical music. Thanks to the organisers of “Children’s Hour”, music became an absorbing ingredient of my life when I was just seven years old. I fear that today’s youngsters lack such an introduction to the magic of classical music.
There was, of course, other, more light-hearted, entertainment to be had from the wireless (as it was then called). A favourite was Much Binding in the Marsh with Kenneth Horne, Richard Murdoch, Sam Costa and Maurice Denham. Lying in bed on Sunday evenings, I would hear the voice of Frankie Howerd in Variety Bandbox drifting upstairs, accompanied by my parents’ laughter. The most discussed show was probably ITMA with Tommy Handley who died so suddenly aged 57 in 1949. During and immediately after the war ITMA had been a major factor in uniting the nation: at a time when there was no television, and wireless programmes were confined to the BBC Light Programme and Home Service, choice was restricted and the majority of the population would be enjoying the activities of Handley and his crew. Billy Cotton’s Band Show on the Light Programme accompanied our lunch every Sunday, ensuring that I was soon word-perfect with “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts …”
Television broadcasts had started in London in 1936 but were suspended for the war, restarting in June 1946. The service reached Birmingham in 1949 and was extended throughout the rest of the country in the 1950s. We acquired our first set in February 1951 at a cost of 60 guineas (equivalent to £1623 in 2023). Early receivers came in vast wooden cabinets but had tiny 9” or (for the affluent!) 12” screens. For many years programmes were broadcast live and went out for limited hours only: initially there were children’s programmes from 5 pm to 6 pm, and then nothing was transmitted until evening programmes began at 8 pm, continuing until about 10.15 pm. My first glimpse of television was of an old Hopalong Cassidy western film being shown in the window of a radio retailer: it may have been a flickery black and white picture, but to me it was then the last word in sophisticated entertainment. Other early delights were “Mr Pastry” (remembered installing a TV aerial on the roof and falling into a waterbut) and the 1951 studio-bound production of E. Nesbit’s Railway Children – no actual trains were shown, but steam might occasionally be blown across the screen!
Evening programmes were introduced by announcers dressed formally in evening wear: viewers were greeted by Sylvia Peters or Mary Malcolm in elegant dresses and McDonald Hobley or Leslie Mitchell immaculate in dinner jackets. As programmes were broadcast live (even the Thursday repeat of the Sunday night play was a second live performance) it meant that disasters great and small reached the home screen. Not infrequently the screen would go momentarily blank before an elegantly written notice appeared:
will be Resumed
as soon as Possible”
The first person I ever saw drunk was Dr Glyn Daniel on the television programme Animal Vegetable and Mineral – he and his guests had evidently been celebrating before-hand, rather too well. My first hint that sex appeal might be of some significance came about 1952 in a live programme with the elderly artist Sir Gerald Kelly talking about (I think) Fragonard's "Girl on a Swing": he suddenly turned to the camera with a wicked twinkle to add a daringly unscripted remark: "Look at that lovely little bottom". My mother laughed, then remembered I was there and said "Well!!" in a certain tone of voice.
A sample of television programmes from 1951
An extract from Radio Times showing all the television programmes for Tuesday, February 20th 1951
It will be noticed that no programme were broadcast between 4.5 and 5.0 pm, or from 6.0 to 8.0 pm.
Following the News (sound only) television closed down at about 10.15 pm.
The death of radio’s Tommy Handley was an uncomfortable reminder of human mortality. During the 1940s two neighbours died, comparatively young, raising in a child’s mind the question of our ultimate destination. The mother of Juliet Powell, a little girl with whom I had sometimes played, died in her 30s from breast cancer, and “Uncle” Bill, our next-door neighbour died from pneumonia in his mid-fifties. These events raised uncomfortable questions, but children look ahead, not back, and the events were soon all but forgotten. The equally great mystery of birth surfaced from time to time: I remember asking my mother where I had come from, but I cannot now recall her reply which was doubtless a masterpiece of dissembling! But I was temporarily satisfied, without the destruction of childish innocence which now seems to be the rule.
Much of my knowledge of life’s caprices came from unintentional eavesdropping on my mother’s conversations with her friends. She led a life ordered by routine: Mondays were for washing (morning) and ironing (afternoon), Tuesday and Friday mornings were for local shopping, Wednesday and Thursday mornings were for cleaning – downstairs and upstairs, respectively. Except on Monday, after an early light lunch she would change into a smart day dress. The afternoon was then available for seeing friends, equally elegantly attired in smart frocks, or for an occasional trip to the centre of Birmingham. There she would shop for clothes (although that was limited because of the need for clothing coupons), or perhaps take me to a matinee at the cinema. When her friends came for tea I would often sit quietly reading in a chair in the bay window while the ladies sat talking by the fire. Perhaps I was invisible, because I would hear remarks about life, husbands and acquaintances which were surely not intended for me! There was probably nothing slanderous, but I do remember being amused by mimicry of a local lady with an affected way of speaking who was quoted as saying “My de-ah, it took me two aahs to arrange the flaahs.” [Two hours to arrange the flowers.] I felt uncomfortable (and still do) on hearing a woman complain about her husband’s alleged domestic inadequacies. I have never heard a man complain about his wife, suggesting that ‘cattiness’ is indeed a female attribute! In the 1940s the two sexes lived quite separate lives: it seemed men went off to kill or be killed fighting wars or, if living at home, set off, trilby-hatted to work from 7.30 am to 6 pm each day. On Saturday afternoons they went flat-capped to football, and spent any remaining spare time caked in mud from digging the garden or covered in oil after overhauling the car (which probably entailed lifting out the engine). Women shopped occasionally, cleaned from time to time, did a little knitting or embroidery, dead-headed the roses and spent the rest of their time reading to their children or drinking tea with friends: it seemed to me an enviable existence compared with their husbands – but things for me turned out differently and I have no cause for complaint!
In the 1940s and 50s ladies still had a very different approach to life from men and they cherished attitudes which their 21st century successors would repudiate. Like most of her sex, my mother, her sisters and her friends all strongly disapproved of football and all other games apart from tennis, which was enthusiastically supported. Cricket also enjoyed a limited following amongst a few of the fair sex. Wives reluctantly tolerated their men attending football matches on a Saturday afternoon, but the male obsession with the game was regarded by them as a clear indication of men’s inferiority to women. Likewise, it was accepted that men drove cars, buses and lorries: but no self-respecting lady would allow herself to be seen indulging in such activity. Their avoidance of motoring was quite sensible in the 1940s as vehicles were far from reliable and breakdowns and mishaps were commonplace with “D.I.Y.” repairs often being the only practical solution, albeit tricky and dirty. A few women did learn to drive, but they were a tiny minority and regarded with acute distrust by men and even by most other women!
Life continued with occasional unexpected twists and turns. In the late 1940s I experienced an encounter with the constabulary which was to make a lasting change in my life – although happily without any charges being brought! During the course of a visit to the family in South Wales, my father had the misfortune to run down a lady who foolishly stepped off the pavement in Tonyrefail without first looking to see if the road was clear. Happily, the car was only travelling at about 20 m.p.h. and no serious injury was caused. Nevertheless, it was necessary for my father to call at the village police station to make a statement. While he and my mother were thus engaged I endured a very long and boring wait. The sergeant’s wife took pity on me and brought me a mug of strong tea. This was alarming, as I disliked tea intensely and never drank it. But clearly one did not argue with the police. So I braced myself and took a sip. Heavens! – I liked the stuff! From that day forward I have never refused the chance of a cup of tea – thanks to the Glamorganshire Constabulary.
More memories of holidays in South Wales:
With Dad on board the Cardiff Queen at Ilfracombe 1949
and with Mom at Tenby
after a boat trip to
Paddling with cousin David at Llansteffan, Carmarthen, 15th August 1952.
School blazers and ties are in evidence, - but not trousers!
When it came to food there was no opportunity to indulge in the whims and caprices of taste. Rationing and shortages continued well into the 1950s and many popular items were simply unobtainable. One had what one was given or went without. Imports of bananas were discontinued throughout the war and oranges were available only in very limited quantities. I recall my first post-war banana as a serious disappointment: I think I was expecting a bigger, sweeter, more luscious orange. Domestic freezers and refrigerators were almost unknown, so frozen foods were simply not available until limited quantities of ice cream began to appear once the war was over: at first in vanilla flavour only; wafers three-pence, cornets four-pence, tubs sixpence!
Dinner menus were limited in range. Beef, mutton and pork were the staples; lamb was seasonal and chicken a luxury for Christmas only. Cod, tripe, hearts and brains appeared occasionally. Meat was accompanied by fresh vegetables according to season – my diet of green vegetables was limited mainly to fresh peas out of the garden in July, runner beans in August and cabbage for the rest of the year, varied only by occasional carrots or cauliflower. Tinned peas were available, but were not especially palatable. In an era of shortages, leftovers were recycled so that yesterday’s meat reappeared as rissoles, vegetables as “bubble-and-squeak”, and an unwanted tea might re-appear as bread-and-butter pudding. Cheese was rationed to two ounces (of non-descript Cheddar) per person per week. Eggs were scarce, but dried egg was available for cooking and could even be made into a sort of omelette, though my mother looked down her nose at such contrived dishes. She baked her own cakes; otherwise we would probably have gone without. The season for locally grown fruits was extended by careful storage of cooking apples, giving the spare bedroom a characteristic smell, and my mother would be busy bottling plums and damsons in Kilner jars at the end of each summer. Imported tinned fruit was unknown and I did not taste any until a rare tin of pineapple chunks, hoarded from before the war, was produced at a family party, held at my father’s old home in Erdington, for Uncle Cyril who was on leave from the Army. Foreign dishes such as pizza, lasagne, or paella were quite unheard of; indeed, in an era when foreign holidays were almost unknown our family would not have recognised the words! By comparison with present-day menus it seems a poverty-stricken up-bringing. But the choice was planned in response to government dietary advice and ensured a generally healthy population. There was no chance of over-indulgence, so my friends were a skinny and active lot, obese children being unknown!
Sweets were taken off the ration on 24th April 1949 (remembered as being my play-mate J’Ann’s birthday), but before I could get to the corner shop for a quarter of Barker and Dobson’s Barley Sugar or of Wilkinson’s Liquorice Allsorts, panic buying by the public had cleared the shelves nation-wide. This resulted in the government re-imposing rationing for three more years, frustrating the dreams of many children who were thus strictly limited to one or two sweets a day. But in compensation there was Christian Kunzle’s restaurant in Union Street with its delicious Swiss-style cream cakes rich with cream inside a chocolate ‘boat’: one greedily eyed a plateful but could seldom manage more than one! How strange that such indulgent fare has long since vanished from the shops!
Food rationing continued with full
severity for several years after the war.
The system demanded that one was registered for food with a specific
shop. Making purchases elsewhere was
not permitted. We patronised Ehret’s, a small grocer (with a surprisingly Germanic name
for those days). There, my mother’s
order was taken over a long counter with a chair placed alongside for the
customer to rest her legs. Many items,
such as butter and sugar were parcelled up on the premises and biscuits
(plain; no cream varieties) were sold
loose from large biscuit tins, pre-packed goods being almost unknown. My mother’s purchases would be delivered
later by bicycle. I always wanted her
to call in at the Co-op, despite not being registered there, as the Co-op had a
marvellous aerial ropeway by which the cash was sent by the shop assistant to
the lady cashier who returned any change by the same means – a fascinating
contrivance for a small boy to watch in action! (The Midland Educational book shop in
A postcard view of Corporation Street, Birmingham, at the crossing with Bull Street, about 1949.
The buildings behind and beyond the tram (which is heading for the Fox & Goose terminus at
Ward End, see below) were replaced by Rackhams’ department store in 1960.
In the late 1940s our rations were slightly supplemented – unofficially - with the help of Aunty Rene, a cousin of my mother’s who, like her, had left South Wales and settled in Warwickshire. She and her husband ran the village shop at Broadwell, near Southam and about twice a year we visited her, returning laden with contraband packets of Weetabix, bags of sugar, slices of fresh ham and pats of butter. Broadwell was then a tiny isolated village lying in a hollow, populated mainly by agricultural labourers who lived near the poverty line. Most houses were down-at-heel and there was an overwhelming and unpleasant smell which offended the nostrils as soon as we got out of the car. Explained by my mother as “stagnant water”, I later discovered the smell was that of the village’s cesspits. On our visits I often played with Margaret, Aunty Rene’s granddaughter and my second cousin once removed. She was a tall, lively girl, only a little younger than me. But in her twenties she suddenly suffered a brain haemorrhage and died, leaving two tiny children. Aunty Rene herself died in 1960 and thereafter we had no reason to return to Broadwell. But in 1990 I was driving nearby and decided to make the detour to see how the village had changed. In thirty years the down-at-heel cottages had been transformed into “desirable executive commuter homes”, each with a BMW or Mercedes outside. The old shop was no more, but was now the largest and most impressive of all the houses. I might add that the air was sweet and of the smell there was no evidence.
The Fox & Goose shopping area, about 1949, from the pages of the Birmingham Weekly Post.
In the left foreground is the Washwood Heath Road with trams on their reserved track. Alum Rock Road merges in the right foreground. The Beaufort Cinema is just above and right of the traffic island. The Outer Circle route crosses from left to right and Coleshill Road continues into the distance toward Hodgehill Common, just visible where Coleshill Road bends left into the trees. Centre-left are playing fields, now occupied by a super-market. The sand quarry is visible right of centre: it was later filled in and became Stechford Hall Park. Rural Castle Bromwich stretches across the top of the photograph: Shard End was still just a planner’s dream.
Petrol was still rationed well into
the 1950s, so outings by car were strictly limited. On a couple of occasions, when my mother
evidently wanted an afternoon to herself, she would pack me off on the Outer
Circle ‘bus for the two hour circumnavigation of
Chamberlain Place, Birmingham: A Midland Red ‘bus passes the smoke-blackened Council House as it approaches the Town Hall.
Most stone buildings were then blackened by the smoke in winter fogs. As atmospheric pollution diminished in the 1950s the buildings were cleaned, revealing that the stone had a natural light colour - much to the surprise of my generation!
late 1940s and 1950s the British Industries Fair (“BIF”) was held for two weeks
each summer at Castle Bromwich, only a mile from home. I was taken there on several occasions, even
though the displays of heavy engineering which were the essential feature of
the show were hardly riveting stuff, either for me or for my mother. But there was usually an exhibit featuring a
small gauge industrial railway, intended for use in quarries or on building
sites and the promoters were generally more than happy to demonstrate its cargo
carrying capacity with a load of small boys instead of the more usual tonnage
of granite. In 1947 the BIF was
officially opened by H.M. King George VI, and after the ceremony he was taken
by motorcade to join the Royal Train at Stechford station, so passing our
house. This was an occasion when we
watched from our front garden as the King drove past – I was surprised to find
that there were other, lesser, mortals whose front gardens were not thus
honoured by His Majesty. I will add
here, although it belongs to a slightly later stage of my life, that in 1956
the Russian leaders, Khrushchev and Bulganin likewise were driven past our
house when returning to catch their train to
1950: 10th birthday
the most part, news in the 1940s passed me by, but from conversations overheard
between adults, from wireless news bulletins and occasional newspaper
headlines, I gained some vague impression of the drift of events. In 1945 I knew from the VE celebrations that
the end of the war with
In 1945 I had remained in ignorance of the general election which brought Clement Atlee’s Labour party to power but I soon noticed some of the cosmetic aspects of Labour’s policies and became familiar with such names as Stafford Cripps, Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan. My father admired “Ernie” Bevin, but Bevan was especially unpopular with both my parents who referred to him as “Urinal Bevan” although the joke was lost on me. Labour’s nationalisation of collieries and railways first manifested itself to me by the closure of the tiny private colliery known as “The Squint” in Gilfach Goch, near my grandparents’ home. Then the familiar chocolate-coloured paint on Great Western Railway carriages gave way for a while to red, and I vividly recall the first occasion when I saw a steam engine lettered “BRITISH RAILWAYS” instead of the familiar “GWR” – much to the disgust of my father.
a decade after the war, paper shortages resulted in newspapers comprising no
more than six pages and there was thus room only for one or two
photographs. But the press could always
be relied on for front page pictures of a disaster, so air and rail crashes
seemed to loom large. The horrific air crash in March 1950 near Cowbridge in Glamorgan, when 80 rugby football supporters
returning from a match in
It now comes as a surprise (even to those of us who were there at the time) to be reminded how innocent and ignorant children in the 1940s and 1950s were about matters relating to sex. Parents and schools shyly dodged the issue. Newspapers, magazines and the broadcast media never mentioned the topic. Nudity was quite unknown, save for discreetly-posed black and white pictures in a few “pin-up” magazines which were not widely available and certainly unknown to me. Boys and girls could thus grow up in a state of blissful ignorance of the change adolescence would bring: nothing was said. My own innocence was signally disturbed at ten years of age by a 19-year-old Italian film actress, Silvana Mangano who appeared in an Italian film, Bitter Rice, released in Great Britain in 1950. The publicity photographs for the film included one reproduced in our Daily Mail showing Miss Mangano standing in water, wearing tiny shorts and a figure-hugging black sweater. Never before had I seen anything quite like it: the picture fascinated me and brought an exciting sensation, strange and delightful yet a little alarming; new to a growing boy. Thus began five years of change, as I discovered delight in watching a pretty girl pass by. Boyish curiosity and flamboyance amongst my contemporaries offered patchy enlightenment (as well as worrying fables of blindness or worse) but I was approaching fifteen years of age before the story took shape. Only then did I properly understand that such bodily developments were to do with reproducing the species and so had more significance than just to provide passing amusement for teenage boys. The years passed, and other sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot came to tantalise the mind and body of this adolescent boy, but I shall never forget Silvana Mangano oozing temptation in a rice field. What a contrast between our own ignorance in the 1940s and 50s and the obsessive attitudes of the 21st century.
Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, 1949.
She appeared in several more films, of which the best known
was Death in Venice in 1971. She died in 1987.
This was the photograph which caught my eye in the Daily Mail in 1950.
In 1951 I passed the “eleven-plus” examination for King Edward’s School, Aston, but was also entered for the separate examination for the ‘parent’ King Edward’s School in Edgbaston. This was a tougher proposition but I passed and so the lengthy cross-city journey would be part of my life from September. I would notice a change: Amberley was a tiny, informal affair, run by a handful of local ladies, of whom Mrs Bunker and J’Ann’s mother, Mrs Page, were my usual teachers, aided by Mrs Woodwiss who taught History and Geography on Thursdays and Fridays only. For a couple of terms, there was a small sensation when they were joined by a man, Mr Luby. At Amberley I was a big fish in a very small pool, but at King Edward’s I would find myself a very small fish indeed. The culture shock would be significant. Instead of the company of a small number of girls and an even smaller number of boys, there would be 700 pupils, many already grown men over six feet tall. Life at King Edward’s would bring testing new subjects including Algebra and Latin to puzzle my mind, and games such as rugger (about which I knew nothing). But this new existence would one day cease to be strange and would itself become second nature.
The early ‘fifties were marked by
three events of national significance:
the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951, the death of H.M. King George
VI in February 1952, and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June
1953. These printed themselves on my
memory in different ways. I remember
the Festival firstly for the journey up to
The death of the King was, to a child, quite unexpected, the news reaching my form at lunchtime as we waited to go into the school dining hall. After the colour and fun of the previous year’s Festival, the state funeral itself had an overwhelming and numbing sombreness, awe-inspiring even to an eleven-year-old. Monochromes dominated everything, not just on the tiny black and white television, but in the whole of that cold, grey, austere February world.
Gaiety returned the next year in time for the Coronation, even if the weather itself famously failed to co-operate on the day. But with hindsight, I now realise that just as my world was changing, so the further world beyond was taking on new and different aspect. In watching the splendid spectacle of Coronation Day I witnessed the finale of the British Empire and of the Pax Britannica; the world of my parents and of my grandparents; the world of my own childhood; a world which I had foolishly thought was permanent.
* * * * *
The early 1940s was a surprisingly good time in which to be born. I was too young to be much concerned either by the war or by the privations which continued for some years afterwards. I saw and experienced a world which still depended on horse power and the steam engine, and when country life was little changed from that which had obtained centuries earlier. My own childhood is now more than seventy years in the past, amongst events far enough away to be deemed historic. But I well remember listening to relations born in the 1860s. They had in turn been brought up by a generation whose attitudes were formed in the 1820s and 30s, when misbehaving children were told ‘Boney’ (Napoleon Bonaparte) would get them and when any journey, for those not lucky enough to be part of the aristocracy, meant a long walk or an uncomfortable ride on the local carrier’s cart. Just a couple of generations back and one is lost in an era whose people could not possibly conceive of the life we now lead. By contrast, I was born in time to enjoy the increasing material prosperity of the 1950s and early 1960s, while still having the old-fashioned freedom to explore my surroundings free from the fears of crime and violence which affect today’s children. I was in time to benefit also from the general availability of a wider and more attractive diet, and also of improved medicine, especially antibiotics and better anaesthetics.
The full employment of the post-war era meant it was easy to get a well-paid and interesting job with security and also with prospects which were duly realised. Those who were born in later decades were not to find employment so easy, and, for many of the rising generation, the outlook for early retirement and a generous pension is much less promising than for my generation.
It is easy and commonplace for my generation to think back to our childhood days and to lament the loss of innocence. We are now immersed in a depressing climate of violence, of aggression and confrontation, of tasteless and offensive talk. This is evident in everyday life, in the press, in books, and especially on television where we find many plays and so-called comedies quite unwatchable. Tenderness and sympathy are in short supply, as is true wit. There are manifold petty restrictions and the absurdity of “political correctness” and “woke” attitudes which limit cherished freedoms. Moreover, standards of public behaviour and dress have slipped as ‘scruffiness’ has taken over. How one laments especially the loss of pretty dresses for young women, replaced by dreary jeans and T-shirts (or by barely decent brief shorts and tiny tops)! But against that one must set today’s improved living standards, especially dentistry and health care, and such material benefits as cars and computers, refrigerators and televisions, central heating and air conditioning; plus the travel and holiday opportunities we now accept as commonplace.
I may have enjoyed myself in the 1940s and 1950s, but I would not go back: there is so much in life to enjoy today!
Robert Darlaston, February 2006
Updated, November 2008
Edited and updated, October 2023
King Edward’s School
1951 – 1959
KING EDWARD’S SCHOOL, BIRMINGHAM
1951 - 1959
King Edward’s School:
Fifth form school photograph, Summer 1955
Looking up the Main Drive from Big School towards the University with its splendid clock tower: July 1959
= = i = =
y stay at King Edward’s spanned the years from the Festival of Britain in 1951 to the wonderful summer of 1959, one of the sunniest of the century. It was a good decade in which to grow up. My first few years had been set in a world of bombs and rationing, where toys and sweets were almost as scarce as penguins in the Sahara. Austerity had continued after the war ended and, through the rest of the 1940s, life retained a dreary greyness aptly portrayed by the monochrome newsreels of the period. But to a child it seemed, superficially at least, that the arrival of the ‘fifties had brought a fresh wind to blow away the horrors of the previous decade. Rationing was rapidly dismantled. Luxury goods began to appear in shops. Newspapers enthusiastically proclaimed a new Elizabethan age. With Sir Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, Everest newly climbed and the new Comet jet airliner briefly dominating the skies, such claims for a while appeared true. To a schoolboy it seemed one was participating in real progress. In that decade of full employment the motor car, television and the foreign holiday became (for better or worse) part of everyday life. It was against that background that I spent my time at K.E.S..
I started at King Edward’s School on 13th September 1951. I knew I was fortunate to secure a place at a school which had provided education to the great and the good in Birmingham for four hundred years and which was unquestionably one of the finest academic establishments in the kingdom. Famous alumni of the twentieth century in whose steps I was following included J.R.R. Tolkein, Field Marshal Viscount Slim, and the Rt Hon Enoch Powell. Other pupils who became household names for a time included a brace of bishops, the journalist Godfrey Winn (a favourite in women’s magazines in the ‘fifties), comedy actors Raymond Huntley and Richard Wattis, atomic spy Alan Nunn May and maverick drama critic Kenneth Tynan (who was alleged to be the first person to use the ‘f***’ word on the B.B.C.). Further back, the school had produced the artists David Cox and Edward Burne Jones, as well as E.W. Benson (who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883) and an assortment of professors and clergy.
The school was a rich foundation which lacked for nothing and had, only recently, moved from the bustle of the city centre to sumptuous new premises in sylvan Edgbaston. The facilities ranged from laboratories equipped to the latest standards to a small cinema with tiered rows of blue plush tip-up seats. There were parquet-floored corridors, which, to an eleven-year-old, seemed to stretch to infinity, and an assembly hall, known traditionally as Big School, with a fine organ and one of the largest oak hammer-beam roofs in England. The stage in Big School was dominated by Sapientia (Latin for wisdom), an impressive carved and canopied oak throne for the Chief Master, designed by Augustus Welby Pugin. The beams for the roof had been delivered before the war and remained for the duration lost amongst long grass and builders’ junk. A government inspector had arrived to sequestrate them for the war effort, but the site caretaker had denied any knowledge of them, and so they had survived to provide the school with a magnificent setting for morning prayers and formal occasions.
The contrast from my tiny previous school could not have been greater. To a small eleven-year-old somewhat lacking in self-confidence the sheer size was bewildering and I duly got lost on my first day when searching for room 72. New boys were known as “Sherrings” (a contraction of “Fresh Herrings”), which could occasionally be a term of mild abuse when used by boys who had risen to the dignified height of the second year. On arrival at K.E.S., I was placed with 22 other boys in Shell ‘C’. We were seated in alphabetical order and I teamed up with my neighbour, whose surname was Cork. Like me, Cork was somewhat overawed by our new surroundings, so it was good to have an ally in those early days. His family was to move away after a few years and he vanished from my modest circle: later I heard that he made something of a name for himself in Jazz circles. Our form master in Shell ‘C’ was Mr L.K.J. Cooke, a kindly man with a velvet toned voice and a leisurely speech delivery. In consequence, unkind schoolboys had nicknamed him “Slimy”, but he was an expert at easing new boys into school life. His roll-call of our names in alphabetical order stays in mind many decades later: “Beard, Berry, Birch, Brown, Clark, Cork, Darlaston,” and so on, ending with “Strange, Viggers, and Wilson”, recalling the sinister television drama set in a boys’ school: Unman, Wittering and Zigo, where the title was similarly derived.
Left: Official School Photo 1953 – detail
(Back row (l-r) Sessions, Edwards, Mitchell; Front row (l-r) Birch, Darlaston, Robertson
Right: Darlaston in school uniform of blazer, tie, grey shirt and school cap, 1953
The use of surnames accorded with long-standing tradition at boys’ schools. Today such usage is widely thought of as unfriendly and first-name terms have become general, even with people one has never met. But it was long the customary form of address amongst males at school, in the Services and in the professions. Christian names were confined to family, a few close friends and, of course, girls. For a boy starting at secondary school, being addressed by his surname was a badge of pride, showing he was growing up: besides, one was following time-honoured custom, as set out in novels about school life from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Jennings at School. To use a Christian name was seen as over-familiar and disrespectful. At school, boys kept their Christian names secret and, if discovered, unusual or old fashioned names such as Harold or Cyril were a cause for mild teasing. We knew girls at the adjacent school by their Christian names, but they would mostly refer to us by our surnames. When I went to tea with my school chum Kite, his mother and sisters would call me Darlaston: it was normal usage. A few boys abbreviated my name to ‘Darly’ for a while, but happily that never caught on! I was slightly bothered that a few of the masters stressed the middle syllable of my name, thus: Darl-ASS-ton: I hope such emphasis was not meant to be significant. Happily, their colleagues and my form-mates addressed me conventionally as DARL-us-t’n. If two or more boys shared the same surname they just were known by their initials: in my year the Smiths were D.B., G.M., and R.J., always known thus. Boys, incidentally, were never referred to collectively as such in official pronouncements, but always as “gentlemen”; as in “Gentlemen will not show any hair beneath the peak of their caps” or “Gentlemen will not display pens in the outside pockets of school blazers.”
Caps and navy blue blazers were the main element of uniform throughout the School. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that until boys entered the Upper Middle in their third year short trousers were worn, shirts were grey, and raincoats were navy blue. Thereafter, one graduated to the dignity of long trousers, white shirts and fawn raincoats. Similarly, the satchels of the first two years suddenly became quite passé and were replaced by smart leather brief cases in which to carry one’s ‘prep’. For some boys, brief cases gave way in turn to C.C.F. packs or duffel bags which were popular towards the end of the ‘fifties. In my first year at K.E.S. sixth formers were permitted to wear sports jackets with flannel trousers and to leave off the school cap. This gave them, in the eyes of boys in the ‘Shells’, a somewhat awesome appearance whereby they were difficult to distinguish from young masters. That sanction was withdrawn in 1952 when caps and blazers became required wear throughout the school – a rather unpopular change in the sixth form as it diminished their apparent majesty.
School continued until 3.45 p.m. only on Mondays and Wednesdays. On other days lessons finished at lunch time, but that did not mean one could go home. There were compulsory games for the first three years and these could be on Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. Friday afternoons were reserved for cadet force and scout group activities, with non-participants being labelled “Remnants” and consigned to the Art Room where Mr J.Bruce Hurn presided. There was also morning school on Saturdays. The school was a single sex establishment, but there was an adjacent girls’ school (K.E.H.S.). The authorities required that there should be no mixing between the boys and the girls, and the starting and finishing times were staggered by 15 minutes to discourage the evils of fraternisation on the trams and ‘buses. Unsurprisingly, this policy was not entirely successful. During my own early journeys across the city to school a fifth-former, Stevens, who later went into the medical profession, kept a friendly eye on me, supported by a couple of Upper Middle boys, and there were also two girls from K.E.H.S., Ann and Margaret, who initially tried to mother me. On Friday morning journeys in that first year, Darlaston’s Eagle comic was enthusiastically borrowed by the rest of the party, especially the girls, so that everyone could keep up to date with the adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.
At my junior school I had always been a relatively big fish in a very small pond and was usually top or second in the class. At K.E.S., by contrast, I was to be in the company of some very bright pupils and consequently seldom rose above the bottom third. At least I usually enjoyed subjects such as English, History and Geography. But Mathematics was a real struggle. When I was about thirteen, the Maths master, Mr Skinner, was explaining to the form some recondite algebraic formula which was taxing my limited faculties. My face clearly betrayed my total and utter bewilderment. Suddenly he broke off in mid-sentence and said: “Darlaston; when you look at me like that, you make me feel an absolute cad!” I confess to remembering that incident better than any of the algebra he struggled to impart.
Left: Classical corridor, looking towards Big School
Right: Upper Corridor: L.P. Walker passes the Library
One of the most significant changes I found on starting at K.E.S. was compulsory participation in games. I was allocated to Mr Leeds’s house, later known as Jeune house, to commemorate a 19th century master. I fear my sporting contribution to the house was to be negligible, although Mr Leeds was surprisingly kind to me. Classes at my previous school had comprised about fifteen children, of whom the majority were girls, so organised games such as football and cricket had been non-existent. Moreover, there were no boys of my own age living very close to home. Consequently, as a somewhat timid only child I grew up to be rather self-sufficient and quite ignorant about team games. K.E.S. attempted to teach me the rudiments of Rugby football, but wrongly assumed I had some existing knowledge. This became all too evident in one of my early attempts at Rugby. I tried to keep as far away from the ball as was possible, but on one occasion it landed right by me, so I did as I had seen others do and picked it up. The master acting as referee (Mr J.F. Benett) promptly went puce in the face, blew his whistle so long and loud that trains stopped all over Birmingham and he bellowed at me: “Darlaston: you are off side”. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I did not have the slightest idea what he meant, - I never did get the hang of it. My self-sufficient approach to leisure together with my lack of confidence in my own ability contributed to an absence of any competitive spirit when it came to games. Rugby, like the weekly gym lessons, was followed by showers. I soon overcame the affront to the modesty I had cultivated as an only child and cheerfully mingled with the crowd of boys who emerged from the steam looking like a shoal of slippery pink prawns. The showers were gloriously hot, but when the master in charge decided we had had enough time he quickly switched the thermostat to ‘cold’ ensuring our hasty emergence with squeals of anguish. Although I happily accepted the showers, I did draw the line at sharing the (off-) white tiled bath at the Eastern Road pavilion with its thick muddy water, heavily occupied by thirty adolescent sportsmen variously celebrating or lamenting their performance on the rugger pitch.
At the time I started at K.E.S. the Headmaster was Mr T.E.B. Howarth. I only had one encounter with him. He was showing some guests around as the bell went for the end of school at 3.45 p.m. My form made a rush for the door and the leaders became momentarily wedged there until pressure from behind caused them to burst in a heap onto the corridor floor at the feet of Howarth and his guests. He looked down at the eel-like writhing pile of pupils and with exaggerated bonhomie said “Little horrors!” Had there been no guests present I feel that his comments would have been decidedly sharper and detentions might have been mentioned. Detentions, it should be added, could be awarded by Prefects and by Masters. The former involved standing to attention from 4 p.m. to about 4.45 and were usually punishment for such misdemeanours as running in the corridor or (my own speciality) talking in Big School before prayers. Masters’ Detentions were infinitely more serious and kept one in school for the whole of Saturday afternoon. Happily, my Saturdays remained free from such interruption throughout my school career, although it was a close run thing once or twice.
Left: The South Front during break: the Chapel is in the distance
the view down
Park Vale drive from the East Door. The
Howarth left the school in April 1952, moving on successively to Winchester, St. Pauls, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, besides making a career as a writer. His successor, Canon R.G. Lunt, was an Old Etonian, who was to remain in office for 22 years until his retirement. Lunt was not generally popular, either with staff or pupils – he would not have seen popularity as any part of his function. Some viewed him as an unrepentant snob; he was autocratic in an era of rising democracy; and he embraced earnestly the classics and arts, while showing less obvious interest in the developing world of science. But he significantly raised the profile of the school in the city, helped, one must add, by the presence of H.M. the Queen who paid a brief visit one wet day in 1955 belatedly to commemorate the school’s 400th anniversary.
In the 1950s Lunt taught Classics to Sixth Formers, Divinity to some forms in the middle school and English once a week to boys in their first year. This showed a commendable concern to see that nobody could regard him as a faceless administrator. I encountered him in the course of English lessons as an eleven year old – “one of the toddlers” to use his own somewhat damning phrase. I prided myself that I did not have a whiny Birmingham accent, but my enunciation was clearly not up to the standards of Lunt’s Etonian and Oxonian delivery. In reading from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” I referred to ‘Mustard-seed’, pronounced as spelt. I was directed to spend the weekend saying over and over again “I MOSST remember to say MOSSTard-seed”. He himself affected an eccentric speech accent with such phrases as “Yer will find yerself gowin’ up the drive fer the last time” (said to boys in disgrace). In his clerical garb, he certainly presented a commanding figure in Big School as he addressed us from the oak throne of Sapientia. After prayers, Lunt often had announcements to make: an almost imperceptible motion of his hands would indicate that the school was to be seated. Sometimes there would be a list of names of boys whom “I wish ter see in my study” – a worrying fate I happily avoided. Occasional outbreaks of petty vandalism or graffiti would be condemned as “foulin’ yer own nest”. Amongst other routine topics, Lunt would touch on a wide range of subjects in his customary superior manner, as when he made a passing topical reference to the newly launched Russian Sputnik, dismissed as a “hunk of Soviet ironmongery”.
A fine example of the Lunt approach to school life was his ceremonial creation of prefects. After morning assembly, he would summon boys so honoured up to his presence in Sapientia. He would take the appointee’s right hand in his and then intone the prefect’s name in full: “Gerald Aloysius Fothergill”, or suchlike, – and seventy impertinent Upper Middles would think “Gosh! Who’d have guessed Fothergill was called Gerald Aloysius of all things” – while Lunt continued: “I, twenty-fifth Chief Master of King Edward’s School, hereby give unto you the position and traditional powers of a prefect, entrusting to you a share of the leadership and governance of the boys brought up in this place: see that yer wield this power with justice, loyalty and discretion.” Those three nouns resounded with truly frightening emphasis around Big School and each was accompanied by a vigorous shake of the appointee’s hand. The newly created prefect was then expected to reply: “I will so do, God being my helper”, usually doing so in a slightly husky and embarrassed voice. Those words soon became engraved in all our minds. And to this day, throughout the land, when an Old Edwardian is asked by his wife to pass the salt or put the cat out, he will reply “I will so do, God being my helper.”
Left: Sapientia from the side entrance to Big School
Right: Big School from the stage showing the organ and hammer-beam roof
One of Lunt’s more endearing eccentricities was his attachment to a Rolls Royce motor car, dating from the 1920s and which had previously belonged to his father, the Bishop of Salisbury. He doubtless felt that it was the only make of car appropriate to one of his standing. He always drove it to school, perhaps a half mile by road, despite having a private path about 200 yards long from his house to the school. Vintage cars are not always reliable. On one occasion the Rolls broke down while delivering a guest speaker from the station to the school, no doubt a cause of considerable embarrassment. Sadly, the Rolls was soon to reach the end of its career, as during a severe frost its cylinder block fractured and it had to be ‘put down’. Thereafter, Lunt was reduced to motoring in more proletarian vehicles.
His unashamedly elitist attitude enriched the school in a variety of minor ways, as “old traditions” were re-discovered – or invented, as some cynics would have it. He invoked a title from past years to insist that instead of being called Headmaster, he should be known as “Chief Master” – after all, St Pauls had a High Master. In summer boys were encouraged, but not compelled, to wear boaters. I duly complied and found it fun overhearing the comments – not always entirely complimentary – passed by other passengers on the ‘bus as it made its way through the less well-heeled districts of Birmingham. One elderly gentleman came up to me in Corporation Street to congratulate me on my turn out and insisted on shaking my hand. That was an occasion when I was also wearing a rose in my button-hole: by no means an unusual practice in the 1950s amongst professional men and, curiously, railway guards in rural areas.
My second year was spent in Remove C where the Form Master was Mr J.D. Copland. He cultivated an eccentricity of behaviour which was often quite extreme and resulted in him earning the nickname “Coco”, after the popular clown of the day. He muttered to himself as he walked down the corridor, and was quite liable to stop abruptly, cry out loud: “Ha!”, wrap his gown tightly round himself like an Egyptian mummy, turn round and walk back whence he came. A deaf aid added to the impression of eccentricity, as, when bored by a boy’s long-drawn out and inaccurate explanation of a point, he would fiddle with the volume control, causing high pitched screeching sounds. On snowy winter days he would wear Wellington Boots in which he would squelch audibly and happily along the corridors. The unconventional behaviour masked a sharp mind and a sympathetic interest in the boys in his form which only became apparent after the passage of time. His main punishment weapon was gentle humiliation. If one dared to talk to a neighbour in a lesson, Copland would interrupt his own sentence: “How dare you talk while I am speaking? Stand on the desk, boy.” As one self-consciously climbed up on the desk, watched by all the form, he would wait until one was almost in position and then say: “What are you doing up there boy? You look stupid – get down at once.” This always provoked laughter amongst the rest of the class. An alternative punishment sometimes hurled at one was “Write out the first 500 lines of Tennyson’s The Revenge.” Later, he would suddenly turn to the offender and say: “Make it the first 200 lines”, and later still “make it the first 50 lines.” One might end up only doing the first ten lines. If he thought one was getting too familiar with The Revenge, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner might be substituted.
When marking essays from junior boys Copland was quite kind, and I usually scored 15 to 18 out of 20. But he also taught ‘A’ level History, where the demands were far more rigorous, with a requirement to discuss and analyse a topic, rather than to give mere description. My first such attempt was not up to scratch. As he handed out each boy’s essay, he would comment briefly. When he reached me he lingered on my name and the mark he had awarded, as if to emphasise the enormity of my failure, before adding some very back-handed encouragement: “D-a-r-l-a-s-t-o-n: – two-oo-oo-oo, out of twenty: but don’t despair, boy, you will find it easy to improve. A fifty per cent improvement will take you to three out of twenty, and a one hundred percent improvement will take you to four." This was something of a blow to my limited self-confidence, but I struggled up to eight or nine with subsequent essays which was, from him, quite a healthy mark!
Room 149: Mr J.D. Copland’s room and my form room in Remove C and History Division.
In both years I sat by the radiator at the left: very comforting in winter. Beyond lies sylvan Edgbaston.
= = ii = =
1952 was the year of the school’s 400th anniversary. It was commemorated by the opening of the chapel, with adjacent outdoor swimming pool, as a memorial to former pupils who had been killed in the two world wars. The chapel was a fine reconstruction, using the original stone, of the splendid gothic upper corridor from the former school building in New Street. It had been designed by Charles Barry (architect of the Houses of Parliament) but had been demolished in 1936, making way for shops, offices and the cultural delights of the Odeon cinema. The memorial Chapel was to be used for early morning Holy Communion on Tuesdays and for Evensong after school on Fridays. Services were normally conducted by the Chaplain, the Rev. F.J. Williams, who taught Classics and was generally known to his pupils as “Stuffer”. There was something especially atmospheric about attending Evensong at dusk in the late autumn months, as mist gathered over the nearby playing fields. The voluntary early Communion service was followed by a splendid cooked breakfast in the Dining Hall. Often there was a guest celebrant, which is how I once came to spend breakfast chatting with the Bishop of Birmingham.
The Chapel, seen across the Parade Ground, with the pool beyond, and the interior
The Swimming Pool, which was adjacent to the Chapel, had attractive sandstone cloisters for changing, but was unheated in its early years and thus had relatively little use. I wanted to learn to swim, but, because of my general lack of self-confidence and the short time available each year for lessons, even when I reached the Sixth Form I had still not succeeded. We were only allowed in if the water temperature reached 63°F, when swimming would take the place of gym periods. Even in June, a cold night might knock the temperature down below 63°. Conversely, one sometimes found that swimming had unexpectedly replaced a gym lesson after a couple of mild days in May. Lack of swimming trunks was no bar to participation on such occasions, or, indeed, at other times such as a sunny lunch-hour when an impromptu dip could be rather pleasant. Many boys equate excessive modesty with vanity and so one participated happily on such occasions, unconcerned whether outsiders should look over the wall.
A Summer’s lunch hour at the Swimming Pool, July 1959.
The boy on the spring board is one of several present who did not let lack of suitable attire prevent him from enjoying a cooling dip.
The Swimming Pool is an aspect of the school which features amusingly in Jonathan Coe’s Rotter’ Club, a fine novel based on life in 1970s Birmingham and especially at K.E.S., thinly disguised as “King William’s”. Coe was a former KES pupil in that decade. In the tale, a well-endowed boy flaunts his impressive nude physique from the top diving board where he is seen by passengers on the upper deck of a passing 62 bus. Several passengers contact the Chief Master, mostly to complain, but one eager lady is keen to obtain the boy’s telephone number. Sadly, the truth, as so often, is less interesting; passing buses are at least 200 yards away, so passengers wishing to admire the school’s finest would need good binoculars and a steady hand.
The next year took me to the Upper Middle with F.L. “Freddie” Kay as form-master, followed by a year in the Fifth form with A.J. “Gozzo” Gosling. “Freddie”, who taught English and History, was unlike the general run of schoolmasters at K.E.S. He was short and ebullient to the point of chirpiness. He was also a keen motor-cyclist and would arrive at school heavily disguised in black leathers with goggles, looking more like a despatch rider just in with news from El Alamein. “Gozzo” was, by contrast elegant and laconic with a neat but sarcastic school-masterly turn of phrase. One of his lessons was interrupted by a practical joke which misfired. Two boys, Payne and Rogers, had rigged up a device with a ruler, elastic and string, which they meant to go off, making a rat-tat-tat noise inside a desk, after the lesson had finished. Unfortunately it went off unaided while “Gozzo” was in full flow. He stopped, tapping his fingers while the noise continued, his face growing steadily more flushed. When the noise eventually ceased he barked that the whole form would be in detention the following Saturday, but the perpetrators owned up and the rest of us escaped. [Addendum: since writing the above, S.P. Tyrer, one of twins in our year, has claimed responsibility for this modest outrage. I trust it is not libellous to say that it would not have been entirely out of character for Payne and Rogers!]
There were other masters encountered through these first four or five years, many of whom are easily remembered for individual characteristics. G.C. Sacret (“Sacco”) taught Latin to younger boys. A big man, he had easily the loudest voice in the school, heard to best effect across the South Field on a summer’s afternoon when the windows were open. He had memorable ways of emphasising points of Latin grammar. “A gerun-dive is an adjec-tive which takes the subjunc-tive”; “didicissem? – iubet” (“did ‘e kiss ‘em? – you bet” - though what that was supposed to illustrate I cannot remember). “Sacco” was generally of a cheerful and sunny disposition and a splendid teacher for small boys, but if he were in a bad mood he would draw a flagpole up the side of his blackboard with a red flag at the top. This warned that anyone who larked about did so at his peril. As a housemaster, his stentorian voice was used to good effect on the touchline to support the house team. An early initiative by “Sacco” to encourage new boys to take an interest in their surroundings was “hunt the motto”. Some areas of the school had large skylights, incorporating Latin mottoes in a pattern around the border. Sixpence (2½p) was offered to the boy who could find Mens sano in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). No one could, for that motto was very high up in the skylight over the steps down to, appropriately, the Gym.
Latin was also taught by Tom Freeman, known, presumably for alliterative reasons, as “Ferdy”. My encounter with him was during the time when the Cartland Room was being built above the Classical corridor. The construction work involved a rope and pulley system outside his window for hauling up building materials. To a bunch of fourteen-year-olds this was inevitably of more interest than Caesar’s exploits in Gaul. “Ferdy” stopped the lesson and made us all face left and solemnly watch the bucket going up and down for five minutes until we were so bored with it we were glad to return to our copies of Latin for Today, the covers of which were often so cleverly amended to Eatin’ Pork Today.
“Jack” Hodges was the patient and helpful master who ensured that I developed a basic understanding of French. Many years later, his former pupils were amazed to read Hodges’s obituary in which his remarkable military service was summarised. He had had a distinctly ‘exciting’ wartime career as Officer Commanding the 3rd King’s Own Hussars, experiencing action at Ovieto in Umbria and Monte Cassino as well in Egypt (after El Alamein) and in Palestine. Few could have guessed that this charming, self-effacing man had such a distinguished military record, culminating in the award of the Military Cross. Other masters also had distinguished wartime military careers, including Canon Lunt who was awarded M.C. for service with the Parachute Regiment in the Western Desert in 1942. One of the Maths masters, Mr J.C. Roberts, suffered appalling medical problems for several years having been a prisoner of the Japanese and who had been numbered amongst those labouring on the Burma Railway.
“Spike” Jackson was a charming and kindly man, who took Holy Orders on retirement. He was, however, sadly incapable of maintaining discipline in class and his maths lessons could be turned into a shambles by a determined form of troublemakers. On one occasion he arrived to take a lesson to find that all the desks had been turned to face the wrong way. By contrast, Mr W. Traynor (Physics) tolerated no trouble. A small man with gingerish hair, he gained the nickname “Cocky”. As Flight Lieutenant he led the R.A.F. section of the cadet force. They possessed a curious manned glider kit which could be assembled and, in theory, launched for a few yards of flight from a kind of catapult which seemed to rely mainly on elastic and brute force. In practice it seldom left the ground, but on one occasion the school magazine reported that the Officer Commanding had succeeded in getting a few feet off the ground. The report added “He should not get too cocky over this flight in the trainer.” This was then thought to be quite daring.
The CCF Glider on the South Field in March 1957
The Temporary Buildings, used while the new school was under construction, are at the right
Other members of the Science Department whom I encountered were Mr S.D. “Slasher” Woods and Dr R.S. Allison. “Doc” Allison was a forthright Lancastrian who once caught me pouring a small quantity of acid into a test tube without having first measured it. “Dorn’t joost lob it in laddie” he shouted at me. The chemistry laboratory was the scene of my greatest inadvertent attempt at mayhem. I lit a Bunsen burner with a spill of paper, threw the paper away and walked to the balance room down the corridor to weigh some chemicals. When I returned three minutes later everyone was running round in chaos, the air was thick with smoke and all the windows were all open. My spill of paper had not been completely extinguished and had set fire to the contents of the waste bin to quite spectacular effect! I succeeded in having accepted my plea of not guilty to attempted arson.
The teaching staff was all male, but there were three females on the premises. Miss Chaffer was the long-serving chatelaine of the kitchens, and there were two secretaries, of whom Miss Minshull was the senior. For a short time there was an extremely attractive assistant secretary called Wendy. She was about nineteen and was immediately appropriated by Wilkins, the deputy School Captain, who thus became an object of great envy by the rest of the older boys. It was hardly surprising that Wendy did not remain long at K.E.S.: the pressures on her must have been enormous! It would have been about the same time that I was sweet on a rather pretty girl from the adjacent school. Even though I occasionally sat next to her on the ‘bus and spoke to her from time to time, I was far too shy to mention such matters and she presumably remained forever ignorant of my brief infatuation. It was often said by opponents of single-sex schools that they encouraged relationships between boys which were then deemed ‘unnatural’. I recall no evidence in my day of any serious examples of such activity, although there were some superficial and unsophisticated associations between individual boys, discovering new bodily delights as they grew to maturity.
There was, of course, no formal sex education in those innocent days and boys acquired an often garbled knowledge of the subject from their contemporaries. I initially held out against believing the information I gained in this way as the procedures in question seemed to me utterly bizarre and quite absurd. One of my classmates who clearly had a bright future in business acquired a pin-up magazine with some discreetly posed black and white photographs of unclothed females, which he hired to his fellows at two pence a go. He did a brisk trade but I failed to take up the offer, whether through prudery or because I feared a maternal audit of my pocket money expenditure I cannot now recall. But in the chaste atmosphere of the 1950s such distractions were little more than a passing fad to naïve fourteen-year-old boys who found sport or such popular hobbies as philately, train-spotting or ornithology offered greater fulfilment in their everyday lives. Swearing too was far less evident in conversation in the 1950s than was to be the case in later years. I had already encountered the ‘f…’ word when about eleven years of age but dutifully followed the convention that it was never to be used. But I remained completely unaware of the existence of the ‘c…’ word until enlightened by a form-mate when I was fourteen. I remember asking him what it meant: his reply was an indication of our innocence in those years: “Oh, it doesn’t mean anything” he said airily, “it’s just a swear word”.
Music was a feature of importance at the school, but with what would now be regarded as a decidedly elitist approach. The Director of Music was Dr Willis Grant who later left to become Professor of Music at Bristol University. He was especially interested in Church Music and extracted phenomenally high standards from the Choir. He was supported in my time by one of my Sixth Form contemporaries, J.W. Jordan, who became an Organ Scholar at Cambridge and was to be Director of Music at Chelmsford Cathedral while still in his twenties. Jordan was a truly remarkable organist, accompanying morning prayers on most days. He could extemporise freely and on the morning in 1957 that Sibelius’s death was announced his voluntary was a set of improvisations on Finlandia. Another musical contemporary was David Munrow who became a performer and broadcaster of international note before his tragic early suicide.
My own contact with Willis Grant and his Music Department was negligible apart from the weekly school hymn practice sessions, although he did once tell me to stop whistling in the corridor: it was, he quite correctly remarked, “antisocial”. He showed relatively little obvious enthusiasm for music beyond his specialist field, and displayed a strong disapproval of any form of popular music. There were, however, occasional concerts named after Julian Horner who had evidently bequeathed money to promote music at the school. From time to time afternoon school would be suspended and everyone directed to Big School for a concert provided by an ensemble of “semi-professionals”. I enjoyed music but have to admit that the baroque ensembles which seemed to provide the usual fare at Julian Horner concerts did little to encourage my interest. There was, however, one occasion when a group of singers, with piano accompaniment, came to give a “potted” version of a Mozart opera. Excerpts would be sung and then one of the characters, in costume, would come in front of the curtain to set the scene for the next excerpt. But on one occasion, after explaining what was to come, he could not find the gap in the curtain to return to the stage. He chased backwards and forwards in mounting panic, tugging vainly at the curtain to find the gap. Clad in 18th century wig, jacket and breeches, the poor man looked increasingly absurd as he darted to and fro while his neck became redder and redder. Titters began in the audience and before many seconds had passed the entire school was paralysed with laughter, the masters joining in with great gusto. Eventually, he found the gap and retreated to loud cheers. At the next break he prudently held the edge of the curtain to ensure safe passage after his speech, and he departed to great applause.
South Field from the Library, July 1959: stone-picking in progress on new rugby pitches.
The Chapel is at the left.
Until I was about fourteen my knowledge of classical music was negligible and confined mainly to a handful of pieces used as incidental music on wireless or television. The impetus to broaden my knowledge came one sunny Friday afternoon in May 1954, a few weeks before my 14th birthday. It was half term weekend and school had finished at lunchtime. Most boys had gone home but I had arranged to meet my parents in the centre of Birmingham late in the afternoon before driving to South Wales for the weekend. To while away the time, I sat reading in the sunshine on the South Field. In school, another boy who had remained behind was practising the piano and the sound was drifting through the open windows into the warm spring air. He was a competent player, but repeated the same magical theme several times. I had no idea what it was but soon learned that it was the piano part of the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. I could understand why it was one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire. This encouraged me to listen to broadcast concerts where I was to discover a world of endless delight and fascination. I also found that several of my friends had a similar embryonic interest in classical music and this led to interesting discussions during our leisure time which, in turn, developed one’s interest still further. Music is a delight which has remained with me ever since.
as known today, simply did not exist in the early 1950s and so it was not
difficult for Willis Grant to maintain the purity of classical music in the
school. In pop terms, neither the
market nor the product existed. Things
began to change later in the decade, especially under the influence of Bill
Haley’s “Rock around the Clock”. Cliff
Richard arrived on the scene and a phenomenon called ‘skiffle’
was introduced. By now Willis Grant had
moved on and his successor, Thomas Tunnard,
recognised that a more flexible attitude was appropriate. For a while a ‘skiffle
group’ was established in break, performing in the tuck shop. It was all very low-key by the standards of
later decades, but made a musical change from the break-time practice of the cadet
force band who only knew one tune, endlessly repeated over the years. The skiffle era
coincided with the rising popularity of the Espresso Bar. One such establishment was El Sombrero in Bristol Street. It was popular with a group of rather maverick
boys who could be found there on half-days, capless
and smoking cigarettes. Eventually, the
Bar was placed out of bounds by Lunt.
Another place which neither boys nor staff were expected to patronise
was the Gun Barrels public house on Bristol Road. There is an apocryphal story that a boy and
a master met in the Gun Barrels on one occasion. Each is reputed to have said to the
other: “If you don’t split on me, I
won’t split on you.” Further up Bristol
Street from El Sombrero, on the
opposite side of the Horse Fair, was another
The school tuck shop was run by Allard, the Head Porter. His predecessor, Kelly, had ruled the shop in the days of sweet rationing. The only ‘sweets’ not on the ration when I started at K.E.S. were very strong ‘Troach’ cough sweets to which I became slightly addicted until rationing of other delights was ended. Sweets were loose in those days and paper bags very insubstantial. Thus my mother regularly found in my blazer pockets a solid wedge of sticky sweets, all covered in navy blue fluff, the paper bag having disintegrated long ago. Allard was a former policeman of substantial build and conducted himself accordingly. His chief assistant was Cradock, a bluff individual with a sharp sense of humour, essential in his job. He had an artificial leg, which gave him a characteristic gait, as he hurried on his business about the premises. When a new porter, Hewlett, started who, like Allard, was a retired policeman, Cradock was heard to mutter “place gets more like a bloody police station every day.”
In an era of military conscription it was customary for most boys to join the cadet force in their third year, as it would advance their chance of officer status in the forces. I was not keen (albeit for probably all the wrong reasons) on the idea of “playing soldiers” and rather taken aback when my parents supported me. They felt that there were already too many other activities which tempted me away from those studies with which I was experiencing difficulty. I thus joined a few dozen other boys as “Remnants”, usually spending the afternoon doing Art, or, in later years, revising.
When I started at K.E.S. I travelled by tram, a means of transport to which I was then devoted. But after a year the trams with their solid timber bodywork and brass fittings were replaced by ‘buses which I found bland and lacking in character. I soon transferred my interests to trains. On half-days when there were no games my form-mate Marks and I, clad in school caps and full length navy blue belted raincoats, would drop in at Snow Hill station for an hour or two on the way home to collect steam engine numbers. We usually waited until 4 o’clock when the Cambrian Coast Express came through on its way from Aberystwyth to London, usually pulled by an immaculate locomotive of the Great Western Railway’s Castle class. After a year or so the numerological fascination of engine-spotting withered away, but my interest broadened to travelling by train to out-of-the-way places served by remote and attractive branch lines, often unchanged since Queen Victoria’s heyday. Thus, on occasional Tuesday or Thursday afternoons two or three like-minded sixth-formers might be found in delightful west Midland market towns such as Bromyard and Much Wenlock where rail services are now but a memory. I usually took a camera on those expeditions, little knowing that some of the resulting photographs would be published over fifty years later in books on railway history. That interest in railways, their history and operation, has remained with me throughout that time.
The entrance from gas-lit Edgbaston Park Road, showing the Governors’ Offices.
= = iii = =
The outside world impinged on our lives at school to only a modest extent. Perhaps the greatest impact was that of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 when boys were encouraged to devise fund raising ideas to support refugees. General elections, won in 1951 by Winston Churchill and in 1955 by Anthony Eden, provided brief excitement and boys with access to the not-very-portable radios of the day found themselves in great demand. The 1955 election coincided with subsidence by the left-hand gate as one left school by the Main Drive. This necessitated the temporary closure of the gate and replacement of the sign urging one to keep left by one requiring motorists to “Keep Right”: a demand which then seemed to coincide with the political allegiance of most (though certainly not all) the boys! The Suez crisis of 1956, however, brought about more sophisticated political argument as heated exchanges raged over the government’s intervention in Egypt.
On Thursday, 3rd November 1955 H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh braved torrential rain to visit the school, belatedly to commemorate the 400th anniversary of its foundation. An exhibition of school activities was laid on for the edification of the Royal party. One display related to the School’s Meteorological Station which was my responsibility. I was required to stand alongside, ready to enlighten the visitors. But school plans required that the exhibition must be finished and all charts mounted on display a few days in advance of the royal tour — i.e., before the end of October. In consequence, the rain and temperature details for October were not included. On the big day, H.M., smiling serenely, was escorted by the school’s Chief Master, honouring the display with the briefest of glances. A few paces behind came the Duke who halted and eyed the display up and down. Then came the awkward question: “Where are the figures for October?” A reply was stammered about lack of time. The Duke swept on. The smart reply might have been “I will have the figures sent round to the Palace this evening, Sir”, but such thoughts only occur after the event! The royal visit concluded with a visit to the school Chapel where the choir appropriately sang William Byrd’s anthem “Make thy servant Elizabeth to rejoice …”. While the royal party was in the Chapel, members of the girls’ school, who had been standing dutifully in the rain to line the royal route through the school grounds, spectacularly stampeded through the waiting motorcade to take up new positions to watch the royal party depart, causing the raising of a few eyebrows!
This photo, taken by my one-time school chum I.F. Colquhoun who was waiting with other boys in the pouring rain, shows the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen leaving the Chapel, prior to their departure for lunch with the Lord Mayor. The School Chaplain, the Rev F.J. Williams is at the right of the group, in the Chapel doorway. Note the exhaust fumes from the leading vehicle in the motorcade!
As boys progressed up the school, so they encountered different masters. Older boys were taught Geography for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level by J.F. (“Uncle Ben”) Benett, and by W.L. Whalley. The former was fairly volatile, striding to and fro as he spoke. In the process, he often caught his gown on his chair, with the result that the gown was slowly but surely being torn to ribbons. Whalley appeared the gentler character but was no soft touch. On one occasion in my ‘O’ level course he was talking about grain production on the Canadian prairies, supported by illustrations from a projector. He showed a picture of a tall grain elevator alongside a river and asked the form what we could see across the river. Convinced of the genius of my wit, I shouted out, accurately but unhelpfully, “A bridge”. The rest of the form were kind enough to laugh moderately at my contribution but Whalley was less impressed: “Darlaston - out” was his terse response, and so I spent the rest of the period contemplating the architecture of the corridor. Echoing the words of Sir Isaiah Berlin, “Wal” would on such occasions describe teaching as “casting sham pearls before real swine”.
My facetious answer was somewhat out of character, as Geography was my best subject and so I was generally held in reasonable favour by the masters. I was, moreover, one of the team of weather observers who ran the school meteorological station, supplying readings to the Meteorological Office, then part of the Air Ministry. This entailed someone attending the school every day, including Christmas Day. Entries had to be made in monthly returns which stretched my modest mathematical abilities when it came to producing figures for total rainfall and average maximum and minimum temperatures. I rose to the position of School Meteorologist for my last two years, having the privilege of keeping the school barograph during the holidays. This gave me a fascination with these beautiful brass instruments which culminated in the purchase of a barograph some forty years later, after my retirement.
Geography Room ’A’: the empire of Mr W.L.Whalley, but Parke seems to have taken over for the moment! The barograph can be discerned just below the folding projection screen
The School Weather Station: the thermometer screen (left) and Cartwright demonstrates the rain gauge!
(These photographs were taken for the display mounted on the occasion of the visit by H.M. The Queen in 1955)
Mathematics was proving the weakest of my subjects and it was becoming evident that unless something dramatic was done I would fail my ‘O’ level. Credit for remedying this position must be given to Mr G. Cooper. A quiet man of infinite patience, he regularly sat down at an empty desk by me and explained things repeatedly until I had understood them. I was always to be grateful for his work in getting me through ‘O’ level, although some boys had their suspicions about him as he used hand-cream after handling chalk!
After my third year games ceased to
be compulsory. This was, to me, a
welcome change after plodding round a Rugby field.
Cricket enjoyed a glorious reign in my time at school – although, sadly, I made no contribution to that success. Contemporaries at school included O.S. Wheatley, who was to become captain of Glamorganshire Cricket Club, and A.C. Smith who became captain of Warwickshire and an England Test Match player. I liked cricket and, for once, understood the rules of the game. My enthusiasm was probably based largely on an aesthetic approach to the game, which presumably accounts for my rapid loss of interest in professional cricket in more recent times! With friends, I made several visits to the County Ground at Edgbaston on school half days. One match to remember was the First Test against the West Indies in 1957, where I witnessed the record partnership of 411 by May and Cowdrey. This was followed by the spectacular collapse of the visitors (including Sobers) to 72 for 7 at the hands of Lock and Laker, before the match ended in a draw. But the simple fact is that I was no good at cricket. I could neither catch the ball, nor could I synchronise the bat in such a way as to hit the thing. My recollections now of school cricket are of long spells fielding in the hot sunshine while sucking Spangles or Refreshers. On one occasion, by pure chance, I made a catch to dismiss the opposing team’s last batsman, thus securing my house’s victory. So, just once in his career Darlaston was chaired off the pitch by the rest of the team in traditional style, but the action was somewhat ironic.
In some schools there is no doubt that my general lack of interest in sport would have made me a marked man. But at K.E.S. there was a broad church of pupils so that different attitudes and enthusiasms were happily accepted. The football cult that rules in other quarters today was quite unknown. Moreover, bullying, the bane of pupils at so many schools, was almost totally non-existent and quieter boys or those with unusual interests were happily accepted. Boys’ diverse interests were well served by the wide range of societies which met after school, often with interesting guest speakers. Such societies included, inter alia, Debating, Photography, Music, Railways, Drama and Archaeology, although I did not participate in the activities of the last two and my contribution to debates was minimal to say the least. In my last year I also joined the Shakespeare Society which met to read plays on Saturday evenings in the relaxed red leather comfort of the Cartland Room, where I like to think I contributed near Gielgud qualities to such distinguished roles as Third Messenger and Second Page.
The England Garden: B.R. Steventon passes by
The Ratcliff Theatre, complete with blue plush tip-up seats –
and a fume cupboard at the left!
In 1956 I took my ‘O’ levels, gaining reasonable passes in Geography, Maths, Chemistry and Physics, and just scraping through the rest of the subjects apart from Art. It was assumed that I would choose to do Physics, Maths and Geography, a popular combination at ‘A’ level. But, I found Physics and Maths unrewarding. Literature and History seemed more worthwhile and so I went into History Division to study History and English along with Geography. Only one other boy, Brown – known to all as D.G. to distinguish him from I.W. of that ilk-, had chosen the same combination and the rest of the form did French instead of Geography. This resulted in the two of us having to do certain subjects in different groups from the main body of the form. I was thus able unofficially to drop the hated Gym altogether on the basis that one P.E. master thought I was in the History and French set and the other thought I was in the Physics and Maths set. At last I had escaped from the torture of hanging like a trussed turkey from the wallbars, or, worse, vainly trying to leap over the vaulting horse. The latter activity never seemed possible without a pain-inducing collision, the suffering varying in intensity according to the delicacy of the portion of my anatomy involved. To be fair, the usual Gym instructor, “Sam” Cotter, was a genial man. More agile than his short, barrel-like figure suggested, he usually stood still while issuing orders, military-style, but occasionally surprised us by leaping into action. He reluctantly accepted the ineptitude of the unathletic with a resigned tolerance.
I was taught English Literature for ‘A’ level by Mr A.J. “Tony” Trott and by K.G. Hall, a young master, christened with the infinite wit of schoolboys as “Albert”. Tony Trott, who was Head of the English Department, showed no false modesty and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature. He responded to a challenge by the form and identified correctly an obscure couplet from Henry VI Part 3. A natty dresser, with a taste for exotic shirts and ties, he was very much the aesthete. His moment of glory in the 1950s was undoubtedly his starring role in the Common Room performance of Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet. Trott played the indecisive president of an impoverished central European state being wooed by Russia and the United States whose scheming ambassadors were played respectively by Messrs Leeds and Hodges. Some years later Trott achieved more permanent fame by writing an excellent and entertaining history of the school. Nothing would stop Keith Hall talking. He seemed to know everyone of note in the world of literature (“As Lord David Cecil told me over sherry…”). He would quote the opinions of unknown American Professors of Anglo-Saxon literature, and never ceased to remind us that he had studied Beowulf in the original. (Didn’t all English undergraduates at Oxford do so?) The main problem was that he never seemed to mark or return essays we had handed in. Although Hall was clearly highly gifted, he was later to leave K.E.S. rather abruptly amidst a spate of rumour. Another English master was Peter Robbins, the England Rugby Football player. He had a disconcerting habit of doing his exercises while lecturing, so that he would sit talking while raising and lowering his legs, a heavy brief case being balanced on his feet.
I was now studying European History with Charles Blount (who was to be my form master in History VI the following year). He became a good friend in later years. Studying with him gave a real insight into the subject, with fascinating diversions into side issues. It was only appropriate that part of the syllabus he covered included the Renaissance, for he was surely Renaissance Man, knowledgeable on a host of topics both in the arts and science. Unlike many other masters, he was able succinctly to explain a topic in a perfectly formed grammatical sentence, comprising subject, verb and object, and without hesitation, repetition or deviation. This skill may have been aided by his successful career as an author of history textbooks.
In most forms throughout the school it was necessary for boys to “give a talk” on a chosen subject once in the year. In my year in Charles’s form I chose to talk on the music of Elgar. When he knew of my topic, Charles expressed great interest and provided invaluable technical help in preparing musical examples. Thus, I made the first of many enjoyable visits to his home, on that occasion to copy old 78 r.p.m. records onto tape to provide illustrations for the talk.
Room 174: Charles Blount’s History VI form room: Molineux relaxes at 4 pm!
The blackboard displays in Charles’s handwriting the family tree of the Leszczynskis, a noble Polish family who occupied a variety of government posts in the 17th century and ultimately provided a king (Stanislaus) and also a wife for Louis XV of France..
Several good and lasting friends were made in the Sixth form, and the use of surnames in addressing them began to give way out of school to the initially daring use of Christian names. Such friends included Roger Guy (a geographer and later to be my Best Man), with Jim Parke and Anthony Mills amongst the historians. Bill Oddie and David Munrow were also close contemporaries, but I did not keep up the friendship with them after school days. Oddie was a prefect and always immaculately turned out – quite unlike the image he was later to adopt on television. In addition to his interest in natural history, he was a competent artist, specializing in cartoon posters for school events, and he had an enthusiastic interest in jazz. Although Munrow was a keen and successful practitioner of music, he showed few indications then of the tremendous success he would achieve in his tragically short career as performer, composer and B.B.C. ‘personality’.
In my last two years at the school I was School Librarian, which also involved working closely with Charles Blount. He had overall responsibility for the library and my duties were to organise rotas of junior librarians and ensure that the shelves and indices were kept in order and records of books lent and returned were maintained. The routine work thus involved was good experience for later years working in banking. Acting as School Librarian gave me very valuable privileges. I had immediate access to all new books, but, best of all, I shared a small but elegant office with Charles Blount which became my ‘study’. With carpet, damask curtains, desks and green leather armchairs, and access to a vintage typewriter I had excellent facilities for personal study in free periods. During my two years in office there were a few other boys entitled to share access to the Librarian’s Room. We turned the room into a very homely base, even succeeding in making toast on the electric fire, although on one bitter winter’s day it was necessary to open the windows to let out the smoke from burnt toast before Charles came back!
The Library: Darlaston in action!
Darlaston at the card index while Molineux, apparently in mafia guise, has him covered
In the Librarian’s Room, with vintage typewriter;
Note the book suppliers’ bills on the spike, Gloy for attaching book labels, and the inevitable boater.
Librarians Line-up, 1958
(front row) Cartwright, Birch, Darlaston, Mr C.H.C. Blount, Coombes, Walker, Bryant
(Photo by R.F.L. Wilkins)
The Library: Mr J.D. Copland stands at the Heath Memorial Library desk
Note also the ‘Queen’s Beast’, carved for the 1955 Royal Visit, and the bust of Edward VI
Saturday mornings in the Sixth Form concluded with a lecture given by an outside speaker. Many well-known and entertaining people came – and some who were, to me, neither well known nor the least bit entertaining. The most enjoyable by far was the percussionist James Blades who assured us that although he had provided the sound effect for the gong which opened J. Arthur Rank films, the torso in the film sequence belonged to a mere actor. Less enjoyable was the gentleman from the Amateur Athletics Association whose speech was like a Rolls Royce (almost inaudible and seemingly capable of continuing for ever). He appeared set to keep going for the afternoon, but was eventually interrupted by Lunt in characteristic manner: “I’m afraid I shall have ter stop yer there, as parents will have soufflés waiting on the luncheon table.”
Speakers on Sixth Form Speech Day at the end of the summer term were more illustrious. Memorable visitors in the late 1950s included Roy Jenkins, and Lord Denning who opened his speech by telling the gathering that while he did not mind the audience looking at their watches when he spoke, he would be hurt if they held them to their ears and shook them. After the formalities of Speech Day, everyone adjourned to the playing fields for the annual cricket match between the school and the old boys, with accompanying strawberry tea. This was essentially a social event where mothers showed off their hats, fathers watched the cricket and boys tried not to look too embarrassed by their parents.
The last day of the summer term provided leavers with an opportunity for high spirits with no fear of reprisal by authority. Most of the activities were harmless fun, but a few involved minor vandalism or graffiti and thus provoked official displeasure. Even worse, it was not entirely unknown for young ladies from the girls’ school to insinuate their way into proceedings. The most entertaining episodes involved senior boys arriving in a variety of eccentric means of transport. In 1957 these included a ‘tandem’ for three, a pony and trap, and a short convoy of disreputable cars with an escort provided by the U.S. Army. This episode offended Canon Lunt’s sense of dignity as he was at pains to ensure that nothing disrupted the sacred end of term routine. This culminated in the singing of “God be with you till we meet again” and the rousing School Song, beginning “Where the iron heart of England throbs beneath its sombre robe/Stands a school whose sons have made her great and famous round the globe/Great and famous round the globe…”
End of Term, Summer 1955: the girls of KEHS invade.
End of Term, Summer 1957
My ‘A’ level results in 1958 were, alas, disappointing and inadequate for university entrance. I therefore stayed for an extra year for another attempt, but it soon became clear that there would not be a place for me at university. I stayed to complete the year, retaking my ‘A’ levels, as by now a career in banking was looming and better examination results would ensure a higher starting salary. But to a large extent the pressure on me during my last year at school was lifted. I had been at K.E.S. for almost eight years and the experience had changed me from a child to someone equipped both to make a contribution to life in the outside world, and to appreciate what the world had to offer. Moreover, associating with boys and masters of fine ability had taught me a great deal about self-assurance. But above all, I had been privileged to receive (in those days at no cost to the family) a first rate education in a delightful environment with facilities and amenities of the highest standard.
With examination pressures largely removed, my last term at school remains in memory as one of elegant ease, enhanced by one of the finest summers of the century. I sauntered to school wearing a boater and occasionally with a rose in the buttonhole of my double-breasted blazer. I was lord of the library and enjoyed my privileged use of the Librarian’s Room. If not unwinding in the comfort of its armchairs, I could read in the sunshine on the South Field or overlooking the swimming pool in the shade of the Chapel – perhaps even occasionally joining others for an impromptu dip in the pool. Occasionally, with friends, one would take a relaxed afternoon stroll through the sunlit horse-chestnuts and copper-beeches of Edgbaston, animatedly discussing music, or literature, or the best trains to Much Wenlock. There were still, of course, some lessons to attend. One might have to dash off an essay on the domestic policy of Louis XIV or the nobility of human nature evident in “King Lear”, but on the whole, life seemed to be a sweet succession of free periods and sunshine. Cold reality would catch up with me before long, but that enchanted summer of 1959 remains a grateful memory of another world.
Darlaston with boater – and Rose in button-hole
Details from the School photograph taken in June 1959
Four Sixth-formers. Left to right: Darlaston, Mills, Jordan, Walker
How well I remember this occasion when the four of us, good friends, clambered onto the trestles set up for the photograph, chatting amiably as we did so.
Mills became a solicitor in Manchester; Jordan became Director of Music at Chelmsford Cathedral before moving to South Africa; Walker became a Director at Manchester University.
Sadly, those three all died in the first two decades of the 21st century.
A reminder of the glorious summer of 1959:
School v Old Edwardians, Eastern Road, Speech Day July 1959
Reflections on a Banking Career:
Some Light-hearted Incidents
1959 – 1997
1959 - 1997
(in relaxed mood!)
1 - The Birmingham Years – 1959 - 1972
Colmore Row: the St Philip’s Cathedral with the bank frontage at the right
Colmore Row looking towards Snow Hill station with Barclays at the left.
On Monday 7th September 1959, I joined the Trustee Department of Barclays Bank (later, Barclays Bank Trust Company), in Colmore Row, Birmingham at a salary of £350 p.a.. The Manager was Lt Cdr J.B. Dale, R.N. Ret’d, a man whose mood could switch in a moment from great charm to seriously brusque with more than a hint of naval discipline! The bank occupied a rambling old building with a delightful view across to St Philip’s Cathedral. It had recently been refurbished and the staff assured me that I would have things easy, as, following the recent introduction of central heating, there was no longer any need for the male office junior to carry up coal to the office fires. Hours were 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays to Fridays, and 9 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturdays with one Saturday in four off. Over the years Saturday leave increased to 1 in 3 and then 1 in 2, until, in July 1969 Saturday closure became a reality. Holidays were two weeks and one “travelling day” per annum. The latter was intended for use on the Saturday prior to one’s main holiday, but in practice could be taken at any reasonable time.
My initial duties were somewhat puzzling as I was to be responsible for the waste. It was re-assuring to find that the work involved neither litter collection nor plumbing. Nevertheless, writing on one sheet of paper all debit entries and all credit entries and totalling them to produce the same answer to both columns was no mean task for someone who had dropped Mathematics three years earlier amidst scenes of great rejoicing by the school staff. In those days, the office had no mechanical aids to arithmetic. There was one huge adding machine, probably constructed by a firm which had built military tanks in the war and still had parts left over; use of this machine was strictly forbidden unless a paper list of items was absolutely essential.
The office was divided into two groups, each with a team of administrators and supporting staff to deal with the estates of deceased customers. Each group was supervised by its own Trust Officer, a management appointment. Most of my thirteen years at Birmingham were spent on ‘B’ group, then under the control of Mr E.W.P. Grice. For several years after I joined the Bank, Christian names were not acceptable when addressing older staff and it was many years before I dared address Mr Grice as ‘Eric’. Staff were addressed by surname, with the ladies being additionally awarded the courtesy of the prefix ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, as appropriate. The regular use of unadorned surnames amongst older male staff was still customary into the mid-1960s. Memos to managers at other branches would begin “Dear Jones”. Junior staff used Christian names amongst themselves, usually in diminutive form, so, for the first time in my life, I had to get used to being ‘Bob’ rather than ‘Robert’. I strongly disliked being called ‘Bob’ which was, to me, a dog’s name, but as a mere teenager I felt it inadvisable to stand on my dignity. I would have been happy to continue simply being called ‘Darlaston’, having been known thus for almost a decade by anyone who wasn’t family. But I eventually came to accept being ‘Bob’ without responding “Woof” when my name was called.
Protocol was important when dealing with the management: one of my junior colleagues once acknowledged an instruction from the manager by saying “Right ho, Mr Dale.” He was quickly and tartly told that the correct response was “Yes, sir.” He had three ways of addressing me: for normal business conversation I was ‘Darlaston’, if he needed a personal favour then I was ‘Robert’, but if I was to be reprimanded for a shortcoming, then I was ‘MISTER Darlaston’. In his managerial role he regularly toured his office firing questions at staff about progress with cases. When the question had been satisfactorily answered he would bark “Right, carry on” in best naval style before continuing to the next individual.
The management was entirely male in those days and the trust administrators substantially so, but the clerical staff was largely female. Coming from a boys’ school I was largely unfamiliar with the female of the species and, initially at any rate, rather unimpressed. They stayed together in chatty groups and were mostly cocooned in voluminous thick woolly jumpers, and hairy tweed skirts, the ensemble generally completed by a full-length nylon overall for which mauve was the most popular of a particularly bilious range of colours. It was to be almost a year before I conquered these initial disconcerting prejudices concerning the female sex!
One young lady whose presence helped me overcome those reservations was Vivienne Morgan, a 15-year old girl who was transferred from Aberdare branch in Wales as her father, who worked on the railway, had been moved in his work. Vivienne was a pretty little girl with an attractive Welsh accent and a cheeky personality. She was the giggliest girl I ever recall encountering and was for the short duration of her banking career in Birmingham a strong distraction to the male staff. She often wore skimpy low-cut blouses with a short flared skirt. On one occasion when so dressed, she leaned back in her chair, as many folk do, but leaned too far. The chair tipped backwards with an enormous crash and Vivienne was upended. Her legs waved shamelessly and delightfully in the air. She clearly relished the experience (as did I) and she didn’t hurry to remedy her position, giggling infectiously and so affording good opportunity for all to survey the scene. In those days before tights, I was interested to note that she wore stockings secured by pretty garters, something quite new for the Darlaston gaze to feast upon. Thereafter, I thought of her as Polly Garter, the rather forward young lady in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
Mr Dale, known behind his back as ‘Dickie’, was almost certainly the most dynamic individual I ever encountered in the bank. He was clearly regarded very highly in the bank, as in the late 1960s he was taken from Trustee Department and given the responsibility for setting up Barclaycard, the U.K.‘s first credit card, also the first such card outside the United States, and a major achievement both for him personally and for the bank.
My own career moved quickly, if less spectacularly than that of Dickie. After a few weeks grappling with the waste and writing out cheques (for others to sign!) I graduated to hand-posting ledgers which were permanent records. Neatness was always demanded, though not always produced at times of high volume. After nearly a year I progressed to the securities desk, a demanding role, involving listing investments in new estates, safe custody of certificates, deeds and recent wills, buying and selling stocks and shares through local stockbrokers, and correspondence with company registrars. The scope for error and consequent financial loss to the bank was huge and the task initially rather daunting. After a few weeks I discovered that I knew what I was doing (most of the time!) and I started to enjoy the lively action, in particular dealing with the local stockbrokers who were a friendly bunch.
The first few years of my career
were punctuated with periodic courses in London. The first was for three weeks starting
immediately after Christmas 1959. As I
was under 21 the bank boarded me with a bank family, the manager of Caterham
branch and his wife. I thus spent three
bitterly cold weeks commuting on the Southern Region between Caterham and
London Bridge, whence I walked across the bridge to the old Head Office
building in Lombard Street. In those
Learning the vast range of skills required for trust administration was very demanding and it was necessary to study for the Institute of Bankers Trustee Diploma. This was no sinecure, including papers on Law of Wills and Intestacy, Investment, Taxation, and Law of Real Property. The latter proved an especial bugbear, but eventually I achieved the Diploma in 1967. At this stage I reported to Eric Grice. With his bristling moustache, he brought a clipped military approach to management when compared with the naval attitude of Dickie Dale. He was a master of using silence as a conversational gambit, occupying the time by filling his pipe while one waited anxiously for his pronouncement. His silences, when combined with his frequent use of the negative, could prove daunting to staff and customers alike. A typical conversation might run thus:
Customer: “Can you pay me £1000 from the estate?”
E.W.P.G.: (after long pause to fill pipe) “No.”
Customer: “Why not?”
E.W.P.G.: (after lengthy drawing on pipe) “Out of the question”
Customer: “When will I get some money?”
E.W.P.G.: (after further pause attending to pipe) “Difficult to say.”
And so the verbal fencing would continue. After the customer’s unhappy departure Eric would grin broadly beneath his moustache: “That’ll teach the bugger to come begging for money!”
My first trip out of the office on business was to assist a colleague to gather information following a testator’s death late in 1963. Early on a cold December 27th we went to interview a widow, with the unlikely name of Amelia Parrott. This lady was elderly and trembly, with an all too obvious liking for the bottle. Her first action was to offer us a drink, and it appeared that the choice available straight after Christmas was down to just brandy. I had never had brandy before, but decided to give it a go. Mrs P. went in search of glasses, but the best she could do for me was a wineglass which had lost the foot from its stem. This she filled to the brim. As I was supposed to be taking notes I would need somewhere to rest this eccentric glass – so I was given an old jam jar in which to stand it. I gradually developed a taste for brandy – which was just as well, as Mrs Parrott refilled my glass as soon as the level dropped slightly. Eventually, the meeting concluded and we walked uncertainly to my colleague’s house half a mile away, where we sobered up slowly before returning by train to the office late in the afternoon.
During the nine years in which I dealt with trust administration in Birmingham I handled a very wide range of estates and met a variety of individuals as beneficiaries. Strange names remain in mind: the lady Christened Fanny Evangeline, the sisters Hattie, Mattie and Iseult, and the popularity (long ago) of William Ewart Gladstone as Christian names. There were the strange bequests such as “my ferrets equally between…” – happily it was not necessary to divide a ferret! Some families fell out over the terms of a will: one brother and sister quarrelled over who was to take their father’s lawn mower. Other families became quite close friends for a time, including a one who had a chain-making business in Cradley Heath which supplied anchor chains to the R.N.L.I., but who moved to a farm in Dorset when it finally became necessary to close the business.
Another connection with a traditional local industry involved control of a Birmingham jewellery manufacturer from whom I was able to purchase Barbara’s engagement and wedding rings. There was involvement too with the copper trade, coal merchants, a grubby back-street pub called the “Oddfellows Arms”, and, memorably, with a local chain of butcher’s shops. These were to pass to the son on his 21st birthday but his inclinations lay elsewhere. Despite being apprenticed to the trade, he defected, first to be a ladies hairdresser, and subsequently to be a ballroom dancing instructor. He regularly telephoned to ask for money: one knew he was on the line before he spoke as quick tempo dance music was to be heard immediately one picked up the telephone. His mother regularly appeared in the office, demanding money with menaces backed up by an ample frame squeezed into a colourful frock, wearing enormous diamante earrings, and with an overpowering smell of cheap perfume.
Not all beneficiaries were
friendly. One who was a thorn in the
flesh was a Mrs S who lived in York.
She had some very hostile correspondence with the Assistant Manager of
the office, Alfred Took. Now it was one
of his jobs to review the carbon copies of all letters leaving the office, but
on the day after they had been
sent. Eventually, Took was promoted to
be Manager of the branch in York, and so a letter was typed to Mrs S giving her
this information and telling her that any time she had any queries or problems
to discuss (which was all the time!) she was welcome to drop in on Mr
Took. The top copy was duly destroyed
but the carbon was left in the filing.
It was a somewhat distraught Alfred Took who came rushing into the
administrators’ room to demand whose silly idea this was. Another obnoxious pair were brothers who
were let out of
I was introduced to the complexity of human relationships by a case which called for delicate handling. The testator was a man whose work took him away from home during the week, and he returned to his wife each weekend. After his death the widow was horrified to find his will left her a life interest only in one half of the estate, with the other half held for the benefit of a hitherto unknown lady in North Wales. After their respective deaths the whole capital was to pass to the children of the Welsh lady – of whom the testator was the father. In an era of traditional morality such circumstances were a cause of much excitement, but great care was necessary in dealing with the two ladies!
A widow living in Knowle asked me to visit her to discuss her husband’s estate. She wanted to deal with a property in a manner not permitted by the will, so I politely refused to cooperate. By the time I had returned to the office, she had telephoned the Manager to complain. I was, she said, “nice, but ineffective”. It sounds like an epitaph!
Mention must be made of the two Bank Messengers who served the office. Fred Trubridge was a large and loud ex Royal Marine whose main aim in life was to drink tea and regale anyone in earshot with his service stories, described in colourful language. Trubridge wore a navy blue belted raincoat and a huge Bowler hat, necessary to cover his generous cranium. It was regularly donned in his absence by my contemporary Roger Guy and by me for general amusement as it covered both ears and also one’s nose! When not in use, the Bowler hung on hook in the Gents. One of the most bizarre sights was Roger wearing it whilst standing at the urinal, singing “My old man’s a dustman, he wears a dustman’s hat…” The hat came down well below the eyes and one hoped Roger could see where he was pointing. Trubridge was succeeded by Tom Wilks, a small industrious ex-military man, with a turn of language even more salty than his predecessor when in conversation with male staff members. Every noun was preceded by an unprintable adjective, even if he was quoting alleged instructions by the manager’s somewhat matronly secretary, Muriel Harman, always addressed as ‘Miss Harman’ but generally referred to behind her back as ‘Mu’ or ‘Moo’, depending on whether the speaker was on good terms or not.
In 1970 the office moved from the front of the building in Colmore Row to the side in Church Street. We thus lost our splendid view of Birmingham Cathedral and instead looked out onto the side of the Grand Hotel. This had its compensations for the male members of staff, when some of the bedrooms across the street were used as changing rooms by models putting on fashion displays of lingerie and swimwear!
Meanwhile, in September 1969, I had been appointed Trust Officer, at the then generous salary of £2015 p.a., the youngest person so appointed in the whole of the newly formed Trust Company. There now began one of the two happiest periods of my career. I had been dealing with trust administration long enough to feel confident in the job (although there is always something new to learn). I got on well with the new Manager, John Raby, as well as with the staff as a whole and the group ran well and generally happily. I was also fortunate in enjoying excellent relations with many customers and professional contacts (e.g., solicitors, stockbrokers and estate agents) which resulted in lunch dates and enjoyable socialising at Christmas. Life, however, moves on. The Bank decided that I should be moved to its office in Princes Street, Ipswich. After thirteen years in Colmore Row it was to be a wrench moving on, but I had been appointed Trust Controller at Ipswich starting on 13th August 1972 and the promotion was a fine career move.
2 - South to Suffolk: Ipswich Interlude 1972 – 1974
In my East Anglian contacts I became aware that there was often a noticeable suspicion of one whose origins lay outside Suffolk. Nevertheless, there were aspects of my stay in Suffolk which were highly enjoyable. Once or twice each week I would be out of the office on business. Such trips in Birmingham had seldom taken me beyond the suburbs, but distances from Ipswich were such that I would often combine two or three visits in a particular area on the same day, not visiting the office at all. On such occasions Barbara would accompany me, strolling around the town or village while I interviewed a customer. In addition to visits to attractive Suffolk destinations, including Lavenham and Long Melford with their half-timbered properties, or Southwold and Aldeburgh on the coast, there were trips over the border into Essex, including classy Frinton, and to Mersea Island where a tide table was necessary as the road vanished under water at high tide.
Gradually, I found I was getting acquainted with Suffolk. The event which perhaps most impressed the staff was certainly strange. The beneficiary of one estate was a decidedly eccentric woman, who spent periods in an asylum. She had a habit of visiting the office unannounced, and once she had got inside the office no one seemed able to get rid of her. The first time she came to visit me, she was shown into my office and I took her coat and gave her a seat. She claimed that she had evidence that someone was embezzling the Royal funds at Buckingham Palace. After a short discussion, I thanked her for the information, promised to get onto the Palace straight away, and held up her coat for her to put on, a trick I had seen John Raby use when he had had enough of an interview. Like a lamb, she put on her coat and left. It was the shortest time anyone had known her to be in the office, and my technique was for a time the talk of the staff!
Meanwhile, the bank had plans for centralising certain functions and had acquired Radbroke Hall in Cheshire where some activities were to be concentrated. A year to the day after moving into our Suffolk house I was asked to move to Central Administration Office at Radbroke Hall, so, after less than eighteen months, the interval in Suffolk was abruptly and prematurely over.
3 – North to Cheshire: Radbroke Hall: 1974 - 1987
Central Administration Office was in ‘Block 8’, one of nine 1940s vintage blocks built under government auspices when Radbroke Hall had been occupied by the Nuclear Power Group. Needless to say, the French chateau-style hall itself was occupied only by the upper echelons of management. Around the Hall were some twenty acres of grounds with a wide range of sports facilities including tennis courts, a putting green and a croquet lawn as well as attractive rose gardens and areas given over to a large variety of rhododendrons. There was also a bar.
The Chief Manager, R.O. Smith (usually referred to in his absence as Ronnie, or as R.O.) made a magnificent job in setting up the complex structure of the new office. He had, however, an enthusiastic adherence to rules and procedure which was not always shared by the rest of the staff. All letters were to be signed by the manager controlling the group regardless of who dictated them. This required a quick response when the recipient of a letter telephoned next morning to discuss it, expecting the signatory to have a full, in-depth knowledge of the matter. Special rules applied when decisions were called for which were beyond the discretionary limits allocated to the Trust Controller. Each successive tier of management had its own limit and full documentation was to be passed up for authorisation at the appropriate level. The highest levels were reserved to R.O. Smith himself and to Head Office. This somewhat military procedure could take several days, while, perhaps, a beneficiary would be waiting for a reply to his request for an advance. It contrasted with the approach at Ipswich where I was often the only member of management in the office and so reached my own decision which would be retrospectively agreed by the Manager if required!
Staff hard at work: Karen, Doug Couling (then with inevitable cigarette), Jean, Sarah, Diane
A minor example of R.O. Smith’s heavy-handed style of management arose when one of my administration team, Jim Bottomley, made an afternoon trip to the dentist. Jim returned to the office to find there was no parking space available in which to leave his VW ‘Beetle’. He, therefore, parked in a “Visitor’s” space, in clear contravention of an R.O. Smith edict. When R.O. noticed the transgression he immediately circulated the entire office to demand who owned the offending car. Jim, who would have owned up like a lamb, must have been in the loo at the moment the question was asked, as, to R.O.’s fury, no one owned up. To pin down the miscreant, he therefore parked his own car adjacent to and almost touching one side of Jim’s car and ordered Les Knight to park his car in a similar style on the other side. R.O. then sat back to wait for the offender to come once 5 o’clock passed. But he had reckoned without Jim’s transparent innocence. Jim emerged from the office, looked at the cars and thought how inconsiderate some motorists were when it came to parking. Being as thin as a lath he was able to squeeze between the cars and to take advantage of the ‘Beetle’s’ old fashioned running board which enabled him to open the door a crack, to post himself inside, and to drive off, leaving R.O. to wait, … and wait … and wait.
Another member of my team, Colin Soden, pinned on the office notice board a montage from three Financial Times headlines (which had originally referred to terrorism in Rhodesia as well as financial dealings in the City). It read:
Smith hangs eight Trust Controllers
R.O. Smith entered into the spirit by adding his own footnote :
“…and justice was seen to be done”
Initially, the administration staff of the office comprised trained personnel transferred from other offices of the Trust Company. Junior staff were all recruited locally by R.O.. New entrants were almost entirely female and it was widely held that they were selected chiefly on account of their looks. Certainly, in the days of mini-skirts and flimsy blouses the office was a delightful environment in which to work, even if it could at times be difficult to concentrate on the more mundane aspects of work as a succession of goddesses wafted past one’s desk. It should be added that the girls also worked extremely well and without any of the petty backbiting which had often been evident in my years at Birmingham. There were a few male entrants, but by and large (and with only a couple of exceptions) they were a poor lot, showing up badly when compared with the girls, and mostly they left after a short time to pursue such careers as car-salesmen.
Feminine attractions were not lost on my colleague Doug Couling, who shared my delight at the presence of pretty girls on our group. This led me into trouble one icy winter’s morning when I commented quietly to him that Cindy, a young lady whose skin-tight jumper emphasised every detail of an eye-catching figure, appeared to be “feeling the cold today”. Doug did not catch what I said and asked me to repeat it. Foolishly, I did so, a little louder. Several of the girls overheard the remark this time, and promptly fell about laughing. Darlaston wasn’t to be allowed to forget this indiscretion. So, when the time came for me to leave the group, in the course of an evening’s general mayhem and hilarity I was duly presented with a “custard pie” in satisfaction of the debt I owed! The staff also arranged to inflict on me (during working hours) a ‘kissagram’ who arrived in the disguise of a disenchanted trust beneficiary.
Mayhem at Christmas 1984:
1: Thanks from a grateful ‘customer’! (photo © J. Worrall)
Darlaston seems to be enjoying some unexpected attention!
2: Diane and Sarah offer encouragement
3: Darlaston’s Gorgeous Harem; Christmas 1984
In relaxed attitude with Karen, Sarah A., Diane, Sarah W., and Elaine.
4. The “demure and innocent” Lindsay looks on as Darlaston pays
the price for his momentary indiscretion.
Inset: The lovely Cindy who set off the chain of events (photo © Colin Soden)
The typing system at Radbroke Hall was quite different from any in my previous experience. Typists no longer came to your desk to take dictation; one did not even hand a cassette tape to a girl. Instead one dictated over the telephone to a machine in another building, the typist removing the tape to type the letters which were sent back to one by internal delivery. The system was efficient, but lacking in personal contact. This probably contributed to an increased howler rate as these memorable examples show:-
“We are investing the money wildly” (instead of widely)
“Crude” instead of accrued “income”
“short comedian turn” (instead of short to medium term)
“we wish to construct a solicitor” (instead of instruct)
“Please repair a Deed of Appointment” (instead of prepare)
“Fat Fee” (a heading in a letter to a solicitor, instead of Flat Three)
“Sweet Sixteen” in an address, instead of Suite Sixteen)
My first business trip out from Radbroke Hall was with a colleague, Bill Cowmeadow, to meet Mrs A**** and her family in the north of England. Her husband had died young and left the house in trust for Mrs A for life and thereafter to their five children. Mrs A wanted to move house and had gathered the children, then aged from about 23 down to 16, in order to discuss the matter. It was not long before Bill and I could see that in making an early departure from this life, Mr A had made a wise decision. We were all wedged in a small room, with Bill and me facing each other across the family circle. The discussion started quietly, but the excitement level soon rose in crescendo. Unanimity was lacking to the extent that there seemed to be a different opinion for each participant. With hindsight, I should have said to Bill “Let’s go and look at the flowers in the garden: we shall return when you have all agreed want you want to do.” But as the aggression level rose, so we found the ‘discussion’ developed a hypnotic fascination. Daughter called mother a “silly booger”, brother called sister a “stupid sod”. Eventually the storm blew itself out, and I was able to suggest some compromise which, in the end, seemed acceptable to all. But it had certainly been a wonderful study of ‘happy families’ in action. The eldest daughter seemed a friendlier person than her siblings and she lived alone at a cottage in Anglesey. She often telephoned me to invite me over, saying she would put on lunch and we could discuss the trust, adding that the cottage was by the sea with access to a secluded beach. There was really nothing to discuss so I could see no valid reason to accept the invitation – but I often think I might have missed an interesting afternoon.
One visit to Manchester produced a surprise when I was propositioned by a prostitute in Oxford Road at four o’clock in the afternoon. She asked if I “would like some fun with me and me friend”, but I seem to recall apologising to her that I had a train to catch. She was scarcely an attractive advertisement for her profession, being clad in scruffy jeans and T-shirt with a denim bomber jacket. I would rather have taken a vow of eternal celibacy than spend a moment in intimate contact with her. In retrospect I found the encounter quite hilarious, which is more than can be said for the occasion when I was in my late teens and was propositioned by a young soldier in the ‘Gents’ on Bridgend station in South Wales. I fled in alarmed haste (no, I didn’t stop to wash my hands) and hurried to hide in the crowds waiting for the train. That encounter did, however, give me much sympathy with blameless young women who get unwanted attention from men.
During my years in the bank I dealt with many Jewish customers. Most were no different from any other customer; but a few had that special Jewish sense of humour, and one in particular seemed to have modelled himself on the prototype music hall Jewish comedian. He used to ring me regularly and I quickly learnt to recognise his querulous central European accent. Initially he was always in a hurry: “Mr Darlaston – can you ring me back? – I’m in a payphone and I’ve got no change.” After this had been going on for some months, I said to him, sympathetically, “It must be very inconvenient for you, having to go out to a call box when you need a telephone.” His reply: “Oh no, it’s not a public phone – I have a payphone in my hall.” He had an unusual technical estate planning problem in which he tried to involve us, but which was, happily, not the Bank’s business. He had married under Jewish law but this was not recognised under Christian practice. He thus discovered to his horror that the Inheritance Tax exemption on funds passing to a widow would not apply on his death, as his widow would not be recognised as such by the Inland Revenue. The amount of tax at stake was significant and so he was bombarding his M.P. on the unfairness of this rule. His M.P. was none other than Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister.
R.O. Smith retired in 1979 and was succeeded by Geoffrey Gardiner, M.A. (Cantab), who had a keen interest in economics and business practice. Like me, he had started in Birmingham where he had attended the same school as me. He had moved on later to spells in Head Office and as Manager of Cambridge office. After the rigid and inflexible policies pursued by his predecessors, Geoffrey brought a complete change of direction. When R.O. Smith was asked to exercise discretionary powers under a will the first answer was invariably ‘no’. Later, under pressure from beneficiaries he might concede, but only with full indemnities from the parties concerned. When asked to agree a release from a case, soon after his arrival, Geoffrey surprised everyone by looking at the papers and saying “I see no point in continuing with this trust: it has outlived its purpose. I suggest you offer them the lot.” With Geoffrey’s encouragement, in 1982 I referred some anomalies regarding taxation of trusts to the local M.P., Jock Bruce-Gardyne, which led to an interesting meeting over lunch. There was lively and fascinating discussion, but the wiles of H.M. Treasury were not to be undermined by mere logic.
A popular diversion for winter lunch hours was the “Brain of Radbroke” general knowledge competition. The quiz comprised team rounds, individual questions and a ‘buzzer-round’ where speed was of the essence. Sections of the various offices at Radbroke would enter teams of four, usually under a pseudonym. My group entered a team on a number of occasions, and in 1980, under the title of “The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company” (recalling the name of the defendant in a case well known to all legal students) we won the competition. I joined a team comprising Doug Couling, and Colin and Brenda Soden. It was an undeniable achievement for us to win the final, after eliminating teams drawn from the many departments at Radbroke, especially as the teams entered by the sections dealing with the bank’s computers included some very high-flying university graduates. Winning the competition gave us a moment of glory, followed by a year of agony, as the prize was a bottle of champagne plus the job of running the following year’s competition, including setting a total of 1500 questions! Much effort was put into compiling questions that provided a balance of general knowledge, history, the arts, elementary science, and sport. The burden was eased a little by including a current affairs round which could be compiled quickly the night before by reference to the television news. We tried to lighten the atmosphere with mildly humorous questions and occasional traps, but it was always necessary to ensure a balance between sides. The occasional wicked juxtaposition of apparently non-related questions introduced some elements of fun, sometimes bringing the house down, as when a question about a well-endowed lady Wimbledon player was followed by an ornithological question to which the correct answer was “Great Tits”. I usually seemed to act as question master, relishing my moment of power. I persuaded Cindy to keep the score as I knew that any awkward squad contestants would succumb to her undeniable charms and refrain from querying the result. The operation was on the whole good fun, but I was rather relieved when my second career, as a Robert Robinson / Bamber Gascoigne substitute, finished.
Brain of Radbroke Winners, 1980: Doug Couling, Brenda and Colin Soden, RHD
In January 1985 I was promoted to Manager responsible for three separate groups. The promotion and status were welcome, and I was nominally responsible for over 40 staff administering 4000 trusts. One of my responsibilities was to read all the incoming post before giving it to the groups, but it was only necessary to follow up items which seemed to cause (or have the potential to cause) problems. This task was occasionally enlivened by the unexpected, as when a retired naval officer wrote that he wished in future to be known as Daphne X instead of Digby X as he had “undergone a programme of gender re-assignment”. Such was the unique quality of that request in the 1980s that I had to read the letter twice before I absorbed its import! Some of the requests for the bank to exercise its discretion as trustee in order to make payments to a beneficiary were clearly inappropriate. One wealthy family demanded that I agree to exhaust their son’s small legacy fund in order to meet his school fees. I refused, explaining the factors a trustee should consider before making such a payment. The family complained in very strong terms to the financial editor of The Times about the bank’s attitude: I was delighted to find that the newspaper totally vindicated my stance. The management at Head Office was also pleased, as it was not often that a newspaper would miss an opportunity to criticise a bank. From time to time litigation would arise in a case. Often this would be non-contentious, arising because of a wish by a family to vary the terms of a trust, but requiring application to the Court under the terms of the Variation of Trusts Act 1958. An appearance at the High Court in London would be necessary, preceded by meetings with Counsel in Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn or New Inn. Such occasions were endlessly fascinating, and I was always impressed firstly by the gothic architecture of the Courts, but especially by the sharpness of Counsels’ minds, which contrasted with the Dickensian atmosphere of their Chambers, lined with leather-bound Law Reports dating back over a century.
An odd (and very boring) aspect of my role as manager was checking the output of the computers. In 1977 the routine book keeping had been computerised. The computers in question were primitive by modern standards and comprised a number of machines, each the size of a piano, fed with discs about 18” in diameter and 2” thick. They produced long rolls of paper listing all the programs run during the day, and it fell to me to check these hieroglyphics to ensure that no improper programs had been run. I never found a mistake, whether because there were none, or because I missed them through sheer boredom I cannot say.
4 – Gadbrook Park: Decline and Fall: 1987 - 1997
For some years the office had been known as Central Trust Office, abbreviated to CTO. This caused confusion with the Inland Revenue’s Capital Taxes Office so a new name was sought. I achieved a temporary glory by suggesting “Trust Management Office” , which was at least an accurate description, and that was the name which was to be used until the mid-1990s. In addition to a name change there was a move of location. The staff who occupied the nine other blocks at Radbroke Hall were largely employed in the bank’s ever-growing computer activities. Eventually they decided to expand into Block 8 and so we were evicted. We were moved to a building at a site with a confusingly similar name, Gadbrook Park, on the outskirts of Northwich. Gone were the lunch time walks past the croquet lawn to the Rose Gardens: instead we had a pleasant view one way over fields to Davenham Church and a less pleasant view the other way to Roberts’s Bakery. A Head Office dignitary visited the new premises on opening and chanced to ask me how it had affected my travelling. I told him, truthfully, but with tongue in cheek, that it had virtually doubled my journey time. He looked shocked. I added that a journey which formerly took me eight minutes now took fifteen! The move was overseen with splendid thoroughness by a Manager, Werner Dengler-Harles, who had settled in England after serving in the post-war Luftwaffe. In dress and manners he was in many ways more anglicised than the English, but retained a Teutonic thoroughness in his work which was seen to best effect on occasions such as the office move. The move, in October 1987, coincided with severe gales in the south, which caused extensive damage to trust properties, and with a major stock market collapse. We were thus inundated with telephone calls at a time when all our files were in crates in course of transit.
There was still fun to be had on occasions. Peter Hopkin, an Assistant Manager, had, at a particularly busy time, taken on a trust distribution himself and was rightly very proud of the efficient way in which he had carried it through. On April Fool’s Day I slipped into his post a letter purporting to come from one of the beneficiaries, the Bishop of Winchester. Signed by “Erasmus Brown-Windsor” as the Bishop’s “Canon-in-Extraordinary”, the letter, couched in gushing language based on that used by the curate in the contemporary comedy programme “All Gas and Gaiters”, offered Peter fulsome compliments on the high standard of his work. The “Canon” went on to say how “my thoughts flew to you” in planning a seminar and then invited Peter, “as a distinguished lay person” to address the Bishop and his fellows, after which he was invited to join them for a “wafer or two in the vestry”. Peter proudly read the letter out to the whole group, his voice steadily becoming more and more puzzled as the absurdity became more apparent and the group’s laughter increased: happily Peter was a good sport and shared the joke.
Christmas 1989: L-r: Sharon, Jane, Jeff Burgess, Nicola, Peter Hopkin, Anthea
But the 1980s were the “Thatcher” era. Increased efficiency was expected in all quarters and no one embraced the philosophy more enthusiastically than the banks, notwithstanding the continuous criticism they received from the government. To Weary Bankers size matters, and the new Chairman of the Bank was credited with devising a slogan “number one by ninety-one”. Some staff countered that by adding “... in the poo by ninety-two”. As the 1980s drew to a close a billion pounds was raised from shareholders, ostensibly to finance the expansion of the bank. In fact it was largely and unwisely lent to businesses which went bust so that by 1992 most of the extra funds had, indeed, been written off as bad debt. The Trust Company was not a suitable candidate for major expansion, so the policy was to increase profits by cutting costs. This was partly effected by a major reduction in the office management team. Thus, on three occasions between 1989 and 1996 all management jobs at the office were abolished and the existing incumbents had to apply for a smaller range of new appointments.
The first of these sessions of “musical chairs” resulted in my appointment as Manager of a different section of the office. Amongst other changes, this led to a variety of business trips across the country. These ranged from visits to farms in the Lake District which made Wuthering Heights seem hospitable, to a former artist’s studio in West Brompton to interview an aged and deaf couple in a room replete with artist’s effects including a skeleton, various stuffed animals and an ill-disciplined (live) cat.
But for a time most trips seemed to be in response to problems in trusts in Wales and my Wellington Boots became an essential travel accessory with numerous trips to muddy farms. There were visits with Jane Kerr to the Gelli estate in Glamorganshire to inspect a crumbling retaining wall just about holding up the mountainside, to Llanwrda in Carmarthenshire to view a farmhouse so derelict that a substantial tree was growing out of the chimney, and to Pembrokeshire to sort out a bankrupt toy shop. Another destination was Cwmllynfell on the Carmarthenshire border, there to inspect the re-instatement of fields following a period of opencast mining. On arrival at the latter site with my colleague Geoff Ambrey, we duly met the land agent who I was amazed to discover remembered my grandfather from pre-war farming days when he (the agent) had been a young man. On rural visits far from the office there was often a desperate need on arrival for a ‘comfort break’ and there would generally be a suitable hedge to provide cover for furtive relief. But the bleak newly restored and levelled fields at the windswept open spaces of Cwmllynfell offered no such screen. Our land agent was, however, a man well accustomed to protocol on such occasions. We came to a brook crossed by a rudimentary bridge of old timbers where our delegation quickly lined up three abreast to make our long delayed but triumphal contributions, releasing three glorious liquid arcs to swell the flow of the stream below. We must have been a bizarre sight but the local sheep raised no objection. It’s lucky we were an all-male contingent that day.
Left: a rare picture of Darlaston at work (?) in the office.
Right: Jane struggles with a map on a breezy day whilst inspecting a Welsh farm.
Another Welsh business trip found us visiting a family for earnest discussions about their family trust. After a lengthy and distinctly tiresome lecture from an ample Welsh lady beneficiary, she leaned back in total satisfaction, forgetting that she was seated on a stool and not a chair. Jane Kerr and I were thus surprisingly confronted with a waving pair of legs encased in thick black woollen stockings. Maintaining a sympathetic and suitably solemn face was, for a moment, far from easy. Happily for the lady concerned, no lasting damage occurred, but we felt that justice (and other more surprising sights) had clearly been seen to be done.
In 1993 came the second game of managerial musical chairs when the number of groups was reduced from six to four and I found myself moving to yet another section of the office. In this role I was splendidly assisted by Barbara Killey but it was not an easy task for us to maintain staff morale after so many changes and in the face of creeping computerisation. Unpaid overtime, including Saturday working, became normal, leading in my case to health problems including migraines. My involvement in the detail of trust work had to compete for time with gathering statistical information required by Head Office officials who had no understanding of the nature of the work at the office. Delays in administration work mounted and it was only through the sharpness of the staff in spotting potential problems that the number of complaints and losses was minimised.
With the enormous expense of the computer and its support staff and of burgeoning Head Office departments it was hardly surprising that the Trust Company decided that costs must be cut even further. So, in 1996, we entered the third game of musical chairs with the trust establishment reduced from four to two very large groups. Once more my fellow managers and I faced interviews as we all competed for a smaller number of jobs. This time I lost. So did Barbara Killey. In the spring of 1996 Barbara and I found ourselves forming a new Business Support section dedicated to writing circulars and procedures, keeping returns, centralising complaints records and other routine tasks. After the frantic spiral of managing the trust groups the new job was something of a rest cure.
More lovely ladies: Karen, Gill and Barbara; Christmas 1995
But after twenty-five years of the cut and thrust of managing a trust group and of dealing with real customers, I felt something had gone out of life. Boredom and frustration crept in. I began to feel I could live very happily without the Trust Company. After about a year in the new job I enquired if early retirement terms were still available. They were, and so on 30th September 1997 I bowed out after a career of 38 years and 24 days. Although in many ways I emerged rather battle-scarred from my banking experience, I had acquired on the way a wonderful wife, a generous pension and several fine friends, so it was, on balance, all a worthwhile experience!
Last day at the office: 30th September 1997, with colleagues Barbara and Jane.
The narrative above describes my early childhood, schooldays and adds some tales from my banking years. But there is more to the story ….
Barbara came into my life on Monday,
25th January 1965, when she joined me on the staff at Barclays in Colmore Row, Birmingham.
I well remember my first glimpse of a pretty eighteen-year old with a
delightful retroussé nose and a winning smile.
We soon started visiting concerts and plays together, and on 9th
March 1968 we were engaged. We married
on 11th June 1969 at
I look back with gratitude on a life of fun and happiness (though I will concede that, like all lives, there have been those occasional unwelcome interruptions, of which root canal surgery springs rapidly to mind). But for the most part one remembers years of joy and gaiety. Life in an English village is a delight, even if one admits that in Cheshire the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Around us lies glorious countryside giving opportunities to explore the landscapes, towns, villages and pubs of England and Wales. There has also been plenty of overseas travel, including cruises to places ranging from the Fjords and St Petersburg in the north, to Rhodes and Istanbul in the east, Morocco in the south and to New York and Quebec in the west.
Our love of the arts has been a great joy with wonderful opportunities for attending concerts and for theatre-going, mostly in Birmingham and Manchester (plus very occasional trips to London, Cardiff and Liverpool). Looking back we remember an amazing range of programmes including works by Beethoven, Shakespeare, Elgar, Noel Coward, Mozart, Ibsen and others, served up by superb artists including such names as Sir Adrian Boult, Paul Schofield, Artur Rubinstein, Sybil Thorndike, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré, Mike Gambon and Sir Simon Rattle - giving just a hint of the splendours we have enjoyed. Leisure time is happily shared with our daughters and their husbands as well as with fine friends, many of whom date from schooldays and from life in Barclays.
Looking back, I am conscious of having enjoyed a life mostly of ease and comfort, prompting thoughts of the vastly different experiences of the generations to which my parents and grandparents belonged. They suffered two devastating world wars, the inter-war depression and post-war austerity. How would I have coped with such experiences, ranging from unemployment, severe food shortages and air raids to possible military service overseas in the terrifying conditions so graphically portrayed in old newsreels? Merely viewing such film evokes feelings of horror and despair. Had I been born just fourteen years earlier I might well have been an inept and expendable participant in the D-day landings, gun in hand. These thoughts prompt gratitude to providence for its kindly treatment of me and my family. Furthermore, I owe an enormous debt to my parents who ensured my early years were passed in an atmosphere of calm and security despite the wartime terrors which affected their lives. Later, as I grew up, I was lucky to sit at the feet of fine schoolmasters who taught me not just their own subjects, but much about the world in general, its history and its arts. Some of those men remained friends for life. Marriage to Barbara has brought more than half a century of joy and companionship, not forgetting the company of our two delightful daughters. Blessings indeed! Some family photographs from those years follow.
Robert Darlaston, October 2023
E-mail address: robertdarlaston@btinternet . com
(For anti-spam purposes, this is not a link: please retype direct into the address box omitting spaces)
Clockwise from top left: Four Oaks, 1970; Evening stroll at Rockcliffe, Dumfries & Galloway, 1990; Bamburgh Beach, 2007;
Toasting the future, at home, 2005; Cruising, 2016; Honfleur Harbour, 2007. Inset: at home,1991.
All the Family
A wide range of family photos can be seen at www.robertdarlaston.co.uk/Family Photos.htm ,
together with details of “Darlaston’s Desert Island Delights”