Received: March 2021
Subject: The Collegiate Remembered
I grew up in Dovecot and my primary school years exactly spanned the Second World War 1939-45. We lived in a council house on the outskirts of Liverpool and my father worked on the docks so we were far from affluent. I had two sisters. Nevertheless, it was an idyllic childhood. I roamed freely with all the paraphernalia of a country at war and noise around to excite, including stray bombs. Collecting shrapnel from still smoking buildings went alongside the conker season. I loved school and found the lessons easy. While many chewed pencils I sailed through arithmetic, writing, spelling, dictation and the like and was considered a possible scholarship boy. Astonishingly I passed the 11+, the first ever in my family in any direction to achieve that distinction and was suddenly bound for the prestigious Liverpool Collegiate School in Shaw Street. It was September 1945.
A totally different world greeted me. A magnificent Victorian edifice with esoteric rules, even which staircase you could use, ribboned prefects, gowned teachers and a head who wore a mortar board! It was just like the public schools I had read about in comics and devoured so voraciously. The lessons, though, were far less stimulating. I was allocated to 3B a top form and sat among some of the brightest in the city. After a decent start I began to trail the rest of the class in most subjects. as my school records show. I barely survived the annual demotion to a lower stream, where I would possibly have been happier, and just stayed afloat through the rigours of 4B, Remove B and 5B.
The teachers were an odd bunch, to say the least, most of whom could charitably be deemed `old school,’ even born in the previous century. We had the occasional sensitive soul (more later) and some who were competent if dull. A maths teacher, for example, who loved his subject more than his pupils, got excited at the mere thought of a quadratic equation and scribbled furiously on the blackboard, mostly with his back to us. Sometimes he ploughed on like nobody else was there.
A chemistry teacher who taught us made some effort and had the support of `stinks’ in the laboratory to relieve the boredom but there were the others who could hardly be bothered at all. We had a geography master, for example, who kept a knotted rope handy and belted the arse of the last into the lesson and last out. Usually, the same less agile lad. He was more interested in rugby than classroom distractions anyhow. There was an English teacher who unbelievably mocked strong Liverpool accents, regularly humiliating some poor soul who was not quick witted enough to leave his normal speech pattern at the classroom room.
Then there was the history man, strongly right-wing pro-British Empire and committed to supressing anything that remotely stank of the dreaded socialism. The Latin pedagogue could easily, in spite of the stiff competition, won the title of the worst teacher in the school. He couldn`t even control a class. He had memorised the entire Latin textbook absurdly called, `Latin for Today’ and taught most of the lesson with his eyes shut, saying things like `Turn to page 36 and decline’. Somewhere too there was a modern language specialist who believed the subject was entirely about the written word. Although I was quite competent at reading German I failed the oral test as I had never been asked to speak a single word. How I squeezed a bare Pass in French I will never know.
There was only one female teacher, a purported Physics expert who was easily the fiercest disciplinarian in the entire school. She would have put the wind up a few drill sergeants I was to encounter later. The PE guy, as you might suspect, had untold opportunities for both physical and mental torture and took them. His crowning conceit was to demonstrate pointless things like walking on his hands.
The classroom lessons were invariably delivered in the same repetitive fashion ie Sit down, listen, write something, swop papers and mark somebody else`s and, finally, here`s some homework. In my four years I can only recall one incident when I was even noticed. Mr Riddell, a rare inspired English teacher, suddenly stopped the whole class and read out my essay as a good example of creative writing. This went some way to restoring my flagging confidence and encourage further study later in life.
I made some good mates, though, from similar backgrounds as myself. Most of the form I was in had their sights set on Sixth Form and university, even Oxford and Cambridge where, no doubt, they would join the long established Esmedunae Societies. They came invariably from middle class backgrounds, even via the Preparatory School at Holly Lodge. They were well prepared for the Collegiate and its demands and were favoured by some teachers. They largely socialised among themselves. The rest of us did enough to just get by, enjoying the delights of kicking a ball around at breaks, even learning the extra-curricular skills of card playing and dice throwing crouched down in the cloakrooms. Homework was often cobbled together on the early inbound tram or bus. There was already a sharp division between those who would leave at 15 and those guaranteed the financial support of parents and proceed inexorably upwards. Of the seven who came from my Dovecot school none stayed on after 15. In spite of our bravado we were not going further in this place.
Come School Certificate reckoning I made a bit of an effort, realising employment was in the offing. I can remember turning up post-school in Shaw Street to examine the final results posted up outside the main doors. Seven subjects, only one failure (guess which) but four credits! This was not actually `matriculation’ that required five credits and better but still looking good to me. I headed for the employment office in Sir Thomas Street with some optimism.
One Collegiate experience remained however. Overjoyed with my modest achievement, and probably relieved I had not been expelled, my parents funded a trip to the school camp at Kirkmichael in the Isle of Man. I had never left home before, not for a single night, so this was a magic experience, crossing the Irish Sea on the ferry to another world. The teachers voluntarily overseeing activities for once behaved like human beings you could interact with. It was a lot of fun.
To finalise the week`s activities there was to be a mass race over two or three miles. For some reason this intrigued me and I listened to advice from the more experienced, start slow and save yourself because of the distance. This turned out to be rubbish. Proceeding along a narrow path behind the sandhills I tried to overtake only to discover there was apparently a time-honoured custom of whacking anybody who attempted that trick. For some reason this infuriated me and I worked hard on the open spaces, making gradual progress. The final run in on the sands and nobody was in front! I sprinted flat out to what I thought was a clear victory. Almost on my knees the teacher gave me a Fry`s chocolate cream bar and congratulated me on finishing second. Second? `Who won?` I gasped. `Oh, Tom Farrell…he was well ahead’. I found out later he was to become Britain`s top one lap hurdler and compete for his country in the 1956 Olympic Games.
As an afterthought to the last story I subsequently took up running with the Liverpool Pembroke Athletic club, meeting up with quite a lot of Collegiate old boys including the outstanding sprinter Jim Railton. I have retained an interest in athletics throughout the rest of my life.
A somewhat superficial interview with an Employment Officer and I was sent to Liverpool University as a laboratory assistant. While I enjoyed working there it was clearly not a career for me and I responded instead to an advert for a job as a very junior clerk in the Liverpool City Treasury. I was to discover that the Municipal Buildings were littered with COB`s all proudly wearing the tie. I should, I suppose, have found this a comfortable home but accountancy frequently transported me into a Walter Mitty world of dreams. The precise futurewas taken out of my hands when National Service came along. Although initial training was something of a shock the posting to Germany that followed was interesting and eventful.
A joy of conscription was meeting up with a diverse group of guys from all over the place, most with career destinies already mapped out. One such Lancashire lad had already been accepted for teacher training. I was astounded to find his only qualification was a similar School Cert as myself. Apparently, some training establishments operated a different entry requirement for ex-servicemen, providing you passed their entrance exam. I thought if they accepted him why not me? So, as they say, it came to pass. After demob I found myself enrolled for a two-year teacher training course at the handsome looking Dudley Training College.
My life was to completely change. I discovered some marginal aptitude for teaching and thirty years or so later went through successive elevations and was ensconced at Edge Hill College (now university) as a Principal Lecturer in Education. I had additionally achieved some national eminence in my field. Nobody had spotted that sort of possibility in me at the Collegiate except, perhaps, for the lovely `Jimmy’ Riddell who wrote on my final report `He has an excellent command of English’.
At Edge Hill College I worked predominately with experienced teachers on one-year full time secondments. My field was educational disadvantage and special educational needs. When I took an early retirement deal, prior to doing other things, at my final `do’ I was presented with a mysterious package from course members. Tearing it apart I discovered it was that famous Frank Green print of the Collegiate in Shaw Street. There was a great round of applause and laughter. It was only then that I realised how much I had drawn on that experience in lectures, if only to illustrate just how much teaching had moved on!
The Collegiate revisited
It must have been about 1985/6 when I found myself on an educational visit to Breckfield Comprehensive School. The headteacher Iain Hall, a charismatic figure who later went on to national recognition, chatted with me about his school and mentioned the couple of classes he ran off-campus at the disintegrating Collegiate School. When I confessed to my previous connection he replied it was also his alma mater. Grabbing car keys he asked, `Do you want to see the school now before the corporation vandals obliterate it?’ An invitation one could hardly refuse.
The magnificent building was in the sorriest of states, enough to make one weep. It was surreal wandering around corridors and classrooms I had not entered in 35 years. At times it was ghostlike, like the final scenes of the 1939 film Goodbye Mr Chips when deceased pupils flit across the screen to the sound of the old school hymn. Concluding the tour Iain led me to a vast store cupboard and left me there saying `Help yourself. Back in ten minutes’. I duly opened it and found school records of over 100 years about to be removed and destroyed. Hastily I found mine own record and that of a couple of guys I was still in contact with, Jack Tustin and Tom Beesley. I was about to chance my arm elsewhere only to turn and find Iain laughing. He waved a script at me and asked if this was what I was looking for? It was that of the famous actor Leonard Rossiter, recently deceased. He was about to post it on to his relatives.
He also took me to the library, the contents of which were bound for a similar ignominious end. I rescued a few books at random. One, fortuitously was a Latin text the property of a certain Walter Prideaux who had attended Queens College, Cambridge in the mid-1880s. It was an epic poem of Lucan, a Roman poet, who had lived at the time of Nero. Scribbled in pencil throughout are Prideaux`s translations and observations. Prideaux was one of the Collegiate`s most prestigious scholars. I`m not entirely sure he didn`t return to the school to teach. The school library, at least, was subsequently named after him.
Finally, lunch time had arrived and we had to get back to Breckfield School. As a final gift he gave me one of those cast iron figures that along with three other animals were screwed into the bannisters every ten feet or so. I got the lion. The object of these was to prevent high spirited youths of yesteryear cocking their legs over and sliding down. I can confirm that in my day, in spite of these hazards, a few of the really adventurous still attempted a 10 foot stretch relying on a sharp brake to preserve their future procreation possibilities.
On the way home to Ormskirk I had an inspirational thought and bent the car in the direction of Fazakerley Boys school where the redoubtable Tommy Beesley taught. This would be interesting! It was near the end of lunch time when I parked up and had to fight my way through the usual pack of playground footballers, both of the Red and Blue persuasion, attempting to dismember each other.
Tommy was about to blow his whistle when he saw me advancing. `What the hell…’he began as I triumphantly raised his record sheet and declared `Tommy Beesley, this is your life!’ He must have had a whale of a time with that later in the staff room.
It is over 70 years since I was an LCS pupil and can get it a better handle on it now. I realise, for example, that the very large number of working-class kids that flooded grammar schools in the immediate post war era posed problems for a system that had been used, perhaps, to more genteel and conforming customers. I recall 28 boys passed something significant or other in my suburban school at 11+ with, no doubt, the girls down the corridor provided similar figures. That is a lot of colourful uniforms and flapping satchels to descend overnight on the tram and bus stops opposite the crescent of shops in Dovecot, never mind similar numbers that poured in from the other side of East Prescot Road. Multiply that across the city and it was a social revolution. I can safely assume some staffs were probably not up to this challenge. Maybe they were as apprehensive as ourselves. Subsequent reports from later in the 50s and 60s suggest better adjustments as a new breed of teacher came on the scene unencumbered by archaic custom and practice.
I conclude that with a tad more inspirational teaching and praise I might well have been writing this in different terms. Nevertheless, the Collegiate did give me `something’. It gave me a `ticket to ride’. I`m grateful for that.
I`ll wind up this nonsense with a couple of stirring lines from the school hymn, Paean Esmedunensis…
Stimulat ingenium, Nos et virtus urget
Knowledge spurs us on, Integrity inspires us
Uplifting thoughts like that were supposed to get you through an entire life including a pandemic, I suppose. Personally I doubt it, and would suggest that currently a crate or two of decent wine is a better bet.
© Liverpool Collegiate Old Boys' Association (2021)