Reading of the experiences of Norman Goldner and Bill Read of their times at Owen's in the 1950s reminded me that many of the members on here may not have seen the old Alumni newsletters which were published two or three times a year. I had some articles published in them, recalling my time at Owen's from 1961 to 1968. Apologies to those who have already seen them (especially Les Gibbins, who seemed to read them with relish!) but I thought I'd share them with some of our newer members. Here's the first part. I've edited it a little as it made references to earlier newsletters so would not have made much sense here and there:
I became an Owenian on 12th September 1961. I had an older cousin at the school and one of my uncles was an Old Boy who left the school in about 1956. Following my success in the “Eleven Plus” Owen's was therefore my first choice. I obviously did well enough at my interview and I still recall my Dad's delight when he received a letter from Mr Burroughs informing him of my successful application:
“The new term begins on Monday 11th September. Your son should not attend then but should attend at 9:30am on Tuesday 12th September”.
Before then I was taken by my mother to “Hope Brothers” in Ludgate Hill to get kitted out. That ancient shop was a bit like “Grace Brothers” in “Are You Being Served?” with rows of wooden drawers, racks and display cabinets containing gentlemen's apparel in all shapes and sizes. I believe it was the official supplier of uniforms for a number of schools in central London. Needless to say it has long been demolished and the site is now occupied by an “All-Bar-One”.
Appropriately “suited and booted”, I turned up as directed and was escorted to Room 6 adjacent to the Armoury Door to meet “Flossie” Cutler and my new classmates in form 2WJC. There were two other second forms presided over by Dr. B.M.D. “Fanny” Cast (next door in room 5) and Mr. S.V. “Stan” George (room 20, ground floor beneath the art room). For younger readers puzzled why we began in the “second” form, this was because the school still had a “Remove” (the third year). This was something my friends attending more modern schools could not comprehend. Those who had heard of such a strange term only associated it with the author Frank Richards and his tales of Billy Bunter – The “Fat Owl of the Remove” at Greyfriars School. It was a little strange after six years in my small local primary school, where I knew so many of the pupils, to find myself with 600 or so other boys, all of whom were older than me – some considerably so. One of my friends from primary school – Peter Smith – joined me in 2WJC but my cousin was by then in the Middle Sixth and our paths did not cross.
One of Flossie's first tasks was to provide us with our timetable of lessons. I had assumed that all our lessons (apart from games, swimming, chemistry and the like which naturally required specialist locations) would be held in room 6 with the appropriate masters coming to us. I soon learned that every 40 minutes there were to be around 500 or so boys milling around the narrow corridors all heading in different directions for their next session, all getting in each other's way, some scurrying back to their form rooms to collect a forgotten book. However, once we had mastered the geography of the school we soon knuckled down to the rigours of our grammar school education and the discipline that went alongside. We were introduced by “Aenus” Reeves to the enchantment of Latin nouns of the first two declensions, though much of it puzzled me. I never quite grasped, for instance, having had explained to me what the “ablative” case was, why we might ever need to announce, in that ancient language, that something had been done “by, with or from” a slave (particularly as we had to guess the most appropriate preposition). In fact, I never envisaged including the word “slave” in my vocabulary at all, but “servus” had been chosen to demonstrate the second declension, so there it was. The first conjugation of verbs was added to our ever increasing store of knowledge and “amo, amas amat, amamus, amatis amant” remains hard wired in my memory bank to this day. (This may go some way to explain why these days, when reaching the top of the stairs, I often cannot remember why I went up them. My memory needs to be emptied of Latin verbs!). “The Latin Way” was our text book and the red covers of many of the copies had been wittily modified by their previous custodians to transform them into a volume of “Athens Eating Way”. But Mr Reeves was a fine teacher and was very dapper. He would arrive at school in his “Frog-Eyed” Sprite, with the top down whenever possible, and would often sport a polka-dot bow tie.
Meanwhile Mr George (“three fingers, one finger and a thumb”) tried to make craftsmen of us in the woodwork room. My enduring (and almost only) memory of those lessons was of reducing a piece of wood to half its original size with a box-plane. This was done in an attempt to make it “square” enough to form the base of a precision-made bookrack (the prototype of which sat on a table at the front of the woodwork room). This seemed to take almost two terms and by the time my timber had passed Stan's critical eye and set-square I had forgotten what the wood was for.
Mr Hall had the task of nurturing our artistic talents. Half a term was spent “wedging” a piece of clay to eliminate all pockets of air from within its bowels. Despite Mr. Hall's frequent inspections, made by cutting our clay in half with a cheese wire, we obviously were not too proficient in that curious practice. Many of us found to our dismay that our “coil” pots that we had spent the rest of the term making had exploded in the kiln. Never mind, there was always painting to fall back on.
Flossie Cutler would teach us Maths. I took great delight in obtaining a “9H” pencil (when the recommendation was 2H) and the congruent and similar triangles in my geometry exercise book looked as though they had been scored into the page by a Stanley knife. “Danny” Kaye took us through our first year of Biology and for some reason which I never discovered there were rumours of an amorous association between him and Miss Cutler. Such is the mischief of eleven year old boys! The diminutive Mr Williams began our history. As others have mentioned, he was indeed small in stature and seemed to have difficulty finding shirts with a small enough collar. But what he lacked in build he could certainly compensate for in terror. On many occasions a member of his form, 3W (that's the second year, do keep up!) would sheepishly interrupt our history lesson with a polite request to retrieve a forgotten book from his desk. If he was in a good mood Mr Williams would simply bellow “No! Get Out!” On days when he was less pleasantly disposed, however, he would emphasise his displeasure by hurling a stick of chalk or even the board rubber or a book at the unfortunate interloper who would swiftly take shelter in the corridor behind the closed door to avoid injury. His room (seven, on the ground floor) was the site of what seemed an over-elaborate panel of buttons which operated the bells spread throughout the school. These would signal the end of each forty minute period and it fell to Mr Williams to operate them. This he would do by pressing the buttons in pairs with what seemed a somewhat unnecessary flourish. With his back to us his oversized gown seemed to envelope him rather like Count Dracula's would as he was about to ravish a virgin.
“Birdie” Sparrow (English), “Fritz” Banks (French), “Jack” Paul (Music), Mr Lloyd-Williams (Geography), “Jock” McGregor (Physics) and Mr Hamilton (Chemistry) were among those who strived to combat our ignorance of their specialist subjects. Some of them (and some of us) succeeded more than others. Each employed their own peculiarities in furtherance of their task. We discovered immediately that “Fritz” Banks spoke no English at all during his lessons – with one exception. Episodes of misbehaviour would see him call the miscreant to stand before him at the front of the classroom. There he would interrogate the suspect in English and, if he deemed the offence sufficiently serious and/or the explanation insufficient, he would administer a sharp slap round the cheek. I recall Ivor Levy being the first recipient of that rather strange punishment.
Among the new arrivals in September 1961 was a certain Ian Bagster. Ian arrived at Owen Street on the same day as I did and was also in 2WJC. I believe that Ian, like me, was a member of Stoke Newington Swimming Club. But there - certainly as far as swimming was concerned – any similarities between us came to an abrupt end. Whilst I floundered about and did my best to swim a hundred yards (we still used old money then) in a reasonable time before finishing breathlessly, hanging on to the side of the pool to avoid sinking, Ian could outpace a dolphin. He was an absolute star in the water. Our weekly trip to the baths in Northampton Square (no longer there but which the school used before transferring to Ironmonger Row) was often concluded with a handicap race – but only Ian would be subject to handicap. A two length race would be announced and we mere mortals would set off down the pool as quickly as we could manage; meanwhile Ian would be finishing off his maths homework. Only when the first of the also-rans had reached the end of their first length would Ian be unleashed by Reg Tricker. After he had put away his four-figure tables he would set off in hot pursuit. A racing dive and half a dozen strokes would see him level with the last of the stragglers and he would pass the returning leaders as they were about a quarter way through their second length. A quick “tumble turn” (which I tried once or twice only to succeed in propelling myself to the bottom of the deep end) and a mighty push off would see him level with the leaders half way down the second length. He would then cruise home to victory by the proverbial country mile.
We were introduced to the delights of “The Field” in Chandos Avenue. Our games afternoon was Tuesday as I recall and Reg Tricker presided. It was only in recent years that I learned that he had played professional football for Charlton Athletic, Clapton (now Leyton) Orient and even Arsenal in the 1920s and 30s. I cannot imagine Wayne Rooney or David Beckham forging a successful second career as head of a PE department in a first-rate school! A quickly taken lunch and the 609 trolleybus would whisk many of us silently to Whetstone High Street (though they were soon to be replaced by brand new Routemasters with the bus renumbered to 104). Others travelled by tube to Totteridge & Whetstone and a few more by British Railways to Oakleigh Park. A football competition was held and each form selected two teams which they were asked to name. Form 2WJC fielded “The Cutlets” and “The Midwitch Cuckoos”. I seem to recall Peter (or was it Ian?) Franklin being the captain of that team and I imagine he had recently read John Wyndham's sci-fi book of that name. Mr George's form fielded “The Danes” and “The Martians”. Alas I cannot recall what Miss Cast's form called their teams. Football was not my forte and although chosen for “The Cutlets” I played only once as I sustained a fractured ankle during the winter (roller skating at Alexandra Palace). My career in the top flight was thus brought to a tragic and premature end and I was excused PE and games for most of the winter. I managed to secure a few “standard” points for Myddelton House in the spring and early summer and I enjoyed that time more because my ankle had healed and the mixture of cricket and athletics was more to my liking.
My ankle injury apart, my first year passed reasonably uneventfully. In year two the three second forms were mixed and matched into three third forms (still awake at the back there?). I was assigned to form 3CLW, looked after by Mr Lloyd-Williams, our first year geography teacher and our form room was room 15 on the first floor. 1962-63 was the winter of the “big freeze”. It snowed on Boxing Day 1962 and everybody was so sad that had not done so a day earlier. However, by the end of March 1963, when we had all been slipping around on snow, ice and slush for three months everybody was utterly sick of the stuff. Having said that, I'm quite sure the school did not close at all and we were still expected to make our weekly forays to Chandos Avenue to play football when ice-hockey would have been more appropriate and a lot less dangerous. We'd have been better off playing on concrete. Very sadly, Mr Lloyd-Williams died part way through that year. We, as members of his form, and a representative from each of the other forms throughout the school attended his funeral service at the Welsh Chapel in Holloway.
The death of Mr Lloyd-Williams was obviously an enormous tragedy for his family and friends. However, the effect it had on them was but nothing compared to the changes that his untimely demise would unleash upon the unsuspecting, hapless souls of 3CLW. For we were soon to learn that a certain Mr D. E. A. (“Gym”) Chant, Reg Tricker's first officer in the PE department and “Baldy” Butler's aide-de-camp in the school's Army Cadet Force, was to take hold of our reins. “Gymbo” had a fearsome reputation, with a battered Dunlop "Green Flash" gym shoe being his favoured method of keeping miscreants in line (but more of that in a later episode). Needless to say our lives – or at least mine - would never be quite the same again.
(Hopefully) to be continued….!!!!!