Nevill Memoirs > A Lewes Lad > 1939 to 1949
We are at War with Germany
This account begins at 11 o’clock on the morning of the 3rd of September 1939 when our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was to speak to the nation about the crisis brought about by the invasion of Poland by Germany. Even I as a ten year old was aware that there was no way that Hitler was going to withdraw his troops. He knew that the United Kingdom and France had done nothing to save Czechoslovakia a year earlier so why should he take notice of our ultimatum demanding cessation of hostilities by that day. The other important factor was the peace treaty or non aggression pact signed by the two diametrically opposites: Fascist Germany and Communist Soviet Russia.
Dad was twelve when his father had died in Flanders in 1917 and so in 1937 he thought that he should be ready for what he believed was to come. He joined the supplementary reserve in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps where his trade would make him useful.
I believe that as he had lost his father in the First World War he somehow felt duty bound to be involved from the start.
This may seem strange that a ten year old boy should know the basic facts and causes of the crisis but most of us had a good mastery of reading so newspapers and the Picture Post were sources of information together with the BBC news broadcasts.
So mum and I sat by the radio and heard the dreaded, but expected, statement that as of 12 noon we were at war with Germany. Mum sighed and we both wondered when we would see dad again and I’m sure she must have thought if only he had not joined the reserve he would still be at home with her, my father was thirty-four so wouldn’t have been in forces at any time during what we hoped would be a short war.
An Early Start
Dinner wouldn’t be for another hour so I went down to the rec. to meet the gathering of the clans, the question of the moment: what happens next. I knew that I would be affected differently in one way because I was the only one whose father had been called up. We didn’t have to wait long find out “what happens next”- almost immediately the air raid siren started wailing, we just stood there and I thought crikey they didn’t waste much time. The all clear sounded within minutes, puzzlement not fear had briefly occupied our minds so now our thoughts turned to what’s for dinner, the gathering broke up and home we went to find the answer.
A New Way of Life
Dad was in France and Mum had to make adjustments to our way of living, the car was put away for as long as the war lasted, our income was considerably reduced from that of a civilian mechanic to a private’s pay and dependants’ allowances.
Rationing hadn’t started but we had an enforced form as Mum had decided that the house monthly mortgage payments would continue even though she was offered the option of paying the interest only. The economies would be made in other ways.
Although I was only ten, I was told that I would have to be “the man of the house” and somehow I learnt how I could help through the war years as I got older.
As I had said previously my father was the only one in the forces. My contemporaries sometimes found it strange that I worried about my mother a lot and tried to make sure she wasn’t alone too much and one girl made the unkind remark “being tied to her apron strings”.
Back to School
School started back at Western Road, I was ten in 1939 so this would be my eleven-plus year. The bare facts were that if the results of your efforts was a pass you had a scholarship to the Lewes County Secondary School for Boys (later Grammar School) with fees paid by the education authority. A lower grade allowed entry to the same school but parents had to pay the annual fees and all below these levels went to Mountfield Road School.
Not much changed at school; windows had sticky tape stuck over them to reduce the danger of flying glass. We had been issued with gas masks and shown how to use them. We may have carried them for a short time but they soon were left at home. An air raid shelter for the whole school reduced the size of the playground. We were taught by Johnie Bingham and Smutzer Smith who lived at 3 Highdown Road.
One day in Smutzer’s class he was telling us about the moon and sun, he told us that the moon was, I think, 250,000 miles away, he asked us if we could think of a way to measure the distance, after a period of silence I suddenly piped up “please sir do we know how far away Japan is?” Yes, was the reply.
“Well then sir if we pointed a telescope at the moon in England and measured the angle and in Japan at the same time they measured the angle couldn’t we draw a diagram and where the two lines met that would tell us how far away the moon was.”
Smutzer thought he had a mathematical prodigy who had only, at that time, been taught arithmetic had discovered geometry or trigonometry without help. Obviously there were snags in my suggestion but what he didn’t know was that I read the War Illustrated magazine, a follow on from the Picture Post, which had shown how a range-finder worked. Later on he was instrumental in changing the whole course of my education for the better. I didn’t tell him this and was happy to enjoy a brief spell of glory.
Calm before the Storm
The time from September through to the first few months of 1940 was known as the “phoney war”, all was quiet on the western front while Hitler consolidated his position in Poland in agreement with Stalin, the French and English armies sat behind the “impregnable” Maginot Line and the Germans their Siegfried Line.
During this time Dad had leave and was home for a few days, I was at school during the day so Mum and Dad had some precious hours together. I remember that on his last night we went to the Hippodrome at Brighton. The trouble was that we didn’t enjoy it much with the thought that he was going back tomorrow and we wouldn’t know when we would see him again. In those days and right through to the end of the war for some reason I never doubted that some day my father would come back, so my worry was when and not if we would see him again.
Our back garden was always for vegetables so Mum and I carried on as before, it was even more necessary with just the army pay to live on. We shared an Anderson shelter with our neighbours and I can’t remember ever going into it as a result of an air raid but it was useful storage place and as it was sunk into the ground with the excavated earth covering the roof, my neighbour planted vegetables on it.
School carried on covering the basic three Rs in preparation for the Scholarship Exam (now the 11 plus) at end of May to see who were deemed suitable to attend The Lewes County Secondary School for Boys. I don’t remember any feeling of urgency or pressure – perhaps there were too many distractions with the war, and closer to home a rather pretty blonde girl, Anne, had just joined our class, and was my regular sweetheart for just over a year.
Food rationing started in January for some items including bacon and sugar and by the end of the war all food seemed to be rationed with the exception of fish and bread. We were lucky in having our farm friends, where they farmed just north of Plumpton. Mum and I would cycle to see them when we could and we always left with a few eggs and a rabbit. My mother was a good and inventive cook; I remember one Christmas we had roast rabbit disguised as chicken complete with stuffing.
This is a digression from my chronological account but eventually what was once basic food became a luxury, an example at tea on a visit to the farm there was some freshly made butter for our slices of bread, we were offered some jam but we both said no thanks we wanted to enjoy the taste of the butter.
The war and school plodded on and the Scholarship Exam approached when suddenly there was a drastic change, on the 10 May the Germans launched their offensive on France.
The French Maginot line stopped at the Belgium border so Hitler ignored Belgian neutrality and attacked over the border into France. By the 27 May 200,000 British troops (including Dad) and 110,000 French were trapped in Dunkirk. All was confusion and worry at home, the story of the Dunkirk evacuation is not part of my story but by 3 June the evacuation was complete and not long after we heard that Dad was safe in England.
About this time we took the exam, I can honestly say that I can’t remember anything about it or how I felt I had done, may be it didn’t seem that important in comparison to other events.
School term finished and that ended my time at Western Road and I knew my future was to be decided – which school I would be attending.
Eleven Plus Result
Dad’s unit was posted to the seaside town of Rhyl in north Wales. He was billeted in a hotel which had some vacancies so we went to be near him, taking our ration books.
It was like a holiday and off duty hours were spent together and this was expected to last until we had to return for the start of my new school. We had arranged for my grandmother to check the post and let us know the exam result. We heard that I could attend the County School for Boys not on a scholarship but as a fee payer, but the fee was £11 per annum, much too high on dad’s pay so I was to go to Mountfield Road and be educated there until I was sent into the wide world at fourteen.
Our “holiday” came to an end suddenly, my father was a good engineer and perhaps the message had got through, he was sent on an armament artificer’s course in Nottingham so we returned home to see that part of the Battle of Britain over the skies of Sussex for command of the sky. This was necessary for Hitler before he could mount an invasion across the Channel. Most of the action we saw was through August and September although the overall period was mid July to the end of October.
Wrong Aircraft Recognition
I had always been interested in aeroplanes which I shared with my father; I had been taken to the Hendon air shows and just before the war to Gatwick where we had seen the RAF’s new fighter the Hurricane, so from cigarette cards, magazines and spotters books I reckoned I could recognise friend and foe. My ability was soon to be tested, one day before the Battle of Britain a twin engine plane circled low over the Nevill, my friend said what’s that and I confidently said a Handley Page Hampden, suddenly it banked steeply and we saw the black crosses on the wings, I quickly changed type to a Dornier 11 “Flying Pencil”. We didn’t duck for cover and if the crew had seen us they would have wondered why the two boys were waving to them.
Battles in the Sky
The Battle of Britain started on 10 July and continued through to 31 October. The German tactics changed when they realised that they wouldn’t gain control of our skies which they needed in order to mount an invasion – from that time they resorted to bombing our industries and cities with civilians as targets. Their other weapon was the U-boat that cut off our essential food and supplies. We saw the battle mostly over August and early September, our gang would go up on the hill above the chalk pits where we could see the vapour trails of the planes and see where any plane was crashing. We would jump on our bikes and hope that it was German and get to the crash site in the hope of getting souvenirs. One day we were able to get to a Me 109 fighter that had crash landed near the road past Houndean Rise near where the Kingston roundabout is now. To us it was all part of a great adventure, and for a lot of us our ambition, if the war lasted long enough, was to be a Spitfire pilot.
Every night the news readers told us the score in terms of German planes shot down followed by a much smaller number of our fighter losses. Much later we learnt what had been the real figures, which showed just a slender margin, and whether we could have sustained our losses if the Luftwaffe had persisted. In round numbers 1550 RAF planes were shot down compared to 1900 German planes, RAF pilots killed 550, German killed 2700 and missing 640, a further 970 became prisoners of war.
The government was probably right to keep us in ignorance to maintain our morale and this does not invalidate Churchill’s tribute to the “Few” but we certainly didn’t know that so many had given their lives.
Mountfield Road School
My father had completed his Arm.Arts course with the result that he was no longer a private but an Armament Artificer Staff Sergeant (three stripes & a crown with a considerable increase in his pay) with the result that he could arrange for additional money to my mother. If this increase had happened earlier I would have been going to the Lewes County School for Boys as a fee payer but the die was cast and in September I started at Mountfield Road. I don’t remember being upset as I would be with most of my pals from Western Road and anyway they had proper football and cricket pitches plus equipped wood and metal workshops.
Headmaster and Teachers
We had good teachers, Miss Bennet Maths, Mrs Beaforth English, and Smutzer Smith for Science and Mr Barton woodwork. The headmaster was Mr Boley, nicknamed Pim, who we found ruled by fear in the form of the liberal use of the cane. Of course one school song (never to be heard by Pim) went as follows:-
Old Pim Boley is so holy
He goes to church on Sunday
And prays to God to give him strength
To whack the kids on Monday
The First Bomb
On October 10 1940 we were in the classroom when we had our first taste of war in Lewes, I don’t remember if the air raid warning siren had gone but suddenly we heard a plane followed by the sound of a bomb falling. The ARP rule was flat on your tummy, elbows on the floor, hands over ears, and chin off the floor. There was a loud bang, the building shook and the floor bumped. When the danger had passed we got up and sat down to resume our lesson and then I realised that my chin was hurting, I felt it and found a small lump on the tip of my chin, I had followed all the rules routine except the last one and the floor had done the damage. As my pride was more important, I was a bit cocky and didn’t want to look stupid so I told no-one. That was the only war injury I suffered.
Lessons progressed well and I was learning a lot from the good teachers and I was enjoying it. We had exams at the end of each term and at the end of the autumn and winter terms.
Randlestown Northern Ireland
During the first year at Mountfield my father was posted in the spring to a unit in Northern Ireland in Randlestown, County Antrim. So as soon as possible Dad found us lodgings and we were to move over there for the duration or as long as the posting lasted, in fact it only lasted seven weeks. After making all necessary arrangements, including me going to the local Protestant school, we bid our fond farewell to Lewes and set off on our journey not knowing when we would be back.
We went by rail to Stranraer in Scotland and by ship, across where the Irish Sea meets the Atlantic, to Larne. The sea was rough but I still felt hungry and a soldier in the Ulster Rifles who had been on the train with us said would I like a breakfast. My mother was already feeling off colour but said I could go so we went below. We ordered our meals and while we waited I realised my big mistake, I could feel the movement of the ship and through porthole the horizon was going up and down and even “seesawing”, within five minutes I bid a hurried goodbye to my soldier friend and hurried up on deck and very fresh air. I wasn’t sick on the boat but I had never felt so ill, the sickness started as soon as I set foot on the quay-side at Larne. Dad was waiting for us and had arranged a taxi to take us to Randlestown. The journey included three unscheduled stops for me to further unload.
The School and Problems
We settled in our lodgings and I soon found myself attending the local Protestant school. At first I seemed to be settling in quite well but after a week I started to get a form of bullying: a boy challenged me to a wrestling match, not an unusual thing in any school so I accepted but then I made my big mistake – the match ended with me pinning the boy to the ground and me as victor. This now meant that the honour of all Northern Ireland had to be restored and I was subject to all sorts of challenges so that I was constantly being hassled. This lasted for about two weeks but then an evacuee from Glasgow, Oswald Jamierson, joined the school and soon he was getting the same treatment. As fellow sufferers we formed an alliance and soon became friends and constant companions and we were left alone which was fine by us.
Lessons were much the same as Mountfield, with one exception, “scripture”, which seemed to be to inform us about the hated Roman Catholics who lived and had their school at the bottom end of the town. In our free time Oswald and I roamed the countryside, down to the river Boyne and to Loch Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles where Coastal Command had Sunderland flying boats stationed.
One thing I had noticed as soon as I touched land were the policemen who had pistols and truncheons on show. On the 12th of July, Orange Day, Oswald and I went down to the town to see the celebrations, what we saw was a minor riot with a group of men fighting outside a pub with the Ulster Constabulary wading in with their truncheons, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and hopped it.
Not long after that Dad was sent back to England for posting, so our stay of seven weeks ended and Mum and I took the return journey home and I admit that, selfishly, I was glad but I was sorry to leave my friend and hoped he would cope as the lone foreigner. Having learnt my lesson I stayed on deck for the crossing back to Stranraer and suffered no sickness.
Back at Mountfield Road
One friendship came about in an unusual way, it all started when one boy picked on a friend who was a gentle character, then it started by me saying “why don’t you leave him alone”, “what you going to do about it” came the reply and so on until it became a matter of honour to be settled in a quiet corner of the playground. As we were going out I decided that I needed a pee, my duellist came for one and as we were standing side by side we looked at one another we both started laughing about the daft situation we had got ourselves into. Peace was declared and we became friends for the rest of my time at Mountfield.
Dad off to Overseas Posting
Soon after we were back in Lewes and Dad came home for seven day’s embarkation leave. There was no news for some time but eventually we learnt that he was in Egypt and into Libya and then later India and Burma. We weren’t to see him until after VJ day and the end of hostilities, a long four and a half years. I can’t say why but I had absolute faith that one day he would eventually come home so I went through those years with no worry.
Towards the end of the summer term Pim Boley was away and Mr Smith as deputy was in charge, and without me or my mother’s knowledge he contacted Mr Bradshaw the head of Lewes County School for Boys and told him that there was a boy who should be at his school. As a result we received a letter asking my mother and me to see him. Mr Bradshaw told us what Mr Smith had said and he gave a friendly questioning for half hour, at the end of which he said that I would be put to the test now, and my mother left for home. He produced exam papers for my age group with Maths and English as the main subjects and I was put in a small room with desk pen and paper and left to show my worth.
I can’t remember the details except for one piece of luck, I had to write an essay on one of three subjects given and, glory be, one of the subjects was the RAF which was my special interest.
I duly finished, my efforts were collected and I was sent away with the message that we would be told later of the school’s decision, when a letter arrived it said that I would be accepted as a fee paying student at the start of the school year in September.
My father’s new rank pay meant that the fee was no problem so I knew that I would soon be a Lewes County Secondary School for Boys pupil.
Mum in War Work
I don’t know what was government policy but about this time my mother, who wasn’t encumbered by a husband to cater for and a son of twelve, was deemed as available for work. I don’t know how but she became a clerk in the Vehicle Licensing Department in the then County Hall in the High Street, she worked there for the duration of the war, not bad for someone who had left school at the age of eleven. As I would be going to a school with dining facilities and would be away from home between 9am and 5pm everything worked out fine.
One result of Mum working coupled with Dad’s higher pay was that she was able to complete the mortgage payment on the house. There was one further problem before the house was theirs before completion: that was Dad’s signature. The forms were duly sent to Dad and sometime later they were returned with a covering letter, typical of him, saying that he was sorry that owing to the petrol shortage he couldn’t be there in person.
Sussex County School
There were two streams for each year, for some reason I never fathomed, starting at 2, so these were forms 2A and 2B. I expected as someone who had been “squeezed in” and as a fee payer to be in 2B but to my surprise I found myself in 2A with thirty-four scholarship boys from all parts of the eastern half of Sussex, some as far away as Battle. We, the Lewes boys, were lucky, we could cycle or walk to school whilst all the others came by bus or train.
The school was divided into four “Houses”, Lewes, Uckfield, Seahaven (Seaford & Newhaven) and Martlets (villages across the county as far away as Heathfield and Battle). Most of the masters had nicknames: Spud, Gluey, Gangster, Killer, Sniffer, Sherlock, Goofy and Flakey were some.
This was a whole new educational world, the first target was to prepare you for the Oxford School Certificate after five years. The minimum requirement was a pass in six subjects including English Language, Maths, a foreign language and Science.
In our first year we took, English Language, English Literature, Maths, General Science (Chemistry, Physics & Biology), French, Latin, Geography, History, Art and Woodwork.
The system was that at the end of the year the results of the Latin exam would decide who would carry on with that subject, that is the top half of the form, and drop Woodwork which would be for the bottom half.
I quite liked Spud Taylor who taught Latin but I decided that I would rather do Woodwork with Gluey Larwill so I waited for the deciding exam and hatched my plan. I didn’t want to prejudice my overall form position but if I didn’t try too hard in the Latin exam I would be doing Woodwork for the rest of my school life. But I got it slightly wrong, overall position fourth but, horror on horrors, I scraped in sixteenth so bottom of the top half in Latin. Fifth was the highest overall position I ever achieved and as sport took on more importance to me my position overall in the academic sphere descended towards the middle order as time went on. The first and last school reports are an illustration going from place in class fifth and good, to sixteenth and fair.
P.T. and Sport
The physical side was well covered, P.T every day, football until fourteen and rugby thereafter (I couldn’t wait), cross–country and then cricket, swimming and athletics.
During the week there were form and house matches. The school didn’t have a representative team for football but by the second year I was a regular in the under fourteens cricket team and later progressed through seconds at cricket and rugby to the firsts. We played most of the Sussex schools as far west as Worthing and all those in the east of the county. This was quite an achievement to organise travel and fixtures with most of the games played on Saturdays.
The school had its Boy Scout Troop that you join at eleven but the formation of the schools Air Training Corp and an Army Cadet Force platoon of the Royal Sussex Regiment which could be joined at fourteen meant that the scout troop lost quite a few members. I joined the Army Cadets school platoon in the Royal Sussex Regiment – I thought Dad would be pleased when I wrote that I hadn’t joined the school Air Training Corps “Brylcream Boys”, the army’s unflattering nickname for the R.A.F.
Private in Army Cadet Force (click to enlarge)
Training covered drill, map reading (1 inch Ordnance Survey), I still have my War Services Copy 1940 framed in my office, and 22 rifle shooting on 25 yard range in the old Naval Prison. With all the practice I had with air rifle shooting earlier with Dad I passed all the tests and got the highest grade of Empire Marksman.
During one of the summer school holidays we went to an army training camp for a week’s instruction by regular soldiers that could, accurately, be described as a culture shock. We were shown our billets in a Nissen hut with narrow beds empty pillow and mattress cases and a large pile of clean straw as stuffing. I don’t think I got used it until the last night seven days later, and being woken at half past six wasn’t my idea of heaven.
There was a panic when we heard a rumour that we were to have medicals and the doctor was a woman, much to our relief the rumour was unfounded.
Highlight was a day on the rifle range being shown the workings of the 303 Lee Enfield rifle and then to fire it. The final overall test was the War Cert. A which I duly passed and later helped when I started primary training on National Service in March 1950.
The Spotters Club
Aircraft were a natural interest to boys, there was already a Spotters Club that met once a week after school to practice aircraft recognition. Our main source of information were the magazine Aeroplane’s books, one for each nation, starting with the RAF and Fleet Air Arm and Germany followed by Italy, Russia, the USA and finally Japan, no surprise that identifying some of these nations’ aircraft never put us to the test.
Swimming at the Pells
During school summer holidays we couldn’t use the school baths so then we used the Pells pool. It was not a bit like it is now and health and safety demands were low for obvious reasons to us at the time. We used to check the state of the water, if you could see the bottom of the pool it was going to be too cold, so wait a few days, and the best time was when the water was green. I don’t recall any of us suffering problems and the soldiers, including the Commandos, billeted in the town were not banned from using it. Although the deep end depth was the same as now there was diving for about four and six feet plus a “spring board” in the corner which had very little spring but it was great for running up as a launch for long distance “bum busters”.
One war effort activity during school term was sugar beet singling. We did it in two separate years – the first high on the hill approaching Telscombe and the following year at Plumpton. The seeds had been sown in drilled rows about two feet apart, the beet shoots were about two inches high and closely packed, our job was to remove most shoots and leave the healthiest ones every nine inches. It was hard work, on your knees and head down and the soil was light with plenty of small chalk and flint pieces. The first time I hadn’t reached long trousers status so sore knees to go with the stiff back, the following year was slightly better but the back was just as bad. I think we were paid 3d an hour.
Much better was the holiday farming in August, I don’t know if the contact was made by school but we had a job on a farm at Iford bringing in the corn harvest. There were no combined harvesters then so the wheat was cut and bound into sheaves by a tractor binder, where the work started for us piling the sheaves on end into stooks, like small wigwams, to dry the corn ready for threshing.
The next step for us was loading the sheaves on to horse drawn wagons – the two jobs were pitch forking the sheaves up onto the wagon where two of us, supervised by a land girl, distributed the sheaves across the wagon and started to pile up to a level stable enough to get across a road and another field to the thresher. By far the hardest job was on the cart, once the cart floor was covered you were no longer on firm standing and as the stacking grew you were standing in a hole nearly up to your waist spreading the load across the cart with our pitch forks, a back breaking job. I had my share of both jobs – it was a good thing that we were all pretty fit after a school year with gym daily, rugby, cross country, athletics and cricket plus tennis in our own time. After a few days of this I was given a new responsibility, maybe it was because I was the smallest of our band of friends, the old farm carter gave me a horse and cart to work the fields, I can’t remember the carter’s name but the horse was called Major, a really big animal with hoofs like dinner plates, my uncle probably shod him.
We would go along the lines of stooks and I would help pitching the sheaves up onto the cart. When we had a full load I would then lead the horse back across the road to the thresher. I think I led the horse but he knew the drill and sometimes I think he led me, anyway we got on well enough to enable me to keep the job.
We also harvested potatoes on a farm at Isfield, another backbreaking job. Mode of transport: bikes.
Meeting the Enemy
One other interesting part of the work was that I met the “enemy” in person; there was a German prisoners of war, POWs, camp at Rodmell and a few of them worked with us. It’s funny that although my dad was in the Eighth Army at that time, they were to me just fellow workers and I realised they also had parents, wives or sweethearts, brothers and sisters or children worrying for them just like us. I managed by pointing to the sky to find out that he was an airman and he grinned and said Heinkel and after I raised my eyebrows he grinned and said what sounded like Spiffeur.
Another job for the school holidays started when I reached the start of “the age of responsibility” namely sixteen when I could work for The Royal Mail in the two weeks prior to Christmas. On arrival at the sorting office opposite the railway station I was allotted a job sorting parcels, this involved putting them into sacks for various parts of the UK. All started well until my brand of humour let me down when I turned to my friend and said “which part of Scotland is Scarborough in?” Unfortunately the supervisor who, understandably, didn’t know the brand decided that my geographical knowledge could be better used delivering post around the Nevill Estate, so the remainder of my service was humping a sack in the winter cold. I found that my friend who continued to sort parcels in the comparative warmth of the sorting office found that far more amusing than my offending question on the whereabouts of a Yorkshire holiday resort.
Other School Memories
Through all my time at school the war continued through crisis and triumphs. We listened to the news on the BBC as directed by the government, we were thrilled by our Battle of Britain Boys and later with the Bomber Command airmen when they took the war to the enemy and “gave them a sample of what our cities had suffered”.
At school morning assembly through the war years the head would announce that an old boy had been decorated, and sadly the deaths of those killed action, and a new school motto was introduced: the Latin motto Dare nec Computare, give and not count the cost. Every Monday after school dinner most of the school, which was predominantly Church of England, went for a service to Southover church. The Catholic boys had their own mini-service at the school.
One memorable result of our weekly service was that the school were invited by the BBC, who broadcast a Sunday evening service every week from different locations, to broadcast. The scheduled date meant Mr Bradshaw and our music master Mr Austin had to lick into shape a mass choir of three hundred comprising various levels of unbroken and broken voices. The evening arrived and after a few instructions from the BBC came the signal go. The Head conducted the service and gave the sermon, Mr Austin played the organ and the lesson was read by the school captain and the massed choir plus our teachers did our best to raise the roof particularly “I vow to thee my country” to the tune of Jupiter from Holst’s “Planets”.
When I was about fourteen it was decided that I, with a number of friends should attend confirmation classes, our teacher was the curate from St Anne’s Church, he was a lovely old man with a sense of humour – we called him Pop. We learnt the Ten Commandments and the creed and a date was set for our and other classes to be confirmed at Offham Church. The last instruction from Pop, knowing that there would be girls who like us would be accepted as communicants by the Bishop laying a hand on our heads, was “go steady with the Brylcreme”.
The School Memorial Chapel
Before the war ended, under the Head’s drive, the plans and gradually funds were raised to build a memorial chapel in honour of the many old boys who gave and would give their lives. The chapel is now used by the Priory School but the dwindling number of Old Lewesians retain an interest and have a service there whenever we have an OB’s re-union.
Other School Events
We had our adventures, school activities, cricket, rugby and now tennis, the only dangers we experienced were self-imposed. As time passed girlfriends became an important part of our out of school life.
Two significant results of the war were the arrival of women teachers to replace those teachers called up or volunteered for service in the forces and the evacuation of a complete boys’ grammar school from London: the Tooting Bec School.
“Bec” boys shared our school facilities and to ease crowding, common rooms and the library became classrooms. We also had a couple of form rooms along the road at the Lewes Girls Grammar School, although a close watch was kept on us it did provide for an occasional meeting with the girls.
The Bec also became an addition to our sporting fixtures.
Women teachers were a different matter, of the five two were tough and they made their subjects interesting so as with all teachers we boys behaved ourselves, but sometimes the others had a hard time. It wasn’t because they were women – it was, and maybe is still, that boys will test out any teacher and see what they can get away with to the limit just before the dreaded sanction “go to the headmasters study” with all that it implied. One thing I’m ashamed to admit was that occasionally we had to go to the stationery room to apologise to a tearful lady teacher and persuade her to return to classroom in case the “plonk”, the Head, might be on one of his patrols.
A visit to the Head’s study was something to be avoided as the swish, cane, was the instrument of punishment. Knock on door, “come in boy close the door”, and after a brief resume of your sins “behave yourself go to the door bend and hold the handle”, to be followed according to the gravity of your sins a sliding scale from one to six whacks. He always held the cane at the thin end so that there was no danger of spraining his wrist. He may sound like an ogre but that was the order of the day, but we all respected him and returned the affection he had for all his boys.
Whenever I saw him in later years until he died it was “hello Potts” then “hello Sir” then he wanted to know what I had been up to. I remember telling him about my current job with a mining engineering company and I thought I might be going to Peru whereupon he said that an old boy was working out there and, if possible, I should get in touch with him. Two days later I had a letter from him with the old boy’s address.
Another punishment was to do so many lines (impots) say 100 times – I must not put carbide in the inkwells. We had one rather dishy teacher, it was the only time that when we entered a classroom that the rush was to the front desks rather than those to the rear. Her subject was English and one day I was in pole position and I was somewhat distracted she noticed me with a far-away look she asked me to repeat what she had just said. I couldn’t oblige but now I can say exactly as I had an impot to write out 200 times “the verb to be never has an object but frequently has a phrase in apposition”.
The Oxford School Certificate
The objective was a broad education that would lead to the Oxford School certificate, the minimum requirement was to pass in six subjects including English Language, Maths, a foreign language in our case French, and Science plus two others.
There were four grades adjudged by the examination board Very Good, Credit, Pass and Fail and to be considered for further education in the sixth form for two more years and thence to a university the minimum was six credits, this standard was called the Matric. The school made sure that we covered more than the minimum six and when my turn came I took nine subjects and I think that I shocked some of the teachers, based on some of the comments on my school report prior to the exams, with my results. I wonder if the examiners may have gone easy on us as it was in the middle of the V1 (doodle- bug) season.
English Language – Very Good
English Literature – Credit
History – Credit
Geography – Very Good
Latin – Pass
French – Credit
Mathematics – Credit
General Science – Credit
Art – Credit
I had, therefore, become university material but I wanted to leave and earn a living in something interesting. By this time the war was over, so I thought of engineering or seeing the world as an apprentice Deck Officer in the Merchant Navy. The school however had decided that I was university material and was to stay for the additional two years. I still wanted to leave and the result was that the school asked my father to see the Head to discuss what was best for me. Before the meeting I talked it over with Dad and said that I wanted to take an engineering apprenticeship which included part time release to study at Brighton Tech to get my relevant qualifications.
The day of the meeting arrived, Dad had the discussion with the Head and I found that I was going to university.
I was installed reluctantly in the Lower Sixth, there was an element of choice for the three subjects so I opted, not surprisingly for Maths, Physics and Chemistry. My only consolation was that I would still be playing cricket and rugby.
My introduction to Lewes RFC started whilst at school in the season before School Cert. Occasionally servicemen on leave with others tried to put together a scratch team to play perhaps a similar team from another Sussex team or a service team from soldiers stationed. To fill any holes an old boy of the school would ring the Head. The following morning at assembly Mr Bradshaw, who would do anything for serving OBs, would announce that some players would be needed, this was more important than missing lessons, with the result that I and others would be at the Stanley Turner to play.
I particularly remember playing against the Lovat Commandos who were stationed at Lewes prior to D-Day, I was playing on the wing and I sized up my opposite number, he looked older than the others and a bit on the scrawny side, not too much of a problem I thought. I soon found out how wrong I was – when I got the ball I was duly flattened and when he had it I was trampled underfoot, it felt like tackling a broom cupboard travelling at 100mph; afterwards I learnt that he had been a professional Rugby League player.
The Rebel Moves On
After couple of terms in the Lower Sixth I realised that I wanted to be an engineer and that to me learning in the abstract wasn’t getting anywhere, boredom set in. I wanted to relate maths to its practical use in the world I wanted to become part of. In the end the reluctant rebel found a way, at morning assembly the head would sometimes announce an employer who was looking for a trainee or an apprentice, of course the head would check that the positions offered would befit non university scholars but had school cert. One day he announced an electrical apprenticeship with a small firm in Seaford and gave the address, not wasting any time I wrote for an interview.
I was called, met the boss and some of the staff and taken to see one of their projects and was offered the job – I said that I would check with the school on a leaving date. Now to face the music, on informing the school that I wanted to leave as I had been offered an apprenticeship I was sternly informed that it didn’t work like that and I could only leave if the School Board of Governors agreed. The governors duly met, later I was told that the majority were against my leaving but one member changed their minds with the argument that “what’s the point keeping someone who wasn’t committed to sixth form study, and to keep him on would be a waste of every one’s time”. So I became an Old Lewesian, dumped my cap and blazer, bought an Old Boy’s tie and ventured into the unknown.
My time as an apprentice starting in February 1946, at seventeen, through to the end of January 1950 when I was twenty, is best covered in one chapter without any digression into other aspects and distractions, mostly pleasurable, that I will cover later.
As I had started later than most apprentices whose “time” was five years, my apprenticeship was for four years. If all went well I would get enough practical experience and as I would be exempt from the first year of the Ordinary National Certificate of Electrical Engineering (ONC) I should pass the levels to take the final Higher (HNC) in four years. National Service in the armed forces was the order of the day for all fit males at eighteen but for apprentices national service was deferred until apprenticeships were completed.
I had one day release per week to attend the old Brighton Technical College and also two evenings, of two hours, a week to cover the syllabus subjects. We were to be judged on our course work which comprised set problems at the end of each lecture to be worked on at home and the answers produced by the following week. The yearly exams were in May/June and it was necessary to pass on all subjects. After a day’s work it was sometimes hard to go to the evening lectures – also the set work for marking the following week curtailed our social and leisure activities.
The years as an apprentice covered all aspects of electrical practical work for the first year, working with an electrician “looking over your shoulder” but as my skill level and confidence (reliability?) increased coupled with a full bag of tools I could work unsupervised. Eventually for most of my last two years I worked with an ex RAF engineer who was the best qualified in the firm and as I had then passed the ONC level we were teamed up for the tricky jobs. I also had another use in the days when Health and Safety regulation was non-existent: as I was athletic and not frightened of heights I would shin up ladders for high jobs. This would become useful when the government allowed neon lighting to be used and the firm started work on cinemas and theatres.
Leisure and Social Activities
For the rest of the teenage years they followed the usual pattern, rebel, girls, sport and looking for fun, I guess I was lucky through those years. I had plenty of girlfriends – some I was pretty fond of, one or two I am still in touch with but one I never saw again gave me an unusual “Dear John” (send-off letter). It went something like this “Mummy says that I am neglecting my studies at college so I have to give up horses or boyfriend”. No prizes for guessing the result.
Dancing was the best way to meet the girls, there was a dance at the Town Hall nearly every Saturday night and for the best we had the Regent in Brighton, now the site of Boots opposite the Clock Tower, with Syd Dean’s broadcasting band. One popular outing was to take your girlfriend on a Sunday afternoon to the Regent tea dance where the music was provided by a sextet, another venue was the end of the Palace Pier at Brighton.
There were also the local dances at St Mary’s Hall with music provided by amateur musicians who lived on the Nevill who performed under the title “The Continentals”, a somewhat unusual choice.
My mate, who much later was my best man, was a good steady dancer, taught me. It was never any problem who would be the women, we would go for a walk in the country and he would go in front of me performing the steps and I would follow a few yards back copying him, it worked well but I often wonder if a bird watcher ever saw us and wondered why two youths were dancing with invisible girls and with no music.
As a teenager and a rebel I was a “closet red” which of course nobody noticed but it did get me into trouble once. The Attlee government introduced the NHS which was opposed by a number doctors and dentists. Unfortunately I needed a tooth filling and during our preliminary conversation I declared my support. I duly sat in the chair and then as the string and pulley contraption powered the drill the dentist confirmed his anti-view by lecturing me on its failings and as there was no table to thump he emphasised his points with pressure on the drill. By the time he was ready to complete the filling I moved my bottom back onto the seat from near the foot rest, I suffered many aches in that department before I plucked up courage to revisit a torture chamber again.
Sport was an important part of my life and rugby with Lewes RFC the most important. I started in the A team and for the last two years for the 1sts. In the four years I was knocked out once, dislocated a collarbone, broke my nose. My uncle who watched me play said “why do you tackle with your nose”, it could be said that my once presentable feature had over the years a free retrograde nose job. A few years later I had to have four top front teeth removed as a result of damage to the gums, no gum shields in those days.
The social side was also great fun there. There were a few teenagers like myself in the teams but the majority were ex-servicemen who had returned from a hard and dangerous life and they wanted to enjoy life as much as possible. After home matches there was always a party in the club house with the visiting team before we broke up to see what the rest of Saturday night had to offer. Away matches were a different matter; we went in an old coach to the match and after the game there was the usual time with our hosts but then the crazy bunch started back in the coach singing the repertoire of rugby songs. I confess that I sang one song and it wasn’t till some later that I knew what it was about. Perhaps today’s reader wouldn’t have that problem – the last verse:
The moral of this story only goes to show
There ain’t no sense in snuffing snow
Coming back from one match we stopped at a pub near Redhill and as we crowded into the saloon bar the locals looked somewhat worried but we had a brilliant entertainer, our hooker, who asked the landlord if he could use the piano. The answer was yes and off he started leading our chorus singing the popular songs of the day and the war. It wasn’t long before the locals were joining and night really lit up. He then gave a couple of Noel Cowards songs ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington’ and ‘She had to go and lose it at the Astor’. He followed this with his version of the death of Nelson, he played both Nelson and Hardy. As one was lying on the deck and the other standing, there was a lot of action particularly when it came to “kiss me Hardy”. We left just before closing time as the locals were buying us drinks to keep us there and the landlord was smiling. The other reason that there was a good club spirit was that the main feeder for players was our old school – we were sometimes referred to as Lewes OBs.
Injury treatment was primitive, dislocated fingers were treated by our playing doctor on the spot then carry on playing. Concussion which I suffered once meant “are you alright, better go off for a bit. At that time my worst injury after I tackled big chap was a very painful shoulder – the diagnosis was you’ve probably broken your collar bone, better get up to the Vic. So off I went pushing my bike with one hand up to the hospital where I was told the X-Ray was closed on the weekend. They put on a sling and told me to come back on Monday; on Monday I found that I only had a dislocation.
The other great event was the annual club ball, a dinner jacket do held at the Town Hall with a bar extension to midnight with dancing till 2.00am. Most years I took a girl friend but if I went on my own I still had a good time as quite a few rugby players either weren’t built for tripping the light fantastic and through practice over the years I was ever eager to help out.
I also played cricket for Lewes St Michaels CC as an all-rounder left hand bowler right hand bat, a la Dennis Compton, hardly, in summer 1949 we won our league title, other teams in the league included Chailey, Cooksbridge and another Lewes club Willowbrook.
End of Story
I was twenty in 1949 and my apprenticeship ended at that year. Unfortunately the government deferment ended with my apprenticeship so at start of 1950 I was called for a medical and passed fit A1 and in March I went to the REME regimental unit at Blandford, Dorset. This meant that I was unable to take the final HNC later in the year, so wait for demob and start the final year again.
Later after basic training I was posted to army workshops and after trade tests became Craftsman A1 Electrician Vehicle & Plant but all that is another story.