SOME MEMORIES OF BARNSBURY CENTRAL SCHOOL (1937-42)
When in 1937 I failed to pass the scholarship exam for Highbury Grammar School I never imagined that this was a blessing in disguise. The LCC instead sent me to Barnsbury Central School where, in the next five years thanks to a group of dedicated masters, I was able to turn a set-back into a success.
The masters who were to guide and help me were: Dr. Wardman (Headmaster and French); Mr. Henry (English and English literature); Mr Matthews (Maths); Mr. Morris (History); Mr. Taylor (Art); and Mr. Aylard (Carpentry). There were others, but all the ones mentioned were to be evacuated with the school to Hitchen in September 1939. I will be saying more about them below.
Our classroom was on the corner of the ground floor so we looked out through the heavy wire grilled windows onto the playground. Except for morning assembly, art and woodwork, we stayed in our classroom which held about forty pupils.
The passion of the school was football. Not only did we have two major clubs nearby (Arsenal and Spurs) but in Lack and Fontana we had two extremely talented players who distinguished themselves by both playing for England boys and being signed up the for Arsenal. Lack was a back and Fontana a winger who had dribbling skills akin to those of Stanley Matthews. Both were killed in WW2. Everyone of us either supported Arsenal or Spurs. I was an Arsenal supporter and can recall, when living on the edge of Highbury Fields, seeing the Arsenal crowds pouring out of the Highbury Corner tube station on every other Saturday afternoon in the winter.
I settled in well and enjoyed it. My only two memorabilia of these long gone days are a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, which I received as an LCC prize for Good Mentions in July 1939, and the school colours scarf which was knitted by my mother.
When in 1939 it looked as if war was imminent, we were asked to decide whether or not we wanted to be evacuated. I, together with about a quarter of our class, chose to go. One good piece of news for me was that Eric Porter, who always just pipped me in exams, was not to come with us.
On Saturday 2nd September 1939 we left by train for Hitchen in Hertfordshire, each of us with our gas mask, and by dusk we were all in our various billets. I was joined by Alan Wardman, the son of the Headmaster.
At 11.15 the next morning we gathered round the radio to hear the following dramatic words from Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. “This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a Note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany”. He then went on at length but I don’t think we listened. The crucial message was clear.
At first we were housed in the changing rooms on the edge of the Hitchin Grammar School playing fields, but later we were able to have proper classrooms in a school which has since become Our Lady Roman Catholic Primary School. Two of our masters were forced to change their roles. Mr. Aylard could no longer teach carpentry so he was put in charge of the school allotment where we all did a weekly gardening stint under his guidance. Mr. Taylor no longer had an art room so he learnt Pitman’s shorthand which after a few weeks he began to teach those of us who were studying Commercial Subjects. Dr. Wardman, a tall thin man with a natural air of authority, carried on as normal. Mr. Henry added Religious Studies to his repertoire and because of his special knowledge he taught us Comparative Religion which gave us an appreciation of the way all the main religions shared a lot of common ground. Mr. Henry was a bit of an enigma. It was understood that he had been the Editor of a London paper and had then gone to live in a monastery in Tibet. He was an austere and unsmiling man whom one assumed was not at ease, but he really was an outstanding English master who worked us very hard. Thanks to him I kept a small book in which I wrote the meaning of any new word that turned up. Mr. Matthews continued to teach Maths and, I think, Physics. He was extremely tall and we were all surprised to meet his wife who was just tiny. Mr. Morris had also brought his wife whom I met regularly as, in my last year, he voluntarily gave me evening coaching in History once a week. These were all men who believed that some people were late developers and such masters deserved to to be vindicated.
The Eastbourne Grammar School was also evacuated to Hitchin and their students and those at the local Grammar School rather looked down at boys from a Central School. But we all sat the same School Certificate Examination when we were 16. One local Grammar School boy who was a bit more superior than others rode up to me on his bike saying with some pride, “I got four credits in School Certificate. What did you get?” My reply clearly shook him: “I got four Distinctions and five Credits.” He rode off in silence and I felt I had done my masters and my school proud.
Peter Coldicott February 2014