MORE GRESHAM’S SCHOOLMASTERS of the 1960s

AUTOBIOGRAPHY 47

‘WOT’ Thomas was the housemaster who took over Farfield from Bernard Sankey about halfway through my time there. W. O. T.  were his initials; William Thomas, though always called Bill (though not of course to his face). He had jolly manner but he was also a firm disciplinarian – you didn’t bait WOT. Bill Thomas was always addresses as ‘Sir’, but so were all the masters. He walked with a slight limp, the result of a war injury, something he never mentioned.

WOT Thomas

In spite of his disability he was a keen sportsman, especially fond of cricket; although I can never remember him actually playing the game, but maybe this is just a gap in my memory. He kept a set of Wisden Annuals in his study, and I remember the yellow covers to this day. He was of medium height; during my time at school he had a young family, having married the headmaster’s secretary about the time I arrived in the Junior School.  He drove around in a Rover 90, a car that was made from 1953 until 1959.

He took us for English in the third form and he laid the foundations of a love of the subject that almost saw me reading English instead of History at University. I read an enormous number of works from Chaucer to Scott, Dickens to George Orwell, Shakespeare to Evelyn Waugh, nearly all of it outside the official school curriculum. How I had the time to do so much reading just for pleasure astonished me now; with all the other work I had to do – like evening prep, taking part in sport in the afternoons, playing in the school orchestra and painting all those pictures – I wonder where I found the time.

MR RAYNER (

JOHN RAYNER

John Rayner was also an English teacher. WOT had taken me in Big School in the third form, but when I began my ‘O’ level course in the fourth form I moved into Mr Rayner’s room in the Thatched Buildings. This room had been the biology room until Michaelmas term 1963, when new biology labs were opened in a building newly constructed near Farfield. There was still a hint of formalin about the form room as I sat learning the Pardoner’s Tale. We had done the basics of English grammar with Egg Taylor while still in the junior school, and from now on it was all about literature. The only grammar we still learnt was French, and particularly Latin grammar.  These subjects imparted some useful knowledge that was applicable to English, like the pluperfect tense, but it mostly concerned noun and verb endings that change in many languages, but which stay the same in most English grammar. John Rayner was an inspirational teacher, but as I was a natural English student I am not in a position to say quite how he affected my ‘O’ level results. It was a year with a particularly harsh marker in charge, and only eight candidates from our year got a pass. I am gratified to say that one of them was me!

I had yet another English teacher, Mr Coleridge. He was a keen golfer and spent much of his retirement playing the  game on Fakenham Golf Course. I believe he was a very distant relation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  The poets I was taught by Coleridge included Wordsworth, Keats and Browning, but I also ploughed my own furrow with  names who were then still living; T. S. Eliot, Auden, Betjeman and other younger poets. Poetry became my passion, and I taught myself all the styles and the difference between a Shakespearean and a Miltonian sonnet; I learnt where to put the caesura in a line of verse. You may be able tell from all this that I was not a great enthusiast for free verse.

We studied Shakespeare in drama lessons, and playwrights such as Terence Rattigan when doing House Plays, but as an individual I read all Bernard Shaw’s plays – and dare I say, I preferred them to Shakespeare? (I don’t any more.) John Rayner directed the school plays that I participated in. The first was Timon of Athens, not one of the Bard’s better known plays, with good reason. In it I had one of the smaller parts, that of the clown. Naturally my contributions were meant to be funny, but I had the greatest difficulty in even raising a smile in the audience. I don’t think it was all my fault. We did Coriolanus a year later; it is a much better play and I had a much bigger part in it, one which required lots of learning long speeches. What with house plays I was always acting (something I have not done since). I was also heavily involved as chairman of the Debating Society. Debating is another activity that fell by the wayside in adulthood; who knows where it might have taken me had I continued? It was organised by one of the history masters, Steve Benson. I was seldom taught by him, and only current affairs, never history. He has a tremendous bass voice, which he still uses to good effect.

‘JOCK’ Melville was a chemistry teacher. He was a bearded Scot, but not a large person – rather slight in stature. There were dark rumours that the beard hid a wartime scar, but this was merely speculation by his impressionable young pupils. He was a good teacher but not an exceptional one, unlike Dick Copas, who arrived  as a young and enthusiastic teacher as I was beginning my ‘O’ level chemistry course. Whether it was merely Dick’s youth that made him so keen on his subject I do not know, but I doubt it; I am by no means a natural chemist, but his inspired teaching got me through chemistry ‘O’ level. Dick was just one of a number of young masters who arrived at the school at about the time I moved into the senior school and they were nearly all inspiration teachers.

Olly Barnes

Olly Barnes

There were three divisions in the fourth form; Science, Languages, and General. I was General Studies for me; my aptitude for languages was questionable and I was definitely not a scientist, except for biology. Biology did not require any mathematical ability (at ‘O’ level at least) and so was a subject that I enjoyed and was really good at. My teacher was Olly Barnes, and I lapped up all he told us. The circulation of the blood or photosynthesis were grist to my mental mill. Once a week we had a period doing dissection, but this only involved cutting up a tomato or some other inanimate vegetable. Once we ventured into the animal kingdom and had to dissect a ragworm – already dead of course, and preserved in formaldehyde.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA

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One response

  1. You mention WOTs Rover but not Jocks Humber super snipe – he drove it gingerly down to the playing field at Kenwyn, along the narrow lane. He could barely see over the steering wheel.

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