School and Learning


© Bob Denton 2019
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A strong memory from my childhood is the way the education system kept changing. I was the eldest of three children, Lorraine four years younger and John eight years younger than me. Mum described us as ‘Leap Year babies’, born in 1948, 1952 and 1956 respectively. Of course, those four-year gaps were huge while we grew up and went through school. It didn’t help inter-relationships that I was babysitting them from ten years old and the latch-key supervisor – they felt to be more a responsibility rather than siblings.

ASIDE: my brother John apparently tells his children that I routinely tied him to the clothes post in the garden; I recall doing that once as part of a game. It seems his childhood memory of me is as his keeper and tormentor rather than a play-friend.

Mum worked in shops, so we all got home well before her, though Dad’s confusing shifts as a fireman meant that he was home on some of these days – that was when no part-time job interfered.

 Upper Horfield – I’m top row, 3rd from right

Mum was ambitious for me and had me sit entrance examinations for two local elite schools, Bristol Grammar and Bristol Cathedral. I refused point black to sit for the QEH, (Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School) because its uniform with knickerbocker shorts and socks beneath a high-buttoned coat with unusual neckwear would have been too humiliating. I took the 11-plus and passed to attend the boys only Cotham Grammar School. I got an offer to the Cathedral, but I preferred Cotham. The true significance was that I left my neighbourhood and friends and made new friends from all over the city, rather than just within my council house estate. This changed my prospects profoundly.

ASIDE: I clearly remember two errors from my Cathedral/Grammar entrance exam. I took this without any sort of coaching; we couldn’t afford it. The first was that I was asked to supply a seven-letter word for dried-up earth, beginning with P. I came up with ‘peeling’ – when the answer was ‘parched’. The second was that I was asked to define the word ‘shibboleth’, I had no idea, to me it sounded like something worn or recited in a synagogue. To save you looking it up I wasn’t that far out, because it means an outmoded principle or belief for a particular group of people. However, I rather prefer my son Matt’s tale of examinations. In his French exam he was asked to state his birthdate, and decided to change it from 25-Feb to 25-Apr because he wasn’t sure which way the accent went in février.

My sister passed through the educational system four years later. By then the 11-plus was still taken but crossing the city to a remote school was no longer a possibility. She was instead sent to a local bilateral school, Pen Park. Having done well in her 11-plus she was admitted to the ‘Grammar’ stream, but the school had other streams for those who had not done so well. It was also a mixed-sex school, so her education had the distractions of both the other sex and other streams. She was no less successful at her school but the system no longer permitted her to move from her immediate vicinity or social group.

My brother was another four years younger and by then there was no choice on offer. He had to attend the local mixed-sex comprehensive school. This was in his neighbourhood, among local friends and acquaintances. I mention this not to suggest this was in any way a lesser system, just to reflect that across those eight years the opportunities for personal mobility was radically altered by changes in the educational system.

© Bob Denton 2019
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Cotham Grammar School

 Cotham Grammar School, Cotham Lawn Road

Going to a single-sex school through your early teenage years (particularly in the 1960s) was probably a good move It meant girls retained their mystery and provided no distraction while being educated. The school would however become mixed in 1975, ten years after my leaving.

ASIDE: In looking at the school website today I was a tad surprised to see its four houses have become Delta, Gamma, Sigma and Omega. In my day these were instead named for great British naval heroes – Blake, Frobisher, Grenville and Nelson – I was a proud Nelson in my dark green rugby shirt. The school colours were purple and green. Our school badge was a green tower (like a chess rook), representing Cotham Tower – originally a windmill, later a snuff manufactory. Today’s badge retains the tower but it is white on a blue background with a gold line around it. It appears to be chamfered (appropriately?) to look like a down arrow!

I started there in 1959. That year’s intake was just three forms when previous years had been four; the school took in 90 pupils instead of 120. There was a general inspection of the school that year which reported it as ‘a place of sound learning, with an assured position in the educational life of the city.’

3-gear Sturmey Archer

I had to travel almost four miles each day to and from the school, by two buses or more often by bicycle. My trusty Hercules New Yorker with its Sturmey-Archer three-gear internal-hub dealt with the many hills. Only rich kids had derailleur gears, and double-clangers were merely a dream.  Mine was simple and functional. I had no inkling that it had ‘pop’ appeal on ‘both sides of the Atlantic!’ (according to the advert below).

Hercules New Yorker bicycle

No-one else from Upper Horfield Junior Mixed School came with me to Cotham and I arrived on the first day not knowing a single person at the school. It didn’t help that the cap my Mum had proudly purchased for me, despite money being short, was thrown onto the roof during my first hour and was never returned to me, despite my name tag having been dutifully sewn into it. No-one at the school ever asked me to present or wear one.

Perhaps the most lasting memory of Cotham was an act of mass disrespect that was performed every day of term. The headmaster was Mr Sanford R. Woods, of course he was ‘Splint’ to the pupils. He was appointed in 1942 when the school had to operate with many of its staff away on military service and held the post for twenty-three years. He had an unfortunate impediment, saying ‘kuh’ between phrases. At prayers each morning, most of the pupils intoned the Lord’s Prayer, as ‘Our father, kuh, who art in Heaven, kuh…’ We thought this ritual cruelty was hilarious.

Most of us only ever saw ‘Splint’ during prayers or as he swept around the school with his gown billowing behind him like some flapping black bird. However, in my fourth or fifth year he decided personally to take the odd lesson, perhaps to keep his hand in as he had no regular teaching assignments. In this one lesson he rather unwisely suggested we could ask him any question.

This was the 1960s, the notion of sex education still a thing for the future, so of course someone asked about sex before marriage. He blustered through some strange metaphor about needing to regularly oil a lawnmower. This was too obscure to mean anything to us. Of course, lawnmowers back then were simple mechanical devices, so I assumed it had something to do with lustily thrusting forwards and backwards and that it needed to be performed regularly. But to his credit this was the only sex instruction I ever received from teachers or parents.

Ghost Train poster

A big memory of school was drama, we had no drama department; that was still quite new dea back then. But we had an art teacher, Roy Brimble, who also taught judo and was keen on drama. He was so keen that two of his sons have gone on to act. His son Vince was in my class and while at school was in a BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone. His brother Nick appears to have been the more successful with parts in theatre and TV; he played Little John in a Robin Hood movie. They both still pop up occasionally in adverts and programmes.

Being an all-boy school, drama had an issue. The younger boys had to play the female parts. I’m not sure but imagine it was in my third year that I was picked to be Peggy, the wife of the honeymoon couple, in our school’s production of The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, the playwright later more famous as Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army. While others playing the female parts really went for it and enjoyed parading in the full suspender belt and stockings, I felt uncomfortable so used elastic ties to hold up my stockings. On the first night I proved none-too-prim as the blushing bride because those in the front rows reported that they got a good view of my gym shorts and tie-ups; I learned to keep my knees together thereafter. I had a reasonable singing voice and the next year landed the part of Ruth the pirate maid in G&S’s Pirates of Penzance. But having learned and rehearsed the relatively significant part, my voice broke and I was relegated to the chorus as a policeman and pirate. To save on costumes several of us sang from off-stage. This securely ended my interest in acting.

We had a strong reputation for sport but one odd approach rather interfered. We played rugby from September to December and soccer from January to March which tended to lessen our commitment to either. In summer we could choose between cricket, athletics or cross-country running. We had one tennis court that was monopolised by those who already played the game. There was no opportunity to try it out. In soccer and rugby I was good enough to be in the ‘possibles’ but that merely meant being ground down each week by the ‘probables’ – very demotivational. In rugby I recall a lad, Rick Gleed, joining us in perhaps the third year, having moved from Australia where he grew up on a sheep station. He was tall and already built like an adult, and regularly ran through us as though we were a bunch of skittles. Even his name suggested it was best to get out of his way.

Arthur Milton,
Old Cothamian and
double international

I never really focused on cricket despite David Allen, Arthur Milton and John Mortimer being Cotham Grammar alumni – each played for Gloucester and England. Milton was one of only twelve people ever to represent England in both cricket and soccer.

In athletics I was no sprinter and settled on the triple-jump and 880 yards, later opting for cross-country. No point in looking through the school archives and team photos as I achieved nothing worthy of note.

That is, until my sixth form when the school metamorphosed. ‘Splint’ Woods and a large number of masters left in protest that our grammar school was to take on comprehensive features. Imagine how they would have felt when girls were admitted a decade later!

The new head, George Yelland, self-evidently had a more open democratic approach which was very much new-school. Perhaps presaging my future careers, I thought I could negotiate with him some new approaches to our games afternoons. Unbeknown to me in the 1950s Yelland had been active at Harrow County School in teaching navigation to their RAF Cadets and had edited several school magazines. He appreciated a broad curriculum, and I was pushing against an open door. I started by saying it was sad that we had no cadet force and felt that other Bristol schools had broader pursuits.

Mecca’s Silver Blades ice rink

My motive was that Jane’s girls only school, Colston’s Girls’ School, permitted the pursuit of ice skating and ten-pin bowling. If I could get him to agree then I could spend Wednesday afternoons with Jane. He agreed and arranged that I could sign a register for those who attended these ‘sports’ to save members of staff the duty. Most of my fellow pupils who signed up, were marked as present by me while bunking off, but I got an afternoon to spend with Jane. This was the rink where later Robin Cousins would practice, becoming the 1980 Olympic figure skating champion.

ASIDE: We had a French teacher, known as ‘Fanny’ Gordon, who was rather fey. His hobby-horse was faulty construction, insisting it was not ‘Pierre’s maison’ but ‘la maison de Pierre’. If you made such an error he chalked a big ‘F’ on your blazer lapel representing ‘Fathead’. More unusual was a form teacher called Gibbons, ‘Gibbo’ of course, who despised single-syllable surnames. In reading a register his tone dripped with sarcasm when he intoned such a surname. With one guy Derrick Hunt he would read out both names and deliberately hang on to the last syllable of the first name. Another guy called Patrick Brain he would read out ‘Brain’, then add ‘that’s P Brain’. He also had a cupboard of lost gym shoes; if you offended him he let you pick the one you would be whacked with. If you were foolish enough to pick a small one in the hope it would be less painful, he would really lay into you, pointing out that basic physics should tell you that the smaller ones would hurt most. Many of our teachers would fling chalk at us, some would also use the heavy wooden-backed board rubbers. If you were not paying attention they could really hurt.

© Bob Denton 2019
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My dark side

I was trained by Darth Vader! Not James Earl Jones who provided his ‘voice’, but Dave Prowse the body of Darth in the original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983). Dave’s very broad Bristolian accent would not have made Darth in any way scary.

My father was a fireman and so was Dave Prowse; they were both posted to Bristol’s Southmead fire station on the same ‘red’ watch. For a period, Dave agreed to give me weight-training lessons at the station. This was just before he became famous.

Dave was 6ft 6ins and was British heavyweight weightlifting champion in 1962, 1963 and 1964. As a professional bodybuilder he wouldn’t let me, just a teenager, bulk-up and made sure I ran off the effects of the weight-training around the parade yard. At the time I was quite disappointed by his decision, but obviously he knew his stuff.

David Prowse as Darth Vader

Dave was also the Green Cross Code Man in the early 1970s. He trained Christopher Reeve for his role in the 1978 film ‘Superman’ and was awarded an MBE in 2000 for services to charity and road safety. Dave didn’t make Christopher Reeve run off his training!

Dave as the Green Cross Code man

Not too many can say they were the prodigy of a Jedi Knight from the dark side of ‘the Force’.

© Bob Denton 2019
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