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Wartime by Peter Bryan (1947)

By Peter Bryan (1947)

I was a late entry to the school, arriving in 1940 via a Foundation Scholarship, and therefore went straight into Remove C, thus avoiding the Shell year

The Buildings in Bristol Road were in a largely unfinished state because of the war, but Big School, the Dining Hall and all the classrooms were built. The Science Block was rudimentary, and the only recreational facilities available were the Fives Courts and the Shooting range adjacent to what was then the Parade Ground for the OTC (later the Cadet corps), the Air Training Corps and the Scouts. The area immediately under Big School was occupied on the left of the main entrance as a cloakroom, and on the right as a locker-room.
Although the Library was functional, we had no facilities for music, and I recall that what singing sessions we had were held in a room at the end of the upper corridor and in which there was an elderly upright piano. This was played by one of the senior Classics masters, "Freddy" Kay, and possibly by others, but music was not a priority during the war. Such art instruction as there was I seem to recall was all carried out in the same large room and was rudimentary in the extreme. We were able to learn how to make simple woodworking joints, cut fretwork designs in sheets of brass, or indulge in elementary sculpture on smallish lumps of stone. I relinquished Art for Classics in the fifth form, since Latin was required for University entrance at that time and it was not possible to take both subjects.

The approach to the school buildings from Edgbaston Park Road has changed little in appearance today. The classrooms of the Girls' School were on the same site, although the present science and arts blocks facing them did not exist and there was certainly no car -parking along the drive. Of course, petrol was rationed and difficult to get, and few masters had motor transport. I do recall the small, Austin' Seven' driven by the large science master, Mr.Baines, the springs of which sagged considerably under his weight, giving the vehicle a strange, lop-sided appearance. Many of the staff cycled to school and I remember that Mrs. Gregory was considered to be particularly sporting because she rode a bicycle with dropped handlebars. Many of the boys cycled too: most of the rest of us came by the trams which ran down the centre of Bristol Road. At the end of school it was considered a point of honour to be the first at the tram stops at the bottom of Edgbaston Park Road. Once out through the school gates and onto Edgbaston Park Road, caps were generally removed and stuffed into jacket pockets, and unwary pedestrians ascending the hill had to dodge the stream of hurtling bodies on the way down.

The Dining Hall has changed little, except that during the war food was taken to the tables by senior school monitors, selected on a rotational basis. These favoured individuals, and favoured they were,( since after their serving session was ended there was often the chance of an extra helping of the main course or the sweet which the kitchen staff would provide) would take the food from the warming-cupboards in the kitchen, load it onto trolleys -two boys to a trolley - and serve it at the tables. They also cleared the empty dishes . The food was not particularly appetising and had mostly been cooked earlier in the day and kept warm. This meant that most of the time any gravy on the meat dishes had evaporated somewhat, leaving a thin "tidemark" at the edge of the plate, and the custard, ready- poured over steamed puddings and jam tarts, would have a thick skin on it. However, few of us left much on our plates during those days of food shortages. The price of the meal was, certainly at one time, fourpence in "old" money. At "break" time milk was provided free in one-third-of-a-pint bottles. These were served from what is now the sixth form common room on the ground floor at the rear of the building. Much of the remaining space in that area was taken up by the Cadet Force. There you would find the Orderly Room, the Armoury (where we kept our treasured Lee-Enfield rifles - first-world-war pattern - and later our Bren and Sten guns), the Clothing Store and the Band Room.
Once we were members of the Sixth Form, we were allowed to leave the school premises at lunchtime, and many of us visited what were known as British Restaurants. These establishments were set up in various locations ( I seem to recall one in an old chapel in Selly Oak) and aimed to provide cheap and nutritious meals for the general public. Several of us used to patronise these establishments where the food was plain but copious costing, I think, sixpence or a shilling for a main course and "pudding". Cooked often under primitive conditions ,nevertheless many of us thought the food superior to that provided by the modern facilities at school.

The teaching staff was depleted because of the entry of many of the existing masters into the services, and places were filled by temporary staff, many culled from the Church, such as the Rev. Ernest Price, and ladies such as Mrs. Gregory, the Misses Brown, Bower, Marion and Thomason. There was also the "German" contingent comprising Drs. Deutschkron, Weikersheimer, Gerstenberg, Tritsch and later Friedlander. To many of us boys at that time they were "foreigners" and thus automatically funny. Indeed, some of them had eccentricities which unfortunately encouraged this belief. Looking back on that time now we were, as boys still are, cruel towards them, particularly in view of their nationality . Friedlander was a mild-mannered, scholarly man, whose extreme short-sight laid him open to mirth, In class he had, on his desk, a large magnifying glass, and about his person, smaller magnifying-glasses in various pockets which he would take out, as required, during his perambulations around the room. They had cases, with zip-fasteners, which were made of leather in summer and wool in winter. He also sported a long German-style great-coat in winter, and a Homburg hat which, in windy weather, he would hold on his head with the handle of his walking-stick. I do not recall him ever losing his temper in class, unlike the irascible Dr. Deutschkron and Dr.Hirsch. The latter, when angry, would turn an interestingly rich shade of purple. Both Friedlander and Deutschkron taught us German, but we experienced a certain amount of difficulty in that language because Deutschkron was, I believe, a North German ( whilst Friedlander was not) and thus they did not always agree on some of the finer points of grammar!

Not that they were our only eccentrics: the clergy, too, had their share. For example, the Rev. Price ("Ernie" to his form but not to his face) had been a missionary in Jamaica and his form sometimes felt that he was still addressing them as potential converts. Coupled with this he was extremely deaf, and of Victorian rectitude against what he considered "unseemly" language. Certain unexpurgated lines in Shakespear, for instance, ( particularly in a text of the Tempest which was not the Bowdlerised version from which the rest of us were reading and which was quoted in class by an unworldly boy who was unaware that he was using a different text from the rest of us) caused him to splutter with rage. The Rev. White attempted to keep order by hitting boys on the side of the head with a large book, a practice which today would no doubt land him in some court or other. Possibly a militant Christian left over from the nineteenth century.

But we were generally well taught and discipline was not a real problem. The threat of being sent to the feared E.T England and his cane worked wonders with my generation.

Books were difficult to come by during the war. Few of us had new ones; most were second- hand, either acquired through the school or via an extraordinary establishment in the Horsefair in Birmingham called Horace Budd. There seemed to be little shortage of pens, ink or pencils, nor of paper, and homework was mainly written. As far as I can recall, no allowance was made for any overnight air-raids, of which, at one stage of the war, there were many. Air-raids did, of course, have a considerable effect upon our lives, and although the school itself suffered no real damage, the town was often disrupted. For example, the tram service from the centre of Birmingham was put out of action occasionally and I remember walking to school along Bristol Road from the city centre, picking up pieces of shrapnel as souvenirs along the way. Because of the war, too, there were few after-school activities in the evening, and most of us were indoors before the black-out commenced. In winter, and particularly at the time when Coventry was devastated, the air-raid sirens would sound early on in the evening, often as early as six-thirty, and the all-clear not sounded for many hours. My family was lucky in that we had what was known as a "surface shelter" built of reinforced brick and concrete but above ground, and in which we could sleep in relative comfort. Many others were not so lucky and had to resort to the standard "Anderson" shelter of corrugated iron and half-buried in the ground. These were often damp and subject to flooding when it rained.
Sports were engaged in on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, but since the school had no playing-fields of its own (the site of the present pitches between Bristol Road and the school was partly covered by "rough ground" useful for Cadet Force manoeuvres, and partly by temporary wooden buildings occupied as classrooms during the building of the new school after the New Street Fire in the mid-thirties and occupied during the early part of the war by the military) use had to be made of other sports grounds in the area. Swimming was undertaken in the Municipal swimming-baths in the centre of Birmingham.

Most boys belonged either to the Cadet Force or the Air Training Corps, the Scouts being considered as somehow inferior - perhaps it was because of the ubiquitous short trousers then worn by even the most unsuitable. The Air Training Corps had smart new uniforms, but at the beginning of the war the Cadet Force, or Officers Training Corps ( OTC) as it then was, wore First World War uniforms, consisting of a peaked cap, a tunic with brass buttons, a wide, webbing belt with brass fittings, baggy pantaloons, puttees and stout boots. There was also a haversack with brass fittings. Naturally, the brass had to be polished and the webbing equipment treated with "Blanco" - a sort of pipeclay - once a week. Whilst most of us felt somewhat patriotic to be doing some form of military training, we also felt embarrassed by the uniform, since quite early on the regular army adopted what was known as Battle Dress, consisting of, at first, a rather ridiculous cap known as a Forage Cap ( which tended to fall off as soon as any strenuous manoeuvre was attempted and were quite quickly superceded by by a sort of Tam-o'-shanter), a "blouse" style tunic, long trousers with useful pockets, short ankle-gaiters and boots. When other youth-training groups were formed and which were independent of schools, they were known as Cadet Forces, wore battle-dress, and adopted the cap-badge of their local army regiment. The school followed suit, and there was great eagerness to be first in the queue when our new uniforms arrived. In them we felt much more part of the war-effort and less like privileged anachronisms. There was also considerably less brass to clean. Our "Field days" were spent on the Lickey Hills and to get there we all had to take the tram to the terminus at Northfield and then form up and march off, there being no other suitable transport available. The motorcycle works producing the Norton and Ariel models were nearby, and the Cadet Force was fortunate to acquire a model of each and which we learned to ride.

Because civilian clothing was rationed on a coupon system, full school uniform was dispensed with during the war. A cap was prerequisite, as was a tie, but other than that, jackets and trousers were such as our parents had been able to acquire with their "clothing coupons". Grey flannel trousers, short or long, were mostly favoured, but I do recall that corduroy trousers were also in evidence and it was fashionable as well as practical to have one's jacket suitably reinforced on the elbows and at the ends of the sleeves with leather patches and binding. We did have the added "luxury" of House ties, which could be worn once "House Colours" for a specific sport had been awarded. They were striped alternately in black and the house colour, Red for Leeds', blue for Copeland's, yellow for Swan's, and green for Dunt's. Scarves were favoured in winter by those whose mothers had been able to obtain sufficient wool of the shades required to knit them. However, and fortunately, there was nothing similar to the fashionable dress code of today available to us then and "designer labels" were unknown. Most of us had leather "satchels" in which we carried, amongst other things, those books which we needed for our homework, the remainder being kept in lockers under Big School.