Old Uffingtonians Association (1994)

   Willesden County Grammar School                         Ex-Pupils 1924-1967                    


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Spilling the Beans - Class of '39 Memories

A publication of The Old Uffingtonians magazine brings remembrance of class '39 in all the days of the war.

Schooldays!  The happiest days elders always say. 
Evacuation?  Who murmurs it was lucky for some.  It was better for all when Spam and dried egg entered the war.

A number of boys were labelled unbilletable.  Mr. Southam, the Deputy Head in Northampton, let it be known that his boyhood had been at Wykeham public school and made much of his school motto "Manners Maketh Man".  Boys uprooted from home, prone to rebellion, fail well-meaning counsellors of the Seraphic School of Philosophy, where Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away, and - you had better be good, or  else!

A series of billet moves had got me numbered, and for it!  A sharp shock for the next stopover; School House, together with "Spud" Murphy, a fellow ingrate and previous billet chum.

School House stood in Wellington Road where the wind blew in gusts from Park Avenue North, opposite Northampton Town and County Grammar School.

Willesden County boys shared the school premises with the local Grammarians.  Mornings exchanged with Afternoons and entangled only on the rugby field.  Warmth left by rumps formerly occupying classroom seating was like the spoor of wild animals wary of each other.

Spud and myself slept in a room with the drunkard son of a widow, in whose care we had been placed.  Reg had the unclean habit of peeing out of the bedroom window, when he was wobbly on his legs with drink and uncertain where to unload his urgency.  Spud slept with Reg in a double bed, with me in a single.  Reg was in his early thirties.

One night, both in bed, Spud got an unlucky clout and a bloody nose from Reg thrashing his arms about in drunken stupor.  That decided us to find another billet with better sleeping arrangements.

But before our request for a move was sent, Canadian troops in transit arrived in Northampton, with Bren-gun carriers and field artillery at Bush Hill: bristling under camouflage netting (where in kindlier times toy six-guns played cowboys, making whoopee chasing Sioux).  The Army, not to bivouac, needed billets, the widow was in need of the bounty offered on the town, needed my bed; with me under protest and an eiderdown bedded with the widow.  Good for the widow's purse but scandal for the boy who sleeps with his landlady.

What a reputation to live down if the tale got out, or perhaps, even worse, a reputation such to live up to.  Next school day, Spud and me, sought out Mr. Southam, but we could not find the words to explain our misery and got a good telling off for our pains (as only Mr. Southam could do it).  Spud abashed, me in tears, both tongue-tied and trembling.

The guardianship of about twenty boys at School House was with Mr. Parker and his wife.  Mr. Parker, the woodwork master was not made of hardwood, but his features gave an impression of sculptural work with chisel and mallet.  Kindness in both resident there, but food that encourages growth in boys was not of a promising size on the plate; the kitchen always being an early casualty of war.  How many ships carrying cargoes of food were sunk in the Western approaches and how many of our poor seamen lost their lives?  Annals of their heroism say in the region of 60,000, there is no exact figure.

For deprivation, the rambling old house in Northampton bore no comparison with Dotheboys Hall, yet at night the floorboards creaked in the cold; cold that called at every crack and crevice.  Boys slept in bare dormitories, on wood and canvas camp beds, without sheets or mattresses.  The principles of sharing were enforced by boy leaders; by forays for the blankets of others.  More gentle boys learned how give and take is disciplined by circumstance.

The bullying of the weak by the strong became ritualised and savage, beyond control.  Mr. and Mrs Parker usually retreated to their sitting room early.  That was sensible of them.

The winters were so cold; at Liptons in Abingdon Street, roasting coffee sent aroma into the icy air, wafting through a grating at street level.  On the grating warmth and fragrances percolated up the legs of short trousers.  It was the best place for a winter warm-up in Northampton!  To me the most accessible warm-up in the whole northern hemisphere.

From School House, on the fateful night of 14th November 1940 the fires from Coventry thirty-five miles away were seen.  The horror of that air raid we could not imagine.  "Somebody's getting it" now seems lacking in ready sympathy, but was heavy with meaning, for all that.  Northampton had its younger men and women called up for war.  We were all in it, one way or another.

Northampton was like Leicester, a boot town; making boots for the army and footwear for all the other Services.  Lasts for ladies high heels were put on the shelves for the duration and shoes for civilians were put on coupons.  The town smelt of tanned leather; little had changed between the two wars.

There was a cobbled cattle market and an adjacent brewery, mixing odours of hops, malt and animal matter.  The river Nene with banks of reeds, skylarks and warblers found it's way to the Lincolnshire Fens through the lock at Little Billing.

Northampton was a town of bicycles and work-a-day bustle; taverns, public bars, saloons and outdoor jug-and-bottle.  Brightly painted and scrolled delivery vans with brass bugle horns, had place with drays and coal wagons.  Bent backs, tipped sacks and vaults swallowed wooden barrels, lowered by rope and ramp.

In the streets women in headscarves or wearing knotted snoods over paper curlers, stopped and chatted about how terrible things were, or where something or other was off ration.  Voices of Middlesex schoolchildren mingled with the tones of the Midlands.  Little travellers, some of whose parents had never been north of Watford.

The town had a repertory theatre of distinction and a Municipal Bathhouse, which was good for a scrub when billeted without a bathtub.

The repast of the week for Northampton people was batter pudding with gravy, on Sunday before a main course: a regional dish in which care and pride was taken in serving richly appetising, but simple fare.

Bill Pack, a senior at School House (who in later years married my sister), caught pneumonia.  Diphtheria came in person.  In the Town's Isolation Hospital some young children of about three or four years of age were suffering from diphtheria and whooping cough at the same time.  It was very sad.  In the morning when their beds were empty, those of us recovering were told that they had gone home; we knew that could not be true.

Both of us, in turn, were evacuated from Northampton to a place of safety, to war torn London, a refuge for a five-stone, thirteen year old weakling.

In Willesden, rehabilitated in the parental home, studying under the watchful eye of Mr. Wallis, two years of almost peace-in-war passed at the County School.  A trickle of returnees from Northampton was followed by a flood, bringing reunion and the renewal of old friendships.  In the springtime the poplars in Uffington Road blossomed sweetly, shedding their kapok to collect in white, fluffy drifts.

There was joy to life, football with Miss Edgell's shrill whistle and able direction of the game, our class girls to cheer on in their hockey matches.  Every girl good for England.

Russia was bearing up under the brunt of brutal war: their victories, as at Stalingrad, ending forever Hitlerite supremacy.  No more bitterness of British retreat after El Alamein (except for Arnhem, which came later).  For their part the Americans were massing over here.

D-Day loomed and the School Certificate.  During the Algebra examination, attack by flying bombs on London began.  Hitler's secret weapon, launched after much experiment and tinkering.  Making noise like an express train approaching, one blew up in King Edwards Recreation Ground, close to the school.  Blast walls protected us, but the tiered lecture room we had occupied on the previous day, was wrecked.

Stout window frames were blown in, the shards of glass and bomb fragments would have cut us to pieces.  Fortunately, Mr. Wallis had moved us to the corridors to work, which was wise of him.

After the bomb fell, examination rules relaxed, cups of tea were distributed and ten minutes were added to cope with quadratics and similar problems, with racing hearts and tremors all the way to nibs of pens.

Of our brothers and friends in school in 1942 and before, many faced greater terrors and more prolonged hazards, their whereabouts unknown to us.  The days were more sombre with sadness shared.  With examinations over and school commitments at an end, class '39 dispersed without gathering together for last salutation and farewell; because of the strain of the time.

The popular lyric of Vera Lynn trails hope and yearning across a more sunny landscape.  When we are old we forget more than we remember.  It is all now a long time ago.  Who is left of the '39ers, who will call the register for us?

Schoolhouse is now an Old Folks' Home, carpeted, centrally heated, with faint cooking smells drifting into cosy quarters, about which the more crotchety tend to complain.

Alan Johnson