Harrow County School for Boys


(by Mike Smith - HCS 1941-48)

He who can, does. He who cannot teaches.



BBC Radio 4 is currently, (January, 1990), broadcasting a series entitled 'Heroes' in which Cliff Morgan encourages celebrities to talk about the people who have influenced them. 

I asked my wife if she had any heroes and she came out with a long list of historical characters including Robert the Bruce, Wallace, Alfred the Great and Nelson.  I could not think of anyone historical or present day to whom I have felt drawn or felt inclined to emulate.  On the other hand I can think of several people who have influenced me by instilling a determination not to be like them!

Famous people often cite a school or university teacher who played a major part in helping them to develop their talents.  I had no major talent to be fostered but it is perhaps sad that nearly all my memories of my teachers are of a group of old men who did nothing to give me a love of learning and, on at least two occasions, did their best to douse a spark of interest.  Since, in general I have a capacity for remembering the good things and forgetting the bad, it will be appreciated that I, for one, do not regard schooldays as the happiest days of my life.

Looking  back it seems that I was unlucky in that I went to a boys Grammar school in September, 1941 when all the younger men had been called up into the armed forces.  It was only towards the end of my time at school that the younger men returned.  As by that time I was in the sixth form I continued to be taught by the senior staff and did not therefore come into very much direct contact with the new blood.  As I have not kept in touch with any of my school friends I do not know what they think about this but it is apparent that, at exactly the same time, my wife received  far better teaching than I did.  However she went to school in Edinburgh and it is generally accepted that the education provided in Scotland was superior to that in England.  I suppose I should add that she was certainly brighter academically than me and probably more receptive but my attitude now leads me to think that I could have done better at school if my interest had been aroused. 

This is by way of a preamble to putting down on paper some of my memories of these teachers I so much disparage.

The first person we met on arriving at our new school was our form master, Dr Hartland, who took us for French for four years and Latin in the first year.  He was a little, round man with a ruddy face and was known to generations of boys as 'Sorbo'.  Older readers will remember playing, in pre-plastic days, with solid balls made of Sorbo rubber. Since he was invariably referred to as Sorbo, and since he taught French, it was perhaps inevitable that sometimes Mothers would write notes to him addressing him as Monsieur Sorbeau which did nothing to improve his temper.

I can only remember one specific incident involving him and me but this demonstrates the difference between my schooling and my wife's.  She was encouraged to associate things and make intelligent guesses about the possible meanings of words.  Now, when we go abroad, I am surprised at how often I can guess correctly the meaning of a written word by seeing in it a word of similar meaning eg Farmacia for Chemist Shop even though we would not normally use the word Pharmacy. [Since this was written the word pharmacy has come into general use.]

On this particular occasion we came in our French  to 'Le Serpent'.

"What is Le Serpent, Smith?"

"I don't know, Sir."

"Well guess."  At this stage I would have become frozen.

"I don't know, Sir"  He wrote it on the blackboard but I read it with the French pronunciation and it still didn't mean anything to me.  In any case, I do not suppose that an English serpent would have come readily to mind.

I was sitting in the front row and he stood in front of me with his legs pressing against my desk and his tight waistcoat only a few inches from my eyes.  "I would have thought that anyone with a glimmering of intelligence would have been able to see that this is the word for snake." Somehow this failed to imbue me with confidence.

The other 'Dr' on the staff was Dr Patrick Brendan Bradley who used green ink and signed his name with very large P.B.B. and a flourish.  He taught English but not to me.  He took our form in the first year for Speech Training and always talked in a breathy voice Ensuring That He Was Enunciating And Projecting Correctly.  If he heard some indication of misbehaviour he would say, "Who was that?  Come on own up, bhoy.  I never hit a bhoy who owns up."  The boy who was foolish enough to own up was grasped by the tie and a handful of shirt and was jerked backwards and forwards as Bradley's arm was bent and straightened in time to A State-ment Of Ex-act-ly What Sort Of a Nuis-ance The Mis-er-ab-le Fel-low was.

For English, for four years we had a miserable man called Fooks.  In the third year we were reading A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Some of us were standing at the front and were reading our parts much as one would expect from a group of self-conscious thirteen year olds who were unfamiliar with the text.  He sent us back to our places and read to us taking all the parts himself.  It was the scene in which the artisans are preparing to put on their play and it suddenly became alive.  We even laughed a little.  We would have laughed a lot but we were not used to it.  We had never laughed in his class before and never did again.  I wonder what happened to him that day.  Did we see the real man for a few minutes?

I read a lot before going to Grammar school and continued to read fairly widely even though I never liked the books that we were told to read.  In the fourth year one of our set books was Henry IV Part One, of which I could make very little.  However, I was interested in Shakespeare and bought a couple of books called 'Introducing Shakespeare' and 'Life in Shakespeare's England'.  Somewhere I saw a reference to a play called 'Love's Labours Won' which is not in the list of plays.  It did not appear to be a misprint for Loves Labours Lost.  I wondered if it was a lost play or an earlier title perhaps for The Taming of the Shrew.  I took the book to school to show Fooks and ask him about it.  I waited until he was free at the end of a lesson and put my question.  He did not look at the book.  He did not ask me to talk to him at a more convenient time.  He simply said, "I wouldn't bother about that if I was you.  Just concentrate on Henry IV." 

I later heard that he suffered from a permanent headache as a result of action in the 1914/18 war.  I have some little idea now of what this might mean and can feel sorry for the poor man.  What a pity that he had to earn his living by teaching.

The other put down I remember must have occurred at about the same time.  One reads that in the bad old days youngsters had to learn by rote lists of the capitals of the world, the rivers of Africa, the main exports of each country, etc.  I wish that we had had some of this as I might have had a base on which to develop an interest in Geography later.  As it was, I had no idea then what geography was about and still have little idea of where places are and what they are known for.  I can recall in an exam. being given a map with a few contours and rivers shown but no names or legend.  We were told to mark where we expected a list of features to be.  I had no idea. I had no recollection of ever having been told anything about  reading a map or recognising where certain features would be and why.  Hardly surprisingly I failed 'O' level geography.

I had been reading a novel based in a cotton mill town and some question had occurred to me about the cotton industry. My Father had been a research chemist in a mill, but he could not answer my question so I asked the geography teacher, Robinson.  As with the question about Love's Labours Won I can think of a number of acceptable responses I might have been given.  What he said was something like "Why are you bothering about that when we are doing South America?", not to find out but as the only response.  End of conversation.

The only good teacher we had, in my opinion, was the Maths. master, Brister.  Is that because I was quite good at Maths?  Or did I show some aptitude because the teaching was good?  Either he did not like little boys or he was lacking in confidence in dealing with them.  He was a frightful bully to the first year but after that we settled down to a no nonsense but fairly easy relationship.

In previous years there had been, despite denials, a degree of streaming.  The A class was, in general, better academically than the B and so on through to D.  My year was accepted to be the first which was genuinely not streamed.  I was in the A class because my parents wanted me to do Latin as a necessary prerequisite to studing medicine.  The A class did Latin and General Science.  The Bs did German and General Science. Cs and Ds did no third language (we all did French) but did Chemistry and Physics as separate subjects.  General Science was, in fact, Chemistry and Physics presumably to a lower level.  Biology was taught as a separate subject and no mention was made of any other science. 

Thorn, who taught General Science, got very good 'O' level results but he taught bad science.  I felt this at the time although it was probably later that I had could justify it. It seems to me that the basis of scientific experiment is to set out to find out what happens if you do certain things. You observe what happens, you keep meticulous notes, and you hope to be able to draw conclusions.  Eventually after many experiments you may be able to put together a number of specific conclusions to form a general theory.

Thorn worked in the opposite way.  The first experiment we did was to take the temperature of boiling water and then to take the temperature again after dissolving some salt in the water.  We started off by writing up the notes as dictated by Thorn:

Purpose: To prove that dissolved matter raises the boiling point of water. (Note the general conclusion, the experiment is not even to show that salt dissolved in water raises the boiling point.)  The rest of the notes follow, Apparatus used, Method, and Conclusion which, of course, stated that the Purpose had been demonstrated.

Having written up the notes of the experiment we then had our note books marked.  As we all had taken the same dictation the marks were only a reflection of how well we could use a pen.  My brother went through the school four years ahead of me and his General Science notebooks were identical except in one respect.  He got better marks than I did because his books were much neater. 

At last, after having been told the end of the story, having written it up, and having had it marked, we actually carried out the experiment.  It was one of the few experiments we actually did ourselves. 

Just as we learned each French word as it arose without learning to associate it with similar words, so we learned each chemical reaction as a separate bit of knowledge and were not taught how to guess that if A plus B produces C then A added to something similar to B is likely to produce a similar reaction.

On one occasion he gave us examples of optical instruments, microscope, telescope and stethoscope.  Ha Ha, I thought, he is trying to catch us out.  "Please Sir,  a stethoscope is not an optical instrument."  I was told off for being impertinent.

Thorn was reputed to be a good musician but he did not teach music; he did not teach much science either!

Our History marks were also marks for neatness.  Each week in the third year our homework was to copy a map from the textbook into our notebook.  This would have made some sense if we then had to answer questions about the purpose and detail of the map, but the mark was merely an indication of neatness and the fact that we had done the work set.  I do not suppose that I am alone, but I certainly have a facility for copying something from one book into another without taking in what it is I am copying.  Copying a map with numerous types of shading was such a difficult chore for me that I certainly never learned any history this way.  Some boys produced beautiful maps in a few minutes, others took longer to produce similar results.  I took a long time to produce a mess.  My history marks were not good.

We did Art only in the first year with the exception of one or two boys who showed such facility with a pencil that they were allowed to drop Latin and do Art instead.  The Art Master, Neal,  had passed retirement age but had stayed on to help because of the teacher shortage.  He appeared to be truly ancient and we thought he was mad; not eccentric but truly senile. 

I had no idea how to draw.  I suppose that, as I had no natural aptitude so I did not like drawing and so never practised it.  I do not imagine that I could ever have been very competent but surely with help I could have gained some idea of how to depict simple objects.  I think that part of the trouble is that even now I see three dimensional objects in three dimensions and I cannot see how their lines are behaving in two dimensions.  

Oddly enough it was not my drawing ability that the Art Master criticised.  We had been told to draw a kettle.  At that time, our kettle at home was a very modern one with no lid.  It had a wide stubby spout used for both filling and pouring with a stopper that produced a whistle when the water boiled.  The handle was fairly small, diametrically opposite the spout.  I, of course, tried to draw our kettle in three dimensions and was not surprised when I was told that my effort did not look anything like a kettle.  However, it appeared that it was not my drawing that was at fault but my observation. Kettles, I was told, look like this, and he drew the outline of an old fashioned one with a curved spout and a large hoop handle.

That was about the sum total of instruction I received in the art of drawing.  Later on, in the sixth form, I had considerable difficulty drawing botanical and zoological specimens until I invented for myself a method of measuring and scaling.  I felt quite guilty doing this.  I thought that it was cheating.

I was certainly not a swot but I was reasonably conscientious, if only because of fear of the consequences of slacking both at school and at home.  I must have been learning something along the way because my exam. results were reasonable, and I never did any serious revision, yet my marks for course work were bad.  Our school reports included position in class by exam. results, by term work and overall.  If the term marks had been a proper assessment, and not largely for neatness, I do not see how I could have been consistently  well up the top half of the class in exams. and well down the bottom half for course work.          

These then were some of the teachers with whom I had most contact in my first four years.  I do not recall ever speaking to the Headmaster during that time.  Randall Williams had been Head since 1919.  At about the time that I entered the school he was ordained in the Church of England and was looking forward to retirement.  He seemed a remote figure but no doubt he had considerable problems that I knew nothing about.  It could not have been easy running a school in wartime.  We were overcrowded and all work had been stopped on the half-completed extension.  In addition some of the school had been taken over by the Air Ministry and some of our classes had to be taken in other places.

I only remember him for one thing.  When he retired, the Old Boys Dramatic Club put on Good-bye Mr Chips in his honour. The Head turned up for the performance wearing a dinner jacket.  I had seen people wearing dinner jackets in plays and films but for some reason I was extremely surprised to see someone wearing one in real life.

A temporary Head, Crowle Ellis, was given a one year appointment to allow time for men to be considered who were due for release from the forces.  The permanent post went to a Scot, A.R.Simpson, who had been educated at Oxford and Edinburgh.  His accent reflected this and was quite inconsistent.  I tried to count the number of times he used the word mathematics and the number of different ways he pronounced it.  Sometimes both As would be short, sometimes long, sometimes one short and one long. Sometimes the As would be nearer to Es and sometimes almost an EA diphthong so that it came out like me-atheme-atics, again with long or short As.  He was soon hated throughout the school.  That may be too strong a word for the feelings of the staff but he was certainly very unpopular with them.

I only had one run in with him and for that I was set up. During my last year I ran the Sixth Form Society.  This was a weekly meeting, after school, at which we had a speaker, usually from outside, occasionally by one of the boys.  I wrote the letters of invitation, arranged for a chairman and vote of thanks and acted as host to the speaker.  Obviously I had help from my Form Master in suggesting possible speakers.  I remember that, amongst others,  we had our local MP, someone from Glaxo, the Chemical works, a railway enthusiast and the Chairman of the Middlesex Education Committee who talked to us about the plan for the future of Education in the County. 

She was charming and, if she thought that it was odd not to see the Headmaster, she made no comment to me.  The following day the Head found out that the Chairman of the Education Committee had been in the school without his knowledge.  He was furious and, now, I think rightly so.  I had treated her in exactly the same way as our other guest speakers but my Form Master should have either notified the Head that she was coming or advised me to do so.  I am quite sure this was not an oversight.  It was a deliberate piece of mischief making as a way of getting at the Head.  However, when I was hauled over the coals I should have apologised.  I really should not have said "Since you have not shown any interest in our Society up to now, I had no reason to think that you wished to be informed." but I really did not appreciate at the time what an offence had been committed.

The Head was determined to improve discipline.  He insisted that the sixth form should wear school uniform; they had been exempted from wearing it during the war.  This was probably a reasonable measure towards getting back to peace time conditions.  However there was mighty discontent when he caned sixth formers for having been seen not wearing caps in the local railway station.  Another step  was the formation of a school OTC and  his insistence that every boy must join or join the boy scouts.  I called the man who ran the OTC Mr Bigham.  He corrected me, stating that his name was Major Bigham.  I pointed out that I was not a member of his cadet corps and that as far as I was concerned he was Mister Bigham.  I was clearly getting pretty stroppy by this time.

This happened during my third year in the sixth.  I had worked hard during the first year and felt I was getting nowhere.  I was pretty low and thought that I could get nowhere with much less effort, so I did very little work in the second year, with predictable results.  Higher School Certificate Examinations, 1947. Smith. Pure Mathematics, Pass - Chemistry, Fail - Physics, Fail -Botany, Fail - Zoology, Fail.  In those days one did not get a certificate unless one got at least two passes  and a subsidiary pass, so my success in Maths. counted for nothing.  Nobody seemed to realise that I was floundering during the second year and after seeing these results nobody offered any help.  I was simply allowed to stay on to try again.  This is why I left school with a chip on my shoulder.  A psychologist would be able to say whether I did not get help because I was behaving badly or that I was behaving badly because I needed help.  I am biased, but there is no doubt in my mind that I was hard done by, and writing this all these years afterwards, I feel resentful all over again.

The staff knew my home background, my Mother had been on the staff for several of the war years, so perhaps they thought that I would get all the help I needed at home.  This would have been a quite unwarranted assumption and I fear that nobody thought about it at all.  In any case, I honestly think that the above example was a rare exhibition of bad behaviour and it  did not happen until just before I was due to leave.

These then are my anti-heroes and my recollections of "the Happiest Days of My Life"

Mike Smith

January, 1990


(Copyright Mike Smith)

return HOME