Thursday, June 26, 2003
REFLECTIONS ON CENTURIES OF ACHIEVEMENT AT KING EDWARD'S
School part of town's history
by STEPHEN WALKER Teacher at King Edward VI School, 1969 - 2003.
THE ORIGINS of King Edward VI School go back almost as far as the town itself.
The first historical reference was in 1318, but since the town was gaining importance with the granting of a royal charter in 1246, it is likely that the foundation of the school was some time in the 13th Century.
How the school fared in its first 200 years is unclear. It may even have fallen into disuse.
Certainly the old King Edward VI Grammar School used to date its Founders' Day ceremony from the time when Thomas Gunthorpe, "parson of Babworth", made a handsome gift of money to the town of East Retford for the building of a new school in 1518.
Again, history becomes rather cloudy.
It is thought possible that, because the new school was of a timber construction, it may have perished in the great Retford fire of 1528.
What is certain is that in 1551 the monarch "willed, granted and ordained" that "thereafter there be and shall be one Grammar School in the said town of East Retford which shall be called The Free Grammar School of King Edward the Sixth for the education and instruction of youths in grammar, to be continued at all times hereafter for ever."
Little did he know.
Whatever its previous history may have been, there has been a King Edward VI School in Retford for over 450 years - and it will soon be history itself.
There is no doubt that the new Retford Oaks High School will bring enormous benefits to the young people of the area, and this should be welcomed with eager, open arms.
But no King Edward VI School? That's sad.
The present buildings on London Road were opened in August 1857.
The entrance porch and bell-tower formed the northern end of the building, with the Head Master's house at the southern end.
Above the entrance and to each side of it were four small classrooms, but the main schoolroom was behind the arched windows of the frontage (now the Library).
To the rear were Cloisters - still in existence - giving on to playing fields.
At this time there were 120 pupils with accommodation for 20 boarders. The first Head Master in the rehoused and revitalised school was the Reverend Jonathan Page Clayton.
At the official opening, Clayton said: "I would beg of the parents to aid us... Our efforts must be seconded at home, for after all the character is formed at home... One thing I would ask of the parents, that is, let the boys come to school regularly."
The more things change, the more they stay the same!
As the school expanded over the next century, new buildings were added: a two-storey extension to the north of the bell-tower, a new block reaching down to London Road (1926), a fine assembly hall (1937), and, eventually, a gymnasium, a science block and an art and craft block.
There was even a ramshackle building (shed, really) housing the tuck shop and two classrooms each heated by an antiquated coal-fired stove in one corner - still in use well into the 1970s.
It was during the 20th Century years of the old Grammar School that the reins were held by Head Masters whose names are still familiar to the ears of many Retfordians: Rev Thomas (Tommy) Gough, Roland Skrimshire, Charles Pilkington-Rogers (who seems to have spent as much time producing plays at the Town Hall as he did running the school), and John Gover who retired in the early 1970s.
Of these, Thomas Gough in particular seems to have been responsible for establishing a school which achieved great success and wide renown.
A report from the Board of Education's Inspectors (the Ofsted of its time) noted; "The Head Master is a man of exceptional personality and ability, and the present success of the school is entirely due to him".
The number of boarders rose to 50 and many were turned away due to lack of space.
They slept in four small dormitories and in hired rooms in Merton House and on Holly Road.
The rising bell went at 7 am, and on winter mornings the ice on the water jugs had to be broken for washing.
Food was wholesome, plentiful and plain, and was supplemented by visits to Ma Mallender's - the sub-post office opposite, and Ma Dixon's on the corner of Albert Road.
The school had accepted boarders since at least the 17th Century, but numbers had dwindled by the 1930s, and the last boarders left in July 1938.
At the same time, there was another break with tradition: Saturday morning school was abolished.
Perhaps more familiar than the names of the Head Masters are those of some of the teachers from later in the century: Rev WP McFerran, Deputy Head for 31 years until 1957, who had the reputation of setting, invigilating and marking his Mathematics exams all within a single lesson; "Coke" Charlton ("Mizzer" to the pupils for some reason), Deputy Head and English master; "Tash" Illingworth, a rare character and swimming fanatic who held a degree in English but early in his career realised that marking Maths was easier, so that became the subject he taught; John McLellan, a danger-man with his walking stick; "Maths" Jones; "Chemi" Jones; Howard (Bart) Bartley, a kind, gentle and learned Head of English; MC (Chis) Chislett, like Tash, a stalwart of the Old Retfordians Association; Hedley Brooke, Geography master, Deputy Head, school (and Little Theatre) photographer, still alive and well and living on the south coast: Richmond Turner, a man of great culture; Bernard McNeil-Watson, Classics master and Deputy Head, still happy to meet old colleagues and ex-pupils on his trips into town.
Many of these men gave over 30 years' service to the school.
In his "History of the King Edward VI Grammar School", AD Grounds writes: "Only those who have learned from them or worked with them can know the magnitude of the debt the school owes them for their devoted service."
On the retirement of John Gover, Tom Savage took over as Head Master.
Another era came to an end when he decided not to live in the school house.
The new Head's office was set up in the old lounge where Mrs. Gover, like her predecessors, had graciously invited staff wives to her coffee mornings and where privileged members of the teaching staff had taken a glass of Madeira with the Head Master.
Other rooms, including the bedrooms, were gradually converted into teaching areas and further office space.
Tom Savage was not the last Head of the Grammar School.
This honour fell to Michael Allan, who was appointed to oversee the merger with the Sir Frederick Milner School and the reorganisation into a comprehensive school, though it was probably Mr. Allan's insistence that the word "comprehensive" never appeared as part of the new school's name: The King Edward VI School.
And girls were admitted for the first time! This was quite a culture shock far many of the Sir Fred's and Grammar School Teachers who had never faced the fairer and gentler sex on the other side of the desks.
For the first time, also, school plays need not call upon cast members from the Girls' High School.
And there had been a fine tradition of school plays which continues to this day.
Full scale productions of Gilbert and Sullivan had mixed with Shakespeare and European classics; several big musicals from "Salad Days" to "Scrooge"; and, most recently (and perhaps most appropriately at this time) a superb production of John Godber's "Teechers".
New heights are constantly being reached in sporting achievement, but it is doubtful if cricket scores will ever surpass the match in 1869 when King Edward boys scored 175 and then bowled out the visiting team from Rotherham for 4.
Athletics, still a very strong area, were introduced in 1867, with a marquee for the guests and background music from the Retford Brass Band.
Sports Day continued to be a great social occasion for very many years. Among the more unusual sports recorded in the archives is Rifle Shooting, but in 1906 the school team won the first ever boys' shooting event at Bisley.
Non-sporting clubs and societies over the years have shown interests in photography, jazz, morris dancing, stamp collecting, bell-ringing - and even mice breeding.
A highly successful venture was the creation of an Astronomical Society whose members built their own observatory in the corner of Oaklands Playing Field.
This was a superb structure complete with revolving roof and a very powerful telescope.
It had been the brainchild of the Head of RE, Ken Birch, and was officially opened by Patrick Moore himself.
Music, too, has played a prominent part in the school's history
In earlier years there was just a choir, which regularly sang special items at the Founders' Day service in East Retford Parish Church, and always gave a major annual concert, often involving a performance of a full oratorio.
The choir is still a focal point of music activities, but nowadays there are also various talented instrumental groups and a fine Concert Band, which is about to embark on its third European tour.
Europe was brought very much into the school with the appointment of Richard Arrowsmith as Head Teacher, to succeed Michael Allan.
Here was a man who firmly believed that the future was European, and he created and gave to staff and pupils alike the opportunities to travel and learn first hand what it meant to be European.
He was more than ably supported in this by his Deputy Head and Drama teacher Barry Lipton, who gave a great many students unforgettable experiences as they toured their plays, on different occasions, through France, Germany, Italy; Denmark and Holland.
Foreign travel has been a regular feature of school life for very many years.
Firm and very friendly links have been established with exchange schools, particularly in Germany, and countless students have benefited from the experience of living abroad en famille.
Subsequent Head Teachers, Lady Rosemary Salisbury and Craig Weaver, have made their own mark on the school and have achieved the delicate balance of upholding tradition whilst moving into the 21st Century, but, whoever has been at the helm, it has been the school itself which has been the dominant factor and the pupils who have been its life and its life's work - thousands of them nurtured by hundreds of teachers dedicated to the creation of the citizens of the future, and indeed, the citizens of the past for at least 500 years.
So how will it all end? Well, literally with a bang.
On Thursday July 10, at the close of a Grand Open Air Farewell Concert, there will be a spectacular firework display designed by the company who lit up the Thames in recent years, and, prior to that, set Hong Kong harbour ablaze on the night of the hand-over.
On the previous evening, there will be a chance to wallow in nostalgia and wander down memory lane as the school opens its doors to all past pupils and teachers who would like to spend one final evening with an old friend - the school itself.
It is hoped that word will get round to as many as possible who left before September 2002.
The Grammar School had a motto which has never officially been rescinded, but it has largely been forgotten: Ex pulvere palma.
Loosely translated, this means that the rewards of victory arise from out of the dust - implying that the glory of success comes from hard work. And that perfectly sums up King Edward VI School.
Out of the dust of humble beginnings, constantly working down the centuries to improve and achieve in all the varied areas of education through the dedicated and strenuous efforts of pupils and teachers, King Edward VI goes out in a blaze of glory.
Observatory Lat & Long: 53.313948, -0.927286