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U3A Writing: First Days At A New School

…I was dressed in my new uniform of sports coat, short grey trousers, white shirt and a school tie. That was the weekday uniform. On Sundays and high days it consisted of black jacket, striped trousers, Eton collar and black tie…

John Ricketts goes off to a boarding school for the sons of Catholic gentlemen.

I wasn’t expelled. It was just that my parents received a request from the headmaster to find me a school more suitable to my talents, as he alleged. I was not taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by St. Philips’s Grammar School.

We had moved from the middle of Birmingham to the outskirts, My dad was in one of his flush periods. It was summer of 1939. So my parents decided to send me into the country to be safe at St. Wilfrid’s College for the sons of Catholic Gentlemen at Cotton.

Several weeks were spent kitting me out with the clothes on a list sent by the school. Everything was marked with my name and number (105), packed and the trunk sent off three days before it was time for me to be despatched after it.

I was dressed in my new uniform of sports coat, short grey trousers, white shirt and a school tie. That was the weekday uniform. On Sundays and high days it consisted of black jacket, striped trousers, Eton collar and black tie. I am glad that none of my old friends saw me dressed like that.

I was carrying a bag containing sandwiches and a drink and a raincoat, also new. When we reached the station we found another couple of dozen boys similarly dressed. A young man came up and asked my name. After ticking us off on the list he directed us to the reserved carriage. Quickly saying goodbye to my mother I dashed for its safety. I didn’t want to be shown up. In fact I needn’t have worried. Some boys were blubbering.

When we were on our way we were supervised by the young men who had been on the platform. I recognised one of them as the son of a friend but when I spoke to him he looked down his nose and ignored me. I realised then that the ‘young men’ were in fact sixth formers. We eyed each other on the train but very little was said. I think we all looked with contempt at one boy who wept throughout the trip ( and in fact he wept for the whole of the first week after which he disappeared.) On our arrival in Oakamoor, we were counted and put on board a bus which took us to College.

The weather had been fine when we left Birmingham but as we got further along it clouded over and just as we got off the bus the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. We stood there waiting like sheep without a shepherd. Suddenly a roar came from the top of some stone steps.

“Why are you standing there like idiots? Come in here out of the rain.”

We ran up the steps into a dark lobby where we saw an elderly man (about thirty). He looked us up and down, and started his catechism

“What are those things on your arms?”

“Raincoats, sir.”

“And what’s it doing outside?”

“Raining, sir.”

“Well those coats are doing no good on your arms are they?” He sighed at the invincible ignorance shown by us boys and then continued.

“The most important room in the school is that one behind you. Can any of you guess what it is?” Pause. “No offers? It’s the refectory, for the ignorant ones among you, the dining room. There’s tea laid on there now if you’re hungry.’’

What a silly thing to say. Boys are always hungry. He opened the double doors and led us in. When we were eating he told us we would be going over to the lower school where the matron and her assistant were waiting for us. They would show us our dormitories and get us settled in. The school was very quiet because only new boys, a couple of prefects and some masters had arrived. The rest were expected the following day.

The main buildings were built of grey sandstone which fitted into the landscape as if it had been there for ever. The lower school was built of red brick and, compared with the Upper School, was light and airy. The dormitories were on the top floor of the block. The two lower floors were classrooms, study places and the junior library. There were also two common rooms, one for first and one for second year boys.

I shared my dormitory with twelve other boys, half new boys like me and the others second year. At the bottom of one of the beds in Jerome dorm was my trunk. The matron showed us where to put our clothes, giving the warning that the space was barely adequate for the amount of clothes we had so we had to keep it tidy. We were also told that we had to pay a fine from our pocket money for the return of any clothes found by the cleaners. Some boys rarely had pocket money after they had paid their fines. The empty trunks were carried to the goods lift down which they disappeared to reappear at the end of term.

In the early evening we were assembled in one of the study places and given a pep talk by the headmaster. It resembled those which I later heard in the forces. We heard a potted history of the school, the life of the founder, about illustrious old boys and many other things. I got something from the talk and have been proud of the school ever since, but I think most of what he said went over the heads of us new boys who were chock-a-block with all the new experience of that first day.

At eight thirty we were marched to the Church for night prayers, then back to the dormitory for lights out at nine o’clock. So ended my first day, a son of a Catholic Gentleman, at Cotton College.

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