Soham Grammarians Reunion Luncheon 5th October 2019

Talk by Michael Rouse, Honorary SG

Frank Haslam SG'59' introduced our speaker, Mike Rouse. He noted  that in his we had never had a sitting Mayor of Ely attend before but this year we welcome Mike (thrice Mayor) and Brian Ashton SG'59' (twice Mayor)!

Frank reminded us that Mike is an Honorary Grammarian, a former member of staff at the Village College, a founder member of Ely Museum, local historian, photogapher and author.

Mike is wearing his Soham Grammarian tie (he's an Honorary Grammarian) and chain of office as Mayor of Ely
Mike was awarded Honorary Grammarianship at our 2003 Reunion in recognition of his work in preserving historical items about Soham Grammar School. The 2003 reunion photo report includes his late cousin Geoff Rouse SG56.
Arnold Tomalin (1939) presents a Soham
Grammarians tie to Mike Rouse, Archivist
Here is Mike's talk (he had no slides):

Thank you for according me the honour of addressing you. 

I am an Honorary Old Grammarian, although I am often told by people that they remember me at Soham Grammar School.

They are probably confusing me with either my older cousin Colin Rouse or my younger cousin Geoff Rouse. Neither of them are still with us. Colin was quieter and far more intelligent, while many of you will remember Geoff who was a lovely man, often came to these reunions, had a very successful career with Barclays Bank and was much more sociable than me.

Another cousin and former old boy, John Laycock, also had a successful career with Barclays.  My late uncle, Doug Unwin was a Grammarian back in the 1920s when he was Douglas Onion, and some members of my grandmother’s family – the Roythornes.

I am only a one time next door neighbour, but a proud Honorary Grammarian.

We lived in Ely and three doors away were Rex and Roger Lane, both Grammarians and just across the Lynn Road were the three Holmes boys, Paul, Michael and Neil, while not far away was my old cricketing friend David Cross.

I’m going to share a personal memory with you. Who remembers Silver Street Boys’ School in Ely? St Mary’s Church of England Voluntary Primary School.

A Victorian building with outside toilets and a small playground. There was a mirror image girls’ school the other side of a wall and the two did not mix.

Mr Dobson was the Head. My class teacher was Ken Holt. One of the best teachers I ever had. He was an Old Grammarian and former Squadron Leader in Bomber Command, Navigator/Bomb Aimer awarded the DFC.

All boys of all kinds, some brighter than others, all facing in that year the same challenge – the Eleven Plus. The exam that decided your future education and possible career. Depending on the results, if you passed it could be a glittering career in the Bank or local Tax Office, even a teacher; failure would mean that you would have to find something useful to do.

I remember the day we heard the results. As I went into the form room tucked right at the back of the school, there was a small group of my friends to one side and a larger group on the other. My friends looked at me and I nodded they smiled and I went over to join them. From the larger group of boys I heard a voice say, ‘My mother said, “I don’t want to go to that snobs school anyway.”’

Someone else came in. This boy was intelligent, we all knew it. We looked towards him in expectation of him coming to join us. But he froze in the doorway, looked around and then turned and ran back across the playground. He had not passed.

I shared that memory with the Needham’s Association when I was guest speaker at their dinner some two or three weeks ago. And Needham’s in Ely was the school that those who didn’t pass the eleven plus automatically went to.

Most of my friends at that time came on to Soham Grammar School to continue their education:
David Blake, David Edwards, Ken Ellingham, David Harper, Terry Roberts, Stephen Bishop, Peter Bush, Michael Payton, Ken Purchase, Barry Staines and Philip Tuck.

I went on a Scholarship with three or four others from that same class as a day boy to what is now called King’s Ely, so in effect had no further education after the age of eleven. The only thing I learned there was what I didn’t know, so had to teach myself, but I did get to play a lot of sport and do a bit of acting.

We played cricket against Soham and the rivalry between Peter Taylor and Frank Wilkinson, the cricket masters at the respective schools was legendary, not perhaps quite as legendary as the battles against Newport where his brother [Spud Taylor] was in charge of cricket, and keenly contested.

It was always a difficult game for me as I was playing against old friends, like Roger Darby. Some of us played cricket together at Ely for the Colts: David Blake, Ken Ellingham, Ken Vail, Terry Staines, Richard Tassell, or the city teams and at county level.

I left school with one A Level in History and with no real idea of what I wanted to do. I did a couple of years as a trainee civil engineer, then went to Teacher Training College. There was a serious shortage of teachers, so one A Level wasn’t a handicap as long as I had a pulse and seemed to be breathing.

This was Kesteven  College of Education as it became, at Stoke Rochford Hall, near Grantham. One of my contemporaries there was Geoff Davis from Fordham another Grammarian and a few years after me John Webster was also there.

In 1966 I joined the staff at the Village College, Soham – a secondary modern. I was appointed for one term to plug a gap teaching Geography and English, neither of which I actually taught – but, hey, this was the mid-1960s and the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

The appointment was confirmed after that one term and I taught Geography, History, English, RE, Games, Music, but mainly English and took over the management of the Library and later the new Resource Centre.

I enjoyed the old Village College, it was small, fewer than 400 students, with a good, happy staff and a Warden in Peter Riggulsford for whom I had and still have the utmost respect and affection. There was a very active Adult Education programme and Arts Society and I enjoyed performing there. I loved the Village College ethos of a real community school.

Around 1970 the County was set to bring in comprehensive education. My late father was a County Councillor and Governor here at Soham Grammar School. He opposed the loss of the grammar schools and spoke up at the County Council against the reforms, but he lost the debate. He can be seen in photographs of the school parade as everyone went to the church for the service which marked the end of Soham Grammar School.

It was a difficult time for both schools.  The only certainty about educational reforms in this country is that there is a lot of political talk and good intentions but a failure to fund everything properly.

I don’t regret the move to comprehensive schooling. Separating children into different schools disrupted friendships, created a social divide. I hoped that all young people would have greater opportunities, but the outcome, driven by politicians has been an undue emphasis on exam results and a failure to cultivate practical skills. It’s perhaps admirable to convince every student that they should be a manager sitting behind a desk, but you need someone to manage and actually get his or her hands dirty. We need professors of difficult sums, but we also need plumbers and electricians.

At the Village College we were excited about the opportunity of teaching more academic students, but we brought with us many lads who just wanted to leave school at 15 and go to work and, of course, girls who back then had very few career ambitions (or opportunities).

It was a much greater change for the Grammar School students and staff. It could have been a disaster. Peter Riggulsford, The Warden at the Village College, and a truly good man, left to take the headship at Lawrence Weston School in Bristol, so the way was clear to appoint a new Warden to take over the new school.

And that is when we got to meet Albert Lawrance. He was not a stranger to Soham as he had been Head of Maths here at the Grammar School from 1952 to 1964 and known as Punch. I have to say that Albert Lawrance was a difficult, intensely driven man.

Mention his name to those who were taught by him or colleagues of his and the reaction is very strong. But I also have no hesitation in saying that Bert Lawrance saved this school. He did so by creating the new Village College comprehensive school, in the Grammar school model. He would do this by academic discipline and sport. Under Bert Lawrance the old Grammar School lived on, parents wanted to get their children into Soham.

The newly established Federation of Comprehensive Cchools under a new Principal at Ely, which  would control Ely, Witchford and Soham, was effectively destroyed by Bert Lawrance, who was determined that Soham would maintain its own identity. And it did.

To say he was not an easy man, is rather like saying that Oliver Cromwell had his critics.  No one, however, drove everyone  harder to make a successful school than he did, and no one drove themselves harder.

Peter Taylor, Lionel Hart and Dick Bozeat transferred to the Village College Staff while the majority went with Mr Armitage to the new Ely Sixth Form.

There were tensions, some of the Grammar School boys really resented losing their school and, of course, they were now in a mixed school which also took a bit of getting used to. If you were part of that school generation, I do hope you weren’t too traumatised by the presence of girls.

One thing I did. News came that the original bronze by Betty Rae of Three Boys had been stolen from Cambridge and that Soham Village College had a version of it - was it still in place as it had more significance and value now?  I found it shoved unceremoniously into storage at the old stable block. I rescued it and with the support of Nan Youngman, one-time County Art Advisor, had it restored. The late Grammarian Reg Brown built a box for it to stand on, for which he did not charge,  and it was installed in the new Resource Centre and now it is in Beechurst's foyer.

I enjoyed managing the Resource Centre when it opened in 1992 and ran a very successful visiting writers programme with such well known authors as Michael Rosen, Roger McGough, Andrew Motion, Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and many more. One was a great character and a former Soham Grammar School staff member, John Humphreys, who wrote about shooting and fishing and country life. A larger than life character, John was one of those convinced he had been a school with me, but we had spent a lot of time playing cricket together.

I met my future and ex-wife at the Village College where she was a teacher. We had four children. In 2000, I was dramatically and seriously ill with a near fatal blood condition, that, and the dreadful murders of Holly and Jessica, by Ian Huntley (the College caretaker, and someone I spoke to on a regular basis) led me to retire. I had had enough.

I took up story telling in Ely Museum, where I was a founder Trustee and still am a trustee, and of course writing, which I had been doing since I had my first books published in the early 1970s.

As my children grew older, my wife decided she wished to be with someone else, so we parted very amicably and I concentrated on writing and my role as  a local councillor.

I have now written nearly fifty books, big and small, many of them about Ely, Soham and the fens, including my biggest selling books Why are the Fens Flat and How to Speak Fen, also two novels Fens End and the Ghosts of Fens End: I have just finished the final book in that trilogy, Strangers at Fens End.

I have also written a series of photographic Through Time books for Amberley of old and new photographs all around the East Anglian coast.

I have researched extensively into the evacuation of children from the East End of London to this area and I note from your Reunion booklet the death of Herman Kon, whom I met, an outstanding young athlete and son of Rabbi Kon who was at the Ely Hostel for Jewish boys.

I was first elected to the City of Ely Urban District Council in 1970, joining my father, a former Chairman. When it became a parish council after 1974 but Ely became officially a city with a Mayor, I was elected Mayor in 1976-7. As a District Councillor I was Chairman of East Cambridgeshire from 1986-88.

I was diagnosed with heart failure about 3 years ago, and began to scale down my public activities, retiring as a County Councillor. Thanks to modern medicines I felt sufficiently well enough to accept the office of Mayor again last year and now, due to the fortunes and misfortunes of the elections, I’m serving a second successive term, which for me as an Ely-born citizen is the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon me. All being well next May when I leave the office I will have turned 80 and served 50 years as a City Councillor.

I know of one Grammarian who became Mayor of Ely and that was my old friend Brian Ashton, and he is here today.

It is now nearly fifty years since Soham Grammar School passed into the history books. I’ve explained how its legacy shaped the Village College with Bert Lawrance, but there was also a broader legacy for Soham.  Soham, that long straggling town, the town that always saw itself as good as any other place, if not better (Do you wanna fight?) had the Grammar School that Ely boys, Littleport, Haddenham, wherever around here, went to – it was Soham they went to. The School gave the village, now a town, recognition, status.

I congratulate Frank on the website and thank you for the invitation to speak to what is an exclusive club.

It is right to remember with gratitude the old school, the friends you made, the teachers who made you, in some cases perhaps broke you, but generally did their best for you, to educate you and to survive those troublesome years of growing up between 11 and 18 to develop into the men you became.

I salute you, I salute those who have gone before you and I salute Soham Grammar School.

Thank you.

Frank Haslam: Mike's talk was very well received. Some of his books are available via good local bookshops: for on-line sources please click here

2019 Lunch Photo Report

page created 10 Oct 2019: last updated 12 Oct 19