Soham Grammarians - some wartime recollections by Alan Diver

18 Feb 2010 Alan Diver writes The Soham Grammarians' website has class lists after 1946 but very little at present for the years I attended, 1940-46.

Luke Riley
I was born in the village of Isleham on the 28th September 1929. I attended The C of E village school. In 1939 I took the entrance examination for SGS, which I passed but with no Scholarship, hence my father had to pay the school fees. This he agreed to do and I started at SGS in September 1940. Mr Luke Riley was my Form 2 master during my first year [at that time the entry years were called Form 2], and also taught French. The class consisted of 42 pupils, from a catchment area around the Fens, the Isle of Ely and Newmarket.

Mr Riley was a handsome, dark, wavy haired man, who smoked a pipe and rode a bicycle. He was a formidable teacher with a deep voice, which he used in the classroom to great effect. He also believed in corporal punishment and for any infringement of rules, or not doing homework, in his deep voice with a great scowl, would say ‘Come out here, BOY, take off your slipper’. The school had oak parquet floors, and in order the preserve them, all the pupils were obliged to wear pumps or plimsolls with soft or rubber soles.

The ‘boy’ - I suffered myself - went to the front of the classroom, where Luke would bend him over, lift his blazer or jacket over his back so that the way was clear for a for a single whack, on to the boy’s behind. The whack was delivered from as high as Luke could reach, and appeared to be delivered with as much force as possible. The blow did not break the skin, but caused a nasty bruise. The pupils who suffered were not displeased to see him called up to the forces, but he returned in 1945. By then I was in the in the fifth form and about to take the Cambridge School Certificate, after which I left school and started my career in the Meteorological Office.

Mr Riley gave me a grounding in French, which I subsequently added to and used when I worked for three years in Liege, Belgium, where French was the main language. I had a latent love of languages, perhaps not a great aptitude for them, but when working in Cyprus a group of colleagues got together, found a tutor, and learned some Greek. When in my later career I worked in Gibraltar I learned Spanish with the British Forces Education Service, and passed O-level, A-level and Institute of Linguists examinations. This was partly due to my having a daughter, three grand daughters and three great grandchildren in Gibraltar who speak Spanish!

Wartime lady teachers
On perusing the Soham Grammarians' website, I found there was little so far about the three lady teachers who took the places of the three male teachers who were called up for military service. Also little information about Mr Twiselton ‘Twiss’, who took maths or Jack’ Symmons, who took history.

Luke Riley replaced by Kate Goodison
When Mr ‘Luke’ Riley was ‘called up’ to join the army, he was replaced by Miss Katherine Goodison. Miss Goodison, usually gave our class a French vocabulary of ten words at each homework. At the next French lesson she tested us on these. If you got less than 7 out of ten you got a detention. However, Miss Goodison - we called her Kate - in her innocence let us mark each others' papers. Naturally we changed our answer papers with our mates, and hence, being nasty little boys, we never got less that seven and avoided detention. The trouble was that when we got to the end of the term, when we had proper tests which had to be handed in and marked by Miss Goodison, some of our results in vocabulary were very poor, and more than once I have seen poor ‘Kate’ rush along to the Staff Room in tears! The poor woman obviously felt her teaching was not good enough, bu it was the nasty little tikes she had to teach who were not good enough!

Mr Twiselton replaced by Mrs Walton
For Maths we had Mr. Twiselton. He was a lovely man, who owned an open sports car. I think it was a Lagonda or other high quality sports car which he parked at the side of the school and we could look it over in the lunch hours. I had never seen the like before. One of the things I liked about Twiss was that he encouraged us to do our homework on sheets of paper, rather than exercise books. His theory was that once the homework had been marked and handed back for the pupil to learn from his mistakes – the piece of paper was useless! I thought that was very profound and forward thinking. I’m not sure if Twiss was called up but a Mrs. Walton came to teach us maths [according to the Soham Grammarian of the time, her subject was History]. She seemed a very efficient lady and had an ability to control a class of forty boys with a single glance or word. You knew she meant business!

Mr. ‘Bish’ Johnson
We had Mr. ‘Bish’ Johnson for English in Form 2. He also took us in the Upper 5 prior to taking School Certificate. ‘Bish’ was a nice, kindly teacher. The first time he saw me he said ‘Are you related to Joe Diver?’. ‘Yes’ I said, ‘he is my brother’. Bish added ‘He was a very good footballer’. My brother was ‘spotted’ by the Cambridge City Football Club and played in the squad for some years. [He was also a Grammarian and a page about him is in preparation].

Mr. Johnson lived in Ely and travelled on the School Bus, which I believe was the normal service bus between Newmarket and Ely. 'Bish' always sat on the back seat and chatted with the boys. I think in this way he got information about how the boys viewed the various teachers, which must have set him in good stead in the Staff Room!

Mr. Peacock was our Form teacher in Class 2b. He took History and English. I remember he had one shoe built up and walked with a slight limp. He seemed a very kindly man.

Jack Symmons, the history master was a very enthusiastic teacher, maybe, because SGS was his first appointment after university. His subject was not my favourite and I remember him asking me the date of the French Revolution. When I didn’t know it I had to write it out 100 times and I didn’t forget it again, 1789!!

Miss Margaret ‘Maggie’ Lawson (English) arrived about the same time as Mr. Jack Symmons. These changes took place around the September of 1943. I had been at SGS for two years at that time.

Lesley Handley, a fellow pupil, who had the obvious nickname of ‘Tommy’ after the very famous comedian, Tommy Handley, of BBC radio’s ITMA fame who the nation listened to and laughed at throughout the second world war period and later. ‘Tommy’ and I had the pleasure, each day, of sitting either side of Miss Lawson at the lunch table. So we had regular conversations with her during the meal. Tommy and I felt very honoured to be in this position as, to us, having just left University, she was a very attractive young lady and our testosterone levels were very high at our adolescent age!

We felt that Mr. Jack Symmons was a very lucky chap. He also had just left University, and was at an age, and position to invite her to go to the cinema! I have no idea if this ever happened! I see from the SGS website that ‘Jack’ has passed away.

I believe Miss Lawson obtained her appointment at SGS directly from her University Course. If my memory serves me correctly, her home was around the Lake District area. She had a younger sister, who was about our age and naturally we asked about her sister and where she was at school etc, and I remember Miss Lawson saying something like: ‘I will tell her about you, and that she has two distant admirers’!

On another occasion I remember her making, what I considered a profound statement, to the effect that the main thing which University taught her was how much she didn’t know and how much she still had to learn. To me, a ‘bear of little brain’, I naturally thought at my age, that a teacher knew everything! Subsequently, when I went on to do further studies in Physics, Maths and Meteorology, I realised what a true, and indeed profound statement that was!

After leaving SGS I completely lost contact with Lesley Handley. He lived at Littleport, along the Ten Mile Bank. We exchanged visits to each others houses during school holidays. Littleport was about 12 miles from Isleham, where I lived, and I made the journey by bicycle. Tommy was an only child as far as I know. His parents were a very kindly couple and I remember his mother making ‘bubble and squeak’, which was a meal made with potatoes, green vegetables and any other ‘left overs’ which were available. These were mashed and fried and it was the first time I had tasted it, and I thought it was delicious. I remember one of the Handley neighbors had a daughter, called Maureen, about our age. We played together and I wrote to her for some time after my visit.

Mr Taffy Thomas
Other school classmates who lived in the village of Littleport were the Twins, the Coxheads, John and David, and Arthur Bloodworth, I believe Arthur’s father kept a shop in the village. Arthur was a tall well built lad, but rather ponderous. I recall one PT lesson, which was held in the old granary over the woodwork room. PT taken by the geography teacher ‘Taffy’ Thomas – very Welsh and very rugby minded – Taffy matched Arthur against me. I think this was to give him a bit of entertainment, as I was particularly small with very little reach compared with Arthur. I think Arthur just kept me at arms length!

Mr. ‘Taffy’ Thomas was a short stocky man and I can well imagine him as an excellent scrum half. Mr. Thomas taught geography and I liked his subject. He was known to use the 12 inch ruler for in class punishment. The offender bent down in front of Taffy who administered a single blow, with the corner of the ruler. Another of Mr. Thomas’s tricks was to get one by the ‘short and curlies’ as he would describe it. With first finger and thumb he would pinch the short hairs on the back of the head and twist them to make a painful spasm.

Taffy was in charge of the physical training and the rugby. Every Wednesday afternoon we played rugby and when Taffy was in charge he taught us the rudiments and the rules of the game. He did seem to love it. I suspect that when my brother Joe was at the school the main games were football and cricket, and that the football changed to rugby with the arrival of Mr. Thomas. However this is purely conjecture and my conversation with Mr. Bishop, who would not have known of Joe’s skills without seeing him play.

Mr. Thomas had to give up the ruler punishments, because during the war years clothes were rationed. I think it was Lesley Setchell of the Wilburton village, who received the ruler. The next day his parents contacted the Head Master, Mr. Stanley Stubbs, saying that Lesley’s trousers had suffered a hole and asking that Mr. Thomas should desist from this punishment. The Head upheld the plea and the ruler was not used again!

Mr Copland
The woodwork master at this time was Mr. Copland. He was a gentle man, kindly and helpful. He had a slight problem with speech, and as he spoke he tended to accrue saliva at the corners of his mouth – so of course the nasty little boys like us used to impersonate and exaggerate this fact! I loved his lessons as I liked the smell of the wood and the smell of the glue, which was heated in a glue kettle. This was an outside container of water boiled over gas Bunsen burner with an inner container holding the solid glue pellets. Under the heat and steam of the boiling water the glue pellets melted so that we could brush the glue on to the surfaces to be joined. One of my sons teaches Design Technology at the present time and the idea of having gas flames, boiling water and hot glue is rather outside the present rules of Health and Safety.

Rail travel
During my first years at Soham Grammar School I used to travel to Soham by train from Isleham railway station, on the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) train. The railway station has long since been closed down under the Beeching closures of the 1960s. I travelled with all the other school children, who were going to Soham, or the girls to Ely High School, and any who were going to Cambridge to school. Isleham station was on a line from Cambridge to Mildenhall. Mildenhall was the end of the line and the engine was uncoupled there, put on the turntable, and reattached to the front of the train.

Hence at about 7am one could often hear the train arrive and leave Isleham station for Mildenhall from where it returned to pick us up at 8am. Most of us used our bicycles to get to the station, and we left them at the Coal Merchant’s (Mr. Dennis) yard, just placed against the hedge. If you were late you would be cycling up Station Road and see the train coming from Mildenhall ready to pick you up. So it was a mad dash to Mr Dennis’s yard – throw the bike down and rush the few hundred yards to the station.

I remember two of the girls, who also travelled on the train. One was Mary Aves and the other was Betty Dilly. Normally the girls and boys did not travel in the same compartment. The compartments in those days were separate, with about 8 or 10 compartments to each carriage. Each compartment was designed for about 8 adults, four each side of the compartment facing one another. All the compartments had a sliding entry door. Over each of the four seats was a luggage rack for cases etc. Often we would play around in the empty compartments and climb up into the luggage racks.

Naturally we would slide the door of the girl’s compartment back and talk to them and maybe go and sit with them if there was not too much opposition! Terry Taylor was one of the schoolboys. Terry was younger than me and he was very popular with the girls and would often be invited to stay in their compartment.

On one occasion, I recall, I picked up Mary Aves’ gloves and would not give them back to her – thinking that I would return them the next morning. It was a cold, dark evening in Winter, and taking the gloves was rather an unkind thing to do. However I got my ‘come-uppance’, because Mary’s mother came to my house, to collect the gloves in the evening, told my father what had happened, and that Mary suffered from chilblains and needed the gloves. She was somewhat irate and said she would inform the Headmaster. My father told me off but, I suspect he probably thought that it was a schoolboy prank. The next morning I was summoned to the Head's office. Mr. Stubbs gave me ‘a good talking to’ and gave me an essay to write on ‘Manners Maketh Man’! I think I learned a lesson!

In the second school year I was at SGS a friend and neighbour of ours started school at SGS. Keith Godfrey and I decided to cycle to Soham and I would call at his house at about 8.20am and we would cycle the six miles to Soham via Fordham. At this time a new concrete road was being built across the fens joining Isleham and Soham, mainly for the agricultural vehicles. When this was completed Keith and I used it since it cut off about one mile from our journey. Keith appears on the 1944 Schools Sports Team.

Others boys from Isleham who went to SGS were Lesley C Reed, who kept wicket for the cricket 1st XI 1946 and Lionel Fleet, who appears as scorer on that photograph. Both appear in later cricket and football teams. Later, I believe, Lionel went to University and became a teacher at SGS.

Mr George Hunt
Mr Hunt took General Science and Rural Science at SGS. He was a lovely man. Everyone called him ‘George’ from ‘Farmer George’ since he took Rural Science. I bought my first camera from him and have enjoyed photography throughout my life. I recall an occasion when the class was digging on the school plot. I was turning over the soil and then breaking it up so that my patch appeared to be very neat and tidy. When ‘George’ saw it he said ‘didn’t I tell to you to leave the clods of earth to be broken up by the frost over the winter’ – and he gave me 100 lines to do in detention!

Science was my favourite subject and in School Certificate I got a distinction, and the General Science prize for that year. My parents did not attend the proceedings. My father was always busy in his building business, and time was money. I thought nothing of this because it is what I expected. However, my sister in law, Dorothy, the wife of my eldest brother Eb (Ebenezer), attended as she was a reporter for the local Ely paper, the Ely Standard, and was covering the prize giving ceremony at SGS, maybe because I was getting a prize. She duly produced her report and the result of the prize giving was published.

When we had the County Careers Team attending SGS to advise us our careers, I said I did not need to attend as I had been doing some draughtsman's work for my father, drawing blue print plans of building work. Hence my father had arranged for me to be articled to an architectural firm in Ely. Thus my career was a foregone conclusion. However, Mr Hunt decided, or had been given the information, that all pupils must attend the Careers session.

I duly attended, and with my interest and results in science and maths, one of the careers advisors suggested that I might train as a meteorologist. When I read the information I was very impressed in that it offered four weeks holiday a year plus a salary. Being articled to an architect I would be lucky to get any holiday and very little pay, if any. I suspect my father would have to pay the architect during my training. It would also entail cycling twelve miles, six days a week, to and from Ely. In addition the meteorological career offered a probability of working abroad and flying, both which attracted me immensely.

I took the application form home, showed my father, and asked if I could have a go at it. He agreed and I spent 42 years in a very interesting and rewarding career, including finding my wife there!

When I told Mr Hunt of my decision to apply for a job at the Meteorological Office, he told me that Derek Heffer of Fordham had also joined the Met Office about five years earlier. My first year at SGS had overlapped Derek’s school career. During that first year we would see one another occasionally, cycling into school. Subsequently Derek and I did work together in the Met Office, at the RAF Station at Waterbeach.

In 1942 SGS started a Chess Club, which is recorded on the SGS website. I was interested in chess as my father played, my brother Eb played at county level in the Ely Chess Club, and my sister’s husband also played. Mr Ford looked after this Club after school and I remember playing him on one occasion – I believe I lost! SGS also played correspondence chess against other schools. If we had a girl opponent we included little notes of a romantic nature.

Mr Ford was the Chemistry teacher but he did not teach me as I was in the General Science class taught by Mr Hunt. Keith Godfrey was in Mr Ford’s class and for some reason the boys called him ‘Mee Pang’, I think it was something to do with how he spoke.

Keith Godfrey was one of the ‘Three Hulks’. These were himself, Tony Ford whose father ran a lorry transport business in Soham, and another boy whose surname was Leonard and came from Newmarket. The three of them were christened the ‘three hulks’ by ‘Bish’ Johnson, because they were all tall, well built lads. The three of them relished the name and were always calling each other ‘you great hulk’!

Alan Diver SG40 added in 2016:  The Leonard from Newmarket, Sid? Keith Godfrey, from Isleham (we cycled to school together), is in the 1946 school photo, taken just after I left. Tony Yonty Boyce was another one of the Hulks. I wonder if he was related to the JW Boyce whose name is in the cap found when my brother Reg's family went through his things after he died. The other label in the cap is Arthur Knight School Outfitters, which is where I got my own cap.

Alan Diver SG40 added in 2019: Sorry to hear of the demise of Lionel Fleet SG43 and Physics 56-61. Here is an anecdote from 1944:

We both lived in Isleham and travelled by train to SGS involving a change of train at Fordham. On one occasion during 1944 we were returning from school and had arrived at Fordham, awaiting our train from Cambridge to take us to Isleham. As we waited we heard gunfire. A German fighter was attacking our train which we could see about four miles away. Fortunately the attacking aircraft only made one attack. The train arrived at Fordham Station with only superficial damage. Lionel and I returned to our homes with a story to tell!

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