Ethel Wainwright was one of the senior members of the local council. She devoted much time and interest in the swish new Central Secondary School built in 1927 on the High Oakham Estate in Mansfield. Needless to say the school benefited by such attention.
By the time I was ten years of age the school was ready for opening and it was my fate that I was old enough at ten and half to be drafted into sitting an examination for this new school. No matter what aspirations there may have been for me to go to the local grammar school at eleven years of age, by ten and half I had been directed into the “A” stream of this new school, High Oakham. Looking back it was in fact a good school.
To be a member of a brand new school must be an experience for any child. Particularly as the Headmaster William Bertram White aspired to run it on grammar school lines. Almost all the masters had some sort of degree. For the first few terms they were obliged to wear their gowns.
The school was built at the junction of High Oakham and the main road to Nottingham. A handsome brick building built in the style of the period with low sloping roofs and large gables in the shape of a stumpy broad arrow. A double storied main entrance, at the tip of the arrow was used only by the staff. It housed a small suite of offices for the headmaster on the one hand, and on the other, offices for the headmistress, Miss Weaver.
The main ‘shaft’ of the arrow held a central block, a large assembly hall cleverly doubling for a well-equipped gymnasium with the inevitable stage at the far end. The stage doubled as a classroom used for languages, shared part time between the sexes. Each side of the broad arrow were the schoolrooms, laboratories and attendant ancillary service rooms, one to house 350 boys and, completely out of sight and sound on the other leg a replica for the same number of girls.
Harry Payling, the deputy head master at High Oakham lived in Perry Cottage with his aged father and their housekeeper, the house being only some four hundred yards from where we lived. My father and Payling senior were on talking terms. Payling junior, then in his late forties was on talking terms with me, usually barking ones, for I did not often seem to please him. I was sometimes useful to him, on Friday evenings when he wished to catch a ‘bus just opposite the school which carried him to Nottingham to enjoy whatever pastimes senior masters indulged in.
He would send for me just before school ended and announce he wished me to wheel home his large Enfield bicycle on which was strapped a large pile of exercise books (which he would correct at the weekend) and deliver the bike and the books safely (at my peril) to Mrs. Gates the housekeeper. What could I do but meekly say, “yes”? I had my own bicycle at school and I wasn’t going to leave it there over the weekend.
So, I ended up walking home, pushing two bikes. I had tried riding mine and steering the large high framed Enfield. The mix up occurred within minutes, a wobble, losing control of the larger bike that was unstable with the heavy pile of books on the carrier; the result a real pile up. Just because a couple of school pals yelled “teacher’s pet!!” and even worse jibes broke my concentration.
I cursed Payling and his bike as I was collecting the books and the bike and strapping them on. I cursed the fact I lived near to him. Yet I had not the guts to stand up to him and say no. I did later turn the tables on him. I truly had to go direct from school to my sister’s house on the opposite side of town the next time he asked me to deliver his rotten bike to his home. He was not pleased and showed it in his future dealings with me. So much for the deputy head master.
Bertie White introduced four houses into the boy’s school. The school was split into three streams A, B, and C, there were forms I, II, and III and IV in each stream. Averaging twenty-eight boys to each class. The four houses ran through the three forms and streams. Haddon, Newstead, Chatsworth and Welbeck. Chosen after the four great houses in the area, for we were in the very heart of the Dukeries. Each house had its motto, Chatsworth I remember because I was elected Captain of Chatsworth when I reached II A. The motto was a simple one, “Aim High” as was the School motto “PLUS EST EN VOUS”.
I enjoyed school as most boys do; yet I never felt easy at some lessons. French I liked but I was not very fluent, being too shy to let myself go in pronunciation, too afraid of showing off a good accent.
I firmly hated Latin, although I suspect it was the master, Lanky Surman, I disliked. We had one famous, flaming row when he smacked me on the back of my head with a heavy Latin grammar calling me a dunderhead. That particular lesson was held on the stage classroom; I jumped up; knocking my chair backwards on to his feet, turned to face him and yelled “Don’t you EVER do that to me again!!” and stalked out down the outer steps and on along the open veranda towards the Headmaster’s study. I waited outside his study not daring to go in, thinking I had taken things too far.
After a short while Surman came striding along, cast a withering glance at me and entered the Head’s study. He came out quite soon ignoring me completely. After some time I knocked timidly on the study door.
“Ah, Hill,” said the Head, ” I hear you have trouble with Mr. Surman, tell me about it”. I thought this rather sporting of Bertie White, the second time I had actually spoken to him. Having stammered out my version of the episode, ending up with my dislike of Latin – saying I would rather spend my time in the art class where at least I could be learning something useful, the Head scribbled a note, handed it to me saying: “Report to Mr. Shaw next Latin session, I will advise Mr. Surman.”
And that is how I received extra art lessons for the rest of time I was at school.
I had good marks in most subjects. I was fair in French, good in maths, scored well in English literature, sloppy in construction, breaking all rules in my eagerness to set down my ideas. In short I was a very ordinary schoolboy.
I suppose I may have faired better had my family stayed in the bottom rung of the middle class. As it was, my mother struggled to cling to the bottom rung as my father’s business gradually slipped away and he was left with only one apprentice. There were hushed whispers of bankruptcy a shocking state of affairs, cut backs, leans times, even leaner meals. Bills were paid in part to keep the firm’s representatives in good humour; it was not a happy time.
At the end of 1931 continuing into 1932 matters did not improve and I decided to leave school in my fifteenth year. There was little opposition from my father and mother was too distraught trying to make ends meet, for by this time her little nest egg had literally been eaten up.
I managed to get a job with the local high-class jewellers, Martin Wilkinson. They may have had high-class customers but the pay was far from high class, yet it brought money into an otherwise half empty pot.
I started attending the Art School in the old Hall now at the back of the newly built Technical College in Westgate. At last I was walking in through the main entrance door of Lady Queenie Hunt’s Regency stucco ‘Palace’ – it was all so tawdry and mean now it was being used by art students. I visualised it in its heyday and was sadly disillusioned.
Working for a high-class jeweller with no other prospects than being a shop boy had to be rectified. I left. Father’s business began to pick up. I helped him by taking on any sign writing and assisting generally. This allowed me to spend three days a week full time at the Art School. This in turn led me into working for Walter Rowland of Illustra Signs.
Looking back I suppose times were hard. Compared with today they could have been. Yet I cannot really remember ever going hungry. In fact it was at this period that I recall many parties held mostly, it is true by my elder sister and her friends, just before she was married and oft-times long after in their house on Southwell West until the outbreak of war.
I had long been interested in cinemas through the interest taken in me by Sydney Fearn the organist and assistant manager of the new Plaza. It was he into whose arms I flew when dashing down steps of his mother’s Wood Street post office. At that time he ran a garage in Woodhouse and drove exotic style sports cars. I did not then know who he was until my younger sister’s playmate, who was very pretty, and who I liked a lot, invited both of us to tea and there I met this sophisticated man who I had once hated for ruffling my hair. I forgave him for he had at that time a wonderful racy Lea Francis car with open aluminium bodywork.
I suppose cinemas and cars interested me more than games and friends. Being able to enter several cinema halls free in the company of his sister, with whom I spent a lot of time, gave me a blasé attitude to the then high season of the cinema world. Almost every one (except my father) went to the cinema, sometimes twice a week. My invitations to Sunday tea to the Fearn’s house became a highlight of my somewhat grey existence at that point. The tea was simple and seldom changed. Tinned salmon with slices of cucumber and very thin bread and butter, followed by tinned apricots and sometimes real cream more often than not a with tinned cream, but all very tasty and enjoyable, the more so as the silver plated tea service was in use along with the best china. Sunday tea in the quiet area at the back of the post office for their garden backed on to the vicarage gardens was something I looked forward to.
I enjoyed the cinema business with the cover off. Being able to wander underneath the stage and even at the back of the stage of the Hippodrome whilst Sydney practiced on the organ on Sunday mornings. I found wonderful things; discarded double turntables, dimmer switches, miniature Mazda coloured bulbs, even miniature organ pipes, all of which by degrees I managed to wheedle out of the projectionist, in whose charge they rested, or by asking Sydney if he could get them for me. Bye and bye we built a miniature stage with organ pipes as the side ornament.
In those days, at the bottom of St. John’s Street, Iain Vallance had a chemist shop which also had a large photographic department selling Gaevert 9.5 mm film and Pathescope projectors. Sydney bought a motorised 9.5mm projector and a camera and set up a tiny cinema in their attic.
In time, as I grew older and the novelty wore off the private cinema fell into disuse. I inherited most of it on my fifteenth birthday. But where to put it? My brother-in-law had bought a large house on Southwell West that had three reception rooms. One of the rooms was given over by my sister for us to use as a cinema room, for my brother-in-law had become as infected as I was with the private cinema bug. We set to and built a large stage from floor to ceiling three feet six inches deep with a bowed trough for the tiny Mazda coloured bulbs footlights blue, yellow and red which faded into wonderful combinations.
The right hand alcove about eighteen inches wide housing one set of the organ pipes could be swung out to reveal a tiny control room two feet six inches wide just big enough for one person to sit at a control panel fixed to the lid of a cabinet containing dual turntables powered with powerful double springed motors as used in the old silent movie cinemas (from whence they came) feeding a push pull eight valve amplifier wired to two powerful speakers set in the slope fronted proscenium ‘arch’.The real, miniature organ pipes where set in recessed alcoves at either side of the stage and the three little bulbs of the different colours tied in with the footlights. The floor of the stage was just above two feet high. The brilliant screen with a black masking of black velvet was fix on the back wall of the stage. Two sets of curtains one of silver lame in front of the screen with proscenium curtains of gold damask enclosing the stage and drawn at the end of the show when the tiny crafted organ and organist apparently playing merrily disappeared down the organ well in centre stage. There were three drop curtains, hand painted and designed by me. The two that came down at the back of the organ well where geared for a quick drop but the front curtain on heavy canvas rose and dropped so very slowly just as the safety curtain did in the old theatres and cinemas.
The geared pulleys controlling the stage ‘machinery’ were fixed on the wall of the stage and through a one foot high, six inch wide opening in the plywood wall the operator, who was incarcerated in the little cubby-hole before the audience were invited into the cinema room, managed the introduction music, increasing in crescendo as the safety curtain rose and the house lights partially dimmed and the organ rose, as the front curtains swung back and the footlights increased.
One had to be an octopus. The projector having been set up on a truncated and modified ironing board and tested for distance was usually operated by John, my brother-in-law, I elected to ‘run’ the control room, one could appear as the star at the end of the show when I surprised most of the people as I opened the ‘secret’ panel in the proscenium arch.
Anyway I was extremely busy matching records to the mood of the film, filling in the interval between films with raising the organ and controlling the lights and the curtains. Dining and bedroom chairs were brought into service in the beginning. We later acquired for little, or as usual, for nothing, nine older type cinema tip-up seats that we renovated and set out on polished wood battens, in three rows of two, three and four seats.
My sister was very house proud and both John and I had to work within strict parameters. I was allowed to fix a huge centre ceiling lantern, I was proud of the result, it was greatly admired and was my first attempt at original design and decoration of cinema lanterns.
Yet, one grows up, one has a vocation, I was working for Walter Rowland, my art work in making a ceiling lantern had paid off, and I had a motor-cycle. And the motorcycle seduced me away from the private cinema, particularly in the summer of 1934. I was free to roam the hills of Derbyshire astride an old rickety yet reliable Raleigh motorcycle.