Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Ashmole Sec. Mod. School, London N.20 - 1950-54

My name is Geoffrey Ambridge and fifty-five years have passed since I first attended Ashmole School as an 11 year old. At the time, I lived at Totteridge with my parents and travelled to school by bus from Whetstone, London N.20., after a brisk quarter of an hour walk from my home at 66 Ventnor Drive. In later years, I cycled to school but at no stage were there any lifts to school in Dad or Mum's car. To have been taken to school by car was, in those days, virtually unheard of.
The year was 1950 and the school, then situated at the lower end of Russell Lane, had, I understood, been only recently re-named as 'Ashmole', having been formerly known as "Russell Lane School" until about 1949.
So, I was a new boy at a new school which had only just been given a new name... It was a Secondary Modern establishment of about 360 boy pupils. Having taken the so-called '11-plus' examination, at my previous school, St. Andrew's Primary School on Totteridge Green, my education for the next four years had been decided by the 'powers-that-be'. Along with many other boys whose academic capabilities had somewhat fallen short of the rigorous requirements of Queen Elizabeth's Boy's Grammar School, High Barnet, Herts., I was obliged to join the first-year intake at Ashmole School.
Southaw Secondary Modern School for Girls adjoined ours and the two schools, together, formed three sides of a square with a detached Gymnasium making the fourth side. There seemed to be very little in the way of fraternization with the girls, certainly during school hours, although we often glanced admiringly in their direction at break-times. They had use of the north half of the tarmacadamed playground while we had use of the south half. There was a white line, the kind you would find on a tennis court, which divided the two schools' jurisdiction and woe betide anyone who transgressed by literally 'overstepping the mark'. It would have been a 'caning' offence. There might just as well have been a glass wall there instead of the white-painted line. The girls shared the jointly-used Gymnasium but NOT, needless to say, at the same time as the boys and us boys shared the use of the girl's Pottery and Cookery Classrooms (both being in the girls school building) the former of which was presided over by a fearsome lady instructor of large proportions and whose name escapes me. I was eventually to meet my future wife whom, at two years younger than me, had attended Southaw School at about the same time. It's ironic that I was completely unaware of her existence at Southaw School during my days at Ashmole.
Our Headmaster, Mr. J.A. Strugnell, and quite a few of the teaching staff seemed elderly to us but I suppose, to an 11 year old boy, anyone aged 40 years plus would seem 'ancient'. As far as I can recall our teachers were: Mr. Bone (Metalwork); Mr. Foster (Chemistry/Science); Mr. Way (Woodwork); Mr. Howell (Mathematics); Mrs. Schofield (Social Studies/Geography); Mrs. Ralph (English); Mr. Laird (Music); Mr. Chillingworth (Biology/Science); Mr. Jeffrey (Mathematics/Physical Training); Mr. Jefferies (Sports); Mr. Palmer (Sports). I also recall other teachers, Mr. Fricker and Monsieur Fichet (pronounced Fee-shay) both of whom taught us French. Also I remember Mr. Hollins, Mr. Billings, Mr. Corbishley, Mr. Tozer, Mrs. Tregenza, Mr. Rayner, Mr. Dickinson (chemistry) and Mr. Roach. Probably the best teacher (and certainly the most respected among the pupils, during that period) was Mr. Howell. There was a through-put of teachers over the 4-year period, some leaving for various reasons and replacement teachers arriving to join the existing team.
Our school uniform comprised a navy blue blazer with the school badge, which I presume is still the same design, on the breast pocket. Navy blue peaked cap, with school badge, and a cloth-covered button on the crown of the cap denoting the colour of the 'House' of the wearer - mine was red. We were also issued with a round pin-on button, of the same (house) colour, which was attached to our left-hand blazer lapel. A tie of angular green and yellow stripes on a blue background which, I later learned, was sometimes to be confused with the tie issued to students of the University of Nottingham. Grey flannel trousers, grey socks, white or grey shirt and, finally, black shoes.
On the morning of arrival at the school, each boy in the new intake was allocated to join one of four 'Houses' and these were: Lipton (Blue); Beaufort (Green); Hadley (Yellow); and Grant (Red). Other than an earlier association between the school and the (then) late Sir Thomas Lipton, the once famous grocery chain-store owner and tea tycoon, we were never informed of the significance behind the other three 'house' names.
There were about fifteen classrooms, the Gymnasium, sports field (adjoining, and at a lower level than, the playground) and prefabricated single-storey concrete buildings which housed two of the classrooms; another was a prefab. building where we hung our coats and a large canteen situated 200 yards or so from the main school building. I don't recall that the canteen was ever available for the girls of Southaw School to use as there were two sittings for the boys throughout normal weekday lunchtimes. The building where we hung our coats was the usual venue for those among us who wanted to have a drag or two on a cigarette without drawing undue attention to themselves. There was always a teacher patrolling the playground at each of the break-times and, if they had ventured inside this building, I'm sure they would have found at least one or two miscreants having a smoke and would probably have carted them off to the Headmaster's office for a caning on the posterior. There was quite a strict discipline in those days and it was not unusual for wrongdoers to be caned ranging from one to three strokes for comparatively minor offences. This was usually carried out in the presence of the teacher who had brought the matter to light. I remember, however, on one occasion a boy named Stephen Adkin was found to have stolen the cigarette lighter belonging to his form mistress, Mrs. Ralph. Word went around the school and a special assembly was hastily called. On the stage was the cast of two players, Adkin and Mr. Strugnell, the latter administered a caning of six strokes in full view of the entire school and staff. This was a salutory reminder to everyone assembled, if one were needed, and not least to Adkin who was bent double over the back of an upright wooden chair, but trying to force a sheepish smile to the audience, that theft was not to be tolerated.
One of our two French teachers was indeed a Frenchman, Monsieur Fichet, who, at our first encounter with him, warned the class that anyone found misbehaving would have to spend the remainder of the lesson kneeling, with both knees, on a broomhandle which he kept handy in the corner of his classroom. When he reached for the broomhandle in order for him to demonstrate this form of punishment to us, we mistakenly thought that he was going to hit us with it. In our schoolboy imaginations we imagined that he had got the idea of this form of punishment during some unmentioned service that he had undertaken in the French Foreign Legion! Needless to say, we all became quite proficient at French as a result and I did not ever see the broomhandle put to use as an implement of punishment.
Two historical events which occurred during my time at the school are worthy of mention. One morning when we were on the sports field enjoying a break-time, we heard the droning sound of, what turned out to be, the eight propellor engines of an unfamiliar aircraft. Several of us were keen aircraft 'spotters' and, on that day, we looked skywards and saw the Bristol 'Brabazon' prototype airliner as it passed fairly low above Oakhill Park, East Barnet. Its wingspan was longer than its fuselage. The plane was not put into commercial production, however, and was in later years scrapped. The other event was on the day in 1952, one of our classmates hurriedly entered our classroom and announced to everyone there that King George VI had died. An interesting phenomenon occurred one day and we all left our classrooms and went outside to witness a virtually total eclipse of the sun. A twilight fell, we then noticed that the birds had stopped singing and, apart from the occasional car passing up or down Russell Lane, there was a definite eerie stillness.
With regard to educational qualifications, firstly, we were told that we would be studying to reach an acceptable level to be able to pass the U.E.I. examinations, i.e. Union of Educational Institutions. We were never given the opportunity to study for the G.C.E. 'O'-level and, at the time, many of us (including myself) didn't even know of the existence of a General Certificate of Education qualification or perhaps I was an exception to the rule. We were led to believe that the U.E.I. and that alone was the modern qualification to strive for. I passed in five subjects the so-called "Pre-Senior, Part A." series of exams. English Language; French; Mathematics and Practical (sic.) [actually, Technical] Drawing; and, finally, Metalwork. Little did I know, in 1954, on leaving Ashmole School, that the overly-hyped "U.E.I." certificate would not be recognized by any potential employer that I had occasion to be interviewed by and hoped to impress. The truth of it was that I never discovered ONE person, at any stage after my Secondary schooling had ended, that had even heard of the "Union of Educational Institutions" qualification! I had to take it upon myself to apply to the University of London, Senate House, to arrange to take my chosen subjects at G.C.E. 'O'-level, as an independent individual, and this I did during 1956/57.
It seems to me to have been a great pity for us to have spent four years, optimistically, studying for a series of examinations which had, from the outset, been made out to be far more 'prestigious' than they actually were. What was the value of a qualification that no employer, to my knowledge, recognized or had even heard of!!
If anyone can come up with a plausible answer for this, I should like to know what it is...
G. S. Ambridge

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