Memories of Wellingborough Grammar School

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The book Memories of Wellingborough Grammar School, written by David and Graham Tall, with a foreword by old boy, Sir David Frost, was conceived by the Tall boys when they realised the deep affection for the school that was shared by so many boys who attended during its lifetime from 1930 to 1975. The book launch took place at Wellingborough Grammar School (now the Wrenn School) on September 28th 2006.
Transcript of Book Launch Return to Pictures of Book Launch

David Wilson opened the Launch by commenting that he was a boy who came to the Grammar school in 1953 and became a member of staff in 1960 and lasted until the end of the Grammar school in 1975. “It’s my pleasure to introduce one of our two knighted old boys.”

Sir Bruce Liddington continued with a reference to the school being streamed even though it took only the top 17% of the ability range in Wellingborough, Rushden, Higham Ferrers, and quite a large rural area around that. “Looking back from my job as Schools Commissioner with the Government, it’s interesting to look at how good the school was.” He then referred to the A-stream who did their O levels in four years and went on to explain how “The boys in the B stream took five years over their O levels and did very well indeed. And then there were the boys in the C stream and the teachers used to come and say that they didn’t enjoy coming to teach them very much, and looking at the records now and the fact that they were in the top 17% of the ability range, many of them didn’t do terribly well. Although, looking round at the faces I recognise many of them went on to do well later on.”

“It was a very happy time for me; I was a very happy school boy. I got to know many of the school teachers through acting in plays; the stage used to be down there,” (pointing at the far end of the room). “There used to be a classroom at the other side that we sat in. and then we got to go into the staff room and read all the confidential notices, which was very exciting. I became aware through my friendship (with the sadly now no longer with us Stephen Huddart, my friend from Victoria Infants and Victoria Junior schools) of John Huddart who taught Physics here. I realised to my surprise, as many students do, that school teachers are dads and mums and parents and friends and so on and I spent many happy hours with them.

“The Grammar school gave me absolutely fantastic opportunities to exercise leadership and in that respect it was years and years ahead of its time. The teachers—and this is not necessarily terribly well pointed up in the book, and I hope David [Wilson] won’t take offence if I say it—the teachers were not given to spending a lot of time on preparation, marking and administration in those days and therefore, as a sixth former here, I used to ask the teachers which books they wanted to teach for the examination syllabus in English and then order the books and distributed them for all the classes at the beginning of the school term. As a headteacher, I used to pay people management points to do that, and yet I did it at age 17 and it was marvellous. And another change that you’ll reflect upon now is that, as a sixth former, I had a key to the school so that my friends and I could come and play badminton and I don’t imagine that that is a privilege offered to many school children now-a-days.

“I look back with huge, huge fondness of many of the teachers who are written about in this book, no one more than Dr. Jackson who I will single out as a particular person who had impact on me. He was certainly in the league of people who, to my knowledge, did very little preparation for the lesson. He would walk in at the beginning of the sixth form and say, ‘which book are we doing?’ We would tell him and he would go and get the book off the shelf and off we would go. We were in a setted group. David [Wilson], had the lower ability group down to about the 5th percentile of ability and all of us got ‘A’s except one person as I remember, so it must have been a reasonable teaching method. I remember Dr. Jackson with huge fondness.

“But none more so than Nora Bavin. She put the school light-years ahead of many, many schools nowadays. The Government is spending billions of pounds revolutionising the school work force, but Nora Bavin did everything except teach classes of boys from what I can remember. She did registration, she chased after you if you were late or off sick, she checked your uniform, and on one occasion she measured my side burns and put a biro mark and made me go and shave with a razor which she gave; I won’t speculate where she got that from. But, none the less, she was an absolutely marvellous person and became, as I became older, a very good friend. And I’m glad to say she continued as a good friend until she passed away. I was pleased to see that though I’m not in the index of this book—and I won’t forget that—that a picture of me is in— in Julius Caesar I think in 1965. I was Cassius who at that time ‘had a lean and hungry look.’

“But what this book is a celebration of, is the companionship which many of you established when you were here at school. And which you have taken through your lives and renewed now as you get together in your year groups and through the celebration of this marvellous book. And so I commend this book to you. I’m delighted to be asked to introduce it and I hope that everyone now will join with me in helping to celebrate the people who contributed to it and made it the enjoyable tome that it is. And I hope too that you buy it.

“Thank you very much.

“Finally what I’ve got to say, because I’m under strict instructions to do this, is that the success of the school is all down to the teachers of the school and none could be better as an example of that than former teacher Geoff Cooksey.”

Geoff Cooksey: “You can see exactly why they made him Sir Bruce can’t you? Wellingborough has such an affectionate place in my memory because it was the first school I started to teach in. And I found the other day the telegram that Harold Wrenn sent me in 1953 saying, ‘attend for interview at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning.’ It was all done by 11.30, lucky for me. Ten years ago I got in contact through Sellick Norsworthy, who unfortunately can’t be here today, with old boys in the 50s. This has thrown a new light to me on many things, particularly on yourselves—because you don’t look anything like the short-trousered capped boys that I used to teach. But most particularly your insights into members of the staff. I had friends on the staff whom I would have regarded as upright, reasonable, attractive, intelligent people but you have very different memories. Spike Jackson amongst them will always figure in our memories. Don Riach is here somewhere today. John Hyde from Anglesey sends his regards. But it’s certainly odd that you see us all in a different light, from what we saw in each other; but we were all conscious at the time that we were on to a good thing.

“It was a good school that we taught in, it was a good staff that we worked with, played bridge with, did all sorts of sports with, and committed ourselves to. Now I think the reasons why Wellingborough did so well in those years was first of all due to the staff. Secondly, in a very minor way, it was due to you yourselves. And thirdly it was due to Harold Wrenn. I’ve worked with many heads since then, and can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve found a better one more suited to the job he was doing in this place at that time. Good old Harold Wrenn and it’s nice to be able to say that about a Head. Well that’s part of my recollections.

Sitting in a car, with the two people who wrote the book, for six hours, was the most hilarious experience I’ve had for a long time. This happened when we went down to see David Frost, who you know was a student here, who I taught and who so often say he owes everything he’s done to me. We had a lovely time down there because he’s the foreword writer of the book, he’s a very nice guy, a nice modest sort of guy and we like that.

We all comment on the work that these two have put into the production of a quite remarkable book. But, in the middle of all our rejoicings and in the middle of our old acquaintances coming together, we had the sad loss of one of our colleagues last week: a quiet man, who was quiet in my day in the common room, and I didn’t know that he’d flown sword fish in the Pacific during the war! Richard Temple was a really nice guy and I enjoyed having him as a colleague and as a friend. Could we just at this moment be quiet for half a minute and think of poor old Richard.


“That’s nice. It’s nice to remember and be remembered.”

Graham Tall then gave Geoff two photographs which had been taken when the Tall brothers and Geoff visited Sir David Frost.

Sir Bruce Liddington: “To revert to the celebration this afternoon. You have in front of you the two authors of this book and they are about to speak about the contributors who made their task of producing this book possible.”

David Tall: “’First of all there’s Eileen Baxter. Was it only three or four years ago that Graham and I were at the Heritage centre and we discovered the famous Bavin books. Miss Bavin kept two scrapbooks, the first from 1930 to the end of the fifties, and the second in the sixties and seventies. And it’s to these that we owe most of the items in this book. So Eileen, you were the one that started it off, and I give this to you with great pleasure.”

Eileen Baxter: “I feel quite famous.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next, Paul Titcomb.”

David Tall: “What can I say about Paul? This is the web site [pointing at the screen] that he set up and look how he’s supported us throughout all of this time. Paul’s the person who formed the Wellingborough Grammar School Nostalgia site and it’s through it that we first got in contact with not one, two or three, but fifty, a hundred or more people through e-mail, who e-mailed us from all over the world with stories that come into this book. So thank you Paul.”

Graham Tall: “As I designed a web site as well, it’s very different from Paul’s and I’d like to stand for a second next to him. Paul, your superb web site, quite honestly, shows the artistic education of our school compared to my scientific one.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next, John Garley.”

Graham Tall: “John, you might have thought David was going to give you this, but I suggested it, I felt you deserved it for a range of reasons. To begin with, you’re a doer, you make things work. You made sure the 1952 year reunion was a great success, and that didn’t just introduce David, it introduced me to start re-thinking about the Grammar School. You made sure that we knew about Eileen’s Heritage Centre and please, everyone, if you haven’t been round the Heritage Centre, do so, it’s well worth a visit and they keep on changing the exhibitions, so you can go back without having to wait ten years. It’s because of John that I started supporting David Spencer when he started his 1955 search. And when he was just about ready to drop out, we said: ‘No you don’t, keep at it.’ But John, you were the one who supported us throughout. For 1955 you gave us information and in this book you’ve given us masses of support. Thank you very, very much for all you’ve done.”

John Garley: “Well done!”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next for his work writing about the 30s, Joe Keep.”

Graham Tall: “Joe’s hiding somewhere at the back. I need you up here with your stick. Joe only lives across the road from this school. I found about him from the web. I asked that I wanted advice about what happened in the thirties, because in a very real sense David and I were fifties boys. And quite honestly the thirties are a long, long time ago. Joe was here before the eleven plus and there were scholarship boys and boys who paid for their education. Joe was one of the scholarship boys. But it was lovely hearing from him, how the scholarship boys got recognition in the school. The story: the staff introduced boxing. And we soon showed those paying boys what it was like to come from a tough background. And they started giving him chocolate bars and sharing sweets with him. I heard about Joe and I talked to him first over the phone. Then David and I went to see him. And Joe told us all about the gentlest of all the three head teachers, Mr. Lay who was, in one way at least, the most inspiring because he created the school! I don’t know what Joe got up to but he did tell us that he was caned at least three times. But he tells me he was only stroked with the cane. So Joe can you demonstrate how…”

Joe Keep slowly moved his cane…

Graham Tall: “We should ask somebody who received the cane from Mr. Wrenn how he used his! Thank you very much Joe we are very grateful for all the help and support you gave us.”

Joe Keep: “I hope indeed you are all going to buy this book and spend a lot of money, because a friend of mine called Max who was concerned with one of the Dailies is going to sue these two for bloody libel.…”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next for the information he’s given of the war years, Keith Gennis.”

Graham Tall: “I got to know Keith far earlier than Joe. I had very little information at all on the thirties and forties. And Keith had done more than simply writing a vignette, he started writing his own book. So my apologies for pre-empting you with this one. If you read the 40s chapter on Mr. Woolley, it looks as if it is written by me, but in fact you’ll see the quotes to a very large extent come from Keith. And much of the structure of that chapter, what happened when, came from this chap. This is one of the old boys who gave a superb contribution. Thank you very much Keith.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next Noel Pearson, who may not be here, but may be represented by his brother Denis.”

[Denis Pearson steps forward.]

David Tall: “In fact this book could easily have been given to Denis. Denis was in my year and Denis was the one who organised that it was written. And I must say that we obtained wonderful insights about the end of the war and the change-over to Mr. Wrenn from your brother, thank you for that.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next three people who are unlikely to be here with us this afternoon, Peter Wilson, Graham Sharp and Peter Godfrey.”

David Tall: “May I just say a word about Peter Wilson and Graham Sharp. Peter Wilson gave us insights into how boys acted in the war and just afterwards in ways which no one else has been able to. And Graham Sharp – even though we are the authors –Graham wrote the most pungent piece of writing—“Caramba was that the only piece of Spanish I learned?”—in which he likened his time to being in Colditz. What is quite amazing for me as an ‘A’ boy, and this is an interesting insight into education, ‘A’ boys tend to focus on what they need to learn to discover what is going on. ‘C’ boys tend to remember what colour the wall paper was, and what the teacher said and so on. This piece of writing is the most carefully observed and beautiful pieces of writing you’ll find and I hope you enjoy reading it.”

Graham Tall: “With respect to Peter Godfrey. If you want to read about the impact of parent-hood on your future, if you want to read about the impact of how a man terrified you, froze you solid in your chair every time you went to Geography, and then you want to see that man in a totally different light when he is a scout master, make sure you read Peter’s work.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next, writing about the school plays in the 1950s and 60s is Geoff Hodgkins.”

Graham Tall: “In a very real sense, David ought to be talking about this. Because this chappie is

a) David’s wife

[‘girl friend’, said Geoff as Dave came up to hug ‘her’],
sorry girl-friend, and

b) clearly saw David’s personality in the truest manner when presented on the stage where he didn’t have to hide his normal gentle self.”

[Geoff: “You should have seen what I first wrote”.]

“What I do want to say about Geoff is that he is one of my year and he was receiving numerous e-mails saying ‘Can you tell me something about the school that I can put on the web site?’ And no-one was telling me anything substantial. I got one or two nice cracks: David Spencer gave me a nice one. But, suddenly, Geoff sent a vignette about the plays and when I showed it to David you wouldn’t believe how strongly he felt. So come on David, you say a word about it.”

David Tall: “What this man did as a boy and also as a girl (because in those times all the women’s parts were played by boys, and very beautiful they looked too). And it’s Nora who helped pad them out; she got the bras and everything that was necessary. What Geoff showed were the true goings-on behind the curtain. Not the thing that everybody else saw. And again, it’s a wonderful show of the kind of humour that we had in the grammar school. So thank you very much Geoff.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next a personal recollection, because I too starred as a woman. Once in here as Aunt Martha in Arsenic and Old Lace and once, directed by David Wilson, in Mr. Wrenn’s play in the inaugural production in the Mountbatten Hall, The Clue of the Stone. I was Pontius Pilate’s wife or Caesar’s wife. Each night my breasts got bigger. David either didn’t notice or relished it. I’m not sure which it was.

"David Wilson.”

[David Wilson steps forward.]

David Tall: “David Wilson was in my year. Didn’t really notice him very much at the time because he played cricket and I wasn’t a cricketer. But in organizing this book he’s been the cement that holds it together. I seriously mean that. When you are writing a book, and you’ve got pictures on the page and you need paragraphs of a specific length to keep the pictures on the same page, David always supplied them for us. Not only did he do that, but he found several amazing poems that had been lost in the eons of time on the passing of Wellingborough Grammar School and he allowed us to print them and even found two more a bit later which were added to the list. And, if that’s not enough, he wrote the vignette called ‘From Poacher to Gamekeeper.’ What does that mean? David is a boy who became a master. And in this book he gives us insight into what it’s like to be in the staff room and it shows us a very different picture from that that we boys saw. Thank you very much David.”

David Wilson: “It was a wonderful opportunity to say in public, what I’ve said in private for many years. These poems, which appear in the back of the book, were actually written in a great fit of pique. They were written because the Grammar School was dying and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. And because I felt so strongly about it we ought to be able to remember the great members of staff who had served the school so well for so many years. So I wrote these portraits in a Geoffrey Chaucer style, of the headmaster and the senior physics master, Mr. Huddart, and of Johnny Butler. And then I found some others later on — I made them up actually — about Spike Jackson and Jake Dunning, and I hope you’ll enjoy them. They did me an awful lot of good at the time and they got an awful lot of angst out of me. And another poem to the memory of Wellingborough Grammar school has a rather nastier tone in some ways. It was a great disappointment to see Grammar Schools dying. And it seemed no-one was saying too much in their favour. So the one in the style of Jonathan Swift, you must understand, was written when I was feeling just a little bit bitter and maybe times have proved that those thoughts may come to fruition in some future time.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next Lionel Parker.”

Graham Tall: “Lionel hasn’t written a single vignette, I can’t find a quote anywhere in the book but he is mentioned amongst the contributors in terms of printing. What Lionel did for us was to take a book which we had worked hard on and turn it into this. David did the hard work of type-setting. Lionel had written to me saying, ‘Graham have you found a publisher yet, because this is my business’ and I thought, well, I’ll be kind to him. I wrote back, ‘We’ve found somebody, he’s going to do all this for us,’ and Lionel just wrote back a day later and said, ‘Fine, I can do all that for about £2000 cheaper.” Now we’re not rich and we didn’t think there would be as many people here as there are now, so we might break even. So I had to take David over. Now David had recommended another publisher. They’d published his wife’s book, for crying out loud. And he obviously thought, “Can we trust this man?” We went to see Lionel who proceeded to show us the books he’d done and I could see the scales being removed from my brother’s eyes. And I think, when you hold this book, and feel the quality of its pages and its paper, I think Lionel, you more than anyone else deserves this book. Thank you very much.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Next in gratitude which the authors feel to the Wrenn school for allowing for this event to be arranged here and in particular to Mike Hagar who has facilitated the launch. Mike tells me that he was at school at the same time as I was and hadn’t realised that you leave school at 18. And he’s still here. Mike if you’d like to come forward.”

David Tall: “I’d like to couple Mike with every old boy who’s helped us. We haven’t written this book: we’re part of an enormous feeling about this school. And there wasn’t a single person we needed to ask to do anything because everybody offered. It’s like coming here—‘wouldn’t it be nice to hold it in the school.’ ‘I can do that,’ says Mike. ‘I’d want everybody to wander around. What about security?’ ‘No problem.’

“And I’d like to couple this with Lionel. When we dealt with Lionel, we found a quality of person, somebody who was open, friendly and eager to do the job, something which, I think, is a characteristic of a Wellingborough Grammar School boy.

“So we’re giving you three copies, one for each of the two school sites and one for the headmaster.”

Mike Hagar: “Thank you very much I’m pleased to accept these on behalf of the school.”

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Can I now ask Ricky Wrenn, Mr. Wrenn’s son to say a few words on behalf of Mrs Wrenn.”

Ricky Wrenn: “This is an enormous privilege for my family. Present are my mother, my two sisters, Helen and Lynne, and three grandchildren Edward, Andrew and Jenny, and my wife Denise who taught at the Wrenn school for a little while. It is a most extraordinary book that you two have written. I’ve read it avidly. In a way my school time was a past that I suspect, like most of you, I’d more or less put in the background. But in reading it, the atmosphere of the school, the personalities of the school, the life of the school, came flooding back to me in a most graphic way. And for David and Graham to have achieved this is a most remarkable exercise and an exercise written in the most beautiful English. So may I thank them both for a most wonderful book. The detail is remarkable.

“Mr. Woolley’s wife was a German Lady and imagine the difficulties that must have imposed on the headmaster of this school during the war years. I knew Mr. Lay, and less Mr. Woolley, and I remember them both in their retirement. Mr. Lay presented my father with one or two beautiful water colours that he had painted.

“When my father came to the school, it was almost a quirk of fate that he should ever have gone into education. Because, when he was at Oxford, he already had an agreement to go and work for his industrialist Uncle, Sir John Butters, who lived in Australia. But the dynamics of the Great Depression, when father left Oxford, were such that Sir John Butters had to cancel that and the only avenue for father, with modern languages as a degree, was to go into teaching. So hence he became a teacher, and when he came to Wellingborough Grammar School, he found a school with only eighteen boys in the sixth form. And father decided he would increase the sixth form, and as the book very accurately tells you he met great resistance from parents: parents who either couldn’t afford for their boys to remain in school or who wanted them to help in their business.

“So father set about that problem in two ways. One, he identified a weakness in the educational system in that the public schools were still concentrating on teaching classics and were not teaching science sufficiently and he knew that there were places going in the senior universities in sciences. So he concentrated on the development of science in the school and, by ensuring that boys went onto university, he was able to demonstrate the value of university education to the parents in this area and so he managed in that way to develop the sixth form.

“In order to publicise the efforts going on at this school, father also decided to try to invite personalities to come to the prize giving to give away the prizes, and you will read about that in the book. The only person he was not able to persuade to come to this school was Montgomery; he wrote to him three times and on the last occasion Montgomery said, “I will not come to your school,” and that was the only one who refused to come.

“Father would be very proud to know that David and Graham have produced such a beautiful history of the school. It brings to life the school that we all enjoyed, or at least experienced; he would have been very proud indeed. He was actually very interested to see the change of the school from grammar to comprehensive school and he was very pleased to be asked to oversee that in his final year of education. After that he retired and for almost all the rest of his life, some 26 years, he became a solicitor’s clerk, a job which he enjoyed enormously. And I thank you both very much for a wonderful afternoon and a wonderful book.”

Graham Tall: “Before you go Ricky, you’ve pre-empted almost all I was going to say. But whilst you emphasised many of your father’s qualities you didn’t emphasise how much he cared for the boys. My brother would not have been a mathematician now if it hadn’t been for your father; he’d have been a doctor, a good doctor, but he wouldn’t have been a professor of mathematical education known world-wide, going off to conferences galore, leaving me to have to go to Rotary alone.

“I wouldn’t have been where I am now. I’d have been studying Spanish, and when you read “Caramba”, that could have been worse than death. I’d been chosen to take Spanish rather than Biology. David, a third year boy, went to Mr. Wrenn and said ‘that’s not fair for my brother, he’s failing at French already’ (just to make the point clear, I subsequently failed at French 7 times at O level), ‘Spanish would have been just another subject he would fail at.’  Mr. Wrenn agreed at once to change my option to biology, which is the subject I did for my degree and which enabled me, in the end, to become a university lecturer.

Sir Bruce Liddington: “Well it remains for me now to conclude proceedings and I can’t do that without asking you to join me in paying tribute to this wonderful achievement for which David and Graham are responsible. I said earlier what you have in store for you when you buy this book for a mere fifteen pounds: that it was an erudite and scholarly work. It is, but it is also an intensely moving work and capturing for that what were seven of the most important years of my life, the experiences that set me and many of us here on the way to successful adult hood so many years ago. Can we pay tribute to these fine writers.”


David Tall: “… and we’ll be sitting here until the last book is signed.”

Graham Tall: “Thank you all very much for coming, because it could have been a very lonely event … . By the way, gentleman, have you noticed the gentleman on my right, Tony Bayes. He is the only one dressed properly for the occasion. And I hope you are all suitably admonished. He has on not only his badge and jacket, but also a proper school tie!”

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