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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │


Memories of Hele’s School, Exeter: 1955 to 1959 by John Roake

The Old School

In my time, the School consisted of the old buildings, which were of grey stone dating from 1850, newer buildings of red brick constructed in 1931 and a pre-War row of single-storey corrugated huts for the first-formers. The grey stone buildings formed the original School and these included Fardel House, and the wood-work room. The red brick buildings were constructed when the School expanded and included the art room, science laboratories, the Assembly Hall, the majority of the class rooms, and the gymnasium.

The red-brick buildings next to the playground were where we used to play shove-ha’penny on the low walls at the front of the ‘quad’. As rookies we first-formers were thrown into a particularly large and very prickly holly bush at the lower end of the playground nearest to Hele Road. I think it was the gleeful second-formers, who would vent their spleen by throwing us new boys into that bush – it was the tradition, all Hele’s boys had to endure it, and it was really painful!

The CCF (Combined Cadet Force) members, of which I became one in my later years, were drilled on the tennis courts near the school’s front entrance. The scouts held their meetings in a rather musty old building opposite the entrance to Fardel House, off a cobble-stoned courtyard.

The First Form Block

The first form were housed in two long adjoining huts, which were painted dark green with a grey felt roof. The west end of this block was set against the school caretaker’s garden where I only ever remember that he grew spring onions. I used to look longingly out of the window at this plot, dreaming of the liberty of the playground especially during those excruciating maths lessons. Being so close, we could also clearly hear the steam trains puffing and chuffing in the Exe valley at St. David’s station, when even the whistles of the engines made the train-spotter in me long for my next visit to St David’s.

The eastern end of the block was next to the lower bike shed. Nearest the bike shed was Form 1A, which shared a common entrance with Form 1 (my form), and both forms commingled in the cloakroom between the two form rooms just inside the common entrance. Beyond these two form rooms were the rooms of Forms 1B and 1C, which were located at the end of an access path between the huts and a high brick wall – a place perpetually in shadow where I never ventured. And anyway, this was where the lower forms dwelt, so we from Forms 1 and 1A kept away from their dark corner!

My Form Room

Form 1 was a chalk-dusty, low ceiling-ed room with bare, well-worn wooden floorboards. I don’t remember how the room was heated but the windows on the south side flooded the room with sunlight on good days. Skylights in the roof gave further light to the room.

The desks were, mostly, very ancient and appallingly uncomfortable, no thought given to the comfort of boys in the 1950’s. Most of the desks were of cast iron each with a wooden book compartment, heavily ink-stained desktop lid and hinged wooden seat, which formed part of the cast iron frame. The lid, especially, was heavily and deeply carved, the result of many generations of Heleans, who had languished there over the years. My wooden desk lid was worn smooth and the deep ridges made it difficult to write evenly if a single sheet of paper was placed on it. There were holes for inkwells in the desktop though thankfully liquid ink was never used during my time.

The desks were arranged in 5 ranks, with 6 boys in each rank, one behind the other. My position in the form room was at the head of the last rank, on the side of the room farthest from the playground, the side of the room always in the shade. There were strict conventions in those days. Boys stood to attention whenever a master entered the room and whenever he left it. When the Head came into the form room we had to remain standing whilst he was in the room. ‘Sam’ Medlar, the Headmaster in my day, was a rather frightening individual with a pockmarked face and a cut glass Oxford accent. Every term- end he brought the ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ reports that he handed to the boys in person. Blue reports were given to ‘good’ boys who had achieved good results throughout the term. Pink reports were given to boys as a mark of shame, for serious ‘debits’ (which were formal notes written by masters into the Form Book when a boy had misbehaved).

The School was organised in the public school tradition into ‘Houses’. This enabled competition between the Houses in field sports especially rugby. I was put into Powderham House, which always seemed to come last in the points’ table, so I can honestly say that I did my bit to achieve that honour.

I remember some of the boys in Form 1. We were arranged alphabetically. – I can still remember the names in the first rank by the musical rhythm when the register was called every morning: Ashby, Ashman, Baker, and Banting... Behind me sat Salway, Treharne, Tresise, Walters and Westacott (nearest the form room door, which must have been the worst place in the room). My chums John Rainsbury (a good artist who I regarded as a rival) and Barry Cooke lived near me so I had friends in that form from the beginning when I joined the School. The form appointed a ‘homework monitor’ who chalked up the evening’s toil in a corner of the blackboard, and there were ‘milk monitors’ who had to put the crates of free milk for the morning break into position at the lower bike shed. The rattling of these crates was always a welcome sign of the approaching morning ‘break’.

Masters all wore long flowing black gowns that seemed permanently covered with chalk dust, but I never saw any mortarboards being worn. Most of the masters had ‘nicknames’. For example, the history master was ‘Tim’ (Athron); the chemistry master was ‘Eggy’; physics ‘Fishy’; geography ‘Os’; French ‘Taffy’ Roberts. And of course ‘Holy Joe’ taught religion.

The School had a prefect and sub-prefect system in which boys were appointed and given certain privileges if they were thought to have the right character traits and ability to control boys in a fair way. In my time at the School I was generally impressed with these boys who we could count upon to restore order, for example, if scuffles broke out. Hele’s did not allow a ‘fagging’ system, so the prefects and sub-prefects could not order boys to do tasks for them.

Beyond the First Year Block

The upper bike shed was up a short flight of steps, which led to the lawn of Fardel House, one of the original parts of the school. I believe the lawn was out of bounds but the pathways to the bike sheds were not, and led to the School tuck shop, which faced a small cobbled area near the entrance to Fardel House. The House was used for lessons and this was where ‘Os’ taught us geography.

The main playground was a large tarmaced area that sloped away from the first form block. Metal railings bordered it to the west (with the caretaker’s vegetable patch beyond), and there was a row of trees and shrubs to the south, facing St David’s Church. The gravestones were then in full view across the road and one day I remember men disinterring coffins when they were clearing the ground for more graves. I thought this was spooky and a reminder of my mortality. But there was a good side - we sometimes spotted girls walking down towards St David’s Hill (probably a deliberate detour on their part) so we used to wolf whistle across to them, trying to attract their attention.

The young ‘first year’ boys seemed to colonise the playground, and energetically played football and other ball games and other pranks. The eastern edge of the playground was separated from the rest by a low concrete strip. This was the low boundary of a roadway that was used by members of staff and visitors to the School, on their way to the car parking area behind the new buildings opposite the woodwork room.

It was possible to make a complete circuit of the School from the playground, through the car parking area, behind the staff room, past the coke depot, through the Reading Room, emerging at the front of the School, with the tennis courts in front of you. It was such an interesting site with so many places to run and play, hide and enjoy. The grassed area near the tennis courts was a favourite spot for lounging in the sun doing that last minute revision for exams.

The gym was next to the lower bike shed, in a redbrick building adjoining the car parking area. To me, who was not an athlete, it was rather a torture. I did not enjoy using the ‘apparatus’ – the buck terrified me, even walking along the beam – and being made to sit on the top of the wall bars was really frightening. Looking back, I did my best to dress and undress with dignity. We wore white cotton shorts and gym shoes. The gym hall was (or at least it seemed so) quite big with a high sky-lit roof and beams, also lit from windows above the top of the wall bars. How grateful I was when the gym was commandeered for the exams every end of year, and what joy seeing ‘Silence Exams in Progress’ displayed at the door.

The School tuck-shop was, as you can imagine, a virtual honey-pot for the boys. Every break (morning, afternoon and lunch) you could see happy groups of boys patiently queuing for ‘tuck’, which included Wagon Wheels, chewing gum, bubble gum, liquorice allsorts, liquorice strips and wheels, wine gums, Mars bars, Milky Ways, Cadbury’s and Fry’s chocolate bars, sherbet lemons, dabs, and fountains and all kinds of fizzy pop drinks – in fact not a single healthy food in sight. These were served by a lady through a kind of hatch in a small building facing the cobbled courtyard near the entrance to Fardel House.

The Reading Room was in the main building, near the staff room. It had a stone floor and a number of wooden sloping reading boards, on which you could read the ‘Manchester Guardian’, ‘The Times’ or even the French glossy magazine ‘Paris Match’, which seemed quite outré at the time.

The School Library was next to the Reading Room. I do not ever recall taking any books out from the School library as I was an early member of the City Library in Castle Street. However, as a humiliated child I do remember attending there for the so-called ‘medical examination’ in front of my mother, with a female nurse present looking on, which I found was too embarrassing.

We used to listen in one of the classrooms to Test Match commentaries. It was a concession by the masters as the School enthused about sport, so cricket was very acceptable. The sound of the commentary came through a wooden box attached to the upper corner of one the rooms. This was ‘high tech’ in the 1950’s.

The main Assembly Hall was quite large and hung with dark and gloomy oil paintings of previous Headmasters, landscapes (I recall one of Fingle Bridge, Dartmoor) and the War Memorial Boards with the roll call of boys who had fallen in the two World Wars. At the south end there was a wooden stage and a lectern at which the Head presided over the assembly and leaned heavily upon it to read special announcements. I think prefects gave readings from the Bible from this lectern. Apart from morning assemblies (accompanied by Mr Rickard on the piano), the Hall was used for school dinners. Dinner boys handed a beige 1/- ticket (5 pence) or a pink ticket (free, but with a stigma as we could all see the poorer parents) to the dinner prefect before walking across to the serving hatches. Most of the meals were rather bland but the rhubarb crumble and custard, and syrup roll were well worth the wait. As ‘dinner ladies’ served the dinners we all, I think, got a fair portion.

The Hall was also where the classes were formed at the start of each new school year. As a rookie I sat there on my first day with butterflies in my tummy as the names were called out. Then we all had to walk off behind our form master (‘Taffy’ Roberts, in fact) to the form room. This was my first experience of School life.

At the end of term we remained sitting in the Assembly Hall and listened to a piece of classical music played through a tall speaker box in the front right-hand corner. In 1955 this, we thought, was a marvel of technology. I remember it was my first experience of Holst’s Planets Suite – ‘Jupiter’, and of course ‘Mars’. I remember once we were all fooled. The music turned out to be the comedy group, The Goons, singing the Ying Tong Song!

How can I ever forget that day I was sent before the Head for a caning. I quivered like a jelly outside his study. When he did call me in I only got a lecture but other boys were not so fortunate. Those were the days when caning was expected from headmasters. Ordinary masters could throw the chalk at you and cuff you round the ear, no problem!

Speech Day was held on the lawns of Fardel House. Though I cannot remember their presence, my parents must have been invited. The day was invariably sunny and warm, which made the speeches by the School’s governors or the Mayor just about bearable. Speech Day was often rather tedious but it generally pleased the boys in one respect: the visiting dignitary would traditionally announce a ‘Merit’ half-day holiday some time during the term. This always raised a cheer.

When I first joined the School we were taught on Saturday mornings, which was accepted then but I rather think would not be popular today. The timetable changed at some point, and there were always ‘Merit’ holidays to look forward to. These were half-days for all boys who were not given the disgraceful pink report. I can remember one occasion (and it was the only occasion!) when I had a ‘pink’ report, being made to calculate an impossibly long multiplication sum without of course any assistance from calculators, which had not yet been invented!. Looking back, I think that it was such a futile exercise and an unnecessary form of punishment.

Art was always my favourite subject and Cuthbert (I don’t recall his real name but his nickname will do) was of course one of my favourite masters, I suppose because he seemed to like my work. My rival in art was John Rainsbury and we often ranked first equals at the end of term.

Games were held on Thursday afternoons at Quarry Lane - the games field. This was actually two fields on the outskirts of Exeter, which would form the site for the new School from 1959. I can only ever remember playing two sorts of games: rugby in spring, autumn and winter and cricket in the summer. I think the School frowned on football as belonging to the secondary modern school boys. I cycled from Countess Wear up the long drag of Rydon Lane wearing my sports clothes. I must have arrived in a sweaty state after all that pedalling unfit for much sport.

My journey to School was about 3 miles, from the Countess Wear estate. Cycling was apparently not a problem in those far-off days and indeed I never had any fear about the Exeter traffic, which must have been much lighter in the 1950’s. Neither did my parents seem at all concerned for my safety – a different world entirely from the fussiness of today’s parents.

St David’s Church was conveniently close to the School for Easter, Christmas and Founder’s Day services. I distinctly remember the sickly sweet smell of the incense and watching the old men carrying the cross into the nave. When we knelt in the pews someone would always start making us giggle. It was hard to be piously respectful at these services.

At the end of each term we could look forward to the School magazine – ‘The Helean’. This was printed on glossy white paper and abounded with stories, articles, and pieces written by pupils, notes on the School societies, crosswords and the comings and goings of boys (the avete and valete– the welcome and farewell lists, always of interest).

When I ended my fourth year, in 1959, sadly the School at Hele Road closed. It had re-opened at the Quarry Lane site, occupying the high part of our games field. I remember that the new Assembly Hall was splendidly modern with a very loud electric organ, which accompanied our singing efforts. The new classrooms were large, clean, and bright. The new Gym even had showers. But all was not better than before. The dinner system changed. Each table (circular instead of the long tables at the old School) had a ‘monitor’. This boy, forgetting the principles of King Arthur and his Round Table of equality, abused his position by taking care to dish out small servings, and keeping the lion’s share for himself and his friends. Oh, and if the food was good or if they wanted ‘seconds’ they would have it. It was futile to complain.

My new classroom – Lower 5 Arts – was on the first floor from which we had a splendid view over the games field. The desks were ‘doubles’ with two boys sitting together but of course all the furniture was brand new. We also had a drying room on the ground floor, which came in very useful on wet days.

These are a few very random memories of my time at Hele’s School. I was fortunate to witness the transition from the old to the new. The new Hele’s School lasted another 24 years to 1983 when it was re-named St Peter’s (when girls joined the ranks). I cannot help think that something of the old School was lost in the move but, despite the changes, I am still very proud of the masters who taught me, and the memories of that wonderful institution – Hele’s.

Morrison ShelterThe 1930s red brick classrooms at Heles School.

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