David Riggall (BGS 1921-1931)

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Five

Part Four - Teaching and Teachers

Looking back the teaching was of a pretty poor standard. English Literature and Scripture were a matter of reading round the class, often very badly with stumbling over long or unfamiliar words so that the meaning tended to be lost. (Leslie Stephenson caused hilarity when he read that: Alexander the Great had a lot of ‘botty’ when it should have been ‘booty’) A lot of the time I never knew what it was all about (especially Shakespeare and the Bible) let alone the answers to the questions, but clever-dicks like my rival Bob Hodlin from Winteringham always seemed to come up with the right answers.

Geography consisted of writing down word for word concise notes about the different countries, dictated by Mr W. Lamb, an ex-army man. (physical features, rivers, towns, products) I liked the subject because it was so simple to learn off these facts, I thought that was all there was to it. However, it was rumoured when we had an inspection that the government inspectors didn’t think much of his methods. At any rate I learn that Vladivostok was at the end of the Trans-Siberian railway and that the Bay of Fundy had the biggest difference between high and low tide in the world. He also taught Latin in a similar way. ‘Lammy’ seemed to spend most of his time working on his banger of a car.

History was taught in the upper school by ‘old man’ Read (he had a younger brother ‘young Read’ who taught something in the lower school. We were given countless pages of scarcely decipherable notes which had been written by hand in small handwriting in purple ink and duplicated by a jelly graph process. We were supposed to learn these for his tests (even when I could make out the words, his sentences were so difficult so I didn’t understand much of it) There were notes on constitutional monarchy, franchise, agrarian, pan-Americanism etc etc. Give me useless dates of battles and names of kings any day, like we were taught lower down in the school, at least they were facts that could be learnt. He lent me a history book to read on one occasion as if he thought there was still hope for me in the subject.

Several Masters tried to teach us English, but English Language with Mr Thomas was more in my line, being strictly analytical (parts of speech, analysing sentences etc) In English Literature we had to read about 5 pages for homework but this was invariably left until last and often omitted altogether. Whilst in class we read a paragraph each going round the room. I rarely understood the point of the story and was not interested in it so found it difficult to answer the questions, unlike the clever ones who always seemed to know. There was Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’, ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘Tale of Two Cities’ but most of it was a big muddle to me. But I could manage to learn the meaningless poetry, and enjoyed the dictation. For my two attempts at School Certificate the set books for the first year were ‘King Lear’ and Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’ and for the second year they were ‘Julius Caesar’ and Macaulay’s ‘Essay on Milton’. I had great difficulty when it came to writing compositions. When ‘old man’ Read took us, there was a minus 1 in the margin every time we used the words ‘nice’ or ‘get’.

Apart from Old Testament stories in the Lower School, Religious Knowledge consisted of reading out a verse each in class and learning some passage (eg a psalm or part of the Sermon on the Mount) for homework. When the new Headmaster Mr Daughton took the subject in the Upper School, he asked difficult questions requiring thought which only the clever ones could answer. When I went into Form III it was taken by Miss Wragg who terrified us with her severity and made us stand if we displeased her, and by the end of the lesson a good proportion of the class was standing up. The rather strict and unpredictable Mr Gaze also took the subject. We sympathised with his young son who was a pupil with us in the school. Mr Shute’s son Guy, also became a pupil. It intrigued us to hear the father’s addressing their offspring by their surname and treating them just as severely as the rest of us.

French was mainly taught by neurotics. Probably Mr Gregory started us off. He was known as ‘Prague’ because he was always talking about his experiences in that city. He was a shell-shocked and probably a gassed victim of World War I. His handicaps were mainly physical but his health generally was poor and he was constantly in a nervous state. He didn’t have much success in teaching us French and was a general dogsbody, taking odd subjects in the junior forms. Like most of the staff when I first went to the school, he had no degree. Then there was a maniac of a Dutchman for a term or two called Mr Ten-Half (we called him ‘twenty quarters’) He was very difficult to understand and rushed about in a frenzy achieving very little. It was rumoured that he got ‘drunk’ every night. His services were soon dispensed with and he was replaced by ‘Gaffer’ Hebb who was an excitable Yorkshire-man who liked to pretend he was a Frenchman. He was no doubt a very pleasant chap, if you got to know him away from school. He knew his subject well, but had peculiar mannerisms and speech and the slightest little thing seemed to upset him – he was always expecting boys to be making fun of him. When he came into the classroom there was a silence of bubbling anticipation. Everyone wondered who was going to get his ears boxed first. It was like sitting on the edge of a volcano waiting for it to erupt. If he thought someone was laughing at him or made an un-called for remark, he would rush along the aisle, gown flapping, to confront the suspect who would have already covered his head with his hands in a defensive position. If the boy’s shoulders quivered with suppressed mirth, the big hand gave him such a clout across the head, or whatever part of it was visible.

In the upper part of the school we were taught French by ‘Chips’ Morris. He was a different type altogether, being fairly young and interested in our sport and training for athletics. As he lived in the boarding house, he talked to us out of school, but even he had a terrible and unpredictable temper. We were often punished for doing very little wrong. He understood boys a lot better than most of the staff but was still rather touchy. He had played rugby but took a lot of interest in our soccer. Since he lived in the boarding house he was keen for us to win as many points as possible towards the house cup, and as sports day approached he encouraged us to go out on the field and train. One year very few boys seemed to be entering for the hurdles and he goaded several of us in the senior group to try it out and practice. I would never have entered or believed I could do it, but for him. He decided I ought to enter and not only did I win that race, but one year I broke the school record and held it for several years. (However, one year, after leading all the way, I fell at the last hurdle and was unplaced) I did fall foul of him though from time to time and in the lower sixth where French was compulsory even for Science students, he once sent me to ‘wait outside the Head’s study’. A project we had to do at the time was to give a talk in French about a topic of our choice to the whole class. Whilst listening to another boy giving his talk I was idly drawing his face. Now, I’m no artist and the result was pretty grotesque, Morris wanted to see what I was doing and exploded. I think he thought it was meant to be him. It was embarrassing and I thought rather silly, but nothing happened as a result of it, as the Head wasn’t in. The curious thing was that when I asked Morris what I was supposed to do next, he sent me back, even once the next day, then he seemed to calm down and said it didn’t matter any more. We were punished for virtually anything in those days, but it kept us up to the mark I suppose, and we just took it as the way of the world.

Physics was taught by Mr Thumwood. He was young and enthusiastic but I didn’t find the subject very exciting. He had long fingernails cut to a point, which were meant to help in delicate operations. He started allotments for some of the boarders to work at in their spare time (I wasn’t keen but my brother Gordon and his friend ‘Cow’ Green were) When some of us dropped Latin in the fifth form he had to take us in Agricultural Science to fill the timetable. He didn’t know much about it, but admitted it, so worked from some notes he had taken. ‘Thummy’ as he was known, had a job living down his role as an ardent lover in school dramatic productions. He played opposite Brigg elocutionist Miss Allen in ‘Tilly of Bloomsbury’. The other compulsory non-latin subject was Art, which I was always hopeless at.

Chemistry was always my favourite subject and I would go into the lab after school whenever I got the chance. I started studying it in my fourth year and I thought it was taught very well by Mr Shute. But of course, my old rival Bob Hodlin, always seemed to get more marks than me and caught the ear of Shute more frequently which caused jealousy. He was often doing secretarial work for Shute and was a good artist if posters were needed. We called him ‘Shute’s bum-boy’ (though I’m sure none of us knew what that really meant, anymore than we knew what ‘sod’ meant – and I was reprimanded at home for saying the latter without understanding what was so wrong about talking about a piece of turf ! ) I wished Bob would stick to Physics, and when we both went to University, I was relieved to discover that was what he did do.

Maths was also taught well, by Mr Knight (‘Bumper’) He commanded respect not only by his appearance, manner, firmness and success in teaching, but also as he was deputy head and an excellent cricketer, playing for Brigg Town. He was capable of making a century and was devastating as a bowler.

Our new Headmaster by that time was Mr J.T. Daughton, who had come from Bishop Stortford. He was a short man with rather thick spectacles and full of new ideas, very different from the patriarchal ‘Bod’. We had to learn the Latin student song ‘Guadiamus igitur’ so that the whole school could sing it (presumably at speech day) With him teaching us, Geography, Scripture and English Literature became much more difficult because we had to think in his lessons instead of just reading the text and being spoon-fed with notes. The Latin ‘y’ became a ‘w’ about this time and the ‘c’ became a ‘k’. In the sixth form we had to choose a particular book form our library and write a detailed assessment of it and its author. I didn’t know what to choose for the majority of books I read were science books. Daughton didn’t think much of my choice (Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’) but since it was in the library, he accepted it would have to do. Of course, Hodlin’s choice of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ was considered to be excellent. In my last couple of years at Brigg, the books I was reading varied from Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ to Edgar Wallace and Daniel Defoe.

In the final instalment - Secrets of the Library, Music, Games, House Prefect - and Heather.