Geoff Pickerell’s Memories

Hemel Hempstead Grammar School or Watford Grammar School for Boys

The first reflection stems from the decision to enter for Hemel Hempstead Grammar School, rather than Watford Grammar School for Boys. Living near the Unicorn Pub on the 322 bus route, several local children did travel in the opposite direction towards Watford. I wasn’t aware of any parental guidance, although my father did have some contact with other HHGS parents. The only rationale that I could recall was that HHGS didn’t necessarily do Latin, played soccer rather than rugger, and was “mixed”. It is unlikely that my hormones would have been significantly active at the age of 10/11 to influence the latter factor. Apparently having two younger sisters wasn’t significant either. As one of the first year to experience the 11-Plus, with literacy and numeracy exams, together with a totally new Intelligence Test paper, I sat in one of the classrooms close to the Male Staffroom, after the trudge from the Plough, through the rail tunnel, across the level crossing and then the haul up Charles Street. I’d never been to Hemel Hempstead before.

My recollections of the first two years are, at best, hazy. Peter Wykes as Halsey House captain, tried to teach me to play chess. Geography with Mr. Doggett (for only one year) was confusing, because some of the subject matter concerned the Two Rivers and associated features. Being from Abbots Langley this, of course, was foreign territory. During the 1947 winter, when there was a long slide across the boys’ playground, PE lessons (for which read “cross country” which I quite enjoyed, and I was hopeless at wall-bar hanging etc.) were at a premium and, presumably when the girls had gymnasium time as a priority Mr. Chapman tried to divert us by arranging boxing bouts in the boys’ changing room. Fortunately, the “invitation” never came my way.

Another memory of that first year was the “singing” lessons, when Mrs. Manners, who taught French, tried to encourage all three first-year forms together to sing in the main hall. Not too successfully I would think. But there were some notable items of “communal entertainment” to recall. One was the masterful mimed performance of “Largo al Factotum” by Don (Moses) Barnett, and the other, which I still recall fondly, was Richard (Dicky) James’ rendering of “The Jumblies” in the annual verse-speaking competition. His very careful enunciation of “a lovely monkey with lol-li-pop-paws” will remain with me for ever.

One unforgettable feature of the initial two years was lunchtime. Sitting altogether along the back corridor. Generally I sat near the prefect-in-charge, one Don Alaker, a long distance runner. As the kitchen eventually became a congested VIth-form common room, one has to wonder how they managed to produce any food. There must have been two sittings.

The practice of playing a recording (78 rpm) of classical music in Assembly each day was valuable. The ones which stand out now are Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and Grieg’s Homage March (Sigurd Jorsalfar), which I requested for our wedding day in Guernsey – very much later!

The Woodwork room was Mr. Boucher’s domain. His repeated injunctions to “get out the whiskers” from chiselled joints, the smell of the glue pot, and his favourite imprecation of “Silly Arse”, were all formative. Unfortunately, although I didn’t have good control of my hands, this ended after two years. However, the basic skills are still there, even when working with modern routers etc.

The crucial career-influencing decision came at the end of Year 2. The science curriculum at the beginning of Year 2 was mainly Botany, taught by Mr. M Evans. I wasn’t taken! Fortunately, Mr. H. Robinson arrived in time for the second term, and started on the physical sciences, beginning with astronomy. I was immediately hooked, and opted for Science in Year 3. Later, I understood that Miss Duncan had been disappointed at my choice. Mind you, she had said at some stage that I would never make a good teacher – so for the past thirty-odd years working freelance, I have lectured and provided training courses in analytical chemistry – my first love. At one of the 1990 reunions, I was able to reassure Miss Duncan that I had recanted a little, and studied German (to O-level), Russian, and Italian over several years. In fact, it was the annual Carol Concert that served to encourage some language skills. Once my voice had broken Messrs. Wolff, E. Evans and Boucher providing a sound bass grounding for the perennial Minuit Chretien (at a sensible tempo), Quem Pastores, O du Frohliche etc, etc. Mr. Wolff’s “little imps” (liquorice base) were a useful aid to throat recovery, and with my choral singing nowadays, I value those language inputs for many of our concerts.

One long-term benefit of a “mixed” school, although I doubt whether it was appreciated at the time, was the pre-Christmas party season, when boys and girls were put together in the gym and shown the rudiments of dancing. The main ones were essentially “old time” sequence routines, such as Barndance, Valeta and Military Two-Step. They served to introduce us to rhythm and how to move with a partner – not too closely! Of course, this went up a notch when Mr. Bundy arrived and introduced Square Dancing, which was an interesting exercise for those of us with relatively low mobility.

Probably Mr. Bundy’s major contribution at this stage was to develop the Annual Sports Day from what, originally, was a rather low key affair, to what became the essence of an Athletics Meet. One innovation, which I took to for some unknown reason, was the skill of hurdling. Some wooden barriers, about 3ft high were procured (did Mr Boucher have an input?) and served their purpose. When, in our last year (1953), we sent a team to the County Grammar School Meet at Barnet it was a severe shock to be faced with proper, metal 3’ 6” hurdles – but a useful introduction to the world of University and RAF competitions. He also introduced basketball, and my memory of playing against Berkhamsted School in our small gym was that, far from being a non-contact sport, at this level it was something more akin to the Eton Wall Game.

As far as team sports were concerned, I was generally a willing participant in house matches but not much more. Then from 13 years onwards, the 1st Cricket XI became more important. It was at an annual Parents’ Day match (probably 1950) that, whilst batting, two of the parents were laid low by the bowling of Graham Lake (who played professionally for Gloucestershire in later life). The immediate outcome was that on the following Monday, I quickly went down to Mr. Fisher’s sports shop to buy an abdominal protector (aka “box”). This was rather up-market, had an aluminium frame with chamois leather padding and is still serviceable – and undented.

My sole appearance in the 1st Football team (1952) was just one of those days. On the previous day, cycling to school with Graham Lake (Home Park Mills/A41/Two Waters), a lorry knocked me over, damaging knees and bike. Astoundingly, the driver of a 301 double-decker bus recognised us, and by Two Waters had caught the lorry, recording its number. Some trip for the passengers! That evening was the VIth-Form Christmas party, so I attended (complete with triangular bandages). They were still in place next day, when on a foggy morning when we couldn’t see the ends of the pitch from the halfway line, we beat Bushey Grammar School by 10–0.

About this time (1950), the school plays came to my notice and I was recruited to play the Duke in Merchant of Venice, having never attempted anything like this before, whereas many of the other participants were well-experienced. The memory is of Ishbel Dornan as a “fragrant” Portia, and specifically of Julian (Tubby) Seabrook as Shylock. I can still feel the venom in his “and spit upon my Jewish gabardine” speech. In addition, “Tubby” was a very competent wicketkeeper and opening bat. For the next production (Tobias and the Angel) I was recruited for the role as Raguel. Apart from some very detailed make-up, Mr. Wolff’s most valuable contribution was his insistence on clear diction. This skill, combined with a good voice, has served me very well throughout all my career.

For the Autumn Term 1951 things began to change with the retirement of Headmaster Mr. Screeton (Mathematics), and the arrival of Mr. J. S. Robinson (German, and a skilled pianist) – is it recognised that he had spent most of his wartime service at Bletchley Park? I called on him at his Devon retirement residence in about 1990 whilst working in Plymouth.

School outings weren’t frequent in this period. One such trip was to Stratford-on-Avon, notionally to improve our knowledge of Shakespeare. In the event we saw Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and my only memory is of cider at 9d a pint in the Old Thatched Tavern. Another trip was to hear the Amadeus String Quartet in a Mozart programme at what was the Thomas Coram School (now Ashlyns) in Berkhamsted. Well, at the end of the concert, we all retired to the coach and waited for Mr. Shepherd (music master) to join us. And we waited! Eventually, as we were all hungry, and I had a play rehearsal planned, the two prefects (Mavis Burton and myself) decided that we had to leave. So we did! During a private-study period in the prefabs behind the gym, at about 3.15 pm, there was the sight of Mr. Shepherd coming up the path having made his way back by public transport (he’d been chatting to the musicians). As expected, Mavis and I were summoned to Mr. Robinson’s presence and interrogated. We duly met Mr. Shepherd to express our apologies which were accepted.

It was about this time at a school concert that Norman Epithite and I performed the Gendarmes Duet (Genevieve de Brabant, Offenbach) complete with helmets and truncheons borrowed from the local police station where Norman had official contacts.

The VIth form was increasing at this stage (1950 onwards) and the old kitchen close to the gym was assigned as a Common Room. There wasn’t much space, particularly as the quite large central table was taken over for table tennis practice. Presumably to broaden our horizons with some Humanities, the Science VIth group had weekly meetings in Miss Dale’s room. This proved quite interesting with Dickie James’ contributions about Evolution Theory and his assertion that there would be a man on the moon ‘ere long. He was a member of the Interplanetary Society. My last memory of 1953 was during A-Level Exams. Traditionally, every two years, there was a school group photo. However, in 1953, the date coincided with the A-Level Chemistry Practical exam. Mr. J. Robinson very generously said that we could leave the exam briefly in order to be included, putting us on our honour not to take advantage by cheating. If you ever have the opportunity to look, you will find that the 1953 School Photo has about 10 of its senior pupils missing. There must have been something unusual about our Science VI group – please see the relevant photo.

Apparently it was standard practice for the Form Master to be changed between Years 1 and 2, yet Mr Wolff specifically asked to look after us for both years. He did make his mark on one occasion when, whilst wandering around during a study period in one of the science labs, he noticed in one open satchel a paperback with a rather lurid cover (“Lady be Bad” rings a bell), giving us a short pep talk, to the embarrassment of its owner.

Looking back, it seems that the seven years from 1946 onwards just passed by without any undue problems (perhaps I was fortunate), and the only comment I could make was that, when approaching the final year, I don’t recall any questions or interest in what we were going to do afterwards – a huge contrast with current school practices seen with my own children. As a result, I was quite late in applying for a university place.

As HHGS was a mixed school, it provided the opportunity for my two younger sisters to follow at discreet (4 year) intervals, and, when Susan joined in 1954, Miss Carpenter is reputed to have exclaimed “Not another one!”. But, as evidenced by many other recollections, family members did follow one another. Also significant is that, on reading these, one notices that the teaching staff didn’t change substantially from 1946, when some came back from the war, for almost 20 years. This must have contributed enormously to the overall ethos of the school, and to its recognised success rate. Returning to my thoughts when I started writing, why HHGS? On the occasions when I drive along Rickmansworth Road in Watford, I do wonder what I might have experienced had I taken that 322 bus in the opposite direction.

Geoff Pickerell, 1946-53