Royal Alexandra School
I was born on July 31st 1926 at 118 Baron Road, Dagenham, Essex, one of the earliest houses on the London County Council Becontree Estate, the largest housing estate ever thought of up to that date.
I think my parents moved to Dagenham from Leytonstone, families were being moved out of the East End to the Beacontree Estate to offer them beer housing. They first moved to 27 Manor Square then shortly afterwards to Baron Road.
At eight months of age I had Peritonits and apparently to survive at that age was quite a remarkable achievement. One of the funny things mum used to do was to explain this marvellous feat to anybody we met and in turn I was instructed to lift my shirt and show the scar to all and sundry. My belly must have been inspected by countless gossiping ladies in the streets of Dagenham. If I had had a dirty raincoat I would obviously qualified as the youngest flasher ever.
I was two years old when my father died, so of course I don’t remember him at all. The cause of his death was kidney trouble, which was the result of drinking water poisoned by the Turks at the Dardenelles in the 1914-18 war. It took twelve years to kill him, of course his country did absolutely nothing for his widow, my wonderful mother, other than a miserable ten shillings a week widows pension. How she managed I find it impossible to imagine.
Three boys: Denis ten, Gordon three and a half and myself two years old. That not being enough, one year later Denis died as a result of an accident in the school playground. He was pushed while bending and banged his head against a brick wall and was dead within three weeks with Meningitis. Still my old mum against the odds managed. I do remember Denis, mum went out cleaning and it was Denis’s job to take me to stay with my Aunt Lil during the day on his way to school. What I remember most, I was always bought a farthings worth of chocolate buttons. Strange our memories, the only other thing I remember about him is that I was left sitting waiting at the entrance to King George’s hospital and mum coming out and telling me that Denis had gone to heaven.
While the estate was being built a temporary railway line was laid running from Chadwell Heath to what is now known as Martin’s Corner. It was in the centre of Valence Avenue and carried all of the building materials for the construction of the houses.
It crossed Green Lane, the main road from Ilford to Becontree Heath and at that point there was a level crossing. Baron Road was the road next to Valence Avenue and it was a great thrill for us when the gates of the level crossing closed to climb on the gates and watch the loaded trains rumbling past.
Somehow or other we always knew when a train was due and we used to run down Baron Road and round to the level crossing, climb up and watch the train go by, piled up with all the timber and bricks and God knows what, there were loads of kids about. The lighting in the houses was by gas. I remember one night when I was about three and a half I woke in the night and called for our mum and got no reply. My brother Gordon who was five took me downstairs to find mum, she wasn’t there. The gas was getting low and the light was fading and she hadn’t got a shilling for the meter. She turned the gas to its lowest and rushed down to her friend at number 110 to borrow a shilling. That of course is when we came downstairs. The light in the kitchen was above the Butler sink. Gordon climbed onto the sink so that he could turn up the light but unfortunately turned the gas tap the wrong way and turned the gas off. Mum came back to find him sitting on the sink and me on the floor, both screaming our heads off in the dark.
118 was a two bedroomed house with toilet and bathroom upstairs and downstairs a living room, kitchen with walk in pantry and coal cellar. The rent was too high for mum so we had to move to an upstairs flat at 26 Manor Square. This had a kitchen, bathroom and toilet and two rooms used as bedrooms, one for us and one for mum. That was when I was five years old.
While mum went out cleaning to earn a few bob she used to pay a girl to look after us. The thing I remember about her (Vera) was that I was taken for walks to Chadwell Heath. I was left and told not to move whilst Vera went round by the old iron railway bridge with which ever boy we were walking with. What a lovely friendly girl she must have been. She obviously didn’t realise that she was looking after the infamous infant flasher, we need not have gone for walks.
I started school at Green Lane School on the corner of Baron Road where the headmaster was Henry Green. The school is still there and is called Henry Green School.
For evening work mum cleaned the classrooms at Lymington Road School. Gordon and I were taken with her and had to sit in each classroom as she moved from one to another. As dad had been a post office engineer, mum finally was able to get a job as a cook at the Wanstead telephone exchange and travelled each day from Dagenham to Wanstead to carry out her duties. Meanwhile Gordon and I were charging about, him on a fairy cycle and me on a scooter. We must have been a real menace on the pavements. I often wonder how much of mum’s hard earned cash went on paying for repairs to that cycle. It was always being taken back to Sisceles the local bike shop for something to be put right.
Mum was tough, she had to be. I remember when she washed. In those days washing was done in the old Butler sink in the kitchen. She used to strip to the waist and wash and that seemed a natural thing to do. We would say “Come on mum, show us your muscles”. She’d flex her arms and bend them to show off her biceps. We were sure she could take on all comers to protect us.
She proved her prowess at one time at my grandfather’s house at 58 Beechcroft Road Leytonstone. He (her father) had lodgers, Mr and Mrs Dixon, they lived upstairs but shared the kitchen with grandfather. The lady was apparently a mud-wrestler. She had already terrorised my two aunts and ruled the roost in the kitchen. The youngest of them, my Aunt Cis, had told them that she had better not try to bully (May) my mum as she would not stand for it. Of course Mrs D was waiting for her when we got there, looking for the opportunity to pick an argument. Mum had been warned by Aunt Cis that there might be trouble.
Granddad kept prize rabbits and it was a great honour to be allowed to help feed them in the large rabbit shed at the bottom of the garden. I was sent by him to get an enamel bowl from the kitchen. When mum gave it to me Mrs D snatched it back and said I couldn’t have it for the rabbits. Mum asked if it was hers or granddads, when told it was his she gave it back to me. Mrs D tried to take it back again. This was her big mistake, she was grabbed by the hair and dragged screaming to the back door. One glorious back hander and there was Mrs D flat on her back laying in a rather neat pile of dogs mess (dear old Queenie, granddads Airdale) that had been swept up. Granddad came hobbling down the garden on his stick and went to help her up. He decided to leave her there when mum told him if he did she’d knock her down again.
Mr Dixon came down to find out what all the commotion was. He was really a very nice chap, but unfortunately made the mistake of touching mum on the shoulder from behind to enquire what was wrong. In one movement she’d turned and hit him, the poor man lost two teeth. He didn’t turn a hair, kept calm and calmed both women down, picked up his wife and took her upstairs. She never caused any more trouble, we were right, mum would protect from all comers.
Mum’s work at Wanstead indirectly or otherwise led finally to us going away to school. The Wanstead School had some form of tie up with The Alexandra Orphanage, a school for the sons and daughters of civil servants that had lost one or both parents. It was up the long sweeping drive of the school that Gordon and I found ourselves walking in the early months of 1935, I was 8 ½ years old.
When we came out of Chalk Farm station there was shop on the right hand side of the road. Mum took us in there and we bought a tennis ball as a present for us joining our new school. One of the first things I was told to do was to put my number on the ball otherwise I would lose it.
One that same day two brothers Peter and Roy Hagger joined the school, numbers 152 and 154. They were the same age as Gordon and I. We remained friends throughout our school years. Peter joined the R.A.F. and was shot down over Germany and killed, he was a WOP A.G. (Wireless Operator Air Gunner). Of the twelve scholars who died in the war I was at school with eight of them. Roy and I are still good friends and keep in touch regularly.
The school was at Maitland Park NW3, and I still have many friends who were with me there seventy years ago. They don’t just happen to be old school friends but almost seem like brothers and sisters. Luckily we have a thriving Old Scholars Association. There were 180 boys and 120 girls from the ages of seven to fourteen. There was also a nursery where they had Babies and a Chartier which took the children who came out of the nursery school before they later moved on to the senior school when they were seven.
Gordon and I sat in the main entrance hall, a dark forbidding area with huge pictures, one of which was Lord Marshall, who other than the fact he looked so much like my grandfather, I haven’t a clue who he was. Mum had to leave us there, which I recall didn’t worry me at all as it seemed like great new adventure, I took to it straight away. Poor old Gordon was having a quiet snivel, obviously being older and wiser he had a little more idea what we might be in for.
We were given our numbers: Gordon was number 20 and I was number 22 and then came our formal introduction to the rest of the boys. They were formed up in what we were to learn to know as size lines. We were introduced as elder and younger Dielhenn from Dagenham. As there was no other boy from Dagenham in the school a boy from Barking was designated to look after us as we settled in. I know he was one of the older boys and must have left soon after. His name I remember was Bowler, his number was 121 but his looking after job didn’t amount to much as I swear I don’t think I saw him again after that first day. We soon became known as elder and younger DAGS, short for Dagenham (let’s face it, we most likely helped Ford put Dagenham on the map).
We were issued with our school uniforms, one for best, and one for everyday use. They consisted of grey trousers, coat and shirt, grey socks, a brown and yellow striped tie and a pullover for winter use. The crowning glory was a red cap with a brass shield badge with a lion rampant. I was always proud of that cap. The boots were just as those that would have been issued to the army: two pair, one man for the use of. The soles and heels covered in hob nails, ideal for marching. Our underpants were held up by loops which were supported by braces, which in the winter were hidden by our pullovers. Unfortunately in the summer no pullover, therefore no braces and our trousers were supported with a belt. This of course meant no support for our underpants and not having elastic in the waist often hung uncomfortably on the crutch of our trousers.
The mending ladies came down to classroom 4 every dinner time break from lessons. Socks were darned, patches were put on torn trousers. It was very embarrassing standing there with no trousers on having to hold on to your underpants, normally held up by braces, there being no elastic to hold them up.
We had our boots inspected every week to see if they needed mending or fresh hobnails. We stood in our stocking feet with a pair of boots on each arm. If in need of repair they were tossed to one side in a big heap. All of the boots had the boys number punched into the leather on the inside of the boots, so it was easy to have your boots returned. One of the punishments was to clean Chartier (the younger boys) boots. This meant the cleaning of about 30 pairs of boots.
Everything was controlled by bell ringing: mealtimes, classtimes. Any other time one ran to the side lines. The bell rang at certain times during the day and it meant we were to line up for various things. There were the class lines when obviously we had to line up to go into our different rooms. There were table lines where at mealtimes we lined up so that we marched straight into our tables in the dining hall. There were about thirty boys on each table, there were in turn three sections of about ten, with a senior boy as sergeant to keep his ten in order. Any other time the bell rang we lined up in size lines. In doing this we formed into a U formation, three rows deep, so the master could approach and address us from the open end of the U.
One of the ploys was to have the bell rung at an unusual time and that meant we must run to our size lines. The last twenty to arrive were cut off and were considered to be late. They had to be late because all the other boys were there. I was invariably in the last twenty, no excuse was ever good enough and of course that meant the cane. The speed I moved in those times in those heavy hob nailed boots I’m not all that sure that roger Bannister did run the first four minute mile.
There were five classes for schooling starting from the youngest, class 4. There were two sections in each class, top and bottom each consisting of twenty boys (forty boys in each class per teacher). The top class, upper A, was supervised rather than taught by the headmaster, Mr. Chas Fife. It consisted of about twenty boys who basically taught themselves by constant revision and so long as they had something to show off their work when asked, all was well.
Class 1 was taught by JC Andrews, more commonly known as Gump. Class 2 by Ellis Evans (Taffy), Class 3 by Taffy Thomas and Class 4 by Miss Rymel known as Auntie Rymel, but not to her face of course. That was where I started, in the bottom section of the bottom class with Auntie Rymel. I soon developed the happy knack of getting into trouble, although my first taste of getting the stick I was completely innocent.
The teaching staff were:
Chas F Fife Headmaster (Stiffy)
JC Andrews Class1 (Gump)
Ellis Evans Class 2 (Taffy)
Taffy Thomas Class 3
Miss Rymel Class 4 (Auntie)
Bill Vowsden P.T. (Sarge)
Sid Poole Music
Mr Peppiate Woodwork
Chas Fife nicknamed Stiffy, what a strange man. I am sure nobody disliked him, all boys respected him and I am certain that most boys thought he was a great headmaster. But thinking back the man must have been a bit of a sadist and I am certain he took great delight in caning boys. When he entered a classroom for the first time in the mornings, no matter what was taking place, all the boys stood and said in unison ‘Good morning, Sir’, to which he replied likewise, but at least three times a year he then informed us it was his birthday. We then wished him ‘Many happy returns of the day’. He thanked us and reminded us what that meant. It was that he would make a point of caning as many boys as he could find an excuse for.
The girls had separate women teachers. One particular vicious old b----h Miss Cook, who during mealtimes would stand on the stairs to the balcony with her hand on the banister and glare at the girls all the time. Ellis Evans (Taffy) was my favourite teacher, always very fair in my opinion and a very good teacher. I never really got into trouble with him, but must admit I found it very painful when I did. He kept a wooden baton in his desk and if a boy was to be punished he had to hold his hand out, palm down but hanging limply and the relay baton was brought down across his knuckles. I used to find it made me feel physically sick, but luckily as I say it didn’t happen to me very often.
JC Andrews (Gump), he taught class 1 and was also a good teacher. My first day in his class started well. Gordon (my brother) had somehow passed an exam known in those days as the 13 plus. It was some sort of test for late developers and to everyone’s surprise he got through and so qualified to go out each day to North Western Polytechnical College in Prince Regent Lane. If he hadn’t gone he and I would have been in the same class.
That first day Gump called the register: “ I Cast”, “yes sir”, “G Clayton”, “yes sir”, “D Dielhenn” “yes sir”, another pause. “Come out to the front of the class”. I duly obliged complete with my smile, knowing I had done nothing wrong. Wallop!! Gump did not bother with any finesse, just a swift clip round the ear. I must have looked surprised because he then kindly informed me that as he had got rid of one Dielhenn he wished to show me that he was now bitterly disappointed to think he was now to be plagued with another and therefore I knew what to expect. He then sent me back to my seat and calmly continued with calling the register.
He was a great cricketer and I think it was from him I got my love of the playing the game. After that first day I must admit he was very fair, but if you played him up you quickly received a good thump.
Bill Vowsden (Sarge); he was called Sarge because he joined the school straight from the army after the 1914-18 war, in which he was a P.T. instructor in a cavalry regiment. His instruction consisted of Physical Training, Drill (marching etc), Boxing but no other sport. He formed the trio, the third of the three musketeers with Ellis Evans and JC Andrews. They all joined the school about the same time, which meant our school had three Mr Chips. Those three all continued at the school into the 1960’s and between them taught and trained and sent into the outside world thousands of boys who respected them all their lives.
Sarge taught us, for which boots were perfect, to march: right turn, left turn, about turn, right wheel, left wheel we marched and counter marched. We did the lot. When I joined the Royal Navy they taught me nothing about marching and even less about discipline. If boys were caught fighting they were always made to put on boxing gloves. Gordon and I were always fighting and getting caught, he was officially able to give me a good thumping. But woe betide any bigger boys who set upon me, he was always there to defend me whether I was in the right or not.
Taffy Thomas I don’t know much about as he was not there all that long. I do remember his form of punishment was to carry a bible in his hand, which when he brought down on any unsuspecting boys head usually persuaded him to stop what he was doing wrong. Poor taffy had too much to drink one night and was found drunk on the back stairs. He was not seen again and was apparently sacked on the spot.
Sidney Poole the music teacher came in for a fair amount of mickey taking. He was in no way a disciplinarian although he tried to be. His only form of punishment never changed. He always made boys write lines: 100, 200, and 300 according to the degree of misbehaviour. The words never altered ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’. These lines were written by boys in their spare time and 100 lines could always be purchased for a few cigarette cards. Sidney never tore these up when they were presented but threw them in the waste paper basket, from where they could be retrieved for use at a later date. He never seemed to notice that the handwriting was so obviously different as the sheets of lines were handed to him.
No teacher other than the headmaster was supposedly allowed to physically punish anybody, but Auntie Rymel was the only one who stuck to the rules. If any boy played up in her class he was made to standing the front of the class and as the headmaster walked through he bade the boy to follow him to his study where he received the cane. No questions asked, no excuses were good enough anyway.
I had been asked to the front of the class to explain what I thought about something written on the blackboard. Unfortunately the head walked through the class at the time, I was collected, caned and sent on my way rejoicing. Dear old Auntie Rymel didn’t say a word.
I suffered from what was called dumb insolence in the forces. The teachers, all of them, insisted I kept smiling while they were telling me off and for some reason the madder they got the more I grinned and try as I might I could not control it.
There were various methods of punishment doled out by different teachers. Black marks for bad conduct and red marks for good were awarded and totalled each week. It was fairly easy to administer as names had become secondary and numbers used. Therefore if number 22 totalled six red marks and ten black I obviously finished with four black and anybody with four or more black marks was not allowed to the Saturday evening film show.
One of the worst punishments to my mind was to be made to remove your boots, then stand with your arms upwards supporting one boot in each hand. Every time your arm sagged a quick rap under the knuckles soon raised them again. To keep that way for any length of time was really painful.
By the time I left school I had a backside like leather. I had a system; if you yelled on the first lash goodness knows how many you got. I always kept quiet for the first two and yelled on the third, that way I reckoned you would only get two more and it would be all over. You would not be able to lie on your back or side that night because of the thick blue wheals on your rear end and you just had to lie on your stomach.
My worst beating was for pinching an extra bowl of cornflakes one Sunday morning. This was a special treat on a Sunday and the plates of flakes were set at the tables when we arrived. As we marched in you would be able to pick up a plate as you walked past filing to your place. When you sat down the idea was to wedge the spare plate between your knee and the table. This had always worked before for me and it was thought that one plate too few had been set out and a spare plate was brought. On this occasion they were wise to the problem and we all had to stand up again. I either had to let the extra plate clatter to the floor or stand up with the extra plate in my hand. I chose the latter and was caught (red) cornflake handed. I was caned by a window that looked out onto a corridor that led to the chapel, while 120 girls filed past in crocodile fashion on their way to the chapel. His idea was to make me cry out in front of the girls, of course pride would not allow me to. I let out my first yell after I was sure the last girl had passed. I lost count of how many strokes I got.
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