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MEMORIES OF BECKENHAM TECH circa 1941-44
By David Alston
THE SIGHT of The Studio always brings back memories for me, a former pupil of the Beckenham Tech, which started life on this site a century ago.
You probably know something of its history, but suffice to say that what began life as Beckenham Technical Institute in 1901 carried on until 1958 before moving to Keston as Ravenswood School.
On my first September day, as a boy of 12 in 1941 I stood on the former island bus stop opposite The Bell Hotel in Bromley Market Square, feeling conspicuous in my new blazer, cap and socks, complete with brand-new satchel on my back, and boarded the Penge-bound 227 .
Excitement blended with nervousness as I saw other pupils school-bound, and memories of that crisp morning gathering outside the doors of the building fronting Beckenham Road have never left me. Apparently woodwork was on the agenda for that (and every) Thursday, so off we were immediately shuffled to Clock House Station along the road on the first of many train trips to Eden Park, where in the midst of a field – no Langley Park School there at that time – stood a cricket pavilion, lately transformed into a woodwork centre, presided over by Mr Yabsley, a craftsman of unparalleled skill. (I have a bedside table still which bears witness to his ability as a teacher.)
Back to Beckenham Road for school lunch, at which I encountered for the first time a dish known as cheese pastry. Delicious, I decided, but I became suspicious when it appeared at almost every other sitting day by day. Being a boy of normal appetite, I devoured whatever came my way in the school dining room (the basement of the premises) and joined the happy throng which bolted its food in order to get second helpings which were in limited supply. There were clever ones among us. I think of one – Peter Smith – who used vile descriptions to put us completely off our food, and who would then proceed to consume ours as well as his own!
We were a class of 28, (Alston, Burchell, Cobby, Day (Tiger), Dunn, Evans, Gooding, Haynes, Hatton, Jones, Knight, Laws, Lay, Maris, Martin, Miller, Macleod, Preuveneers, Pratt, Riley, Roffe, Shepherd, Smith, Secret, Simpson, Townsend, Keith Woods, and another Woods) all gathered from surrounding areas including as far out as Farningham near Eynsford. Roy Dunn, a country boy with interests in ferrets, guinea pigs and the like, never ceased to be a source of awe with whatever he brought into class; certainly his white rat was as intelligent as any of us. Many of us had come from local schools where we had known others, but some like myself were not so fortunate. However, friendships were soon made.
This being wartime, the teaching staff was depleted by the lack of young men teachers, and I well recall the sadness felt when it was announced that our recently called-up English teacher had been killed in action.
A strange mix, the Beckenham Technical School. Not the same insistence upon academic subjects as elsewhere, but rather a blend of art, engineering and building subjects which, while adding to our knowledge nd abilities after leaving school, hampered to a degree the pursuit of conventional learning and examinations.
Thus lessons on the constitution of Art (Art head teacher John Cole) : mass, movement and texture, became part of our everyday concepts, as did appreciation of typography and colour.
The school was comparatively small, some 270 boys being divided into three- year steps and a 30-boy classification of art, building and engineering. It seemed to work, although some of us wondered quite how we had been selected for a certain division. For example, I like artwork, but am no artist, and being selected for this subject had to struggle along with others of greater talent in this direction.
Discipline was there, but not obsessively. On one occasion I remember salt- and- pepper pots being slid along a dining table with increasing momentum, and this not surprisingly being considered a breach of dining decorum we were ordered to line-up for punishment outside the Head’s office For the life of me I could not at the time or since remember whether I had actually taken part in the fray , and felt unjustly blamed along with the rest . However, the kindly Head changed his mind upon seeing the number of miscreants, and a verbal admonishment sufficed.
Along the Beckenham Road and almost opposite the school stood Anne’s – a kind of tuckshop from where could be purchased those delicious and now defunct Lyons individual fruit pies costing sixpence a time. I can taste them now – no box, no wrapper, just pie! The Beckenham Baths, now rejoicing in the name of The Spa – had a cafe upstairs, and this was the regular target for break-time snacks of bread rolls – which were eaten in the time-honoured manner of being mined for their soft bread content before consumption of the outer crust. Again, very scrumptious.
Drama played its part at the school, and a lifetime thespian, I enjoyed every minute spent play-reading and acting. “A Night at the Inn” by Lord Dunsany left its indelible mark on my memory; and I still cannot shake off the opening lines.: “What’s his idea, I wonder”…”And how much longer will he keep us here?” You’ll have to go to see it for the rest…
After-school activities were rather odd. I remember belonging to a chess club, but support was rather low, meetings were cancelled, and I never did get to know the rudiments of the game. The Maths master started up a cinema club, to which my friend Ernie Martin and I went along. And that was it. Us two. The projector was a splendid Pathe model, the films silent of course, in black-and -white. Early Mickey Mouse – Tugboat Willie. I have always been fascinated by all things cinematic, and this was a joy.
There was also an engineering club where supposedly steam engines and the like could be constructed , but I have no first-hand experience of this, although others I know did.
Sport was patchy; football on a freezing pitch did not appeal to me, and the so-called gymnastics would not be believed today. The school not possessing a suitable area, these took place in the hall of Elm Road Baptist Church opposite. The less said about them the better.
Mind you, the lessons in Religious Knowledge contained more of sport than anything else; I remember the master standing by our desks discussing football, and I put this down to his knowledge of religious matters being rather limited.
“Get out your David Copperfields!” was the warcry of our English literature guru, Mr Oxley, and when today I fish out a copy of that very book to enjoy, I never cease to reflect upon the threat to its delights imposed by this particular schoolmaster. However. he was very good in other ways, and it was he who installed the nickname to our “Turnip” Townsend during a history lesson. Talking of which, our Miss Robertson had a way of pouring out historical facts of a boring nature and scribbling them endlessly on the blackboard which defied my memory to absorb them, quite apart from the fact that I was becoming short-sighted and didn’t realise it. No-one tested eyes in those days..
All this shows how different things are today, when classrooms seem to be so much more inviting and cheerful; where knowledge is imparted as something to be enjoyed rather than put up with.
Our school library was notable for its limited stock and poor selection of titles. I took out The Last of the Mohicans; I had heard of its merits, but I don’t think I finished reading it.
Every boy had a problem in managing to carry around all his books and papers – so would a camel! There were no lockers and the desks we used for storage purposes were almost always occupied in the various classrooms, so that it was difficult to retrieve what was necessary when it was required. Every boy was told to affix a padlock and it was with a shock that one day I discovered my desk had been forced open. Apparently the culprit was discovered and punished with the cane. I believe it was the principle of the thing.
Came the winter, and we slid wildly along the ice strips near the bicycle sheds. In more clement weather, the playing field at the rear of the school (today completely covered with housing) was home to our athletics and out-of-school antics in fighting, air-gun shooting and home-made parachute flying. The sports included a 2-mile cross-country canter around the surrounding area, at the beginning of one of which I got a “stitch”. Having completed the course and come roaring into the playing field arena, I was dismayed to discover that a complete circuit still needed to be covered, by which time I had burnt myself out!
Yes, schooldays of yore. During the summer holidays some of us fruit-picked in Kent, and those who didn’t wished they had!
The exigencies of war resulted in a ragged end to my school career at Beckenham Technical School, for V1 flying bomb evacuation took me away to the Five Towns in Staffordshire, and on my return the school had finished for the summer. Next term I started at Beckenham School of Art – but that is another story.