They really were the best days of our lives

IT is guaranteed that mention of school days or former pupils will precipitate an avalanche of reminiscences encompassing buildings, incidents, anecdotes, chums, teachers, hopes and ambitions fulfilled or unfulfilled, and names perhaps forgotten for long decades...

It happened to me as I turned the pages of a new book, Great Yarmouth’s School, a detailed examination of the establishment that has spent a century on Salisbury Road: as grammar school from 1910 (359 years after its foundation elsewhere in the town in 1551) until it evolved into a high school in 1981, recently opting to concentrate on the humanities.

The author of the book, commissioned by the school, is historian Michael Boon, an old grammarian, retired chief executive of Yarmouth Port Authority, and leading light in the Masquers amateur dramatic company among his variety of interests.

And there were plenty of pages for me to turn, 235 of them, comprehensively recording the history of the school as it instilled into its pupils high standards of learning, responsibility, sportsmanship, discipline and citizenship throughout 100 years in Newtown, weathering two world wars and evacuation as it did so.

For most of that period, only boys were on its registers, our local high school teaching gifted girls, but changes in policy resulted in the school becoming co-educational and losing grammar status in favour of a comprehensive system which continues today.

As an “old boy” educated at Yarmouth Grammar School from 1946-52, I enjoyed reading about the developments throughout that century but, of course, paid particular interest to the section covering my six years there, forgotten names from long ago suddenly stirring recollections of contemporaries pictured in the periodic panoramic photographs of all the pupils and staff I still possess.

Sadly, some have died. Others reached the top in their chosen professions and vocations, even enjoying international fame and thoroughly justifying their gold-leafed names being on honours boards. It will be a similar experience for ex-pupils from other eras, of course. But even those who never achieved prominence or perhaps were not wholly in step with the grammar school’s lofty ambitions for its alumni, benefited from its influences as they made their way in the world, despite not appreciating it during their time seated at desks.

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On a personal note, I would not be penning this column today without the encouragement to pursue my journalistic ambition provided by my old English master, the late Roy Pashley.

The wealth of data and names means that the book’s potential buyers will almost surely be old grammarians and pupils taught there after politics changed its whole ethos. Certainly the author records objectively the way the school lost some of its gravitas as it embraced comprehensive education, and the altered attitudes developing in the latter part of the last century.

Perhaps that lightening-up was for the better, although when I attended an old boy’s association dinner a few years ago, the impression I gained from the head master’s speech was that family-orientated social work was a major part of its routine. Times have changed...

In my postwar years wearing the navy blazer and grey flannel trousers, I felt – perhaps wrongly – that the emphasis was on serious music, religion and mathematics, subjects dear to the heart of strict headmaster Alan (“Alf”) Palmer. One incident I recall from 60-plus years ago mirrors the way attitudes have shifted.

As a first-year junior, I accompanied my parents to a musical evening when the sober programme included classic pieces played by senior pupil Peter Fenn on the pipe organ, a fixture in the school hall and used mainly by music master Benjamin Angwin to accompany hymns in assembly.

But then, surprise! For Fenn encored with an impromptu pipe organ rendering of Charlie Barnet’s famous big-band number, Skyliner. Sensational, my kind of music, then and now! The bewildered audience assumed Fenn had broken convention and his daring Skyliner would land him in big trouble, playing secular music on the organ and cocking a snoot at convention.

Although many of us thought the head and Mr Angwin were livid, we never learned what disciplinary action – if any – they took against Peter Fenn, who went on to become Anglia Television’s head of music, his duties including playing lighter material like organ jingles during quiz shows!

However, as I read the Boon book, I discovered that in 1956, only a decade later, a jazz club was formed, chaired by a master, and members formed a skiffle group. I do not know how the club fared, but only five years later a jazz appreciation society was organised by sixth-formers, “the hall echoing to modern drum solos and the ever-popular Acker (Bilk)”.

In 2002 the school (then a co-educational high school) staged the American musical Grease, while in the same decade ex-grammarian Chris Wright donated a new drum kit to the performing arts department.

Regretfully, it certainly was not enlightened like that in my day.

Apart from the wealth of year-by-year detail, conveniently broken down into decades, the author has included no fewer than 300 photographs and illustrations, and buyers will find in a pocket seven of those old panoramic photographs taken from 1920 to 1960 of entire years lined up on the playing field.

Also, there is a comprehensive list of head teachers and staff, with information about what became of some; lists of site staff, head boys and girls, school captains and prefects, honours achieved by pupils and old boys, students going to university, decorations awarded, notable former students. There is a roll of honour, plus news briefs about ex-pupils, and pen portraits of high school staff in 1983.

It is impossible to dwell on any of the abundance of facts that comprise this volume, a breathtaking compilation of the last century of life and activity in an establishment founded in the 16th century and a subsequent contributor of an inestimable amount of talent to the benefit to the borough.

But despite the apparent limited appeal, many other Yarmouth and Gorleston residents will find much to interest them within its pages because it chronicles the constant changes both the school and the borough were undergoing through the decades.

l Great Yarmouth’s School costs �17.50; a launch signing session takes place at Palmers department store on Saturday, December 11.