Archive for May, 2009

High Days and Holidays at Pontypool Town School

May 8, 2009

Boy Writing-1875-Albert-AnkeWe copied our stories in our best copperplate handwriting

 

 

Schools today have a variety of oases in the annual desert of school life; I don’t mean holidays from school but events within the school year. There’s the annual school outing to some place of interest, the annual Christmas Party, visits by a variety of guests, sports day and so on.

 

At Town School we had only three such occasions as far as I can recall: St David’s Day, the annual Scripture Exam and the Christmas gifts which J.P. Lewis, the headmaster, used to scrounge for us from various businesses.

 

I briefly referred to St David’s Day in a previous post. I suppose this was our most popular day since we were guaranteed a half day’s holiday. In the morning we had what was euphemistically termed an eisteddfod which was rather a grand name for our humble efforts at singing, reciting and writing poetry. But we all knew for certain that, after it was all over, the afternoon was ours.

 

The annual Scripture Exam enjoyed a much higher profile; for one thing we knew for certain that the Vicar of Trevethin and his curate would visit us to do the “examining”. For those of us in the top class, the event was preceded by many weeks of preparation of our models. These were a collection of dioramas which we made by collecting shoe boxes from the local shoe shops. As my Uncle Percy Gregory owned a shoe shop this presented me with no difficulty at all.

 

The lid of the shoe box was glued on the side of the upturned box thus presenting a sort of stage on which we built out models with a background behind. We were allowed to choose almost any story which we’d learned during our year’s scripture lessons and make a model based on it. I always chose something to do with shepherds and sheep as Mr Petty had a rubber stamp of a sheep and was always able to supply the necessary cotton-wool to represent the sheep’s coat. I must have cut out and clothed a whole flock of sheep which were then stuck on the stage with little flaps under their feet and a shepherd was stuck there looking after them. The background was invariably a bright blue sky and a few hills. A few days before the exam these were all arranged on trestle tables down the school’s narrow corridor for everyone to admire.

 

There was one particular model which appeared year after year. It was a most superior shepherd scene as it not only had sheep and a shepherd but there was also a house, all made of plaster of Paris. It looked really realistic and every year, at its annual appearance, I was filled with admiration. Imagine my utter joy and delight, therefore, when, in my last year at the school, Mr Petty gave me the job of repairing the model and repainting it just to freshen it up a bit.

 

During our scripture lessons we spent quite a lot of time learning to recite psalms, chant some of the Church of England catechism and learn all ten commandments. The learning of the commandments didn’t present much trouble; it was keeping them we found difficult. On the great day the vicar and the curate shared out the classes between them and came around to ask us questions about the stories in our syllabus. They always seemed quite easy questions and each one usually resulted in a veritable forest of hands thrust skywards to give the answers. I liked the young curate, Rev. L.C.Bartle Jenkins as he always seemed very friendly with a happy disposition – not quite as serious as the vicar.

 

Another feature of the exam was our story writing. Again we were allowed to choose which story we would like to retell and we wrote it out on foolscap paper; it was the only time we ever used such large sheets. The event was always very carefully staged by the teachers. About a week before the exam we had to write out our stories. These would then be collected in, carefully corrected by our teacher and then returned to us. Then we were given new sheets of paper and told to copy out our stories once again complete with corrections and in our very best copperplate handwriting. When we were about half way through we were told to stop and the papers were collected in once again. On the day of the exam our stories would be given back to us and we continued to write but with no sign of the corrected copies. This event was obviously well timed as, no sooner had we started to write, than the vicar or curate arrived in the classroom and walked around to see our stories, not completed of course, but well on the way – and with hardly any mistakes. We went along with this bit of sanctified skulduggery in the hope of earning the afternoon holiday. And we always did! At the end of morning school, the headmaster and Vicar would come around the classes to say how well we’d done and the Vicar always asked the headmaster to give us the afternoon off, which he always did.

 

J.P. Lewis, the headmaster, spent a lot of time, in the weeks before Christmas, writing to various large businesses all over the country asking for any free gifts they might have which were suitable for children. On our last day a selection of these were given to our teacher and were shared out amongst the class. They were all quite small and cheap items but I loved receiving them. Some were simple pictures to colour, others were puzzles to solve and occasionally a model to cut out and construct. I remember one Christmas receiving a model coconut-shy. I loved it. They all carried an advert of some sort for products such as Borwicks Baking Powder, Bisto, Oxo etc.

 

In 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Virginibus Puerisque: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.  The days I have described helped us to travel hopefully through our young schooldays; it’s always good to have something to look forward to.

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Tragedy at West Mon 2. Words from a key witness.

May 1, 2009

As I’ve stated in the new short heading to this blog, I’ve had quite a number of emails sent to me concerning the contents and other people’s memories. These are personal emails and not the same as the comments which are included in the blog from time to time as they are sent in.

 

Last week I was thrilled to receive several emails from an old West Mon boy, Peter Jefferys who, for the past 42 years, has been living in Ilfracombe. He was surfing the internet looking for a picture of West Mon when he accidentally came across my blog. On reading it he was amazed to find the account of the tragedy when Robin Lafone was drowned in the school swimming baths.

 

Peter was in the new form one I referred to in my original account of this tragedy and in his email he says:

 

I was the boy who ran for help and was in the same class as Hancher and Lafone. Lafone was a close friend and sat next to me in class. The day’s events of this tragedy will be  with me always, and sadly the circumstances of the accident were not as generally accepted. The teacher in charge was unable to swim, and my memory of him in the water hanging on to the side of the Baths with his gown still on, is as clear now as then. I ran for help [without towel] to a classroom on the ground floor, and the teacher attempted to save both boys. I was a boarder at the school, having moved down from London in 1945? until 1950. Hopefully I will be able to make contact with others who were at West Mon during those years. [The school song is now running through my head, whilst writing this.]”

In my reply to Peter I asked him some questions to try to clarify in my own mind exactly what happened on that day. He replied:

 

The master in the water with gown was not the teacher that I went for help to.  [I cannot recall the his name.] The teacher that I went to in a class came back with me and dived in to try and save the boys. My recollection was that Garnett was not there. I did wonder why the boys were not questioned at the time about the event, but maybe we were all thought to be too young to be reliable witnesses.

Lafone jumped in, as he had been dared to by the boys, and he had been told to jump in from the deep end of the baths and jump towards the side so he could get out, although he admitted he could not swim I think he felt he could not lose face.”

Taking account of all the comments and emails I’ve received about this matter, I think I’ve now arrived, as near as possible, to a definitive account of this tragedy. I’ve come to the conclusion that, over the intervening 55 years, there has grown up around it a sort of West Mon folklore, some of which is not very accurate. For instance, it was interesting that Peter said he was not wrapped in a towel when he ran for help. I must agree.

 

From Peter’s account it seems as though Garnett was not in the baths at the time but that the master in charge was someone wearing a gown. Garnett never wore a gown but as the sports master, he would certainly have been able to swim, so I can only suppose that another member of the staff, who would have been relatively older because the young staff members were by then in the forces, was standing in for Garnett, possibly for only a short while. If this is the case, then it’s doubly tragic that the accident occurred during that short time.

 

It’s also very sad that Robin Lafone should have died as the result of accepting a dare from some of his fellow students. If any other former West Mon boys were at the school when all this happened I shall be most pleased to have their comments. And if any of them knew Peter Jefferys and wish to get in touch, I have his email address.