Posts Tagged ‘poetry competition’

The “Scholarship Class” at Town School

July 3, 2008

As I’ve already mentioned, classes in those days were not strictly arranged in chronological age, and as a result, I spent two years in what was called “The Scholarship Class”. It was when we sat the eleven-plus exam. It was sometimes referred to as the “top class”. I’m not certain whether there was any academic implication in the name or whether it was the fact that, physically, the classroom was at about roof level with the rest of the school.

Some of the other children I remember being in this class were: Billy Wootton who was quite a big lad and the only boy in the class who wore long trousers, a sign in those days of an “older boy”. Girls, of course, never wore trousers. There were also:  Jean Vaisey, Beryl Doe, Kenny Rice, John Harris, Dennis Virgin and two girls, whose surnames I forget, but were called Mavis and Myra. I’d love to hear from any of these, or any of their relatives.

It was the ambition of a lot of boys to go to West Mon and, each year, about 400 hopefuls would turn up at the school in fear and trembling to sit the three exam papers: English, maths and general intelligence. The girls, who wanted to attend the Girls’ County School at Penygarn sat a similar exam. The results of these exams, in order of merit, were always published in The Free Press. Approximately the top 90 boys would be accepted to enter the school and there were scholarships awarded to the five top boys in the exam; this meant that they did not have to pay fees. The rest of us had to pay fees, but they were reasonably small. After I had been at West Mon for a couple of years, all fees were done away with, I presume as a result of the 1944 Education Act.

The teacher in charge of the top class at Town School was Mr Petty who lived in Griffithstown. He was a slim, tall, angular man, with a very business-like stride and was a good disciplinarian. He was a member of St Hilda’s Church, Griffithstown. I recall some parents saying that, when the new head had been appointed, they thought Mr Petty would have had the job. In the event, J.P. Lewis was appointed.

Mr Petty was the finest and most effective teacher I had in the whole of my school days and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude. I marvelled at all he knew; no matter what the subject was, he seemed to know all about it. I was rather like the “rustics” in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Village Schoolmaster” when he says of them:

“And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.”

Mr Petty gave me a real love of the English language and literature which has grown throughout my life. Some of the lessons he taught were quite advanced for children of ten and eleven. For instance, we read Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, parts of Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers” and “John Halifax, Gentleman” by Dinah Craik. He also taught us the parts of speech and the structure of the English language and how to parse sections of the books we read. We spent hours sorting out the  subject, predicate and object of sentences and learning when and how to use relative pronouns etc. We also had a small class library where we could choose a book to read on our own when we had silent reading. I remember I chose H.Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines”. Punctuation was also taught and I remember him reading a passage from “The Pickwick Papers” to illustrate how Dickens wrote really long sentences by using semi-colons. I was fascinated. Spelling of course featured very strongly in our lessons and Mr Petty would often organize a spelling B, which I loved.

Not only did we read a lot of poems, we had to learn some of them off by heart also. Mr Petty patiently explained how a poem was constructed and he would give us exercises in splitting the lines into feet with accented and non-accented syllables; he also explained about rhyming patterns. He then encouraged us to try to write our own poems. On 1st March each year we celebrated St David’s Day with a sort of mini-eisteddfod. We looked forward to that as we always had the afternoon off. One year he organized a competition to write a poem about Pontypool Park Lake. I remember spending hours trying to get the right meter and rhyming but, eventually, I managed to write two verses and was thrilled when Mr Petty awarded me first prize. It was a little paperback book about a mouse family. I remember the words of my first poem still:

I took this photograph in 1947, my last year in Pontypool

“It nestles in a leafy glade
Which nature in her wisdom made.
Upon its banks stand gnarled old trees
Whose branches tower amid the breeze.

Like sentinels they stand on guard
As if most jealous of their ward,
And on its silvery waters cast
Their cool refreshing shade.”

That’s it! It’s not Wordsworth is it? But, I suppose, it’s not too bad for a ten-year-old.

Maths was the other important subject, although we called it “arithmetic”. Those were the days of “The three Rs”. It was a much more difficult subject then because nothing had been decimalised. There were 4 farthings in a penny, 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. In length there were 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 22 yards in a chain, (where we get the cricket pitch length from), 10 chains in a furlong and 8 furlongs in a mile. Consequently long multiplication and division were a real nightmare. We also did mental arithmetic using short methods, many of which I still use today.

Lessons on general intelligence we had once a week and these were taught by the headmaster himself, Mr J.P. Lewis, who devised a set of rules which we had to learn and chant. These showed us how to answer some of the questions.

For our English lessons we used a few times a week a blue book containing exercises in English comprehension. Each chapter contained a section of a book, or perhaps a poem, followed by questions about it. Mr Petty was so keen on us doing well at this that he wrote out his own book by hand on wax stencils, ran them off on a Lion Menucator,* bound them in brown paper and fastened them together by punching all the sheets with holes and threading string through. He must have spent hours doing this. He produced over 30 books with something like 50 pages each. As we approached the exam time, I remember he arranged for those of us entering the exam, to go to school at 8.30 instead of the usual 9.00a.m. to have an extra lesson. Now that’s what I call dedication.

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