King Edward's School Home Old Edwardians Website

Report by Robert Darlaston

4 April 2009: the Class of '51 is on the move again, hitching a ride into history as it revisits school and city. Some of our group are returning to KES for the first time in over fifty years. It promises to be a busy day: a school tour commencing at 11am, lunch at a restaurant in Hagley Road at 1pm, and a canal cruise from Broad Street at 4pm.

As the group assembles for the tour, our minds go back to our earliest days as sherrings; a time when King George VI reigned and Clement Attlee still had a month left as Prime Minister; when trams ran down the Bristol Road, T.E.B. Howarth was Headmaster, boys wore school caps, and we all knew one another just by our surnames. But plus ça change ... : the Drive and Main Door look remarkably unchanged and the years roll away as we chat informally before entering school. Time, however, rushes quickly by, and soon one is looking back on a day that was both fascinating and rewarding.

The school tour began with coffee in the Common Room and a welcoming address from the Chief Master, John Claughton. Straight away we found that life at KES had moved on from the staid 1950s. Gone was the cramped, smoke-filled Common Room once glimpsed through a half-open door, and in its place is a spacious and welcoming room which would not be out of place in a good hotel. Chief Masters have changed too: once they seemed eight feet tall, were only available dressed in clerical black and addressed one in measured tones, delivered ex cathedra. But here was a stunning new line in Chief Masters: a man with a coloured shirt, a man who mingled with the assembly, a man brimming with enthusiasm for his school and its future.

Guided by John Claughton and by Derek Benson who had been School Captain when we were in the Remove, our party set off eagerly seeking reminders of our past. We began with Big School and Sapientia, only slightly changed from our day, evoking memories of Willis Grant conducting hymn practice and Canon Lunt creating prefects ("See that yer wield this power with justice, loyalty and discretion"). Then we walked along what was once Classical Corridor but is now the History Corridor, calling en route to inspect a form room. Here was total change: the oak blocks had been covered by carpet, the blackboard had given way to Information Technology and even the new style desks faced the other way (presumably by intention rather than as the kind of prank one embarrassingly recalls once being inflicted on "Spike" Jackson).

The Library too is carpeted and is now replete with computers. Happily it also retains books in sufficiently generous quantities to satisfy the shade of Charles Blount, but it is a shame that the elegant Heath Memorial Library of reference books has gone. We continued along the upper corridor, turning right past the site of Tony Trott's form room (Room 186) to what had once been the Art Department. This area had changed completely. The school has grown in numbers and clearly needs far more space than in our day. But one feels that in redeveloping this area, elegance has been sacrificed to convenience and Hobbis's design has been sadly compromised in order to shoe-horn in more class rooms.

We continued past photographs of school activities from many corners of the world, making our way through new rooms full of bewildering arrays of technology. Here we noticed a sign prohibiting the throwing of anything whatsoever: "Can't a Master even throw chalk at an inattentive boy?" - "What's chalk?" came the reply!

The tour continued into the Art and Design Centre, opened in 1990. The exterior, while not completely in harmony with the earlier buildings, possesses some style. But the interior is a dog's breakfast of seemingly random rooms and steep staircases. The work on display was, however, of remarkable quality, which is what really matters. At this point, the tour took an unexpected turn when the Chief Master opened a door and set off the burglar alarm. We had visions of squad cars screaming into the Main Drive and our Chief Master being seized and taken into custody for questioning. But not even a bobby on a bike arrived and the tour continued unhindered.

From the Science Block we walked back down the drive and paused outside the North Door, originally the usual entrance for boys below the Sixth Form and where many of our number had once loitered to yearn after the goddesses of KEHS performing on the tennis court. After such impure thoughts Derek quickly marched us to the Chapel for corrective meditation. Once the altar piece has been restored, the Chapel will be another area of school largely unaltered from our day, wonderfully preserving something of the atmosphere and structure of Barry's historic building, first erected in New Street in 1838.

Looking over the wall by the Chapel, many thought that covering the swimming pool was an aesthetic disaster, an easy verdict from those who no longer have to face the bracing prospect of swimming in chilly water and an even chillier wind. Although Jonathan Coe had written an entertaining episode in The Rotters' Club, describing how ladies had telephoned the school to express shock or even delight at the sight from the top of a passing 62 bus of a naked boy on the high diving board, we agreed that the boy's physique would have been remarkable indeed to be visible from that distance, and the ladies in question would have needed powerful binoculars and a steady hand if they were fully to savour the moment.

From spiritual refreshment in the Chapel we turned next to physical well-being and inspected the gym where we were surprised that such instruments of torture as wall bars, beams, ropes and vaulting horses had all vanished. Fortunately, our visit to the gym was not on this occasion followed by the requirement to have a shower, but we well remembered the need to hurry out before "Sam" Cotter turned the thermostat to COLD. At least the showers had been a fairly civilised process compared with the bath at Eastern Road where fifteen young men would sit in water so coloured by mud from the playing field that it looked as though it had been piped in direct from Cadbury's factory down the road.

Our time was now running out, and after passing along the splendid new Classical Corridor, with form rooms where there had once been changing rooms accessed from the South Terrace, it was time to take our leave of school and move to the next stage of our day's activities. We had enjoyed a tour that was both nostalgic and stimulating. The school is the same business that we remember, with many of the same sights, sounds and smells, but there are bold new activities which we and our contemporaries would not have dreamed of. It was noticeable how form rooms and facilities devoted to the business of teaching have mostly developed out of recognition, whereas communal areas remain much as they were. As we made our way along the corridors and climbed the stairs, it was so easy in the mind to go back to the bustle and chatter that had once been part of our everyday life but which now belongs to a new generation. Our successors who work their way up from the Shells to the Sixth Form are fortunate indeed.