“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday, 26 May 2019
The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam 3 – 1903-1912: school – teachers like Miss Thomas, Miss Smith, Mr Page… and Dizziba rambling about the Crimean War and never sparing the rod – infant embarrassments of the taken-short kind – trying to match his brother Ted – impossible!! – but not being “Stinker” Jackson at least – and Mrs Varley’s Waxworks, and posing as Shylock – and leaving, sadly, in 1912, because his parents couldn’t afford any more education for him…
Sam’s Memoir(1) – paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.
For details of how to buy the Memoir or Gallipoli & Somme & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association here. For AUDIO excerpts click Here Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here
The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…
All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross – and the current running donations total as of May 1, 2019, is £4,178.05 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!).
A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… At the Paris Peace Conference a lot of deals got close to signed and sealed, but not the big ones (although the Supreme Council Of Allies meeting at Versailles did recognise the two white Russian leaders, Admiral Kolchak in the Urals and General Denikin in Galicia, to support them against the Bolsheviks, May 26).
But some backstairs stuff seemed to be proceeding, such as the arrangement with UK only by which Belgium took over the Ruanda-Urundi (sic) part of former German East Africa as a mandate (May 30) – later confirmed/legalised by the still-emerging League Of Nations. Meanwhile, at the official top table, the UK Treasury’s financial representative at the talks, John Maynard Keynes, resigned from his post (26) because of fundamental disagreements with PM Lloyd George – Keynes, en route to becoming the 20th Century’s most influential economist, believed the level of reparations insisted on by the British and French would ruin Germany and damage the European economy (he may not have been far wrong…).
All around Europe political jockeying and armed skirmishing continued. In Romania, the Bendery Uprising at Bender/Tighina saw local Russian Bolsheviks momentarily take over the town’s railway station, PO and telegraph office, before Romanian troops with French support got the insurrection suppressed by midnight (May 27; 150 rebels briskly executed). Armenia declared Independence from Russian rule without immediate uproar (28). British warships defeated a Bolshevik flotilla near Kronstadt, Gulf Of Finland (31). And, cheered on by the French who welcomes anything that might dilute Germany’s potential future power, the Rhineland declared itself an independent republic, its capital Wiesbaden (June 1).
And the Third Anglo-Afghan War sprang to life again with a British siege of the walled fort at Spin Boldak (May 27; noted as the last British Army use of escalade ladders in battle), responded to by an Afghan attack on Thai fort (May 28 onwards) which was relieved by mainly Indian and Gurkha Regiments under the command of General Dyer, by then just six weeks on from ordering the infamous Amritsar Massacre.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit. Meaning, at first, a few weeks de facto holiday in Brighton. But then, something completely different… through the spring, Sam and others ex-POWs guard German POWs at a camp in Sussex, while making various attempts to get back to “normal” life… At which point, for the time being, the story breaks off as explained below…]
RETRO 3: With my father, Signaller Sam Sutcliffe’s a-century-ago-this-week(ish) story taking a break –because he just didn’t write enough about his late spring/early summer period of 1919 – I’m revisiting the (in-hindsight) theme of his Memoir’s opening chapters about his childhood and teens: that is, The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam.
In his Memoir he wrote a substantial section about the period from first memories, aged about two in his case, to 16 when war loomed. He had no ambition to be a soldier, but as it turned out this generally unplanned upbringing did frame the nature of the young Tommy who survived Gallipoli, the Somme, the Spring Offensive and eight months as a POW – never a hero, always doing his duty as best he could.
So, Retros 1 and 2 comprised excerpts a) on his wealthy toddlerhood in Manchester for just a couple of years after his birth (on July 6, 1898) and then, after the collapse of the family tile business, real hungry poverty in London b) his developing immersion in the tumultuous life of 1900s Edmonton, a suburb then on the northern edge of north London – the streets full of animals, from horses hauling trams and carts to cattle and sheep on the hoof to the butcher, roads thrusting out into the surrounding countryside and a market place steaming with commerce of every sort from roughhouse pubs to pawnbrokers to a pharmacy and its disreputable competition, the quack doctor, vending “pills, potions and perorations”…
Now these excerpts take in his recollections of school, good and bad – though, on the whole, he did enjoy it as a relief from the grinding poverty and tensions of home life. In the move from wealth in Manchester to barely scraping by in London Sam did miss some schooling, despite a brief stint in “infants” in Tottenham. But when his mother decided they were settled in Edmonton, her thoughts turned at last to education. First she sorted out the three older children “Ciss” (really Dorothy, born 1894), “Ted” (really Philip, 1896) and Sam, not the toddler Sidney (1900), nor the baby Alf (1903). (NB: my father wrote the early chapters in the third person, calling himself “the boy” and then “Tommy”, while Ted’s temporary alias was “George”).)
So, The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam – School Days, 1903-12:
‘Now came the question of new schools for the children. Easily solved. An elementary school stood only a 10-minute walk from the house(2)… The two older children fitted into their class quite easily. But Tommy had been to school for only a brief period. Because of the moves from Manchester to London and then from one district to another, he had lost slightly over a year, so he went into the infants’ part of the new school. The alphabet, the abacus, and plasticine occupied his days for the first few weeks. Games. Dancing to music on the piano played by the teacher. And the maypole featured quite frequently.
Tommy soon acquired a regular way of living. After his breakfast of bread and margarine and a cup of tea, at 20 to nine he set off for school, ran along with the rest of the children and got there about 10 to. At nine, when a hand bell rang out, the children formed up into double lines, then marched into the assembly hall to a military tune played on the piano. Miss Smith was the pianist, a lady of 30 or so with a mop of curly hair not conforming to the usual fashion of the period. On the highly polished wood-block floor, small white crosses were painted about 30 inches apart. On each one stood a child. They took up the same positions every morning. It had been drilled into them.
They faced the rostrum, a small raised stage with a handrail in front of it, occupied by three persons only. In the middle, the headmistress, a Miss Thomas: a short, sturdy, manly type of woman, ruddy cheeks, bright eyes, certainly knew her job – how to take control of this swarm of children and command silence when silence was needed, singing when singing was required. Everything worked like clockwork, fixing indelibly in Tommy’s mind a picture of the hall: the children standing in lines, Miss Thomas’s beady eye watching for the movement, the cough, the sniffle which she would not approve… it was really not allowed, you know. The children came to regard the good lady not with fear, but respect, and a wish to please her.
To Miss Thomas’s left on the rostrum, Miss Smith – the joy it gave the lad when she played the piano… A feeling when he took his place in assembly each morning that everything was in order, was as it should be.
The brief morning ceremony over, the children formed up again, each class in two lines. Their teachers then lead them off to the strains of another of Miss Smith’s stirring marches. In time to the beat – as best they could – they took their places at their desks and faced the teacher. A Miss Booth presided over Tommy’s class, a tall, stately lady who usually wore a velvet gown gathered in at the waist. An appearance of depth and stateliness, the ideal matronly figure to command the children’s respect. One look from her would subdue even the most difficult child.
When morning school finished, Tom would be allowed to go home for lunch – home now a place where some food could be had, though never a satisfying meal, just enough to keep them going. Perhaps a cheap meat stew with a few vegetables. Puddings were out, of course. Money would never run to that.
Afternoons started at 2 o’clock. To Tommy they always seemed nicer, more friendly, warmer than mornings. He gradually became aware of the children around him in the classroom. To his right, a well-dressed and rather good-looking boy with a quite outstanding name: Nelson-Moxon. How did he come by it? Who were the Nelson-Moxons? What was his family doing in this poor neighbourhood? Nelson-Moxon. Tommy would repeat it to himself while considering these questions. Nelson-Moxon. What a grand name…
To his left a little girl. Bright, rosy cheeks, merry eyes, dark hair… curls across her forehead. Always smiling. They became quite friendly. One day she held out her hand to him and they sat there listening to the teacher, holding hands. But disaster struck. Tommy felt a rumbling in his tummy and soon after that a dampish unpleasant something or other in the seat of his trousers. As realisation of what had happened came to him he freed his hand from the little girl’s grip, stood up, dashed down the gangway, out of the classroom, out of the school building, across the playground and the road and into the fields. So to the haven of home. His first romance shattered.’
(2) Since the Memoir’s first edition in 2014, Stephanie M. MacDuff, a diligent and enthusiastic WW1 researcher and friend of Nobody Of Any Importance, has discovered that the children must have attended Eldon Road School, Edmonton, then surrounded by fields, now thronged with suburban streets (and an all-new building by the looks of it). Thanks to Stephanie for this and other points, from Phil pp Sam.
At seven, back then, it seems children would move on from infants school to “junior mixed” until they were 10 – but for my father, as you’ll read, this period was curtailed so it may have run from 1905-7.
‘Girls and boys together in classes learning simple arithmetic and reading. After two years in that class he was presented with a book as a prize. Then the head teacher, a kindly and, as the boy thought, good-looking lady spoke to him, asked his name and so forth, and had a conversation with his class teacher. As a result he moved upstairs to a boys-only department – all ages up to 14 in a series of classes.
There, with space at a premium, the assembly hall had to be used for lessons. Partitions drawn across after assembly screened off two classes. Catching up quickly after his missing year, Tommy bypassed the lowest class. Unfortunately, this meant he never really learnt the geography of Britain, which caused him some inconvenience for years afterwards.
He took a liking to his new form teacher, a young man called Parker, fresh from college. But, shortly, the teacher fell ill and for a couple of days the two groups in the assembly hall joined together and he came under the authority of a very strange man, elderly, with a grey, pointed beard, ruddy face, iron-grey hair and a tongue like a whiplash.
The old boy rambled on, seldom sticking to one subject, telling the youngsters about the Crimean War, the price of tea shortly after it ended – apparently it soared to 8 or 9 shillings a pound and bread went up to a shilling a loaf… and similar bits of fruity information. But regularly, perhaps every ten minutes or less, he would call a lad forward from his desk, instruct him to hold out his hand and wham the cane down on it. Perhaps the boy had been doing something wrong, who knew? But surely that constant procession, wham, howl, surely they couldn’t all have been breaking the rules all the time.
No indeed, that old fool was a relic of a previous age of education in this country when it was assumed that all boys were wicked, all boys were bad. Corporal punishment should be administered regularly to keep the little devils in hand.
The stick as a means of maintaining discipline bred no respect in the children. The old boy’s nickname, “Dizziba”, in those days indicated the first stages of insanity. Even as he walked down the street the bigger lads would yell after him – if they could remain hidden – “Dizziba! Dizziba!”
The contrast between that idiot and the young teacher when he returned from his illness was very marked. In most cases, the lads lapped his lessons up. Parker was carroty of hair, pale of face, a jutting jaw, height about 5’10”, broad-shouldered – just the type to become a sort of hero to the class. If his legs looked a little bandy, he was always nicely dressed – a rare sight for those boys, a nicely-dressed man.
He was so new to the job that he didn’t know the golden rule, “Nobody allowed outside the grounds during school hours”. When the time came for the weekly one hour of physical training, noting that the fields around the school extended for a mile at least in one direction, he took his class out through the gate and organised a game of rounders. But, sadly for us, it wasn’t repeated. We heard that the headmaster ticked him off and thereafter that sort of thing had to be done in the playground. There was no sports kit – nobody in Tommy’s class could afford it anyway – so their PT comprised just bending and stretching and running around, that sort of stuff; it wasn’t too bad.
Occasionally, Tommy would catch sight of his brother, who was two to three classes ahead of him, being both older and remarkably clever. Learning everything rapidly and exceedingly well just came naturally to him. He set a pace in the school which the other lads could not hope to keep up with. But it dawned on Tommy that, as he moved through the school, each master would expect him to follow in his brother’s footsteps and match his brilliance. Clearly impossible! He admired his brother, didn’t envy him at any time, but probably suffered unnecessary anxiety because of constant comparisons with his talent and performance.
Another year passed and Tommy went on to the next class. He rather feared this because the teacher was a North-Country man, short, wiry, strong, and reputedly rather harsh. But he taught well. He either wrote down or told his boys the things they ought to know and, after a time, he tested them and questioned them and if they didn’t know, why didn’t they know, huh? He knows over there, why don’t you know? Given any suspicion of inattention… out came the stick.
Tommy had only a brief stay with that gentleman because, for some reason, it was decided he should swiftly step up again to the next class – and a teacher of a different type, scholarly, firm, but gentle. The lad who did his best received every encouragement. The teacher selected those he thought the most promising and rearranged the seating to fill one side of the room with the lads on whom he thought it worthwhile to lavish most of his attention.
Finding himself among that top group, Tommy wondered why. He was clean, which was something to a teacher in charge of perhaps 40 small boys but, looking around, he saw that most of them were better dressed than him.
He wore completely home-made clothes. For the first time since they moved to London he had the luxury of a vest, a woollen vest. To make it, mother had cut down an old men’s vest. A cotton shirt over that, a white celluloid collar – quite deep and easily washed under the tap, it cost thruppence farthing, no more than that, and no laundry… In addition a sort of jacket; blue, thick, wool cloth, strong and warm – because Tommy’s family’s next-door neighbour had a son in the Navy. He came home once and gave Tommy’s mother a complete uniform, a flannel vest, jacket and baggy trousers, in good condition although he’d worn it for some while. Quite a lot of cloth there for her to work on and produce a jacket and knee-length trousers. Of course, the cut wasn’t marvellous. The most obvious thing about it was that it was home-made.’
As you see, Sam/“Tommy” had his own kind of class consciousness from an early age, later reflected in his writing about the WW1 Army. No doubt, his childhood understanding and perspective was affected not just by observing poor and rich lives in his neighbourhood, but his own family’s “coming down in the world”. That meant he had snapshot memories of prosperity in Manchester from his first two or three years and then the continuing awareness of how bitter his mother felt about their social and economic descent – and how sorry and ashamed his father remained, the debacle being his responsibility (see blog two weeks ago).
‘Compulsory school attendance brought together children who otherwise would never have rubbed shoulders. None of their parents well off, though some more so than others, they observed varying standards of cleanliness in their homes. On one occasion Tommy felt a good deal of itching round his body and scratched. Mother noticed and suspected what was wrong. In his vest she found a number of lice. She had never seen them before, but knew about them and wondered where he could have got them from. School? She paid a visit there. “Ah,” said that good man, Tommy’s teacher. “I’m aware of this already – I found some in my underclothes. We must discover who is bringing them in. I’ll confer with my colleagues and we will evolve some plan for finding the carrier.”
Predictably, Stinker Jackson turned out to be the one, the host of these wretched lice. Poor Stinker. Even a lad like Tommy could look across at him and see his staring eyes, wide-open mouth, dirt-streaked face, and feel sorry for him and justified in pitying him. Stinker’s family relied for their living on keeping pigs. He and his sisters had to work in the sheds, cleaning them out, before they came to school. The smell of the piggery hung about him. By common consent, depending on who was absent with illness, he would occupy the most isolated desk in the classroom. When the lice were discovered, the teacher sent him home with orders to his parents to scrub him up and never let him come back carrying these wretched things again.
The school did try to encourage some universal standards of personal hygiene. Tommy never forgot the day when the head of the junior-mixed department had assembled all classes. There on a small table in front of her she had a long, narrow box and a cup of water. In her hand she held a toothbrush with which she gave a demonstration. In the box was powdered chalk. She dipped the brush in the water, then in the powdered chalk, and carefully brushed her teeth up and down all round and explained the reason for it to the children.’
But this school clearly did take an adventurous attitude to education, trying to give the strivers, at least, every opportunity, whatever social background they might spring from.
‘The school was experimenting. It had been decided that Tommy and some others would spend two years in the same class with one teacher. They had a “standards” system numbered 1 to 7 and Tommy’s group would be going through standards 4 and 5. After two years they would move on, depending on the teacher’s assessment of their abilities as displayed by general work and termly exams. Luckily, Tommy liked the teacher, whom he observed closely. He liked his white teeth, his silky moustache and his grand nose with its high bridge marked at the top by the spectacles he wore in class. But all the boys appreciated him because they felt he treated them fairly. In turn, they were willing to do their best.
Tommy learned the essentials. The world, its continents, its countries, the people who inhabited them. What they grew or mined in the way of fruit, grains, metals, minerals, and what they did with those things. Whether they treated them before selling them. Also what they bought in, treated, and sold again. Then history… a plodding progress from the time of the Romans onwards. Learning the kings and queens who ruled our country and whether they were good, bad or indifferent. Something of the laws promulgated during their reigns. The children had to memorise the year in which each monarch came to the throne. Most could remember these dates for a brief period, but recollection was apt to lapse quickly except when, perhaps, some big event or some battle occurred, or some important law was passed during that reign. Of course, they did arithmetic – the quicker means of adding and division and subtraction.
The teachers worked to a syllabus. At each hour of each day they commenced a given subject. A short pause between each lesson and then straight on, teaching interrupted only by a break in the morning and the midday meal.
No marvel, Tommy did come somewhere near the top, third to fifth generally. If he fell below that it would be because of illness – all the usual ones.’
Reading these extracts from his school life you can see how “Tommy”/Sam grew to love most of it and learn much from what was available to him. His general enjoyment of life also flowed from his after-hours pleasures – music, Scouting (both detailed next week) – but in the following recollections he’s avidly grasping every classroom opportunity to think creatively and take responsibility. Not only that; his hawk-eyed view of non-academic matters unfolding around him gave him a sense of life beyond book-learning:
‘He found that time simply rushed by, every waking moment occupied – the pattern for the following three or four years. In due course, he moved up to his final classroom. The clever master there – A.E. Page, known as “AEP” – managed to handle a syllabus which covered three groups of pupils at different stages in their education. A huge man, over six feet tall, athletic in build although getting quite old now, he had played for quite a well-known football team, the boys believed.
AEP was a Cambridge man and proud of it, whereas the headmaster had studied at Oxford… and when he made his rounds and came into their class, the slight – not antagonism – but that little thing rubbing between them became obvious to the boys. The head would pause for a while for AEP to complete what he was saying, then start on a talk on some subject he deemed important. He would ramble on rather and the boys got a bit of fun out of this by watching their class teacher’s gorge gradually rise. He had rather prominent eyes and they began to stare, and his face coloured up as his blood rose. The boys quite welcomed these little interludes, especially if AEP’s lesson concerned a subject they didn’t know too much about. Perhaps sometimes they even hoped the head would step in when he didn’t.
The class was called standard 6 – above it only standard 7 and X7, the cream. In Tommy’s classroom, the majority of the boys were triers. Some didn’t bother and they would come in for a good deal of deserved abuse from the teacher, but he would concentrate on those putting in effort to get the best out of the education offered. AEP could even distinguish ability in the quality of nervousness which can prevent a lad appearing successful in a class. To the right teacher it was obvious that these boys would come through and do well. In many classes such pupils received scant attention – they would be dubbed dunces and come to think of themselves that way.
These last three years(3) became the most important and informative in his school career. They had to cover a lot of ground in a short time and one doesn’t pretend that any education in depth was achieved. But they acquired a sound grounding in English and that included a study of grammar until they really understood it. A boy had to take a sentence apart, give the grammatical name to each word or group of words in a sentence – noun, verb, subject, object, and so on. “Parsing” it was called. If you could do that successfully you had learnt a very important part of elementary grammar.
Latin couldn’t be taken in any depth and it was doubtful that AEP had the ability anyway. But he did lay down that prefixes, roots, derivations and suffixes of Latin had to be memorised, for he quite rightly considered them to be the basis for understanding many English words. Frequently in later life, a chap would be able to deduce for himself the meaning of a word by looking at its Latin elements.
However, AEP didn’t devote his English-teaching solely to grammar. He put much energy into bringing literature to life too. He even suggested a project to take the class to a good theatre. But first he prepared them thoroughly in advance, undertaking a study of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice. The class read through it in silence – often puzzled by the language – then he gave various boys their speaking parts and so they learnt a great deal about the play.
Meanwhile, they saved up penny by penny for the great day when they would journey into the West End. Finally, one evening, they set off for the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square(4) where this great play came to life before their eyes, a memorable evening (as Tommy soon proved via a dramatic venture of his own).’
(3) My father told me he left school at 14, so probably 1909-1912.
(4) Present building opened 1888 as the New Court Theatre.
Here “Tommy”/Sam even refers to an open classroom debate between pupils and teacher as “thrilling” – certainly not the image we have of public education pre-WW1. But then money, lack of, casts its shadow over his future, although he pitches into everything as enthusiastically as ever, while it lasts:
‘Each subject had its allotted half-hour, hour or two hours a week, although some, such as arithmetic, they took daily. Anatomy and physiology they covered in an elementary way, but enough to give knowledge of the human body and what it was composed of. The skeleton on a huge chart would be hung up, the bones named and memorised, and the types of joints. Another brightly coloured chart showed muscles and organs. The chap in the picture, it was noticed, had no bladder and no privates. And they were never mentioned in instruction. One assumes it was similar for the girls in their class.
Under AEP, Tommy had the great pleasure of being in the same class as his brother, who sat on the far side with the select group. Those chaps more or less worked in a freelance way. The things they wanted to do they were encouraged in. They read books not in the syllabus. If they were particularly good at writing or painting, AEP permitted them to spend long periods on these subjects. The rest of the classwork went on under the master’s direction, but the select group could ignore what was going on and persevere with their own special interests.
On one occasion, when they discussed the “topic of the day” and AEP gave his view of current affairs, Tommy was thrilled to see his brother espousing the cause of the Conservative Party, well knowing the teacher to be a Liberal-radical type. And the two went at it hammer and tongs for a while. Then it finished with obviously no ill will felt. The boy had stated his point of view and he had not been shouted down. His opinion had been considered, listened to. Tommy’s brother would shortly go out into the world to make his way and already he was being treated like a man. This was noted by the younger lads.
However, in answer to a discreet enquiry Tommy’s parents made of AEP, they learnt that neither boy would be able to take advantage of an examination that could secure them a place in the local grammar school. They couldn’t afford the fees.
Good teachers are born not made and AEP, Tommy’s last and best teacher, was a shining example. Let’s take the matter of music. The ordinary elements Tommy learnt from Mr Frusher(5), but AEP particularly loved to teach the class four-part chorus tunes – full songs with all verses and a proper accompaniment – such as Sweet Lass Of Richmond Hill, Who Will O’er The Downs Go Free, and on the sacred side, that old anthem How Beautiful On The Mountains.
So when a singing lesson was timetabled, AEP made preparations. On the black slate which lined the wall above the cupboards he wrote out the words and four-part tonic sol-fa music for the songs. Long before this, Tommy had discovered he had a natural gift for singing tunes in tonic sol-pha (if anybody whistled a tune or picked it out on the piano, Tommy could spiel it off – doh, me, soh etc – without any effort at all, so he found this method of learning very agreeable).
AEP was in no hurry, the time each song took immaterial. For him, the point was that the class should learn to sing properly. So he would test the boys’ voices. He soon discovered who should sing the alto, treble and even a few tenors. Some voices in X7 were on the verge of breaking. When the class had learnt the whole thing, he would sing the bass line. He had a marvellous voice like a lusty old corncrake, but he carried the tune and, anyway, the full blast of the class drowned out his rasping efforts. It was one of the more pleasurable lessons.’
(5) Vicar/choirmaster/scoutmaster/music teacher/mentor, of whom much more in the next two “The Making Of” blogs.
‘About then, with some regret, George left school and got a job in the wholesale paper trade – we shall hear more about that.
Still with a year or so to go, Tommy was doing reasonably well in his exams despite always feeling he could never rise to the same heights as his brother. The thing was to get on and do the best possible. At English, in composition and dictation he was good. In arithmetic and everything that came under that heading including a smattering of algebra, percentages, rates of interest and what were generally called problems – things that made you scratch your head and think – well, you could call Tommy’s performance moderate to poor. Sometimes, though, he would feel inspired and shine briefly.
One of AEP’s more dubious methods of inspiring those who were a bit backward entailed what he called “Questions” where he would point to a boy and ask him a question, then, if he couldn’t answer, move on to the next and the next. When he had established that nobody knew the answer, AEP would turn to one of his high-fliers and say, “Well then, Jones?”; on the whole, this chap would come up with the answer quickly. Once or twice, AEP must have forgotten that Tommy’s brother had departed and suddenly swung this question on to him. Often, Tommy could do it, but he remembered one occasion when he couldn’t and he wished the floor would open up and let him through.
It was decided, for the first time, to hold a special “school day”. The plan included a bazaar, several small plays, some singing, and a long afternoon during which parents and friends could visit, listen, do what they wished, and make quite friendly contact with the teachers. Tommy and a friend were allotted the task of going to the bigger houses in the area, whose occupants might be willing to give old items such as trays, candlesticks, any sort of metalware or jewellery – anything they could clean, burnish, and offer for sale.
The two boys sacrificed much school time to hike miles, always collecting something useful. A pair of heavy solid-silver, engraved candlesticks, he remembered – black they were, from being stowed away in a lumber-room. Tommy polished them up.
One of the shows the pupils put on they called Mrs Varley’s Waxworks(6). Tommy’s pal, Charlie – the one who lived in a small drapery shop – had developed the gift of the gab with a vengeance, so he took the part of the showman who strutted around, spoke about each of the dozen “waxwork” characters on the stage, and told them when they should step forward and jerkily perform the actions he described.
Drawing inspiration from his trip to the Royal Court, Tommy played Shylock. His father procured a false nose – hooked, of course. His mother cut up a bright red, silk skirt and turned it into a cloak. Then, with an old smoking cap on his head and his face made up swarthily, he jerked forward with a large curved knife and went through the motions of removing his pound of flesh from the victim.
Another boy took the role of a Red Indian; he did what he thought the correct dance and performed a wee bit of scalping.
The audience took to it so well that a tour of the church halls and the schools in the area was suggested. Quite a professional troupe they became – and this led to the first party ever at Tommy’s home. His mother thought she would like to entertain all the waxworks. Quite an undertaking, with their furniture and accommodation so limited, but it went off well, a jolly party, and Tommy’s friends spoke of it for some time afterwards.’
(6) The shows, popular at the time, and the name came from Mrs Jarley’s Waxworks, mentioned briefly in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841.
These blogs are generically titled The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, but it’s not intended in a simplistic “events A + B = character trait C” way. So I’ll just throw out a guess here that there is a non-specific connection between my father’s reluctance, below, to be designated “top boy” and his later fervent endeavours to evade promotion in the Army (and then when he achieved it – Corporal/Acting Sergeant on the Somme – to “revert” to the ranks as he did in 1917, I’m not sure how, given he didn’t commit any significant disciplinary offences, by his own account and military records too).
‘Tommy neared the end of his school days. He knew that he just had to leave, start work, and earn a few shillings. He would have welcomed some sort of further training, but clearly the family’s finances would not allow that. He felt particularly aware of this because his greatest friend, Charlie, the draper’s son, was able to continue his education at a commercial college. Their friendship lasted until later years in life. But, for the time being, the break had to come.
During his final months at school, Tommy found himself in the top group of class 7X. Not only that – his teachers, including AEP, began to give him what they called the “top-boy treatment”. He didn’t believe he was top boy and thought perhaps the glory of his brother was shining on him a little.
But, along with some of his fellows – as had happened to George when he reached this level – he took certain fixed lessons with the class and then worked independently on any subject in which he was especially interested. For Tommy, that meant the history period he had reached; the end of the 19th century, the wars in Africa.
He read several books about it, fiction mostly, and conceived the idea of writing a book on the subject himself. He set to work, spending an hour or two on it each day. That continued until the end of his time at the school. Unfortunately, it grew very long and he could not complete it before he had to leave.
Aside from this freedom of study, AEP gave him responsible, practical jobs too, such as making a stock list of the school book store to help the teachers draw up their syllabuses for the new year beginning in September – a task AEP would normally have undertaken himself, but he thought it would give Tommy useful experience.
The settled life he’d enjoyed – school and then all those regular evening activities – was about to be fractured. Even his voice began to break, ending his participation in the church choir. That made a great change; Sundays and two nights of the week free. He had time on his hands. Too much even.
Finally, a month’s holiday, a brief return to school in the summer until his birthday in July(7), a farewell chat with his teacher, AEP, the big, admirable man, another with the head, who handed him an excellent testimonial. And goodbye to all that.’
(7) 1912, almost certainly!
All the best– FSS
Next week: RETRO 4 – back to toddlerhood and how “Tommy”/Sam got religion after a fashion… not much thinking about any god, but a lot of observing people in various tin church missions… like the trystful trio of bulgy-eyed Marjorie Peters and her beau Cyril on the organ and Gillette, his fire-and-brimstone rival for her favour… and his own parents, striving to recover a modicum of respectability via helping the rector run a fete and a church-hall soirée with a band and proper dance cards… and then, under the aegis of “the big church” the lad joins the Scout troop and the choir and gets free piano lessons from the Vicar Mr Frusher which stirs his love of music and, in a very small way, life begins to blossom (despite the rather odd sex education sessions)…
(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.