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News > OBs' News > My time at BGS by Chris Swindin

My time at BGS by Chris Swindin

9 May 2023
Written by Cait Spencer
OBs' News

My time at (and not at) Bristol Grammar School

A vacancy arose in Bristol in late 1946 at the South-West regional HQ of the Ministry of Labour, and my father was appointed to the post.  So we packed and headed West.  We stayed with friends for a while during the long and bitterly cold winter of 1946 when the thermometer stayed steadfastly below freezing for weeks, with minus 21° C being the lowest ever recorded in England and Wales, and the country being covered in snow and ice for several months. Once the thaw had come we rented a house in Fishponds but soon found a flat in Tyndalls Park Road, just off Whiteladies Road, which was a hundred or two yards down the road from Dad’s office, and we took the opportunity of moving into it.

Whilst we were living on Tyndalls Park Road in 1947, I sat, and passed, the entrance exam for the Bristol Grammar School Preparatory School, which was only five minutes’ walk from our flat, so I never set off for school until the ten to nine bell started to be rung, which we could clearly hear.  I can only recall the Maths part of the exam, which had several long multiplication and long division sums involving pounds, shillings and pence; hundredweights, quarters and pounds; or similar units, which was quite challenging, though it helped me later to understand the concept of number bases. I wonder how our seven-and eight-year-olds would cope in the present-day. It would be easier now that we are decimalised and metricated. 

In this photo of the Prep. School, in 1949, I am standing immediately behind the Head, Mr. Bone (with glasses in the middle of row 3). On his right is Billy Boulton, a real Herefordshire country boy who taught us English, but most enjoyed singing the praises of country life – good clean (!) farmyard muck, not the horrible dust that you found in towns. On the left, I believe we have Mr. Woodley, the caretaker, at the end of a row, and I remember Mr. Bullock, with a dark moustache, who was two places to the left of Mr. Boulton, but I cannot identify any of my fellow pupils after a gap of over seventy years.  Unfortunately, mice got at the print while it was stored in our garage.

Back in 1938, Dad had been offered a prestigious and very attractive opportunity, that of being loaned to the Diplomatic Service for a two- to three-year spell as Labour Attaché at the British Embassy in Paris. However, for various reasons, Mum and Dad decided to turn the offer down at the time – a choice they later came to regret.  But a few years later, in late 1949, the same offer was made to Dad again, and he and Mum were conscious of everything they had missed through their previous decision.  They made their minds up to accept it this time. I had moved up into the Upper School that September, and there were discussions with John Garrett, the Headmaster, who reassured Dad that two years in a good French school would not mean a damaging break in my education, but would rather be a good opportunity.  Shortly before that year finished, we crossed to France and installed ourselves in a house in Vaucresson, in the south-western outer suburbs of Paris, which the embassy had rented for us. 

As it was May 1950 when we arrived in France, Mum and Dad wanted me to start school as soon as possible, so within a couple of weeks I found myself at a small private school in Paris, which was not part of the French state system, but was, I suppose, a gentle way of breaking me in to the French way of teaching and acclimatizing me to lessons in French. It was run by an elderly couple, with just half a dozen or so pupils; the husband impressed me with his typing skills on an antiquated machine the like of which I have never seen at any other time: it had no keyboard as we know them; instead all the characters were marked on a slightly concave panel and the typist selected them one at a time with a pointer linked to the type carrier, which was pressed down on to the ribbon and paper by means of a single key. The nearest analogy to this would be the more modern golf-ball typewriter. The speed with which he typed was quite impressive, though not as fast as modern typists with today’s machines.

In the September/October of 1950 I was sent to the Lycée in Saint-Cloud, now named Lycée Alexandre Dumas.  My father arranged with the Proviseur (Head) that they would make allowances for my French during my first term only; after that I was to be treated in exactly the same way as the other pupils.  I have to say that I don’t recall many problems with the language; I had clearly been given a good grounding at Bristol Grammar School.  I know that I wrote letters in French back to a couple of my old classmates there, but with hindsight that might have been showing off a bit.  I usually had to catch the train on the well-developed commuter network around the city.  St-Cloud was only the next stop but one before Vaucresson on the line from the Gare Saint-Lazare to Versailles.  In the photo above, of the 5th class under Monsieur Fabre (in the white coat, which all the teachers wore, though we pupils had no school uniform), which was taken near the end of my first year at the Lycée.  I am on the right-hand end of the second row.

The syllabus was similar to the British one, though French and English were structured in the same way as the opposite language in a British school, so I was given lower marks for English because I had less knowledge of the formal English grammar rules that the French boys had been taught, but conversely, because we had studied French grammar in Bristol more formally than my French colleagues, I actually did better than them in that part of the syllabus.  The other subjects were more or less the same though with French history rather than English, allowing for the cultural differences between the two countries.  And I had to start learning Classical Greek from scratch, as I had not yet started it at BGS, but was at a similar level when I returned to England.

The school year was a bit different, with the Christmas and Easter holidays being a fortnight long, and a fortnight off in late February and at the end of October – no half-term holidays as we knew them - but the summer holidays ran for eight weeks, from the beginning of July to the end of August.

After my second year at the Lycée, bearing in mind that Mr. Garrett had said that two years out of the English system would do me no harm but that the break should be no longer, I had to return to Bristol Grammar School in September 1952.  I am unsure how the form I returned to was decided upon, as I was in form 3A when we left for France, but either because I had not completed that year, or for some other reason connected with birth dates, I had to restart in the fifth form, V Classical, thus effectively having missed a year of English schooling with my two years away.  I was not surprised to be awarded a prize in 1953 for French Oral, not at all unexpected because of course I had had two years of speaking nothing but French in the lycée.  But I continued to progress up the Classical route through the school, Remove, Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth forms until I achieved an Open Exhibition at University College, Oxford, which will have helped Mr. Garrett in his annual pursuit of a high number of Oxbridge open awards – a contest in which BGS always came second only to Manchester Grammar School in the late fifties, typically with eighteen awards, compared with Manchester’s twenty-one.  

I had become a member of the Combined Cadet Force from my time in the fifth form, or maybe the year later, and soon got used to dressing in battledress on Tuesdays to catch the bus to school ready for the afternoon’s drill and other training(in place of rugby) and managed to find myself a relatively cushy number in the Signals Section, which allowed me to avoid crawling around muddy meadows on Field Days but instead to accompany the umpires in relative comfort, with an antiquated, cumbersome, and decidedly temperamental, radio transmitter/receiver on my back. This gave us perhaps 50% time on air and the rest frustratedly trying to re-establish communication with the elusive other parties on the net. We were also roped in on cross-country race days, to be stationed at points around the course reporting runners’ progress back to base. By 1956 I was promoted to Lance-Corporal. Anyway, on the strength of this dubious experience, I decided that when the time came to be called up, I should like to join the Royal Signals.

Our form room both in my Remove year and the Lower Sixth year, had been Room 9 on the main corridor through the ground floor, which we shared with the upper years of Sixth Classical students. One peculiarity of the room was that there was quite a deep void under the floorboards with a trapdoor at the rear of the room. In those days, all school pupils were entitled to a third of a pint of milk a day, which came in crates containing our form’s ration in small but chunky glass bottles, and one pupil in each form was appointed as milk monitor, who was responsible for ensuring that the right quantity was delivered and distributed. On more than one occasion we took up the trapdoor during break, built a pyramid of empty bottles on the edge of the opening, and bowled more empty bottles at the pyramid down the gangway between our desks, which led to a very satisfying noise as the bottles tumbled over the edge and fell onto a pile of bottles that had built up on previous occasions over the years. In the Upper Sixth years we were moved out of the main building into one of a series of houses the school had bought on the opposite side of Elton Road.

In summer 1956, it was time for the ‘A’ level exams. Most of us took the same combination, Latin, Greek, Ancient History and the General Paper, though the more able, including me, were expected to sit additional, harder ‘S’ level Latin and Greek papers designed to help the authorities decide who should get a State Scholarship. The arrangements were like those we had around the ‘O’ Level ones – we were allowed time off to complete our revision and between papers, but we were not quite so competitive over the time we spent sitting the individual papers. Once they were over, we had to return to school but the whole atmosphere changed to a much more relaxed and informal one for the rest of the term. The results came out in August and to my disappointment, but not complete surprise, I had only been awarded an ‘O’ level pass for the General Paper. However, the others had all resulted in my being awarded Distinctions and a State Scholarship. I was listed for a prize at that year’s prizegiving, not for a specific subject but for the rather vague general heading of a “Prize for special merit” in my form.

John Garrett summoned me to his office on the first day of the 1957 Spring Term to give me the good news about my award of an Open Exhibition, to be taken up in 1959. I decided to arrange to be called up for National Service as soon as possible, so Saturday 5th January 1957 was, with some regret but more with a sense of looking forward to a whole set of new experiences, my last day at Bristol Grammar School.

I was called up in March 1957 for my two years’ service and posted to the Royal Signals training base in Catterick, North Yorkshire. But later on I was transferred into the Intelligence Corps, having been selected, because of my knowledge of languages, to go on a Russian language course  and be sent to Germany, where the Russian 3rd Shock Army was just across the border with East Germany from us.  After being demobbed I learned that BGS had added Russian to its curriculum, under Mr. Meigh.

I have a few recollections of other happenings at various times during my time at BGS, but one that has stuck in my memory was a trip to Rome in April 1955 when about thirty of us classicists travelled there and back by coach. Our route went down through France via Paris and Dijon, the Mont Cenis tunnel under the Alps, then on to Milan, Sirmione, Verona, and Florence to Rome and returning up the west coast of Italy via Pisa and Nice, then back up through France to Calais. We visited lots of Roman remains on our way south and in Rome.  One highlight was joining the hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on Easter Sunday morning for the Pope’s address to the crowd at midday, but he was visible only as a tiny white dot at the window. 

The group of us in the photo above, including Messrs. Langford, Booker, Lucas and Martin, was photographed outside the school just before boarding the coach and departing on our trip on 1st April 1955.  I can unfortunately remember very few of the names, though many faces are familiar, but would be interested to hear news of any of my VI Classical colleagues.  I am now living in East Yorkshire and of course have been retired for over twenty years, having spent many years in the printing and packaging industries and more recently become an expert on bar codes, and developed international standards for their production and quality.

Chris Swindin -

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