Past pupil Barry McClelland, who attended Bangor Grammar School from 1964-71, contributed a well-received article to the 2019 edition of The Grammarian magazine. This second, longer article, was inspired by a return visit to Bangor in 2018, when he witnessed the ongoing building work at College Avenue.
It would have been early autumn, 1964. The cool, crispness of early morning, returning after a summer break, as I marched up the driveway to the Grammar School, filled with the trepidation of the unknown. The change from being top dog at primary school to a mere also ran amongst the lowest of the low at this academy of excellence, competing against some of the brightest talent in the land.
We all knew it as Crosby House, the original school building of this rapidly expanding educational experience of the 1960s. The tentacles of expansion had created ribbon development, edging towards the Ballyholme Road, although the new swathe of development, in the hinterland, towards Clifton Road would still be a couple of years away. This original building could still classify itself as the centrepiece of this evolving extravaganza.
Entering from the back of the building (entrance via the College Avenue side was forbidden for us mere pupils), you were immediately presented with a number of science laboratories, emanating distinctly science-based aromas. I would guess that ‘rotten eggs’ gas would have been the biggest culprit here, but I have woefully inadequate scientific knowledge to be able to either verify that statement or give you the chemical name for that particular gas, although the term sulphur dioxide is triggered from deep in the memory banks. Having checked with Google, I find the gas is actually called hydrogen sulphide.
My memories with regard to those labs are of Mr Langtry valiantly attempting to teach me the basics of Chemistry, for two years, with little success or reward. In fact, during that time, there was only one experiment that I actually managed to get to work. It involved this greenish, gooey liquid which was carefully covered over with some sort of blotting paper material. It may then have been heated; I cannot actually remember, but most experiments in Chemistry seemed to involve heat; those Bunsen burners did overtime. Anyway, at the end of the action, when the paper was peeled away, it had magically turned into these green crystals, with the look of down-at-heel emeralds. I remember that Mr Langtry became quite animated, explaining it to us all, as he could actually glimpse some enthusiasm being imparted on my part. It was as if David Nixon, a famous magician, who had his own show on the black and white television of that time, had been in action, pulling the crystals out of his top hat with the aid of his magic wand.
As I seem to remember, Mr Langtry made sure that writing about that particular experiment came up in the summer examination, otherwise he might have feared that I would be totally redundant for the entire duration of the examination. Having said that, it could actually have been wishful thinking on my part. Mr Langtry may not have included that particular experiment on the examination paper but, as I had nothing else to write about, I put in my time by waffling on about it, as much as I could, and perhaps Mr Langtry then gave me the sympathy vote for basic effort and awarded some marks regardless of the relevance of the content.
As you have probably already guessed, the sciences gave me up as a bad job as soon as they possibly could, so I will move on from my experience in the labs as quickly as possible. Moving out of the labs and taking a left at the corner of the corridor, brought us to the stairs, which I did make regular use of during my years at the school. Before I relate these stories, let me describe a quick detour. Going straight ahead, instead of going up the stairs, took you to a door which opened out into the grounds in front of College Avenue. This door also led, directly, on to a partly-covered walkway of about ten yards in length, which led to another door. Leaving the first door, and entering the second, meant you were swapping the style and substance of Victorian architecture for the more functional, pragmatic modern Elizabethan style of the 1950s, and on into the modern part of the school. On one morning each year, in the summer term, photographs would be taken of all the senior sports sides in the school, on the grounds just in front of the partly-covered walkway. But back to those stairs.
They traversed a wide circle to take you to a massive landing on the first floor, where pupils would mill about as they moved between lessons. There were five classrooms in the vicinity; two to the immediate left of the stairs on the landing, and three across the landing. The first room to the left housed Mr Driscoll, a gallant Latin teacher. I remember the first thing I learnt in Latin; porto – I carry; portas – you (singular) carry; portat – he, she, it carries. I was told that this was called declining the verb, from the noun declension, to do with the classifying of words, but the word ‘declining’ suited my case perfectly because from this point onwards my study of Latin went rapidly downhill.
The next room, to the left, was the domain of Mr Heuston, an English teacher of many years standing, whose obvious love and appreciation of the words, nuances and structure of both language and literature had been somewhat tempered by those years of exposure to pupils of much variation in aptitude and interest to this vocation of verbosity, both vocally and via the pen. I would become one of those pupils in the fourth year (Year 10), where I learnt to respect the power and range of his vocal dexterity. He could maintain control of even the most recalcitrant of pupils through the potency of his oral dialogue, allied to a steely determination of the eye, although I did wonder if this look was one of authority, or simple resignation.
Across the landing to the other three classrooms, all of which possessed a view of College Avenue from the back of the room. The first room, I believe, had Mr Mercer as its main occupant, although I believe it was shared with Mr Hawtin, possibly amongst others. Now Mr Hawtin was, at this time, the Deputy Head, having served the school since the 1920s. I could just have imagined him, in those pre-war days, before the installation of radiator-generated central heating, putting another shovel full of coal on the fire during the bleak midwinter. He had the nickname of ‘The Bird’ which I had never really understood, but went along with because the older pupils did, and I knew what was good for me. Sadly I was never taught by Mr Hawtin. He seemed to be a kind, gentle man.
Next door was Mr Henry Rea, Head of Modern Languages, who had a glint in his eye and a ready wit. He was, by this time, another institution in the school. He had a wonderful way of marking homework. Not for Mr Rea the cumbersome problem of taking sets of exercise books home to mark of an evening. No; instead he would order every member of the class to have their exercise book open ready at the piece of work to be marked. He would then sweep round the classroom, giving each effort a cursory glance, followed by a tick with his red pen. Two minutes flat and his marking was completed; my kind of homework marker. Mr Rea also avoided frequenting the school canteen. School dinners were obviously not to his taste; with one exception, the annual school Christmas dinner, where he would be there, taking his seat amongst the staff, and tucking into his roast turkey and Christmas pudding with obvious gusto and relish. It led one thoughtful pupil to proclaim:
‘Henry comes but once a year’ – move over Santa!
I cannot remember who laid proprietorship to the third classroom, but during that first year, I had some lessons in there with Mr Teasey, who taught me both English and Latin. I liked Mr Teasey. He was a young, modern man, who was embracing the swinging Sixties with a certain exhilaration which, I dare say, brought him into conflict with some of his more senior, conservative colleagues, who would have felt opposed to, and possibly even threatened by, the march of youth towards social and economic significance. At that time the pupils of the school had to undergo the regular, ritual humiliation of the haircut check. If your hair was deemed to be too long, then out you went, not permitted to return until that hair was reduced below regulation length. I reckon that Mr Teasey would have failed the majority of those haircut checks. As a young teacher of relatively little importance in the hierarchy, Mr Teasey was forced to lead a nomadic life, being shunted from classroom to classroom to perform his teaching duties, but I found him to be a man of style, class and personality and I was genuinely sad when he left the school.
By the time I would come back to make meaningful use of this space, in the Sixth Form five years later, the last two classrooms, out of that set of three, would have disappeared; swallowed up in the new school library where the Lower Sixth (Year 12) were designated to spend the bulk of their free lessons.
Moving past these three rooms, on the other side from the stairs that I mentioned earlier, we go down a small flight of stairs, along a short, dark corridor to the next classroom which, if my memory serves me well, was Room 44. The entire length of this room had a view out to College Avenue. I remember being taught in this classroom, in the second and third year by Mr Murphy, who had replaced Mr Teasey and so had to endure the same nomadic existence in the early years of his career at the school, before becoming established as one of its most outstanding teachers in the last decades of the century.
Next door was a very interesting room. Quite small in stature, it had obviously seen much service over the years, but by the final year of the 1960s, when I was in Sixth Form, had become quite reduced in status, to being simply used as an area where members of the Lower Sixth could congregate for a small number of their free periods each week, without being supervised by a member of staff. Presumably it was intended to help us 16 and 17-year-olds in our journey towards maturity. I remember being in there on the last period of one Friday, in late March or early April 1970. I was with Hughie McComb. The following morning we were due to play hockey, against Inst., in the final of the Burney Cup, the knockout cup competition for Northern Irish schools. It would be a momentous occasion and we were nervous. After about 10 minutes we were joined by Raymie Parker, who was also in the team for that game the following morning, being the vice-captain of the side. Now Raymie had already used up his quota of these free lessons for the week, and so was forced to be in the library for the lesson. However, the teacher in charge of the library, aware of the situation and realising he would get no work out of Raymie, gave him permission, on compassionate grounds, to join us in ‘the annex’. So there the three of us sat, looking out of the window into College Avenue, amid intervals of extended silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts, broken only occasionally by inconsequential, inane comment.
Moving out of that room, we take the back set of stairs, back down to the ground floor. We come to the school staffroom, inelegantly titled ‘The Black Hole of Calcutta’ because of its somewhat cramped conditions. (This, I believe, is known as understatement). How anybody could have expected all of the staff to make use of this facility in tandem, or how, indeed, the space was actually shared out always remained a mystery. It did make me chuckle to think of all the teaching staff fighting over this limited space, while the Headmaster, Mr Clarke, luxuriated in his own bespoke office, adjacent to a boardroom for Governors meetings, which seemed to be big enough to house a full-sized snooker table, with enough spare elbow room to allow the game to be played comfortably. (Now I might be exaggerating ever so slightly with that last comment!)
I remember standing outside that staffroom, nervously awaiting the arrival of Mr Smyth to dutifully inform him that I had managed to lose my locker key, yet again. I remember his arrival, my faltering explanation, to be followed by the rolling of his eyes, akin to the actions of a one-armed bandit. Mr Smyth was in the early days of his career at the school, so menial duties, such as being in charge of locker distribution and control, would be foisted upon him. Five short years later he would be the hockey coach who would lead us to that date with destiny in the final of the Burney Cup, and something special. OK, we might have lost that final 1-0 to an Inst. side liberally laced with schoolboy internationals and inter-provincial representatives but, considering that hockey had only been introduced to the school less than four years earlier, it was indeed something special, and was just one of many such factors that would make Mr Smyth one of the most celebrated teachers at the school during the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Fast forward to the summer of 2018. I am back in Bangor on holiday, and I am standing on College Avenue, looking directly into Crosby House; or what is fast becoming a facade of the old, original school building. All of the other buildings that had been erected during the tenure of the Grammar School at this site have been reduced to rubble, to be reborn as a housing development under the entrepreneurial acumen of one Eddie Irvine, former F1 racing driver and now investing back into the local economy which had influenced his formative years. The original schoolhouse still stands, if not so proud, courtesy of its listed status, which has prevented the bulldozer from laying waste to this particular piece of real estate.
I look up at those windows, from which I had looked out all those years ago. I feel nothing looking back at me. The interior of the building, I understand, is being converted into luxury apartments. So the fabric of the building; the walls, floors, general fixtures and fittings will have been ripped out to make way for, well, new walls, new floors and new fixtures and fittings, relevant to the needs of the modern home owner in the 21st Century. Wall-hung flat-screen televisions to replace blackboards; wardrobes and fitted cupboards to replace wooden or metal filing cabinets; tables, chairs, settees and seating to replace desks; rugs and carpets now adorning once bare wooden floors. That link to the past becoming ever more tenuous with the passing of each day, and the actions of the joiner, the carpenter, the plasterer, the electrician and the architectural design consultant.
My eyes shift to the left. Incongruously, the partly-covered walkway still remains, linking the older post-Victorian structure to, well, nowhere; nothing. Time has run out on the modern Elizabethan section of the school frontage. It is as if some gigantic butcher’s knife has cleaved its way through some muscular cut of prime beef, extracting the front entrance, Headmaster’s and Secretary’s offices, Governors’ boardroom, assembly hall and everything directly in line behind them. My mind wanders back to that assembly hall. Of the daily gathering of the entire school, most mornings, for school assembly. Of the Headmaster sweeping down the side of the hall, his gown in full flow, driven by the momentum of his swift, certain stride; taking the corner, presumably without breaking stride, to enter the stage via the stairs at the back, all the time the Head Boy valiantly trying to keep pace with this force of energy.
Each morning the service would, invariably, be the same. We would all sing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The Head Boy would deliver a reading from the Bible, and the Headmaster would call out the various announcements pertaining to that day and beyond. At the end of it all, those boys who had been absent from school the previous day, or possible longer, would form a queue, on the stage, to have their notes, from parents or guardians explaining the reasons for the absence, inspected and signed. If satisfied, which he usually was, with the letter, Mr Clarke would sign it with a small, illegible squiggle, on top of a massive capital ‘C’ to denote the initial of his surname. Such a simple signature suggested to me that there must be sound grounds for forgery amongst the more adventurous of the boys, but nobody, as far as I knew, ever had the courage to perform such audacity. The possible consequences did not bear thinking about.
To show just how much society has changed in the intervening years since, I can remember, on two occasions, boys being caned in front of the whole school at the assembly for actions regarded as being beyond the pale. One boy was caned for gross insubordination to one of the more senior members of staff. He was then forced to issue a verbal apology. Talk about humiliation! On the other occasion a group of my contemporaries were collectively caned for disrupting the annual prize-giving ceremony. This would have been regarded as besmirching the good name of the school, because it was carried out in full view of the general public. Luckily I had my get-out-of-jail card for this particular event as the evening clashed with my attendance at the Boys’ Brigade. Now you need to remember that corporal punishment was de rigueur at this time, and it would be a good 20 years before it was finally outlawed, to something less than universal acclaim.
So many thoughts running around in my head, as I conjure up these visions of my past. I take one long, last, longing look at the scene in front of me. I am looking back over 50 years; pounds, shillings and pence; The Beatles; George Best and Manchester United; that long lost innocence of youth.
I walk away.