The Bangor Grammarians

A history by Trevor Gray

badgeTHE origins of Bangor Grammarians – the School’s official Old Boys’ Association (and a name not formally adopted until 1991) – lay in the very first rugby match between past and current pupils, which took place in January 1928. After the match, which the Old Boys won 18-0, the teams enjoyed a meal in the Strand Hotel on Queen’s Parade, which was run by Captain Boyd, who was also Physical Education instructor at Bangor Grammar School.

Maurice Wilkins

Maurice Wilkins

In the words of then Headmaster Maurice Wilkins, who had been unable to attend that landmark moment: “I rejoice to think the progress of the School during many years past has been such as to bring about the widespread stirring of affection and loyalty on the part of the young men and boys of Bangor to this School, which bears and upholds the name of their town.”

Two former pupils spent the Easter 1929 holiday break compiling a list of Old Boys and in June of the same year an informal dinner was held in the Royal Hotel at which it was decided to form an Old Boys’ Association.

A temporary committee was elected, with Dr S. Patterson Rea serving as Chairman, Alan S. Watson as Secretary, James C. Taylor as Treasurer, and other members comprising Howard K. Finlay, David S. Alexander, Richard J. G. McCrudden, J. Noel McFeeters, William G. S. Milliken, George P. Carson and Frank McKee. They were tasked with arranging a general meeting, which was held on 4 June, while a tie in royal blue, old gold and black was also approved.

A provisional set of rules was drawn up at the same meeting, with a key objective – set out in Rule Two – being: “to perpetuate the spirit of friendship among the members and to promote the interests of the School, as far as lies within its power.”

At the inaugural annual general meeting, held in the School on 17 October 1929, former headmaster the Rev. James McFeeters (1905-23) was elected Patron, Mr Wilkins as President and Mr Thomas McBride (who had taught at the school from 1900-1936) as Vice-President. Mr Wilkins would hold, successively, the roles of President, Vice-President, Honorary Vice-President and Patron until his death 50 years later.

Dr Rea was elected as the Association’s first chairman with membership of the new organisation being open to all former pupils, Governors and past and present members of the teaching staff. The annual subscription was 3/6d (raised to 5/- in 1934), along with two guineas for life members. The first annual dinner was held at the Royal Hotel in March 1930, during which Mr Wilkins referred to the new body as “an omen of hope, a portent of good for the future.”

The next year saw Lord Bangor replacing the late Mr McFeeters as Patron, a position he would hold until his own death in 1950, followed by his son until 1956. Those present at the second annual general meeting recommended the Committee should “use their best endeavours to promote social intercourse among the members”, and to that end it was suggested that a dance, a golf competition and a tennis tournament should be held. It was also agreed that a memorial tablet should be erected to the memory of Mr McFeeters.

By 1932 there were 84 members, growing to 135 by 1934, with an Old Boys’ blazer being introduced the year after that.

The link between the School and the Old Boys’ Association was greatly enhanced in 1932 with the co-option of Mr Frank McKee to represent it on the Board of Governors. That ever-strengthening bond would include numerous social functions, including an annual golf competition and dances – the first of which was held in the School’s Common Room in April 1934, with music by Stendal Todd and the Embassy Boys! Rugby and Cricket matches against School teams also became annual events.

Rugby Club Reborn

With war in the offing and so many of its members joining the armed forces, Bangor Rugby Club was dissolved towards the end of the 1938-39 season. However, the Old Boys’ Association, from which the club had drawn much of its strength, believed the town should not be without a rugby club and so, in July 1939, the Bangor Grammarians’ Rugby Club was formed. Alfred R. Finlay was elected as chairman, with Edward J. Cairns as secretary. It was agreed the new club, despite its name, should not restrict its membership to Old Boys, although it did prove to be responsible for a considerable increase in the membership of the Old Boys’ Association.

Affiliated to the Ulster Branch of the I.R.F.U. in August 1939, the club was allowed to take over its predecessor’s fixtures for the 1939-40 season. By 1946, three teams were being fielded and that same year the 1st XV, which included Hugh Greer and Sam Edgar, won the Towns’ Cup. While the decision was made in 1950 to remove the word ‘Grammarians’ from the Club’s name, this did not affect its close relationship with the School.

Arising from wartime food rationing there was no annual dinner in 1941 or 1942, but at the annual general meeting, held in the Imperial Hotel in December 1942, newly-elected chairman George Matthews entertained those present to refreshments. “This was greatly appreciated and his health should be very good for some considerable time,” stated the minutes.

By then the Association was making regular financial donations to the School, subsidising The Gryphon when its publication began in 1947, and contributing to presentations to retiring staff, including Miss Small (1909-39), Miss Lewis (1911-45), Mr McBride and, of course, Mr Wilkins.

Life Membership rose to three guineas in 1948 and to five guineas four years later, while the annual subscription was increased from 5/- to 7/6d in 1953. Meanwhile there was much debate about the design of the Association tie. By 1949 the tie was “off coupons” and a new design, featuring a gryphon and shield between the stripes, was endorsed. However, three years later it was decided to stick with the original Association tie, at least until the issue of the School Coat of Arms had been determined.

Meanwhile, and in the hope of increasing membership, a Golfing Society was formed in 1950, for which Ritchie McKee presented a Challenge Cup, while boys leaving school were made honorary members for 12 months.

The marriage of Gordon Moody and Pat Brown (née Wilkins) in 1948 was a unique event in the history of the School; they were both past pupils.

At the 21st annual dinner, held in 1952, senior Old Boy Victor Salter presented a framed photograph of pupils in 1888. Responding, the chairman said he was sure the Governors would “treasure this donation as a link with the past” – and until the move to the Gransha Road campus it was on display in a corridor of the School, along with pictures taken more than 100 years later.

By 1954 Association membership had reached 332 and at that year’s annual general meeting there was agreement, on a two to one majority, in favour of reverting to the pre-war practice of “dressing” for the annual dinner, with Dudley Goodhall being tasked with supplying cigarettes, tobacco and cigars!

Hopes were high the following year that the “thorny problem” of the Association tie had been resolved, with the Board of Governors giving permission for the use of part of the new Coat of Arms. Three years later, however, it was decided that, while that tie could be retained as a former pupils’ tie, the Association tie should be black with blue and yellow stripes. In 1959 Association bow ties were introduced and the following year a scarf became available.

Even then members were grappling with the thorny problem of how to attract recent school-leavers to join the Association; one suggestion was that the Head Boy should join the committee in an effort to strengthen links with the School. Meanwhile, in 1957 the joint debate with the School was revived – until the early 1960s – and the usual sporting fixtures were held, with badminton, hockey and yachting being added to ‘Old Boys versus the School’ activities.

The Old Boys’ team (Hugh Greer and Billy McGimpsey) won the Ulster Public Schools’ Golfing Society Scratch Cup in 1964 for the second successive year. Billy was elected as captain of the Ulster Public Schools’ Golfing Society in 1966, while that same year saw the beginning of a golf competition against a Staff team.

Other innovations included the design, in 1965, by Art teacher Miss Addy (1939-73) of a blazer badge – a griffin segreant – along with a new, more modern tie featuring a single silver gryphon in 1968.

Dinner Guests

Grammarians' Bangor Dinner, 1961

Grammarians’ Baangor Dinner, 1961

Back in 1961 permission had been granted to hold the annual dinner in the new School Canteen for the first time – “provided it was cleared by midnight”. Over the next few years, guests included former members of staff, Messrs. Rawlings (1937-50), Johnson (1931-57) and Hawtin (1926-66), along with Patrick Riddell, who in 1964 wrote and presented an Ulster Television programme featuring the School in his time as a pupil during the First World War.

It was Mr Rawlings who suggested the collation and republication of Mr Wilkins’ pen portraits of Old Boys killed during the Second World War, and this was duly done in 1965 with a Foreword by the former Headmaster.

Recently retired caretaker Fred Conway was invited to attend the dinner in 1962, while the Head Boy and Deputy Head Boy were first invited in 1968, but were “to sit at an ordinary table next year.”

The Association displayed a keen generosity of spirit by making interest-free loans, amounting to £900, to the Board of Governors during the 1960s, while Miss Lewis, who had retired some 20 years earlier, was sent flowers at Christmas on several occasions.

It was agreed in 1963 to erect an Honours Board displaying the names of former chairmen and to add five guineas to the annual E. V. Agnew Prize. The following year a badge of office for the chairman, designed by Miss Addy, was worn for the first time at the annual dinner, with past chairmen being asked to contribute £1 towards it.

The annual subscription was first increased to 10/- and then to £1 at the end of the decade, when Life Membership doubled to £10. After it was decided to publish The Gryphon only once a year in 1965 (when advertisements appeared for the first time) the Old Boys’ Association introduced a Spring Bulletin, which went on to become an annual feature.

Old Boys worked closely with the Parents’ Association on fund-raising towards the building appeal in the mid-1960s. Both bodies were represented on the Appeal Committee and a number of joint functions were held, including a series of dances.

Randall Clarke

Randall Clarke

In 1971 the Old Boys’ Association fielded three rugby teams and two hockey teams at the by then traditional Boxing Day fixtures, prompting Headmaster Randall Clarke (1954-75) to say they “illustrated the strong ties that bound Old Boys to the School”. The following year saw the resumption of the annual debate with the School, while table tennis and golf fixtures were also arranged. That same year, as a tribute to their work with the victorious table tennis and golf teams, Messrs. Irwin Bonar (1959-97) and Errol Steele (1962-99), were invited to attend the annual dinner. It was subsequently decided that in future all male members of staff should be invited to the dinner.

Given the ever-increasing numbers joining the Association, a Membership Secretary was appointed for the first time. It was further decided that Mr R. E. Russell (who had taught at the School from 1927-39 and subsequently served as Headmaster of Ballyclare High School) should become an Honorary Vice-President, while other members of staff were also honoured. On their retirements, Miss Addy was presented with a set of stainless steel dishes, while Mr Clarke received a cheque. On his 90th birthday Maurice Wilkins received a book on Irish houses and an Old Boys’ Association plaque. Two years later Mr Wilkins travelled from his home near Dublin to unveil two new honours boards, one bearing the names of past chairmen of the Association and the other, the names of the Headmasters. Both were presented by the Association for display in the School.

As the cost of printing rose, it became necessary for the Association to make savings. Those who lived in the Bangor area were asked to request a copy of The Gryphon, and the following year, the family of Membership Secretary Randal Christie, hand-delivered the magazine to save on postage. It was also decided to revert to the earlier style of tie, black with blue and gold stripes, as the current design was proving unpopular.

The Old Boys’ Association celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1979, with inaugural treasurer J. C. Taylor being installed as chairman. Charles F. Milligan, one of the oldest former pupils, presented a cup in memory of his Headmaster, Dr W. G. Conolly, to mark the occasion, while the Association organised competitions in which the Chess, Bridge and Photographic Clubs and the Historical Society participated. In 1980, following the death of Maurice Wilkins, Mr Milligan was asked to become Patron.

Two Honorary Vice-Presidents and former members of staff, R. E. Russell and W.T.W. Johnson, died within months of each other and, when Mr Milligan died in 1983, Randall Clarke was installed as Patron. Following the latter’s death Dr Robert Rodgers (Headmaster from 1975-79) was asked to fill the position.

In 1979, reflecting changing times with regard to health and safety, it was decided that only the 1st XV should play an Old Boys’ team on Boxing Day. Then in 1983, after the Rugby Union withdrew its support from such matches, the ‘School versus the Old Boys’ fixture ended, being replaced by a match between teams of ‘old’ and ‘young’ former pupils or ‘home-based’ versus ‘exiles’. Other sporting activities continued, being extended in 1985 to include squash. A new Visitors’ Cup for golf was presented by Brian Kissock.

The opening of the new Clarke Hall enabled the Association to set up a sports section, enthusiastically promoted by Raymond Parker. A table tennis team organised by Peter Barry entered the Belfast League, while badminton, weights and five-a-side football were among other activities.

The annual membership fee rose to £2, with parents being offered the opportunity to make planned payments towards life membership of the Association for their sons. By the end of the decade there were over 600 members. However, with the increasing cost of The Gryphon, it proved necessary to stop supplying it free to members, thus raising the question of how to keep members informed of Association activities. The Spring Bulletin was expanded in 1985 into a broader-based news sheet, edited for several years by Roger Lightbody, and eventually financed by advertisements.

The annual dinner continued, being held for some years at Bangor Golf Club, while, in an effort to increase membership, as well as encourage involvement by existing members, other social events took place, including Ladies’ Nights, a ‘Spring Function’ and, as a spin-off from the Development Appeal, the inaugural London Dinner in 1986. It was organised for many years by Desmond Robinson and enjoyed distinguished guest speakers such as former pupils Paul McDowell of the BBC and David Montgomery, then editor of Today.

New Name

Grammarians' Bangor Dinner, 1991

Grammarians’ Bangor Dinner, 1991

In 1991, it was agreed unanimously by the membership that the name should be changed to Bangor Grammarians, as the old name – Bangor Grammar School Old Boys’ Association – was too unwieldy and failed to conjure up an image of being associated with one of the most prestigious schools in Ulster.

A new feature of the annual dinner, which moved to the Marine Court Hotel in 1996, was the organising of reunions to mark 20, 30 or even 40 years since leaving the School, while the London gathering also went from strength to strength, with the ages of those attending ranging from ‘old boys’ in their 20s, right through to those in their 90s!

Senior staff members including Bob McIlroy (1961-2001), Irwin Bonar, John Smyth (1964-97), Jimmy Welch (1956-93), Chris Harte (1972-2009), Dougie Rea (1978-2005), Ray Mowat (1971-2000) and Roy Mairs (1978-2005) were among the guest speakers. The first of the biennial Edinburgh Dinners, organised by Chris Boston, was held on the evening before the Scotland-Ireland rugby international in 1997. The ubiquitous Jimmy Welch was guest speaker.

As the Nineties dawned, fundraising continued to play a major part in Grammarian activities. The committee donated £1,000 to the School in 1991, while contributions were also made towards that decade’s Australian cricket tour and, in 1998, £864 was spent on boards for the Boardroom, bearing the names of past chairmen of the Board of Governors and the Old Boys’ Association. In addition, inscribed plaques were presented to members of the 1st XV each time they reached the final of the Schools’ Cup; £1,000 was given to the Development Appeal; along with cash donations of several hundred pounds whenever funds allowed. In 1997 a ‘business register’ was set up for the benefit of members.

In 2000, Des Robinson, who by then had organised the London Dinner for over a decade, was presented with an Admiral’s Decanter, while Dr Nick Argent (Headmaster 1998-2001) received a Tyrone Crystal bowl upon his departure. The biggest source of income continued to be schoolboy membership, which yielded over £1,500 each year, thereby enabling Bangor Grammarians to contribute towards the South African Rugby tour, to update the gold lettering on the honours boards and to purchase a supply of the newly-designed ties.

Jim Claney & Walter Dowdall

Jim Claney & Walter Dowdall

Now well into the Third Millennium, Bangor Grammarians, as a body, continues to flourish, largely thanks to the dedicated efforts of men like Walter Dowdall who joined the committee in 1954 and has served on it ever since; this remarkable record was marked at the 2004 dinner when he was presented with a plaque by outgoing chairman Jim Claney. He too made an outstanding contribution to the life of the School, having chaired the Board of Governors, the Grammarians and the Parents’ Association. In 2004, Jimmy Johnston flew in from New York for his 19th consecutive London Dinner, a feat matched only by Tom Patton and Des Robinson. The previous year, the Bangor Dinner had attracted a (then) record attendance of 122, although only half were ‘paid-up’ Grammarians.

Among a number of sporting achievements to be marked by Bangor Grammarians, a plaque was presented to Kieron Dawson in recognition of the 21 Irish Rugby ‘caps’ he had amassed by 2004. More recently a similar honour was accorded to Stuart McCloskey to mark his first appearance for Ireland – against England at Twickenham in February 2016.

While falling numbers have led to the suspension of the Edinburgh Dinner in recent years, the London Dinner has continued to flourish, with Mike McConnell taking over from Des Robinson as organiser (until 2016). On several occasions, the Committee engaged the services of professional speakers at the Bangor Dinner, with Gene Fitzpatrick and Sean Crummey both proving to be very entertaining.

ClockProceeds from the well-supported annual ballot at the Bangor Dinner have gone towards, for example, the School Coaching Initiative, as well as the PE, Music, Drama and Journalism Departments, along with two Literacy Prizes. However, by far the biggest expenditure incurred by Bangor Grammarians has been the refurbishment of the clock from the tower of the College Avenue building. It was installed in the atrium of the new school building, where the organisation also placed two display cabinets for the school archives.

Marking the School’s final year at College Avenue in 2012, the Bangor Dinner was held in the Assembly Hall. This nostalgic occasion attracted a record 296 attendees. The following year, the dinner was held in the atrium of the new school.

It was also decided that long-serving retired staff should be invited to become Associate Members of Bangor Grammarians, something which was gladly taken up by a large number.

Booklet coverOther recent innovations have included the organising of an Interview Skills and Careers Forum, pioneered by Mike McConnell, the laying of a wreath on Remembrance Day by the family of an Old Boy killed in one of the World Wars, and the compiling, by local historian Barry Niblock, of a booklet detailing Old Boys losses in the First World War.

The Grammarian magazine has grown from a cyclostyled A5 publication to a professional, full-colour A4 one, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Jim Claney over the past decade.

While committee members continue to work tirelessly for the School and its alumni, its members also take time out to enjoy an annual Committee Dinner, with School Principal Elizabeth Huddleson as their special guest.