KES ARCHIVE
The Edwardian Era
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon 1902-1914

 

Bill Norman, pupil 1912-1916

 

Bill Norman was interviewed in 1989 by Graham Cooper on life as a boarder at the school in the early years of the twentieth-century. The following two articles were then compiled for the school magazine and published in 1989 and 1991. Although Bill Norman didn't achieve his wish to live to the age of 100, he did enjoy a happy retirement living in Bidford-on-Avon.

 

Reminiscences of William Harold Norman

William ("Bill") Norman is as old as the century and celebrated his 89th birthday on 5th September, 1989; he attended the school from 1912 to 1916 which covered a momentous period, outstanding in which was Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 4th August, 1914.

His recollections of the school remain vivid and for his first two terms the Reverend Cornwell Robertson was Headmaster before the office was assumed by the Reverend A. Cecil Knight, who must have been very much admired because his name tends to be mentioned frequently by those who knew him.

The emphasis was apparently on classical subjects, but the chemistry laboratory had only recently been built, with a fives court at its side, in which many bloody fist fights took place.

Mr Norman recalls that the prefects had extensive powers to chastise other pupils and one of their less violent punishments was the imposition of learning lines of verse from Palgrave's Golden Treasury. On one occasion he was absent-mindedly throwing handfuls of grass into the river, opposite the theatre; some of it happened to land in the punt being used by prefect Duncan Bairnsfather, brother of the famous Bruce Bairnsfather who became famous for his cartoons featuring the character, "Old Bill". The angry prefect said he would count up and that Norman would have to learn however many lines as there were blades of grass. This was all done, but Bairnsfather stopped Norman after he had recited the first line! This particular pupil was as good an artist as his famous brother and often drew cartoons on the blackboard to the great amusement of most, but to the chagrin of those who featured in them. In spite of the experience with the punt, Mr Norman learned to appreciate poetry, and his particular favourite is Grey's Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

One of the worse punishments was to be subjected to drill which took place after Saturday morning school. This requirement was imposed by masters for various misdemeanours. The miscreants were lined up by the School Sergeant, who had served in the Indian Army, and who stood up "straight as a gun barrel". The drill usually started with two minutes' marching, then at the double, then with knees raised high. This soon became exhausting, but it went on for some twenty minutes, and then it was time to exercise with 2lb dumb-bells. Anyone who appeared to shirk was ordered to climb up the gymnasium ropes and to stay clinging there until ordered down. The School Sergeant was in charge of the cadet corps, and when he volunteered for active service on the outbreak of war, the headmaster undertook a course to enable him to take over the duties while hostilities lasted.

Bill Norman became head choir boy at Holy Trinity Church, which, together with his school commitments, kept him very busy because choral evensong took place every day, with three choral services on Sunday. Some weekday services could be sparsely attended, but the church was always packed for the Sunday services. The church was particularly crowded when war was declared. When Rex Warneford, VC, brought down a Zeppelin single handed in 1915 the school was given a half holiday.

Mr. Norman left school in the summer term of 1916 and decided to follow a career in wireless, which was then one of the latest developments. Wirelesses were maintained in many ships, but after the beginning of the War each ship was ordered to carry wireless equipment and two operators. He attended Marconi College in The Strand, London, where he undertook a highly intensive course lasting from 9.00 am to 9.00 pm each day, with hour breaks at lunch and tea times. He obtained a third class certificate and went to sea as a Junior Wireless Operator on the cargo vessel, "Black Prince", which made him "sick as a pig"; however, after taking on a cargo of Fuller's earth at Falmouth the ship became more stable. During the course of the voyage to Virginia, the United States of America declared war on Germany and therefore the ship's personnel found themselves to be enthusiastically received when they docked. The ship returned laden with much needed provisions such as flour and sugar, and although other vessels were sunk the "Black Prince" got through. The supply ships did not sail in convoy at that time.

Mr Norman later transferred to an Admiralty ship, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary "Bornol" which travelled at 18 knots and whose task was to collect fuel oil from Port Arthur at Beaumont, near Galveston, Texas, for Scapa Flow. The craft managed to escape from the raider "Wolf" in mid Atlantic.

He stayed at sea for 14 years, having become a Senior Operator in 1923. One ship regularly carried special cargo, and on one occasion he undertook a voyage with four million pounds of gold bars the other side of the bulkhead. On coming ashore, he worked for British Thompson Houston and became expert in the technology for the new talking films, and was regularly called out in emergency whenever the equipment broke down. Those were the golden years of the cinema and he became responsible for maintaining a large number of picture houses on the south coast. He settled at Eastbourne, and during the Second World War, he served in the Observer Corps. After 25 years' service with the firm, his annual leave entitlement was increased from two to three weeks.

When he retired from this job, he bought a petrol filling station in Alcester which became renowned for being one of the most picturesque in the country. At length, he sold up but stayed in the general area, and he now lives in a retirement home at Bidford-on-Avon. He wants to live to be 100, and if his enormous enthusiasm is anything to go by, he will almost certainly achieve this objective.

 

Just William

William (Bill) Norman has related some past times in a previous issue, and he has now been giving further reminiscences which should be of interest.

His family came to Stratford in 1902 when his father, Mr Leonard Norman, was sent by a London firm as a coachman, with a carriage and horses, hired on approval by Miss Marie Corelli, the then-popular novelist who lived at Mason Croft in Church Street. Mr Norman arranged to stable the horses in Chapel Lane, so young William must have known the school quite well at an early stage; the old mulberry tree in the Old Vicarage garden overlooked the stable yard. In due course, Miss Corelli added to the "fleet" by acquiring two Shetland ponies, Puck and Ariel, who drew a phaeton (a low open carriage), and on one occasion when the groom was on leave, William deputised for a week. The family lived in Shottery Road, and Miss Corelli always took a friendly interest in its children, usually sending Christmas presents for them. Even her assistant delighted in taking photographs of them. Mr Norman senior was expected to drive the authoress to many local destinations, and even from time to time further afield on holidays. On one occasion, the holiday was in Scotland, and the carriage was taken up north by railway. Perhaps most of us thought that such transporting of cars as takes place today was a fairly recent innovation.

It seemed natural for William to attend the grammar school, and he can still remember a plethora of stories. One of them is reminiscent of Tom Brown's Schooldays, when he was asked to look after a younger boy who was very timid. One day he saw a bigger, older boy bullying the youngster, and when William remonstrated, a fight ensued. Although William was more slightly built, he had learned to box in a fashion, and succeeded in giving his adversary a black eye which remained apparent for several days. However, during the course of the fisticuffs, William sustained an injury to his right hand, which prevented his using it in an important form promotion examination. Because he submitted a blank paper, he had to remain in the fourth form for a second twelve months, and thereafter tended to lose interest in his school career. He was therefore more than ready to volunteer to serve in the merchant navy during the Great War, when suitable radio operator trainees were desperately needed. Anyway, many years later, Bill Norman met the former bully who farmed extensively in Rhodesia, flying from one holding to the next. The timid boy turned out to be extremely clever, and was put on the board of ICI, so the experience did not seem to do much harm to any of the participants.

At school, the boarders formed the Chapel choir. A service was held each morning then as now, and it was by no means unusual for homework to be completed illegally in Chapel. One morning, the Headmaster, Mr Knight, happened to see a boy with his nose in a book other than a hymnal, and immediately forbade the taking of any books into the service. This proved a great blow to the homeworkers.

The Chapel was much in evidence when there was a fire in the area, because the curfew bell in the tower would be sounded. Hearing it, men from different walks of life would run to the fire station in Scholar's Lane, and the cabbies' horses would be unhitched, even if conveying a passenger. The animals would be harnessed to the engine and meanwhile the firemen would have lit the furnace to get steam up to pump the water for the hoses. Most of the incidents were rick fires in those days, and it was to be many years before the Memorial Theatre burned in 1926. It was a wonder anyone had attended the theatre in the early years of the century, because there were warehouses along the canal at Waterside, which produced a most unprepossessing odour from the sheepskins stored there. Some things HAVE improved.

Pupils at the grammar school usually wore a Rugby jacket (not to be confused with a rugby shirt!) and a large Eton collar with a bow or nondescript tie. Only if one had won special colours in sports was there any uniformity, and then such merits were worn with great pride.

In 1910, Miss Corelli discarded the carriage and bought a Daimler motor car, so Bill's father had to take a course on how to drive and maintain it. It had a solid silver knight on its bonnet. Things would never be the same again.

 

Bill Norman, pupil 1912-1916
talking in 1989 to Graham Cooper

 

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