The Boarding School
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon 1914-1945


Tindall Leefe recalls some of the staff at the school when he was a pupil in a series of personal pen-portraits



The Assistant Master - Willougby Smallwood

The assistant headmaster was a terrifying individual, similar in manner and appearance to Michael Redgrave's portrayal of Crocker Harris in "The Browning Version" - cold and remote. 'Will' must have then been in his sixties, and usually wore a rather natty fawn-coloured corduroy suit and spotted bow tie - unexpected garb for one of his age and temperament, seeming to me more appropriate for a young relaxed and sociable graduate of the early thirties (perhaps he had been!). When he entered to take assembly there was an immediate hush. When he crossed the playground in stately dignity, groups playing in his path of progress became temporarily mute and immobile; and before he entered his own classroom there was pin-drop silence which he could maintain for a double lesson.

How did he do it? With his eyes. I never heard him have to raise his voice in reprimand. Occasionally detention was threatened, or lines, but he relied entirely on a cold, unfriendly remoteness, which was all concentrated in, and conveyed by, that eye. I use the word in the singular because, as far as I can remember, he used to spend a large part of the time at his desk, marking a pile of exercise books, and while at this task he supported his forehead with his left hand, leaving only one eye with which to control the class. While we wrestled with our Latin, trying to master yet another grammatical rule which he had just explained to us, he would frequently sweep his gaze over us, and it was very strange that whoever dared to look up at him always seemed to have that forbidding eye already fixed upon him. Even outside the school there was not escape from that eye, for even as he was riding through the town in slow erect state (in such super top gear that his legs scarcely seemed to move) that eye was still on duty, and would never fail to spot a KES boy who had temporarily abandoned his cap, and soon old Will would be calling out in that lugubrious voice of his the name of the offender.

Will's classroom was above the woodwork room in an old block in one corner of the playground, and could only be approached by an old flight of wooden steps. On these we would wait after break until he appeared in the distance, when we immediately descended before his eye caught us, for we were forbidden up there. However, while we were up there we had a most entertaining view over the row of back gardens belonging to the almshouses adjoining the Guildhall, for there would often be some poor old pensioner pottering about and slowly drawing water for his garden from the hand pump. It was the tortoise-like slowness which fascinated us. However, such distractions were short-lived and sooner or later we had to enter that room, automatically looking into the far corner to see if that eye was still there - and it always was.

Will liked not only a disciplined class but a disciplined room also, and woe betide any boy if one of his books were found out of place in his locker. This was for a year our form room, and our gas masks had to be kept, in their boxes or tin containers, on the window-ledges around the room, with the names of the boys written on labels gummed to the edge of the sill.

I can see and feel it all vividly to this very day. Old Will is in his corner with his feet up on his desk, following the Bible passage we are taking turns to read. The boredom is intense, and for relief I try to look out of the windows, but cannot because of the frosted glass, and so my only means of assurance of release from this double period of purgatory is to look up through the skylight and escape in imagination into the remote freedom of the cloud mountains beyond.


Willoughby Smallwood

Willoughby Smallwood, Assistant Master

The Geography Master - Tom Barnsley

He taught PE and geography. He was nicknamed 'Bouncer' or 'Binner' because his rather battered face and close-cropped hair suggested a club bouncer, besides which he did actually bounce about while teaching. His geography room was far too small, and was crammed with long desks with tip-up seats to accommodate eight boys each. They were all jammed one behind the other, making it extremely difficult to get in or out of them. He had a very slap-happy manner, and would scribble on the blackboard most atrocious maps in coloured chalk, in which continents were reduced to absurd simplifications, such as triangles and diamonds, which he drew in the manner of a lightning cartoonist, not looking at what he was doing, but at us.

He had a northern accent with a very flat 'a', which he would play up when he had such a phrase as 'a vast expanse of pampas grass". He had become over the years extremely predictable and mechanical, always cracking the same joke at the same page. When reprimanding anyone, he did so in a little rhythmic patter, stressing heavily the first syllable, thus: "Wha-tyer thing-kyer doing, Leefe?''

His room was heated by a round stove, and every so often he would lift off the lid with a little handle, shoot in a hodfull of coke, and then try to hurl the lid back on from a distance, by flicking it from its handle. Usually of course he missed and the heavy metal disc clattered noisily onto the floor, but on a few occasions he actually succeeded - to be greeted by an excited cheering from the class.

There was a glass-fronted display cabinet in this room with all its disintegrated exhibits scattered willy-nilly. I think that this was because when he had finished showing some sample crystal or seed-pod or whatever, he just threw it back in any old how to lie wherever it happened to land, until required again next time. He would fling a rock sample hard onto the floor to demonstrate either how hard or how soft it was, and if it disintegrated, the fragments were just tossed back into the cabinet.

He wore an old gown, green with age, with the hem torn to shreds. This was mainly because when he came to that part of the book dealing with different types of cotton, so keen was he to demonstrate the special toughness of the sea island variety, of which his gown was supposed to be made, that he tried to tear it, as though this were an impossibility, but to his amazement and our delight it always ripped immediately. Did he really think it wouldn't, we wondered, or was this his idea of humour? I don't know to this day. Slap, bang, wallop! That was his style. Everything being done with a clumsy flourish, and all stressed syllables doubly stressed. The hearty manner of the PE instructor had become over the years more than just a mannerism, it was a parody.


Tom Barnsley Tom Barnsley, Geography and PE Master

Related article

An appreciation of Tom Barnsley, by Denis Dyson


The English Master - James Ferguson

'Fergie' taught English. He was elderly and so painfully thin that he looked like a living skeleton in a grey suit. Being extremely frail, he was afraid of being carried off by even a common cold, and the prevention of such a calamity featured large in his lessons. On entering the classroom he would glance apprehensively at the windows and demand that they all be closed. If a boy sneezed he would ask "Where's your handkerchief, sir? Go and sit at the back yonder," directing him thither with a long bony finger. If he had to mark the book of any boy who had a cold he would keep it at arm's length, turning his head away as though near to the plague, while holding his handkerchief to his nose. When forced actually to touch so highly contaminated a book, he would hold it warily by one corner, taking care to keep it separate from the others in the pile. He was a kindly gentle old soul who loved literature and remained steadfastly in harness - perhaps for almost too long.


James Ferguson, 1950 James Ferguson, English Master, 1950

The Physics Master - Denis Dyson

'Dickie' Dyson taught science. A little man with very closely cropped grey hair, rimless glasses and premature wrinkles - it was difficult to judge his age. He was probably in his late thirties, but on some days he looked about fifty. In light and precise tones he revealed to us some of the laws and mysteries of his subject in a very special lab which was virtually a giant teaching aid, possessing all manner of intriguing apparata, either in current use or stored away for future delight in glass-fronted cupboards. He had devised a means of achieving instant blackout for the room when required. At the touch of a button there was a sudden rattling and flapping all around, and, lo, we were in complete darkness, ready for the epidiascope or some optical demonstration. All the windows and roller blinds were connected by cord and pulleys to a concealed winding mechanism operated by electricity - all devised and installed by Dickie. This was by no means his only practical innovation. There was a board rubber which sucked the dust down a rubber tube into an old vacuum cleaner, and there were countless other gadgets in the cupboards.

Perhaps his masterpiece was outside in the little astronomical observatory in the playground. Here before school began, in early spring or autumn, when there was a clear sky and the moon was still up, Dickie might be found in his observatory with part of its dome open, ready to show anyone interested the craters of the moon. The telescope had an equatorial mounting and followed the imperceptibly moving heavens by means of a little electric motor operating a gearbox, constructed entirely with Meccano parts. Somehow he had worked out the correct gear ratios to turn the telescope at the correct speed. This seemed to us a tremendous intellectual feat.

I owe this teacher my thanks for showing me for the first time that strange shimmering lunar world with its great craters; for his many stimulating and memorable lessons; and for leading me with such care, fun, and enthusiasm into the realm of Science.


Denis Dyson, c1958 Denis Dyson, Physics Master, c1958

Related articles

Denis Dyson recalls his career at the School, 1926-1975

1930s Physics lab

Denis Dyson remembered


The School Sergeant - Sergeant Vallance

When I was at KES during the early war years, (1940), the most important member of the non-teaching staff was Sergeant Vallance, the school porter, whose chief duties were those of gatekeeper, messenger and drill instructor of the cadet corps. He was a Boer war veteran of somewhat comical manner, and appearance, being by now rotund, bald, bow-legged, and so short of breath that, after a slow and painful toddle across the playground he would arrive in the classroom purple and panting, mouth agape, eyes popping, and pate perspiring. "A message from the 'eadmaster," he would wheeze, handing it to the teacher and then standing while it was being perused, respectfully and as near to attention as he could manage, as though on parade. Meanwhile the class would be trying to hide their mirth at this welcome diversion from their enforced concentration, until the poor man was eventually dismissed with a "Thank you, Sergeant, no reply" - accompanied by a reprimanding look around the class, which needed no words.

Sergeant Vallance could usually be found in his tiny gatehouse lodge, where he sat like a gloomy watchdog, casting a baleful and suspicious glare at all who dared to enter the school - be it scholar late for assembly, tradesman, or inquisitive tourist.

As drill instructor he would appear in full First World War khaki, complete with peaked cap and puttees - as indeed did all the corps. On these occasions we would be lined up while he unlocked his armoury and handed out to the corporal what should have been rifles but which were actually wooden 'dummies' or, if one were lucky, aged carbines - all ludicrous to our young eyes, but no doubt perfectly adequate for drill practice.

The puttees, I remember, were tricky to don, especially hurriedly after a PE lesson; and it was not uncommon to see on 'corps days', boys arriving for the next lesson with puttees hastily and inexpertly tied and already dangling and trailing - even changing to a sodden dark becoming unfastened, brown after having traversed a wet playground. Moreover, besides arriving with the usual impedimenta of over-stuffed satchel, and gas mask container, a corps member would also have his peaked cap to add to this collection, which all had to be put on, in, or beside his desk.

While the captain of the corps, Robin Walpole, stood by, Sergeant Vallance would demonstrate to us the arms drill in a gruff and wheezy voice often bringing on a choking fit - on which occasions Corporal Ramsbottom would be asked to take over. Incidentally, Corporal Ramsbottom possessed a fine head of blond hair of which he was inordinately proud, but which in those days of short-back-and-sides looked definitely wrong with an army cap perched on top. This sight did not at all please Captain Walpole, who first politely requested, and then demanded, the shortening of these golden locks - but to no avail. It was only after threatening demotion to the ranks that the offending excrescence was reduced by a token one-inch, and this longstanding feud brought to an end - but it still looked far too long.

Sergeant Vallance had been at the school for many years, becoming part of the school; and despite - or because of - his unfortunate appearance, he had learnt how to deal with mischievous and impertinent boys. To us he seemed like an old bulldog with menacing and baleful eyes, liable to demand our name if we were misbehaving, and threatening to report us to the 'eadmaster. I hope he enjoyed this sinecure in his final years. I imagine that the post of school porter would have been ideal for one brought up to do his duty conscientiously, but I don't see how poor old Vallance could have avoided regarding boys as anything other than an unavoidable hazard, at all costs to be kept at bay. For our part, we had to accept his authority, and woe betide us if he had caught us laughing to his face!


Tindall Leefe, pupil late 1930s
writing in 1992


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text copyright © Tindall Leefe 1992 - Jun 2003