Bolton School Former Pupils

Derek Robinson (1939 - 1946)

Derek recently wrote to us with his memories of growing up in Bolton and School during the war.


"It was walking home up Devonshire Road and Ivy Road with the load of books in my new leather school satchel and past my old primary school that it really occurred to me what it meant when my mother bought the Bolton Evening News one day that summer. I was shown the list of twenty boys awarded town scholarships to the exotic Bolton School. My parents were not natives to the town and my father was not pleased. He considered education only the means of my becoming a Bank Manager and the expenses of Bolton School seemed wasteful for that ambition. My mother far more enthusiastic, for the first time, betrayed her determination to get me the best education possible. She even bought me a comic as a reward on that day and I sat hardly daring to turn the pages for days in my astonishment at this unique and precious gift. 

"I was unaware that my life would never be the same as I had envisaged at the Bolton School I had visited to collect the new books and gym gear. It would never be the same for my generation as it had been for older boys and far ahead would become again in peacetime for boys of later generations. 

"I had earlier in the year been interviewed for a school funded scholarship at this very grand place by the Headmaster with the grey hairs growing out of his nose. He asked what was special about this day May the 24th. I replied that it was my birthday. And that was the end of that. I should have replied Empire Day regardless of the imminent implosion of that entity. But my eleventh birthday seemed far more important to me. We never quite hit if off after that. 

"I asked and paid for a newspaper, looked at the screaming headline, something like ‘BRITAIN AT WAR’. It was not a complete shock as I was old enough to know about Chamberlain’s visits to Hitler.The issue of gas masks in primary school, and Identity Cards- I still remember my number -  told this then ten year old that something serious was afoot. My new school atlas even had an extra page inserted at the map of Central Europe to show the shifting boundaries of Czechoslovakia. Most frightening was a rumour that Hitler would castrate all we boys when he occupied England. Being farm animal orientated I thought I knew exactly what that meant and it much secretly disturbed quiet moments.

"The first day at School resplendent in my uniform never came. Or at least it came only as a collection of more textbooks to lug back up child leg discouraging Devonshire and Ivy Roads. There was to be no school until air raid shelter was available.  We were to study at home. So much for Bolton School in 1939.

"I was eventually sent off in my shop new School uniform and the give-away cap to plod a mile and a quarter down Ivy , Mornington and  other roads. These were the shortest way, though through potentially hostile territory, but with the bonus of seeing the huge mill flywheel and drive shaft of the Musgrave Spinning Mill where I crossed Chorley Old Road. 

"I began in ground floor Shell A on the south side of the quad. I dare say the classroom is still there. Whether the school proceeded on exactly the same lines it would have done in normal peacetime I cannot know as I never experienced the latter. I suspect the staff tried hard to keep things normal though many of the teachers had joined or shortly would, the armed services. Apparently seamlessly they were well replaced by retired men or married ladies. 

"The various after school groups continued but transport to and from school became more difficult as the war progressed. It became impracticable for me to return home for lunch once the lifts given by a kindly neighbour were curtailed by petrol rationing. The double walk took up too much time and the rattling tram and change to the dog legging meander of the Number One bus was too expensive.  Lunch at school became the norm. As the boys school was so unfinished we had to share canteen facilities with the girls who ate in an earlier session. We trooped in Form groups across the holy female territory with the shoe black tuniced girls looking on and no doubt commenting about the older boys. Boys and girls were strictly separated and it was a serious offence ever to talk to them at least on school premises.

"I recall the lunches with great affection. We ate in tables with our Form Master who would expertly dole out the exact individual amount for each boy and the same for himself. The large metal cooking dishes with meat somethings swimming in gravy were a particular favourite. In my middle teenage years I experienced hunger I never have since. Some nights I dreamed of eating a whole lamb leg. I had mainly to be content with potato and cabbage. The amount I would consume was prodigious especially if there was a vaguely meaty gravy. My mother and our very flatulent pet dog existed for years on cabbage.

"To growing boys nothing much seemed to happen on the war front after Dunkirk until the excitement of D Day much later in the war. Shortages gradually took hold and became normal.  Heating was reduced in winter and maybe the school pool became cooler or closed altogether. Woodwork instruction became constrained by a lack of wood for us to practice on.  That did not inhibit the woodwork master from administering a smart slap to the back of ones shorts with a piece of his precious wood marked with a reverse lettering in chalk to leave one’s backside publicly admonished. Whether Bolton School was an unusually liberal institution or whether indiscipline was humoured more in wartime I recall almost no punishments being meted out other than being obliged to dig out a number of Plantain weeds from the school levels. I never found if they were actually counted. Only one determinedly fractious boy in my Form was caned and that was a prerogative of the Headmaster. He was sent down the corridor to return some time later rather quieter than when he left. The rest of us were all rather quiet too.

"Paper was scarce for drawing instruction and even later for making notes in class. I became very skilled in tiny handwriting which allowed several lines within a normal space.  However, the main teaching continued  albeit with substitute teachers and, unusually for Bolton School, given largely by women which proved no bad thing. It was sad when as the war was winding down the excellent substitutes were replaced by stern seemingly humourless men who expected to be addressed by their officer titles. That we almost adults did not take to kindly.

"From the very beginning the teacher predicament pressed on those of us in Shell A. Our Form Master, a kindly but reclusive man of call up age, did not disappear like many of the others. He was rumoured to be a Consciencious Objector. He lived close to me and I often followed his rather dejected figure up the foot dragging walk home. I don’t recall it being other than a curiosity. We had it better we thought than Shell B with a kindly, twittery French lady as the Form Mistress. She had written the school French textbook. We thought her very amusing. At eleven or twelve, one accepts as normal what might be challengeable when older. Maybe our Form Master found older boys or the remaining male staff less understanding. A Consciencious Objector was a taboo subject for raising with parents especially with fathers who ‘were doing their bit’ for the war. Though it happened by the chance of their generation that for my generation, few of the fathers were called up to the armed services. 

"My own father was a Home Guard officer responsible for guarding or watching the integrity of the Anglezark reservoirs which then supplied Liverpool’s water. It was thought that the German bombers might try to poison the water supply. The reservoirs would be easy to spot from above on moonlit nights. My father used to take the family  fat brown  chip pan with him on his nights on the top of the moors where he would cook chips for his troops in a cloud kissing brick hut. Its remains were still there as I explored the wind racked hummocked ankle twisting moor tops  some  years later. So at twelve I inherited all substantial gardening duties for the rest of the war. 

"The new female staff was the source of my first love affair. Well I was 12 or 13 and she a very healthy hormone spraying young woman who vainly taught me Latin. When she became pregnant and finally left I was emotionally shattered. Betrayed. In the event it would probably have been far more useful if I’d been taught typing. 

"Probably most boys were influenced one way or another by particular teachers. I recall with most gratitude a patient elderly Vicar married biology teacher, the spine collapsed but energetically inspiring music teacher and persuasive English teacher from whom I acquired tasks like making set assembly speeches, acting very unwillingly in school plays, reading lessons at the Carol Concerts and of course running the Debating Society.  It took a well-timed appendicitis and subsequent surgery at my family origin home in Blackburn to relieve me of a dreaded principal part in my last school play part.

"My lovely bright time short, old fashioned 1939 uniform was initially replaceable as I grew. But as the resources hungry war ground on somewhere else we became accustomed to wearing large bottom and elbow patches. I learned to darn my own stockings though found the toes a problem. Some boys were content with unrepaired stockings which had mainly divorced a complete relation with their toes. My father became adept at soling my walk tired shoes with old car tire. The mandatory often air flung school cap became very tattered over the years.  Possibly because of clothing shortages we stayed in shorts until  our mid teens. A brief newspaper campaign was to oblige boys to wear shorts until they were seventeen though nothing came of it. Using precious clothing coupons a pair of long trousers, let downably generous at the turn ups, would be purchased for Sunday School or weekend special wear at about 14. Being a summer born child most boys in my Form were older and there was always a smattering of boys a year older still. I noted with curiosity in the spring of 1941 that a few boys in my form in that older group, and presumably then 15 years old, had developed hairy legs.  Eventually of course the long trousers for Sunday best migrated into school wear and probably became bottom patched in due course. It seemed like the end of boyhood when the uniform became a scaled down version of what our fathers wore.

"My awareness of what it meant to be an adult, apart from the danger of being shot at, was later a consequence of a free time session in the School Swimming Pool. We boys wore flimsy bikini bottoms which fitted everybody by being tied at the waist with tapes.  I was drying myself with another group of swimmers in the Changing Room when my Forth Form Master ambled in stark naked and stopped to talk with some of the boys. I was shocked by what physical adultness seemed destined for male boys. 

"Most boys continued their lives as though the war did not exist. I thought their detachment odd as I carefully drew battle lines in my school atlas reflecting news from north Africa, the Mediterranean and Russia. The smoke and blood soaked times were already more significant soon after 1940 though we young boys could not appreciate all the horrors that were occurring on the continent and in the Pacific. War news tended to be optimistic. We trooped to the cellars under the school when there were air raid sirens though these were more often at night when we were at home and the dark under house stairs held our terror secret.  

"An Army Cadet Force was organised at the school though we understood the Headmaster did not approve. I was one of the very few who joined and did the long walks to and from school in my hot itchy khaki uniform on parade and instruction days with an irascible regular army sergeant who probably, like many in the war time army, had little to do for several years until D Day finally arrived. I enjoyed the cadets especially my shooting accuracy with the rifles, as my father had been a crack shot at the end of the First World War. 

"There were occasional excitements in the vicinity of the school itself. One day in the old wooden huts on the Chorley New Road side of what is now the Quad, and which had become my form home for that year, we heard the whine of a plane diving out of the skies close above school. A classmate who had been on a pee break came running in full of the news of a plane he had seen crashing into the terraced houses just across Chorley New Road. Apparently the local RAF pilot had been winging it over his family area and presumably lost control. Luckily he was the only casualty as the three houses into which he crashed were severely damaged. 

"While Bolton itself was never purposely attacked those of us living on the lower slope of Winter Hill could see the burning skies above Liverpool. Possibly as we were at a higher altitude than most of the town we heard the German bombers overhead with their odd lilting engines. We were supposed to take heart from the wobbly sound as it showed that they were much less well made than our bomber engines. The sound nevertheless was terrifying to those of us crouching in our under stairs retreats though I imagine boys who lived nearer to the antiaircraft batteries towards Manchester had a lot noisier nights. We sought metal fragments from the shells they fired. There was only one big local bombing disaster when a large neighbourhood in Bolton, I think we knew as Punch Street, was destroyed by a land mine. Another night an eccentric trail of bombs was also cast onto the area near Smithills Hall. My father, in charge of the area, commanded from the peak of a crater in Smithills Deane Road until it was discovered that he was standing on top of another bomb which had not exploded. The tragedy for my friends and I was that we had been invited to an unprecedented party the night after at the local vicarage. This had been in the bomb’s path. Party off. None of this led to any change in school work or even the extracurricular activities.  The Saturday morning school session had been abandoned soon after I joined but sports were substituted. White Flannels for cricket were still mandatory despite wartime shortages.  

"The cynical adolescent emotion challenging event which occurred every Friday at the end of the week school assembly was the Headmaster’s solemn announcement of which old boys had perished that week. As the war hotted up for real this weekly list grew. In our mid teens, this weekly announcement of casualties often in older boys we recalled at the school was a salutary reminder that if the war went on long enough it would be us out there dying. We rarely talked about it but I imagine it cooled some of my laid back fellow pupils for a time. 

"There were undoubted advantages to we growing boys in the wartime. We tended to pass unnoticed and unchecked by multi tasking adults who had better things to do.  I recall national concern at what was termed the “Forgotten Generation’.  Nothing was done about it and if adults were worried we weren’t. Social mores were bent. Class and public behaviour so rigid before the war became less important though not a lot. We regarded the exercises of the Home Guard and the loud eager exercise of their authority by the Local Air Raid Wardens with great hilarity. The nightly black out was a wonder for pubescent boys in shorts and adventures with the girls in the night dark park had great potential. However, as these exercises were mainly of a superficial nature, I remember only one Bolton School girl whose pregnant passage down Chorley Old Road during a break in the school day occasioned great excitement. At school late in the war, a breakout of fitness awareness led to universal daily gymnastics in the Quad and I strangely had the task of putting my fellow pupils through their daily workout.  The Higginson film shows us doing this en masse. 

"Some of us who found sports to be a boring irrelevance, had jobs in school maintenance. Mine, presumably because I did not mind heights, was in walking on the roof inspecting for and repairing damage or removing debris. We enjoyed all that enormously away from the tedium of the classroom. One of my strongest memories of Bolton School is of the year when my form was in the main building and I looked over the green beckoning grass of the  Levels with great longing to be free and out there or anywhere else. It was in that class that we played the trick of carefully piling books above the part open door knowing that our Form Mistress was on her way. I don’t think in the event that we felt very proud of that incident and she pulled herself together from the shock of books falling on top of her admirably well. Her tremble lipped dignity won the day. 

"That would also be in the Form in which we were carefully schooled to be kind to a new boy evacuee from Liverpool. He had been in the bombing and seen dead bodies and was to be treated with great tenderness. In the event he was far more confident than we were. He introduced us to Joe Loss and his orchestra and other cultural delights of wartime sophistication of which Bolton School boys were then mostly unaware. The solemnness of our collective upbringing and the social eliteness of the school were never quite the same again. Obviously living in a big city, bombs excepting, was far more exciting than living in a then respectability and church dominated Lancashire cotton town.  I lived in port cities around the world for most of the rest of my life and sailed long voyages into a different life from several of them."