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His first word, pranks and full marks in exams – Fred’s experience of his school days in his own words

10th July 2020

As we come to the end of a most unusual school year, it’s great timing for History Begins at Home to look at school days.

Fred made careful autobiographical notes of his own experiences at school (and before) and here are a few of his memories – click on any of the pictures to go to the online archive record.

Startling the world (locally) with his first word – aged 2 and 3/4!

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I was not known to utter an articulate sound before I was 2 3/4 years of age, and then startled the world (locally) by blurting out the one word, egg! No I have been told by a woman doctor who has charge of in infant welfare clinic that the knowledge of my case has been of great and frequent service to her having enabled her to pacify mothers who were getting anxious as their offspring who were a trifle behind in that same direction.  She tells them that one of our greatest scientific engineers never spoke a word till nearly 3 years of age; and i suspect she adds ” but has made up for it since!”

On his struggle to write essays

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But at that time (9 or 10) to write an essay, no matter what the subject, was quite beyond my capacity, I could never make a beginning. And yet almost any brat of 6 or 7 years of age seems to have no difficulty in producing something even though perhaps of little merit. All this proves on fact of which  I am acutely conscious, namely that the considerable facility which I developed late in life had to be won inches by inch and step by step, one continual fight. Papers and other publications written and rewritten again, and even my best works published when 40 years of age, represented an almost incredible amount of labour.

Could have been worse!

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After mature thought I have come to the conclusion that my own education might have been better but it certainly might have been worse! I have no reason to complain…

On one of his favourite teachers, differentiation and slackers

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He was a very competent and born teacher, his method was unorthodox, but non the worse for that.  He would rarely lecture or demonstrate at the blackboard, but would stroll in a leisurely manner down the lines of desks, and one would often feel a gentle touch on the shoulder with his questioning admonition. “Getting on boy, getting on?” And then if you were in any difficulty he would take a seat by your side and give you his whole attention, he was your tutor for the time being. Each individual student went as his own pace, and there is no better plan when the teaching of mathematics is concerned. To do otherwise is like trying to drive a team consisting of one pedestrian, one mule, a race horse and motor car.  Jeffaires was far too shrewd to try and make men work who did not want to, there were some notorious slackers and they became segregated and, as they amused themselves reading newspapers and novels.

Pranks and punishment

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It is with some regret now that I recall many of the tricks and pranks we students played on our elders and better. But when teachers cannot keep order it is usually a sign of some lack or weakness of character on their part, that as a philosophical reflection is at least of some consolation. The contras of method between those who could and those who could not maintain discipline was to me a perpetual source of interest. I recall that the lecturer and demonstrator in Chemistry and Physics a very harmless fellow Brierley  by name suffered from a slight physical infirmity, his lips would only by a great effort meet over his front teeth with the result that whenever he used a word containing the letters m, b or p, came firstly a hiatus like a slight stutter and then miniature shower bath in the district (and these occurred frequently) .  The words “Magnetic Moment” tested him to the utmost.  We who ought to have shown him every sympathy and consideration, were merciless as boys so often are, and on one occasion by a prearranged signal, hidden umbrellas were suddenly produced and opened just as the words productive of the fateful ‘shower’ were in the offing. Result four or five of us were ordered to leave the room.

Scots, kilts and golf in Southampton

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Somewhere on the Common, golf was played by a small colony of Scots, some of whom actually wore kilts who could be seen striding up the “avenue'” in the early afternoon themselves carrying their gold bags in which the protruding clubs appeared to be about a foot longer than those used nowadays.  Out of curiosity I once dissected a stray golf ball and felt rather like the pig of the story book who slit open the bellows to find out where the wind came from. I found feathers, feathers and still more feathers, almost enough to stuff a bolster.

Suggestions for student finance…

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Since the Government is absolutely callous unless the interests of the mass voters are in question I suggest to the benevolent millionaires who crop up overnight like mushrooms in these days, that there would be no more deserving cause or better investment in the national interest than the provision of a modest endowment to increase the maintenance allowance in cases where it manifestly insufficient. The only danger is that the denizens of Whitehall might take advantage of such generosity to diminish their own contribution.

Algebra and Euclid…at primary school

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For a time I missed the personal touch of the kindergarten but soon came to recognise that schooling is work and not all play, especially when being initiated into the mysteries of more advanced arithmetic and the beginnings of algebra, and Euclid. When I left this establishment at 13 years of age the mere knowledge of what these subjects were about was in itself all that was necessary, and in contrast to most boys of that age I had acquired quite an affection for Euclid.

Helping out ‘Backward’ boys

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Some of the boys were no less backward mentally. I remember it being discovered that less than 30% of the boys could read the time from a clock. The head took immediate action and allotted to each of us who could tell the time, two or three who could not.  One of these was certainly mentally defective and should not have been at that school at all.

Cricket, extra pocket money and snobbishness

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I was sent as a stop gap for twelve months as a day-boy to the “Walker’s School” where they coached well-to-do but not very brilliant men for the Army. The school house was about a couple of hundred yards from home near the entrance to the County ground where we had the privilege of setting up our practice nets are making off our pitch. Except of course provided there was no County match in progress or pending. Everything there was very well arranged. For a time I found my very meagre pocket money made me uncomfortable in view of some of the aspirants to Army fame. But I found myself able to take on coaching these others in Euclid and simple maths ands found my position both financial and in popularity greatly improved. But I had learn what snobbery meant. All school boys as a class are snobs.

The May Examinations – full marks?

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The papers for these were set by the Science and Art department , South Kensington, and were uniform throughout the Kingdom. In May 1884 I sat for some 6 or 8 subjects as a “preliminary canter” so to speak. In 1885 I took 15 subjects. In each subject there was the choice of three grades, (separate papers) elementary, advanced and honours. Candidates had all three papers put before them, and they could take their choice, he had not to declare in advance which he intended to tackle. This I remembered particularly in Chemistry I did not like the look of the elementary paper at all so I took the advanced. In that I thought afterwards that I must have obtained full marks. My 15 subjects were:-

  • Mathematics
  • Sound, Light and Heat
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Applied Mechanics
  • Steam and the Steam Engine
  • Chemistry, Theoretical
  • Chemistry, Practical
  • Agriculture
  • Metallurgy
  • Animal Physiology
  • Machine drawing
  • Building construction
  • Descriptive Geometry
  • Physiograpy*

*The last of these was a strange mixture of Physical Geography and Meterology with the other unconsidered trifles thrown in.

And finally…the Exam Hall

The Examination Hall was that used at other seasons of the year for converts and public meetings in the centre of the building.  But when set up for examinations there seemed to be a kind of sinister ‘atmosphere’, something ‘creepy’ about it. There was no particular small, or taste in the mouth and no easy to account for it, but nevertheless a mysterious sensation comparable to that felt by an infantryman in the trenches awaiting the order to go “over the top”.  I think all the candidates feel this and some are quite unnerved by it.

Take a look at all of these notes and more in the online archive.

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