They say school days are the happiest days of your life. But there were plenty of shocks and horror stories when former pupils of the Sheerness Technical High School for Boys in Kent, England met for a reunion.
Nearly every boy – now a lot older – recalled his fear of the school’s last headmaster William ‘Bill’ Barnett.
They talked of being beaten on the bottom by Mr Barnett’s favourite canes, dubbed Big Jim and Tiny Tim. Both were kept in a glass-fronted bookcase in Mr Barnett’s study at the end of a corridor of doom.
Some boys were given the strap. Others were made to stand on single tiles in the main hall without moving for an entire day.
One ex-pupil told the stunned gathering at the Criterion Theatre in Blue Town on Thursday night (Feb 25): “I had been sent to Mr Barnett’s office to be caned but when he took the cane out of the bookcase he discovered the end had frayed.
“So he sent me to the woodwork shop to get a saw. He then made me hold the cane across the desk as he sawed the end off. Then I had to return the saw before going back to be caned. I guess the anticipation was worse than the actual act.”
Another quipped: “It is incredible how many people were bonded by a common hatred.”
More than 30 men turned up for the latest in the series of school reunions at the Blue Town Heritage Centre. They came from Sheppey, Sittingbourne, Medway, Whitstable (Gerard Jakimavicius) and beyond. Some had sent apologies, including one chap who had emigrated to Australia.
A few old Tech Boys turned up in crumpled long-lost black and white school ties rescued from the bottom of drawers. One, Malcolm Mason, 68, even took along a rare school cap. Most had been jettisoned on the last day of term. Malcolm now lives in Chatham Historic Dockyard and attended the school between 1959 and 1966.
But most of the former pupils agreed they held the teachers in high regard.
They looked back fondly at the likes of maths master Jack Ryder, LG Welland, Tony Clenagan, ‘Froggy’ Sayer the French master, geography teacher Jim Hutley and Colin Penny and agreed it wasn’t all bad.
But many retained unhappy memories of PE teacher Terry Spice’s almost legendary cross-country runs across the marshes at Barton’s Point. They began at the school’s sports ground in Seager Road and ended at the White House if you were lucky. If you weren’t, they carried on to the cliffs at the Little Oyster at the end of Minster Leas.
Mr Spice, 71, now lives in Gillingham and is a patron of the heritage centre. Uniquely, he has the dubious distinction of having been both a pupil and a teacher at the school and was able to reveal what life was like for the staff.
He recalled: “There were two staff rooms, one in the old Broadway school and one in the main school. I was never allowed into the Broadway classroom even though the gym was just below it.
“Instead I had to take my breaks in the main school where I sat next to the door. There was a real hierarchy. Staff moved around the classroom in a circular manner depending on their seniority. New teachers sat near the door. Their job was to answer the door, tells boys the master they wanted to speak to wasn’t there, whether he was or not, and to keep the fire alight.
“Many times I had to sneak out of lessons to put more coal on the fire to stop it going out.”
He admitted: “Mr Barnett was not the easiest man to get on with and ruled that school with an iron fist. At times he could be extremely nasty.
“I vividly remember taking a human biology lesson when there was a bang and Mr Barnett burst into the classroom, grabbed a boy by the scruff of the neck and marched him out. Fifteen minutes later he brought the boy back in with tears running down his cheeks.
“I asked the boy what it had all been about and he told me had turned around to borrow a ruler and had ended up with three across the backside. Mr Barnett was vicious with some of the children and sometimes with the staff.”
But former Swale Liberal Democrat councillor John Stanford had a different story.
Mr Stanford, a former head boy who lives in Brambledown, was at the school from 1955 to 1962. He said: “I always seemed to get on well with Mr Barnett. But perhaps that was because I was a goody-goody!”
Minster parish council chairman Ken Ingleton, who is also on Swale council, was a former Tech Boy. He videoed the night for the heritage centre’s archives.
The school, which was in Sheerness Broadway, closed in 1970 and pupils were transferred to the new Sheppey Comprehensive. The wonderful, proud-looking building which had dedicated its life to educating the young was demolished in 1975 to make way for Blackburn Lodge old-people’s residential home.
I went to the Tech from 1965 to 1970. My first day, at the age of 11, was quite traumatic. For a start, it was the first time I had to wear long trousers. It felt strange having my knees encased in material.
It was also the first time I had to wear a tie. Like most First Years, I turned up in a jacket several sizes too big. My mother insisted I would “grow into it.”
There was also the ritual of being introduced to the quaint Sheppey dessert of Gypsy Tart at school dinners. You either loved it or hated it. I thought it was disgusting.
Oh, and we all had natty little school caps emblazoned with the Invicta horse of Kent on our heads. Our parents had been instructed that all boys had to wear one. Within minutes we discovered this was not the case as the “bigger boys” took great delight in mocking us. The caps never saw the light of day again.
There was also homework to contend with – the results of which led to our positions in the weekly class mark list. Woe betide anyone who was last.
Apart from the nightmarish cross-country runs previously mentioned, swimming lessons were also something best avoided. They were held in the nearby Aquarena, a once popular open-air swimming pool filled with seawater. Alas, it was never heated. Our lessons always seemed to be on a Monday morning in the deepest winter.
During my five years there I realised I was useless at metalwork and woodwork. The teachers decided, on my behalf, to make life easier for others by removing me from the French and art classes.
I did, however, discover that I quite liked English. However, the careers master had other ideas when I suggested I wanted to be a journalist.
“Certainly not,” he said. “That’s a far too competitive profession. Besides, all our boys should aspire to proper jobs.”
A couple of weeks later I found myself on a coach visiting the Metal Box factory in Strood where I was told if I worked really hard on my O-levels I might be good enough to get a job there and stand in line with other men turning lumps of metal on lathes. It was not a prospect I looked forward to. A visit to the foul-smelling Bowaters’ paper mill at Sittingbourne the following week did little to convince me that it was an industrial life for me.
However, I still ended up as a marine engineer cadet at Shell Tankers UK for the first year or so of my working life, meeting a great crowd of chaps going to Poplar Technical College in London’s East End and staying at Queen Victoria’s Seamen’ Rest.
But that, as they say, is another story which will be followed by how I finally became a journalist.