Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter two

School at Clifton

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Slowly, I and my friends moved up the school as we grew older. We had a succession of teachers, many of them incompetent, when the war drew all able-bodied men into the armed forces.

Prominent among our teachers were Mr Long and Mr Robson, Mr Savage – brilliant maths teacher – and the eccentric Mr Battey, whose speciality was Latin. He wore crumpled sports jackets and coached the school soccer team. The headmaster, Mr Colton, whose nickname was Coley, was an excellent maths teacher, brilliant at pulling apart congruent triangles. 


French Beginnings 

Coley also taught French. I well remember Coley’s unsuccessful attempts to pronounce the past participle of avoir. “Avoir, ayant, oi,” he would chant. I think he rather enjoyed getting it wrong.

French became quite a speciality of mine, and I did particularly well in my Common Entrance exam later. So Coley must have got something right! However, he failed utterly in his attempts to teach me maths. To this day, I cannot make the most simple calculations!

We had some weird teachers during the war, and we boys quickly discovered which ones we could rag unmercifully.

There was the elderly and earnest Miss Brough, Mr Corson, a blond giant of a man who could not control the class, and the sinister Mr Harlow, who would turn up for class smelling of booze. 


Man that’s made of iron

This is perhaps a good opportunity to introduce Mr Harold Styan, an army physical training instructor during the First World War, who came to play a big part in my education. He had been a sergeant-major in the army  physical training corps.

Mr Harlow appeared in class one day with a large plaster covering his jaw. At PT class that morning, I told Mr Styan about Mr Harlow’s injury. Mr Styan grinned and said modestly: “I 'it 'im.”

It transpired that a drunken Mr Harlow had accosted Mr Styan outside a pub in town, and Mr Styan had administered a sharp clip to the jaw to teach Mr Harlow his manners.

Mr Styan was to teach me to box in the little gym he maintained on the first floor of his house in Westbourne Avenue, near the Yorkshire county cricket ground off St George’s road. We boys looked up to him as a hero figure. He used to train professional boxers, and had high but unsatisfied hopes that one of them, Frank Lobley, would become a British champion.

With Mr Styan drilling us, Clifton boys would perform stride jumps in the gym, do press-ups, heels-raise, knees bend, climb the rope and learn to swing the clubs.  These items, we were encouraged to purchase from Mr Styan’s shop in Parliament Street, presided over by Mrs Styan, an extremely large lady.


Mr Styan's Tarzan tricks

One of Mr Styan’s favourite acts was to climb a rope, and holding on with one hand, do a passable imitation of a monkey, scratching himself under the srmpit with his free hand.Then he would swing across to the neighbouring rope and slide down to the floor.

Mr Styan’s big moment every year was the school sports, when the Clifton boys would give a display of club swinging to the strains of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet, always the same cracked record.


Clifton’s march routine

The school, drawn up in two ranks and wearing , cricketing whites and caps and blazers in the school’s red, yellow and black colours, would also carry out an elaborate march sequence before the prize-giving ceremony.

I was no good at running, but, coached by my mother, managed to excel at the three-legged race, winning the event one year in partnership with Michael Perkis, and, on another occasion, with Peter Scott. Photos exist of us breasting the tape on each occasion.


Michael Walsh wins

My brother, Michael, a brilliant athlete all his life, won all the main events, the 100 yards, the 440, and the 220, to be declared Victor Ludorum, and be awarded a profusion of silver trophies . My father photographed Michael, still in his running vest, with his trophies, on the steps of our house in Tewit Well Road. My brother still has that picture, which he used to illustrate his memoirs, One Man In His Time, which I edited.


The day war broke out 

The day war broke out on 3 September 1939, I spent the morning filling sandbags  at a house called Middlesmoor in Wheatlands Road East, home of school fellow David Moore. My brother says I was useless at this task, casting more sand on the ground than I managed to shovel into any sandbag.


War is declared

I managed to get home in time to join my parents in the drawing room to hear the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain,  whose detractors called “J’aime Berlin”, announce: “This country is at war with Germany.” I was just nine years old.

In September of 1939, came the shocking news that my much-loved cousin, Jimmy, had been killed in action. He was the pilot of an already obsolete Fairey Battle bomber.He was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over northern France. 

My only first-hand experience of the war came when a German Junkers 88 bomber dropped a stick of bombs on the Majestic Hotel. The date was 12 September 1940. I was playing in the front garden when the bomber swept over our house as it made its get-away.


Harrogate’s air raid 

A little while later, the hotel manager, Mr Davies, and his wife and daughter turned up at our house, where they took refuge for a few hours. My father was then a senior air raid warden, and eventually headed C Group of air raid wardens’ posts, covering a quarter of the Borough of Harrogate.


A grudge avenged

It transpired that the German bomber pilot had a grudge against the Majestic.
Before the war, while on a students’ visit to England, he and a party of British and German students had been turned away by the head waiter, Joe Cerutti, when they tried to attend the Saturday night dinner dance when not wearing  dinner jackets. 

Trying to evade RAF fighters after a raid on North Eastern ports.the German pilot emerged from cloud over Harrogate and decided to drop his remaining three bombs on the Majestic .Later shot down and captured, he told the story of his vengeance raid on yhe Majestic  to his interrogators.

I have few other recollections of the war years, except of the Royal Canadian air force crews who were lodged in Harrogate hotels before being assigned to Lancaster bomber squadrons operating out of Dishforth,  Church Fenton, and other Yorkshire airfields. We used to hear them flying over our house at night on their way to drop their deadly loads on the arms factories of the Ruhr. Many of those gallant airmen are buried in a special section of Harrogate’s Stonefall cemetery.


“Got any gum chum!” 

The Yanks, who also thronged the streets of Harrogate, were a source of fascination to small boys. “Got any gum chum,” we would cry, to be rewarded by a couple of sticks of delicious chewing gum. The Yanks always seemed to be armed with plentiful supplies of gum.

Another wartime event that comes to mind is the celebration of special weeks when everyone was encouraged to buy  war savings certificates. Warship Week, for example, was designed to finance the construction of a cruiser for the Royal Navy. 

Another week paid for the construction of Spitfires. On that occasion, I recall that a Messerschmidt 109 that had been shot down almost intact by the RAF, was put on display in the Harrogate market building opposite the bus station.  There was also a Salute the Soldier week. 


Clifton boys parade

The boys of Clifton House School proudly took part in these festivities. In our Scout uniforms we joined the parade marching past the Mayor of Harrogate, along with the Home Guard and the air raid wardens, led by my old soldier father, whose bellowed “Eyes right” as his men passed the review stand almost knocked the Mayor over. I was a bit of a shambles, and after the parade was severely admonished for dragging my blue rain coat along the ground.


Scout camp dangers

A further abiding memory of those wartime years is of scout camps in a field at Ripley, just outside Harrogate. I recall dragging our  scout trek cart, laden with tents, along the main Leeds-Ripon Road, down Parliament Street, past the Royal Hall and the Majestic Hotel to our camp site, by the River Nidd. 

There we erected our bell tents and two ordinary tents. Each of the bell tents could sleep eight scouts. Scout masters and minders occupied the other  tents. On our first night in camp, there was a tremendous thunder storm. One of the bell tents collapsed, enveloping one boy, Dobson, in a mess of canvass and guy ropes. Dobson slumbered on. One boy dashed to the tent occupied by our scoutmaster, Mr Ford. “Dobson’s dead,” the boy shouted. By then, Dobson had woken up, so no harm was done.

A favourite hobby during those war years was making model aircraft carved out of balsa wood. The favourite model was the Supermarine Spitfire.I made several attempts to caerve a balsa wood model of that famous aircraft but never quite succeeded.

We had one master, Mr Grey, who was clearly of foreign origin. He spoke many languages fluently, including German and Turkish. We became convinced that he was a German spy and used to follow him about in the hope of unmasking him. Later, after leaving school, I took German conversation classes with Mr Grey, having realised how false our suspicions were.



Next: Chapter 3 >> Dura Virum Nutrix – The Hard Nurse of Men

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh


Michael Perkis adds:
"The photo is interesting — we seemed to be perfectly matched for size, which is probably why we won, but Lionel is clearly most interested in the winning tape whereas I seemed to be watching the camera."
Newport Pagnell, UK, 1 October 2008

With my mother and spaniel Gill


On the beach again


Sparring with big brother Michael


A good read of my favourite comic



My one athletics success at Clifton: winning the three-legged race with Michael Perkis


Michael with his Victor Ludorum trophies on the steps of our home


My cousin, Pilot Officer James Lionel Calvert, killed in action in France, 22 September 1939


The school play, Orpheo and the Black Knight. Third from left, Lionel; extreme right, brother Michael 


My father, head of C Group ARP, Harrogate


A keen wolf cub, sporting his proficiency badge for swimming


With brother Michael, King's Scout