Personal History

Bill Hawkins

My Early Teens

When  I started at Bilston Grammar School  I wore short trousers. I fact contrary to today  most of us wore short trousers until we were thirteen. I suppose this toughened up the legs during a hard winter, and saved our parents the expense of buying us long trousers for a another year or two. It also made us look silly in front of girls, something we were quite capable of doing on our own.

The Grammar School was a whole new experience. Apart from learning Chemistry, Physics, French and German, I also learned a lot about life and a whole new vocabulary of swear words. Most of them I quickly learned the meaning of, except one (which I now know refers crudely to a part of the female anatomy). Being quite innocent at the time, I asked my mother what it meant. She hardly flinched, but advised me that my father was the one to ask on this occasion. Unfortunately when I did ask him he was delicately poised on the top of a pair of steps at the top of the stairs painting the landing ceiling. I remember clearly the steps beginning to wobble, and the paint tin sloshing about, whilst father fought to regain his compusure not to mention his balance. When he did eventually regain control of his life he calmly explained that it was a word used by the cruder elements in her Majesty's Armed Forces, and I was not to say it again. Thus ended my total experience of sex education from my parents. I asked someone at school what the word meant on the following day, and received a blunt but accurate answer. I was a little wiser.

Such was life in those days that Geoffrey Goodwin and myself were still playing with toy guns at the age of twelve, and chasing each other around the shrubbery adjacent to his house. But the world suddenly expanded in a glorious fashion, because someone loaned me a bike one Saturday afternoon, and together with Geoff, Peter Bennett, and Roy Stevens (who all had their own bikes) I cycled to Brewood, where I was stung by a wasp. (I was all right but the wasp died). This was a liberating experience (the bike ride, not the wasp sting) because it opened up a whole new range of possibilities for exploration, and more importantly at that age, for independence. It was not long before owning a bike was at the top of my list of priorities. And at Christmas, when I was thirteen and a half, I got one!

 A rather blurred image of me at Bilston Grammar School when I was twelve. I still have the same skinny legs.

 

 Unfortunately only one photo of my bike has survived, It was a Hercules, and cost about £10 in those days. For the next four or five years I must have cycled hundreds of miles, including a Youth Hostelling Holiday in Wales with Dave Askin. More often than not i would go out alone, although occasionally I had a day exploring with various friends, including the above mentioned and Steve Gordos and Robin Felton.

 

 Dave Askin in North Wales on our cycling holiday 

 

 

The only surviving photo of my bike, taken at 58 Wellington Rd. 

 

Robin and I became great pals at the Grammar School, although we had known each other at Villiers Primary. We developed the same interests, mainly girls, since there were many pretty ones about at the time. Among these were Gill Lavender, Angela Fellows, Vivienne Hunt, Dilys Rowlands and a girl called Kate whose surname eludes me. After school we would spend half an hour or so chatting to this bevy of beauties outside Angela's house in Prouds Lane, and then go home to the serious business of homework. Or at least it should have been serious. After one term at the Grammar School we had the end of term exams, and were given our class position based on these results and our marks from homework. I distinguished myself by achieving 28th position out of 30. It was time to apply myself, pull my socks up, get down to some work, put my nose to the grindstone, get a grip, stop messing about, pull myself together, have some ambition and several other expressions which were thrown in my direction by father when he learned what I had not been doing. It must have worked, for the following July, after the end of year results, I discovered I was in fourth position. This was helped by coming first in Chemistry, probably because I had been given a chemisrty set for Christmas,  and despite the fact that Geoff Goodwin and myself had tried to make Nitro Glycerine with it.

I was however no scientist, and chemistry and physics were the strong points of sister Denise, when she eventually went to Bilston Girls High School.

 

As can be seen from the above photo, Denise was a credit to The High School, upholding all their fine traditions of being smartly dressed, ladylike, sporting and yet gentle in nature. She has changed very little over the years. This is probably because of the influence of her life long friend Hilary Harper, whom she met at Villiers and has not been able to shake off since. Hilary and I shared a love-hate relationship. According to Denise, Hilary loved me but I hated her. (Sorry Hil, only joking!)

Steve and I continued to be great friends well into our teens despite the fact that we were at different schools, he being at Tettenhall College. We would meet during the school holidays, mainly playing subbuteo football and cricket, and going on the occasional bike ride. Sometimes we would fool around with a tape recorder, making "radio" programmes about "'Specker (Inspector) Smithers and his dim assistant "Sam" (me), or recording commentaries on the subbutteo games. Once Steve put a short trail of pennies on the pavement outside his house and we recorded the reactions of the lucky finders of the horde. His imagination knew no bounds!

 

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  Steve and I in an iglu we built in his back garden one winter (about 1958) My sister Denise took the photo and as a reward we allowed her into the iglu for a couple of minutes. Then we proceeded to block the entrance with snow.In a moment of weakness we decided to release her.

 

Anyway, I digress. Back to the Grammar School days. Despite my "success" in the exams at the end of my first year, I didn't actually set the academic world on fire. I hated maths, couldn't understand any musical theory, and wasn't really any good at games or PE. The rest I could more or less cope with, especially History and English Literature. Music always evaded me, although I did once sing in the choir at Speech Day in Bilston Town Hall, where one "Minnie" Munslow succeeded in falling off the back of the stage during one rendition. I even remember the song he fell to; the Hebridean Folk song "By the light of the peat fire flame".

It wasn't until I got my bike and began to get fit that I discovered Cross Country running. Here was something I could actually succeed at (well moderately anyway!) During games lessons (which meant football in the winter and cricket in the summer) I would set off on the school cross country course, often alone, and then join in with the lesson when I got back. The PE teacher, "George" Cureton actually encouraged me; he had probably given up trying to teach me ball skills or whatever. And the outcome was that I actually began to enjoy football and cricket, and even PE lessons in the hall. I probably became more confident. Later, when a new geography teacher arrived (Leyden Fletcher) he introduced us to mountain walking, for which I shall be forever grateful, since mountains and wild areas have been my passion ever since.

 

On a geography field trip with Leyden Fletcher. We are at the top of Caer Caradoc in Shropshire. I am half hidden at the back. Other trips were to North Wales to climb mountains including Cader Idris, Tryfan, Snowdon and Arenig Fawr. Leyden Fletcher also encouraged my interest in the Yorkshire Dales which in turn led to my passion for caving in later years. Below is a photo of a subsequent field trip to the Glyders in Snowdonia.

 

When I first started the Grammar School it was housed in an old building in Fraser St, Bilston, next door to Etheridge Secondary Modern Girls School. There was a brick wall between these two establishments but we quickly discovered one place where a brick was missing, and would take it in turns to peep through the hole to see what we could see. On one occasion someone leaped on to my back as I was enjoying the view, knocking my face into the wall. I still have the resultant chipped front tooth (in situ!) as a reminder.

There was excitement when we learned that we were to have a new building. Our French Master, Mr Jones (Hank) was a reliable source of information when it came to finding out what the new building would be like. I lost count of the number of lessons which were spent by him answering our questions about some aspect of our new premises, and no work being done by us. I don't think he twigged until we had actually moved in, and some wag asked him "What was the old building like, Sir?"

The new buiding had a long corridor connecting all the classrooms on the ground floor, and we were supposed to keep out of it during break times and restrict our activities to the yard. But one character whose surname was Ashley, decided that he would recruit an "army" that would patrol these corridors at break times. This seemed like a fun idea to me, so I asked Ashley (who was a few years older than me) if I could join. "Certainly," he responded, "You can be the camel excrement collector!" These are not actually the words he used, but I spent several breaktimes following his motley crew around the corridors carrying a brush and pan, until the Head heard about us and we were banned from parading indoors. Since this was the fun part, the army disbanded and we had to find something else to do.

Trip to Windsor, 1960. L to R, me, Fred Bristow and Geoff Goodwin. Did I really have that much hair?

 

Sometimes this involved lusting after the female French student teachers that we were occasionally blessed with, but more often that not we tried to attract the attention of Mrs John, the Laboratory Assistant who was a very attractive young woman. Many years later when I was a Deputy Head in a Bilston Primary School I visited the Head I was working for and got introduced to her sister. It was none other than Mrs John. She recognised me and caused me great embarrassment by referring to me as one of "her boys." If only she had known!

I was about fourteen when I was persuaded by a Grammar School friend, Alan Jones, to join the St. John's Ambulance Brigade as a Cadet. This got me out of the house on Monday evenings, and taught me first aid skills which were to be of use throughout my life. I also like to think that at least one life was saved because of it, but more of that later. Having eventually passed my First Aid exam I was unleashed on the public at large through the activity of "Public Duty" which in effect meant you could get into the local cinema, Flower Show, Carnival Show, and events at Monmore Green for nothing, in return for administering First Aid to any unfortunate soul who may need it. At one such event in Hickman Park, Bilston, a rather attractive young lady appeared at the first aid tent with a cut to her index finger. She explained that she had done this cutting cheese the night before, and asked if we could supply a plaster. While the person in charge rummaged about in the depths of his first aid kit, I proceeded to hold her hand. The required plaster having been found, the senior first aider turned round and demanded to know in no uncertain terms what on earth I thought I was doing. He was somewhat taken aback when I cooly explained that I was elevating the injured limb to minimise blood loss!

A more serious event occurred at home. The doorbell went early one evening, and father answered it to one of the neighbours, who we didn't know very well. He casually asked if anyone knew first aid, because his brother in law "didn't  seem right." I volunteered to go round and investigate, and found the said brother in law on his back in the garden, where the family had dragged him after he had been found collapsed in the downstairs wash-house. A gaswater heater had misfunctioned, and he had been overcome. The fact that he was literally blue in the face and a had a weak pulse suggested that indeed he "didn't seem right." He wasn't breathing so I asked someone to get father to call for an ambulance. I managed to get the patient turned into his stomach and began to apply artificial respiration, the old fashioned way. After what seemed an eternity a fireman appeared in the garden and I explained in a panic that I couldn't get the fellow to start breathing. He kindly took over and after a few seconds asked me to go to the fire engine and ask someone for a minute man respirator. I was glad to leave the scene in case the man died, but the said respirator was obtained and applied to the casualty Minutes later the ambulance arrived and he was rushed to hospital where his breathing was restored. I saw him again a few weeks later when the fire brigade were again at his house, this time because the place was well alight. Flames were emerging from the downstairs windows and curling back into the upstairs windows! THe house was gutted and the family never moved back in.

At the Grammar School I met the aforementioned Dave Askin, with whom I spent many a happy hour as we approached the sixth form years. I have recollections of us working together in the front room at 58 Wellington Rd, and spending some time with a pea shooter aiming through the letter box of the front door at people in the queue at the adjacent bus stop. We took it in turns in this activity, one with the pea shooter and the other observing through the window. How we kept quiet and got away with this I don't know. Dave recently reminded me of another adventure we shared. There were reports in the local paper about the ghost of a woman, dressed all in white, appearing late at night on the canal in Bradley. So with our parents permission we set out for Bradley on the local bus, to meet up with one Kevin Jones to go ghost hunting. It seemed a good idea at the time. Clutching a small bell, a candle stub and a copy of the bible we approached the canal bridge where the apparation was said to appear.We waited a long time. Midnight came and went, as did one of the local drunks who guessed what we were doing and  said that it was like waiting for a new girlfriend. This is actually a paraphrase of what he said; one of the words recalled the vision of my father teetering about on the stepladder at the top of the stairs. The wait continued and we grew bored. We played hide and seek among the bushes and long grasses adjacent to the canal, and then became bored with that as well. At about 4.00am it grew cold, and a white mist began to ascend from the still waters. We grew quiet and stood leaning on the parapet of the bridge gazing along the length of the canal and wondering if enough was enough. And then it happened. In the distance a white object appeared, apparently drifting along the middle of the canal and heading in our direction. It was just as the newspaper reported!  With trembling hands I began to fumble nervously in my pocket for the bell, book and candle. The object was getting closer. Where were the matches? And then Dave Askin began to laugh - and so did Kevin Jones, for the "ghost" turned out to be nothing more threatening than a swan, which imperiously glided passed us to disappear back into the early morning mist!

Another of the highlights of the time was the School trip to Germany. I remember an overnight coach journey to Dover, and the first night spent in Brussells. We were about fifteen, and were allowed to roam out at night in small groups. This was also the case when we got to our German destination, Andernach, in the Rhine valley. Some of the places we ended up were fascinating for boys of our age! Mostly it was pubs or nightclubs, with a variety of dubious characters about. Geoff Butler, who seemed to be good at German, tried to chat up some of the local girls, but without success. Then we discovered that his chat up line was "Good evening, gracious lady."  It sounded more impressive in German, but we weren't surprised it didn't work.

 L to R. Peter "Budgie" Barwell, Geoff "Diddibik" Butler and  Johnny Baker at Andernach

 

This trip abroad was the first real taste of freedom for most of us, but surprisingly enough we behaved responsibly most of the time. We embarrassed the staff on one occasion by appearing downstairs in the hotel bar (just as they were meeting some old friends) all bandaged up as if we had been in an accident. Apart from this and experimenting with German cigarettes at the back of the coach, and - oh yes - throwing the rather horrible boiled eggs from our packed lunches out of the windows at German road signs, we were very well behaved.

Geoff Butler bandaged up before his appearance in front of the teaching staff. 

 

Not long after this expedition took place we sat our GCE "O" levels, and those of us who scraped enough passes together were allowed to enter the Sixth Form. Suddenly we were treated more as adults than as children; we were given responsibilties - we became prefects, had to read in Assemblies, edit the school magazine, help to organise theatrical productions or act in them, be games or House Captains. Crossing the threshold of the Sixth Form Common Room for the first time was also crossing the threshold into adulthood. We weren't quite sure how we had arrived there, but arrived we had.