Right, Mr Geddes, what’s your full name?
My full name is John Geddes.
And what’s your current occupation?
My current occupation… I am retired.
And what did you do earlier in your life?
I was ten years in the Metropolitan Police, and I did teachers’ training. Then I went back to the Metropolitan Police for 17 years. There was five years war service as a Navigator and Bomber Command. Is that enough?
That’s good. I’m sure more will come up later as we go along. All right.
And what’s your date of birth?
I was born seventh of October, 1918 in Battersea, South West London. And I lived there till I moved into Police Section House, about the age of 20.
Right. What did your parents do?
My father was a master farrier, but married women did not work. My mother had been a cook in a Scottish residence and a good mother to her seven children.
Wow, gosh. And just out of interest, where did you come in the seven children? Well, there was one passed away as a child, but that made eight altogether. And I was the fifth, I suppose, fifth survivor. No, that would make me six. And there were twins younger than me. Twins were two years younger than me. So I was at the bottom end of the family.
You were. Right, okay. And what was your first school?
At the age of four, I went to the local infants’ school. And the first year I was in the Babies’ class, and that was taken by Miss Shepherd. And then from five to eight, I was with Miss Anwell(?). The same teacher took you from five through to eight.
Right. And whereabouts was that school?
It was Lavender Hill School, because all the council schools were all named then with the name of the turning that moved(?)… that they lived in, that the school was in. And that was off Lavender Hill in Battersea, South West One. We had no postcodes then. (laughing)
Right. South West 11, sorry.
South West 11, yes. And do you remember, were you taught any history at that school? Well, wait a minute. The school went on from eight to 14. But at eight, you went up into the Big Boys, and the Big Boys was on the top floor and the Big Girls was on the middle floor.
Okay, well let’s just start with when you were five, when you were at the bottom of the school. When I was five, I have no recollections of history there at all. The concentration was always on the three Rs. But we no doubt touched history on different things, but I’ve no recollections of it whatsoever.
Right. And so when was… tell me when you first remember being taught any history at all. Well, at eight, you went up into the higher school, which was from eight to 14. And I’m sure they had a curriculum there that covered from ancient man up to… well, we’ll say modern times, but nothing went beyond the Crimean War.
Right. And can you remember anything about how it was taught? Well, you had the same teacher for all subjects, and he had you all day long and every day, right through until you left the school. But…
So you didn’t change each year, even? You just had the same… No, you moved up each year.
And did you keep your same teacher?
The same teacher. I didn’t, because I started off in class nine, I missed class ten at the bottom because I went up and had an interview with the master who took class nine and he accepted me in his class. And then later on, for some reason, which I think now was to keep the classes even, I was, oh, double promotion.
I missed a year. And I’m convinced that that year was when I should have done English grammar, parse and analysing. Because it wasn’t until I started French at the central school that I realised I didn’t know anything about this. And I’m sure that’s what happened then. But then, a little while later, I stayed down.
That’s only accountable, now, looking at it, to keep numbers right.
Yes. It didn’t bother me at the time, but it meant that I had to go and do about six months again, didn’t I? Because they were six-month terms.
And so do you remember how he taught you history, your master? No, I’ve no real recollections about actually what happened, because you just went from one lesson straight into another. Although as far as he was concerned, there were separate lessons, but it was just in the course of the day.
Right. Now, I wondered if you remembered any stories or anything being told to you about King Alfred or battles. People sometimes remember these sort of things. [0:05:28]
Well, I think the real only incident that I do recall that really stuck with me… and it was a wonderful idea to get every boy’s attention… when he started the lesson, he says, “There’s one boy who will never forget this lesson.” And, of course, he’s got everybody’s ears, hasn’t he, till right through? And he’s dealing, of course, with the strife between Catholics and Christians… Presbyterians, I think they were called then. Church of England. And this was in the 1600s, and this was in Edinburgh, I think. And Jenny Geddes picks up her stool and throws it at the preacher. “Villain! You’ll not preach a mass at my lug.” And obviously, you see, it was aimed at me, but he had every boy listening to that right through in case it was him, didn’t he? And no, I can almost remember that lesson right the way through. But I seem to think John Knox was involved in it, and then I thought afterwards, “It couldn’t have been John Knox because he wouldn’t have been preaching a mass.” But no, it wasn’t John Knox. It was just the rector of the area. But no, that’s the one and only real story that stuck with me. But…
And around your classroom, were there ever any history things like historical maps or diagrams or pictures? No. The only things around classrooms, I think, were in the infants’, where you got the A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat. Those were the only pictures. But no, there was nothing. In fact, the only teaching aid we had was for music and he took, same thing music(?), he had a tuning fork. The piano was in the hall for assembly, but that was never in the classroom. And the rest was all talk and chalk.
Right. So you didn’t get book… readers? You didn’t get readers? There weren’t books. Readers were what we called circulating readers. I’ve never come across that since. But you had fifty of the same book, and every boy had one. And you would do it, silent reading, when a lesson was a reading lesson. You just carried on with the book. And then of course, there’d be discussions on the book and the book would go away, County Hall, and you’d get another lot come in. And these were all chosen for the age group that were there. But no, there were textbooks, but I don’t…we must have had maths textbooks.
But you don’t remember history ones at all?
No. I’ve no recollection of them, not in the junior school.
So you stayed at this school then, because… did this then become the central school at 11 or did you leave and go somewhere else? No, no. I can’t remember any 11-plus but there must have been some sort of thing, because I went to central school.
And which central school did you go to?
I went to Clapham Central School, which was then known as Aristotle Road. And it had… I believe these started in 1918, but I wouldn’t be sure. They might have been going before then, but they were certainly going in 1918. And this was a mixed school. It was only a small school. But no, the girls all went to Balham and we were at Clapham. That’s the situation when I went there. But there was still a link between the two schools, although quite a distance apart. But no, Clapham Central, as far as history was concerned, you started again.
Oh, right. And that was at 11, you said there? That was at 11. And 11 to 16… you all had to agree to stay on to school till you were 16, because school leaving age then was 14. But no, to go to central school or grammar school, you had to agree to stay to 16. There were exceptions. I heard of somebody whose father died, so of course he had to leave school at 14. There was no argument about that. but in general, you agreed to stay to 16.
And did you have to sign something about that? Oh yes, parents had to sign that before you were ever accepted. But of course, latterly, when the school leaving age was raised to 15, I don’t think that was a problem then.
No, no. And again to 16, obviously, that was… everybody had to stay to 16. But then, at that time, you had to sign till 16. And as I say, with history, there was obviously a five year course and you covered that. Again, we didn’t touch on anything after the Crimean War. That was the end of history. It was political, after that, and you couldn’t teach anything about politics in schools. So the…
So when you went there at 11, your first year, where did you start then? The Stone Age.
Right, okay. Yes, the Stone Age. It went right back. But no, I couldn’t tolerate either history or geography. They were a damn nuisance. But I can’t blame the teaching at all because the teacher that took us for… now, normally, they had their own subject. You had your own form room, but the teachers came to you. So you didn’t have a classroom for a subject. We did when I was teaching myself, but then, no. And the one that took English also took history.
Oh, I see.
The one that took maths also took geography. So I’d no problem at all with English, I’d no problem at all with maths. But I didn’t have time for history or geography.
And why didn’t you have time for history? Well, if it was social history, I would have been interested in it. But social history was hardly ever touched. I remember at nine, I picked up a book in a second-hand shop, a big thick covered book, for… it’d only have been coppers. And that was the story of London Fire Brigade. And the captain was Captain Shaw, and of course all the boats on the Thames, they were all called Massey Shaw. And there were four or five of them, fire boats, different places, moored on the river. And there was all the story about… because they were all horse-drawn. A pair of horses draw these engines. And there were stories about the engines and what life was like then, all in the chorus of this, and there was no… it was a real occasion if somebody was killed in a fire. But of course, there was no plastic ceilings, there was no plastic furniture, and also they had oil lamps but of course they weren’t the same threat as the oil stoves were.
So you found that really interesting? Oh, yes.
That was the sort of history that you liked? Yes. And then, the next thing… well, we started off, history homework, you read the textbook… I can’t remember what the textbook was, but we never used it in class. It was only for homework. Read the next chapter, it’s preparing you for the lesson. And of course, when you come in the next lesson, you had ten questions on the book.
Right. You had ten questions on the book, and I never got more than four. But… in business again? (laughing) What was I saying?
You were just saying your homework was to read the book. Yes, the homework from the book.
And then they tested you on it, did they, or they asked you questions?
No, just asked ten questions the next day, and I’d get four. Well, I’d conscientiously read that through. I’d read it through four times. But it wasn’t sinking in. And I’ve discovered, since, that I can read and understand nothing. And when I’m doing that now, reading Lovett(?), you sort of daydream. And you’re reading it, religiously reading it, but it’s not sinking in. So no, that was why. I wasn’t interested in it, I had to read it, and I’d conscientiously read it four times, but I still didn’t understand what it was all about. But no, there were no time charts.
Okay, now we were just talking about how you were taught history at school, at central school. And you were sent home with your book and told to read it, and it was very difficult to concentrate on it. And is that the only way he got you to do it, the teacher?
Well, that was the way of preparing for his next lesson. And then, of course, you did the next lesson. But it was the same thing, I’ve never really… I was bored with it. I wasn’t interested. But then, later on, it was either the second year… it must have been the second year, because it was switched over. The homework was, you chose your own subject, historical subject, of course. You chose your own subject. He had to approve it, and if afterwards, you found it wasn’t the right subject, there was no objection to altering it. And no, do whatever research you wanted, but you don’t copy. You quote who you’ve… you get a bibliography at the end, and you quote what was there. But not his words, it’s your story, not the person you were reading about. And I chose pioneers in farming. And obviously, there’d been a lot of talk at home of farming, but I didn’t know until we started the research that my father was born on a croft and he was on the croft most… well, when he was born, he was on a farm, a farm labourer. And then he got a croft and he worked the croft, because to keep a croft, it’ll stay in the generations as long as you’ve worked the farm and you’ve kept a cow. As long as you did that, you were a permanent tenant. So that was how his background was. And my mother, she was born on a farm. Her father was the grieve and later on, he was a grieve at the Delgatie, Delgatie Castle in Banffshire then… no, Aberdeenshire was Delgatie. And he was grieve there for 37 years, and his father was grieve of another adjoining farm for 30 years. So obviously, there was a lot of history attached to the family, and maybe that’s why I chose pioneers in farming.
And did you interview them at all for the project, or was that not something that you considered?
No, no. It was pioneers, you see? So it was no good to do them.
Right, okay. So you went right back. It was all books. Well, of course, I then found Battersea Reference Library. I knew the old library. I’d been with my older sisters to the library, and you went in there and there was catalogues. And you went through the catalogue and found your book you wanted to read, and you then went to this huge sheet where there was all the numbers. There was the number of the book there, and you looked here for the number. If it was in blue, it was available. If it was in red, it wasn’t available. So you went to the counter and you were issued your books. But of course, they never lost anything, did they? Because the books weren’t available until they’d booked out to you. But no, that of course changed by the time I was using the libraries, and they were… then, you sorted through your book. But the reference library was a different thing altogether. It was a huge area. There was a walk you could drive through, there was only a single(?). There’s Lavender Walk that side, Lavender Gardens was that side, and that was a side turning, but the main road was Lavender Hill. And the building was on Lavender Hill, the most impressive building, that was the main library. But the children’s library was round the side here, and the reference library was round here, so it was a large area that was covered with the library. And this reference library was huge. You went in and you had to book in, name and address and your number of your library ticket.
And they were happy to let schoolboys come in?
Oh yes, yes. Anybody could go in. Anybody could use the reference library. But you had to have a library ticket, which meant you had to live in the borough or work in the borough before you could get a ticket for the library. And no, you go in there and there’s an extremely large room, a whole array of books all the way around, all catalogued, you knew where every one was. And there was the catalogues. There was a catalogue by authors, there was a catalogue by subjects, the Dewey Decimal System. And of course, we could all buy a Dewey Decimal System, a little pamphlet affair, several pages which described the whole numbers of the Dewey Decimal System. So we used the Dewey Decimal System, so we were quite familiar with this reference. But the books that were round here, you could just go and collect, but you never returned a book. You always left a book on the table that you were working at. There were some tables you could use ink, there were some tables you could only use pencil.
Oh, right. Yeah? Because if there was fountain pens, they were few and far between, and otherwise you had to have a bottle of ink and your pen to dip in. So no, if you were at these tables with ink, you could only have certain books. And they knew, and when you ordered it, “No, you’ve got to go to a pencil table for that one.” And they brought the books to you, you see, because when you ordered it, you had your table number there and they would tell you straight away, “No, you can’t have this book at that table, so you’ve got to move.” So when they got the book… the runners went and got the book. And upstairs, upstairs, upstairs… it went on for far and aft. There were just rows and rows all the way around the outside, of different books. And I’ve never seen anything like this since. Because I’ve been at lots of places looking for reference libraries, but I’ve never seen anything like Battersea. Whether it was really exceptional or not, I don’t know. The other one, of course, was British Museum, and that was a class of its own. A class of its own.
Oh, yes. But did you go to that, as well, for this project? No.
No? No, no. You had to have a reading room(?) to get in the reading room, and that was the thing that was absurd, it had to be signed by somebody, usually a university lecturer or something like that. But nobody ever checked it, so you had to put a name down there, didn’t you? You had to find the name first and you were in, in the room. So there was no real point in that at all, but there you are, that’s what they did.
So back to the library, so what kind of books did you find then, to do your project?
Well, there was Turnip Townsend and I don’t know. I’ve got some written down now, a couple anyway. But no, these were pioneers that I’d heard… I’d no doubt find somewhere that told me who these pioneers were. And I got those books out and they all went in the bibliography at the back. And I was very interested. The changes in cattle, and the changes in the crop system… they always had to lay fallow until they got the crop system, and then they could use… there was something they could grow every year. So all these things, well no, I revelled in that. And that went on for 12 months, I think it was 12 months.
And did he let you out of school to go to the library? Oh, no, no.
Oh, you had to do it in your spare time? No, that was your homework. That was your homework session. Oh, no. But no, after that… see, we had a house on three floors, but there was no electric light. There was only gaslight, and there was only a fire in the living room. So in the winter, you couldn’t be in the living room doing your homework. So no, in the winter, I’d head up to the reference library for nearly all my homework. They had all the books there that you wanted. But no, that was… a good thing about that was introducing me to reference libraries, not just this history exercise. But no, I really enjoyed that and I was keen on it. And that was the thing in history that I really looked forward to. And I can tell you all about these people now.
And did other people get enthusiastic, or do you think… did it strike a chord with lots of the other pupils? I would think it would have done, but you were only interested in your own one, and I couldn’t say if anybody had to change the subject they chose to start with, but that was on the cards. You could do that, no objection. But no, he was a very amenable man, but whether that was his idea or whether it was something to do with the head or not, I don’t know.
And meantime, in your lessons, were you just doing the chronological stuff?
Yes. Battles or kings and queens, that sort of thing. But no, if only they’d had a time chart to bring them together… but I could never imagine the kings and queens who were in control of all this, unless it was the date when the king went and headed the battle, that sort of thing. We pretty well covered history ,as far as the UK was concerned. We didn’t do a lot of history of other countries. The French Revolution would have come in, and the Crusades. But no, I think I’ve learnt nearly all my history through books.
After school? After school.
Yes, many people have said that. And I found… who was it, Captain Marryat –
Oh, yes. ‘English History through English Literature’. And at the back, there was an index, and there was ten chapters and each chapter, ten eras. Each section, there was ten sections of different eras. So you could pick the era you were interested in and then there was the chapters. But the index at the back… everything was indexed. If you wanted to know about the French Revolution, you just looked there. “Oh, that’s the section to read.” And you got the name and the author of the book you were interested in, then you went and got this out of the library. And you could do this in any subject you wanted to go. And no, I was extremely interested in history, especially the social side. And I would safely say that I learnt more history through Captain Marryat’s book than anything else.
(laughing) Than at school. So, just going back to the school, so the teacher kept on… did he keep on just going through chronologically? Was it chalk and talk, or did you have textbooks? How did it…? I don’t think we ever used a textbook in class. A textbook was only useful –
Right. So you just read that at night? Yes. That was only for history, for homework.
And you can’t remember what one it was? No.
Did you just have the one textbook? I know in the cupboard… because I was class monitor for five years, I know in the cupboard we have Piers Plowman.
Oh, yes. And it was about an inch thick. A big, about that size, book.
Oh yes, I’ve seen them. But they were always in the cupboard. They were never used.
You never got to use them? Never used, no. No.
Isn’t that funny? So I don’t know what was in them.
So they are… I think they are a bit more social history-ish than some of the other ones. Yes.
So it’s a shame they never got them out for you. Yes.
And did the teacher ever use, again, maps or anything, pictures or anything to liven it up a bit? No, no. I don’t think there was any such thing.
So he just talked to you during the lesson? Yes. As I say, talk and chalk. There was no slides or no radio programmes at all, nothing.
I was going to ask you about that, because radio was only just coming in, wasn’t it? Oh, yes. It was, what, ’26, I think, when London 2LO called in and the crystal sets. Oh no, the teacher at the junior school, he was obviously keen because he used to talk about building them and the frets on the front and using speakers and that sort of thing. This was purely incidental. There were incidental things. The other master that I had for about 12 months when I was higher up, he’d talk about the war, and he’d been in the artillery and there was a horse, the pair of horses pulling the guns, and the horse was blind in the left eye. It had been war damage, no doubt. And, of course, he’s getting too near the edge, but he doesn’t realise he’s blind in the one eye and he’d go off the bridge. And these little things, it was all of interest.
And you remember them, don’t you? Yes, yes. But no, that was an annoying thing with teaching. I always went into the history lesson… I persuaded the head to let me have a lesson a week for commerce.
This was at central school?
At central school, in post-war. And no, I’d read all the history about the subject and then tell them about the history. Money orders and postal orders, what’s the difference? There’s no good telling them when you go in the post office for these two and why, no, no. Where did it all start? The money orders were done by the counterman, nothing to do with the post office. It’s a private thing they did between them.
Oh, I see. [0:27:11]
And that was the money order. But no, the post office cottoned on and they brought in postal orders, which was a very similar thing, but that was official. And with coffee, you started back in the Mediterranean area there, where the monastery sent those who weren’t so bright, they had to be the goatherds. And the goatherds were complaining. When they were up here, they never got any rest at night. They’d go away for days, they never got any rest at night. So of course, the higher-ups, they go up, they find they’re eating these berries. And the berries were coffee berries.
Oh, I see. “Oh, wonderful! This’ll keep them awake for gathering (inaudible 00:27:54) in the night.” So, of course, that was the start of coffee. And of course, when you come to the exams, they tell you that rather than about the modern thing. And the other one that was really a showdown was roads. “What do you want roads for? Who wants the roads?” And then, of course, you’d eventually get, yes, it’s the king. Now, where’s he got to get to? Well, he’s got to get across to France. He’s got to get down to Portsmouth for the Navy. He’s got to get up to Scotland. So, of course, this is the start of the roads. But the wicked Romans, they had their roads, but when they left, they took all their farriers with them. So when they went, no way could the horses go on the road. So they had to go on the fields, and the roads went to wrecks. And the roads, when they did start using them, there were holes in them deep enough to drown both horse and rider. And that fascinated me, and it fascinated the kids as well.
So were you doing that research yourself, or did you learn that in the commerce class? No, no. I used it in the commerce class, when I was dealing with commerce, you see.
Oh, when you were teaching.
When I was teaching, yes. This is from when I was teaching, that I did this. But the upshot of that was, we had a young girl straight from college, she was Welsh, and she’d trained in Wales, and she’d come to us and she’s got the job in history. And…
This is when you were at school, or when you were teaching? No, when I was teaching. Post-war. And of course, she puts something in a history exam about roads. And then some oaf says, “‘There were holes deep enough to drown both horse and rider’? This is nonsense.” But then she found it was on another boy’s paper. “Oh, there’s some cheating going on here. Nobody would think of this.” Then she discovered they were in the same year, but different classes. So, of course, she had to ask. “Oh, Mr Geddes told us that.” So, of all things, up in the staffroom, she used to draw attention to this. She didn’t catch me on my own and tell me. “Oh no,” I said, “do you want some good books to read?” I felt so embarrassed about it, but not nearly as embarrassed as she was. She didn’t believe it, but that was the reason. But this was all history, you see.
And where had you got that from? Had you got that from school? I’d got that –
Had you been taught it or had you learnt it yourself? No, no. I had to read everything up for all of this. I got the topic and I found out about the history of the topic and then read about it and how it all developed. And I found that that stuck, that so often –
Well, it obviously stuck in the boys’ minds, yes. So often it was this that they brought up.
Just going back to the teachers, obviously there wasn’t the TV or film or anything, but did you ever go on trips or anything to museums or anything? Well, I can remember going to… no, I don’t think we went to museums. From the lower, we had a student, and he was so pleased with the way we’d all behaved with him, he took us to Hampton Court.
Oh, right. He took us out to Hampton Court. But no, that was the only visit I remember from the…
And did he talk about it from a historical point of view, or was it just a trip?
No, no. It was just a trip, just an outing.
Just a day trip. Because then, nobody travelled very far. We did, because we had bikes and my father had a pony and trap at one time, so we got round South London, the south, and went out into Surrey quite a lot.
And how did you get to Hampton Court? By train.
By train. Yes, took the train from Clapham Junction. We were quite near to Clapham Junction and we took the train. And then in the central school, I remember we went to one of the nearby hospitals, and we saw the jacks in the telephone exchange which we’d never seen before, never heard of before. We also went to the gasworks, and we were amazed to see a big metal sign up there. Nobody was taken on without bringing proof of their war service. Well, the war, although it wasn’t long over, it was…
Quite a long – That was really historical, wasn’t it? We were only a few years away from it, but we didn’t appreciate that. And I suppose there was a lot of history attached to that, wasn’t there? And the other trip I remember was to Bourneville’s. We went up to Bourneville’s, at Cadbury’s. And that was train, it was a train journey up there and train journey back. But…
Well, that was more geography, I suppose, was it? Yes, it was the geography master that took us. But no, I don’t think there was anything specifically referring to history.
So the history master wasn’t very innovative, do you think? Was geography taught in a more lively way, do you think? No, no. I don’t think geography was any different, as far as I was concerned.
Oh no, you found it boring, too, right. So would you say you liked history at school, or –? No.
No, you said you – Well, I really enjoyed that spell of pioneers in farming.
The research, yes. [0:33:00]
But no, I don’t think there was any question of taking history in School Cert. This was the first year we ever did it. This was from the central school, and while we were at central school, it was after the first year, we got a new head. And during the first year, one of them retired and then sometime, one retired and one got promoted head. But that was the only change of staff in five years.
Gosh. And I don’t know if the girls’ school was so well off, because they had to leave when they got married. So there must have been more changes there. But with us, that was the only changes there was, when they turned the school that both Catherine and Eileen went to, this was Essex County High. Now, Essex County High belonged to the county. Walthamstow was its own authority.
This was your children? Yes. Walthamstow was its own authority, but the two had a boys’ school and a girls’ school there, and they were both good schools with good university entries. But no, it became a comprehensive. “No, no, it won’t make a scrap of difference to your children’s education.” But of course it did. At 13, they were bringing them in from the secondary modern school and mixing them with them in the class. So you can imagine the difference. But anyway, that was their story.
And so, when it got to School Certificate, did you get a choice or… how did it work? You didn’t do history? No. You see, this is something completely new. There were only ten of us that were determined to take it. The option, because at the third year, when you entered the third year, they split… going into the school, there’s twelve months of boys and the oldest six months went in one class and the youngest six months in the other. There was no division by names or anything else. It was purely age, just one way of doing it. But you both did the same curriculum until you were then third year. This was again with the new headmaster. I don’t know what happened before, but the new headmaster, he went commercial or technical.
Oh, I see. [0:35:14]
And I don’t remember any, “What do you want to do?” But there must have been some questions asked, but obviously, I was high up in the English and French and maths, and my woodwork was hopeless. So obviously… and my father was a blacksmith, but that didn’t matter, I was hopeless, and ever was. I did very little DIY, until the things I had to do. There was one lot technical, and one lot commercial. The commercial did shorthand, typing and bookkeeping, and the technical did both woodwork and metalwork. We had a metalwork centre in our playground. It was only a small school, small area. But for woodwork, we had to go to another school. But metalwork, we had at our place. Well, of course, we did neither once we went commercial. Now, typing was from four till six one night a week, which was not the way to learn to type. It’s a skill, and you should do it every day. But there you are, that’s the way they did it then. But that was the set-up for the third and fourth year. And in the course of the fourth year, you did a general programme for three years. In the third year, you included a science programme that they’d gone through. But then the fourth and fifth year, you still did the other subjects but you concentrated on the subjects you were going to take at School Cert. And of course, that was decided for you. It was Oxford local that we took, and you had to take one subject out of three groups, and that would have been maths, English and science. And then there was a good selection of the other two groups. But you had to do five subjects that you took, and you had to pass in five subjects to get a certificate. And nobody asked what subjects you’d taken. You had a General Certificate of Education, and it covered everything. And when you entered employment, you could either have a pass or you could have Matric Exemption. And Matric Exemption was the universities’ entrance exam.
Oh, I see. And that was the way it worked then. And the school year was from Easter to Easter. So we did our… the universities’, of course, was September to September.
Like it is now. Yes. But we did our exams in January. Of course, you got the results before Easter, and the universities didn’t start until September. So it was properly organised, but then they upset it all by changing the school year.
So did some people do history at your school at School Cert., or nobody did? No. You were given the subjects that you were going to take, because you didn’t have the choice of teachers.
No, I just wondered, though, whether there was a history class going up to the fifth year or not. No, the Head obviously decided –
That nobody would do it. Which subjects… see, obviously, you had to get three in the three groups, and that would have been… I don’t know. We did perhaps English, perhaps language and literature was one subject. I can’t remember, but we did both, and we did Julius Caesar and we did the prologue to Canterbury Tales.
And we never got into the Canterbury Tales at all. And it’s yonks after before I discovered what the Canterbury Tales were all like. But no, it was only the prologue, and we picked that up all right. And I think that was something to do with our French, because in French, for long enough, we wrote in phonetics. And it was absurd. You’d have a capital E round the wrong way, oh, it was really… but he was quite old-fashioned. He was good, but he was old-fashioned, and he couldn’t control the class. It turned out, when you realise afterwards, his father was quite well-up, and he was English, but he’d spent a time in Mauritius, and he’d married a woman from Mauritius, who wouldn’t have been so well-up. Colour didn’t come into it, but he was obviously coloured, but nobody bothered. But he was hopeless at controlling the class. “Ever been to a bullfight, sir?” “No, no, you’ve been (inaudible 00:39:40).” “But you must have been to a bullfight.” And of course, in the finish, he’d be running up down the front of the class with the long-arm for opening the windows, with the long-arm to pull the double-sash windows, he’d be running with that under his arm, and the duster waving, and you could hear a pin drop. You heard all of that. “Ever been tunny fishing?” The same thing. He should have been teaching nature study or some such thing, but no. He was a French master, and it was very unethical. But later on, the teachers would pick up our textbook. The only book we had was the first year in French, and we still did that. It was the only textbook we… we also had vocabulary. You had to buy that yourself, little vocabulary book, and we had Gask’s(?) French Grammar. That was a bigger one. But you had… he bought them, and of course they were half-price.
And he pretty well persuaded everybody to buy them. A dictionary… anybody who wanted a dictionary, three and nine-pence. Quite a big dictionary, it was a seven and sixpence dictionary. But he bought them direct as a teacher and he got them for half-price.
But I’m just quite interested in the fact that basically the school… the headmaster decided nobody really did history. No, he decided what subjects and everybody had to do those subjects.
And he didn’t believe… he didn’t focus on history at all. No, no. It was nothing to do with the teachers, because if you could have opted out of French, I’m sure he’d have opted out of French. But the surprising thing was, we spent… I don’t know how many weeks now, but we spent hours of after-school, just the ten of us, with him. And he’d set down work for –
That was the headmaster? No, the French master.
The French master. He’d set us down some work and he’d take one out, open the window and we’d got the main road out there – tell us what’s going on. And you had to describe the street scene.
Oh, in French? Well, we’d done no conversation at all before. But no, you did all this and I think we had more passes in French than anything else, which amazed them all. But what happened afterwards, I don’t know, because once you left the school, that was the end of it.
So you left at School Cert. level? I left at… yes.
And so that was really it for your history? You didn’t do any more teaching in history at school? Yes, I didn’t… I did no history after that, no. I went to City of London… oh, on the strength of the School Cert., I got the intermediate county scholarship, which I took up at City of London College. And that was, essentially, a commercial course.
Yes. So, just generally, history on the whole, you don’t think it was particularly well-taught, I suppose, or do you, when you were at school?
Well, as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t interested in what they were teaching me. And if I was interested in the subject, then there was no… I was a damn nuisance, they discovered afterwards, when I was teaching myself. For bookkeeping, (inaudible 00:42:34) the typing master, he had no textbooks at all. He’d run everything off. And you’d go in, you had a double lesson for bookkeeping, and he’d pass all this lot out. And I don’t know what his background was, but he was the only one I ever saw doing this. When he was dishing out the papers, he’d fan it with his thumb and get it into a nice fan, or he’d go like this and get it all sorted out. Well, he must have had a commercial background some time, because nobody else did that.
In fact, did you ever have any duplicated sheets at all from history, or not? No.
They didn’t run anything off for history at all? No, no. He was just the typing teacher, and he’d run them off. But no, he’d give this lot out, and you were working. So, of course, I forget how far it went but if it went to the trial balance, when you got to the trial balance, it should balance, you knew you’d done it all right up to there. And if you carried on, you got to the balance sheet, and again, if that balanced, you were all right. But I think there was one that went all the way. So of course, what did I do? I took it all home with me. Next lesson, “Right, carry on with that.” “Please, sir, I’ve finished.” “No, you couldn’t have done.” “I’ve finished.” “Bring it out here.” Of course, he goes through. “When did you do this?” “Oh, I took it home.” So, of course, what happened? He had to find something else for me, didn’t he? So no, that wasn’t cricket, but there you are, that was me. I was interested in a subject. I had to find out if I was right.
So you did lots of work on it, yes?
But I would have done that with anything that I was interested in.
And how do you think history could have been made more interesting for you, other than the social history you reckoned you –? That was it. If there was more accent on the social history, I’m sure I would have lapped it up. And the same, I realised afterwards, a time chart would have helped to make it more interesting, because you could have brought the battles in line with the kings and queens. But they seemed to be two separate topics.
And most of what you were taught was just the kings and queens, was it? And the politics and the battles? Yes. At that time, yes.
And you went up to the Crimean War, you said? Yes.
You finished then? Yes.
And is the thing that sticks most in your mind that project that you did in your history? Oh yes, definitely. No doubt about that. And the only incident that I can recall is when Jenny Geddes threw the stool at the preacher.
Right, okay. And have you done any more… oh, and the other thing was, do you think the way it was taught or the history that you were taught helped you to feel proud of being British in any way? No. Well, I think I put down at the end of my notes, there was Rule Britannia, there was Land of Hope and Glory, and God Save the Queen. This was all about we’re better than anybody else. But no, at the same time, your street gang was better than the other street gangs. You were always the best. And your father was the best at his trade, there were no other farriers like him. And this went on, you were proud of your country. But of course, I was prouder of Scotland than I was of England, because I was Scottish. But I was born in London. We were all born in London.
So history, really, had nothing to do with it at all? It was just, you were proud of whatever you were.
That’s a good point. And I would have thought that would have been the case with most people.
And have you done any more history since you left school? And I’ve written down this list of suggestions, like family history or the history of your house, or the National Trust. [0:46:05]
I’ve never looked about the history of the house. I thought it was disgusting when I discovered the house was 50 years old. But no, when we moved up to Stratford-on-Avon, we moved into a house that was even older than that. (laughing) And that was, what? At least another 50 years. Yes, it was 50 years old. It was 100 years old when we moved into it. But no, both my daughter and I, we’d always been in Victorian houses, and we spent 15 years in a bungalow when we retired, which certainly wasn’t Victorian. And now we’re living in a bungalow. But it was a three-bedroom bungalow, but in no time at all… I had the biggest bedroom, of course, not from choice but I was given the biggest bedroom, and I had a wardrobe from end-to-end with mirrors on the front. But no, it was a smaller bedroom that Eileen had, and there was just the two of us at that stage. She’d lost… I first lost my wife. The children went to university and never came back again, not really. And Eileen lost her husband soon after. So there was just two of us in an eight double-bedroom house.
And double-fronted, on three storeys. So no, I didn’t want to move, because there was a wonderful garden. It went on for… it went behind four other Victorian houses at the back. He’d bought this. It was a brick field, and he’d bought this piece, and the brick field itself became an allotment. But no, we moved up to a three-bedroom bungalow. But the third bedroom is now just a corridor, but you could get a bed in behind the door, a single bed. But that was the third bedroom. So Eileen got an extension built, and it was 16’ long and it was 12’ wide, and that was her bedroom. And this third bedroom became the passage through and her ensuite.
So yes, obviously you’ve never done that sort of… but you’ve done a little bit of family history, have you? [0:48:12]
Yes. This is my sister’s son, my nephew. He started it when he retired. And he discovered that on the ’net, somebody had left this message two years earlier. Were there any descendants of John Geddes, 1814-1850-something, ’57, I think, and Margaret Geddes, 1816-1921? And they were my father’s grandparents. So, of course, this was Howard Geddes. Lived on the south coast, he’d spent all his life with IBM. He got well up, he was a rep in France for a while. Now, when he retired, he did the family history. His family history, the Geddes, and his wife’s family history. He came up to us on one occasion. We have a meeting every year, up in Scotland. He came up with four volumes, A4 size, about each four inches thick. He had all the family history as well. It’s too involved. I’ve chased ours, and my nephew has chased ours as it comes down to our line. This is all the descendants of Margaret Smith and John Geddes, all descendants here. But we didn’t follow all through the side-shoots from there, whereas he’s done the lot. But not only from those pair, the pair in front. So you can imagine this. It’s the thing that’s never-ending, is family history. There’s no end to it.
And do you think… obviously, you are quite interested in all those sort of things. Do you think that your history that you were taught at school has helped with that, or do you think it’s just, you’re interested after?
It’s doubtful to know whether that had anything to do with my interest in history now, but it could easily have done. You see, you do link things to what you got in the past. Unconsciously, maybe, but you do link things to things in the past. But no, we’ve certainly chased up the family history, and we have a meet every year in the house… well, it’s adjoining. It’s on the same farm, but it’s adjoining. It was one that they built for one of the workers, and he built a place for himself a little way away, one that’s on the same farm, for when he retired. And of course, this is now let. So we take that for a month every summer, and one Sunday, we’re there. But the first Sunday is the Geddes’. And we get a maximum of 30, counting us. A maximum of 30 Geddeses, all descendants. Not just Margaret Smith and John Geddes. Her brother was George, we’ve got descendants from there. And she lived on the same farm as her… no, Margaret Geddes, yes she did, yes. They lived on the same area until she left this century.
And that had been in the Geddes’ hands right from the 1700s right through. And that was part of this… they’re all just a little below Fordyce. And that’s where they all settled in the first place, and that’s where lots of them are. And on one occasion, we went up to the… we chase all the history right back, and this was the Abercrombie estate, so we found where the house was. We go to the house, and it was only Eileen and I, so Eileen said, “Well, we can’t be photographing the place. We must go in and knock on somebody.” You see, it was a big drive opening into it. “We must go and knock.” So, of course, Eileen knocked, this woman came out and she was very interested. And as soon as we said who we were… you have to introduce yourself, you see… “We’re the Geddeses.” “Oh, I’d better get my son.” So she brought the son. He was taught by Edith Geddes in Fordyce. “Oh yes,” I said, “we’ll see her next Sunday.” (laughing) “Oh.” So, of course, (inaudible 00:52:15) to her, and, of course, he was… I don’t know if it was an older sister or a previous generation, but she was also Mary Geddes, who she followed. So Fordyce Cemetery, Fordyce Academy had been taught with a Geddes there for at least two generations at that stage.
Well, that’s nice.
We get them and then the following Sunday we get the Elders. That’s mother’s… Mother was born a Shand, but her mother was an Elder. And of course, I knew Elders in London. There were some in London, so I had something to go on. But we only have about a dozen that may come. But sometimes you have to introduce these people, because although they might have heard of other relations, they’d never met them. And lots of this happened with the Geddes family. Mind you, now they come from Aberdeen one side to Inverness the other side, and way down south, not from the north coast, because they all travel together there and they’ve never met one another before, some of them.
That’s interesting. Do you think there’s anything else that you should say about teaching history or shall we wind up there? I would think that’s… can I just look at what you’ve got on the list to remind me what’s there?
Yes. It’s just whether you have any other things that you’d like to say, just briefly. No, I’ve never been involved in the National Trust. My daughter is. I do sometimes go to these places. I certainly read books about history, still do, ever will. I never looked at the history of the house. TV programmes about history… well, no. I don’t have much time for TV. I watch very little TV. I use the Teletext. History Society, no, I’ve never got involved. There was a history society at Margate, but I was involved in the Civic Society and I very soon got on the committee down there. And I was very involved with the Horticultural Society but, again, I wouldn’t go on a committee. And I attend all the meetings of the Residents’ Association. So we were pretty… but there were hordes of associations down there. But no, I never got involved in the History.
Well, can I thank you very much for all this interesting information? Well, I’m only too pleased to do anything that can help.
That’s been really interesting. So I might stop there. Yes, right.
[End of recording]