My War Years Memories - Chapter 1 (2 of 4)

School Days

Those of us who elected to travel by ‘bus (or, more correctly, by coach) did not have to leave Laindon until the service timed at 8.10am from the Laindon Hotel in the High Road. This No. 53 service was timed to reach the Palmers Avenue bus stop in Grays at 8.55am after travelling via Horndon-on-the-Hill, the “Orsett Cock”, Orsett Village, the “Baker’s Arms” and Socketts Heath. This meant that there was just enough time to get to the daily morning assembly which gathered every morning at 9.00am in the main hall. This particular ‘bus service was operated by the Eastern National Company of Chelmsford and the service we used operated hourly (almost) from Harwich Quay to Tilbury Ferry and vice versa. It was the longest service route in Essex County and it says something of the devotion of its crews and its backup services that it ran with great efficiency and punctuality throughout the war despite the manpower difficulties faced by the operators at the time.

There was, of course, little competition on the roads at the time and not much risk of congestion due to private cars but other wartime hazards existed, not least the fact that the service itself terminated close to Tilbury Docks which was a target much favoured by the Luftwaffe. From this it might be divined that we pupils who elected to go to Palmers School were also taking a risk by going there. Our choice of secondary school meant we were freely going into an area or zone of considerable danger. It was only in retrospect that it was realised that, unbeknown to us, in August 1940, the Germans had started on a deliberate policy, the first phase of which was an attempt to neutralise the RAF by bombing its airfields. This was to be followed up by phase two, huge air raids on major cities, particularly London, with the intent of demoralising the population. Phase three was, if the UK had not sued for peace by then, a full-scale invasion.

In the event, phase one became known as the “Battle of Britain”, phase two was dubbed the “Blitz” and, as is well known, phase three never happened. Because by 5th September 1940 some idea of what was happening on the war front became obvious to the school authorities at Palmer’s, the decision was made that the school week would be truncated. This was partly because teaching staff everywhere were being stretched to their limit due to shortages, military conscription having been stepped up post the Dunkirk evacuation, and partly due to a somewhat illogical thought that it would be safer for the pupils if there were fewer of them about in the afternoon sessions! Accordingly when the school assembled on the Thursday of the first week of the Michaelmas term (Palmers was that posh; to call it the “autumn term” would have been common!) we discovered that it had been decided, firstly, Saturday morning school should be suspended pro-tem and secondly that only the senior half of the school would attend for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon sessions while the junior half of the school would attend for only the Tuesday and the Thursday afternoon sessions.

Something of the background concerning Palmer’s Boys School has to be explained here. For a start, because the Boy’s School headmaster (The Rev. Abbot to his face; “Bunny”Abbot to his pupils behind his back!) attended what was known as the “Headmasters’ Conference” the school regarded itself as a minor “Public” school and was organised along the lines of Eton, Rugby and Harrow etc. although this was, to say the least, a bit over the top considering the somewhat earthy nature of most of its pupils and the fact that we were all “day” pupils, that is the school had no facilities for “living in” as did the “top” public schools. Thus it was that, because Palmers had some pretentious ideas associated with its supposed status as minor public school a number of problems inevitably arose as a consequence of the war conditions of the time. One of those was directly associated with the school uniform (a compulsory wear) which was supposed to distinguish its wearers from the motley mob that was the “others”, that is, the hoi-polloi that were not Palmer’s pupils. The “others”, of course, far out-numbered us which, for me, at least, did create some particular problems among my old school friends in the Laindon area, those who had not made it to such an exalted establishment. Over time most of these found more important things to do and, I’m sorry to say, we drifted apart. Also, of course, when at Grays, there was no love lost between us “college types” and those local inhabitants who were of the same age as ourselves. From my parent’s points of view, particularly those of my mother, there was the constant additional costs that attending Palmer’s seemed to create, not least the compulsory wearing of its uniform. Long before I joined the school, decisions had been made that the standard school blazer and matching cap should be what was known as “Royal Blue” in colour, a dark shade of azure blue, with an almost reddish purple tinge to it which had been invented in the 18th century in Somerset and was said to be in honour of the wife of George III. This fact alone was said to be justification, in wartime, for the high cost of the cloth from which blazer and cap were made. There was also an ostentatious badge on each garment which added considerably to the cost and, as the war progressed, restrictions on the availability of such clothing made a bad situation worse. This was not helped, as might be guessed, by the constant inter-pupil ragging that went on as standard practice in which things like blazers and caps received scant concern by their wearers. I do not recall that the rules concerning the school uniform were ever relaxed and cost remained a constant source of friction between my mother and me.

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