Geoff Durkin

Last Updated: 06/11/2016

 

 

 

 

Me

Geoff Durkin
Born in 1941

Lived in Newland Park Drive, Hull Road

 

Memories

Margaret St in the early fifties resembled a bomb site, there were gaps between houses but the whole area towards the Fishergate and Walmgate bars was virtually flattened either by German bombs or slum clearance (the latter - TR) but the big attraction for pupils at that time was Lil's tuck shop located in the front room of a terrace house facing St George's church. Lil was a tiny, enterprising woman who realised that there was profit to be made from the boys of St George's by selling chocolate, sweets, Kali dip and even single woodbines to those boys who escaped the confines of the school yard.

The Cattle market was another attraction to the boys every Monday and Thursday. Located between the Walmgate and Fishergate Bars with iron pens following the edge of the Bar Walls filled with cattle, pigs and sheep waiting to be sold by auction in the covered part of the market. Many of the cattle were driven by foot along Hull road and Fishergate providing an interesting sight. St George's boys were always there during their lunch break helping the farmers or just enjoying the spectacle, sounds and atmosphere of the market.

School dinners were a Marmite thing, love them or hate them. I loved them through from St Aeldred’s to St George's yet my brother hated them. I was a war child and mothers made every effort to ensure their offspring were as well fed as possible during those times of national deprivation hence the fat cells and feeding frenzies were laid early on in one’s life. The dining room for St George’s school was located on the lower floor of the building that housed the youth club between the church and the junior school and consisted of rows of long tables and benches. Teachers occupied a top table overlooking the students. Food was supplied to most schools from a central kitchen located somewhere in York so all scholars followed the same menu which included such things as square slabs of savoury suet pudding, mince, shepherd’s pie, at least two veg and various pastry pies cut into squares from large metal trays. Cheese pie was my favourite. Once the plate was clean boys sat up straight with their arms folded hoping to be selected by the duty teacher for a second helping. Those hungry boys really desperate for a second helping would try to look tall with their folded arms going up and down trying to attract attention. We used to buy dinner tickets on Mondays and some kids from less well off circumstances used to get free dinners. For those who hated school dinners the alternative was to go home if it was close enough to the school or sell your tickets for cash and find an alternative source for lunch. Crows butchers at Walmgate Bar used to sell penny ducks in a bread bap (a duck was a form of faggot or haggis type mixture of offal) or at the other end of Walmgate was the fish shop and their speciality was a fried battered fish sandwich between layers of potatoes. I got the feeling that the so called fishcake was recycled leftovers but for hungry lads, so what! Across the road from the fish shop you could also buy broken biscuits and sweets - another unhealthy lunch time option. At St Aeldred's my brother told Mr Puew, his teacher, at school dinners that there was a maggot on his lettuce and his response was 'Get it down yer, it’s all meat'!

Assembly And Singing

Assembly was a daily occurrence with all of the teachers perched on the stage and the boys below in the assembly hall. Brother Baptist led proceedings; we prayed, sang hymns and received any relevant notices of the day. A good old sing song is a nice way to start the day and we belted hymns such as 'Faith of our Fathers', 'Hail Queen of Heaven star of the sea look on the wanderer here below'. At the same time the latecomers wandered into the hall and collected at the entrance doors before being marched off to Brother Baptist's office to be duly punished for their tardiness. The assembly hall also acted as the venue for Mrs Bruce’s music class. By music we mean choir practice because those with no singing ability went somewhere else but I can’t remember where. The choir comprised a general group and also a special choir of the better singers. I suppose the Irish musical trait prevailed because there were many good singers. I was selected for the special choir of which I was quite proud and I also enjoyed singing but later on we were asked to sing individual solos of Greensleeves and when my turn came it was a disaster, my voice had broken and I was out on my ear. When the school had choir concerts Mrs Bruce was not seen by the audience because she was conducting the performance through a window in an upper room at the back of the hall. I still love singing and join in at my local church but now its 'Reina del cielo estrella del mar'.

Discipline

St George’s boys generally followed the rules and the school had very little problems with discipline but the deterrent existed in the fifties, the cane, which was an 18” length of bamboo up to 1/2” thick. The punishment varied from one to six strokes on the hand depending on the offence. Being late for school was one of those offences that resulted in a visit to Bro Baptist's office and lining up with other offenders in the corridor to his office for a sort of serial caning followed by boys jumping up and down shaking and blowing on their hands to ease the pain.

Boys had certain theories about receiving the cane. One of which was to spit on your hand and put a hair from your head across your palm. That was considered to reduce the pain but from experience it didn’t prove to be true. Quite often boys would pull away just as the cane was about to land. The down side to that was that the stroke was repeated with even more force. The other problem was that if the hand wasn’t pulled back quick enough the cane landed across the fingers which was even more painful.

Brother Vincent was strict on discipline and he did not spare the cane if he thought it necessary. He often mentioned Blessed Brother Solomon who was beatified but noted as a disciplinarian.

During one English class with him in 1955 we were asked to learn 6 poems from the text book we were given. I managed to get 5 together including 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and 'What is life if full of care' but struggled for the sixth. Then I came across a limerick in the book named the 'Lament of Billy'. As it was in the book and short in length I thought bingo! When it came to the time for reciting our poems Brother Vincent called on me to recite 'Billy' as he had never heard it before. So after standing up I started:

Billy in one of his new sashes
Fell into the fire and was burnt to ashes
Now although the room goes chilly
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.

Brother Vincent did not approve of my choice and that was when I received 4 of the best for taking liberties!

I once received a blackboard rubber aimed at my head from 20' from Mr Brophy for lack of attention. A caning from both Mr Sellers and Mr Thompson for handing a hot steel rule to a fellow pupil in the woodwork class, just for fun ( I didn't expect him to take it for some reason). He was in the rugby team and had to miss a match, hence Mr Seller's contribution followed by hanging from the wall bars because I was in the PE class afterwards. Got the stick from Bro Baptist for being late and fighting plus a few general offences along the way. We accepted it as part of life but would not dream of telling our parents in fear of further punishment at home.

I never felt picked on but I was not sensitive. One of my class-mates did get more beatings than the rest but he used to leave himself open, eg lateness, missing mass on Sundays, sending a rude note to a girl at a boxing match that was intercepted by a teacher, making an inappropriate, sexist remark during a museum visit, getting a crew cut, wearing jeans to school!

I think I was caned once by Mr Barker who was strict and very much in control of his classes which for me was history and book binding. I cannot remember any rapport or individual friendliness from him but that's how it was in those days between teachers and pupils.

Was there any permanent damage from the discipline we received? I don’t think so. It taught us boundaries and kept order and respect so although it sounds cruel I believe we’ve lived through it without any permanent damage.

Sport

Sport was always a big part of St George's and the initiation was using the gym for the first time followed by running naked from one end of the showers to the other. There were no privacy showers in those days just a long row of cold water sprays. For the majority it was the first shower they had ever experienced and of course there was the nakedness issue, another embarrassing first for lads who were approaching puberty. The gym was great under Peter Sellers' direction and a wonder for those who had previously exercised in the open junior school playgrounds with little or no equipment. When awarded the privilege of a free period for good behaviour or effort the Gym and the science class rooms were the first choice. The number one game was playing pirates which was a form of tag where one group chased another but you all had to stay off the floor hence scrambling across wall bars, gym benches and climbing ropes. In the science class glass blowing was the main attraction.
    St George's exceeded at rugby and most of the junior schools that fed the senior school played rugby, that is of course, Rugby League as only the grammar schools played Rugby Union. What was the saying: Rugby League was a gentleman’s game played by ruffians but Rugby Union was a ruffians game played by gentlemen. Am I sensing class distinction here? After leaving school I played for York Imperial up to the age of 17 then got ripped about a bit playing Heworth in a cup final and Dad put his foot down telling me that getting injured on the sports field kept you from work, your livelihood. I compromised and became a gentleman by playing rugby union for Rowntrees.
    Swimming was an alternative to the long walk to Fenby field for football, rugby or cricket and that was at the old baths between the rivers Foss and Ouse. That strong smell of chlorine is my main memory of those baths and a fat bald headed man who was in charge of it all, I think his name was Webster. I can’t remember ever receiving any form of swimming or diving instruction but I did learn to swim and got a medallion for completing a length of the pool. I was never involved in boxing but the school always had a good team of lads who did well. Later on in life I joined York rowing club and Peter Sellers was also a member but I found it very difficult to use his first name as Mr Sellers was stuck in my brain not Peter.

Workshop Training

Woodwork was our first workshop activity and a new exciting experience for all of us at first year and Mr Thompson was our teacher. Timber Thompson was of an easy-going disposition but used his stubby cane to effect when necessary and I was a recipient on one occasion. One of our first tasks was to measure and plane wood to size and then produce a mortise and tenon joint. As we progressed a small desktop bookcase followed by a tea trolley or ironing board. Some boys were involved in making the frame for a canoe which was then canvas covered. I think it was the second year when we started the metalwork class with Mr Smithers and we spent a lot of time filing steel to shape. Mr Smithers was a reserved, quiet sort of chap and I can’t remember any form of misbehaviour in his workshop. I do remember him coming into the grocer’s shop where I worked after school and asking for cooked ham with lots of fat on it which I considered very unusual but each to his own.
   My metal
work started with a steel nail punch then a brass tea caddy spoon followed by a diner gong, not that we used a diner gong in our house but I got to learn some basic hand skills which provided for the future. Some boys had the opportunity to use the lathe and construct a small steam engine which was very impressive. Another hand skills activity we experienced with Mr Barker was book binding where I made a book out of articles from the Carpenter & Builder that my father had collect over the years.
    I think it’s a pity that school children today do not follow the traditional workshop route that we did in the fifties. Woodwork, metalwork and book binding provided basic hand skill training to help a boy decided whether he was comfortable measuring, working with tools and materials such as wood or metal and the vocational direction he should take on leaving school.

Science

Man of mystery who performed magic. Some boys said he was a German and that had us puzzled. Mr Burns (a very Irish name) introduced us to the wonders of science and we were amazed and captivated. The annual boom through the corridors of the school informed everyone that the 1st year were learning about gun powder. Science was not just for school. I remember getting some saltpetre from Mr Solomon’s chemists on Melrosegate, grinding up some charcoal to make carbon and finding some sulphur among Mum's first- aid supplies then putting a match to my homemade bomb, it worked.
    Science was one of those lessons we all looked forward to because it was interesting and entertaining. Imagine a class full of lads all holding hands to make up a circle with the end boys holding wires, then Mr Burns rapidly turning the handle of a dynamo to send an electric shock through us all. The yelps and screams confirmed that learning had taken place. The lab which was on the top floor of the south wing was very well equipped and set out for its day with a raised demonstration bench at the front which contained a sink, swan neck water tap and gas points for Bunsen burners and with a blackboard behind. The rest of the class was equipped in a similar way with lab benches and stools.
    One interesting thing was that the science store room also doubled as a staff room and twice a day like clockwork Mr Burns slipped away from class to prepare the coffee for the teachers break. I’ll never forget that rich smell of brewing coffee wafting into the class room. Science was also hands on at times which helped the learning experience and I can still remember many of the experiments that Mr Burns showed us such as separating oxygen and hydrogen from water, specific heat and gravity, glass blowing, capillary attraction and electrolysis with different metals and so much more. Science was one of the favourite lessons for St George’s boys and number 2 of the free period choices.

Bikes & Part Time Jobs

For the new initiate to St George’s the cycle shed was impressive. Extending the full length of the north wing of the school directly below the gym and lined on each side with concrete wheel blocks were hundreds of bikes. None of the bikes were locked because you didn’t need to do that in those days and I can never remember any theft of bikes nor accessories from the area. Bikes were a prize possession and when pupils started earning money from after school jobs a racing bike with derailleur gears and drop handle bars was the desired purchase. When I had gained sufficient money I bought a blue Carlton bike meeting the desired specification and my mate John Robinson bought a super-duper Blue Claude Butler bike. As reported in the Evening Press John's bike, propped up against the railings of St George’s church whilst he attended Sunday mass, was stolen. This scenario just does not fit into today’s way of life, how things have changed. Would a stolen bike be reported by today’s press and how many people would leave a bike unlocked in a public place?

At 13 I managed to get a job at a newsagent just around the corner from the school and my evening paper round covered George and Margaret streets as well as Walmgate. My last delivery was at the top floor of the new Navigation flats and for the 5 evenings work I was paid five shillings. One afternoon I arrived at the shop and the door was locked and a man was standing outside telling me he thought there was a problem. Thinking I was the owner’s son he rushed me around through George St to the back domestic entrance of the building and we climbed the stairs to the first floor. Shock and horror the owner was covered under the bed blankets with a hose pipe connected to the gas pipe of the fire. I learned that he had tried to commit suicide because his wife had left him. The next day I turned up for my paper round and he told me off for not delivering the papers the night before. I left the job shortly after that and started as a delivery boy for Greenly’s grocer on Hull road. I was lousy at that and kept falling of the bike because I was loading it too full to minimise the journeys. The bonus was that I was issued with a waterproof cape which I could also use in my own time. Some of the boys did both morning and evening deliveries to gain some pocket money and they were expected to give their mums half of the wage.

Affluence And Entertainment

Viewing the photos on this site it becomes obvious that families have become more affluent as the years have progressed by simply observing the number of boys wearing uniforms. The nearest I got to wearing part of the uniform was a St George’s cap which I managed to leave in the Picture House cinema, so I was back to square one. Saturday morning cinema attendance by St George’s boys was very popular in the early fifties and most of the cinemas catered for children with selected films and low prices which resulted in packed picture houses. I remember walking from Hull Road to the Regal cinema with my brother and our mates to the centre of York, full of excitement, to attend the ABC minors. As members we were given a lapel badge to identify ourselves and as badges were popular this was an added bonus. Before the films were shown we enjoyed a sing song and every one participated with gusto singing such rousing songs as 'She’s got a lovely bunch of coconuts', 'She’ll be riding round the mountain when she comes', 'She wore red feathers' and many more popular songs of the time, the words being projected onto the screen. An MC orchestrated the whole show and older boys were recruited as monitors to keep order. The film order was of cartoons followed by a feature film which was usually a slapstick comedy such as Old Mother Riley or George Formby or a Cowboy and Indian film featuring Tom Mix or Roy Rogers. The Indians were always the baddies. On your birthday you were called up to the stage and received six pence and every one sang happy birthday. The Odeon, Rialto, Clifton and the rest had similar programmes which were filled to capacity because we didn’t have TV, videos, DVD’s, mobile phones etc to keep us occupied then. Evening cinema was also a popular venue for adults too but especially for courting couples who had the opportunity to sit together, in the dark, preferably in the back row, in a warm environment but the down side was the deep smog of cigarette smoke that prevailed, making you smell like an ash tray. I note that the owner of the Rialto was Mr Prendergast, father of John Barry and benefactor to St Georges parish in many ways.

Education And Standards

Less than a handful of boys from St Aldreds went on to grammar school in the early fifties, maybe this was government policy to ensure that the recovering manufacturing industry after the war was supplied with an adequate labour force, I don’t know. It’s interesting to note that many old St George's boys who left school without any sort of qualification went on to receive higher qualifications after leaving. When I entered St George's I was blessed to be sat next to Stephen Holder in Mr Brophy’s maths class. Steve was brilliant and my saviour. I copied every sum and calculation he did for a whole year because everything was moving too fast to allow me time to digest what I was being taught. At the end of my fourth and final year I came top of the class in maths because things were clicking by then. The note books that we used in class were collected at the end of each lesson and we never received homework so naturally we never had chance to read through our notes and revise. The grammar school kids used to go to school with a big leather satchel strapped to their backs which I guess were filled with books. I think I was subconsciously jealous of those boys and their educational advantage because when we were invited to join the De la Salle seminary I showed interest, probably because of our previous visit to Kinterbury and seeing their college-like facilities. Mum was appalled at the idea and I was talked out of it or lost interest in the end but three of my classmates went on to study at Kinterbury with the intention of becoming De La Salle brothers.

Hygiene

A good wash is an apt description of the required morning ablutions in the early fifties but in reality for us boys it was a quick flannel over the front of your face and forget about the ears and neck. The hair probably needed a little more time because quiffs and Brylcreem were becoming important. Bathing took place once a week for most and many had only just graduated from a portable galvanized bath placed in front of the fire with tepid water. The worst was that you rose to dry yourself from the water dirtied by your own washing and maybe someone else’s too. York Baths weren’t only a place to swim but also what were called slipper baths where you could hire a cubical, a towel and soap and take a proper bath in piping hot water. After leaving York as a single man in digs I used slipper baths a lot because of the one bath a week regime. Our clothes had to last longer between washes probably because of the labour intense process our mothers had to endure with peggy tubs and mangles. Traditionally washday was once a week on Mondays. Aren’t we lucky today to have showers, washing machines and dryers and with ample hot water too? In truth we all suffered B.O. then and some worse than others. Sports changing rooms were the worst place because kit was left from week to week to be reused whenever there was a match or training session. I played second row at rugby and in that position you suffered not only the odours of unwashed people and kit but the abrasion on your ears from last week’s grit on your team mate’s shorts. It wasn’t butch to wear deodorants but eventually, as boys turned into young men, after shave lotion (Old Spice) became acceptable probably for the sake of attracting girl friends. Today young men spend a fortune on what are called grooming products but we did not realise in the fifties how grubby we were when compared with the standards of today.

Scouting

Scouting managed to catch my interest from the age of 10 probably because they used the sound educational principle of creating short achievable goals and rewarding you with a badge at the end of it. A little bit like training a dog. A year after leaving St George's I had gained the Queens award and attended the Scouts Jubilee Jamboree at Sutton Coldfield which was attended by scouts from all over the world. Later on I helped out at St George's Scout Troop. The Scout master was Dave Skelton, who was a dedicated leader. I’m not sure if he was ex St George's but most of our boys were. Our HQ was under the sacristy of the church and whilst I was with them we held a successful combined summer camp with St Olive’s troop at Egton Bridge on the Yorkshire moors. St George’s day in the city was a special occasion for all the uniformed organisations of York and district when they all marched from Pavement to the Minster with the Catholics peeling off to attend a service at St Wilfred’s. How we have moved on since then with Christian denominations celebrating together without barriers. I was a member of Osbaldwick and Murton Scout Troop whilst I was at school and they held a monthly church parade to the C of E church in the village. Because of my catholic background I never attended the service nor did I recite the protestant version of the Lord’s prayer at the end of meetings. How divisive was that?

Life After Leaving School

We did not receive any form of career advice during our fourth and final year at school so boys had to sort out their own future maybe with the help of parents or chats with their friends and class mates. I guess boys were influenced by the occupation of their fathers, relatives and friends and, of course, their own interests. One of the sayings at that time was 'Get a trade and you have a job for life'. A lot of the lads in the 'A' stream looked towards trade apprenticeships or a place at the Technical College on a one year pre-apprenticeship course in Engineering, Building or Commerce. I passed the Tech entrance exam for engineering but was offered a job with the Forestry Commission which went as far as being told to report to their site at Wheldrake with wellington boots to start work. At the same time I applied for an engineering apprenticeship at Rowntrees and of the three options available Electrician, Engineering fitter, or Plumber I was offered my 3rd choice and started work as an apprentice plumber in July of 1956. I qualified in July 1962 and moved away from York to see the world. At my retirement in 2006 I was Head of the School of Engineering Services at The College of North West London. I believe two of my class mates Bernard Wild and John Robinson took up engineering apprenticeships at the Railway Carriage Shops and I think John Hardy went on to work in a bank. Some of my friends took on Army apprenticeships. Everyone found work but there was competition for jobs and entrance exams were the norm. Sadly today work is not so available as it was then.

Communication In The Fifties

The first thing I do after getting up in the morning is to turn on my computer, check my electronic mail and then bring up a couple of newspapers to scan the daily news and weather. That is today but in the fifties most personal communication was direct face to face especially when you were a boy at St George’s. Newspapers were important and provided jobs for 14 year olds but receiving mail through the letter box was never prolific as it is today but even now electronic communication is taking over from posted letters. The only time we really paid attention to that letterbox was on our birthday. In the fifties most bills were paid direct to the sales office or shopkeeper or someone knocked on your door to collect your debts - be it the insurance man, the radio-rental man, the catalogue sales collector or the straight forward pay-day debt collector. Saving clubs and holiday saving schemes existed where families put away a few shillings per week so as to receive a lump sum for a special occasion. Few people had telephones at home but there were occasional telephone boxes on some street corners. If important or urgent information needed to be conveyed a telegram was sent from the post office and delivery was made by a uniformed young man on a motor bike. People in general were nervous of telegrams because of the link with the wars when bad information was received relating to the death or injury of a loved one. Our annual school reports were all hand written by each of our subject teachers and then conveyed by us to our parents. I remember Mr Brophy writing on my first year report that on occasions my shoes were dirty and my Dad’s angry reaction at the shame of it. Can you picture an eleven year old boy walking 2 miles to school who kept his shoes clean? I guess it was Mr Brophy’s military background coming to the surface. Unlike today parents were not involved in what went on at school hence parent/teacher groups didn’t exist nor open nights to discuss your child’s progress. Schools got on with their business and parents strived to keep house and home together and survive leaving the educators to do their allotted job.

Geoff's Later Life

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