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Caretakers? The people who take care of us : Part One

This is the first section of an eventual four, all of which will tell the story of the remarkable characters who have worked as caretakers at the High School over the last 150 years.

When I first became a teacher, my Dad, who had spent most of his life doing exactly that same job, gave me some valuable advice. He asked me “Who is the most important person in any school?”

I gave him a list of likely candidates, but he dismissed them all as incorrect by some margin. The correct answer of course, was “The caretaker.” If there is no Head Teacher, it’s no problem, and lessons will go on. A teacher is missing, off sick? Somebody else will cover the lessons, no problem. No caretaker and the toilets are blocked? No school, we all have to go home!”

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I have found it more or less impossible, though, to create a complete list of High School caretakers over the last 150 or so years, because such men are quite simply not considered to be important enough to be remembered, unlike Headmasters, the names of which are all displayed on the wall behind the Reception Desk.

That is not to say, however, that the High School does not value its caretakers very highly. In school magazines such as “The Nottinghamian” and before that, “The Forester”, there are many affectionate reminiscences either by or about the school’s caretakers. And in these reminiscences, it soon becomes abundantly clear that the High School’s caretakers have always been very popular, well loved figures, especially with the boys.

William Knowles Keach was one of the very first caretakers, towards the end of the nineteenth century. His daughter provided some trips down Memory Lane from the period 1880-1883…

“My father, Mr.Keach, was the first caretaker of the School when it was moved to its present site in 1868 ; he remained until about 1890 : for some unknown reason, he was always known as Knowles, or by the affectionate nickname “Knolley”. He was initially employed by Lawyer Patchett , a leading Nottingham figure. My father was an expert at his work for which he received 13s. 0d. a week, but lost his pay during “wet time.”, that is to say, periods when rain forced him to wait inside for the weather to improve. Mr.Patchett suggested to my father that he should try for the job at the new school which was being built. Naturally, my mother was consulted, and she thought it “a good thing, Bill” since the wage was to be 18s. 0d. a week, plus house, coal and gas, with no loss of money in wet weather. Children, however, were frowned upon, but my father gave an assurance that there would be no trouble, and his application was successful. The caretaker’s house was at that time a part of the school building and consisted of a kitchen and parlour on the ground floor, a cellar and three bedrooms upstairs – one over the side door, another over the bay window, and the third over Mr Liddell’s classroom (later 4A room). I was born in this house in 1870, and lived there with my father and mother, three brothers and three sisters. The family did all the caretaking and cleaning in the school. My father was also responsible for the upkeep of the grounds and garden:

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He did all the lawn mowing, and supervised the removal of the sandstone when the yard and gardens of to-day were excavated – no small task. In winter we helped him to clear snow from the paths. For general repairs a Mr. Rushworth was called in. He was known as “quarter-to-three” feet, on account of the way he walked!

In those days the school yard was all open country, with grass and gorse bushes. There was no wall on Forest Road, a street where windmills still stood or had perhaps only recently disappeared. There were no railings on Arboretum Street, just a rough fence. The grounds immediately around the buildings consisted of sandstone outcrops, loose sand and plantations of trees and shrubs, some of which were on the site of the present caretaker’s house and the present Music Room, though at a higher level. Here is some of that loose sand, still there in the 1930s:

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The Headmaster, Dr, Dixon, lived in the end house of Waverley Mount (then called Clarendon Road). This house later became part of the “Preparatory School.”, and was demolished to build the present building. The other part of the large house was occupied by Mr. Taylor, the veterinarian. Many years later the great “Drawing Room” with its barrel roof was built on top of the north wing, and our house had to be partly demolished to make way for it. The present caretaker’s house was then built. Mr.Tait was responsible for the erection, under Mr.Patchett’s direction, and Mr.Jelly was the joiner for the Drawing Room. There was a bit of jealousy between them about the cost.”

In 1880 a new and rather grand sounding Porter’s Lodge was completed to the south east of what is now called Waverley Mount. Previously, Mr.Keach, aka Mr.Knowles,  had lived with his family in a room at the southern end of the class-room corridor (near present day W2). As mentioned above, his wife had given birth to at least one baby in this rather cramped accommodation. Young Miss Keach appears to be the only baby ever born in the High School, unless, of course, somebody knows better….

Mr.Knowles, as School Caretaker, had the duty of locking up all the gates on Forest Road at 2.15p.m.  His greatest delight was to lock up just before the appointed time, and then beam at the small batch of boys who came running up from the Forest, where they had stayed to see the first horse race, which was generally timed to start at 2 o’clock. This meant their running round Waverley Street to another school entrance and a bad mark if they were late! Here is the Forest in the 1880s, looking down towards the horse racing course:

forest

Mr.Knowles was also remembered for the occasions when he would come to put extra coal on the huge coal fires which were used to heat every classroom. If the Master’s desk was sited in the correct position, “Knolley” was able to go up behind the Master with his dirty, blackened, coal encrusted hands and pretend to move forward and seize the Master’s often bald head, as if to leave black sooty handprints on it. This caused enormous merriment among the watching schoolboys.

This marvellous photograph shows the school at the end of the nineteenth century. Notice the many chimneys all contained in large chimney stacks, and all obviously requiring frequent injections of fresh coal. Notice also the three boys lounging at the corner of the building. Their companion is sitting on the edge of the tennis court:

west end of school

On Wednesday, December 21st 1898 the High School broke up for Christmas, and Mr.Knowles, now the School Porter, retired after thirty three years of service. The school prefects had organised a collection, and the boys of the school contributed over £33. This enormous sum of money was used to purchase a “handsome easy chair, and a case of silver spoons”. The balance, a total of twenty five sovereigns, was presented to Mr.and Mrs.Knowles by W.A.Blackwall and the other prefects, together with a beautifully illuminated address.

This article will be continued in the near future.

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Hallowe’en Nights (5) Ghosts in the High School

It is often supposed that in a building as old as the present High School there should be a school ghost.

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Ray Eastwood, the caretaker, once told me this story, in the early or mid-1980s, although to be honest, I have forgotten the exact date…..

“One year, a small number of boys were expelled from the school because of their appalling behaviour. They made threats that they would return, and either vandalise, or even set fire to the school. Because of this, my colleague Tony Hatcher and myself were asked to sleep in the school to forestall any problems. In actual fact, we borrowed a German Shepherd dog from a security firm that I had connections with, and all three of us moved with our camp beds into one of the rooms at the front of the school, underneath Reception, on the ground floor.

One morning, around 6.15 a.m., Tony and myself were sitting up in our beds having a cup of tea and a cigarette, when we clearly heard footsteps in the corridor above. They seemed to start near the staffroom, and then to proceed around the corner, past the staff toilets, and along the corridor towards the offices, directly above us. We both of us thought that these must be the footsteps of somebody who had broken into the school, and we rushed out of our temporary accommodation. We grabbed the dog, and threw him up the stairs to pursue the presumed miscreants. The poor animal wanted none of it, and he slunk off back into the room to his basket, his tail between his legs. We ourselves went on, rushed up the stairs and charged into the area around Reception. We could find absolutely nobody. We explored all around. All the windows were secure. All the doors that should have been locked were locked. There was no explanation whatsoever of what we had heard. There was certainly nobody there.”

In actual fact, Ray did offer me an explanation….He thought that the footsteps that both Ray and he had so clearly heard were those of Eric Oldham, a caretaker who had worked at the High School until some eight or ten years previously. One sunny Saturday evening at the end of that blistering hot August of 1976, after many years of faithful and steadfast service, poor Eric had collapsed and died as he made his rounds to lock up the school. He was found by his poor wife, lying on the sandstone paving slabs just inside the Main Gates. In the School Magazine, Mr.Oldham was described as “one of the school’s most devoted servants and a warm hearted friend”.

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When Eric used to unlock the many various rooms inside the school every morning, he invariably followed the same route at the same time of day. Eric would have been walking along those same corridors, in the very same direction as the mysterious footsteps we so clearly heard, at the same early hour of the morning. Perhaps it was him, reluctant still to pass the school into anyone else’s care.

Shortly after the idea of a school ghost was first mooted, it later emerged that there had already been another claimant to the position. This phantom was in the then Preparatory School which educated boys aged between eight and eleven years of age.

Quite a number of reports had emerged that as boys walked down a particular set of stairs towards the Waverley Street end of the building, they repeatedly had felt what could only be described as invisible fingers grabbing at the bottoms of their trousers, as if somebody was trying to clutch at their ankles as they went past. This story was told to me quite a few times in the Main School by a number of boys of varying ages, so it must have been fairly well known at the time, although it was unclear whether any of the teachers in the Preparatory School were aware of it. At least one member of the Main School staff knew of it, however.
I have an explanation for this although it does require a certain “leap of faith”. The new building of the Preparatory School was constructed on the site of a magnificent Victorian house. It was still used for Sixth Form lessons for a short period during the early years of my time at the High School, and may well have been the Sixth Form Centre, although I am no longer totally certain of this. Originally, the house had belonged to Dr.Dixon, Headmaster of the school from 1868-1884. On May 29th 1876, his wife, Ada, died “of the effects of a chill”, leaving her husband with five children, who were, according to “The Forester”, “Robert, Charles, Harold, Sydney and one daughter to bring up, four sons and a daughter”.

My best guess is that the clutching fingers belonged to Ada, who, as a spirit, was unwilling to leave her children, as she could see that her husband was struggling with the job of looking after them. It may well be that the staircase in the modern Preparatory School occupied the same three dimensional space as a long forgotten room in the now demolished Victorian house.

Interestingly, neither of the two ghosts, if indeed they were ghosts, has persisted. The stories in the Preparatory School disappeared after just a couple of years at most, and as regards the tale of the footsteps in the corridor, both Ray and Tony were denying vehemently that anything had ever happened within weeks of originally talking about the event. Why that was, I never did discover, although it is always nice to have a School Conspiracy Theory.

Next time……The School Werewolf and how to apply for the job

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Periods of work……only a few days every full moon

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Paid holidays…….once in a blue moon

If you are interested in the ghosts of Nottinghamshire, there are at least two lists of reported hauntings.

Wooooooo

Hooooooo

 

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