To say my parents were proud that I passed the 11-plus is an understatement: “Our child is going to grammar school,” would be said quietly with a distinct sense of glee. Many Jamaican parents are not like the archetypal Nigerian parents portrayed by Gina Yeshere, who have four careers for their children: doctor, lawyer, engineer, disgrace—but they are not far away.

Uniformity rules:

What a palaver it was to get the uniform for school. Back then, the sole schools outfitter for my school and many others was Kinch and Lack, located on Artillery Row, Victoria, about a mile from school. They were set out like many a bespoke tailors. The uniform was black blazer with badge, white/grey shirt, grey long trousers; for sports, we needed the house shirt (my was yellow, and heavy cotton). Other things like black shoes and white tee shirt and shorts for PE, we could get from other stores.

We had to get embroidered name labels to sew into or printed ones to iron onto clothing to avoid loss, those could be ordered from Selfridge’s, the major department store in Oxford Street. “We need labels for my son; he’s going to grammar school.” 🙂 The name tapes came in a roll of about 100. Of course, my mother lovingly did the necessary to get me all set with my labelled clothing.

House colours:

Many schools divide themselves up into houses for sport or other internal competitions, whatever the origin of the house names. Some schools now simply have colours and names houses after them. My school had houses whose names were of significance in its history:

  • Dacre’s (blue): Commemorating the foundation of Lady Anne Dacre, who died in 1595 and whose executors established Emanuel Hospital, incorporated by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601.
  • Hill (green): Retaining the name of the school established in 1647 by Mr Emery Hill, a churchwarden in the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster.
  • Kings (red): In 1633, Charles I granted a Charter of Incorporation for the education of poor boys and girls in Westminster which was aided annually by King Charles II.
  • Palmer’s (yellow; my house): Continuing the tradition of the school provided in 1645 by Revd James Palmer of the parish of St Margaret’s Westminster.
  • +++++++ The houses were reduced to four in 1934, losing:
    • St Margaret’s: Arising from the St Margaret’s Hospital, established by the churchwardens of St Margaret’s in 1624.
    • Waterlow: Commemorating Sir Sydney Waterlow, the Lord Mayor of London, who was elected the first chairman of governors in 1873 and filled his post with enthusiasm and distinction for over a quarter of a century.
  • House success and allegiances were strong and friends were not so when we got into football matches or other sports. I’m glad to say that the spread of football talent was not concentrated into one house.
  • Lower and upper:
  • I’m not going to recount all of my school days that I can remember. First, it was an all-boys school of about 600 pupils; it’s now mixed at sixth form and about 850 pupils. A sister school was adjacent, Grey Coat School, whose grey uniform may seem on the sexy side now but then, no way.
  • The underlying class set-up (now) in the UK is as follows, and you move to secondary school in year 6 of schooling. The naming convention for many traditional schools with ‘lower’ etc. was used at my school:
  • Kindergarten = Year 1
    Transition = Year 2
    Preparatory = Year 3
    1st Form = Year 4
    2nd Form = Year 5
    Lower Third = Year 6
    Upper Third = Year 7
    Lower Fourth = Year 8
    Upper Fourth = Year 9
    Lower Fifth = Year 10
    Upper Fifth = Year 11
    Lower Sixth = Year 12
    Upper Sixth = Year 13
  • Important things were that first year pupils were called ‘Freshers’ (freshmen) or a ‘turd‘, and were pupils were split into two/three classes/form for each year group. Class designations included the first letter of the form teachers, eg L3R (lower third R(ayner) ), but some schools used a simple A, B, etc each year.
  • School discipline was shared between teachers and ‘trusted’ older pupils–prefects, with the head prefect/head boy at the top of that pupil chain. In my school, the sixth form was housed in an annex, with more leisurely furniture. Prefects had their own room. At my school, different ties also designated whether you were in sixth form.
  • Yes, I became a prefect and it was an important status symbol, not least when trying to keep order in the playground with football games going on in several directions and collisions, physical and emotional, quite common.
  • Back then, the school had tight rules about where pupils could go during the day, especially at break-time and certain areas outside school were ‘out of bounds’ (mainly near certain shopping streets, to avoid possible temptations and misunderstandings). But, I don’t remember that being a great constraint and enjoyed skipping off for a coffee and sandwich nearby or to sample what was then a new delight of an American-style doughnut store, when Dunkin’ Donuts opened right next to school in the early-1970s!
  • I say, old boy:

    After leaving school, what else but to be part of the old boys’ association? Its main function was to field sports teams for football, cricket and hockey, and to give the clubhouse bar revenue at the weekends. It wasn’t so much of a thing for me as I was into my club and university football, in the early 1970s, though the teams in my early years after school were very strong; the school had produced some stellar players in the early-1960s, who were now coming into their prime as adult players. As I wrote before, I went to Wales and played top-level football there and then played for the Bank of England when I came back to London.

    Old Westminster Citizens Football Club, circa late-1970s

    Old boys’ sport is steeped in important history and several clubs were part of the formation of what is now the professional game of football (and rugby). It was an obvious way of staying in touch with classmates and occasionally throw up old associations that were outside one’s old school. I remember encountering in the clubhouse bar a bunch of primary school friends who were playing old boys’ rugby for their secondary school while I was playing football at the Bank, and being stunned by the sound of voices I had not heard for about 20 years!

    But, I wasn’t much into the reunion dinners, etc; I think I went to a couple in my university years because a good friend was a committee member and pressed me. But the Old Westminster Citizens Association importantly reaches both former students and teachers and is a good place to try to reconnect with either or both. Of course, it’s sad now to read more about those I knew who have passed away.

    Many schools have closed or consolidated in recent years and educational policies changed; some have also moved from prime locations in London to more expansive sties in the suburbs.

    While state grammar school associations are not as deep-rooted as for many private (called ‘public’ in England) schools, it’s always intriguing to encounter someone from those days, maybe several times in our careers, especially when each time we were more elevated in our position or post than before. Yes, I know a few peers and knights and some of my old mates were often seen on TV or heard on the radio or read in the major newspapers 🙂 One of my school alumni, Gary Alexander, scored “one of the greatest goals you will ever see at Wembley”:

    I also blame my old friend, Andy Hamilton, for providing the UK with some of the best satire in the past 50 years 🙂