Memories of Rollswood and Howlands Schools, 1960-66

Bernard Hulland

We moved to Beehive Lane from Aberavon, South Wales, in late 1959. I started at Rollswood Infants School part way through the school year in 1960, moving up to Howlands Junior School in 1962. According to the Town Handbook, both schools had opened on adjacent sites in The Commons in 1956; in the ‘80s they combined to form Commonswood School, which of course is still open.

Here’s a list of those I remember were in my year, though not necessarily in my class. My apologies to anybody I have forgotten, and to those whose names I’ve either got wrong or just spelt incorrectly. (Well, it has been 55 years).

Adrian (?); Alan Smelt; Andrew Hitchcox; Dennis Pennyfather; Gail Cartmail; Gillian Saunders; Gillian Waters; Glenys Gardner; Jaqueline (Wood?); Jeffrey Dixon; Julia (?); Julie Williams; Lesley Redman; Linda Corney; Marilyn Littlechild; Michael Payne; Nicholas Pitt; Nigel Theed; Olive Phillips; Robert (Gray?); Roger (?); Sonia Raymond; Stephen Golding; Stephen Smith; Stirling Pugh; Susan (Jones?); Tony Fain.

After we left Howlands, Andrew Hitchcox was at St. Albans School with me, and I last spoke to Stirling Pugh in 1974 or ’75 when he was a medical student. I think Dennis Pennyfather became a fireman, as I recall reading in the Welwyn Times that he had received a commendation. Jeffrey Dixon occasionally performed at Hertford Folk Club, where I was a member of one of the House Bands. Gail Cartmail worked for many years in the Trades Union movement, and was appointed Assistant General Secretary of Unite in 2007. When Len McCluskey stood down for re-election in 2016, she became Acting General Secretary, and in 2020 was elected President of the Trades Union Congress. Her Wikipedia entry gives full details of her career.

The 1956 Town Handbook names the head teacher at Rollswood as “Mrs. F. R. Alcock”, although my recollection is that she was Miss (Frances?) Alcock. The Howlands Head was Mrs. F. M. (Mary) Cann. My class teachers were:

1960 Mrs. Jones
1960-61 Mrs. Smelt
1961-62 Mrs. Davies
1962-63 Miss Christine Orchard
1963-64 Mrs. Veal(e?)
1964-65 Mr. Michael Guinery
1965-66 Mr. Michael Cumberlin

Miss Orchard was the youngest teacher in the school, and had grown up in Cyprus. Michael Cumberlin was often referred to as Mr. Cumberland, which used to irritate him. Quite a lot. Mrs. Davies’ husband was also a teacher at Howlands. He was a keen sportsman and both he and his wife were Welsh speakers. The only other teachers whose names I can remember are Mr. Chalmers and Mr. Quine, and there was also Mr. Hartley who came in part-time to teach Art.

Michael Guinery was Howlands Deputy Head, and had lived in Kano, Nigeria. Some of his teaching was based around his experiences in Africa and African culture generally. There was a big cardboard model of the Elder Dempster liner S.S. Apapa, on which he had travelled out to Nigeria on a table in his classroom, and he often had African artefacts on the walls. He played the guitar and piano, and was a fan of Caribbean music. He composed songs for the school choir to perform at assembly and other occasions. One I recall was entitled “Spring” (about the coming of the season), another “The Bumble Bee” (which referenced African Tulip Trees) and yet another “Cuffley Calypso”, which we performed at the last night party after a stay at Cuffley Camp. He became Head Teacher at Applecroft School, but sadly died of Leukaemia in 1982 at the age of only 51. To me, and I’m sure to many others, he was an inspirational teacher.

The main buildings were only 4 years old when I started, and were modern, bright and clean. One curious feature at Rollswood were the small decorative pools of water built in to some of the paved areas around the classrooms. These could be hazardous – I recall a kid cutting a toe badly on the edge of one. God knows what the HSE would make of them now.

Four classrooms at Howlands were in two wooden huts adjacent to the upper playground and backing on to the boundary along the access road to the water pumping station. We were in one of these classrooms with Mrs. Veal in 1963-4; the heating was unpredictable to say the least, and they were not as bright and airy as the main classrooms with their big windows. Google Earth now shows some trees, bushes and grassed areas where they used to stand.

About 1962-3, a funding appeal was run for an outdoor heated swimming pool, which was built alongside the link corridor between the two schools. Despite being in the open air, the water was usually pretty warm, but getting out and running back to the classrooms to get changed could be a chilling experience. Nevertheless, everybody got the chance to learn to swim and most gained swimming certificates, from 25 yards to ASA Lifesaving, for which we had to go to Lea Valley pool in order to jump off the high diving board. On Google Earth, the site of the pool is occupied by a building, so unless it’s now indoors, I guess the pool has gone.

The large playing field behind the school gave plenty of space for sports and generally just running around. There was no formal boundary or marker between Rollswood and Howlands, but everybody seemed to recognise an invisible line which very few crossed. During my time at Rollswood, there was a DeHavilland Chipmunk aircraft parked on the Howlands side of the field, which kids could climb into and operate the flying controls. I have no idea why it was there or where it had come from, but it was an object of wonder for many of us younger kids, who couldn’t wait to get into the Junior School so we could play on it as well. Sadly, by the time I moved up, the plane had been taken away and never returned.

Another memory is of the Terrariums, or big glass jars filled with plants, which seemed to be everywhere around both schools.

Both schools were quite progressive for the 1960’s. In the last couple of years at Howlands, we would have formal lessons in English (Mr. Guinery), Maths (Mr. Davies) and General Studies (Mr. Chalmers and various others). Some afternoons were given over to project work – The Great Explorers (Magellan, Drake, Cabot etc.),The Kon Tiki Expedition and Welwyn’s Railways are three I recall. In groups, we would do research in the library, produce notes and pictures, construct models, and put together a display of what we had learned. For the Railways project, we had a train trip over Welwyn Viaduct, walking back through the Mimram valley to see the viaduct from below and then catching the 324 Town Service bus back from Knightsfield. It was quite advanced for 9-11 year olds to organise themselves in this way, but for me it was a good grounding for secondary education and, later, for work.

One term’s project was writing a novel. I chose to write a seafaring tale about an incident-packed voyage to Australia, the sort of thing I was into at the time.

The Art teacher, Mr. Hartley, used to give the class projects like designing and making a board game, producing a Comic or using imagination to develop pictures from shapes formed by random sweeps of a paintbrush. He would introduce us to well-known paintings, pointing out details, explaining imagery and references in simple terms and encouraging us to see forms in abstracts. Again, quite advanced stuff for a Junior school.

Mrs Cann taught French classes, which must have been uncommon for a Primary School at the time. She was fluent, and it wasn’t unusual for her to engage members of the classes in conversations in French when she passed them in the corridors. By the time I went to St. Albans, I had already advanced beyond the 1st year Secondary standard in French, and had a head start on others in the class.

Various after-school and lunchtime clubs were arranged. In the Summer, Mr. Davies ran football and cricket coaching sessions, and there was a photography club run by a young teacher whose name I can’t remember, where we learned about composing and taking pictures, and developing film. The darkroom was a storeroom by the kitchen between the two schools.

Finally, there were the School Trips and Holidays. I went twice to England Schools international football matches at Wembley, both against West Germany, and there were visits, among others, to the Alquin Press on Bridge Road East, Hatfield House and the Science Museum in Kensington. In 1964, like so many other Hertfordshire schoolchildren, we went to Cuffley Camp for (I think) four days. On the last night there was a camp party, where those of us in the school choir performed songs for the other campers, including Mr. Guinery’s “Cuffley Calypso”.

The best school holiday, though, was at Easter 1966 to the Peak District. We travelled by train from WGC to Sheffield and then by coach to Castleton, where we stayed in the Youth Hostel. During the week, we visited Dovedale, Monsal Dale, and Edale, climbed Mam Tor and went down the Treak Cliff, Blue John and Speedwell caverns. It was a great week, and gave me an affection for the Peak District which I have never lost.

I feel very privileged to have gone to Rollswood and Howlands during that time. For me, at least, they were outstanding schools, and the teachers and other staff deserve to be remembered for all they did.

This page was added on 28/07/2021.

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