u3a - Battle of Britain and the Blitz stories - Tony Peters

Submitted by Tony Peters of Bangor u3a

 

My Eleven Plus Exam

I was the token Protestant at a Catholic Primary School from the age of 6. My mother had gone to the Grammar School to ask which Primary School had the best record of success in the 11 plus exams...and was told St.Peter & St Paul’s School.

Despite being Protestant she took me off for an interview with Mr Bolsover the Headmaster. I remember this vividly to this day because Mr Bolsover was a very tall man with flared nostrils. I could see right up his hairy nose and was transfixed by the sight. Despite this, he agreed to take me on as a pupil.

My progress proceeded smoothly as I was considered a model pupil with one blemish only on my record. I was amazed that whenever the teacher turned to write on the blackboard somebody would speak to their neighbour. This infuriated the teacher and she would start an escalating series of threats to find the perpetrator. “Who spoke?” she would demand. ”If you do not own up it is a cardinal sin”….silence. In a louder voice “If you do not own up now it is a mortal sin”….silence. “ You now risk eternal damnation for not owning up”.

I wondered what on earth the punishment could be (for speaking behind the teacher’s back) that was worth the risk of eternal damnation if you could not get to confess in time to the Priest for absolution. So one day I said “I did” (when I had not spoken...just to see what the punishment was). I was caned on each hand which really hurt. But it did not make me a believer.

The day before the 11 plus we were given a new pencil, a protractor and a new ruler (rare in wartime) and told that “without these, you will not be allowed to take the exam tomorrow...do not forget”. I went home to prepare. At about 5 am our house was flattened by a bomb. I was uninjured but only dug out of the rubble at 7 am. I was wrapped in a blanket and asked which school I went to. They then took me to the Priest’s house for shelter (assuming I was Catholic).

To this day I feel a little guilty because I did not like to tell the Priest I was not Catholic. He put me up for 2 nights...telling me that I did not need to go to school the next day. “But I do have to go to school because it is my 11 plus exam” I explained. Eventually, he realised I was not “in shock”, and phoned the police. They came for me and took me to the Town Hall where a locked room contained discarded clothes because I was of course in my pyjamas. I dressed in whatever I could find...but shoes were tricky.

I was then told that neither my mother nor father had been found. However, they (the police) would take me to the Grammar School for my first exam and pick me up again at lunchtime. I explained that I would not be allowed to take the exam because I did not have my pencil, ruler or protractor. “Do not worry lad” I was reassured, “just tell them what has happened to you”. I begged the policeman to wait outside the school until I was safely inside.

Their was a queue of boys all clutching their pencils, rulers and protractors. When I reached the front of the queue and could not produce mine, the teacher flew into a fury and told me to go home. When I tried to explain it was to no avail, I was not listened to and sent away. Fortunately, the policeman witnessed this and intervened, giving “hell” to the teacher involved. I was grudgingly given a stub of pencil and used other bits and took my place at the exam desk.

I now had to take myself in hand because I thought I could be an orphan. I decided I must pass because I owed it to my parents (even if they were dead). Concentration was still not that easy.

At lunchtime, the policeman collected me (for lunch with the Priest) and said that my father was OK and had been putting out incendiaries in the next street when our house was hit. This was the stage in the war when the Germans dropped incendiaries at night to light up their targets. Therefore most adults would rush out of the shelters to extinguish the “fires” before the bombs arrived. This was a nightly occurrence in South London. No sign of my mother, however.

The afternoon exam passed like the morning one and when the policeman came to collect me for my second night with the Priest he was able to tell me that my mother had been found, but was gravely injured and in an oxygen tent in the local hospital...but not to be visited. My father had gone off to stay somewhere and I could not speak to him either.

The final exam (3 of 3) the following morning had me bidding farewell to the Priest being picked up by my father and put on a train to Swansea where I was to stay for 6 months with my mother’s brother and his son and daughter who were close to my age.

The 11 plus had been in February and in August my mother came out of the hospital, we were moved into a requisitioned house with what had been salvaged of our belongings. Unfortunately, all my pets, which included a dog, cat, Guinea pigs, rabbit and canaries had all been killed. However news came that I had passed my 11 plus exam and obtained a place in the Grammar School starting in September...so I had only missed the summer term.