Memoirs of a 1950s schoolboy

I was at the Downs County Primary School (formerly Ditchling Road Council School) from, I believe, 1954 until 1960. The reason for the doubt about my start date is that I was born with a severe leg disability – bilateral talipes, or clubfeet – which through the wonder of surgery was totally cured eventually but which left me unable to walk properly until I was five years old. As a result, at a time when the normal starting age for infants’ school was four, I did not start till I was at least five. I also know that I was ‘jumped’ a year in the infants to catch up with my own age group, which I did before being elevated to the juniors.

Severe ladies and cod liver oil
The headmistress of the infants’ school throughout that time was a Miss Steers, a grey-haired and quite stern-looking lady. (Indeed, a large proportion of the teachers at the Downs, both infants’ and juniors’, seemed to be middle-aged unmarried ladies, and many of them appeared quite severe to this youngster.) The caretaker was a Mr Durrant, who lived in the caretaker’s house on the corner of Ditchling and Grantham Roads. The only other things I recall clearly from the infants are the compulsory cod liver oil capsules that we were all obliged to take daily – this being only a year or two past the end of rationing, and malnutrition being still quite common. A contrast indeed to today’s tendency towards obesity in young children.  I also remember the obligatory post-prandial lie-down in the school hall on camp-beds. I recall that I never once slept, but just lay itching for lessons to restart.

Moving to the junior school
At seven I moved up to the adjacent junior school. In those days the infant and junior schools lay totally within the rectangle formed by Ditchling, Rugby and Grantham Roads and Edburton Avenue, apart from the small annexe across the road in Florence Place. The site now occupied by the newer building across and along Ditchling Road, was then still a small run-down industrial area. (Incredibly the annexe is, I believe, still in use today by the school, with the same wooden buildings.)

Magical mental arithmetic
I have clearer memories of the juniors school. I recall a change of headmaster; the retiring gentleman was a Mr Emmons, and his replacement was a Mr Morgan whose party trick was complex mental arithmetic. He impressed us pupils by being able to multiply together, immediately and effortlessly, extremely large numbers. I also recall a Mr Taylor, a very tall man who took the second year juniors in the Florence Place annexe, and, I believe, a Miss Beeston who took the third year.

The ordeal of country dancing
My time in the juniors was not all sweetness and light. I recall that my fourth year teacher, a Miss Cox, took an irrational and unjustified dislike to me and frequently threatened me with physical chastisement, never actually carried out although certainly within the remit of teachers in those days. There was also the ordeal of the weekly country-dancing period, in which we boys had not only to dance reels and polkas barefoot, but also to perform this ‘cissy’ exercise in physical contact with – ugh! – girls, to the music provided by a wind-up gramophone and 78rpm records. I still cringe slightly at the sound of Jimmy Shand!

The sporting life
I also recall football and cricket periods, for which we all marched in pairs on Wednesday afternoons down Rugby Road and Stanford Avenue to Preston Park in the care of a Mr Phillips. I detested cricket, preferring rounders, which we played very occasionally, but quite enjoyed soccer, which was hard for me because I was one of the minority of boys whose parents could not, or would not, provide them with football boots. We bootless individuals were rather callously left on a side pitch, unsupervised, to get on with it, while those with boots took part in supervised matches.

Enjoying playtime
Each day at playtime, however, I was pleased to take part in the impromptu playground football games in which thirty, forty or more boys hacked an old ball around the lower playground with great enthusiasm and little finesse. The wartime air-raid shelters were still present in both playgrounds but blocked off with heavy concrete slabs; we would delight in climbing on these and jumping off, to the dismay of the duty teachers who were responsible for preventing us from injuring ourselves.

Academia and sweet dreams
I have no memories of the academic side other than learning the Marion Richardson style of loopless joined-up writing, and the ritual reciting of multiplication tables, up to twelve times twelve – no doubt thought necessary for manipulating shillings and pence in those days. However, I must have fared reasonably well in this respect, as I passed the Eleven Plus and moved on to Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School in the summer of 1960.

Memories of the sweet shop
Another memory is of the elderly couple who ran a sweetshop from what was effectively the front room of their house, a couple of doors along from the pub on the corner of Florence Place. In those days I was given one (old) penny a day for sweets after school, and it’s surprising to recall how much you could buy for a penny, or better still for tuppence if you saved your money up for two days. My personal favourite was the sherbet fountain, with the licorice ‘straw’ up which you sucked the said powder, and how it got up into your nasal passages and made you sneeze. Ah, simple pleasures!

Champions at chess
Probably my fondest memory of the juniors’ is of the primary schools’ chess competition which we entered during my final summer term. I had just taught myself to play the game from a library book, using a cardboard chess set which I made myself, and after playing just four games with classmates was selected to play at board five of six. We went to the Knoll School one Saturday afternoon and duly won the competition by a large margin against, I believe, five other schools. The school was presented with a magnificent chess set, and each player received five shillings, a small fortune to me in those days.

Where are you now?
I recall the names of some of my classmates, and can see many more of their faces clearly in my mind. The names include Edwin Jenner; Margaret Carpenter; Margaret May; John Young; Christopher Mason; Andrew Wakeford; Ivor Edwards; Rosemary Payne; Jane, whose surname escapes me but who lived on Rose Hill; Francis Ward; Brian Reeve; David Yates; David Kydd; and probably my closest friend, David Marum, who lived along Roundhill Street and was even at the tender age of ten a keen St John’s First Aider. If my name rings any bells with any pupils of the Downs in the second half of the 1950s, I’d be delighted to hear from them on

Comments about this page

  • Mr Morgan was the headmaster when I was there in the mid 80s.

    By S. Clark (14/07/2008)
  • I attended Ditchling Road School from about 1949 until 1955. I remember Miss Young, Mr. Newton, Mr. Taylor who used to go down on one knee when singing ‘Oh Shenandoah’. Our headmaster, Mr. Emmans, a very kind man. The air raid shelters in the playground (these were closed off to us). Mr. Durrant, the caretaker. The bobbly pavement outside. Is it still there?

    By Patricia Fox (27/07/2008)
  • I was in the annexe with MrTaylor in 1960. From this room was started the school choir which was very succesful in competitions. Linda Reeve, Barbaras Trusler and Payne, Christopher Brencher, Julia Voller and teacher Anthony Foster who played piano.

    By Davina Rosendale nee Coull (21/12/2008)
  • I was a pupil at Downs School from 1949-55. I remember that Miss Stears was headmistress of the Infants and Miss Webb & Mrs Turner were teachers. In the juniors Mr Emmonds was head and I also remember Mrs Newton, Mrs Taylor And Mrs Phillips as teachers. In the summer at lunchtime Mr Taylor and Mr Phillips would sometimes join the boys in the playground and play cricket.They would hit tennis balls over the wall into Grantham Road and Edburton Avenue. If a pupil at the back of Mr Taylor’s class was not paying attention he would throw the blackboard rubber at the back wall, so that it landed gently on the child’s head.

    By Ron James (26/07/2009)
  • I too went to the Downs School – Infants and Juniors. Marvellous experience. I can remember to this date the names of so many kids I went to school with who were in my class. Happy to share those if anyone is interested… I lived in Springfield Rd until I went away to college in 1968. Have lived in the US since 1978. How time flies..

    By Phil Allsopp, Scottsdale, Arizona (25/08/2009)
  • I remember Len Liechti from the Downs School which I attended from 1953 to 1959. Can’t remember him being in my class, but almost certainly our year or very close to it. I’d forgotten he attended BH&S Grammar School which I also attended 1959-1966. At the Downs I was in Mrs Austin’s class 2A, housed in the Florence Place annexe. All those teacher’s names are well remembered, Miss (Edna) Cox, Mr Taylor who took us to swimming classes at the old North Road Baths and St Luke’s School and the two headmasters, Mr Emmons and Mr Morgan. I was badly asthmatic as a child, was made to swim every day and became a good competitive swimmer. Len will be amused about my recollection of being sent to the headmistress, Miss Steers and having my legs slapped for misbehaving on those camp beds and being rude to the dinner ladies. Always the anti-authoritarian. Have lived in Sydney, Australia since 1970 but always visit Brighton on my now infrequent trips to England. Len, thanks for jogging the memory about all those things.

    By Graham Butler (23/12/2009)
  • Hello Len – I remember you, we were in the same class. I also remember the rest period on camp beds in the early years. Once, the juniors walked through and I remember thinking how big and grown-up they looked – they must have been all of ten years old! I also recall the cod-liver oil, but I think it was given to us in liquid form, from a teaspoon – I don’t think capsules were invented then, were they? Didn’t we have lovely sweet orange juice as well? I’ve sent you an email, hope you get it.

    By Honor (21/01/2010)
  • Hi, Graham, or should I say g’day? You must have been a year ahead of me at both the Downs and Brighton Grammar, as I attended the latter from 1960 to 1967. Miss Cox often threatened to smack my legs but never actually carried the punishment out. I was perpetually terrified of her, but perhaps her bark was worse than her bite and she was really a pussycat at heart. You don’t get scary teachers any more – or do you?

    By Len Liechti (22/02/2010)
  • Just following up on my comment about having gone to the Downs School. I went to the Infants at first – my mother told me years ago that I referred to Miss Steer as the “Head Mystery”. I was also at the Annex for my 2nd Junior and had Mr Hinton as the class teacher. Then it was back across to the main school and Mr Dibben whose temper easily flared into outrageous violence that involved a kind of foaming at the mouth. I don’t think he should have ever been allowed to teach, poor chap. Miss Cox was the 4A teacher. She too could meet out the punishment. My worst recollection was of her getting up from the piano and slapping John Neill in the back during a much-hated Country Dancing session. The booming slap resonated around the upstairs open space – and left a very visible mark on John’s back. Those were the days. I left the Downs in 1960 heading to Fawcett (I was one of those 11-plus failures!) and thence to Varndean after doing the 13+. I’ve found some school photos of that era and will scan them and request that they are posted on this site.

    By Phil Allsopp (02/06/2010)
  • Hi Phil, pretty sure I was in your class, I recognise the teachers’ names and particularly remember the foaming Mr. Dibben! The only other name I remember in the class was my best friend Alan Bowyer – I blame this loss of memory on the fact that I was knocked over by a motorbike outside the school in 1961 and was unconscious for 24 hours, must have wiped my previous memories! Would love to see any class photos you have.

    By Mick Brooks (16/08/2010)
  • Responding to Mick Brooks. I remember you very well indeed. You were a brilliant mathematician (or at least fantastic at arithmetic) as I recall and indeed you were a very close friend of Alan’s (Alan was a great footballer). We knew you as “Brookey” and I think you played a mean right wing in the playground FA cup matches. I also seem to remember you and your parents moving to Gravesend sometime toward the end of 4A. I remember Alan talking about it because he missed you or would be missing you. I’ve finally located that 4A class photo I mentioned (its been sitting in a box in our garage store room in Arizona for a few months!). It has Miss Cox in it – in all her terrifying splendor – the Coles Twins, Pamela Kay, John Green (who showed up at my wife’s surprise birthday party for me in Barcelona last year). John and I have maintained contact over the years – since we were both 4 in fact. You are sitting cross-legged on the front row on the far right end next to Tony Barnes (who is sitting next to his alter-ego John Neil). Hope you are well – Alan Bowyer seemed to drop off the face of the earth after he left Varndean in ’65. I think he headed north to Sheffield as, I think, John Green once mentioned to me.

    By Phil Allsopp (01/09/2010)
  • I attended this school, infants and juniors (Ditchling Rd, then it became The Downs County Secondary School). I seem to have been there earlier than most of the contributers to this page (prior to 1947). I still have pleasant memories of my time there. I would love to hear from anyone who may remember me. I am now 77 and live in Australia.

    By John Starley (26/11/2010)
  • I started at the Downs Infants School in 1951 aged 4+, after my mother remarried and moved to Brighton from London. We lived in Dover Road and I remember well the walk to school with stops at the sweetshop at Five Ways, Infield’s, very scruffy shop by today’s standards. I was in Miss Webb’s class, I suppose the modern “reception” class. Miss Webb was quite glamorous and had bright red lipstick. I remember Miss Steers and her sugared almonds which you got when you had done well on the star chart. She lived with another lady just up Ditchling Road from the school. I remember being in Mrs Turner’s class and a Miss Mellors. In the Juniors I can’t remember my first teacher in 1A but I had Mr Boniface in 2A, we were in a room at the top of a fire escape. Mr Boniface had a bright red and seemingly large face and was always jolly. I was in Miss Cox’s in 3A and I remember the dreaded country dancing and the slaps on the back of the leg. Also the girls had to dance with their skirts tucked in their knickers, just imagine that happening now! In 4A I had Mr Phillips who was very kind and liked playing with his tape recorder, a Grundig, we made a pastiche of “the Goon Show” with him. I remember the names of many of my class including Andrew Radford, Richard Packham, Brian West, Albert Clack, David Fray, Rodney East, who very sadly died from cancer in the second or third year. The girls were Barbara ?, Gillian ? good at swimming, Julie Hazelrigg, the rest of the names I can’t remember. Mental Arithmetic tests every morning, spelling tests and times tables really gave a great foundation in life. I missed a lot of school because of many visits to the Eye Hospital, drops in my eyes left them unable to see well for several days. I left and went to Varndean in 1958.

    By Martyn Bivand (09/02/2012)
  • I also have happy memories of The Downs. I started when I was nearly five years old, in 1955.  My first class was reception with Miss Webb, and I remember there was a wooden rocking horse in the classroom. Some of my other teachers were: Miss Monga, Miss Atkins, Mrs McConvill, Mr Taylor and Miss Parks. Miss Steer was headmistress of the infants and Mr Morgan was head of the juniors. I was in the A stream through juniors. I remember being in the annexe with Mr Taylor and I was also in the choir. I can recall quite a few names of my class mates: Kay Baker, Margaret Dodd, Pamela George, Julia Vollar, Barbara Trussler, Marion Crammond, Carol Hudson (who sadly died when we were in Mr Taylor’s class aged 8) Davina Coull who had a lovely singing voice and Iris Johnson. I must look out my old class photos as I know a lot of names will come back to me when I look at them. Unfortunately when I was in 4a with Miss Parkes, I failed my 11+  which I was really upset about.  As we had moved by then, I went to Stanmer Secondary Modern, senior school. 

    By Irene Dobson, nee Budd (02/05/2014)
  • I was at the Downs from about 1956 until 1961. I lived round the corner from Len Liechti in Mayo Road, and used to go round to Princes Crescent and talk to him. My name was Tina Lowenstein. I wonder if anybody remembers me? I remember some of the names of fellow pupils, but it gets harder to remember as you get older. I would love to hear from anybody who was there with me. I have a couple of photos which I will try to add to the website as soon as I get time. Looking forward to hearing from you. 

    By Tina Malenczak (16/06/2016)

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