A throwback to the end of the previous century

Even in 1951, when I joined the school at the age of just 4, St Michael’s in Knoyle Road was a throwback to the end of the previous century! With just 60 pupils (all boys) aged between 4 and 10, the Headmistress was Miss Dorothy H Willis, already well advanced in years by that stage (no, not just my youthful imagination).

The staff
Her supporting staff included Miss Keywood, a spinster lady who lived in Harrington Road and who taught me to read, and Miss Anderson, who lived in Preston Village and chiefly taught Art and Nature. There were no man teachers apart from Mr Hodge who came in to take games, and Miss Keywood and Miss Anderson both wore hats when teaching!

Lunches cost 1/6d a day!
The uniform was grey and light blue (grey shorts and jumper, grey socks topped with blue rings, and a grey cap with a blue and grey badge). The school was initially held at the Knoyle Hall (St John’s Church), with junior classes held in the main hall (downstairs) and various other rooms used for the more senior forms (numbered from Form 4 – the infants – to Form 1). Miss Willis had an office on the First Floor, outside which stood her piano – the large upstairs room was used for morning assembly and for lunch. Looking back on the accounts sent to my father, lunches cost 1/6d a day: for such delicacies as rock salmon and chocolate blancmange!

Our lessons
Lessons were very formal, but largely enjoyable. We learned to read from the Beacon Readers series, and by the time we were seven, we were learning French (from books called “Madame Souris” and “Madame Lapin”) and Latin (Hillard and Botting). In the top form we were allowed to use dip pens for writing our Latin exercises and for writing out the poems (from Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury”) that we had to learn each weekend – (“Sir Galahad” – My good blade carves the casques of men..)! My favourite lesson was handicrafts, with Miss Ramsden (from Worthing) who taught us to make raffia mats, woven sewing kits and other items suitable for doting (female) relatives!

Moved premises in 1954
After lunch each day everyone went down to the big hall and lay down on grey blankets for a supervised rest. The Crowhurst Hall (behind the Knoyle Hall) was used for “exercises” (PE, that is), and we went by the 15B bus to Patcham Place for football and cricket practice. Some lucky boy got the salmon pink penny halfpenny bus tickets to keep each time!  The school moved to a large house at the bottom of Harrington Road in about 1954, and by the mid-1960’s had gone, amalgamated with another private school based in Preston Park Avenue.

Remembering old boys
In such a small school, it is remarkable that two boys of my era, John Bowis (once an MP, now a Tory MEP) and Keith Best (once an MP, now Chief Executive of the Immigration Advisory Service) achieved some fame. Other boys I remember include David Griffiths, Darryl Taylor, John Tarling, Andrew Mallin-Jones, Michael Willis, Richard Savage, Roger de Courcy, Roger Knight, John Kennard, Roger Horlock and Peter Beard. I last saw Miss Willis in about 1962, when she must have been at least 80 years old, supervising boys onto homeward-bound buses at Harrington Road bus stop. By that time I had gone on to Brighton College, but I always treasured my happy memories of the unusual small school which set me off on the track to academic achievement.

Comments about this page

  • I remember it well. The smell of cooking as you left the main hall and climbed down the stairs to the basement dining room, mainly cabbage! The congealing rice pudding. The boxing lessons in the attic.The religious painting on the wall of the headmistress’ office. Changing into football gear in the garage. The sound of ‘there is a green hill far away’ – Miss Willis’ signature tune. It seemed such a big house then, yet when I walk past it now I can’t imagine how 60 boys could all fit in. Where are they now? Ballin, Shakeshaft, Horlocks, Buxton Brothers. Half a century passes and memories fade.

    By Peter Beard (09/09/2005)
  • Good to hear from Peter Beard after half a century! I forgot to mention the gigantic box of Cumberland pencils Miss Willis kept – all colours, but with black leads (HB)!

    By Martin Nimmo (10/02/2006)
  • I too walked by the house on Harrington Road a few weeks back and wondered how 60 boys were taught there. I was at St Michaels from around 1953 to 1956. My memories include grace before AND after lunch and football matches against Ardingly, Eastbourne and Brighton colleges. We inevitably lost, except I believe for one victory. Of the names you mention, John Tarling is the only one which I recall.

    By Rohan Alce (07/07/2008)
  • I still have a desk complete with inkwell and chair, plus a smaller chair that the younger ones used. I was with Paul – Oldfield – and remember things so well. The best thing that Miss Willis taught us was the value of good manners. The move over to Preston Park Avenue, Mrs Dennis whom I adored – the quality of the teachers was second to none. I go past Harrington Road frequently and I always look up at the school building. I have a couple of photographs which I treasure – one is of the whole school (pupils only though) around 1965 and another a group of us crossing Knoll Road (to go to the hall for PE?). Visiting nearby Preston Manor and you get the feel of St. Michael’s. Paul O – where are you?

    By Paul Samrah (26/08/2011)
  • How fascinating to read Martin’s comments and those of fellow pupils and to rekindle many happy memories of my time at St Michael’s. Yes I remember the large pencil box and also the pencil sharpener with the winding handle. Broken leads were frowned upon and I recall having to hold a broken lead into the pencil once for fear of incurring the wrath of Miss Willis. I can still recite William Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ and Thomas Grey’s ode ‘On a favourite cat drowned in a tub of goldfishes’, sing the words to Jerusalem and recite Philippians 4 verses 4-8. I also still have my ‘Swallows and Amazons’ reading prize and the M B Synge ‘The story of the World’ history books. Occasionally I can still hear Miss Willis shouting ‘SHOOT’ from the touchline.

    By David Griffiths (16/11/2011)
  • I remember in the first form (the forms were numbered “back to front”, the first being the highest – for nine year olds) on Monday mornings having to write out the poem we’d learned over the weekend, in ink, using a dip pen, before lunch. Dip pens and ink wells were also used for writing out Latin work (from “Hillard and Botting”).

    By Martin Nimmo (09/05/2012)
  • I walked up Harrington Road again yesterday but couldn’t immediately remember what number the school was. I do recall that there were steps up to the front door. Does anyone remember the number? I have two books from the school, The Golden Treasury of the best songs and Lyrical Poems in the English language. I wonder how many of the poems we had to learn? Also Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Awarded to Rohan Alce, Form IB Prize, July 28th 1955’. Martin’s comment about the dip pens recalls the awful problems I had writing with them without leaving enormous blotches of ink all over the page. Never mastered the damn things.

    By Rohan Alce (07/01/2013)
  • I have just heard the sad news from Martin’s wife that he died on 31st May. We had exchanged emails over the past few years, but unfortunately never met. I know he had been ill for some time and was having dialysis treatment.

    By Rohan Alce (03/06/2013)
  • Rowan Alce, I remember you well – your parents lived at Henfield (were they farmers?) and you went home via the Southdown bus. I thought you emigrated to Southern Rhodesia after leaving the school and am pleased to hear you survived! I too was at Saint Michaels from 1952-55, won the cup for boxing the year I left and remember the  speech day and prize giving to which our proud parents were invited.  

    Names I remember – Nicky Breedon – Family Breedons’ bookshop and Peter Jackson whose father had a factory making Jakari tennis on a rubber string – quite the rage. I remember being asked by Peters’ parents to take birthday tea after a jaunt in his fathers’ mk5 Jaguar with 100 mph on the hogsback as a special treat for us all. Also Anthony Laing – son of brigadier Laing then serving in Tripoli,who lived with his grandparents near my own home. His parents took pity on me being without a father ( killed in RAF) and invited me to spend summer holidays with Anthony. A few years after leaving the school I spotted Miss Willis at the Duke of Yorks’ cinema leaving the stalls seats after a western film but got no signal she knew me at all! I remember the doctor who was invited to attend and eat lunch sometimes in the dining basement below stairs and Miss Keywood well. She taught me to read and write joined up with curious ‘r’s which still became a feature to this day! Also the leather handicrafts to be stitched on each edge by thongs. 

    By Jonathan Bearne (30/12/2013)
  • Jonathan, I remember you too. I did indeed “commute” from Henfield (on the No. 17 bus) where my father was a farmer. We emigrated to Rhodesia in 1956, but only stayed a year before returning to Sussex.
    Great memories of what now seems like a fairly quirky school. Of the teachers, apart from Miss Willis, I remember Miss Anderson and Mr Hodge. I was recently trying to recall the name of the clothes shop on Western Road which was the school uniform supplier…?

    By Rohan Alce (21/01/2014)
  • Was it in North Street and perhaps called Vokins? I remember the wires overhead to connect the shop counters sending cash to the central office and then receipts by return.

    Do you remember the magic lantern slide shows (birds) given by a  teacher  from Brighton College and the cricket teas at Ardingly College? Also the junket and the white or chocolate blancmange for desert at lunch?

    By Jonathan Bearne (24/01/2014)
  • Hi Rohan. Re your query about the school uniform outfitters in Western Road. Could it have been Cobleys? When I was at Varndean Girls many moons ago, we used to buy our uniform from there.

    By Janet Beal (25/01/2014)
  • The school outfitters was definitely in Western Road on the south side, probably between Churchill Square and Preston Street. Pretty sure not Cobleys, but I could be wrong. I have an idea it began with B? It was a smallish shop so definitely not Vokins. I don’t remember the cricket teas at Ardingly College, but I do remember going there to play football, in particular the vast old-fashioned changing rooms. Many years later my sons both went to Ardingly and it was fascinating to revisit the school. One of my residing memories (and a story I still often tell) is regarding grace being said before lunch, presumably by Miss Willis. What I always thought she was saying was something along the lines of “Artra bartra see may the Lord make us truly thankful” which I assumed to be a combination of Latin (the first three words) and English. It was many many years later that I heard grace being said again and finally understood that the first words were “For what we are about to receive”!!

    By Rohan Alce (09/02/2014)
  • As a footnote to your comment about using Hillard and Botting for Latin, I recently re-published many of their exercises, which might be a pleasant stroll down memory lane.

    By Nigel Gourlay (19/07/2016)
  • Jonathan Bearne, are you still living in Sussex? Would be good to meet for a cup of coffee or a beer and share some memories!

    By Rohan Alce (15/08/2017)
  • I had lunch with Peter Beard this week. It was as if the last 60 years had just flown by. We shared many old memories together.

    By John Tarling (25/08/2018)
  • Such memories! I found the page by chance trying to confirm Miss Keywood’s name (I knew it couldn’t have been Keyhole!). The only name I recognise as being in the same year as me is Nicky Breedon – but my parents moved to Worcester in 1953 and I moved to Barbourne Preparatory School after only a couple of years at St Michael’s. I remember the splendid lunches – particularly for some reason the roast potatoes! – the care we took over our writing and like others, being taught to read by Miss Keywood, nature walks (again, Miss Keywood plus I think a male member of staff), and playing cricket in Patcham. My memory of Miss Keywood always has her in a plain brown dress… I wonder if that is right!

    By Chris Armstrong (15/10/2020)
  • I was a pupil at Miss Willis’s school circa 1949. I remember John Bowis, mentioned in the first memory above; a rather attractive teacher whose name I can’t remember (I was only four at the time!); Miss Willis of course; lying down for the supervised post-lunch rests; and being congratulated for being one of the only pupils to master joined-up handwriting. The appearance of my writing then was probably better than it is now! When I left the school after a few years I went to the former Lourdes Convent (later just for girls) which was just nearby on the London Road. I’d be interested to read any comment from a pupil at Miss Willis’s school towards the end of the 1940s.
    Richard Whiting. 23/02/2023.

    By Richard Whiting (24/02/2023)

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