When Our Ship Shall Leave the Riverbank

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Recently, in social media, I was asked to recount a particular anecdote from my schooldays.  If a story is worth telling, then it may as well be told in its entirety.   In order to make this longer story accessible to all interested parties, I decided to post it on this site.

 

Southend High School for Boys

Southend High School for Boys (from school website)

 

These events took place when I was in the 6th form  at Southend High School for Boys in Southend-on-Sea, Essex.   The headmaster at that time was Mr F. R. Price MA, known simply to every boy at the school as “Frankie”.   He had been the headmaster since 1951 (the year of my birth) and was approaching retirement (1971).

 

Frankie Price

Frankie Price (left) with Deputy Dick Coakes (from 1968 school photo)

 

As  6th formers, the school no longer held any mysteries for us and our perspective had changed.   Furthermore, we possessed the confidence of those who had survived six years at the school.  A possible triggering event had occurred in the form of  a break-in at the school one weekend, with the theft of a number of trophies from cabinets in the main corridor (between the headmaster’s office and the hall).   There was an obvious police presence in the school on the Monday  morning followed by rumours of an ‘inside job’ and even suspicions about some known villains in the 5th and Lower 6th forms who, it was thought, may have consorted with professional villains outside school.  The break-in had served to expose vulnerabilities in the school’s nocturnal security whilst providing some cover and inspiration to a certain group of students who were thinking of carrying out a ‘grand prank’.

 

This group formulated their plan in total secrecy and as far as I know, no one else knew anything about it until the day of the school photograph, in the summer term of 1968 as I was completing my year in Lower 6th Science.  The previous (1963) photograph had been taken in the playground between the technical block, gym and huts and it was assumed this was the usual practice.   But in 1968, there were workmen repairing and painting the windows of the gym and hall.   Besides, that area was then being used as overflow parking space for staff.   The school photo was therefore due to be taken at the front of the school.   This actually made sense as, in that period, the red brick portico made a much better background in aesthetic terms than the modern technical block and old huts at the back of the school.   The modern photograph shows the portico adorned with a satellite dish.   Modern lamp posts have been added to the surrounding area which has been tarmacked to provide parking and shows a general lack of TLC.

 

SHSB Portico

The School Portico (my photo, taken 2010)

 

At the time and following the demise of my scooter, a school friend who lived nearby was taking me to school on his motorbike.   My friend was conscientious and so we would arrive early.   Upon arrival in school on the day of the photograph, we were greeted with exciting news and joined others at the window to view the roundabout in front of the school portico.   Someone had evidently gained access to the school overnight and a mannequin, dressed partly in school uniform but otherwise in women’s lingerie was hanging by a noose from the school flagpole.    Furthermore, the flagpole was adorned in hanging bunting, balloons and brassieres all the way to the top.   We observed the school caretaker as he turned up to appraise the situation.  He went off and then returned with a stepladder and one of the long poles used for closing high windows but was unable to either reach the higher part of the flagpole or free material from the lower part.   After some head scratching, the caretaker went off to report the situation and presumably point out that there would be insufficient time to clear the offending articles from the flagpole and set up the benches, trestles and chairs needed for the school photograph.

 

SHSB Flagpole

Portico and Flagpole (my photo, taken 2010)

 

Thus the school photograph was taken that afternoon in the former location of the playground behind the gym.  The clockwise rotating camera that slowly scanned the assembled school from left to right was used and I assume that someone was on hand to prevent boys from running around the back and so appearing at both ends of the photograph.    As usual, two photographs were taken and the best copy distributed.  As the first photograph was being taken one of the men working on the gym windows (behind the camera) fell from his stepladder.  This very briefly caused some amusement amongst boys until he failed to get up and the situation was clearly very serious.  His workmate rushed to help him and then some of the school staff and prefects began to run forward to assist.   The playground was then cleared of boys (who assembled on the school field) ready for the ambulance to arrive.   Afterwards, it took some time to get the school back in position for the photo to be retaken.   Even then, I recall that I was at the other end of the group from my previous, allocated position and had to squeeze onto the end of a table.   Later it was learned that the workman had suffered a stroke from which he had survived.

 

I recall that in the previous (1963) school photo, various boys had made obscene gestures as the photo was taken.   When the resultant ‘best’ copy was produced, those boys hands had been blurred out  and the same boys were seen sitting outside the headmaster’s office during the following morning break, waiting to receive their caning.    On this occasion, the 1968 photo revealed that a number of Lower 6th formers had decided not to do anything so obvious as to attract severe punishment.   Instead, they had secured a position behind the headmaster and stood as a group clutching their lapels in clear mockery of one of the Frankie’s idiosyncrasies.  When we first saw this photo, it was also clear that our tutor, Fert Jackson, had two ‘proof’ copies in his folder.  He was eventually persuaded to show us the other photo (in strictest confidence of course).   This was the first photo that had been taken when the workman had a stroke.   At the left of the photo, boys were sitting (or standing) and posing normally.   Moving right along the photo some boys showed amusement and to their right there were looks of concern or horror.   In the middle of the photo, there was a blur of movement as staff were leaving their seats  and the right hand side of the photo showed total chaos.

 

Lapels

L6th Mimicking Frankie (1968 school photo)

 

The question remained as to who had perpetrated the flagpole decoration (or vandalism depending on your point of view).  At the time, no one seemed to know.  The nature of the prank suggested a member of the school was involved but its execution apparently required a group of people, the use of a long ladder and immaculate planning.  Later, those involved were planning their next prank and because this involved wider help, a couple of the group revealed themselves by claiming to ‘know those responsible’.  I only discovered the full story during email contact with old school friends about 10 years ago when the same friends admitted responsibility and described how the prank had been carried out using pre-assembled decorations, a step ladder and a long pole (in sections) with a hook which were all carried to the school at night without transport.  The group comprised a good friend (since the first year) Terry, along with two other members of our L6th group and a couple of their 5th form mates.  As a group they were not by any means the usual suspects.  In fact they were the direct opposite having been hard working, smartly dressed, good boys who had avoided attention and remained well under the radar of the school disciplinary system throughout their 6 years at the school.  No one would have suspected them and that gave them an advantage.

 

For their next prank, the group had another advantage in that all but one were Jewish and so, over the years, had spent every school morning  together, waiting outside the school hall for the end of the Christian element of school assembly whereupon they would be admitted for the secular element to hear important notices.  This meant that they were more familiar than anyone with the environment around the hall entrances and who, if anyone, might be about during assembly times.  We were then in the Upper 6th Science and attendance at school assembly was not normally obligatory (for U6th formers) unless it was a special occasion such as Rembrance Day or end of term assembly.   On one occasion we had been informed by our tutor that attendance would be required because there were important notices.  There had turned out to be one important notice, delivered in the Head’s usual style, whereby it had been brought to his attention by a good friend (or friends) of the school that a certain boy (or boys) had been seen at lunchtime, in a public house and (pause followed by raised voice)  drinking beeeer!   This was followed by a very tense slence during which the whole school struggled collectively to keep a straight face.  It had been mildly entertaining but being dragged down to assembly had still irked us.

 

School Assembly

School Assembly in Modern Times (from school website)

 

At about this time, one of the aforementioned group had access to a skull. I assume that this was a plastic replica of a human skull and most likely from the school’s Biology (or Art?) department.  Perhaps, as the Headteacher would have said, the boy (or boys) had mistakenly taken the skull believing it to be their own skull.  A compulsory, end-of-term assembly was approaching and I became aware of a plot to carry out a prank involving the skull.  Those who attended the school will remember that the headteacher would enter the hall by means of a door, set high in the wall to left of the school organ, and then step down into a pulpit from where he would conduct the morning assembly.  For the purpose of symmetry, there was an identical door and pulpit to the right of the organ although I do not recall that this ever being used for any legitimate purpose while I was at the school. The arrangement can be seen in this photo –

 

School Organ

Organ and Pulpits (my photo taken 2010)

 

The plan involved attaching an academic gown to the skull to form a representation of the headteacher.  A coat hanger was used to give shape to the gown and provide a means of attachment.  A length of dark cord was attached to the skull.  The group involved already knew that the door to the right-hand pulpit was left unlocked.  They idea was to place the representation of the headteacher in that pulpit beforehand, with the cord threaded through the door’s keyhole.  During the end-of-term assembly as Frankie read out the notices, someone would gently pull the cord from the other side of the door so that the skull and gown would rise up and into view of the assembled school.  The cord would then be secured around the door handle so that the perpetrator could make their escape.  For additional effect, a notice asking “Can you tell the difference?” was pinned to the gown.  A dry run of the plan had proved successful.

 

The prank was carried out during the assembly but was not as successful as had been hoped.  The skull did appear briefly above the edge of the pulpit but the cord then broke and the representation fell back into the pulpit with a thud.  As far as I know the incident was never mentioned by school staff.  I was glad that the prank had not worked fully as I had been uncomfortable about the unkind reference to the headteacher’s age.  Perhaps that demonstrated that my 7 years at the school had, as yet, failed to divest me of all traces of humanity.

 

The 1968 SHSB photograph can be viewed and downloaded from THIS PAGE.

 

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