»  1950s Northampton — The Boys' School

School crest


From 1956 to 1963 I attended Northampton School for Boys, on the Billing road out at the eastern side of Northampton.

That's the name the school uses now. We never called it that. We called it "the grammar school," or more precisely "the boys' grammar school," as there was a girls' one, too, a mile and a half away on St. George's Avenue. "Grammar school," in the British usage, means a secondary school (ages 11 to 18) with a strongly academic curriculum. Practically all grammar schools, including this one, were day schools, not boarding schools.

The school was also referred to as "the town & county." This reflected the fact that it served both Northampton and the surrounding countryside, though not for very far out. The school crest, shown here, and more colorfully present on our blazer pocket badges, is a union of the town crest (castello fortior concordia — "Peace is stronger than a castle") with the county crest (rosa concordiae signum — "Rose, emblem of harmony").

The school is in direct line of descent from a foundation of 1541, in the reign of Henry VIII. A history of the school was written by Thomas Lees in 1947, but I cannot find it on the internet. (It included the words of the school song, which I do not recall ever having heard sung. Lees, an irascible fellow, was still around in my days at the school. From 1958 to 1960 he tried, without much success, to teach me English History. We called him "Toss" Lees, I suppose because his forename appeared as "Thos." in some school yearbook.)

For the whole time I was at the school our headmaster was Martin Barnes Nettleton, an eccentric man who eventually lost his mind and committed suicide by driving his car off a mountain road in Wales. (The car, I am told by a fellow Old Northamptonian, was an Austin, license plate FNH 659.) Nettleton spoke several Nordic languages. He had been a house master at Repton, a famous boys' boarding school; and I think he had himself attended that school.

(A different Old Northamptonian has told me that Nettleton had hoped for a headmastership at one of the grand old boys' boarding schools — perhaps Repton itself — but had been able to get nothing better than the Northampton post. If this is true, the headmastership of a provincial grammar school would, for someone with those ambitions, be the equivalent of Siberia.)

In later life one of the schoolmasters who had worked under Nettleton told me he ran his staff room the way Stalin ran the USSR. He was famous for the words: "I will smash your career" when upset.

His bark, however, was worse than his bite. I never knew him deal with a boy unfairly. The few times I was in sufficient trouble to require his attention, I found him thoughtful and judicious. He had a sense of humor, too, and would crack jokes when among senior boys. For all his quirks, and his sad end, I always thought him a fine headmaster, who loved his school and did great things for it.

My school reports have survived, and are posted here. I can still, after half a century (this written in 2009) put faces to most of the masters, though the older ones have all passed away now.

I have just one of the annual photographs of the whole school, taken in 1961. Click on the photograph at left here.

Here is one of the latest to go at the time of writing: Gordon Dean, who tried to teach me Latin, 1958-59. We of course called him "Nellie." Dean was an unostentatious man, quietly effective as a teacher. We all liked him. He was CO of the school's army cadets, too (see below), with rank of Major. That obituary clipping mentions his WW2 service. I would guess he was a fine soldier.

[Added September 2017:  Also on staff during my time at the school was Frank Sykes, a Rugby Union player of the first rank, who later did much to promote the game in the U.S.A.

Sykes taught me Geography 1956-57 and Physical Education 1956-57 and 1959-60. I can remember next to nothing of his Geography classes; but as a P.E. teacher he was unusually patient and encouraging with us weedier specimens. "Come on, lad, try again — one more time! You can do it!"

He was one of the most intensely physical people I have ever known. Only Bruce Lee comes close. I recall walking down to the gym one hot summer day and seeing Sykes, who I guess had no lesson to teach that period, playing tennis with himself against the outside wall — smashing the ball against the wall with terrific force, leaping to return it, over and over, soaked with sweat …

Frank Sykes died May 12th 2017 at age 89. There is a good obituary here. RIP.]

Like most good boys' schools at the time, we had a cadet force. It was voluntary, but I participated from Fall 1957 on. I have written up my CCF career here.

The school is still in business, and has a website here. I note with mild interest from that website that the school keeps up the house system, which it originally copied from the great old boarding schools, where your house was actually the house you lived in. I can't recall the house system ever having much significance in my school life, aside from an occasional inter-house athletic competition, but I may as well note for the record that I was in Chipsey House.