A Grammar School Education Between the Wars

Jack Meads


Prior to 1870 several schools existed which purported to offer an advanced type of education leading to university entrance for the youth of the area. But, in fact, many of such schools were playing on the gullibility of middle class parents who were ignorant of the demands such colleges of excellence made on their entrants and who believed that a royal road to academic success could be obtained for their children simply by paying the fees these schools demanded. Many opened with such promises, only to close when parents became aware that their money could not change average and less than average ability children into academic high flyers.


But one school, Orme's English School, had gained a high reputation not only for the superior education it offered but also for the very high qualifications gained by both the headmaster and his staff. However most, if not all, boys attending this school were fee payers and there was little provision for bright children whose parents were unable to finance their education. This, during the course of the following forty years or so, changed radically when it was found that the school's reputation for academic success was raised when university places were gained by such 'scholarship' children.


By 1900 the secondary education of fee paying and scholarship boys and girls was set for the next fifty or sixty years, changing little in its broader aspects during this period. Orme's English School became the Middle School and girls were catered for at the Orme Girls' School. The Orme Girls' School retained its original name but, in the case of the boys, Orme's Middle School became the Orme Boys' School until it moved to Wolstanton Marshes in 1928 when it became the Wolstanton County Grammar School.


By the turn of the century more and more scholarship children were being accepted on the rolls of both the boys' and the girls' schools but fee paying continued to exist until it was abolished by the 1944 Education Act. There was a scale of fees which differed according to the income of a child's parents . Some children from very poor homes paid nothing for tuition or books and had free dinners. Others whose parents earned a little more than a basic wage had their books paid for by the school and those whose parents were considered to be well off paid in full.


The method of choosing scholarship children changed several times during the first half of this century but all were examination based, followed, in doubtful cases, by an interview with the headteacher.  At this point it may be of interest to compare examination papers which were set for children of 11 years of age


A typical examination for scholarship places in 1910 was comprised of four subjects: Arithmetic (2), English grammar, English comprehension and an essay chosen from a list of four titles. 


Arithmetic, 1910 (selected examples):

1.   Multiply six millions five hundred and eighty three thousand and twenty by 6,309 and divide this product by 701 (Answer in figures)


2.  Add together 75 tons 3 cwt 10 Ibs: 33 tons 1 cwt 161bs and 125 tons 2 cwt 3 qrs 2 lbs and find the value of the whole at 5s. 73 per  quarter.


3.  A cistern containing 60 gallons is one third full ; the supply pipe   conveys into the cistern 21 gallons a minute and a discharge pipe lets out 1 gal 3 qts a minute. If these two pipes are opened at the same time in what time will the cistern be full?


4.  How many yards worth 4s. 23 a yard must be given in exchange for  402 yards at 3s. 51 a yard?


5.  Divide £89.17.6H by 19.75





English Grammar and Composition, 1910 (selected examples):

1.   Parse fully the following sentence: By crossing the river a little farther up, he got safely across.


2.   Analyse the following passages:

            (a) Lives of great men all remind us

                 We can make our lives sublime.

            (b) Such were the sounds that o'er the crested pride,

                 Of the first Edward scattered wild dismay,

                 As down the steep of Snowdon's shaggy side

                 He wound with toilsome march his long array


3. What is meant by inflection, conjugation, tense, co-ordinated  sentence?


4. What is an abstract noun ? What abstract nouns are derived from the words:  young, child, thrive,hot, free, strong, friend?


5. What two methods are there of comparing English adjectives ? Write down the positive degree of: prettier, most, less, worst, first.


6. What are weak verbs?  Give the past tense (first person singular only) and the perfect participle of: come, bereave, eat, ride, swim and swing.


7. Point out the effect of the prefix in each of the following words: aboard, avert, antecedent, antiseptic, encourage, inveterate, inaccurate, gainsay, withstand.


8.  Write a short essay on one of the following subjects:

            (a) The uses of electricity

            (b) A man is known by his company

            (c) Honesty is the best policy

            (d) The qualities which make a great man


The selection policy for grammar school scholarships employed by most Local Authorities changed but little during the decade after the First World War; the schools' intake was still preponderantly fee paying but the entrance examinations lost much of their rigour by the end of this period as this 1933 arithmetic test, set by Staffordshire Education Committee, and provided by Mr Alan Dimelow of Wrinehill, shows:



I have not managed to acquire an English test paper for any one particular year but the following is an amalgam obtained from three such papers of 1928-32.  The end product is a fair example of the type of questions asked by the examiners.  The paper tested a pupil's skills in English grammar, punctuation, spelling, comprehension of the printed word, antonyms and synonyms, together with a short essay taken from several set topics.


Time allowed 1 hour 30 minutes.

1. Copy out the following passages putting in punctuation marks or capital letters as needed:

the good ship s.s. victoria ploughed its way relentlessly through the waves its  captain being determined  that the victoria would reach liverpool before the connecting boat train left lime st station on its way to  manchester

tuesday was ians least favourite day my oh my he moaned when will it ever end


2.  Write synonyms for the following words: (a) glad (b) huge (c) foolish (d) error (e) lucky (f) monarch (g) forceful (h) obedient (i) selfish


3.  Write antonyms for the following words: (a) forget (b) hearten (c) obstruct d) ancient (e) offend (f) villain (g) hesitant (h) constant (i) douse


4.  Arrange the following words into groups, one headed masculine the other headed feminine:

            goose, hero, conductor, nurse, negress, tiger, engine driver, sailor, docker, waitress, usherette, cow, sow, priest, abbess,     magician, footballer, sentry.


5.  What do we call a group of: cows, lions, monkeys, hounds, flowers, warships


6.  What is a proper noun? Give five examples of such nouns.


7.  What are the superlative forms of the following adjectives:

     (a) good (b) large (c) happy (d) proud (d) great (e) fortunate

     (f) beautiful (g) bad (h) pretty (i) enormous (g) stupid (h) kind.


8.  What are the comparative forms of the following adjectives:

    (a) spritely (b) choicest (c) wettest (d) hungry (e) loveliest (f) muddy


9.   What is the infinitive of the following verbs:

     (a) found (b) saw (c) roared (d) was (e) gave (f) made (g) became


10. Add a suitable adverb to the following verbs:

     (a) roared (b) jumped (c) ran (d) cried (e) moved (f) laughed

     (g) smiled


11. Give the plural form of the following nouns:

     (a) journey (b) monkey (c) parent (d) army (e) navy (f) calf (g) half


12. What is an interjectory word? Give five examples


13. What is a pronoun? Give three examples of words which could be used as pronouns


14. What do we call a word which joins parts of sentences together ?


15. Read the following passage carefully then answer the questions you find at the end of the passage.

      Horatio Viscount Nelson 1758 - 1805

Horatio Nelson was born at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk where his father was a rector  and he entered the navy in 1770. Whilst serving in the West Indies he married Mrs. Francis Nisbet. He was on almost constant active service in the Mediterranean from 1793 to 1800 As the result of battle wounds he lost the sight  of his right eye in 1794 and his right arm in 1797. His share of the Navy's victory   off Cape St. Vincent made him a national hero and he was promoted to be Rear Admiral as a result of the victory. In 1798 he virtually destroyed the French at the Battle of the Nile.


(a) What was Nelson's first name?

(b) In which county was he born?

(c) What as his father's profession?

(d) Which country was the British fleet fighting?

(e) What does the word ‘virtually’ mean in the next to the last line ? (f) Where was he when he married?

(g) What was the name of Nelson's wife's first husband?

(h) Was Nelson the sole victor of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent? Which word tells you if this was so or not?

(i) Which limb did Nelson lose?

(j) How old was Nelson when  he died ?


16. Several words are wrongly spelled in this passage. Write the correct spelling of  these words.

There swords were safely sheathed when the captane of the ship came to inspect his victorous crew  Smiles abounded as the grate man past in front of the line of sailors and complemented all on their brave deeds as he went by.


17.Write a short story using one of the following titles

(a) A night of fear

(b) My holiday at the seaside

(c) My best friend

(d) The day when it all went  wrong

(e) My secret wish


A comparison of the two test papers shows quite clearly the lowering of the standards of performance which would be grammar school children were expected to achieve in the 1930s compared with 1910.  But it also must be noted that, although the severity of the examinations had been lessened during that time, the general thrust of the papers had changed but little. Both demanded accuracy in computation in arithmetic and a deep insight into the mechanics of English but there was little call for mathematical reasoning in the numeracy paper and only lip service paid to putting grammatical competency to its proper use to be able to express one's ideas either in speech or in writing


When I attended Alsagers Bank Junior School in the late twenties the emphasis was on basic numeracy, so I learned to handle large numbers in many shapes and forms but never was asked to put the results of these computations to practical use. On the other hand perhaps I was fortunate to spend a year in the class of a newly-qualified teacher, a Mr. Protheroe, who brought an air of freshness to the teaching of English.  Yes, he certainly dealt more than adequately with the mechanics of language but he also gave his class free rein to use this skill in writing exciting stories based on our own imagination.


I was ten years old in 1930, still at Alsagers Bank, when I learned that I had been entered by the school to sit the Minor O examination. I must have been very naive at that age since I didn't ask either my parents or Mr. Longmore, the head, what it was all about. I simply accepted this as something which grown ups made children do for the good of their souls.  No one told me that it was an entrance examination which, if I did well, would  allow me to go to Wolstanton County Grammar School,  a school of which was only dimly aware.


The examination took place, to the best of my knowledge, early in 1930, on a Saturday morning in Newcastle of all places! When I woke on the day of the test I found that snow had fallen overnight leaving a white blanket which covered the hills, roads and houses. This, I knew from past experience, would cause travel problems and I was somewhat surprised that my mother insisted that I should wait for Poole's bus at Parker's Corner and, if it did not arrive, 1 should walk to Audley station via Bignall End and catch a bus to Newcastle there.


I arrived cold and breathless at the Hassell Street Junior School, where the examination was scheduled to take place, hoping against hope that I was not too late.  Fortunately I was not the only one whose journey had been affected by the weather conditions and it was some time before a bell rang and we all trooped into the school hall only to find it as cold inside as in the playground.  We were told that the caretaker had not been informed that his school was to be used for this examination.  However, we soon warmed up when we tackled the questions set out in the test papers and the time allotted simply flew by until, on the stroke of one by the clock in the hall, we were told to put down our pencils and hand in our answer sheets to the supervising teacher.  Now it was a matter of waiting to find out if I had done sufficiently well in the tests to win a grammar school place.


Some weeks later I met a  boy,  already a pupil at Wolstanton County Grammar, who gave me a letter for my parents. Not even wondering what it was, I casually gave it some hours later, to my father who, when he read it, looked very pleased indeed.  He told me that I had been offered a place at the grammar school and that I would not be going with my friends to the Halmerend Senior School in the September next.  I didn't know whether I was pleased or sad: we were a group of boys who had gone to school together and played together for as long as I could remember and the thought of leaving them and going to another school miles away from Miles Green was not a pleasant one.


Enclosed in the letter from Dr. Rutter, the headmaster of the grammar school, was a book of school rules, which seemed to be full of 'Thou shalt nots' and punishments which could be given ranging from reprimands, extra work, being banned from PE and games, writing lines, detention for 30 minutes after school, the cane and the last sanction for those who still refused to toe the line, expulsion.


Besides the book of school rules there was a list of books which I should need for my first year together with a sports kit/PE list and a list of the school uniform. Following the arrival of this letter all was activity . The book list was given to Mr. Simons, the newsagent in the village, and my parents and I went to Black's the school outfitter in Newcastle to buy the sports kit and the school uniform which consisted of a school cap, tie and blazer. After paying for the sports kit, which cost something in the region of £2, there was not a lot of money left for the uniform. So we bought the cap and tie only, leaving the blazer for when money was more plentiful. I do recall that the price of the blazer was about as much as a miner earned in a week


When we arrived home with the uniform and the kit there was a great searching for Indian ink and a suitable pen to mark my name on the clothing.  Then there was a visit to a saddler’s shop near to Audley station to buy a satchel (15 shillings) and finally, when the books arrived, my name was printed in them in case I lost one.


As the summer holidays drew to an end, the moment that I had rather feared came nearer and nearer.  Having one last fling with my friends who were Halmerend bound, I managed to fall awkwardly and scrape the skin off my legs by falling on the road... to be followed by the leg turning septic and my planned first week at Wolstanton was spent at home waiting for the leg to heal.  So, a week later than planned, a very shy Jack Meads presented himself at the school, was taken to his form room and at that moment my seven years at Wolstanton County Grammar School began.


The arrival of new boys at a grammar school was quite a culture shock for many of them.  Behind them were the palmy days spent in the somewhat cushioned existence in their neighbourhood junior school where everyone knew everyone else and teachers knew their family history.  No longer would their days consist of scripture, arithmetic, spelling, handwriting, reading and story writing.  Now, on their first day at school, they were faced with such arcane matters as French, German, Latin, Physical Education, Woodwork, Art, Mathematics, English Grammar, Religious Education and HOMEWORK.  No longer was a boy’s day confined to one classroom and one teacher, but he was continually on the move in a vast building which seemed to dwarf him.  Specialist subject teachers came into his life with an alarming frequency.  As one whirled out of the door, his academic gown flowing behind him, and his mortar board firmly fixed on his head, another, equally forbidding, took his place and woe betide the youngster who had not remembered what had been taught in previous lessons... There was no going back. Once taught, the subject matter was assumed to be known.  Boys who had failed to comprehend a lesson were often left to their own devices as to how to remedy the deficiency lest the dreaded end-of-term examination proved that they were lacking in basic knowledge of the subject.


Slowly but surely, however, the newcomers began to appreciate the structure of the school and what they were supposed to do and, even more importantly, what they must never do.  Today we would consider the methods by which the discipline of the school was maintained to be harsh, but there was a well-known tariff, of which wrongdoers were fully aware.  Both prefects and staff worked together to ensure that order was maintained and, by and large, they succeeded in convincing pre-teenage and teenage boys that the reputation of the school was in their hands and any fall from grace which came to their attention attracted the appropriate punishment.  This ranged from a private rebuke, a more forceful reprimand, lines to be copied out a hundred times, banishment from the less academic pursuits, a thirty minutes detention to be served after school, a warning from the deputy headmaster and, worst of all, a visit to the headmaster in his study to explain the reason for the offence.  This could be followed by a caning, the boy’s parents being informed by letter of their son’s misdemeanours, or, the final sanction, expulsion.


The headmaster, Dr Rutter, was tall, gaunt, and had a hatchet-like face, topped by silvering hair.  Whenever he took a walk around his domain no-one could fail to be conscious of his presence.  He seldom, if ever, left his study without his gown, which flowed in the wind behind him as he strode purposefully on his mission.  When sitting down at his desk one was aware of his piercing, gimlet eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles.  His voice was quiet, except in moments of anger, when everyone from members of his staff to the youngest pupil ensured that they did not meet his gaze.  But the doctor was also a many-faceted man.  He could be sarcastic, witty, popular, unpopular, unforgiving, forgiving, ordered, disordered...  It was impossible to know which of these characteristics was uppermost at any one time.  I learned to avoid him until I reached the sixth form, by which time I was sufficiently mature to appreciate the good and tolerate the bad. 


The staff of the school were, in the main, the possessors of high academic honours, but not all were efficient teachers.  Some had great difficulty in coming down to the level of the slower pupils.  On the other hand, others were born to be teachers.  They had the ability to excite their pupils with their own enthusiasm for their subjects and, even now, I remember with affection and gratitude all they gave me, much of which enabled me to live a fuller, more rounded life than would have been possible without their efforts.


On entry to the school at the age of eleven boys were, somewhat arbitrarily, placed in Form 2A, 2B or 2C.  Clearly such selection, based only on 11+ results and the views of the heads of the boys’ primary schools, could not be a certain and sure method of determining academic potential.  So in the summer term at the end of the second year, all boys were given a searching examination . Based on these results the boys were put into appropriate third year forms . Those who now found themselves in an ‘A’ form were looked upon as an academic elite and studied a wide range of subjects, particularly Latin, French and German, well in advance of those faced by the ‘average’ boys in the lower forms . Thereafter there was some interchanging between the ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ forms , but by the fourth form the class structure changed little and boys remained in their stream for the next two years till the School Certificate Examination. 


This examination often proved to be a dividing line between those whose results showed that they had the potential to study at a higher academic level and who went on to the lower sixth form , while those whose results were poor took this as a sign that their academic abilities were not strong enough to give any hope of tackling Higher School Certificate work and left the school to go into business or the forces.


In the sixth forms boys found themselves in an entirely different world from that they had known.  Sixth formers were treated as young adults and much of the work was left to them as to how it was to be addressed. No longer was it possible to stuff minds with facts and regurgitate them under examination conditions. They were now expected to use this knowledge as a basis for research into more esoteric realms of study. Many basic subjects were dropped at this stage to allow students to concentrate on those few subjects they would offer at High School Certificate level . The progression from the lower sixth to the upper sixth also saw some students, who had realised that the world of academia was not for them, say farewell to the school and offer their services to professions like banking, accountancy, architecture and dentistry.  Service in the armed forces also attracted some boys. 


Those who had stayed the course to the upper sixth were seen as the academic cream who hoped that the Higher School Certificate results would lead to a university scholarship - which was much more difficult to obtain in the inter-war years than it is today, or, failing this, enter the teaching profession .  The latter option was looked upon as a failure by those who had been disappointed in not winning a university award .


The syllabus offered by grammar schools of the 1930s and 40s varied little from one school to another in the method and scope of studies to be followed . This had a major advantage when a boy left the district to take up a place at a grammar school in another area.  All schools of this type were very formal in their methods. 


At the end of each term a report was sent to parents giving a minimum of detailed information as to the boy’s progress . It simply gave the age, height and weight of the boy and his form place in some 15 subjects, together with minimal comments such as Fair, Good, Quite satisfactory, Poor and so on, with the all-important place in form based on marks gained in the end-of-term examinations. At the end of the summer term a poor report on the year’s work often meant that the boy concerned would suffer the disgrace of being kept down in his present form to do work again.


My years at Wolstanton Grammar brought a great deal of pleasure and happy memories, interspersed with moments when everything was going awry and I would have been pleased to see the back of the school.  But, on balance, I can see that I should be more than grateful for what it did for me, changing me from a somewhat gauche, unworldly ten year old into a mature, self-confident eighteen year old prepared and ready to face the adult world.


Jack Meads has published a book called ‘Wolstanton County Grammar School, A School In Transition’, which is available from him at 44 Greenfield Ave, Surbiton, Surrey, KT5 9HR.  The price is £20, inc. postage.



Answers to exam questions:

1910 Arithmetic:

1.  59,247,180

2.  £5234.17.0d

3.  53.33 minutes

4.  332 yards

5.  £4.11.0d


1933 Arithmetic:

1.  £2.4.3

2.  wk 1 £3.5.51 loss

     wk 2 £2.4.51 profit

     wk 3 £16.5.31 profit

     wk 4 £20.12.01 profit

     overall profit £35.16.4

3.  161 yards

4.  £25 taken, 19.66% tax


New Year’s Day

  7 hr 51 min 

Lady Day

12 hr 25 min


Midsummer Day

16 hr 34 min

Shortest Day

  7 hr 45 min


Daylight on shortest day

  9 hr 45 min



6.  War Savings Cert. £1

     Post Office Savings Bank 3s 6d



10.6 x 5.7 ins

area = 60.42 sq ins



3.9 x 8.4 ins

area = 32.76 sq ins



2.7 x 10.6 ins

area = 28.62 sq ins

Length of remaining side = 10.6 ins



On the first day Dr Rutter (1907-37) became head of the Middle School in 1907 he was very angry to find that boys from Audley, Halmerend and Miles Green habitually arrived late.  He called them together in his study and, on being told that they all left home at 7.30 to walk to school, he ordered them to begin their walk at 7am or face the consquences of being late.  I also discovered the doctor had a very poor opinion of Audley boys, writing in one report to the school governors that ‘Audley boys were of the usual low ability which he had come to associate with them.’







The Genealogical Services Directory:


A Pocket Guide To Services Available For Family Historians, Researchers And Genealogists.  1998 edn, 228 pages, £3.75.


This is a difficult book to summarize as it is packed with useful information, contacts and articles.  Names and addresses of specialized researchers, family history societies, registrars, a variety of indexes, published material, accommodation, suppliers of fiche readers... It is what the title says, and if you have moved beyond the purely local sources of information, this book’s value exceeds the price, though by the time you read this the 1999 edition should be available, with an entry for Audley & District FHS!