SAINT NICHOLAS GRAMMAR SCHOOL FOR BOYS


Dr Watson took the trouble to visit the Junior schools of those boys who had gained a place at St Nicks and introduce himself to his future parents.  This was unusual behaviour for a secondary school head and tells a lot about the character of the man.  My seven years at his well run school confirmed Dr Watson’s stature as a headmaster.  It was only after leaving St Nicks however that I really appreciated his leadership qualities in hindsight.  This has been reinforced by four decades of reading about lowering standards of discipline and attainment in current schools.


Colin Knight (1959-1966)


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My first recollection of Mr Watson (he received his PhD during our time at school) was at church choir (St Edmunds, Northwood Hills) in 1954/55.  This was my first year at secondary school, but St Nicholas was still being built, and we were farmed out to the Bourne School, Eastcote in Forms 1-alpha and 1-beta. First encounter with Greek.  One of the men in the choir, who must have been on a local education committee, whispered to me that a headmaster had been appointed to the school and that Mr Watson was “the right man for the job”.


Fiddle player, musician, school orchestra.  Mr Watson insisted on boys performing at assembly, so I had to play the piano – it must have been hard listening, Christopher van Kampen was far better.


Appeared prim, proper and Edwardian.  He was very keen that we pronounced the Queen’s English correctly – there were elocution lessons for some.  But he had never heard of the word “jinked” when I used it in an English lesson he was taking – located in a chemistry lab for some reason.  But when he presented me with The Complete Works of Shakespeare as a prize, I thought he said that it was for services to grammar, when in fact it was for drama (Journey’s End).  The book has proved most useful over the years.


He summoned me for a wigging about speaking out about school caps.  He abolished them, at least for the next years’ 6th form, at our year’s leaving farewell in 1961.


Fair minded, and a strong supporter of the school.  Yes, he was the right man for the job!


Clive Saunders (1954-1961)


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When I started at St Nicks I was terrified of Dr Watson, more of what he represented than the man himself.  To me, he was everything that was right about the school.  He was hard, but exceptionally fair, and below the somewhat austere exterior, was a sharp wit and a dry sense of humour.


Not a physically powerful man, he could however command the attention of 150 adolescent boys with just a stare, or command silence with just a raising of a hand.


Steve Oxley


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A couple of ideas came to me about Dr Watson and how he tried hard to work with the interests of the boys.


He liked to keep in touch with teaching by delivering some German lessons himself.  In my third year (1965/66) he taught my class German for a year.  I don’t remember much German or much of his lessons but recall he liked to work with boys’ outside interests.  He would use current images for his teaching to try to generate and maintain our interest.  At the time Esso petroleum were using the slogan “Put a Tiger in your tank”.  He had us translating this into German and then basing his lesson around the workings of the internal combustion engine.


He also used the German lessons to encourage us to take a more active role in the school and to fulfil his ambitions of a well rounded school in academia, sports, arts, etc.  That year the school orchestra was short of a double bass player.  I recall a lesson in German encouraging us to take up the instrument.  His main case was that it would give us the opportunity to be in a jazz band.  Perhaps this had been an ambition for himself as a 14-year old.  However in the mid-60s not many groups had a double bass player in the line up, and for many of us jazz was off our radar.  Even at the time I felt he was not quite in touch with our musical ambitions.


John Cannon (1962-1969)


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Not long before he died, at a lunch for the Old Boys, he said that he had always been suspicious of sentiment and nostalgia, and that he wished that had not been the case.  My immediate reaction was to feel that since he had always seemed to lack any warmth, remaining a distant and intermittently terrifying figure, the emotional vacuum was more profound than that.


And yet he died a humanist, and recruited Art teachers and others who provided a civilised influence on the school, as well as the outstanding range of “thugs” who were the basis of his “foundation staff” and were his pride and joy, and who did set the school on its feet – one of his real achievements.


He had a sense of humour, mostly at the expense of others, but dry and witty.  He once enquired of Rick Skinner, whose main aim in life was to resemble Elvis Presley as closely as possible, “Do you have any hobbies other than your hair?”  It was I’m afraid lost on its target.


In the atmosphere of mutual antipathy that characterised the relationship between him and those he regarded as the dregs, we looked for weaknesses, but he didn’t have many.  When found they were to be celebrated.   One outstanding weakness was his pretentiousness with “St Nicholas Grammar School Northwood” if you please, when the school was situated in one of the ropiest parts of Northwood Hills.  Ye Gods, he even acquired a stained glass window!  We had instant traditions and attempted to accrue all the trapping that went with the school he wanted us to be, which probably was Merchant Taylors.


So, a man of his time, and that time was in the 1950s, formidable and austere, yet he liked Stanley Holloway’s monologues.  The pity was that we found out when it was too late.


John Clarke


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I have two memories of Dr Watson.  The first was when I was playing in the School versus Masters cricket match, he was stumped first ball by Con Snook off my bowling, and then given Not Out by Brian Ridge , square leg umpire, on the grounds that he couldn’t see the ball!  Who couldn’t see the ball we never found out!  And secondly when he gave me my one and only career interview and when I said I wanted to play pro cricket or join the police force ushered me out of his room as quickly as possible.  But a very nice and sympathetic guy who helped us all during the formative years at St Nicks.


Chris Payne


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Whilst most of us can claim to have been influenced in some way by the great Doctor, I can personally vouch for his outstanding foresight and, as it transpired, send of humour.


During my time in 3B (1968 I believe) Dr W had to deal with the mystery of the disappearing Tuck Shop buns.  He solved the case, with a little help from a fellow classmate who shall remain nameless, by discovering them in the holdalls of myself and an accomplice.


Given the gravity of the situation, suspension was automatic and parents were summoned.  Punishment was dealt out and I was left in no doubt that this blemish on my character would be with me for a long time and impact on my future prospects. 


How right he was.  Some three years later the same Dr W burdened me with the post of Head of School!


I am sure this is not material suitable for publication, but it is a lesson I have carried through life.


David Hughes

 

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Not too many recollections of Dr Watson – I did make a few appearances in his study, but not to receive compliments.  My lasting impression is of someone who wanted St Nicholas to be an exceptional school – the choice of rugby for a “Government” school was unusual and reflected this.  He wanted to create traditions quickly as I am sure he felt that education went far beyond academic achievement (although that was also a priority).  Thinking back now, while I still have the badge of my old blazer I regret not keeping my sixth form tie, or buying an Old Boys’ tie.


When we came to Australia he gave me a reference for whichever school I was to go to – which I still have.


Roger Lovelock


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Dr Watson cut a very austere figure to a young 12-year old, reflecting the presence of our ‘fathers’.  However his authority turned out to be a paternalistic one.  He was supportive in adversity, and surprisingly tolerant, being wise enough to prevent anarchy, an important trait bearing in mind our time at St Nicholas, being the late 50s and early 60s, a time of great social change.  He bridged the gap between generations.  He set a good moral tone which appeared to be reflected in his staff, a sign of good leadership.  In summary – he scared us silly at first sight, but a paradox that absolutely fitted the time.


Colin Gordon

 

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I saw many facets of Dr Watson.  What strikes me looking back is the energy and passion he put into everything he did.


He taught me violin for some 5 years.  Sadly in the long term I didn’t measure up too well, but he instilled in me a lifelong love of the instrument as a listener.  In later years I was privileged to attend his home in Long lane, Hillingdon on Saturday morning for these lessons and to enjoy hospitality from him and his wife.  There was a relaxed, calm atmosphere and a strong sense of the pursuit of the intellectual and cultural.


Dr Watson taught me German for several years and I experienced both his censure for minor misdemeanours as well as, in hindsight, embarrassing favouritism as a supposed star pupil (not totally deserved).  I was very grateful for the substantial, if patchy, energy he put into the teaching of grammar, both English and German, which had thus far eluded me.  Despite having had twice as many years of French tuition, it was to Germany that I chose to go for a gap year, a choice which has to be attributed to his inspiration.  I would like to think he would be pleased with the fluency I achieved, and occasionally resurrect a shadow of, when travelling to the continent.


Looking back I now see that I grew up in a golden age, where a boy from a modest background and reasonable ability was able to gain a first class education – a total contrast to previous and probably later generations.  Dr Watson was the driving force behind St Nicks and I owe him a major debt of gratitude.  No doubt he did many things of which I was unaware, but one small incident sticks in my mind.  When a minibus driver from a visiting cross country team demolished my bike in the cycle sheds, he contacted the borough solicitors to chase up a payment – a tiny kindness perhaps for him, but for me it was very significant.


Tim Baxter


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My fear of not doing the right thing or of being humiliated, had encouraged me to keep a low profile in class and hence in the school.  It transpired that I was not to excel at sports, or at anything that gained recognition, and together with the apparent suppression of identity, culminated in an interesting interview with Dr Watson in my final year at school. 

 

I had applied to Oxford and he had apparently been asked for a reference for me to support my application.  I was called to his office so he could find out who I was, and what he could say about me, since he evidently had not encountered me for a beating and had not had other occasion to get to know anything about me in the previous 6 years, so needed to fill in the background a bit.  Interestingly I felt that it was somehow my fault that he didn’t know me. 

 

I contrast this to my own sons’ headmaster 30 years later who, if I met him in their school (which was twice the size of St Nicks), could hold a conversation about what either of them was doing.  The lack of personal knowledge by Dr Watson was obviously reciprocal since it was only after his death I learned from the SNOBs web site that he had a family and spent his summers going on caravanning holidays abroad. 

 

Whilst at the school I had no idea of who the man was, and feel now that if I had know something about him or indeed any of the members of the staff, they would have been more human and would have no doubt gained more respect through acknowledgement of their fears, hopes, joys and dreams rather than through imposed fear alone. 

 

Later in life as a Headteacher myself (of a small rural primary school) I found it very valuable in forming relationships with children, parents and staff, to be seen alongside my own family.  My wife and children would be part of most school events, trips and special occasions and I think this really helped the school community relate to me as a person and not just as a teacher.  Even sometimes to see me dressed in jeans and a T-shirt made them realise that there were other sides to me than the more smartly dressed one they saw every day.  It was rare in the extreme for me to encounter any of St Nicks’ staff outside the confines of the classroom; I knew nothing of any aspects of their lives.

 

John Alton

 

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It is quite an interesting exercise casting one’s memory back more than 40 years trawling through the less happy side of school life.  I don’t want to overplay the negative as I think the main problem was the school somehow reflecting prevailing attitudes to education and was merely a manifestation of 1950s suburban society.  There ARE some good memories too and it’s too easy to end up sounding like a whingeing Pom!  However, here are my thoughts.

 

Perhaps the most significant was the lack of relationship, a lack of mutual respect between teachers and boys, with some notable exceptions including Gunsmoke Ridge, who with his laid back approach made 5th form Maths actually quite enjoyable (and I managed to scrape through O level).  Too much of the teaching was dry and academic, too much talk and chalk, or worse, endless dictation of notes, too many teachers were quite intimidating.  Even in the 6th form, where the choice of subjects was so limited, there was little rapport.

 

Having taught in several different establishments myself I realise what a hindrance to one’s social development single sex education can be.  My own three daughters all went to co-ed schools, and the social ease that they and their friends had was always a pleasure to watch.  The high fence between St Nicks and St Marys added to the sense that females were a race apart rather than people to interact with at all ages.  But of course single sex education was generally considered a worthy ideal then.

 

Streaming according to the results of tests at the end of the first year was pretty demoralizing for those, including me, who were deemed C or D types, even though of course we all our strengths and weaknesses (English and Art being mine).  Easy to say but a much more flexible system of setting, or even mixed ability would have been better and would have reduced the perceived stigma of being in the C or D stream and the frustration of not being stretched in one’s stronger subjects.

 

With less money sloshing around in those days it wasn’t easy to organise many events away from the school, apart from sport, but that’s an area, looking back, where real opportunities were missed, especially as we were so close to London.  The 1960 Youth Hostelling trip to the Lake District organised by Bert Banton gave me a lifelong love of the Lakes, but I can remember precious little else.

 

Why we not allowed to become mini David Bechams, or rather Tom Finneys, and were forced to play rugby and not football I could never understand.  I can only put it down to a rather pretentious approach from Dr W who presumably thought we would be a social cut above other local schools.  I really enjoy rugby, but when you are horizontally challenged, short sighted, and unable to sprint for toffee, it was a good job Clay Hill was so close and cross country was seen as a viable alternative.

 

The last moan concerns career guidance. Fortunately I had decide on teaching, but the only other channels I was directed towards were banking, insurance or the civil service, all eminently worthy in themselves, but there was so little imagination or lateral thinking involved.

 

OK, moans over, and I haven’t really spent the last 40 years regretting going to school!

 

Peter McGain

 

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On our bewildered, short-trousered arrival at St Nicholas in the autumn of 1960, we encountered a spare, begowned figure who stalked the gloomy corridors and lived somewhere in the outer darkness.  This was the Headmaster, Dr R.F.E. Watson, soon to become known in our circles as the Boss.  A remote and austere figure, only to be spoken of in hushed tones, he seemed to inhabit some alien world of Oxbridge scholarships, House championships and success on the sports field.  How, we asked, could a new concrete and glass state school have acquired 500 years of oak-panelled tradition overnight?  Why did the Headmaster think it important?  And what had any of this to do with our own world of rock and roll, motorcycles, and, increasingly, girls?  Our suspicions of this antiquity were confirmed one day at assembly when the Boss solemnly announced that he had observed certain inmates indulging in “sloppy behaviour” with their St Marys’ counterparts at the Joel Street bus stop.  This must cease forthwith.  Disbelief and merriment arose silently across the hall in equal measure.

 

Some years later I was by invitation in the Headmaster’s study.  Not this time to be admonished for misdeeds involving a motorcycle but to display a newly minted degree, to talk about my plans to pursue a PhD and then to enter an academic career.  Dr Watson was no longer an austere spectre from the nether world but a courteous and kindly man who took pleasure in his former pupil’s achievements and a quiet pride in the school that had produced them.  We found that we shared a common belief in the value of education.  He told me of his own doctoral work, of long hours sustained by his love of scholarship, and of his desire to build a school whose ethos reflected his own values of achievement, purpose and duty.  He spoke of his fears for a future society (this was 1971) in which such values might be lost but also how he hoped St Nicholas would survive and rise above those fears.

 

Alas St Nicholas did not survive.  I left Ruislip many years ago for a career in Scotland and to my regret did not speak to Dr Watson again.  Had I done so, I would have told him that I had come greatly to respect him and to admire his vision for the school, for I too made my career in education and have since fought many of the same battles that he did.  I now understand his world better and find that it is not so alien, indeed it is strangely like my own.  Probably I am more relaxed now about sloppy behaviour but perhaps he too was offstage.

 

Michael Paul (1960-67)

 

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Dr Watson was the archetypal gentleman.  My dealings with him were of a mixed basis.  Sadly, as some of you know, I was a keen smoker (something I have since given up, on numerous occasions, but gladly now I can say I am a non smoker after 10 years or so off the weed) which led me to many unplanned meetings with the Great Man.  He was undoubtedly fair, and in an age when mentoring was rare, offered me advice and help on how to quit what was a shabby habit.  Unfortunately he had occasion to administer corporal punishment to me twice for smoking for which I am ashamed, or was by the nature that Dr Watson handled them.  I actually felt guilty that I had made him do something that was a great burden to him.  Mr Shearn was witness to the latter two punishments, which sadly occurred within four weeks of each another, just as Mr Shearn started – it didn’t augur well for a good relationship with him, but Dr Watson always stopped me as he passed and asked how I was doing with my giving up.  He also gave me awards for my sporting endeavours, and as I seemed to get these regularly he knew me well and always commented on how my sports would be impinged by smoking. 

 

He had a warm and friendly handshake that I recall to this day, borne of compassion and knowledge.  In his latter, retired years, at the age of 94, he had obviously acquired a web savvy, and left the following message on my guestbook on the 8th June 2000 –

“Well young Newton, so this is what you did with the education we beat into you at St Nicholas eh?  All those spells in ‘det’ seem to have done you some good.  Well done boy – I look forward to your 50th.  Your former Headmaster Dr Watson (age 94)”

 

I had and have utter respect for the man and felt a deep loss when he passed away.  His interest and belief in his students, whether he taught them personally or not, was admirable.

 

Nigel Newton

 

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A view of the School as it was in 1955