JAMES McLEISH 1925 – 1932
The Michaelmas 1932 number of The Kilburnian mourned a great headmaster with dignity and with sincerity. A brief curriculum vitae, a letter from his widow, an excerpt from his last speech day address entitled “In Defence of the Secondary School”, an appreciation by his second master James Westbury, an “In Memoriam” by his fellow headmaster and former colleague Charles Thurston, a schoolboy’s recollections by W B G Clayton, the Head Boy, and an account of the memorial service by D R Woodman with an elegy by F D Flower, also pupils, all paid tribute to the work of a remarkable man.
James McLeish, successor to Wilfrid Hunt, came of a Scots family of seven brothers. Brought to London at the age of four, he had been educated at Upper Latymer School, trained as a teacher at Borough Road College, Isleworth and spent two years in London County Council schools before going to teach history at the County School in Ashford in Middlesex. Nominally he was employed there until 1925 but from 1914 to 1919 he was continuously on war service. A private in the London Scottish Regiment, he was one of that Territorial Army which, committed legally only to home defence, had volunteered almost to a man to serve abroad. Wounded in France, he returned home and transferred to the Royal Engineers Gas Section. He was commissioned, returned to France and was again wounded. Given command at Porton gas station, he was severely gassed trying out a new and in the event unsatisfactory respirator which he refused to allow one of his men to be detailed to wear. For this he received the military MBE. He returned to teaching in 1919, rapidly turned his London pass degree into a first class honours BA and then by research into an MA in 1926.
Such was the man who, at the age of 34 became the third Headmaster of the Kilburn Grammar School. He went through a rather laid back school like a fresh breeze. Wrote the magazine editors, “We were apt to take his presence for granted; that flying gown, that warning cough, that cheery smile, that infectious enthusiasm which displayed itself both in the School and on the field – “. A Headmaster who played cricket well and football better than most amateurs inevitably had a head start in the estimation of his pupils. He hated sloppiness in action, in thought and in appearance. He tightened up the general appearance of his boys and sought reasonable uniformity. Coloured house caps, first awarded in 1921, were now commonly worn to school. This was stopped. The school cap was modified. By 1903 Kilburnians were wearing a plain round cap with a small peak, probably blue in colour. By 1907 an embroidered version of the school badge had been added. McLeish introduced a modernized version in black, with a slightly different badge and a button in the appropriate house colour. Blazers were not compulsory but parents were encouraged to provide a school tie and a dark jacket. All pupils below the Fifth Forms were required to wear gym-shoes in school. A modern paediatrician might well have disapproved, but it certainly cut down noise! Above all the Headmaster himself provided an example of the standard which he expected. He must have made a contrast to Evans, who was known as “Tramp” and Hunt who was remembered in his attire principally for the carpet slippers which he wore in school.
In 1925 the school numbered about 300 and there was need for extension. Proposals for enlargement had existed for a number of years and in 1927 they came into being. At speech day in November of that year W B Luke, Chairman of the Governors, opened a new wing of four classrooms, four laboratories, cloakrooms, staffroom, Headmaster’s study and what was at the time believed to be the finest gymnasium in Middlesex. It was anticipated that in two years the school roll would rise to 450.
Apart from lacking purpose-built art and handicraft rooms, the school now had very good accommodation, but the provision for changing for games was utterly inadequate. To this problem McLeish turned his attention. As early as March 1926 he had raised with the governors the matter of a school pavilion. Public bodies move with deliberation in anything which involves the spending of money and he was not content to wait for Middlesex to provide all that was needed. For two years the school hummed with fund-raising activity which culminated in a two day bazaar and fete in March 1928, opened successively by England cricketers P G H Fender and P F Warner. The sum of £350 was raised. By the end of the year over £1,000 had been secured and to this the county added £600. By the first term of 1930 the building was in use – changing rooms, showers, refreshment room – and accommodation for a mowing machine. The original mower and rollers were horse drawn and the horse had been owned by Vernon House School in Willesden Lane, then a private establishment with a sports ground adjacent to that of KGS. In 1928 McLeish recommended that a motor-mower be purchased as the horse had died!
The pavilion project had been a great success but McLeish did not rest content. Fund raising continued, seemingly of its own momentum. Newspaper style competitions proliferated to such an extent that the various houses had to be rationed in the number each could run. By the end of 1931 three hard tennis courts had been constructed on the field at a cost of £600, of which two thirds was provided by the school. When the Headmaster died a year later he was planning for “fives” courts in the school playground.
Teaching accommodation is of great importance to a school, but even more essential is a staff of adequate number and quality. In 1926 a headmaster and 15 assistants taught 300 boys.
By 1932 there were 450 boys and 23 staff, a ratio marginally worse! John Ware retired in 1929 and was replaced as second master by J Westbury. C B Thurston, after twenty-one years service to the school was appointed headmaster of Isleworth County School in 1931. R E Jones (“Squint”) died in 1930 at the age of fifty. D R Hounsell (handicraft), E C Bond (PT.) and G Ayling (art), left. Those appointed and remaining more than two years were H E Gould (Latin), H J Sharpe (mathematics), T M Yarwood (physics), H E CoIlins (French), E W M Potts (mathematics), E W Rhodes (modern languages), E H Thompson (art), L Thompson (handicraft), B J Morahan (P.T.), A G Field (history), R Whitmore (art), J L WhiteIey (classics), D B Fry (French), J M PuIlan (physics) G F Carpenter (economics), H Thomas (geography), J W Jenkins (mathematics), and H A Peter (English). McLeish inherited a good staff and many of high quality were added. Of especial interest was E W M Potts, an old scholar (1918-1925) and the first Old Boy to have an undoubtedly permanent appointment.
Back row: D R Hounsell, C H Hughes, H A Peter, H T Sharpe, E W M Potts, W H Williams, T M Yarwood, H E Gould,
E C Bond, H E Collins, C B Thurston, E H Thompson
Front row: W Davies, W H E Bentley, W G Bowden, J Ware, J McLeish (Headmaster), J Westbury, S Burton, J Ellison,
R E Jones
Among the masters McLeish had found at least one major problem in the person of E H (Peter) Parr. Joining to teach French and German in 1910 he had been among the first of the staff to go into military service. He was invalided out in 1916 and suffered long periods of bad health. He was housemaster of Keith and took particular interest in swimming. In 1926 his career came to a sad end in bankruptcy, followed by dismissal for repeated absence without permission. On the last occasion McLeish reported to the governors that £20 of the swimming club’s money was in Parr’s possession. Several months later he was sentenced to a year’s hard labour for thefts from London hotels. The Willesden Chronicle, describing him as a schoolmaster, tactfully omitted to mention KGS.
It was in this period that Kilburn Grammar School was given its own full time secretarial staff. Evans presumably dealt with his own correspondence, as did Hunt at first, but in 1914 the governors acceded to his request that a suitable boy be given a free school place and an honorarium for the work. In 1920 he asked for professional help and authority arranged that a lady clerk in the county divisional education office in Glengall Road should be allocated part time for work at KGS. The first full time secretary was Miss Ferris who, after a few years, was replaced by the very youthful Rosemary Willis, later Mrs Chirgwin, who stayed until her retirement some years after KGS had ceased to be. In post-war years she had additional assistance in the work of a larger school.
In the earlier days at Salusbury Road caretaking and drill tended to be combined under a regular army reservist. Sergeant Piggott (1908-09) had been strikingly versatile, being caretaker, supervisor of football practice in school hours, giving upper school instruction in rifle drill and lower school in Swedish exercises, and being laboratory assistant in the mornings. He also found time to start a scout troop. Later on came the celebrated “Pat” and his wife, (Mr and Mrs Paterson). The 1927 extensions included a caretaker’s cottage in the playground and for the first time there was a resident caretaker Mr and Mrs Johnson, (she cooked school dinners) remained for many years in peace and war until retirement in 1955.
During the school year 1926 -27 an inspection by the University of London was carried out with very favourable results and in 1930 a Board of Education full inspection found that: “…a spirit of keenness and energy pervades the school. The work is good and the play and social life active.”
The curriculum during the interwar years seems to have remained basically unchanged. McLeish was no innovator in this field though had there been need he would doubtless have acted with vigour. With the enlargement of the school to three-form entry, mild specialisation was introduced as early as the second year, with Latin, German or chemistry each in one form. There was no “fast stream” to take the examinations in the fourth year. The basic aim set before all boys was to secure “General Schools”, with matriculation exemption if possible, at the end of the fifth year. In a world of economic depression and “dole queues” it sometimes seemed as if one’s standing at the Day of Judgement would depend on the examination result. In 1932 there were 56 candidates of whom 49 obtained General Schools, 3 with honours, and 29 secured matriculation. The Sixth form was now a two-year post-matriculation course. In the same year 6 boys obtained Higher Schools and exemption from intermediate science, arts or economics degrees, 2 obtained intermediates direct and 2 obtained open scholarships to universities. In 1929 D W J Woodman, Head Boy in that year had passed higher schools and Inter RA and won the first State Scholarship to university obtained by the school. In 1931 M Morris obtained the Andrews’ Scholarship in Arts to University College, London, the first open award since 1922.
Evan Evans continued his special awards which in 1927 became the “Ap Ifan” prizes. By 1928 they were six in number, presented on speech day. Among the “Lions” secured by McLeish for these occasions were an MP, two directors of education, a former Lord Mayor of London, a major figure in the gas industry and two county aldermen. In 1927 the principal guest was Lt Col Charles Pinkham JP. He had been associated with KGS almost from its beginning and was now Chairman of the Middlesex County Council. In his early years a working carpenter, he had developed a large building business in Willesden. He had been chairman of the district council and for four years an MP. He was knighted in 1928. The Lt Col was a rarity in that he had no military experience whatever and the honorary rank was given in the Middlesex Volunteers for services to the Red Cross.
In the autumn of 1930 William Balkwill Luke retired from the Governing Body after serving as its Chairman since 1908. Now frail in appearance, he attended morning assembly one October day and was presented with a framed photograph of himself, which was handed back to be hung in the school hall. His address to the school, typical of the man who had cared for it for so long, ended with lines from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”. The last of them was later inscribed and placed beneath the portrait, to be quoted more than once by McLeish in the brief years left to him. “We needs must love the highest when we see it.” Just a year later Luke was dead.
Clubs and societies flourished. Some continued, others were founded or refounded. In 1926 was revived the National Savings Group, run by Shame. Debating, wireless, chess, science and geography were all catered for. A historical society, long in abeyance, was revived in 1930 after A G Field joined, and a sketch club appeared· with R Whitmore. In the same year German and French societies were started. With G Carpenter came an economics society in 1931. There was also music, which permeated the school through the music society, the orchestra and the glee club, together with Bobby Hughes’ lessons. It began with the morning assembly hymn, accompanied on the organ which was installed in 1919 as part of the school’s memorial to its founder. This instrument replaced an earlier American Organ or harmonium, whose ancient keys, and possibly those of its successor, were presumably played by O Peasgood, among others. He was a pupil for seven years and later an organist at Westminster Abbey. The inter-house music competition for the Founder’s bowl continued year by year and from 1929 KGS distinguished itself in the London Secondary Schools’ Music competition. Year by year also the school concert was continued by Hughes’ tireless enthusiasm. In 1928 the Michaelmas term ended with the school assembled for a “sing-song”, an event which became a feature of each term end. McLeish loved to sing and one of his happiest memorials is surely the KGS Song Book. Printed for the school, it contained a collection of ninety songs, hymns and carols, beginning with Bonavia Hunt’s second version of the school song and ending with The First Nowell. The chorus of No. 50 – The Massacre of Macpherson – was accompanied by a fearful nasal droning, led by the Scottish Headmaster!
Another feature of school life which flourished was camping. The secretary of the camping club was W Davies. Each year from 1926 to 1932 parties accompanied by the Headmaster and his family and a number of staff enjoyed summer camps in Normandy, Brittany, Germany or North Wales. Each year the Michaelmas term saw a camp lecture evening when Thurston, and after him Field, using lantern slides made from photographs taken on the holiday, shared its enjoyments with parents and pupils. In 1932 Field took a party, in company with boys from other schools, on a Baltic cruise, the forerunner of interesting developments in educational journeys, especially by the British India Shipping Company in post-war years. There were also occasional day visits for school parties or the whole school to docks, factories etc.
A parents’ evening became an annual event in the Lent term. “Even the boldest of us who live in this age of experiment were inclined to incredulity at the prospect of a KGS dance.” declared the school magazine. Yet such a function took place under the organisation of Collins and Potts. Few boys attended the first one so in the next year a dancing class was provided, with successful results. According to a tradition, which now reached its quarter century, the Shakespearean play was produced each ear before Christmas, H E Gould being in charge from 1925 to 1932. Sporting activity continued and increased. Football, cricket, hockey, tennis, swimming and athletics were pursued at house and in most cases school level. To these was added a revived rifle-shooting club, which in its first year, 1927, won the Middlesex Inter-Schools Shooting Shield. The sport was later brought once again into the house championship. Also in 1927 was introduced a cross-country run, compulsory save for the medically exempted! Held first at Horsenden Hill, Sudbury, when this area because too built-up it was transferred to Hampstead Heath. The year 1927 also saw the introduction of “Efficiency Points” whereby each boy could contribute to his house by attainment in cross country, hundred yards, high and long jumps. To some it did not at the time seem very glamorous but in retrospect its value is obvious. Training for the Royal Life Saving Society’s certificates and medals was introduced by Peter as a non competitive activity. The appointment of Morahan led to the reintroduction of boxing, put into the championship in 1932 and also a school sport.
Good schools have always tried to help pupils choose and enter congenial and worthwhile careers and KGS was no exception. Although as early as 1909 The Kilburnian printed an article on “How to become an Actuary”, the organisation of a careers service had to wait the coming of McLeish and, in 1931, G F Carpenter. It was reflected in a series of magazine articles on “Careers for our boys” which included some very well set out advice on the actual use of the careers office.
The Old Boys Association had an active life, with whist drives, dances, concerts and dramatics. Badminton and hockey were added to the sporting sections. The Headmaster instituted one of the play performances as “Old Boys’ Night”. The practice whereby the Head Boy was always invited to speak at Old Boys’ annual dinner was by now well established. Almost every number of the school magazine had notes on the Old Boys activities.
Speech day in 1932 was held towards the end of November. The guest of honour was Dr Percival Sharp, former Director of Education for Sheffield. The Headmaster’s report contained a vigorous defence of the secondary school and the “Free-Place” system against attacks in the press, principally from public school headmasters who argued that money expended on secondary education for the proletariat was a waste of public funds. He damned such opinions as “unadulterated snobbery”.
A month later James McLeish was dead. Pneumonia had killed him after an illness of two weeks. It seems probable that his life was shortened by his war experiences. Brief as was his headship in terms of the shaping of a school, he left Kilburn Grammar a place of which all who were associated with it could be justifiably proud. He was to remain fresh in the school’s memory for many years, recollection being helped by his portrait in the hall, painted from photographs by Robert Whitmore and unveiled by Bill Clayton who had been McLeish’s last Head Boy (1932-33).