Archive for January, 2010


January 1, 2010

Continuing the Victoria School Theme the author – remembers the trials and tribulations of attending Victoria woodworking classes from St Hilda’s School on Friday afternoons under their woodwork teacher: the redoubtable ‘Cleggy’.cleggy 

Cleggy, the woodwork teacher at Victoria School was a legend. Victoria was a large school for its day and had its own woodworking department; our school didn’t, so we attended theirs every Friday afternoon from about the age of twelve or thirteen onwards.

 Before you embarked upon this adventure for the first time you would be painted a picture of Cleggy by the lads who were already attending the woodwork class. ‘He’s about six feet four – with eyes like saucers,’ one would say. ‘He’s a little weedy bloke with hands like shovels,’ another would say. ‘He hits you across the head with pieces of

two by one,’ would say another. Each one altered the tale a bit so you didn’t know exactly what to expect – but you had an idea you weren’t going to like him.

 Tales of him abounded, ‘If you spoil a piece of wood,’ they would say, ‘he’ll ask you what you want – the mallet or the chisel? If you say mallet he lays your head on the bench and whacks it with the mallet about an inch from your head so that your head bounces up and down on the boards, if you say chisel, he lays your hand on the bench and goes in and out of your fingers in quick succession with the chisel. If you move your hand you’ve lost a finger.’ You can image that with all this build-up we lined the stone steps up to the Victoria Woodworking Department on our first Friday, prim in our new white aprons but filled with trepidation.

 ‘Be quiet!’ boomed a voice from aloft.    You could have heard a pin drop.  After an eternity of complete silence came the order, ‘Come!’ We marched up in single file and lined up to attention in front of several rows of benches and there saw for ourselves the redoubtable ‘Cleggy’. He was a man in his sixties, not tall but barrel chested beneath a brown dustcoat, his bulging eyes had beady centres and nestled beneath huge bushy white eyebrows, which were by far his most prominent feature. So this was the famous ‘Cleggy’.

 You could tell he was held in awe for some of the lads in attendance were absolute villains back at our school but here they weren’t making a whimper.  Proceedings began with a reading of the register. Cleggy would read out your name and you answered, ‘Here sir’, he’d make a stroke for ‘here’ and a naught for ‘absent’.    Woe betide anyone arriving this week who had a naught entered against his name last week – Cleggy would pause upon such an name for an inordinate period allowing tension to build up, then very slowly he would lift his head and scan the line beneath those bushy eyebrows – when he located the unfortunate culprit he’d rip him apart with verbal ridicule. This charade ensured that one turned up for woodwork by hook or by crook in order to avoid this public humiliation.  There was one lad however, Geoff Mellish, who had a long string of noughts after his name, he’d been off that long he daren’t come back.  When Cleggy reached his name in the register he’d just make rude noises with his mouth, ‘Mellish – braarp’ and move on.

 Once this initial ordeal was out of the way we’d begin work on our particular pieces and Cleggy was OK – he’d persevere with you if he thought you were trying and there was no doubt that he really knew his stuff. If he thought you hadn’t tried though he’d call everyone round your bench with a piercing whistle, then he would put your piece in a vice and proceed to tighten it until the piece disintegrated and you were left red faced. 

If he caught your messing about or watching the girls playing netball out of the window – they had some big lasses at Victoria – then the pieces of 2” x 1” would fly, a  woodworking room is no place for larking around. Of course he never actually aimed to hit anyone.  Not that any of us lads minded so much being punished for a ‘clean cop’. Especially back at our school the cane was the natural order of the day. Corporal punishment is frowned upon today but for us it was no big thing, it stung for a moment then it was over, you bit your lip and showed the rest you weren’t hurt. If you managed to do that then you had taken another step on the road to manhood.  A teacher would often congratulate a lad who took his punishment without rancour. Now if the punishment was to miss a sports lesson, then that was really the bad news. (Girls didn’t have the cane).

About five minutes before home time Cleggy would give one of his famous whistles, when we heard this we had to stop dead in our tracks like statues. This was the signals that all tools had to be returned to their racks, we had one stand for pencils and another for rubbers – if a pencil or rubber was missing we stayed until it was found, sometimes we were still looking twenty minutes after we should have been going home but the item had to be found before we could go and always was, nothing went missing permanently.

 The day came which is indelibly etched on my memory, out of the blue Melish turned up, some frightful consequence must have been threatened by the headmaster back at our school to warrant such a suicidal mission. We lined up in the usual fashion, Cleggy began to read out the register with his normal wry comments and rude noises for anyone who had been missing the previous week, we waited in electric anticipation for him to reach Mellish’s name. ‘Mellish – bruurp’. Cleggy prepared to move on as a matter of course when from somewhere in the line was heard a timorous ‘Here sir’.    The ensuing silence was the longest yet it seemed to go on forever. Finally the teacher’s head began to rise, ever so slowly – up came those bushy eyebrows, up came the bulging eyes with the beady centres and began to scan the line, he didn’t know all of us as individuals as we only came to Victoria for half a day a week and he had several other schools who came too.‘Mellish’ he said again, in incredulous tone.  ‘Here sir’, answered Geoff, the tallest lad amongst us but now shrunk to half his size, ‘Here sir’.  Cleggy slowly rose to his feet and pointed towards the door, ‘Go back to your own school’ he said, ‘and ask them to give you some knitting to do.’

Geoff left the room and was never to be seen in Cleggy’s woodworking section again. Undaunted it seems he became an international con man, for the last time I heard of him he was residing at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ having been caught masquerading as ‘Red’ – someone or other, Texas millionaire, and conning some rich widow out of her brass.

Cleggy retired during our stint in his class, which would have been around 1950, so we can assume he was born in Victoria’s reign, his values were those of the ‘old school’ he demanded respect and he got it and I bet you couldn’t count the number of craftsmen joiners and carpenters he’d turned out during his long teaching career. He lived in hope of receiving a decent delivery of timber for us to work upon, but with the war recently over materials still were scarce, timber was needed for post-war recovery and our stools, teapot stands and bathroom cabinets had a low priority.  The timber we did have through was pine and pine gives off the sweetest of scents when worked, even today when I catch the sweet smell of pine I’m pleasantly transported back to Cleggy’s woodwork room and reminded of the ever absent Mellish.