Two proud schools in the heart of the city

Here is a tale of two city schools. One was knocked down, but still thrives. The other building remains gloriously, but the school has vanished.

The first is Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, formerly of Rochester High Street, and my seat of learning. The other is Rochester Technical School, where my father wielded a set square and learnt the trigonometry that remains with him today.

The Math in Rochester High Street was demolished in 1970

The Math’s founder, Sir Joseph Williamson, was a big cheese in Charles II’s government. He was educated at Oxford, elected MP for Rochester in 1689 (simultaneously being MP for Thetford in Norfolk) and knighted in 1672. Two years later, Charles appointed him privy counsellor and one of the principal secretaries of state.

Williamson also served as an ambassador to Cologne and France and was described by the diarist Samuel Pepys as a knowing man and scholar. And Pepys was right. Williamson was one of the polymaths of the age, from president of the Royal Society to editor of the Oxford Gazette, now the London Gazette and the government’s official journal.

Socially he was also well-placed, having married an heiress, Catherine, sister of the Duke of Richmond. He also had money, having bought the Cobham Hall estates for £45,000. He died in 1701, leaving £5,000 for “the building and carrying on and perpetual maintaining of a free school at Rochester and of a schoolmaster for instructing and educating the sons of the freemen of the city towards the mathematics and other things that might fit and encourage them to the sea service, or arts and callings leading or relating thereto”.

The school was built in 1708 and rebuilt in the late 19th century. An extension was built on the Rochester-Maidstone Road — where the Math’s playing fields were — in the 1950s and the whole school moved to that site in 1968 … including me. I was in the last year to have been at the old school full time. It was a gloomy place, full of corridors, but with a splendid library. Its demolition the next year revealed it had been built over the medieval city wall. Free School Lane, which ran next to it, is now gone – replaced by a car park.

I know much less of the technical school, although I’m sure medwaymemories readers will be able to help me fill in the gaps. Please contact me here.

 Teaching engineers to keep Britain great

The classy Tech building. Note the cupola

In the days when Great Britain — particularly the Medway towns — was the workshop of the world, technical schools were vital to teach boys how to become engineers. Rochester Tech, topped by a cupola and standing majestically next to Eastgate House, was one such school.

Lessons centred on maths in its many forms: trigonometry, mental arithmetic, geometry, algebra. But English wasn’t forgotten. How would an engineer be able to express his ideas if he couldn’t write?

School colours were also light and dark blue, similar to the Math. The cap was navy, with light blue at the top. A prefect could be spotted by his light blue peak; the head prefect’s cap had gold cord around it. The blazer badge comprised two badges: a Rochester coat of arms next to the white horse of Kent.

Keeping with the Kent theme, the Tech’s houses each took an initial from Kent’s motto, Invicta: Ironsides, Norsemen, Vikings, Ionians, Crusaders, Titans and Argonauts: warlike names for unsettled times.

Like its grammar school neighbour, the Tech had no playing fields nearby and boys had to traipse up to Fort Pitt on a Saturday morning for their sports. It also had no catering and the few that had school dinner had to go to the Math where it was served in an awful subterranean place (as I recall it) known as the Lower Hall. Nearby was the even more awful gymnasium, but that’s another horror story that I shall one day steel myself to write.

Like the Math, where doughnuts were brought in from nearby Morley’s, the Tech also had a tuck shop. Doughnuts and Chelsea buns there were supplied by Porter’s of Strood. “And they were lovely,” adds one of my informants.

The Tech was evacuated to Wales in the Second World War and boys who stayed were moved to Gardiner Street in Gillingham. Lessons resumed at Eastgate after the war, but soon the school moved, lock, stock and barrel, to Gillingham — and became Gillingham Tech in Pump Lane. The Rochester building, which shared its premises with an art college, became wholly devoted to that discipline and is now the adult education centre.

My tech days: a gold-braided Viking speaks out

More information came from a Viking who wore gold braid around his cap just before the war.

Yes, Ronald Ernest Cole wore the gold trimmings of prefect and belonged to Vikings house. And pride of place at his home in Wouldham Road, Borstal, was a picture of all the Tech masters, taken in the early 1930s. He could name them all, including their nicknames.

The most notorious was “Cosher” Lee, a fierce pedagogue with nasal tones whose terrifying catchphrase to a new boy was: “And what did they call you, little man?” (One lad called Clark, not having been warned of Lee’s severe reputation, blissfully replied: “Nobby, sir”).

But behind the strict façade lay excellence. “He was actually a wonderful English teacher,” Mr Cole said. Mr Cole also singled out the 6ft 6in gym teacher Walter Chalkley and maths master “Chick” Norton. “Chick Norton was a real dead-eye Dick with the chalk,” Mr Cole recalled. “He always had a piece in his hand, which he broke up into small pieces and could throw at an offending pupil with incredible accuracy.”

Indeed, I met this gent at a cricket match. My father, a Tech boy contemporary with, but a few years younger than, Mr Cole spotted him at a Kent cricket match in the 1960s. I was presented and received half-a-crown: far superior to a calcium carbonate fragment hurled at the skull.

Mr Cole left the Tech in 1938 and went as an apprentice fitter and turned at Shorts Brothers: 48 hours a week for five shillings.

He served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in the war and afterwards worked with his father Ernie, the butcher in Borstal, near St Matthew’s Church. Borstalites will recall that the shop was later Mrs Wale’s wallpaper shop next to the church and is now a private house.

After his father’s death he went to work as a rent collector with Rochester City Council and moved on to its successor authority, Medway, in the housing department.

It was there that he was able to arrange the last happy days of one former Tech master who had fallen on hard times. The old gent had been made homeless and threw himself on the mercy of the housing officer, not realising that he was a former pupil. Mr Cole, recalling that the retired teacher had served in the Marines, found there was a vacancy in Pembroke House, the Gillingham home for old salts. Mr Cole then told the story Peter Head, a previous head prefect who had become a flamboyant businessman, estate agent, mayor of Faversham and local benefactor. As soon as Mr Head heard, he filled the boot of his car with goodies — including a case of rum, no doubt — and took it to Pembroke House.

The Tech also shared its premises with the art school. It was a rather odd mix (more of that in a moment) and one that put temptation in the boys’ way. “I can look at the old tech now and in each window I can recall which master taught there. But not on the top floor. We were not allowed on the second staircase. There were girls up there!”

They were happy days — and nearly 70 years on, Mr Cole was full of praise for its principles: “It was an excellent school all round. The Tech taught me the two of the most important things in life: respect and discipline.”

Early roots of Medway’s famous art college

The building’s artistic credentials were outlined by John Austin, of Sandown Drive, Wigmore, who wrote to say: “When I first attended the old art college as a full-time student in 1949, it seemed very well established. Although the building was shared and accommodation was tight for both institutions, it was a happy marriage, if a strange one.

“The building was still being shared in 1954 when I left. However the college was able to expand and the whole building became the Medway College of Art.

“When I started there, Mr Reeves was principal, followed by Mr Hayes who handled the expansion of the college. Sadly, his early death in the 1960s prevented him from seeing the fine institution it is today in its new home on the hill at Fort Pitt since the 1970s. My wife Audrey also attended the college during the same time as a dress student. We both have very happy memories of that fine old building at Eastgate.”

Old boy Bernard Fray also e-mailed me: “I started there in September, 1939, and were evacuated to until it was decided to send the school to Wales. Those of us who did not go returned home and our education continued at Rochester. Each year had about 35 pupils.

“The headmaster was Mr PF Surman, Mr Lee (English), Mr McVay (maths), Mr Chalkley (PT) and Mr Mitchell (woodwork) to name but a few.

“The top floor of the main building was used by the art school. It was the job of the prefects to stop pupils from going above the first floor that housed the physics lab etc. I was at the school until late 1942 so I know the school was open until then at least. It was a great school. It’s a pity it is not still there.”

Cosher and Chick, the feared pedagogues

John Dix, who was at the school 1943-47, e-mailed from Brampton, Huntingdon: “Many of the staff appearing in the school photograph taught there during my time. Chick Norton was still accurate with his chalk, and I recall the rasping of Cosher Lee’s thumb against the page of the book that he was reading from. I also remember Percy Harrop’s rope’s-end, which he rarely used, but was always had it on display.

“Staff additions during my time were Mr Davis (physics), Mr Spry (geography) and Mr Charlton (metalwork). Mr Adams was headmaster and Mr Phillips the principal. “The girls from Fort Pitt used to come to Eastgate for dressmaking in the classroom on the first floor next to the chemistry lab, and the art school used the whole of the top floor. In addition to going to Fort Pitt for games, we went to Luton Arches establishment on Mondays. Most of us took the dockyard entrance exam on completion of the three-year course.”

Mrs Jean Crisfield, formerly of Luton but now living near Edinburgh, writes: “What memories have surfaced in this OAP! My late husband Roy was a pupil at the Tech from 1933-37. He was in Ironsides house and told me many of the stories that you have mentioned — especially Chick Norton and his chalk!”

Mr Crisfield, who became an apprentice boilermaker at the dockyard and in 1943 joined the RAF as a bomb aimer and navigator in Canada, had particularly fond memories of a teacher called Porter who was keen on astronomy.

After the war, Mrs Crisfield strengthened her connection with the Tech: “I was also at the dockyard, as a lowly civil servant in the naval stores. We teenagers were then given the chance to brush up on our education and sent for classes at the tech building near Luton Arches … where I was taught by Cosher Lee!”

* One old boy of Troy Town School, Rochester, contacts me to ask what happened to the scholarship board after the school was demolished. He went on to the Tech and was immensely proud to see his name in gold letters upon it. Ideas, anyone?

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21 Responses to Two proud schools in the heart of the city

  1. Roy Eric Morgan (Moggy). says:

    Rochester Tech’ 1946/49. Engineering. 1A, 2A, 3A. A ‘Viking’. Do you want more comment about ‘The Tech’? A form photo? Brilliant school. Excellent teaching staff.

    • SteveR says:

      Yes please! I look forward to it

      Steve

    • Bernard Longley says:

      Interesting to read about Rochester Tech. I was there from September 1950 to July 1953, in the building stream, so it was before the time you wrote about. However, two teachers you mention were there in my time: “Sprogger” Spry (geography) and Mr Mitchell (woodwork and technical drawing). Rationing was still in force at the time and Mr Mitchell would allow one boy to take orders for sweets, together with sweet coupons, and go to one of the local shops. The reason Mr Mitchell allowed this was because he wanted some of his much loved tripe! School dinners for us was at prefabricated building in a nearby street. Sports took place at Fort Pitt which meant walking past the girls’ school – great. Bricklaying, plumbing and plastering lessons were held at Luton Arches. This was great for me because I lived just five minutes away in Thorold Road.

      Bernard Longley

      • SteveR says:

        Thanks very much, Mr Longley. I don’t understand the tripe bit, though – did he get the pupils to buy some? Yuck!

    • Wendy Shipperley Nee Brown says:

      I remember a Roy Morgan from school. I lived in Cambridge Road. Could it be you?

  2. Julie Dray says:

    A friend of mine told me that back in the 1940s a woman called Ellen Sym whose grave can be found in All Saints’ Church, Frindsbury, was murdered after coming out of the Steam Packet pub one evening. Her murderer was a sailor who was then executed. I can’t seem to find any information abut this. Can you help?

  3. Jon Lydon says:

    This is a fascinating page, and I thank you for it. Very interesting to hear of Peter Head. I believe that he was killed in a car accident on his way to a school evening concert many years later.

    Mr Charlton (Metalwork) was actually Bill Carlton, no H

    I went to The Tech in Gillingham between 1959 and 1966 .I then went on to teach at Gillingham Technical High School 1972 until I retired in 2007.

    Disappointingly the school never kept archives, although I do have old school magazines. I am considering developing a potted history.

    Jon

    • SteveR says:

      Yes, Peter Head and his mother died in a crash on the Medway Bridge in December, 1978. I was then a junior reporter on the Chatham News and covered the inquest.

      Good luck with the potted history – if you need any help publishing it, kindly contact me on steve@Medwaymemories.co.uk.

  4. sara green says:

    I was a fashion design student at Medway college of art 1968-1971. The Eastgate building was used until summer 1970 and all departments were moved to the new building at Fort Pitt in the autumn term of 1970.I gained my college diploma in fashion design, garment construction and pattern cutting in the summer of 1971.The principal at that time was Mr Jago.I have often thought about those days and the staff who taught us , happy days.

  5. Len Weller says:

    I was a student in this building from 1942-45 during the war years. The scholarship exam was taken in this building in 1942.
    Our first-year lessons were divided between Rochester and Holcombe (Chatham). I remember very well the teachers Chick Norton (maths), Cosher Lee (English), Bill May (history/French), W Chalkley (PT), Bill Carlton (metalwork), Mr Davis (physics), Mr Locket (mechanics), Percy Harrop (technical drawing) and others.
    During first year, combined with Chatham, we had benefit of some of their teachers, Mrs Killen and
    Bill Wright.
    The training was very good for an engineering background and English knowledge.
    In 1943 we were in the Rochester building full time, when the main stream of teachers had returned from evacuation to Wales.
    Some memories:
    1 Report books: Each pupil had to keep throughout school a record of all lessons and homework marks. It had to be dated and signed by parents and teachers weekly.
    2 W Chalkley: Having us stripped to shorts and trainers only outside (what is now a parking area), he made us run across road to vacant area opposite that seemed to be scrap dumping area, make circuits and back to college. Of course, this was very good for us. (It was freezing from December 1943 to February 1944.)
    3 War work: During lessons in the machine shop (now a library area) we could help making small components for the factories around Medway.
    In 1944-45 the Doodlbugs (V1s) were overhead but we kept going.
    We were trained for engineering, Chatham Dockyard, Shorts and the Services. Happy days. I’m very sorry that there do not appear to be more records of the old place.
    I worked for HM Dockyard as a confirmed engineering draughtsman and left Admiralty service 1955.
    After that I was a design engineer, mostly in the oil Industry and travelled considerably in Europe, Middle East and Far East.
    I’m still here at 85.

  6. Bob F. says:

    I am a member of the Rochester Veterans Club in Union Street, Rochester. While delving into our leaking and cobweb-ridden garden shed at the rear of the club in preparation for a social evening, I came across an old school photograph of the 1922 staff and pupils of Rochester Technical School. As I was a pupil there from 1951 till 1954 in the Building form.

    It stirred old memories and prompted me as a “Silver Surfer” to type Roch Tec into the search bar. What a lovely surprise to find Stephen Rayner’s Medway Memories web site. I was pleased to see references to teachers that I remember. I left school in 1954, the last year for the school at Rochester but my rusty memory tells me they went to Green Street in Gillingham before moving to Pump Lane, but I could be mistaken. (You’re not mistaken – Editor)
    I list a few teachers below with some memories they stir in me:-
    Mr Gilcrist (headmaster)
    Several visits to his office for “six of the best”. They certainly stung.
    P—- Price (chemistry)
    Very strict, and gave us many chemical abbreviations to remember overnight.
    Mr Locket (mechanics)
    Liked the subject, he made it easy to understand
    G—– Davis (maths)
    A portly man nearing retirement
    Mr Saunders (maths)
    He was my kind of teacher from whom I learnt a lot.
    Mr Honiker (English)
    A really good teacher, fresh out of college. I went to see him for a reference after leaving.
    Mr Carlton (metalwork) Mr Mitchell (woodwork)
    They were based in a building which is now part of the Casino car park.
    Pearly Gates (plumbing) Nobby Clarke (brickwork)
    Plumbing Brickwork Plastering all based near Luton Arches
    Sprogger Spry (geography)
    Hard to get good marks from. Sadly he lost his wife in my last year, went to pieces and retired.
    Finally, Chick Norton (maths)
    Not the type of teacher to cross, very strict and was very good at throwing chalk. Twelve years later I bought my first house in Gillingham, and who should be living across the road but the fearsome Chick. He had been widowed several years earlier and had remarried a younger woman. My wife and I got to know them and you may be pleased to hear he was, after all, human and a very nice gentleman. His aim was also still very good as he was the proud father to a newborn child, making a lovely family.

    I well remember “walking the gauntlet” through Fort Pitt Girls’ School to reach our playing field, as a shy 14-year-old schoolboy my cheeks glowed brighter than a traffic light with embarrassment.
    We had our school dinners in a wooden hut in East Row where the recently demolished police station stood, I must be one of the few that really enjoyed the meals.
    The photo I have shows the main building as well as the front of the annexe where “Chick” was based. Opposite the main building was another annex with three or four other classrooms, and my favourite place, the gym.

    I see on Medway Memories that former teacher John Lydon and newsman Steve R may be co-operating to form a potted history of the Tech. If they would like the rather tatty photo I have I could arrange to deliver it to them.

    Love Medway Memories. Keep up the good work.

    • J Norton says:

      I hope Bob F gets to read my reply and the author of this page – so amused at the comments and anecdotes above about ‘Chick’ Norton. I am/was the newborn child Bob has referred to above.

      • Bob F. says:

        So nice to get a reply from J. Norton (son of “Chick Norton”). He and my son would have been pushed in their prams to the baby clinic together. It must be quite strange reading comments about your Dad. He certainly affected the lives of a lot of young people.
        My best wishes to you.
        Bob F.

        • L.Norton says:

          Hehehe, Hi Bob, J.Norton is my big sister! Yes it is very weird, also that you replied to her comment on my birthday!
          I am a bit proud of dad’s aim if I’m honest…

          • Bob F. says:

            Whoops sorry, should have known J. Norton was a girl. I moved house before you was born, didn’t realize there was another sibling. they certainly made the teachers tough in the old days. my best wishes to you & your families.

  7. Roy parker says:

    I attended Troy Town school from 1956/57 with my brother Len. My family moved to New Zealand in 1957. About 20 years ago I returned with my wife to show her the school and found it was gone, replaced with a car park.
    I have memories of the school as being of about six storeys, could have been more. The headmaster was I believe Mr Marchant who was a very aggressive man especially with the strap. Boxing was a prominent sport and one lad stands out in my memory, his surname was Curnow (not sure of the spelling) and he was very good.
    The memory of Troy Town is of a dark square building and very old. I have many more memories … a good mate at the time was a Mick Hudson who I have lost contact with. Roy Parker, Auckland NZ

  8. Jane Norton says:

    I have a photograph album presented to my dad, Thomas Norton in 1960 – it has many pictures of pupils – mainly cricket teams it seems, plus pictures of staff. Happy to scan and share pictures if someone is interested?
    Jane

  9. Ken Measures says:

    Hi Steve,

    I thank you for I find your website very rewarding. I was a pupil at RTS from 1949, after passing an IQ test at Troy Town Secondary Modern School, to 1952 when I then passed the dockyard exam to become an electrical fitter apprentice. I have very, very fond memories of my days at RTS.

    However, I am surprised that no one has mentioned Mr Johnny Mann who was not only my science teacher but also my form master. He had two great passions, one was potholing and the other was collecting railway tickets. I made many friends at RTS but the one who stood out the most was Arthur Prosser who was very good at drawing and writing comic strips about the USA Apache Indians, Geronimo and Cochise, and the 7th Cavalry. Does anybody else remember these people? If so, I would very much like to hear from them.

    Keep up the good work and best wishes,

    Ken Measures

  10. Ray Fowler says:

    I was born in Gillingham and went to Rochester Technical School from 1948 to 1951. I was in the ‘A’ art stream and there were 27 in my class. I believe this was the smallest class in the school. The headmaster was Mr WG Gilcrist. Our form master was JD Richens (year 1), W May (year 2), and most memorable John Mann (year 3). He was also science and RI teacher.
    In 1951 he took a group of us on a walking tour of the Yorkshire Dales. He spent a lot of his time trainspotting. It was Easter and there was a lot of snow about. I got pneumonia and missed out on a lot of the last term.
    We were all born in 1935. That means we are all celebrating our 80th this year, 2015. Derek Adams, born January, was the oldest. I was youngest, born in December. I do believe that Ken Measures could be one of my class. I wonder how many of us are still around? Here is some of the others that I remember:
    Adams D; Aldridge G; Aspinal D; Baldwin; Best; Caleano; Davis.P; Fearne; Fowler R (me); Hawker; Jarvis; Knight; Lawson G; Luckhurst; Meager; Miller D; Neale R; Pettitt J; Phipps B; Shepherd; Theobold; Walker; Weeks; Willey. I do have a 1948 form photograph.
    Let’s hear from some of you.
    Best wishes

    Ray Fowler.

    • John Elliott says:

      Hi Ray,
      I was at RTS 1949- 1951ish then up to the art school, left 1953ish. Remember Chick Norton (who taught my Dad!!!) I think J Mann was my form master and Invicta rings a bell.
      Girls school for woodwork, East row hut for dinner. There was an Elliott room of furniture in Eastgate museum.
      Remember Arthur Prosser.
      I was born Dec 1937. Any class or school photos available?

  11. Chas Philpin rochester tech 1951 to 1954 says:

    Great school, great memories. staff made a difference to our future, particularly john mann

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