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’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
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?