Three years of 
strict discipline

My experiences at the 
Hereward Approved School
1947-1950

by WALTER UNSWORTH

Walter Unsworth

FIRST IMPRESSIONS were not quite as daunting as I had imagined. I arrived at the railway station in Bourne accompanied by a probation officer, me carrying my belongings in a small parcel and he with an envelope containing my record. I had been sentenced by the Juvenile Court at King's Lynn, Norfolk, to three years at Hereward Approved School for stealing three oranges. In the late 1940s, there was no such thing as a warning from a police officer. I do remember that we got the occasional clip around the ear but that was for misdemeanours and crime, however insignificant, meant a court appearance and an inevitable punishment, usually being sent somewhere away from home. 

We walked from the station to the school and I must admit to some trepidation. I had heard some pretty horrific stories about approved schools and on that day in 1947, at the age of 15, I believed them all. Quite a surprise awaited me though after we turned into the long drive leading to the school through the gate and saw it for the first time, a wide, open space of lawns and flower beds surrounded by single story wooden buildings, but there was an almost uncanny calm and quiet about the place. After all, there were 80 or 90 teenage boys lurking around somewhere although I found out later that most were at work or in the schoolroom. 

I did see one of the boys sitting on the veranda at the end of the first building on the left which was the main office building as the probation officer told me to wait there until I was called into the office. I can't remember the name of the boy now but his job was to give me a run down of the place, to tell me what it was like and what was expected of me. After a while, I was called for and taken into the headmaster's office. His name was Mr Beany and in time, I discovered that he was one of the fairest men I have ever met. Both he and his wife, who lived on the school premises with their son Martin, would always be available to help with any problems we might encounter. But not all the staff were like him. Mr Hinchcliffe, for instance, his deputy, reminds me today of Mr McKay from the BBC TV series Porridge. He hated and mistrusted everyone equally.

Some of the things I was told were most heartening. We were not locked up and there were no fences to keep us in. We were expected to join one of the various work groups. We had to attend school lessons according to our educational level. We would be paid each week according to how we performed at work and behaved ourselves. The money was always given as credit to spend in the school shop. If we failed to obey any of the rules, we would be punished accordingly, from losing privileges to the ultimate punishment of getting the cane. We could move up in the school class system from Class 3 at the start to the eventual Class 1 with all the privileges that went with it. These included such treats as picture leave four times a month, which meant a visit to the Tudor Cinema in town, which we called the Flea Pit, town leave of one hour on Sundays after evening church services at one of the local churches, a necessary attendance unless you were an atheist. This extra hour enabled us walk around town and not return immediately to school, and although it was in a crocodile fashion, we might on occasions, be lucky enough to speak to some of the local girls.

I used to go to the Methodist Church where after the service, the organist would play for us and one of the young ladies from the choir would sing. It was here that I first learned to love good music and I heard Handel's Largo for the first time and the young lady sang the words to Rest Heavenly Rest. That piece, and The Dream of Olwyn from the 1947 film While I Live, have remained in my memory to the present day and I chose Largo to be played at the funeral of my wife in 2001.

At the school, I was given the number 44 and allocated to Burghley House, one of four such houses, and we had our own dormitory with about 20 to 25 boys in each. We had a bed, small bedside locker and a rack at the entrance with our numbers on for us to keep our toothbrush, toothpaste and towel. In the middle of the dormitory there was a large coke and wood-burning stove while at the far end was an alcove with a toilet bowl. As you came out of the office and turned left, you would pass Mr Beany's house which was in fact, a long wooden hut, and after that you would find the dining room and kitchen. Next to that was the wash house and showers and in front of that was the gymnasium and a community hut followed by the four dormitories There were two remaining huts in that section, one containing the Phoenix Club for Class 1 pupils and the other a classroom. Behind these buildings, there were three or four other smaller ones occupied by married members of staff. In front and at the top of the front lawns were buildings for single members of staff, a games room and a shop and lastly a clothing store and sewing room staffed by ladies from Bourne.

The works department consisted of various departments for building and bricklaying, metalwork, carpentry and gardening which was split into A and B sections. I was in A and our instructor was a Mr. Clarkson whose first name was Hardy. A favourite trick was to ask a newcomer to spell LORD you will see that it comes out as "Hello Hardy" but luckily, Mr Clarkson had a sense of humour. The man in charge of Gardeners B was a Mr Sharpe from Bourne who was known behind his back as "Shadow" and who always wore a dark raincoat all year round but it was only many years later I learned that he was in fact Charles "Shadder" Sharpe VC, holder of Britain's highest award for valour, although he  kept that quiet at the school but then he was a quiet man who kept very much to himself. The school had its own greenhouse for tomatoes and cucumbers, a large fruit garden and of course every type of vegetable you can think of. One large area was given over to potatoes and the whole school turned out once a year to dig and collect the crop, known by everyone at the school as top garden thrillers.

We were allowed to leave the school every Sunday after lunch to go for walks but not in the direction of town unless you were entitled to town leave. Instead, we would go out through the rear of the school premises and into the woods and if you were one of the lucky ones you would meet one of the local girls. Sports played a big part in school life and I played cricket and took park in athletics in which I represented the school a number of times at various competitions. This was good training because I carried on with athletics in later life until I got too old and have a gold and a bronze medal to show for it.

The meals at the school were extremely good and quite varied. We sat at the same table throughout our stay. One of the perks at mealtimes was to get seconds which were handed out to the best-behaved table and our table won many times. Supper was always the same, two thick slices of bread with dripping and a large mug of milk. 

We had our own Army Cadet Force equipped with the old Lee Enfield .303 rifles which were stored in the armoury. Each year we were given two home visits of a week each, one in the summer and the second at Christmas. During my time at Bourne, I cannot remember one absconder. We did have a few who were given the cane, not me I hasten to add, and from the screams of pain and the after effects, it must have been laid on pretty stiff. The caning was always given in the gymnasium and whenever anyone was punished in this way, the whole school had to assemble in the community hut next door until it was over. It was pretty severe and even the toughest chaps made some pretty horrible noises. The hero of the school who also happened to be the oldest boy and as tough as old boots, was caned for something that became a war cry in the washroom. The idea was to shout  "LOB" at the top of your voice as a warning that you were throwing one of the sink plugs over your shoulder. Our hero did this one day and the teacher in charge reported it with the result that he was given four of the best. You were always caned on the backside and we saw the results in the showers when he got back, horrendous welts and split skin. 

But in spite of these incidents, I have fond memories of Hereward School and enjoyed my stay there. This may sound strange but we were given lots of trust and taught to be self-reliant. When I left, I enlisted in the army on 27th November 1950 and spent the next 23 years serving round the world, in Egypt, Cyprus, Singapore, Thailand, Malaya and Germany. I have never put a foot wrong since leaving the school, not even a parking offence. I was married for 44 years and lost my wife to cancer in December 2001. We have five children and six grandchildren. All of our children have jobs and my youngest son is married to an American girl and they have two children and live in the USA where he is vice-president of one of the largest electronic firms in the country. 

One of the bad things that I attribute to Hereward School is that I started smoking there and was able to buy cigarettes from the school shop. After 55 years of smoking, I finally gave up on 10th November 2002 and have not smoked since.

They were strict times but happy ones and I have never regretted a moment of them. If any old pupils read this then please get in touch.

Contributed by Walter Unsworth of Lincoln, England, June 2003


Walter Unsworth

NOTE: An illustrated history of the Hereward  Approved School can be found
on the CD-ROM A Portrait of Bourne

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