by Roger Smith (1958-1965)
I arrived at Ermysted’s in September 1958. I lived in Crosshills and was one of three boys from Sutton-in-Craven county primary school who passed the 11+ examination and came to Ermysted’s. One of the others was my close friend Andrew Wilson. We were both placed in form 1c (the year was alphabetically divided) with T.E. Stoakley, known as TES as the form teacher. He was a caring and understanding teacher whose first words to us on entry to the school was that “Older pupils will tell you that I am not as bad as I look.”
Both Andrew and myself ended up as University professors, myself in Mathematical Sciences at Loughborough University and Andrew as Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Maryland in the USA. In fact 3 of that group of over 40 pupils at Sutton primary school became professors. The Sutton class teacher was Stanley Bell who was also Mayor of Keighley in 1958.
Along with Terry Platt, we were founder members of the Ermysted’s astronomical society after a telescope was donated to the school. Mr E.J. Whitehead was the mathematics teacher who helped organise the activities. Terry was an expert at building electrical circuits and bodged together a makeshift radio telescope on the roof of one of the buildings in the quad. I am not sure what happened to Terry but I bet he had a rewarding career as an electrical engineer. It was however this initial enthusiasm in astronomy that led to Andrew eventually writing a PhD thesis on the Crab Nebula and to his career in Radio Astronomy. He was one of the most prolific researchers in Maryland but always refused to become a US citizen and when he sadly died a few years ago, he insisted that his ashes be interred in Kildwick churchyard.
Andrew was a bit of a wag and enjoyed winding up Mr Hardaker, the history teacher, by always switching on the classroom lights when his back was turned. Hardaker always responded with a “Detention Wilson” without even looking around. I used to see Hardaker at the Rugby League in Keighley; for some reason he always left at half time and I never could understand why. He was however a good cricketer and always scored runs in the annual staff-pupil cricket match even when he reached the age of 60.
During the late 50s and early 60s the science teaching at the school was especially good which had a lot to do with why both Andrew and myself took up scientific careers. W. A. Beattie (WAB) was an excellent chemistry teacher. He did however make one great mistake due to shortsightedness. He was once demonstrating the use of a catalyst in the preparation of oxygen. This is prepared by adding manganese dioxide (a black powder) to potassium chlorate. Without the addition the reaction requires a lot of heat. With the addition, the reaction occurs with gentle heat. One time in the second form our group was stood around the bench when WAB went to fetch the catalyst from the store room. Unfortunately he forgot his glasses and picked up a container of animal charcoal instead. He was somewhat puzzled that nothing was happening when the heat was turned up until suddenly the whole apparatus exploded. I was cut by flying glass. He had inadvertently made gunpowder.
My other recollection of WAB is that after I won the 5th form chemistry prize, he tried to persuade me to do chemistry at A-level by telling me that further maths would be too difficult. At that time we were only allowed to study 3 A-levels. So he was the reason I ended up doing further maths and becoming a maths professor rather than a chemist. However, years later I work with chemists on problems involving modelling chemical reactions so the wheel eventually turned.
The other good science teacher was the physics teacher W.E. Evans. He was always fond of telling us how useless we were but got excellent results at A-Level.
An interesting event concerning chemistry involved a student who I will call MH to avoid embarrassment. He once pocketed some phosphorus from the chemistry lab. Naturally it burnt a hole in his trousers and he was lucky not to be further injured. Actually MH was eventually expelled, rather draconianly in my view because he managed to purloin a key to the staff room and steal some of the end of end of year exam papers. The enterprising idiot compounded his mistake by trying to sell the papers to the form sneak who informed on him. Thus resulting in his expulsion.
I was also once castigated for making an unstable chemical substance, which I left in my desk. Unfortunately it started giving off brown fumes one time when the head teacher, Jack Eastwood should have been holding a Latin class. Luckily for me there was was a monitor sitting in, as the head was away. He came somewhat flummoxed into the science lab. Looking for the boy “whose desk was giving off an aroma”. I won’t tell you what the mixture was but it would be enough if repeated nowadays to cause my expulsion. Luckily I managed to throw it out of the classroom window before any real damage was done.
Eastwood did two especially good things that had an impact on my life. He organised a school outing to the 1962 Ashes test at Headingley which was Freddy Trueman’s test. Trueman later appeared at the school as his lawyer’s son was pupil. Some school joker later chalked on one of the stones in the quad: ‘Freddy Trueman stood here’. The chalk was swiftly removed. The second good thing he did was to take the 6th form to the Odeon cinema during school hours to see a labour politician, George Brown, speak in the 1964 election. Although Eastwood was later a Conservative Councillor, Skipton at that time was never visited by front bench politicians as it was a safe Conservative seat. However George Brown was a tub-thumping orator of the old school and Eastwood recognised that politics was an important part of Education and that in the days before sound bites and media saturation, it was a valuable part of our Education.
During my time at the school the Saturday morning classes were abolished and the new school hall was built. Previously it had been where the library was later located in the old part of the school. I never really spoke to the head teacher until after my A-level results were out when I was summoned. He asked me to stay on an extra year in the 6th form and try for Cambridge but I had already set my sights on Manchester University. He had better luck with Andrew who stayed the extra year and successfully obtained a place at Caius College in Cambridge.
I eventually obtained a first class honours degree in Mathematics and studied for a PhD in Fluid Mechanics where to my astonishment I found the ex head of school, J.P. Hodgson as an academic staff member.
Since then I have been mainly based at Loughborough University but have spent time at various research places in the USA including Los Alamos Laboratory where the atomic bomb was first produced. I was also recipient of a global research prize from the Royal Academy of engineering for a 6 months project at the Rossendorf Institute in Dresden so I have the distinction of having worked in the place where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs was active and then the place where he became director after his exchange on Glienicker Bruecke in the cold war. I was therefore extremely grateful for the excellent German teaching of ‘Dick’ Dulling at Ermysteds. The good foundation in German Grammar came in very handy not just for my time in Dresden but also when giving lectures in German at the University of Applied Sciences in Wildau (Berlin) where I spend some months as a Marie Curie fellow in the late 1990’s.
At the age of 68 I have still not retired as my birthday fell 3 months after the ConDems changed the law to prevent compulsory retirement at 65. I still teach and have a number of active research grants.
I have to confess I have not kept up to date with developments in the school and have not been to Skipton since my last elderly relative died in the Craven Nursing Home last year. It was only idle surfing on a Sunday evening that brought back memories of the good educational foundation that Ermysted’s provided and the excellent teachers that helped me with my career.
About Roger Smith
Roger is Professor of Mathematical Engineering at Loughborough University. Click here to read more about Roger and his work or to get in touch with him..