Derby School after World War 2

An article submitted by Alan Hancock (1946-1953)

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I entered Derby School in 1946 and left, to take up National Service in the Royal Navy before going on to university, in 1953. Looking back after more than 70 years, I appreciate what a momentous period of social and political upheaval that was. In 1946, I had little idea. But I believe that I understood, even then, that I was in a very unusual and progressive school, with an eclectic mix of staff driven by the post-war fervour.

The teaching was effective, and some of it inspired, but what I remember best is not what went on in the classrooms, but more the extra-curricular life. At least, that is what exercised the greatest influence on my future.  I could cite the school plays (I appeared in two major productions, of St. Joan and Murder in the Cathedral) or the musical tradition (I played violin, abominably, in the school orchestra, my voice broke during a performance of Messiah and I made a few attempts at composition). But the school trips abroad were probably the most influential part of my school life – they were responsible for a lifetime of international work and travel. And in retrospect, they must have been quite unusual at that time, taking young students into a Europe which was still trying to recover from the devastation of a world war.

The first trip for me was an exchange visit to Grenoble in the French Alps, when I believe I was twelve. It was my first trip abroad, and made even more exciting by our stopover for a single night in Paris (and a first taste of an illicit glass of cider). Our placements in Grenoble were eccentric: one of our party spent his time in a chateau, complete with servants, while another was taken to the local market each morning to help the family sell shoes. My friend and I were lodged together in a bourgeois apartment in the centre of the city, with weekend sorties into the Alps (where we ‘helped’ to hunt wild boar). We were rather poorly matched with two brothers who were much older, and who created a sensation when we returned together to Derby (they were both good looking, and one of them, on the wilder side, hooked up during his stay with a girl working in Woolworths).

The second trip was also an exchange, with Bruhl, a small town south of Cologne dominated by a lignite mine and notable mainly for its native painter Max Ernst.  There we spent a week or so in a local school, which was an enlightening insight into the culture of a German high school (especially the raucous end-of-year celebrations).  We must have been very early young visitors to Germany after the war, though we weren’t particularly aware of it.

The third and final school trip was to the small town of Pont Croix, close to the wild peninsula of the Pointe du Raz in Western Brittany. This was not an exchange visit: we stayed in some kind of boarding school or convent and lived (in my unreliable memory) on artichokes. We must have developed curiously accented French, as this was largely a Breton-speaking region. My most vivid image though is quite different. The toilet facilities were primitive, and we used an outside latrine, without running water. I kept my identity card and paper money (what there was of it) in my trouser pocket, and on one occasion, they slipped out of their moorings and dropped into the latrine. One of the staff heroically volunteered to be held by his legs and lowered into the pit to retrieve my funds and identification, something clearly beyond the call of duty (let alone sense). He was successful, and my money was laid out to dry on the grass, though it – and my identity card- were best located through a sense of smell for the rest of the holiday.

For me, there was one other memorable trip to come – also thanks to the interest and tutelage of Mr (WOB) Butler, geography teacher. I was not studying geography, but that did not deter him from tutoring me in writing an essay for a competition organised by the (then Overseas League), on the intimidating theme of demographic problems in the British Commonwealth. Possibly because I was younger than the other competitors, I was awarded third prize, which took me on a month’s study tour to Cyprus at a time when the island was not yet divided, but when nationalistic pressures were already visible, even to a young student.  I was not then politically aware, but the island itself was a joy – full of exotic Mediterranean landscapes that I had never seen before and a culture (and a cuisine) far removed from Derby. To cap it all, I experienced my first flights, and stopped off in Rome and Athens for a couple of days on the way. I even had the excitement of being delayed in Athens on my return journey (and the additional excitement of sending a telegram to warn my parents, ending up on a return flight abroad the new Comet aircraft. That created a thirst for travel which led to a professional lifetime of living and working abroad in an international arena. Without my time at Derby School, I imagine that my life would have been very different, and much poorer.

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