I start at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wakefield - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I start at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wakefield

In 1947 I had never heard of the ‘11-plus’ examination - not by that name any way. I did know that in order to be accepted as a ‘free’ day boy at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, where most of the boys were fee-paying and quite a few were weekly boarders, I would need to win a Storie Scholarship. I knew that the boy and girl who obtained the highest marks in the final end-of-term examinations at St James’ School were usually awarded the Scholarships and I knew that because my parents and my Headmaster kept telling me.

The earlier idea of the Choral Scholarship had, to my relief, never been mentioned again because everyone who mattered knew that my real ambition was to go to the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. (That story is on this page.) I can’t now for the life of me remember what the attraction was, but QEGS (these days, but never in my time, pronounced ‘kwegs’) seemed to me to be so much more desirable than the Thornes House Grammar School, the only other Grammar School for boys in the city of Wakefield. I don’t think I knew at the time, or cared, that Thornes House was also a grammar school because it was always referred to simply as Thornes House.
This is my QEGS cap which I still have in almost pristine condition.
In September 1947, just two weeks before my 12th birthday, I achieved my ambition. Neither I nor my parents had anything in writing to say that I had passed the 11-Plus; my parents got my joining instructions from QEGS in the post and that was it!

The cost of the mandatory uniforms, sports gear and other accoutrements almost reduced my parents to penury although I didn't know that then.  It was an afternoon start on day one and I was both apprehensive and shy as we all gathered outside the main entrance. Many of the boys already knew each other because they had been in the adjacent Prep School for a couple of years. I stood around, trying to look inconspicuous, until someone started a movement into school, and I joined in the throng.

The first forms at QEGS were called 3A and 3B because forms 1 and 2 were the preparatory classes for the younger fee-paying boys. I was told that my good result in the Eleven-Plus had qualified me to be in Form 3A which, I was led to believe, was for those with an artistic or classical bent. We eventually gathered in a classroom which, these days, is the school office. While we were still settling into our desks and getting to know each other, a Master - the teachers were always known as Masters at QEGS - swept in, his black gown billowing out behind him. He handed out Latin Primers and exercise books. "Try exercise 1 on page 3 and see how you get on," he said, before promptly leaving the room without any further explanation.

Exercise 1 turned out to be practice on the conjugation of the present tense of the Latin verb amare - to love. I didn't cotton on to the concept of paradigms and so I had to resort to guesswork and did badly, but I was not the only one who missed the point. Geoffrey Holt, however, sitting next to me did not miss the point: he, and only he, got 100% thereby instantly gaining the appellation 'swot', which he came to hate. Geoffrey was the son of another Prison Officer and he had won his scholarship from the Lawefield Lane Junior School.

One thing really irritated me in my first week at QEGS: the masters would insist on pronouncing my surname incorrectly. They always pronounced it as Queue-nane, with the accent on the first syllable; in fact, the stress should be firmly on the second syllable, with the first syllable 'u' very light and barely audible. I didn't dare to mention this to my Form Master but, when I told Dad, he went to the school and put in a formal complaint because, he said, everyone is entitled to have their surname pronounced correctly. (The same wrong pronunciation cropped up again when I first joined the RAF. I noticed that every officer, and I do mean every, referred to me as Queue-nane with the accent on the queue, but everyone else managed to get it right first time. I wonder why that was? Of course, as a very junior airman I was not permitted to correct an officer so I had to put up with it.)

The unstressed short vowel 'u' still, in 2018, causes many folk problems. For example, there is one very well-known national TV news presenter who always pronounces Russia and Russians as rasher and rations, and government as gavvenment. That reporter would, no doubt, pronounce my surname as Kan-ain. One local TV reporter always pronounces Hull, the city, as 'Hal' - and he should know better. Don't misunderstand me. I have no problem with regional accents but the examples I have just given have nothing to do with regional accents and everything to do with trying to sound 'posh' and in this day and age that is really pretentious, unacceptable and unnecessary. So there!

Why do I rant about this subject here? That will become clear in later pages when I describe how my early RAF career was twice threatened because I had a Northern accent - and it wasn't even a pure Yorkshire accent. On a much lighter, but related topic, some months ago early in the morning when I was only half awake, I was startled to hear the beginning of a story on the ITV News about "...the Indonesian Archie Pelargo." I thought it was a reference to an Indonesian sportsman, but it turned out that the story was about the Indonesian archipelago.

For much of the first term at QEGS, my time in the classroom was occupied with some of the new subjects which I found particularly fascinating - Latin, French and Algebra in particular - and trying not to be up-staged by my mostly fee-paying fellows who, having been to Prep Schools, appeared to be better prepared than I in the ways of a grammar school. To be fair to them, I don't recall any of them ever referring to my status as a scholarship boy in my hearing. I don't know if there were any other scholarship boys in my form, apart from Geoffrey Holt; boarders, on the other hand, could be distinguished from day boys because they had a different school cap.

Early in that first term we were each handed a sealed letter to give to our fathers asking permission for their sons to be taught about the facts of life. When I gave the envelope to Dad, he signed the enclosed letter and re-sealed the envelope without even mentioning the subject to me. I knew what the letter was about because older boys at school had already told us "third-formers" the subject and had greatly exaggerated what the subsequent lessons would consist of! I seem to recall that the Biology Master eventually gave us one single lesson dealing with the reproduction practices of rabbits. The Biology Master at school never made any references to human reproduction in the course of his single lecture about rabbits; in that respect it was boring. Neither of my parents ever asked me if I had learned anything useful about human reproduction - and I don't recall any mention of "the birds and the bees" either.

By the time the Christmas 1947 term came to an end it turned out that I had progressed better than I had dared to hope. In the class of 29 pupils I had gained 1st grades in Latin, French and Arithmetic, 2nd or 3rd in all the other subjects, and I was second overall (Geoffrey Holt, naturally, was first overall.) My parents were delighted, as was Mr Paterson when I called in at St James' School one day with my end-of-term report to show him. (Above: the top half of that report)

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