Spirit of Birkenhead Institute





Former Birkenhead Institute pupil James H. Stewart has sent in some interesting memories of the B.I. staff from the 1930s and the 1940s, which are shown below. There is also an excellent item about Mr E. Wynne-Hughes and his time as Headmaster at Birkenhead Institute.

Very many thanks to James for these excellent recollections of some of the staff from that time.

BELOW: Centre of the 1946 School Photograph:




James H Stewart.



These short notes reflect my personal memories of  staff who taught me during my time at the school. Others will have had different impressions and  experienced different teachers. The teachers we met  depended on the subjects we studied, and impressions are affected by our aptitudes and skills for each subject. This will be obvious from my own impressions as a decidedly arts and humanities based student. Memories may also not be accurate.  The notes omit staff who, although always present, remained on the periphery of my experience.  


Mr J E Alison. Mr Alison taught Geography throughout the senior school. I remember him as a well built friendly man with a great gift in his teaching area.  He had a detailed understanding of the economic and physical geography of Merseyside, the activities of the port, and the shipbuilding which was a major part of the economy of Birkenhead. Before World War 2 he had  taken groups of B.I. boys to Switzerland and the Alps, but made up for the cessation of these with his splendid introductions to geology and landscape formation with the nearer mountains of Snowdonia and Cumbria, and the valleys of the Peak District, where we could do our own exploring. I never visit Nant Ffrancon without remembering his explanation of glaciated U shaped and hanging valleys, or Cwm Idwal without recalling his description of corrie formation at the sources of glaciers.  His introductions to the Ordnance Survey have stood me in good stead for a lifetime. I don’t have a ‘sat-nav’; my car is stuffed with OS sheets.  I can picture the whole journey in advance. In the sixth forms he produced beautiful hand-drawn and notated information sheets for us to copy as reference material.


He was very interested in the development of modern town planning. Across the Mersey Liverpool University was developing one of the first post graduate planning courses, inspired by Professor Sir Patrick Abercromby, at that time attached to the school of architecture where I was to graduate in the 1950s. Mr Alison used to tour the classrooms, often laden with rolled up wall maps, until one day, with the eventual running down of the Junior School as the 1947 education act approached, he was awarded a special Geography Room in the old building, with his beloved maps permanently displayed on the walls, to which sanctum his students repaired. I think he really enjoyed that.


Mr R.P. Bolton. ‘Dickie’ Bolton joined the staff during the war. Small and bird like, he was one of the rare people who taught maths with delight and tried to make it fun. Although he never got me to master quadratic and differential equations he did get me fascinated by geometry and trigonometry, and would come breezily into the classroom calling gaily ‘right, get your tools out lads.’  Maybe I have always been a spatial thinker, and maybe this aspect of maths was related to my interests in architecture and geography, but somehow Dickie Bolton seemed to turn geometry into a real three dimensional art.   ‘Dickie’ eventually moved to another school in Lancashire in the years after World War II.


Miss K.G. Booth.  Miss Booth taught in the Junior School higher classes while I was there.  She was a sprightly and energetic young woman and a strict disciplinarian, quite prepared to use a little non-lethal force if necessarily.  Memory tells me she taught across a number of subjects, and she stayed on after the Junior Department began to run down. She married during her stay and became Mrs Curtiss. This was not a common event in schools, and before the second world war many female teachers had to leave if they got married, so I think she may have broken a mould, and been one of those who helped change a rather silly attitude towards females, especially in an all boys’ school.  She did a stalwart job with a cohort of boys from across the social spectrum to prepare us for the more serious world of the upper school.


Miss M.F.E. Bowers.  Miss Bowers was head of the Junior School, a large motherly Cornishwoman who tutored the newcomers in the introductory class. She also interviewed me for admission in her small office under the stairs in the old building.  She taught across various subject areas with an easy skill, and in her art classes would produce good watercolours of the object for study, which she would present to the best artist of the class for that lesson.  I recall being read ‘I wish I lived in a caravan, with a horse to drive like the pedlar man’, after which we were required to paint a picture of the caravan from our own imaginations. Good training! True to form, she also painted one. We learnt to draw freehand ellipses with a slightly birds’ eye view of Stonehenge.  During handicraft classes she would read to us from books such as the Classics of Ancient Greece, Tom and the Water Babies, Wind in the Willows, and other similar sets of tales, while we made reed  baskets and tea trays. We were also expected to read well ourselves and to read out in public. I never heard her raise her voice to a pupil and her class control was perfect, largely because of what we now call ‘presence’ and an innate generosity of spirit which we all respected instinctively.  She retired to her native Tintagel in Cornwall around the time I moved up through the school, and was greatly missed.


Mr Cartwright. Mr Cartwright reigned with a firm hand in the large well-equipped woodwork shop, trying his best to teach boys to make accurate joints with small pieces of scarce wartime timber.  He also drilled the sixth form in rifle drill in the playground after school as a kind of in-house school ‘Home Guard’ – a Lads’ Army rather than a Dad’s Army!  Cartwright had a suitable sergeant major’s approach, a slim agile athlete with a small military moustache!  His other realm was the school gymnasium where he drilled the rest of the school in gymnastics with a similar kindly terror. He had a good sense of humour, even when chastising a slow mover with the end of a climbing rope. I recall a fascinating fight he had wrestling with an equally fit member of my form in the woodwork shop, because the unfortunate scholar had a pocket full of pens that resembled a small pipe organ. Mr Cartwright was strict upon appropriate appearances.  I recall him with a friendly amusement as well as some admiration at his craftsmanship. He also taught us the elements of book stitching. A rather fascinating character.  


Mr Idris Davies.  We gained Idris Davies through his marriage to our previous art teacher Miss Hetty Rosenbloom. Idris was a lean dark Welshman, fluent in Welsh, like the headmaster. They could argue in the corridors without the boys knowing what they were saying!  Birkenhead Institute had a long fine-art tradition, with a bias towards architecture. A number of sixth formers went on to Liverpool University to study for the profession.   The school awarded a memorial prize in art each year.  Idris brought a systematic study of architectural history and design into the art course, backed up with information sheets and reading lists, which took us from Egyptian and Classical architecture right up to the latest in modern design. The course also included practical objective drawing and painting, and poster or commercial art.  Idris responded warmly to work done in our spare time. My visit to him at home after he was married to Hetty left an impression, when I had brought in my small landscape painting of the Dee estuary.  He had several large paintings that he was working on from landscapes from Southeast Asia.  He was a good tutor to students looking for a career in the design world, or  keen to develop artistic skills. He did a lot to introduce students to a more tutorial system of learning, preparing us for later professional studies and the atelier systems of art colleges and schools of architecture. He eventually handed over the art course to Nancy Price who joined us straight from Art School.


Mr R. Hall.  Mr Hall was my regular English Literature master through the senior school ‘A’ stream.  Square built, shortish, thinning dark hair above a roundish but slightly rugged face, he had a first class reading and speaking voice. He also liked wearing his ginger Harris tweed jacket and grey slacks. He read poetry like no-one else I had heard, and his journeys with us through a large number of Shakespeare plays still stick in my mind.  We did play readings round the class with different members reading the various parts, which brought Shakespeare to life.  We were guided through the standard Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, plus Milton and Wordsworth and other major poets, and were expected to produce good critical and analytical essays and comments. Similar tasks appeared of course in the examinations and, in those days, in the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate papers. Once, in the upper sixth, form he cajoled us to write poetry ourselves, and he was very pleased when someone produced something.  We studied the structures and metric forms of poetic writing, and I still enjoy producing some work occasionally. I had been reading books since I was quite young, so maybe literature was a natural for me. It still is.


Mr. G.W. Harris was Deputy Head of the School. He was small, slim, and dapper, but with a good teaching voice, and taught us for history very well, taking us through early history into the nineteenth century. He relished a jocular reference to me, his only Stewart pupil, when launching into the Stewart period and all the sudden deaths, kidnappings, and assassinations which plagued the Stewart kings of Scots! As I recall, only James V and VI, the first of England, died peacefully in their beds.  ‘Biddy’ Harris was reputed to have a skilled hand with the cane by the few who had been sent to him for justice, with a clever flick to ensure that it stung, but he was good humoured and kindly. He brought a letter from a soldier written after the Battle of Waterloo.. ”Gentlemen, the French have the privilege of firing first…”  His colleague Mr W. E. Williams took up the story from the Great Reform Bill onwards.


Mr. A. O. Jones.  Mr Jones was a round short Welshman, my Lower Sixth Form Master, and taught Chemistry in the large and gaseous Chemistry lab which occupied the central part of the school’s main façade. He was well enough liked by the boys, and occasionally the butt of a few good-humoured practical jokes, which he tolerated with his own sense of fun. Usually these were pseudo-chemical tricks in the lab. He peppered his lectures with chemical jokes of his own. He even enabled me to gain a pass in chemistry in my school certificate, so I qualified narrowly in the maths and science bracket which saved my academic career! He was also house master for Atkin house.  There were no Health and Safety issues in those days, and bangs, stinks, and Bunsen Burners were all part of the education and entertainment. Explaining the properties of Carbon Dioxide he told us about the Cave of the Dogs, I think in Italy, where dogs dropped dead but the human owners were not affected. Why? He asked the class.  One wag said ‘because there were no lamp posts there!’  But I think we all understood the dangers of low clouds of invisible CO2 after that.


Mr. F.J. Lake.  Obviously christened ‘Puddle’ by cheeky school boys, Mr Lake taught French and singing, which was as near as we got to music.  Small and slim with wavy dark hair, he wore heavy spectacles as he was rather short sighted. He was rumoured to be French Canadian in origin but I cannot recall an appropriate accent, although his French pronunciation was excellent.  He was not my main French teacher, but he took us regularly for singing lessons in the school gymnasium, where we sat while not singing on rows of gymnastic benches. He also taught us deep breathing exercises and expected good breath control in our songs. He gave us a fantastic recital of Polonaise in A at one speech day in Birkenhead Town Hall where he had the Town Hall piano almost jumping off the stage.  The school produced some good boy soloists who joined in with speech day celebrations. He was well liked by the school. I still have my old school song book.


Mr. A.G. Morris.  A tall swarthy Mancunian, ‘Moggy’ was my regular French Language teacher. He always wore a tattered gown, which one day in the junior building got more tattered when he stood in front of the class room electric fire. Gowns were of wool in those days and he nonchalantly beat it out and carried on wearing it daily. He was a good teacher and had a wide command of the language. He also carried in his pocket a short length of blind-chord with a large knot in the end of it to chastise summarily, but with good humour, any youth who became too ‘uppity’ or who was making too slow progress.  I recall one such public humiliation when I had returned from a year out in Glasgow during the Liverpool Blitz, arranged to give my mother a break from the nightly bombing. My French had fallen lamentably behind, but afterwards Moggy arranged to give me tutorials in his house and he did a remarkable rescue job enabling me to reach Credit standard in my School Certificate and to take French as my Subsidiary fourth subject in the Upper Sixth for my Higher Certificate.  The language stayed with me quite well, and I had some French Algerian post graduate students of my own later which allowed me a week as a visiting tutor in an Algerian university without too much pain! Maybe that is why I became somewhat of a rescuing tutor myself in university later on, helping to set some students back on the pathway? 


Mr. J Paris. Mr Paris ruled in the Art Room in my early days in the Senior School. He was a strict disciplinarian, and taught art in the traditional manner with his class sitting in a circle of desks around some object or arrangement, in strict silence, while he patrolled the circumference often with his cane, which I never knew him use, and which was probably symbolic – a kind of weapon of deterrence. However, he got us all to draw well enough and many continued in art after he left, some going on to use the skills professionally.


Miss Nancy Price.  Nancy was my last art teacher, and went on teaching in the school long after I left, after which she taught at Wirral Grammar School for Girls.  She joined us from college and was immediately taken to the hearts of the upper sixth form who were only two or three years her junior. She was a very good artist and also an enthusiastic and tolerant teacher, setting us various tasks and projects, entering us sometimes for competitions, and tolerating the upper sixth trio in a strange fascination with a measured drawing of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Bannister Fletcher’s History of Architecture. I remember a sketching day with her in Wirral at Woodchurch, and also taking her home to tea.  Nancy also built up our knowledge of the modern artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we began to explore art galleries and up to date art books. Sadly I lost touch with her in spite of a couple of chance meetings and by the time I caught up with her again she was suffering from dementia and had lost her memory.


Miss Hetty Rosenbloom.  Miss Rosenbloom was my art teacher in the lower sixth, and probably one of the trio who really taught me art.  She was an excellent teacher, but was another who married during her tour of duty and became Mrs Davies. Her new husband was Idris Davies mentioned above, and he succeeded her when their first baby arrived. When I visited their house near Victoria Park, Higher Tranmere, the baby was hemmed in by Idris’s large watercolour paintings of places in the Far East, taped to glass. We talked about painting and letting yourself go, getting drunk if necessary!  I was over sixteen so that was all right.  It was my first visit to a real artists’ house.


Mr. E Sorby.   Mr Sorby taught mathematics through the senior school, somewhat in vain as far as I was concerned. However that was not really his fault, as I missed a number of his classes, and nearly a year of his teaching when my father packed my mother, and inevitably me with her, to Glasgow to get her away from the Luftwaffe for a while. I must say I rather missed the bangs and crumps and did not really settle in my Glasgow school, although I did have a very good Physics teacher for my stay there.  ‘Pop’ Sorby suffered from a rather dour manner and deep north country voice, but was kind enough to soften his verdicts in my school reports by noting that I had missed a lot of work. I never caught up until my third year of Theory of Structures at Liverpool University, when it all began to make sense because the equations related to real shapes in engineering.  Mrs Sorby was also a teacher, in a girls’ school, and they had a house built for themselves across the main road in the village of Thingwall where we lived.  Unfortunately the cows from the nearby farm took a liking to his vegetables and the dogs to bathing in his fish pond, but he took these rural trials in his stride.  Now and then they would give me a lift into school in his motor car – yes in wartime!


Mr. Webb.   Mr Webb joined us as French teacher in the upper sixth form about the end of World War II, new to the school. He was believed to have served among the Maquis or French Resistance in central France but I never heard that confirmed. However he spoke perfect fluent French which may suggest he had spent some time in the country during the conflict.  Medium tall, sturdy, with reddish hair and moustache, he had a strong presence, suffered fools badly, and had no fear of the head master.  He took us through advanced French language and literature including Moliere and Maupassant, pieces like Le Misanthrope, prose and poetry.  One day he arranged for us to read one of the plays and enact them in the library. The room had large heavy oak tables which we had to move around, and we were aware that the headmaster in his study below liked to catch us playing Shove Halfpenny on them. Sure enough a stern grey head appeared round the door, behind which Mr Webb was sitting. The confrontation was interesting and only took a few seconds as Mr Webb made his intentions known briefly!  He was a tough demanding teacher but top class and I remember his taking us through French literature with pleasure.


Mr. W.E. Williams.  From his initials he collected the nickname Woo!  Tall, rather gangly, with a slightly long sad face which hid a high sense of humour, he was always in his well-worn gown.  He took up the story of history from the Great Reform Bill into modern times, and his witty characterisations of great Victorian statesmen really brought them to life. “Palmerston was the kind of guy that would go out happy in the morning and jump over his garden gate…” and such like sketches.  Probably his presentations gave us all a picture of what statesmanship was about, and showed us that often eccentric human beings lay behind the political facades. Maybe some of his lessons prepared me for later work in my architecture and town planning courses about the nineteenth century environment and the various attempts to do something about it. I chose environmental history as a main lecture course to give to my students, and have always been fascinated by the implications of events following each other down the centuries which have shaped our modern world.


The Other Mr Williams, Physics.     I seem to have lost his initials, but he was known as Physy Wimps to distinguish him!  Very slim and smart with a small military moustache, he deserves a mention, because he left us to join the Royal Air Force when I was part way through school. I never did well in Physics at school, but he laid the way for understanding beams, levers, pullies and bending moments, and the behaviour of light and electricity, which all became clear in my engineering lectures later on. I think looking back my contact with him although not highly successful at the time tells me that we learn even if we do not immediately succeed at something, because quite often important ideas remain in our subconscious memories to be awakened later in a different environment. 



Here is another excellent item from James H. Stewart about former Headmaster Mr E. Wynne-Hughes, with some excellent memories from that era:-

E. WYNNE-HUGHES MA.Cantab. MSc.Wales.


Headmaster, Birkenhead Institute


James H Stewart


          A slim dapper Welshman of medium height with a ‘presence’ that could be felt throughout the whole school, Wynne-Hughes presided over Birkenhead Institute through most of the 1930s and the 1940s. He was never seen without his academic gown, worn over a good grey suit, his tie in a Windsor knot, and sporting a small trimmed Welsh moustache. He sits in the central chair in all the senior school photographs, as he did in everyone’s consciousness, students and staff alike. He was a strict, but fair and kindly man, and with his assistant head Mr Harris shared the only official right to wield the cane in cases of extreme discipline, a right always there but not too often used. His two masters’ degrees, one from the University of Cambridge and one from Wales, somehow express his academic character, as he spoke perfect received English and was also fluent in his native Welsh. I only discovered this in the upper sixth form where we had Idris Davies as our art master, and overheard them arguing outside the art room in Welsh, which somehow illustrates the private nature of his life outside the school.  I for one now wish he had run Welsh language classes for us. He taught religious studies throughout the senior school, strictly unexamined, as he believed not all subjects should be just for passing examinations, and later in the upper sixth ran classes in ‘civics’ or general public affairs and discussions around interdisciplinary studies.


          He sported a gold tooth, around which arose a legend that the gold came from the Klondike, which stuck to him out of his earshot as a nickname, shortened to ‘The Klon’ which was whispered around the class if he was seen approaching when maybe a little mayhem was in process between teachers’ changeover. His presence in the corridor was sure to restore order without a word being said! This also worked in the staff room next door, as one day somebody broke the staff room window throwing a ball, at which point The Klon appeared in the doorway and all the staff present lined up in front of the window to greet him!! He was, however, generally liked and respected, and was extremely fair to all, although maybe a terror to the unruly!


          Wynne-Hughes ran the school very successfully throughout World War Two, maintaining very high academic standards and sending a good number of boys to university in spite of the disruptions of nightly air raids and spells of evacuation. The PE master Mr Cartwright drilled the sixth formers in rifle drill in the playground, and his woodwork shop, another of his domains, had a stack of .303 Short Lee Enfields along the wall. The basement, which was the school dining room where Wynne-Hughes presided over dinner with the saying of a formal grace, was reinforced with pit props for use as an air raid shelter. Staff also did overnight fire watch duties. Fortunately the school survived without damage although areas of houses in Borough Road near by were swept clear one night with a 1000lb landmine. In 1939 into 1940 the whole school, including staff, were evacuated to Oswestry, an expedition which I missed as my parents lived out in rural Wirral. It may well be that Oswestry was a deliberate choice, as Wynne-Hughes’s most cherished school tradition was the presence of the war poet Wilfred Owen in the list of old boys. Owen came to Birkenhead with his mother from Oswestry before the First World War, from Oswestry Grammar School. His work was not in our book lists, but many of us will have read him later in life. In common with most official evacuation schemes the boys returned in good time to enjoy the attacks by the Luftwaffe. During the war Wynne-Hughes ran a prisoners of war fund in the school so that we could subscribe small sums to food parcels and comforts for old boys taken captive.


          Daily morning assembly was a formal event held in the gymnasium with the headmaster presiding from the high platform stage. Classes mustered in the corridor and filed in, the youngest in the front row, and the prefects down the side, with staff along the opposite side beneath the long balcony.  A hymn would be sung from The School Hymn Book, the Lord’s Prayer said, and one of the prefects would read a selected passage from the King James’s Bible. The headmaster would then make various announcements, with news of old boys and recent degrees and honours, and the school would file out to a march hammered out on the school piano – quite often Men of Harlech for some strange reason! Students not wishing to take part for reasons of religion or conscience would wait in the corridor for the religious part of the ceremonies to be over. They would then enter for the announcements.


          One effect of the war was younger members of staff leaving for the armed forces, and new older teachers arriving to take over, including the first ever women teachers to the senior school. My memory is of a fairly large number of grey-haired staff, some actually coming out of retirement. Most of these were experienced people and the comings and goings created very little apparent disturbance. Senior students were also going into the armed services, their higher education deferred until the end of the war emergency period into the 1950s. One comment in the Visor immediately after the war was that old boys were now visiting out of uniform.


          Wynne-Hughes’s next task was to steer the school through the radical changes of Butler’s Education Act, and the end of the old School Certificate and Higher School Certificate curriculum, into the new ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level programmes. These changes were not welcomed by the staff as they imposed quite new ways of working and new tasks to be fulfilled. School books had to be obtained by the school, rather than purchased by the students, for example, and as cash was tight we were asked to sacrifice what we could of our beloved text books to boost stock. The whole admissions system changed as it adjusted to the new eleven plus standards, and the Junior School as we had known it disappeared. These changes must have been a difficult ending for the old headmaster after a long career in a traditional borough grammar school, but he seems to have soldiered on through the early stages of these transitions at least until the end of the 1940s. The school was no longer able to choose its students by interview and upon past records, recruiting them at eight years of age from a geographical area reaching almost to Chester, but became restricted to the immediate catchment area around Birkenhead. The loss of the wide variety of students from all backgrounds in life, from shipbuilding to farmers’ sons, including a large cohort of scholarship entrants, was seen by staff as changing the nature of the school intake, and the educational tasks involved.  Wynne Hughes seems to have retired soon after 1949, but the school was fortunate in having Mr Malcolm, one of its own old boys, to take over, along with others, and to guide it into its last decades, without losing too much of its old tradition.



Thank, you, James for these great memories! (Editor)