Working Lives

Teacher, examiner, historian and more (1960-1994)

Location: Norwich

John describes his career in education in Norfolk as both teacher and examiner. He also talks about his fascinating research into passengers on the Titanic, his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan and his life-long support for the Canaries.

 School days

I was born in Norwich in December 1935. I attended Bignold Primary School. When I first went there, it was called Crooks Place, but they decided that was not a very suitable name, so it was changed to Bignold. It was wartime and I can remember the shelter at Bignold; it was a hole dug into the playground with a wooden top which has now been preserved with a glass top as a memento. I remember going down, hearing the sirens, and the Anderson shelter in our garden, and coming up to watch the planes. I was four when the war started and six and seven when Norwich was bombed, and I remember it vividly.

Then I went to City of Norwich School (CNS). I used to cycle there, they didn’t really like it because they did not have much cycle accommodation, so you had to live so far from the school, and we were just on the right side. CNS had about 800 pupils then and was one of the top grammar schools in the country in terms of Oxbridge entries. They took pupils from a very wide area, from almost as far away as Yarmouth and up to the north of Norwich, which was why in 1956, Thorpe Grammar school was built to serve the fringe of Norwich. In my day, it was only the City of Norwich School for boys and the Blyth School for girls. Thorpe Grammar took all the people from Porlingland, Hellesdon and the fringe of Norwich leaving Norwich as the catchment area for the City of Norwich.

In the Army – National Service

After I finished my A and S Levels, I went and did my national service in the Army. When I was in the sixth form, I went down to Holgate for medicals and to talk about things. I was going to go into the RAF because my elder brother was in the RAF and the person who interviewed me said  ‘No, come into the Army, you’re going to teach so we will put you in the education corps. ‘ So, when my call-up papers came, it was the army, the Royal Signals which is all about physics and I have given up science when I was about 12!

I began at Catterick, went on to Salisbury Plain and then was sent to Germany, near the Dutch border. We were called an air formation signals regiment, and I ran the squadron office. I was only 18.

We were in a very interesting place called Goch which is not far from Nijmegen. It was not that long after the war and when we got there, the people were very hostile, but gradually, they realised that the camp offered them a lot of employment and so things became much easier.

Then, when I was due to be demobbed in 1956, the Suez crisis occurred and a lot of people who had been demobbed were called back as our regiment maintained all the telecommunications for air force bases throughout Germany, so it was quite important. I was told that I couldn’t leave, that I had to stay and go with the regiment to Cyprus. I had a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and I had to get the college to write to the Army to say if he doesn’t come now, he will miss the year, so they agreed to let me out fortunately.

But let me just say, the regiment and all the trucks and everything, all went down to Cyprus and as soon as they got there, everything just stopped. As you know, the Suez crisis was a fiasco. So, I was able to come back and in 1956, I started reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

University and teacher training

My interest in English stemmed from some great teachers at CNS. We had one particularly inspiring English teacher who didn’t just cover the syllabus but taught all sorts of other things. However, history was my main interest, so I did Part 1 English and then switched and did Part 2 History. I was very fortunate, one of my lecturers was CS Lewis who was wonderful. I had three great years there.

Then I did the post graduate certificate of education which was totally amateurish as there was no organisation about it, but it did give me plenty of time at the university library. I did my teaching practice at Thorpe, at the grammar school in the spring term of 1960. I was the first student they had. There was a strong City of Norwich influence there, the Headteacher, Philip Ball, had taught me at CNS before he became the first head of Thorpe Grammar School in 1956. And because they hadn’t got a sixth form at that time, on Fridays I used to go to teach sixth formers at CNS, so I got a bit of experience. I then went back to Cambridge for one term, did the exams and that was that.

My teaching career – Great Yarmouth High School for Girls

My first teaching job was at Great Yarmouth High School for Girls in Gorleston. I had planned to get to married when I finished my education. However, my wife’s mother died six months before we were due to marry, so, as it turned out perhaps not wisely, we decided as she was the only one, to stay with her father who lived in Avenue Road [Norwich]. Up to that happening, I had got one or two offers of jobs elsewhere, but I had some difficulty finding an English job in a grammar school in Norfolk – I mean how many grammar schools were there in 1960? I wanted to do sixth form and so on. So, I started in Gorleston at Great Yarmouth High School for Girls, which was a wonderful school, travelling every day from Avenue Road to Gorleston.

Well, I was lucky. First of all, I put an advert in the paper, I don’t think you would be allowed to do it nowadays, asking for a lift and I got a reply from a chap who taught at Yarmouth Technical College, and he gave me a lift. Then I passed my driving test and so I drove myself backwards and forwards from Avenue Road along the Acle Straight which in those days had cows wandering all over – it was a hazard then. But it was taking me almost as long to get from Avenue Road to Thorpe Station as the rest of the journey, so we decided to compromise and moved to Thorpe in 1962. My father-in-law decided to stay, he worked at Mackintosh’s, so he moved into the Elms, the little cottages off Unthank Road.

It was quite an experience teaching in a girls’ school; there were a few men on the staff who were, until I got there, rather disorganised, I kind of licked them into shape. I was there from 1960 to 65 as second in the English department. It was quite funny really, one Friday afternoon in the winter, I walked into a room, the lights were off, and a girl put her arms round me and kissed me while somebody took a photograph – for years afterwards, I wondered if this photograph would ever come to light.

Another funny thing happened: in around 1963 when I think there were probably about eight men on the staff, we were all summoned to the Headmistress’s office in morning break. We thought, oh dear, somebody’s in for it. When we got in there, she said,  ‘The National Association of Schoolmasters have declared that they are about to strike, and I have to warn you that you will be docked pay and there will be other implications if you go on strike ‘. So, we walked out, looked at each other, not one of us belonged to the NAS, I was in the Assistant Masters Association and so on, so a sledgehammer to crack a nut!

Move to Thorpe Grammar

Then the chance came to move to Thorpe Grammar School and again I was second in the English department. But of course, I lost all the travelling, I could walk there across the Recreation Ground. And I was there until I finished.

I was heavily involved in the politics of the school. In 1970, I think, the government started to have staff representatives on governing bodies – staff governors. I was elected as staff governor speaking on behalf of the staff. That hadn’t happened before, it was a big change. I was quite resented by some of the other governors, but it was a very interesting experience. So, I was there as staff governor, when in 1976, Norfolk County Council bowed to pressure from the Labour Government and introduced comprehensive schools. Norfolk was a true-blue Conservative authority, they buckled under, others didn’t. My grandson and granddaughter in Kent, one is about to start university, both went to grammar schools. Kent kept grammar schools so did Lincoln and Devon. So, we had the worst of all worlds, we had an authority who didn’t want to do it – Norwich, of course, did, CNS had become a comprehensive school in 1972 but Norfolk were slower.

From Grammar School to Comprehensive

In 1956, there was this large area in Thorpe, and they built the grammar school on one side, the playing fields in the middle and the secondary modern on the other side. While I was there, the two schools had virtually nothing to do with each other, except for people like me. Because I sang; I helped with their choir as I was friendly with their Head of Music.

So, what happened in 1976? First, we spent a year planning a scheme whereby there would be two comprehensive schools of 800 in the two buildings, one serving Thorpe and the other the villages around Norwich with a joint sixth form. At the eleventh hour, the County Council finance people suddenly decided you could save a lot of money by calling it one school with one Head. The parents were against it, the staff were against it and of course, I was in the middle of it all as staff governor trying to fight the case, but we got nowhere.

The person who came and reorganised it all was Gillian Watts, who became Baroness Shephard, and I spent years blaming her for what happened. However, I had lunch with her in Burnham Market about a year ago and I was talking to her about it, and she said, ‘No, you are completely wrong, I was part of the original scheme, but they then moved me, and my successor was the person who introduced the new scheme ‘, so I apologise for maligning her.

We had a dreadful time of it, we had 1,900 pupils, three uniforms, two sets of staff often at each other’s throats because everyone had to apply for jobs, so you had one head of English, one head of History and so on and it was grim to be honest. It took a long while to settle down. Both my children went there because the catchment area principle was strong then, you couldn’t send children where you wanted as you can now, so they both had to go there, living in Thorpe. And my son, in particular, found it very difficult. I have tried to tell him since how difficult it was for the staff; we had some really terrible times. And, of course, you’ve got the problem of going backwards and forwards between the two schools. So, I then became staff governor of the new school, I did eight years and then I became Head of English until I retired in 1994.

Not just Head of English – teaching law

In 1990, I think, there was a call for sixth formers to do more things outside their core subjects and so I ran a course, Minorities, we called it, when members of staff did different things for one lesson a week. My interest had always been in murder trials so I did a thing called crime and punishment and then some sixth formers came to see and asked if I would be prepared to run an O level Law course. Well, I said,  ‘I had never taken O Level Law, but I would do it ‘. They were very keen, they did it as an extra and they got on well and this became an established subject.

After I retired in 1994 from Thorpe, I continued law lessons for adult education for some years, GCSE it was by then – it was a very good course. But then, adult education fell apart for various reasons so I stopped but I did that for about 10 years I should think.

Running Christian Union Groups

While I was at Cambridge, I belonged to the Christian Union and all the while I was teaching, I was fortunate to be able to run Christian Union groups in my schools. I actually worked for the inter-school Christian Fellowship where we drew together groups from all Norfolk schools and we had a travelling secretary who would come down and take meetings for us. I was involved a lot with that as well.

Debating Societies

I also loved debating. Back at CNS, we had a society called the Sir Thomas Brown Society which met after school every Friday. We used to have a reading from the works of Sir Thomas and then a debate. Debating at Thorpe was rather funny really, we heard that there was about to be an inspection, so the Head encouraged us to sort of branch out a bit. Because of that, I set up the Debating Society and then there was a junior one, too.

Another career as an examiner

There used to be an exam called the Use of English which people took if they were doing S level, so I became a Use of English examiner for the Cambridge Board. I didn’t have much training, it was totally amateurish, I just went along with a group of elderly men one morning in Cambridge and was told what to do.

I then moved on to be an examiner for English Literature Overseas, for which we had quite rigorous training. It was a wonderful experience because we had these schools in India where time didn’t matter – a two-hour paper would produce about a hundred sheets of writing [laughs]. And also, there were people who should never have been entered at all. I’ll always remember I had a wonderful note – people often used to write notes on the bottom of exam papers complaining about their teachers – this one was from a school in Africa –  they were all terrible and this lad had written –we should not have been entered but our Headmaster had illusions of grandeur, wonderful! I almost felt like passing him. The best thing concerned another African school when the lady examiner had her bag stolen at Liverpool Street Station so the Examining Board said,  ‘What can we do, we can’t make them do it all again,’ so they gave them all a pass.

Then the Exam Boards amalgamated so I moved on to the Midland group which took over from Cambridge, where I was a team leader examiner for English. I was also doing course work moderating with the London Board and I was a team leader for that. Then I met the examiner for O Level Law, and he asked, ‘would you become an examiner’. So, I became a law examiner and, by the time I finished, I was examining A Level Law as well.

Then in 1994, when I retired from Thorpe, I also took on the International Baccalaureate. That was very different, I had been going to examiners’ meetings in London or Guildford and I had great hopes of attending meetings in Geneva, but everything was on-line. The English course was very much thesis based so I had schools from all over the world, sending me the work of students who took on a particular author or a particular book. This approach gives a lot of depth, but it also lacks a certain rigour. And, of course, the trouble with something like that, you are never quite certain how much is second hand, that was the problem.

But examining was interesting. My wife went into a dementia care home in 2013, in Blofield, and she had five years there which it cost me entirely what I had saved from examining. When I did the examining, I said we would put it aside for a rainy day and pretty well that was it and how it worked out.

A very busy retirement – the Titanic and Gilbert and Sullivan

I’m not sure where my interest in the Titanic came from. I had read a lot about it, and I had seen the 1956 great film, A Night to Remember and I just enjoyed it . Then my wife, who was in the Mothers’ Union at our church, said, ‘Our speaker has fallen through, and you will have to talk about the Titanic ‘. It was in the late 80s, so I put together a talk. Then, one of the members there said, ‘Oh, I have a friend in the Hethersett Mothers’ Union’, so it went on.

So, I did that kind of thing and then I had a letter in the mid 90s from an American author who was writing about the Straus family – Ida and Isidor Straus, you may know, were millionaires on the Titanic, owners of Macy’s department store in New York and theirs is a great romantic love story. Isidor trying to put Ida into the lifeboat, and her saying, ‘we have been married for forty years and I am not going to leave you now’. They died together which Cameron foolishly neglected in the film. This writer said that he had discovered that their maid, Ellen Bird, Mrs Straus’s maid came from Old Buckenham so could I dig out some information for his book.

I did that and it sparked my interest. I found another four Norfolk people; May Howard from North Walsham going out to join her relatives, a Norwich honeymoon couple, the Beans and a steward from Downham Market. I got my information from passenger lists and there are some wonderful sites, for example the Encyclopaedia Titanica and Wikipedia. I also got a lot from their relatives, I had a lot of help from May’s niece who was living in North Walsham and the Beans, both sides of the family had relatives still living in Norwich. I had an exhibition in 2002 for the ninetieth anniversary at the Forum and they all came along. I also met a lady from Old Buckenham who was very interested in the story of Ellen Bird, and she gave me more information.

May Howard (John Balls, Encyclopaedia Titanica)

May was going over to America to join her brother so I have been out to Albion in New York State where she lived. She is buried close to Niagara Falls and I have been there. And by coincidence, the Beans lived not far away in Rochester because he worked for Eastman, the Kodak founder, and I visited their great granddaughter who was a teacher in a primary school, so I talked to the school about them. I have spoken now in Belfast, in Italy, in Canada and in America. It is amazing when something like that takes over.

I published my book on the Norfolk passengers locally but then one of the members of the Norfolk Titanic Association, which I run, put me in touch with her publisher in Scotland. She lives in Kings Lynn and her great uncle was Jock Hulme, violinist on the Titanic. She has written two books, one about him and one of recipes from the Titanic. My book was reprinted, but they changed the format without telling me which was a pity really because I like my picture better which is Norfolk with all main towns as stars but the other thing about it is that it is no good for a book shop or library because of the back.

Then in 2012, the publisher said it would be good if you write another Titanic book, so I wrote my second which is called Lucky for Some. It’s about the survivors in lifeboats – those who survived in lifeboat 13, it’s their life stories. Unfortunately, everyone else decided to write books in centenary year so it has been a bit of struggle.

So, I had a series of talks – The Sinking of the Titanic; The Survivors; The Aftermath since the wreak was found in 1985; Music on the Titanic – there was a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan played and I have also tried hard to prove that Nearer My God to Thee which was played by the orchestra used Sullivan’s tune. So, I combined two interests there.

Then in 2015, I was asked to speak at an international convention in Belfast. A couple of years earlier, my daughter-in-law’s father, who lived in Worcestershire, had sent me a cutting from a local newspaper; a lady had died who had spent her life trying to prove that a shopkeeper from Worcester called Henry Morley was her father. He was eloping with one of his young shop assistants, her mother, and she claimed that she was actually conceived on the Titanic, so she was the youngest survivor. She spent her entire life trying to prove this unsuccessfully . I dug a bit further and I found over thirty passengers with assumed names; professional gamblers who obviously changed their names to make money, lots of people like Henry Morley running away with somebody else, political prisoners or activists from Sweden and so on. So, the talk I gave in Belfast was Imposters on the Titanic and I am doing one tomorrow actually to a Probus Club.

Gilbert and Sullivan

My interest in Gilbert and Sullivan goes back to my school days. I was fortunate at CNS in 1951, my first year in the sixth form, we had a member of staff, a modern languages teacher, called Alex Court who was a really keen G & S person. He persuaded Maurice Doe, the head of music, to do Gilbert and Sullivan for all the boys. So, I was in the Mikado in 1951 and I was totally hooked from that time on. I did Mikado, Yeoman and Gondoliers at the CNS where all the major parts were hogged by members of staff, so we didn’t get much of a look in.

That interest snowballed and at Thorpe Grammar I did productions of about six of the operas and then in 1978 I set up the Norwich Gilbert and Sullivan Society which is still going. We don’t do productions, at that time there were a number of local performing societies – Sheringham, Yarmouth, East Norfolk and we support them. We do concerts, and so on. East Norfolk ,who I have sung with before, are just about to do Pirates of Penzance at the Maddermarket in May. We are part of the national Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

There is also a Sullivan Society and a Gilbert Society, and I am the national chairman of the Gilbert Society. Gilbert did the words and he wrote lots of plays and songs. Sullivan did the music and he did a tremendous amount. I, with a friend from church, found 90 of Sullivan’s hymns which we put together. Funnily enough, on Saturday, I am going to Birmingham University where Mike Leigh, the film producer is going to open a new hall to be called the Sir Arthur Sullivan Hall.

My favourite is probably Ruddigore because I enjoyed doing that greatly when I produced it at Thorpe. It is a big interest really and will continue. It was nice that teaching enabled me to further that interest.

The most rewarding of my working or retirement activities

I really enjoyed, on one level, the Christian Union work and singing and drama, meeting people. I mean there’s so much and I carried on a bit after I retired. I worked with the YMCA for a time, and I was also on the Diocesan Board of Education working on Church schools. I did visits to all the Church schools at one time to find out what their needs were. So, yes, I have been able to keep things like that going. I think it’s just meeting people.

I have stayed in Norfolk all my life, unlike my brother who is rather scathing about it. I went to Cambridge and he went to Oxford, then he went on to Geneva, then Portland, Oregon and then California. He then came back as one of the original Biology lecturers at UEA and then to Nottingham where he was Professor of Biochemistry and then he finished in Italy running a unit near Lake Maggiore which validated all new drugs coming into the European Union. He has this vast international experience and I stayed here. I do point out, my father died when I was 13, Mike was 10 and my older brother had already left home, I do point out to him that I stayed in Norwich with Mother who was on her own whereas he was able to disappear – I mean that’s how life goes.

My family think I am doing far too much but there we are, while I can continue to do it. I am having problems now with eyesight and driving which is going to limit things eventually but at the moment …

A Canary fan

I am a big Canary fan, a Canary fan from 1945 onwards, a season ticket holder although not now. Both my children are mad keen fans as well. I was lucky, I had a season ticket with my son until he was about 14 and then by that time, my daughter was really keen.

My son wrote about Norwich City for the Eastern Daily Press (EDP). He is another writer by the way, he came back, a bit like my brother really, he did his training as a journalist and then went to Ireland and worked in Dublin, kind of looking down on us as country cousins. Then he met my daughter-in-law who had just come back from editing the TV Times in Hong Kong and was working in Dublin. She said she didn’t want to go back to Worcester, where her family lived, she wanted to live in Norwich so he had to come back and get a job here. He was originally Public Affairs Correspondent for the EDP and then he did a page called ‘Fans Eye View’ about Norwich City which was really hard-hitting, and he upset Delia [Smith] on a number of occasions. It was funny because my daughter in law once bought him one of Delia’s books for Christmas and she signed it – Delia didn’t know who she was, of course and she wrote something like ‘To Richard – Keep up the good work!’

And, of course, there are Mike’s children who are fanatics. It’s amazing, in 2002 when we played in the play-off final in Cardiff, Andrew was working in America, and he flew over just for the day for the football.

So, it’s surprising really, what’s happened now. Ed [Balls] was chairman of the club for a time and his brother, Andrew, has put a lot of money into the club. They have four tickets at their disposal as it were, and my brother and I went quite regularly with two of the tickets and sometimes we would have a meal in the Directors’ Box. We went once and we were complaining bitterly about the Norwich City performance and Ed said he was never going to let us go together again!

They then moved our seats to the top of the Jarrold Stand with a great view but there are no rails to help you up the steps. We found it quite dangerous, there is nothing to hold on to at all. So, I haven’t been for a long while, though I could go as much as I want. On Saturday, for instance, Ed is coming, because he comes pretty regularly, he is going with my son, I could have had the ticket but …

Final thoughts about education today

Well, education in England has always been a shambles. It has grown up piecemeal. I was lucky, I think, to be teaching when there was a reasonable amount of stability in the 1960s. Then comprehensive education obviously changed things which is a great idea. I am quite supportive but not if you do it badly. Then government interference became so intolerable, you never knew where you were with SATS, national curriculum and all that business, it is one reason I gave up early.

I think, now, it is a total muddle – because you’ve got some state, you’ve got county schools, academies, free schools. I think they have great individual schools and fine teachers and so on still, but I think that with the overall concept, I wouldn’t know where I was if I was teaching now.

You know some of these schools spring up just like that, Academies – when I left Thorpe and I worked for the Diocesan Board of Education, I used to go in every Friday, one day a week working at Easton. We had about 120 schools and we had a Director of Education, a full-time chief officer and we had a part-time typist and then there were people like me who helped. They now have, I think, over 30 members of staff, mainly because of the academy system.

The other thing that has happened in schools is that they became increasingly bureaucratic, which, to me, is the problem with the NHS as well where you begin to get too many chiefs and not enough Indians with lots of highly paid officials. I mean when I was at CNS, if someone was appointed deputy head, they carried on doing a full-time timetable, they got paid more and that was that. The time I finished, our Head did no teaching, our Deputies did about a tenth of a timetable, Heads of Years did about a quarter of a timetable and those of us who were actually teaching found ourselves with increasing amounts of paperwork generated by people, who in their own eyes, were working very hard but they had forgotten what it was like to teach a full day.

And so, I think, I mean I am not involved enough to be able to be over critical, but I am sure that this combination of a piecemeal system, no other country could have a system like this where you don’t know where you are, combined with this sort of bureaucratic belief. I don’t think it’s good, it’s a pity.

John Balls (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 2nd March 2022.

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