Being at school with a national treasure
Readers who enjoyed David Attenborough’s television series “First life” in November 2010 might be interested to know that Sir David’s interest in fossils and the very first animals began at an early age. Ray Sturgess gives a first-hand account
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Had there not been a Second World War, I would not have become a pharmacist. I have written about this before (PJ, 18/25 December 2004, pp907–8) but I never mentioned another aspect of going to live with my grandmother.
After my father had died of double pneumonia in Leicester in 1933, just after my sixth birthday, my mother went to live with her widowed mother at Mablethorpe on the Lincolnshire coast. Together the two widows rented a boarding house with five bedrooms and raised a moderate living.
I was keen on education and in 1938 gained a scholarship to Louth Grammar School. Most scholarship pupils went to Alford Grammar School and I was the first for some years to get to Louth. My mother was sent a cheque for £30 to buy my school clothing and an annual railway ticket covering the 16-mile journey each way.
By July 1939, life for me was good. I had come top in all my subjects and been awarded the first year form prize. It was some decades later that the reason for my success became clear: I met a member of my class and it became obvious that he, like all the others in the form except me, had been the son of a fee payer. Most pupils at Louth were the sons of farmers and almost all less bright than a scholarship lad.
In September 1939 I went back to school but the future was suddenly uncertain. The day after the declaration of war Mablethorpe had been swarmed by soldiers installing miles of barbed wire, which had the effect of cutting off the beach to civilians. Mother and grandma knew straight away that there would be no holiday visitors as long as the war lasted.
They abandoned the boarding house, returned to grandma’s cottage behind the sand-dunes and started writing to relatives about the need to return to Leicester. In the spring of 1940 they went to stay with mother’s sister Gladys at Groby and, so that I could complete my second year at school, I stayed with family friends in Louth.
At the end of the summer term once again I gained the annual form prize but I was more interested in moving to Leicester. I had no idea that at the school I was about to join I would come across two boys who would become internationally famous.
When I arrived at Leicester on the train, as my mother was working at Fieldings department store, I was met by my aunt Gladys. She gave me a great smile: “You’ve been transferred to the Wyggeston School.”
Gladys reminded me that this was the best school in Leicester and her husband had been a fee payer there. When I got to Wyggeston I could not help being impressed by the chart featuring its coat of arms alongside Eton, Harrow and Winchester, revealing its prestige.
Wyggeston School was situated next to Leicester College, which since the appointment of its then principal had attained a high reputation. The college principal had three sons who had been entered as fee payers into Wyggeston. The Wyggeston headmaster was aware that the eldest son’s gifts as an actor were outstanding and bound to secure him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and future success. His name was Richard Attenborough. Richard appeared on the school stage at the end of every term and was highly cheered.
The second Attenborough son, David, was keen on natural science but chose few friends and kept a low profile. Like the other pupils I would not have met him except that I was friendly with Mick Keene, the son of a previous lord mayor of Leicester, whom David was keen to visit on weekends at their stately home at Gaulby east of Leicester.
The attraction to David was the fact that east Leicestershire was full of the valuable fossils he was interested in. As a pupil who was immersed in chemistry, Latin and cricket, I was intrigued by a boy who was engrossed in buried fossils.
The Attenborough family, I discovered, mixed with many leading characters of the day and had been visited by Jacquetta Hawkes, not only one of the top British archaeologists but the daughter of the famous Cambridge biochemist professor Sir Frederick Hopkins, physiology Nobel prize winner for the discovery of vitamins.
After her return to London, a large case arrived addressed to David. She had become aware of his interest in early fossils and had sent him a splendid assortment of her most select accumulation. (When she met J.B.Priestley 10 years later they fell deeply in love and married.)
Neither David nor his exceptional contacts were known to many pupils but the headmaster made sure we knew of the celebrity of his elder brother. During his first year at RADA Richard had been sensationally recruited by Noel Coward for his film In which we serve and at assembly the headmaster made it clear that the film was now in the Leicester picture houses and we all should go and see it, which most of us did.
The move from the boarding house in Mablethorpe had made things difficult for us since all we had been able to rent was a Glenfield cottage with two rooms up and two down. Our boarding house income had been lost and was reduced to the three pounds fifteen shillings that my mother earned at the department store, probably the lowest earning of any parent with a son at Wyggeston.
Being aware of the opulence of the style enjoyed by the Attenborough family and other fee paying Wyggeston pupils I was impressed but also restrained. When the fifth form dissertation speeches were held, my passion and theme was on the ascendancy of socialism, a reaction that upset the headmaster when the fifth formers gave me the most applause.
When at 16 I entered pharmacy by becoming apprenticed to a pharmacist in Leicester, I gathered that when qualified I would be able to become a trainee manager by working for a pharmacist owning one or more large shops, or by joining Boots. In fact, many adventures in Africa and the Far East were to follow, and my experiences helped me write a book during my retirement.
More recently I got in touch with David and he was kind enough about reading my book but I know that the only Wyggestonian he really admired was Roger Mason who made the great British, and indeed world, fossil discovery of Charnia masoni at Charnwood as a schoolboy in 1957.
Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052518
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