George Eric Newns 1911-2006
George Eric Newns, son of Henry and Mary Newns, was born at 16 Augusta Street, Pendleton, Lancashire, on 26 November 1911. This was where Henry's elder brother William was living at the time with his wife Sarah.
Childhood and Education
From Pendleton the family soon moved to Ellesmere Port where, as a boy of 3 or 4, he saw a man jump to his death from the top floor of a burning building. This, naturally, left a lasting impression and a lifelong fear of fire.
In about 1916 the family moved again, this time to Liverpool where George remembered:
Our house was at 7 Methuen Street, Wavertree, a two up two down, in a colony of streets named after generals of the recent Boer War - Strathcona, MacDonald etc.. Between the Boer War estate and the buildings round St Thomas Church lay Ash Grove and I think Ashfield. Behind the Conservative Club on Picton Road was a factory and next to it, Bishopsgate Street.
This area had a couple of shops for papers and sweets, but the main shopping area was on the busy Picton Road along which the trams ran to the city centre. This section of Picton Road was the site of the Labour and Conservative clubs - on either side of the road, with the Gem laundry and a strip of waste land conveniently placed for the not infrequent fights at election times. The city council in those days was a Conservative stronghold - inter-religious and inter-party warfare was ongoing. The peasants were never short of a struggle to join!
If memory serves, I seem to remember that when one went out under Picton Road railway bridge the side streets on the left were of the red Ruabon brick as in Anfield, a sign that this area dates to about 1885. In about 1900 the new Queens Drive was on the outside boundary of the district, with Victoria Park up in the Sandown area. This used to be locked at night, like other residential parks of that period (eg Litherland Park). To the left of the Picton clock was the old lock-up, and the lake where horses were brought to be washed.
My formal education started at Lawrence Road School. In view of later changes, it is worth describing the system at that time. After reception class where we were sorted out, the school had three streams for each year through the infant and junior departments. The infant section also contained the staff room, a sick-bay and clinic, a room for the Principal and a Conference room for managers.
The Juniors consisted of a large space divided into six sections by sliding screens. In the exact centre of these classes sat and worked the head teacher, able to see and hear everything that went on.
The Seniors were upstairs. There was a graduate science master and simple laboratory. There were also rooms for woodwork, technical drawing, shorthand typing, and needlework.
Because of the war the teachers were mostly ladies. I remember that when hostilities ceased on the 10th November 1918 we were all sent home - some to rejoice, many to mourn.
He also recalled that it cost 6d a week to attend this school and that while in the Junior school one particular teacher caned him every Friday for his poor handwriting - a policy which bore no fruit!
He was also in trouble for breaking some elastic which was holding up a fretwork toy in front of the class and was sent home with instructions to 'return with money'. Instead he played truant for a week, arriving home early each day saying he had been let out early for being good. However, he was found out on the Friday when he returned home mid-morning 'for being good'! He said "there was a big fuss about that!".
He also remembered that when he was about 10 he went on a cycling holiday with his father to Wrexham and Shrewsbury. They visited relatives from the Shropshire line in Newbridge, near Llangollen. There were also relatives living near Shrewsbury gaol. He thought this was probably the bike he later bartered for a crystal radio set!
His sister Dora was born in February 1923, at which time they were still living at 7 Methuen Street, and he remembered that in those days they had no water or electricity in the house.
Also in 1923 he won a scholarship to Holt Secondary School.
This school was named after a member of a family of shipping magnates. Many of these heads of lines were very generous to good causes. The fees, from which I was exempt by a scholarship, were £3 per term. After a means test I was also given free books.
This school was an amalgam of three earlier schools, so we spent many hours chasing or crawling from one site to another over the six years I was there.
During this period there was the only general strike this country has known, with-the students from the science faculties of the university driving trains and trams!
In about 1930 the family were able to move into one of the new council houses being built in Norris Green.
My parents were delighted with the new house, only 17 shilling and 1 penny rent per week, 3 bedrooms, gas AND electricity, and a bit of garden front and back. This was the start of the clearance of the slums of earlier generations. The need was so great that the house building raced ahead of the new tramlines. It was over a mile to the tram terminus - drinkers had a long walk home. It was wise to lock up one's bike!
He went on to take a degree in French at Liverpool University. While there he sat at the feet of Dr Collinson, a renowned philologist from whom he learnt some German and acquired an abiding interest in philology (the study of the development of languages).
The Start of a Teaching Career
Graduating in 1932 (BA Hons II.I) at the end of the Great Depression, he was one of only 5 in a year of at least 150 graduates to find work straight away. He gained a Diploma in Education, spending his probationary year teaching at Norris Green Secondary School. Because of the terrible economic situation, during the preceding year teachers had had to accept a 10% reduction in pay, which had in 1933 been moderated to 5% . His first class contained 52 pupils!
His sister Dora was 10 by September 1933, and George paid the fees to enable her to attend Grammar school.
Following his probationary year he was appointed to one of 2 new 'Roscoe' Schools. Roscoe was a benefactor of the City of Liverpool, having provided money for public libraries. The staff at this school had been all female and the ladies did not readily accept the 2 new male teachers, insisting that a separate tiny staff room be created for the sole use of the men. Life was not easy for the newcomers - George remembered taking the whole school of 400 pupils for hymn practice entirely on his own - apart from the cane which rested on top of the piano.
The headteacher's main concern was St John Ambulance work and she often spent her break times winding bandages for this. She was very reluctant to part with stock - particularly to the troublesome men. To get round this they took advantage of her lunch time naps to surreptitiously remove her keys from her pocket. (She kept her keys on a long chain in a pocket ). Carefully opening the stock cupboard they would extract what they needed and remove it via her office window. She never did understand how the stock was being used so quickly! To hasten his escape from this regime the other man on the staff, Deputy Head Bill Rock, suggested that he could help George to join the Masons and then he would soon get a good job elsewhere. Despite the possible advantages, he did not join.
His next posting was at Anfield Road Junior Boys, and on the outbreak of war in 1939 he was evacuated with the school (it was expected that Liverpool would be the target of massive bombing of the docks and factories). They were sent by train to Borth near Aberystwth, to the local church hall where the Salvation Army provided tea and corned beef sandwiches. From there the pupils were sent in small groups to many villages in the area. George and the Headmaster together with 30 pupils aged from 4 to 15 went to Ponterwyd where they were billeted with the local Calvinistic Methodist Minister. His church hall was used for the school by the whole mixed group. Two of the boys living at outlying farms were given ponies to ride to school. The toilets used by the school were simple huts cantilevered over the river at the back of the church hall - there was great anxiety when the 4 year olds went!. The whole school was scattered among about 20 different villages and little was seen of the headteacher because he had to try to visit all his charges. As the church hall was also used for funeral teas, a half holiday or nature ramble was given on these occasions, and one boy would be given the job of filling in the grave after the ceremony, for the fee of 2s 6d.
Army Service and India
Wanting to join the services, George returned to Liverpool and applied to join the Field Security Police. He went to Manchester for selection, but was not accepted because he needed to wear glasses. However, in 1940 he enlisted in the Royal Ordnance Corps and went to Leicester for basic training. He remembers being billeted in three storey houses and training on Oadby Racecourse and Victoria Park. On a night training march the officer leading got them lost and when they finally got to the supper point he was given a real dressing down by the colonel for this - and for going to get his own supper before ensuring that his men were properly fed!
From Leicester they moved to the transit station at Leatherhead and then spent six months at Tonbridge in Kent. Here he had some enjoyable times going to Tunbridge Wells on leave. Before long it was suggested he should apply for officer training. Early on he was given the job of dealing with the unit's pay. There was no existing system for this so they simply worked out who should have what, went to the bank for the necessary money and distributed it - sending their basic record of what was done to HQ. HQ replied with an example record sheet - with this before them they were able to stick to the approved army system. George got into hot water because he asked to be excused Church Parade, as he was playing the organ at the local Methodist Chapel and the times clashed. He was sent to see the colonel to be excused - which he duly did, and was excused. However this gave rise to some bad feeling - 'not the done thing y'know', and before long he was on a boat to India.
The journey was neither direct nor speedy. From Tonbridge they went by train to Hull, where they waited for a week before going via Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Chester to Central Station Liverpool and thence onto a boat anchored in the Mersey on which they passed 10 frustrating and cigarette deprived days (being inside the customs barrier) until setting out for India. To avoid enemy ships the troop-ship took a route north to Iceland and then south in the western Atlantic. Their first stop for supplies was at Freetown (Sierrra Leone, West Africa) where the ship was too large to approach the shore and supplies were taken out by lighter. After 8 weeks at sea they docked at Durban and disembarked for between 6 and 8 weeks. Just before disembarking the men were assembled with all their kit and somehow someone took their chance to steal George's dress uniform cap - a great mystery, and very disheartening as it must have been taken by one of the men who had been living together for weeks and thought each other bosom pals - it was never seen again.
The camp at Durban was well run. Set on sloping ground, with showers on the high ground, clothes washing and cooking lower down, and latrines on the low land - as all the used water ran through this area , very little fresh water was needed to keep it clean. It was at Durban he lost his small pack containing his ground sheet. As a substitute he found an old garden gate which he used instead of a groundsheet, to try to stop his bedding getting damp from the ground. At morning parade the men had to place their tidy kit on their ground sheet for inspection. Each day George put his kit onto the gate, and each day a different officer carried out the inspection. By the end of their stay the other men were getting pretty tired of hearing George's daily explanation! The food at this camp was a great change from the tedium and short rations on the troop ship. George remembers that at their first meal his table of 10 men demolished two 14lb tins of jam! - Two and a half pounds of jam per man! The forces club at Durban was very well run by Jewish volunteers.
The final part of the journey took them from Durban to Bombay and thence to the depot outside Poona. The ordnance depot was not well run and had no proper control systems, the stores and accounts were a complete mess. It was the job of the newcomers to sort this out. They worked 7 days a week and had just one half day per month off. This only because it was necessary, as the only way to get money was to go into Poona with ones pay cheque to visit a Sikh carpet merchant who would cash cheques. With the help of a Scots accountant and an experienced sergeant better systems were brought in and the running of the stores improved and losses decreased. One particularly vivid memory of this time is of the plague-carrying rats. These rats were a pest and whenever possible they were killed and burnt using petrol. Evidently a point came when they knew they had to leave and they fled 'en masse', every one of them running together in a great millions strong river of rats streaming out of the depot. The sound of all those running rats was something you would never forget. While at Poona George applied to transfer from the British to the Indian army and was posted to the Officer Cadet School at Bangalore.
At Bangalore he was second oldest of the trainees. The training included swimming in full kit (with boots), Urdu, battle strategy, and general PT. At end of training the newly qualified officer was despatched to rejoin the Ordnance Corps but this time sent to Rawlpindi (now in Pakistan near Kashmir). After 6 weeks he was moved to Jabalpur, and thence to Naini Tal in the far north east where, for his first leave in India, he was billeted with a very snooty regular officer who much looked down on George, as a mere 'temporary gentleman'. At this time he was a second lieutentant, soon to become a full lieutenant and eventually a captain. Soon he was moved again, this time to the HQ at Agra and here he worked on a scheme to make the paperwork of all three services interchangeable to cut down on bureaucracy. At Agra there was a lot of snobbery and because of this George could not have accommodation at the officers' mess - although he could eat there, and so for the six weeks of this posting he resided on his bedding roll in a hole in a wall! Next posting was back to Jabalpur were he was made transport officer - perfectly logical as he knew next to nothing about transport other than shanks pony and bicycles. However with the help of an experienced sergeant he soon learnt enough to deal with getting vehicles repaired and buses for civilian workers kept on the road. On one occasion one of the workmen had broken a leg and needed to get to town in the bus - at the same time other workmen wanted to use the bus to get home. The injured man was an untouchable and the others were not going to let him on the bus. However when the 'caste' Hindus were told that the untouchable was going on the bus and they would have to share with him or walk, most of them did get on the bus.
When war ended in 1945, those in the Indian Army were rather left out on a limb as the priority was to get the British soldiers home. At first those who had transferred were told that they would have to arrange their own passage home. In due course this was sorted out and passages paid for by the British government.
Civvy Street and Marriage
Re-joining civilian life, George first returned to his former post at Anfield Road Junior Boys but soon applied to teach in special schools and was moved to Kilray Road School.
He had first met his future wife Belinda Davies Parry in about 1936 when they both attended an evening course on the theories of the famous German educationalist Dr Froebel. They lost contact when he enlisted but Belinda made enquiries through the NUT (teachers' union), who put them in contact again and so they corresponded through the war.
Belinda grew up in Wrexham and trained for teaching at Bangor Normal College. She had started teaching in Bootle in 1930 and taught at Robert's School, Christchurch CE School, St John's School and Fazakerly Open Air School. At one time George also taught at an 'open air' school at Heswall. These schools followed the theory that the sickly, particularly those with 'chest' complaints including TB benefited from plenty of fresh air, and so classes were held with wide open windows all year round - for the hardy teacher only! Meeting up again after the war their courtship continued.
George's mother was seriously ill and died in early 1946, not long after his return from India. Shortly after this George and Belinda were married at Norris Green Methodist Church, Liverpool, on 18 April 1946 and initially they lived in Belinda's flat in St Catherine's Road, Bootle.
In 1948 his father announced his intention to get married again. Family friends Dorothea Metcalf and her parents also went to Norris Green Methodists and apparently Dorothea in some way intimated that his father's re-marriage might be unwise. Nevertheless, he married Florence Ilsley later that year.
His father intended to continue living in the house in Zig Zag Road, West Derby, which George had been buying before the war. George had also furnished this house. Fearing the total loss of house and furniture, while Henry was in Birmingham visiting his sister, Louisa, George and Linda went to the house with a furniture van. They were admitted by the couple who lodged with Henry Albert and removed two good bookcases and a piano which George had bought. The piano was later used at Stoneycroft School.
By November 1949 Henry had died and the family home whose purchase had been financed by George, passed to Henry's surviving widow, depriving George and his new wife of any benefit from this property. Dora phoned to invite George to his father's funeral but he 'was in no mood to go'.
George and Belinda had twins who died at birth and then in 1949 their daughter Valerie was born. They also moved from Belinda's flat to a house they bought in Ranelagh Avenue, Litherland.
Headship of Special Schools
Also in 1949 George was given his first headship in Widnes at the borough's first special school, which was held in the former Gossages Soap Works sports pavillion. A school equipped with showers, a communal bath and 200 acres of green fields as befitted its former function! There was one other teacher and about 30 pupils. When the school inspectors came they decided that the lack of 'hard-standing' for children to use during rainy playtimes meant the accommodation was unfit and the school should be closed. This despite it being the only provision in the area for handicapped children. After an apoplectic meeting with the local director of education they backed down. At this time the denominations did not mix for religious instruction, they were not usually in the same school at all. As the new special school was so small and had both Roman Catholic and Protestant pupils separate provision had to be made. It was arranged for the RC pupils to attend Nazareth House nearby, for religious instruction before coming on to school at about 9.30 - no doubt an arrangement which suited the Catholic child who had difficulty rising early!
After a year at the Widnes school, he became the first head of another special school in adapted buildings - this time First World War huts - Stoneycroft. This was a school of six classes of senior boys. The staff were all ex-forces who had had only a short, intense period of 'emergency' training, but they made the best staff he ever saw. Before the war teachers, in special schools (where such existed) very rarely had any qualifications. Feeling that this was a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs, It was at this time (1951 - 1952) that George, together with like-minded colleagues arranged a two-year evening course for special school teachers including lectures from psychologists, doctors etc and assessed by a final examination. In due course this was adopted and developed by the University of Liverpool and from this beginning grew the acceptance of professional training for teachers of handicapped pupils.
In 1957 George became the headmaster of St Paul's Special School in Bootle, where he continued to teach until he retired in 1971. They also moved to a house in Litherland Park. He regularly played the organ at St Phillip's Church and sang in the choir for several years.
George and Belinda continued living in Litherland Park until 1982 when they moved to Cubbington, Warwickshire, to be nearer to their daughter and family. Here they enjoyed village life, taking part in various local activities and getting to know Warwickshire and the surrounding counties. They attended the local Methodist Chapel, both enjoyed playing the piano, and George sometimes played the organ at the parish church. He also did voluntary work delivering meals-on-wheels 'to the old folk'.
Belinda died in Leamington on 15 April 1994 and was cremated.
Eric continued to live in their bungalow in Cubbington and led a fairly active life for as long as his health would allow. He did voluntary work at Age Concern and played piano at an old peoples home for many years. He regularly drove to the Malvern hills where he loved to walk, although by the time he was approaching 90 he admitted that he sometimes didn't walk very far at all.
In December 2005 he had a fall while returning from the local shops, followed by a bout of pneumonia. After this he moved to a nearby nursing home where he died on 7 August 2006, aged 94.