William Sang Connacher

Spirit of Birkenhead Institute


Here is a picture of the pupils and staff of the B.I. Junior School from 1937, kindly sent in by former B.I. pupil James Stewart:-


Former B.I. pupil James Stewart has sent in the following excellent descriptive article about the B.I. Junior School, which is very detailed, and includes some of James's personal memories of the school. I would like to thank James for this interesting and historical insight into life in the B.I. Junior School:-








          The Junior School was a small world apart, set in a pleasant Victorian garden which originally had opened from Hollybank Road through tall iron gates within matching railings, with mature trees screening an oval lawn from the street. The school building overlooked this lawn from a terrace on a high grass bank, and backed onto Whetstone Lane.  It had been built, to quote Mr Harris the history master, along with others in the triangle between Whetstone Lane, Clifton Road, and Borough Road, to house some of the “Merchant Princes of Liverpool and Birkenhead” in its Regency and Victorian heyday, part of the early town plan for Birkenhead.   The Juniors were separated from the Senior School ground by a high sandstone wall, penetrated only by a small gate. On the southern side of the building was a further garden area; the part next to Whetstone Lane was used as a playground, and the other part laid out for small gardens for gardening and nature study lessons. Each had a tiny concrete pond.  Through the high boundary wall lay the large tarmac yard of the senior school with its two longsuffering trees at the far side beside the bicycle racks; a far less desirable environment. Modern access to the school for the staff and boys was through another gate, also set in railings, into Whetstone Lane, where the busses stopped outside the wall.


          The school building was in the style of a small renaissance palace. It was stone built, probably in Storeton sandstone, as were many buildings in Birkenhead and Bebington. The elevation to Whetstone Lane had a basement storey half below ground level with a main ‘piano nobile’ storey in rusticated masonry. A central doorway with a shallow canopy was supported on two Doric columns, and on either side of  that two tall Venetian sash windows. Above a string course the upper floor had five rectangular sash windows, the central one over the doorway having a small pediment on corbels. The roof had a classical Doric cornice with a small plain pediment in the central part of the parapet. The entrance gates were supported on two classical gate posts with three-foot railings finishing in arrow points, set in a stone curb.


          The principal façade overlooked the large rear garden. It was more ornate than the Whetstone Lane facade, but still within a disciplined Palladian style. A stone paved terrace ran along the façade, behind a low classical screen with stone pillars flanking the central entrance. The well balanced ground floor had a central doorway under a Venetian fanlight and arched masonry. On either side were two tall Venetian windows with matching arched openings. Above these a small balustraded balcony ran the whole width of the building. The upper storey had a miniature temple-like central feature with pairs of Doric pilasters on each side, and a central Venetian window, under a classical pediment. A simple classical cornice ran around the roof, and on either side of the central pedimented feature one sash window was set in a masonry surround under a small hood. Doric pilasters finished each corner of the building.


          Inside the central entrance doors from the Garden and terrace a large hallway was dominated by a pseudo-baroque stairway on the main axis. This divided at the first floor into a gallery landing running around the sides of the stair well. Cast iron ornamental balusters were capped by a wooden hand rail which was fun to slide down, if illegal! One boy was able to do summersault handstands on the outside of the rail provided no staff were around. Two pleasant ground floor classrooms opened off  the entrance hall on either side, lit by the tall Venetian windows overlooking the garden.  Behind the stair on the right was Miss Bower’s office, head of school.  Upstairs was the staff room overlooking the side garden play area, with a sash window from which corrective commands could be shouted during break times! Two large classrooms faced the garden above the two ground floor rooms, with others in the rear corners of the building.  These arrangements gave a symmetrical external appearance, and a broadly symmetrical internal plan.  The building suggests an architect versed in the classical style, and a client of some wealth wanting an impressive house in which he could both bring up a family and entertain guests. The photograph and small drawing of it which remain indicate familiarity with the correct geometry of classical proportions. It must have been a relatively high cost building in its day, built in well dressed masonry. When the senior school was built it reflected a similar style but without the architectural standards of its neighbour.





Some Memories



          Admission to Birkenhead Institute was by selected interview and ‘examination’ by the head teacher, Miss Bowers. I recall being taken by my mother for this ordeal, which took place in Miss Bowers’ small office behind the stairs. Small tasks were set, questions asked, and some mental arithmetic tried (‘A bit dark there’ Miss Bowers said in my case!). She was an expert, however, at setting children at ease.  Eventually a letter came from the Director of Education to say whether the child would be admitted.  After that the Junior School became a very pleasant home for four years.  When the Junior Department was eventually abolished in the 1940s the building was used for high school classes and for the new idea of work rooms for certain subjects. Mr J.E. Alison was delighted to be given a Geography Room, where he could hang his maps permanently on the walls and the boys would come to him, instead of trotting around all the classes in the main school. As the education system shifted towards the eleven plus ideal the old Junior School lost its role as a special environment for the preparatory and junior grades.


          Miss Bowers presided over her domain with a firm but motherly command, backed up by the more assertive Miss Booth. It seemed to run as a small but more or less independent state within the empire of the larger school. It was a great environment for being introduced to grammar school life. The Institute seemed to avoid the problems of bullying of the smaller boys by the older ones, and no bullying culture developed. At the same time the juniors got used to the idea of moving next door! The school had its own junior soccer and cricket teams. There were four years of boys in the school, divided into Lower and Upper Preparatory classes, and Forms I & II.  The third form was the first year in the higher school, which numbered from year three to year six, in which the School Certificate Examination was held, and then two years of Upper Sixth Form sitting for the Subsidiary and Final examinations of the Higher School Certificate. Boys moved up into the higher school around ten or eleven years of age, and also into long trousers! Uniform for juniors was grey shorts, and grey blazers with red piping and the junior badge on the pocket, plus a grey school cap.  


          Subjects through the Junior School were Bible Lessons; English – grammar, composition, literature, reading and writing, spelling and dictation; History; Geography; Arithmetic; Nature study; Drawing and painting; Handwork; and Gymnastics. Not on the list of examined subjects was Singing, taken by a visiting Dr. Griffiths wearing his colourful gown, and Elocution.


          Looking from the garden, the large classroom on the left was the home of the Lower Preparatory class, with Miss Bowers as its class teacher. The room on the right of the entrance was used for morning assembly and other plenary events, including Dr Griffiths’ singing lessons.  There were further class rooms on the first floor. The school photograph of about 1937/1938/1939 shows fifty-eight boys. Class sizes were around 14 or so per class, leading to relatively intimate teaching situations.  Miss Bowers and Miss Booth were permanent resident teachers in the Juniors, with visiting teachers from the higher school, and some drawn from outside.  Homework was set for each evening and was absolutely compulsory – no excuses except for illness! With small classes there was no place to hide! Behaviour was noted and appeared in the end of term reports posted to parents in sealed envelopes, and Miss Booth took no prisoners!  But it was a happy school and teaching standards were first class.


          Personal memories include Miss Bowers’ readings from various passages of literature while the Lower Preparatory boys indulged in their handicraft work.  Stories included Tom and the Water Babies and episodes from Ulysees, the Illiad, and the Golden Fleece. Starting with folded and gummed paper work, the classes progressed until most boys’ homes had several woven reed waste paper baskets and trays and raffia work.  Drawing and painting was taken seriously but was also fun, and Miss Bowers who was herself quite a good artist would pin up a large sheet of paper on the blackboard and produce her own version of the objects or scenes set for the lesson. The winner in the class for the day got taking her painting home. Art followed through the senior school as an academic and practical subject, with history of architecture, to Higher School Certificate standard, and a number of boys went on to study architecture at Liverpool University.  Miss Bowers’ foundations in literature laid the basis for a strong education in the upper school in English Literature and English Language. The legends of Classical Greece led into early Classical history and early, medieval, and modern history through the school.  Nature study, aided by observations of the birds in the garden and work in the miniature gardens outside the school began an interest in biology, and arithmetic led into maths and science. In the high school these lead into two streams, one concentrating on the arts and one on the sciences. My own maths was dreadful, so I happily ended up in arts, in which I did best. It was not until half way through my university course that I began to grasp the intricacies of engineering calculations! Fortunately none of my buildings fell down!  Nature study left me with a permanent interest in the natural world and ecology, and coupled with geography and history into the world of town and country planning.  Many of the boys seem to have found pathways into university and later life from these early introductions.


A Personal Note!


          Preparing these notes has been an interesting personal journey. It is not often that one gets the chance to review the processes that lead to school choices, and then to main career options.  Looking through the old school reports one can also see character traits, not to mention handicaps, that seem to surface unconsciously in later life.  The old educational question as to how many choices are made for us, how many we really make for ourselves, and the inevitable influence of our own innate personalities, combine to lead us down pathways that were not necessarily in our young minds at the outset. Some of the teachers’ comments seem uncannily prophetic!  Also the educational experience seems to have brought out innate aptitudes that might not otherwise have been realised. Later work in personality assessment chimes in well with this historical exploration. I think that defines a good education. A lot of nature and a lot of nurture, with good tutors!