“In extraordinary times, the ordinary takes on a glow and wonder all of its own.” Google tells us this quotation is from a book called ‘Human.4’ I don’t know the book, but I like the idea very much. It perfectly sums up my motivation in photographing the Church High buildings pre-merger and also what ultimately drove me to start writing this blog. It’s ironic that if the merger hadn’t happened, my relationship with the building would be very, very different and I would know so much less about it too. And the same would apply to you. For how long, I wonder, would all those voices from the past (imprinted on the building and carried in our collective memory of ‘The Old Church High’) have remained silent? Because as Mike Lancaster wrote elsewhere in ‘Human.4’: “I think that’s what we all want, in the end. To know that we left footprints when we passed by, however briefly. We want to be remembered. So remember us. Please. Remember us.” If those old concrete stairs could talk, whose voices would we hear? Why the voices of past Newcastle High caretaking staff, of course.
I was researching Victorian school caretakers (there’s not much to find) when I came across this sad-looking house via Google images. It gave me the shivers. What happened to our building was bad at the time, but the derelict places website which documents decaying places, made it clear to me neglect would have been so much worse. Did you know there was once a caretaker’s cottage on the Church High site? Although aware they were a standard feature of Victorian schools, neither did I until recently. Mentions of it in the Jubilee Book clearly hadn’t stuck in my mind: ‘Among the improvements to the buildings was the laying of new drains at a cost of £200 …. and some years later, in the summer of 1914, the building at the north end of the school of the caretaker’s cottage …. necessitated by the increase in the number of girls in the school…. This made it essential that the rooms occupied by the caretaker (the room next to what was then the dining room) should be turned into form rooms.’ The penny finally dropped in the Tyne & Wear Archives search room. Filed under ‘Miscellaneous Photographs’ in the Church High Archive at The Discovery Museum is item E.NC17/7/24/3: 11 unidentified photographs. This bothered me. I requested the items and the photo below was among them. This could only have been of caretakers, it seemed to me, but where was the photo taken? I knew of no doorway looking like that.
Not only do I now have a fair idea where the photograph was taken, thanks to one of the lovingly-related memories in the Jubilee Book, I am now also 100% sure who these warm, hospitable-looking people are. This is Mrs and Mr Waterman who gave loyal service to School for 24 years. I can be sure of this because of the dogs. The 1935 history tells us Mr and Mrs Waterman came to work at Newcastle High in 1903 following on from the Lumsdens. At this time, the caretakers looked after the needs of the school almost single-handedly: ‘the only help they had was a charwoman on a Saturday morning – everything else, cleaning, answering the front door bell, looking after the furnaces, cooking dinner for twelve girls, and much else, they did alone.’
We know from the remembrance ‘The Glory and the Freshness of a Dream’ in the Jubilee Book that the first caretakers were Mr and Mrs Lumsden: ‘Sometimes Mrs Lumsden, the caretaker’s wife, came in, a bent little old woman, wearing a cap of lace and a ribbon; or Mr Lumsden shuffled through in his shirt sleeves, with heavy feet and uncertain temper. Mystery clung about their quarters, and the door on the red tiled corridor, opposite the big window, was always shut.’ Amazingly, one of the first photographs Giuseppe took in the building following the initial strip-out shows the remains of what seems to be this original red flooring.
The Jubilee Book also tells us ‘the Lumsdens gave place to Mr and Mrs Waterman, with Jester the brown and white terrier, and they in their turn to Mr and Mrs Mattison, with Major, the golden Labrador.’ We learn ‘it was with special regret [school] parted with Mr and Mrs Waterman in 1926. They were known to everyone and in a miraculous way they knew and remembered every Old Girl as well as the girls in the school, whose invasion of their kitchen they bore always with good grace.’ It seems Mrs Waterman was the very first provider of Church High Cookies after ‘buns from Wilson’s ended during the war. It was then that Mrs Waterman began to dispense first biscuits, and later, to meet the demand for something more sustaining, bread and jam, at recreation.’ It won’t be a surprise to any Church High folk reading this blog that the Jubilee Book also states that ‘through the whole fifty years, the caretakers and the maids have played no small part in the happiness of the school.’ In my time there, I certainly have very fond memories of Ethel, who looked after the Head and the Staff in Miss Davies’ time so well and two characterful school caretakers, Gentian Qeku and Dave Stout.
In Dave Stout’s time at Church High, the caretaker and his family (wife, Linda, and daughter, Susan) occupied 2, Haldane Terrace – the house immediately adjoining the Music Dept. at 1, Haldane Terrace.
I first learned about the existence of a caretaker’s cottage from the Jubilee Book when the 1933 expansion plans were being described: ‘Extension at the north end was made possible by taking down the caretaker’s cottage (in place of which a flat has been built in the space under the roof).’ It’s easy to forget there was originally a lot more land on the north side of the school building. This postcard c1910 clearly shows a tree-lined gated area big enough to hold a small cottage, possibly quite similar to the domestic wing of Tankerville House .
It wasn’t until September when I was systematically working my way through the Plans and Elevations (E.NC17/6) in the Archive that I discovered the exact position of the cottage. I came across it quite unexpectedly on an unfinished plan of the proposed laboratory for Church High School (Wood and Oakley architects, May 1927). It appears to have been positioned more at an angle than I’d expected. The plan also shows the position of a bicycle shed in 1927 adjoining the stone wall of the orphanage grounds (centre right) and the steps down to the Heating Cellar under the end of the north gable (left).
The orphanage gardens wall marked the most northerly boundary of the Newcastle High School site right until the building of the Junior School in the 1970s. The fire-escape from the Staffroom in the 1933 extension exited beyond this wall onto the way-leave between Tankerville Terrace and what was later to become the school field. Giuseppe’s photos of the site documenting the demolition of the single-storey kitchen block to make way for the new infill extension, show the wall at the point where the cottage must have run parallel.
The last people to live in the caretaker’s cottage were Mr and Mrs Mattison. Because of this, they must have been the first couple to inhabit the new caretaker’s flat created in the eaves roof-space – and consequently, along with Major the golden Labrador, the first people to enjoy the stunning views from the new dormer windows. In the Archive, there is also a fascinating document, a letter to Miss Gurney from Clive Newcombe of Newcombe & Newcombe Architects dated 21st November 1932, which outlines – and provides estimated costs for – a number of possibilities for further extending the building. Miss Gurney is credited as the Headmistress who did most to move the School forward and this letter makes this abundantly clear. In 1932, no less than six different schemes for extension were under consideration. At the time, Miss Gurney and her Governors opted for Scheme C & D: a two storey extension with a boiler house and the caretaker in the roof at an estimated cost of £4,350 (with the option of adding a third storey at a later date). PC Newcombe’s plans for the flat in the roof space can be seen below.
For the names of the last caretakers to live in the flat in the eaves, I am indebted to Barbara Weightman. Barbara is a Church High Old Girl (although I didn’t know it at the time) now living in London who I met on two occasions while taking photographs on Tankerville last summer. Also once again at the September NCHS Reunion in the renovated building, by which time we were virtually old friends. Barbara told me she’d been up in the roof when it was the caretaker’s flat. This would have been in 1958 when she was friends with Hazel Taylor, the caretaker’s wife. I don’t know if they had a dog.
It seems such a long time ago now, but it was probably the surprise of seeing that newly uncovered fire-place in the eaves during the renovation work that first fired my curiosity about the previous life of the building. My first thought was domestic quarters and, as it turned out, I wasn’t actually that far off. This building has always been warm and welcoming, a fact the Jubilee Book expresses very beautifully, ‘always there was peace and goodwill and milk and biscuits.‘ It seems fitting therefore that an opened-up fireplace was the first reminder of the building’s past, when people did things differently.
An open hearth always reminds me of the wonderful final sentence of Gabriel Oak’s proposal to Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, a novel I taught many times to girls at Church High: ‘And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be – and whenever I look up, there will be you.’ So now whenever I pass by girls working at the south end of the Sixth Form Library at Newcastle High, I can’t resist saying to them, “Just imagine Mr Mattison on that side of the hearth, Mrs Mattison sitting on the other and between them on a rug enjoying the heat of the open fire, Major the dog.” The wondrous glow of the ordinary: feeling ‘At Home’.