‘The Space Under the Roof’: Administration Alley, Then and Now, 24th February 2016


I have always loved the very top corridor of the Church High Main building.  Those unmistakeable  echoey school sounds which used to travel up the north stairwell from the main corridor below became muffled the moment the dark green fire-door closed behind you.  I never lost the thrill that I was now walking through the roof eaves.

The dark, forest green fire door on the top corridor.
The forest green fire door on the top corridor.

Perhaps it was the floor-to-ceiling sky blue walls or the fact that you could touch both sides of the passage way as you walked along, but it always felt very comforting to me up there.  It’s only struck me very recently why it seemed so easy to feel at ease at Church High (something everybody who joined the school would comment on).  With green at your feet and pale blue at eye level everywhere you went in the building, things always felt sort of ‘the right way up’.   The colours mirrored nature.  It’s how the world was meant to feel.

The top corridor always made me feel that I was walking in the sky.
The sky-blue walls of the top corridor always made me feel like I was walking in the clouds.

This area of School is first mentioned in the Jubilee Book when what we now know as the Dining Room and Staff Room block was added to the main building in 1933.  The 1935 history tells us that ‘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).’  The caretakers at that time were Mr and Mrs Mattison and it would have been then that the four front dormer windows were added too – apparently none too subtly either, according to the present work-force.  Most of the king posts were simply hacked out.

Miss Gurney's hand-drawn plan of the Church High site in 1918 clearly shows two detached buildings, one of which was the Caretaker's Cottage, at the north end of the School.
Miss Gurney’s hand-drawn plan of the Church High site in 1918 clearly shows two detached buildings, one of which was the Caretaker’s Cottage, at the north end of the School. [Miss Gurney’s ‘1918 Essay for the Governors’ is in the Church High Archive, Tyne & Wear Archives at The Discovery Museum].
In later years, this space under the roof with its narrow corridor, sloping ceilings and small but characterful rooms would be adapted for Sixth Form use, as it will be once again when the renovated building reopens in September.  Although I taught one or two S Level lessons up there as a young teacher, for most of my time at Church High I knew the lofty heights of the top corridor as ‘Administration Alley’, the hub of the school, which housed the indispensable folk.

The Church High roofline with dormer windows, 1951
The Church High roofline with its dormer windows in 1951.

Sadly, since the demolition of the north staircase – something I still find hard to believe was actually allowed to happen to an Arts & Crafts R.J. Leeson designed building  – it’s no longer possible to approach this special space the way I’ve just introduced you to it.  Instead, for a similar effect, we must use the existing south stairs.  For now, the familiar blue-green paintwork is still there, but it won’t be for much longer, of course.  The new school will be neutral.

The south approach route to the top corridor at present.
The south approach to the top corridor now.

To our left is the room created in recent memory for the Head of Marketing, Head of Pastoral Care, Director of Studies and SENCO by lowering the ceiling of Room 8 (latterly a Maths room) below it.

The most recently created Church High room stripped bare.
The most recently created room stripped bare.

To our right, is the room initially created not too long after I joined the school for the storage of GCSE coursework and where David Cocallis worked most recently managing SIMS and data systems.

David Cocallis at Data Control, inputting House Points into the system.
David Cocallis inputting NCHS House Points into the system.
The same eaves room as it is now.
The same end eaves room as it is now;  the parallel space on the north side contains the only existing king post trusses.

Once up the step and through the doorway, although the dividing walls are all now knocked down, the corridor can still be made out down the left-hand-side if you knew it was there in the first place.

The top floor as it is now from the south end; the corridor can still be made out on the left.
The top floor as it is now from the south end; the corridor can still be made out on the left.

On the top floor, the offices were on the east side of the corridor with the smaller eaves spaces on the west side used for storage.  From the south, the first office you came to on the right- a room I remember once being a classroom – belonged to the Deputy Head.  I served under three Deputy Heads at Church High: Gillian Willett, Yvonne Fleming and from the late 1990s to 2014, Alison Roe.  I knew Alison initially as a Geography teacher, then as Head of Geography, as my Director of Studies and finally as Deputy Head.  By 2014, Alison had devoted 34 years’ service to Church High.

Deputy Head, Alison Roe, in her office in July 2014.
Deputy Head, Alison Roe, in her office, 2014.
The same space in the process of being boarded out.
The same space now in the process of being boarded out.
And earlier in January when the original fire-place was discovered.
Earlier in January when the original fire-place was discovered.

The space behind the next dormer window in the roofline was divided between the Staff Gentlemen’s toilet with changing area and the Alumnae Office, home to the multi-tasking Sarah Timney: NCHS Old Girl, parent of two Church High daughters, teacher in both Junior & Senior Schools and finally Events and Alumnae Co-ordinator.  Sarah used her detailed knowledge of Church High and artefacts from the Alumnae Archive to create an illustrated Timeline History of the School for the final ‘Heritage Edition’ of the School Magazine.

The second dormer window area on the top floor now.
The area behind the second top floor dormer window now.
Behind the south section used to be Sarah Timney's Alumnae Office.
The south section of this window used to let light into Sarah Timney’s Alumnae Office.
The north section was much less salubrious: the Gents toilet and washroom.
The north section was much less salubrious: the Staff Gents toilet and washroom/lobby.

Before the third dormer window, an intriguing wooden structure has now been exposed.  It was an unexpected find and Wates were going to knock it down until they realised it was structural.  I had an idea what it might once have been the moment I saw it, and I have subsequently been proved right, but that’s the subject of another post.  It now seems this must have been our Alumnae Archive store.

This exposed wooden structure now marks the site of the Alumnae Archive cupboard on the top floor. I always wondered why you had to step up into it.
This large exposed wooden structure now marks the site where the Alumnae Archive cupboard on the top floor used to be.  I always wondered why you had to step up into it.

The next room on the right, the third dormer window, has been the Bursar’s Assistant’s Office since 2001/2.  It has always housed the School safe in a strong room behind it and, for the last 17 years, it was ‘home’ to the indefatigable and ever cheerful Brenda Cavanagh.

The Burser's Assistant's Office as it was in 2014.
The familiar green Bursar’s Assistant’s Office door in 2014.
Brenda Cavagnah in her office as we knew it in 2014.
Brenda Cavanagh in her office as we knew it.
Inside the School safe in 2014.
Brenda, guardian of the NCHS safe in 2014.
An even bigger safe in the strong room behind her.
An even bigger safe was kept in a secret room.
The strong room area and Bursar's Assistant's Office in January.
Strong room area & Bursar’s Assistant’s Office, January 2016.
Strong room area (behind Alumnae cupboard), February 2016.
Strong room (behind Alumnae cupboard), February 2016.
Bursar's Assistants Office, February 2016.
The Bursar’s Assistants Office, February 2016.

The room behind the last dormer window (the first office you would come to on the left if you entered the top corridor at the north end), has been the Bursar’s Office since 2001/2.  Before then, the Bursar and his Assistant shared the room next door and this space was the English Department book cupboard which was moved into a smaller space nearby in the west eaves.  I knew three Bursars in my time at Church High: Geoffrey Doxford, Dorothy Ratki and finally Peter Keen, who ably managed the Church High finances & buildings, as well as being Line Manager for all NCHS Support Staff, for 21 years.

Peter Keen's Bursar's Office as it is now.
The Bursar’s Office and the 4th dormer window as it is now.
The same space in stripped down state in January.
The same space in its stripped down state in January 2016.
And as home to Peter Keen as we remember it in 2014.
And as the home of Peter Keen as we remember it in 2014.
The relocated English book cupboard in the west eaves in 2014.
The relocated English Dept. book cupboard in the west eaves as we saw it last in 2014.
The same space in February 2016.
The same space as it is now in February 2016.

It’s hard to encapsulate the exact ingredients that made Church High such a special place and a very happy working environment; life there certainly wasn’t exempt from its everyday ‘ups and downs’ over the years.  Nonetheless, I worked there extremely happily for 29 years and would have continued to do so.  I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way either.  In its 129 year history, the School has had only twelve Headmistresses.  During the war years, their tenures, understandably, tended to be short.  However, four Heads guided the School for more than ten years and it is these ladies who really left their mark on the School.  I count myself very lucky to have served under and learned from two of them.  Mrs Lesley Smith was Head for 12 years (1996-2008); Miss M.R. Wood [latterly Mrs Pybus] for 20 years (1945-1965); Miss Patricia E. Davies for 22 years (1974-1996).  The School’s most influential Headmistress was undoubtedly Miss Louisa M. Gurney, who served for 34 years in total and actually increased numbers during the First World War.

An Old Girl like Sarah Timney, from 1886-1937 Miss Florence Dickinson was also connected to the school for decades as pupil, teacher and, ultimately, an exceptionally well-loved Deputy to Miss Gurney.  She started Newcastle High as a young girl in the Jesmond Road houses, confused by which door of the four was the main door, and taught at both Newcastle High and Church High for 38 years (1899-1937).  The Jubilee history makes it very clear that such records of long service are not just confined to the teaching staff, but also extend to the governing body and support staff too.  The first caretakers, Mr & Mrs Waterman, stayed for 24 years and as we know from the staff mentioned in this post, this was not unusual.

So it should come as no surprise to those who know the School that the people working in their offices on the top corridor tucked away in the ‘Space under the Roof’, had years and years of service to Church High between them.  Nor that they kept School ticking over like clockwork.  And I haven’t even got to ‘Computer Corner’ yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.