Unforgettable Morning Assembly

An Unforgettable Morning Assembly

    It must have been the end of the summer term of 1953 when “Old Barney” retired from teaching, having served QEH for more than twenty years. As with all school assemblies, we would have lined up in forms at the far end of the yard under the supervision of the prefects. We entered the dining hall in single file through the narrow passageway next to the choir stalls and took our allotted places on the long wooden benches on either side of the eight long tables.

    I have no recollection of that particular assembly but it would have ended with the Headmaster, Mr. E.B.P.Gillett ( otherwise known as “The Boss” ) leaving through the doors at the far end of the hall, followed by the members of Common Room. The School Prefects restored silence and the School Captain followed the masters out, to return escorting Mr. Hatherly.

    My memory of Mr. W. Hatherly, or ” Old Barney ” as he was known to us all, is clear. He was an elderly gentleman with horn-rimmed spectacles and silver-grey hair. I do not know what his main subjects were but I remember him taking lessons in Art and Divinity. He was not an effective teacher, mainly because he believed that if boys were treated with courtesy and kindness, and spoken to quietly and politely, they would respond in similar fashion. Unfortunately, this approach did not work with most boys of twelve or thirteen, and his lessons were often disorderly and sometimes chaotic. In the Art Room in the Upper Quad boys would wander round the room; there were frequent spillages and breakages and little opportunity for those with any artistic potential to benefit from Mr. Hatherly’s undoubted talent and enthusiasm for his subject.

    Divinity lessons were little better, often held in a corner of the old Schoolroom. Boys would talk amongst themselves or read magazines, unless called upon to read a passage from the Bible. Classes were usually rather better behaved in the Schoolroom because there was always a chance that the Headmaster, or another teacher, might walk through.

    This is not to say that Barney was not liked. He might not have been respected and he was certainly not feared, as were one or two of his colleagues. Schoolboys have always had an instinct, an ability to recognise and distinguish between the genuine person and the hypocrite. Barney was liked because, for all his shortcomings, he came across as a genuine and honest teacher, doing his best.

    So when the School Captain, I believe it was John Cox, brought Mr. Hatherly back into the hall to receive his leaving present from the School, the applause was both good-natured and affectionate. After a few words from the School Captain and presumably a presentation, Mr. Hatherly stepped forward to the lectern to give his reply. I expect it was the usual sort of response for these occasions — reminiscences of his years at QEH and how much he had enjoyed his time there — and the School listened, some more attentively than others.

    Then, an awareness gradually crept through the audience, a realisation that all was not as it should be. Mr. Hatherly’s voice was faltering, he was stumbling over his words and finally, overcome with emotion, he stopped. He stood there at the lectern a frail figure, head bowed, and motionless except for a slight trembling of the shoulders. The School watched in an all-enveloping silence, both shocked and embarrassed as he struggled to regain his composure. During what seemed like an interminable pause, but was probably only a few seconds, I am sure most of us recalled with feelings of guilt and remorse the many times we had fooled around, teased and taken advantage of old Barney. And few boys could not have realised at that moment that here was a good man, a dedicated schoolmaster, who had loved and served QEH, and its past and present pupils, for the greater part of his working life.

    Finally Mr. Hatherly began to speak again, but was immediately unable to continue. The School Captain stepped forward, put an arm round his shoulders and gently led him out of the hall.

    But even before they had reached the door, every boy in the hall was on his feet. There was a cheering, and shouting, and clapping and stamping of an unbelievable magnitude. The volume of noise was so great that it seemed that the roof might be blown off and the floor collapse into the kitchens below. It seemed to go on for minutes and there could not have been a single boy with dry eyes. I have never since witnessed such an outpouring of acclamation and affection.

    I was reminded of that day some years ago when I myself retired after nearly forty years of teaching. I was at my last school for twenty four years and looked forward to the last School Assembly with some trepidation. In the event, my short speech to the boys and girls was successfully completed and their response was both kind and generous.

    But I remembered then, that day nearly sixty years ago. I suspect that every boy who was there grew up a little on that day. Certainly there can have been no one present who was not moved by the experience, and no one who was not proud to have been there on the day we said goodbye to Old Barney.

Bob Axbey