West Leeds Boys High School

As part of our ongoing Armley Treasures series, librarian Helen Skilbeck looks at the early history of the West Leeds Boys High School. This is a companion piece to the West Leeds Girls High School blog post of August 2020 by Josh Flint.

The school opened in September 1907 and was ‘planned not as a co-educational school, but as a dual school, where boys and girls would in general pursue their studies independently of each other, and where a spirit of intelligent and friendly co-operation would prevail’ (O. Harland, 1957). Although housed in one building, the teaching of boys and girls was kept entirely separate. It was not until the 1950s that the school was officially divided into the Girls High School and Boys High School and soon after the Girls School left the original school building.

Tinted postcard of West Leeds High School, 1907. Copyright Leeds Libraries, Leodis

Within the Local and Family History Library are a number of fascinating items concerning the school. One key item is Oswald Harland’s ‘A Chronicle History of West Leeds High School for Boys 1907-1957’ (1957). This charts the opening of the school, its early years and is full of anecdotes concerning teachers and pupils. It’s a must read for anyone researching the school or for those whose ancestors may have attended. It also lists former teachers and all those pupils who went on to attend Cambridge or Oxford Universities.

West Leeds High School for Boys: A Chronicle History, Oswald H. Harland (1957)

Through this book we learn that the school was initially nicknamed ‘Kinder’s Folly’ after Alderman Kinder who was the chair of the Higher Education Committee. We learn that it was the first large building in Leeds to have concrete flooring, the first school to have adjustable desks and separate ventilation systems for summer and winter. Classrooms were built so that sunshine got into every room at some time of the day. Balconies were arranged so the headmaster or headmistress could see everything happening on the playing field. The French and German language classrooms were designed so the pupil would feel they were actually in France or Germany. The large flat roof was to be used for experiments involving weather and geography as well as hosting a greenhouse for botany, art and general nature studies.

West Leeds High School opening ceremony, 7 September 1907. Image from Harland’s ‘A Chronicle History of West Leeds High School for Boys 1907-1957’.

The first boys studied under headmaster Christopher Darling. He disliked hierarchy within the boys so there was no house system, no system of rewards or prizes and no prefects. His aim was ‘to produce brilliant scholars and to ensure that the main body of his pupils should be fitted to take a worthy place in the life of the district and the city’ (O. Harland, 1957).

Clubs were created and these included the Old Boys’ Society in 1909, the Literary Society, Science Club and Junior Club. The Art Club studied architecture and made visits to local landmarks. One boy took his rabbit with him to Kirkstall Abbey as there was an abundance of dandelions for it to eat. It came with him on three occasions but when queried where it had then gone, the boy replied he’d ‘etten it’.

Art classroom, West Leeds High School, 1907. Image from Harland’s ‘A Chronicle History of West Leeds High School for Boys 1907-1957’.

Annual speech days and sports days began with both schools jointly taking part and the school magazine was formed, again as a co-operative venture. The boys were very much encouraged to study sciences rather than the arts and male sixth form students who wanted to study history, English or modern languages were obliged to study in the girls school, so few did so.

The outbreak of the First World War saw things change dramatically at the school. The Art Club closed as outdoor sketching became prohibited.  Mistresses from the girls school began teaching the boys as so many Masters were called away to serve and more female staff were employed to cover the staffing absences. The school began fundraising for the British Red Cross and the Belgian Relief Organisation as well as other war charities and even raised funds to allow copies of the school magazine to be sent to all Old Boys serving with the forces. The December 1918 school magazine listed the names of 249 Old Boys who had served their country in the war. This magazine then ceased publication until 1934.

Mr Darling retired in 1925 with Mr Thomas Curzon becoming the new headmaster. Curzon was formerly at Leeds Grammar School and had been invalided out of the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) during the war. Curzon soon made changes to the school, introducing four Houses and Housemasters and creating competitions between the Houses. New societies were formed including the Dramatic Society and a Joint Choir and Rugby was introduced to the school.

After a period of stability and development the approach of the Second World War saw things change very quickly. Soon after war was declared the West Leeds Boys were evacuated to Retford and West Leeds Girls to Tadcaster. All societies were abandoned and many boys left, many never to return. After one term the school returned to Leeds and pupils from other schools joined. After the evacuation the girls school decided to form their own school magazine so for the first time since the school opened there were separate magazines for each school. Some of the school magazines for both the girls and boys school have survived and are held by the library, as well as some of the the jointly produced magazines. The Old Boys Bulletin was a separate publication and the library holds issues 1-30 covering the period 1928-1946.

Issue 1 of the Old Boys’ Bulletin, June 1928.

By the end of the war 552 Old Boys were in uniform, 30 had been killed, 7 were reported missing and 20 were prisoners of war. 11 had been mentioned in despatches and 17 had been awarded decorations.

Mr Curzon’s last public event, before his retirement in 1949, was the unveiling of the war memorial. The service took place on 18 July 1949 and was given by Canon A. S. Reeve, Vicar of Leeds. A copy of the memorial service forms part of our collection on the school.

Dedication of War Memorial service sheet, 18 July 1949.

As mentioned, the Old Boys Society was originally set up in 1909 and would host regular reunion dinners in Leeds. Its first dinner in London was at De Hems restaurant on 18 February 1939. The library holds a copy of the menu and rather delightfully, the back page has been autographed by those attending. Noticeable are R. Armitage who was the Chairman and F. Shires who was toastmaster that evening.

Reverse of menu of first Old Boys dinner in London, 1939.

Serving Old Boys would visit the school in uniform and one of the first Old Boys to assume chair of the governing body was Joe Hiley in 1942. He would later become MP for Pudsey 1959-74. Other school alumni were successful in a variety of fields. The New Year’s Honours List of 1953 saw two Old Boys listed – Frank Shires was knighted for services to the food industry and Dr. J. S. Carter received an OBE for his work on atmospheric pollution. One of the most well-known alumni was Bill Bowes who went on to become a Yorkshire and England cricketer.

Bill Bowes cartoon, taken from Harland’s ‘A Chronicle History of West Leeds Highs School for Boys 1907-1957’

As well as the highlighted collections, the library also holds several more dinner menus for Old Boys’ Dinners, Speech Day programmes, an undated school prospectus and a collection of newscuttings on the careers of several West Leeds Boys High School alumni. Together these give a fascinating insight into the beginnings of the school, the school Masters and pupils.

For more information or to view any of the West Leeds High School collection please contact localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or 0113 378 6982.

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