Remembering Bill, the Lawrence Sheriff groundsman who fought in the trenches and stayed a true squaddie for life
Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott remembers an old chap who had once been up to his neck in muck and bullets…
Six years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to the old home town to mark the 50th anniversary of leaving Lawrence Sheriff School and my subsequent entry into the world of work.
Like all pilgrims, I have walked down many a rocky road in my travels through life, yet have somehow emerged virtually unscathed, despite a few trials and tribulations along the way.
So, on that June morning in 2015, I stood outside what had once been Moore’s handicrafts shop on the corner of Clifton Road and Bath Street, and gazed at the original school building with its spire at the front, mentally locating room three where Geoff Webster had once been cruelly encouraged to write his name on the ceiling with a fountain pen.
I say ‘cruelly’ because cruel is what boys are, always have been, and always will be.
You see, the rest of us had written in pencil, and once Geoff had indelibly engraved his name for posterity, we rubbed out all the evidence that might have incriminated us.
Cunning? Horrible, more like. I seem to remember that Geoff paid the price once his vandalism had been detected by the form master.
Was it an imposition, lines, detention, or a case of bamboo on worsted? Only Geoff will recall the officially sanctioned torments to which he was subjected.
Anyway, while I stood lost in thoughts, a procession of present-day schoolboys filed out, presumably en-route to a lesson in another
Many of them had longish hair, ties askew, and a few wore shirts outside their trousers, tails flapping in the wind.
I’m so glad that attitudes have changed over the intervening half century, but in my day, you might not exactly have been hanged, drawn and quartered, but the ensuing retribution for such sartorial rebellion would not have been all that far off.
I started at the Sheriff in September, 1960. Unfortunately for us, the previous year’s intake had rapidly become notorious, and so this effectively queered our pitch, too.
So because the masters – not teachers, note – were expecting trouble, I will always believe that they were unduly harsh with us lot.
For example, a lad by the name of Mick Wherrett stopped a high velocity board rubber just for looking out of the window during a lesson.
Now Mick was actually a very well-behaved boy, and really didn’t deserve a blow to the head for a momentary daydream. But that’s how it was in those days.
Nevertheless, there was one adult at the school who seemed to be on our wavelength, and that was groundsman Bill Batchelor
I can see him now, blue overalls, flat cap, and with a cigarette permanently dangling from his bottom lip.
Bill lived at the bottom of Railway Terrace so hadn’t far to travel for his daily labours.
He had served in the First World War, and looking back, I think this experience had instilled a sense of comradeship with the lads.
After all, he wouldn’t have been much older than us when he had been, as he often pointed out, “up to his bl**dy neck in muck and bullets.”
Bill had retained his fruity, soldier’s vocabulary, and spiced every sentence with a swear word. Not the first division expletives, mind you, but certainly plenty of adjectives and nouns starting with the letter ‘b’.
Sometimes, the bad boys of 5b would cadge a Woodbine from him, and share it, hidden out of sight behind the old long-gone pavilion that once faced Hillmorton Road.
Detection would almost certainly have resulted in the cane, by the way.
“Give us a fag, Bill,” one of us would say. And Bill would pretend to be shocked, then his face might break into a craggy smile, and out would come the cigarette from that little green packet held fast in the embrace of its climbing honeysuckle logo.
“You could get 50 ‘Woods’ for a tanner when you was in the bl**dy trenches,” said old Bill. That didn’t mean very much to us back then, although most of us had grandfathers or great-uncles who had served during 1914-18.
So had he fought on the Somme, at Mons or Wipers? We’ll never know now, as all we cared about at the time was to savour some of those delectable tobacco fumes.
Bill has long been reunited with his old comrades in the sky. But when I think about my days at Lawrence Sheriff, my thoughts often turn to the grizzled old grounds man who might well say “get yer ‘air cut” yet always with a twinkle in his eye.
For the thing about old Bill was that he’d probably seen a lot of suffering when he’d been not much older than us.
He quite possibly recognised something of him in ourselves, young Warwickshire lads who actually meant little harm, and just needed a little encouragement from time to time… even if it didn’t necessarily take the form of a cadged cigarette at the back of the pavilion.
John Phillpott remembers his days at Lawrence Sheriff School in Go and Make the Tea, Boy! published by Brewin Books of Redditch.