Heritage long read: Colourful headmaster who helped shape Royal Liberty School, Gidea Park

The Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears

The Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

In this special heritage long read, Prof Ged Martin looks at the career of Gus Hartley, the first headmaster of the Royal Liberty School.

The Quad at the Royal Liberty School. Picture: John Hercock

The Quad at the Royal Liberty School. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

In June 1921, 39 year-old bachelor Stephen Barrett Hartley was appointed first headmaster of Romford’s new secondary school for boys – due to open three months later.

Hartley’s education, at Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University, had been funded by scholarships generously provided by the Co-op. He believed in educational opportunity.

He was an enthusiastic sportsman, a fine cricketer. He also played lacrosse, a curious form of hockey, played with “sticks” like shrimping nets.

Hartley captained the Oxford lacrosse team, and joined a British universities’ team tour of North America.

Officially, he was studying classics. But Hartley devoted more time to games than to Latin and Greek, and nearly failed his exams. Oxford awarded him a Fourth Class Honours degree.

A “Fourth” indicated that the examiners had a low opinion of the candidate’s abilities – a terrible foundation for a teaching career.

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Luckily, his old school, Manchester Grammar, gave him a job – teaching classics! The boys called him “Jampot”. (Hartley’s Jam was popular in Lancashire.)

Jampot threw himself into games. “He never seems happy unless he is doing something for the school,” wrote his headmaster in a reference.

Hartley’s enthusiasm made him the person to start Romford’s new school. He quickly recruited a team of six masters.

The school aimed at 400 boys, but enrolments had only started in July. Just 80 arrived on Tuesday, September 20, at Hare Hall, the empty Gidea Park mansion allocated to the project.

The first week was a fiasco. No desks had been supplied. Hartley ordered the boys to weed the neglected gardens.

In addition to fighting for equipment, the new head also waged a campaign over the school’s name.

Romford already had a County High School for Girls (now Frances Bardsley). Whitehall bureaucrats called the new institution Romford County High School for Boys.

Until 1892, Havering had possessed special local institutions, making it a “Liberty”. In 1880, a local historian had invented the title, “Royal Liberty”.

Hartley liked the name. When official circulars arrived addressed to Romford County High School for Boys, he returned answers from “Royal Liberty School”.

When the minister for education formally inaugurated the school, on November 9, he announced that the name would be changed, although purists complained a royal charter was required.

“We were rather a rough group,” recalled the first head boy, Ernie Strangleman (who served in the RAF in the Second World War). Hartley, who combined a Lancashire accent with Oxford pronunciation, discouraged their “Essex brogue”.

The headmaster needed a new nickname. “Jampot” did not survive the move south.

When Hartley took his pupils camping in Switzerland, he wore a white pointed hat resembling the Alps. They briefly called him “Mont Blanc”, before settling on “Gussy” (or “Gus”). Nobody ever knew why.

By 1927, there were 303 boys in the school. Work began on a three-sided brick extension, with specialist teaching facilities for science, behind the mansion.

Gussy celebrated its completion in 1929 by getting married. He was 47, 22 years older than the new Mrs Hartley.

By the 1930s, there were over 500 pupils.

Gussy believed boys should be treated as individuals. He proudly claimed he could address every pupil by name, although he didn’t always get their names right!

The 1921 intake included Kenneth Farnes, whom Gussy recalled as “a small dark-haired boy, eager to create a good impression”.

At 15, he was over six feet tall. Gussy encouraged him to join the Gidea Park cricket club. Farnes became an England fast bowler.

But Gussy remembered the advice of his former boss. Boys should “see that your heart is tender, but your principles are tough”.

After a complaint of misbehaviour on a bus, he rounded up the lads who travelled that route, and caned them all.

One victim ruefully recalled Gussy’s “strong cricket-developed arm”.

In 1939, Royal Liberty School’s first headmaster, Stephen (“Gus” to his colleagues, “Gussy” to the boys) Hartley, aged 57, faced the new challenges of war.

Windows were criss-crossed with tape to stop flying glass from bomb blasts. (Sixty years later, some of it could still be seen, if you knew where to look!)

When All Saints’ Church in Squirrels Heath Lane was bombed in 1941, Sunday services were transferred to the school hall.

Boys still had to be taught. There were 600 pupils in 1943.

Younger masters joined the Forces. Some were replaced by female teachers. Women were eased out after 1945, on the sexist assumption that boys need male role models.

Heavy burdens fell upon a group of long-serving staff, mostly too old for active service.

But one of them, Ernest Pilling, was recruited to a secret sabotage unit that would go into hiding if the Nazis overran Britain. A short, tough Northerner, who’d helped Hartley launch Royal Liberty in 1921, Ernie spent arduous weekends training in survival techniques.

One former pupil, Cambridge don Ralph Bennett, worked with the Bletchley Park code-breakers. He revisited the school in 1943, but could only say that his job was “hush-hush”.

In August 1941, sixty boys camped near Thaxted. They did 3,700 hours of harvest work, thus freeing farm workers to join the Forces.

Two pupils, Ronald Jenkins (aged 16) and his brother Leslie (13), were killed when a V2 rocket hit their Brentwood home in 1944.

Around 100 former pupils died in the war. With a good grounding in subjects like maths, science and geography from their Royal Liberty curriculum, its products were ideal for specialist work in the Royal Air Force. Many served in the dangerous roles of pilots and navigators. The death rate was high.

“I was thrilled by my visit to my old school,” wrote Pilot Officer Robert Scott, shortly before being posted overseas. He looked forward to returning in happier times. Within weeks, he was killed when a routine flight crashed near Gibraltar.

Gus Hartley announced their deaths in morning assembly, and wrote obituary notes for the school magazine.

The loss of England cricketer Kenneth Farnes in 1941 was a particularly heavy blow. Hartley had helped Farnes establish himself as a top-class fast bowler, and enthusiastically followed his test match career.

In 1948, a memorial window commemorating the dead was dedicated in the school hall.

Hartley retired in 1947. Admirers gave him two new gadgets, an electric kettle and a television set.

His portrait was presented to the school. It’s good – except that Gus is sitting still, and he’s not talking!

Hartley found it hard to let go. He should have moved away from Gidea Park, giving a clear run to his successor, G.H.R. Newth.

“Give of your best to Mr Newth, because he will give of his best to you,” was Hartley’s parting message to the school.

He sounded like Sir Alex Ferguson welcoming David Moyes as the new manager at Manchester United!

His house in Edward Close overlooked the Royal Liberty playing field. From the kitchen window, Hartley enthusiastically watched cricket matches.

One morning, as Gussy was washing up after breakfast, a boy hit a six through the window. He took a delighted catch at the sink.

Sometimes, he would visit the nets to coach young cricketers. In his eighties, he could still bowl a perfect line and length.

He continued to take his place among the platform party at the annual prize day.

One year, he was informally invited to say “a few words”. He stole the show – and wrecked the schedule!

Gus Hartley died in 1978, aged 95.

Royal Liberty today is a different school, but it owes its name and something of its spirit to its colourful first headmaster.