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Colin O’Brien Goes Back To School

July 19, 2011
by the gentle author

This is Colin O’Brien, head boy at Sir John Cass School in Aldgate, on the day he left the school in 1955, proudly holding aloft the Lord Broughshane Cup and making a fine show of facing the future with confidence. Standing up straight, with his hair neatly brushed, he is the incarnation of youthful optimism.

So, as you can imagine, Colin was a little tentative when he returned to his old school yesterday, more than half a century later – for the first time since that day – to attend the leavers’ evening and meet the class of 2011.

“I think I was eager to please, and I was very happy,” was Colin’s self-effacing explanation when I asked how he became head boy, as we walked up Aldgate to Sir John Cass School, “I was always top of the class, even though I am not academic and I left with no qualifications.”

While still at school, Colin had shown flair in photography, recording the life around him in Clerkenwell where he grew up and even the car crashes that he witnesses from his window, so it was perfectly natural for him to take a set of pictures of his classmates to record the moment when they knew each other best – before they went their separate ways for ever.

I joined Colin on a sentimental quest to discover his youthful self of this photograph taken in July 1955 at the Sir John Cass School. We looked first in the school trophies cabinet for the Lord Broughshane Cup but it was no longer to be found and, to Colin’s surprise, when he climbed up to the rooftop playground where the picture was taken, he discovered that a garden had grown there, with beehives in a row, and flowers and vegetables sprouting where once he used to play. Yet, unexpectedly, evidence of his youthful presence remained in the form of indentations in the bricks, where Colin and his pals used to polish pennies by rubbing them into the wall, creating round notches that remain half a century later. And, to Colin’s delight, there were names graven into the brick too, among them “S.Worthington 1955” and “Tony Racine 1954.” – names that he remembered as those of his classmates.

Once these unforseen discoveries confirmed that Colin’s memory was not a dream, his photographs not mirages and his youthful self not a spectre, we were emboldened to enter the assembly hall where, beneath the gaze of eighteenth century worthies that lined the walls, the current pupils of Sir John Cass School were gathered with their parents to say farewell to the leavers. Unlike Colin, who left at fifteen to face the world, these pupils were only completing their Primary education at ten or eleven and going on to Secondary education in the Autumn. Yet they were each required to stand up and complete a sentence that began, “When I leave university, I want to be…” and they did so with admirable resolve and ambition, even the ten-year-old realist who rewrote the sentence declaring, “I don’t know yet what I want to do when I leave university.”

Colin was there to give out the prizes to his youthful counterparts at the culmination of the evening, after performances by members of the school string orchestra and drama presentations. He shook hands with each of the leavers as they were given their bible, dictionary and thesaurus – revealing to me later that he still had his own leavers’ bible at home. And then, as the event drew to its close and all the achievements both individual and collective had been celebrated, the equivocal emotional nature of the event became apparent, as in the melee a few gave way to quiet tears. Meanwhile, there were a host of others running around with digital cameras to collect pictures of classmates as keepsakes, just had Colin had done all those years earlier.

As we descended a staircase afterwards, Colin pointed out the spot where he was first told about sex, admitting that he did not believe it at the time. In the playground, he confessed that this was where he felt the tingling sensation inspired by the object of his nascent affection Olive Barker, the daughter of the caretaker of the Bishopsgate Institute. “She never even looked at me,” recalled Colin fondly, “It was my first experience of love.”

Colin O’Brien, 18th July, 2011

Colin O’Brien, July 1955

Olive Barker, the object of Colin’s unrequited youthful affection is on the right.

Colin & the girls

Mr Hunt with members of his class.

S. Worthington, Colin O’Brien and Ingrams.

Sir John Cass School leavers, 2011.

The notches in the wall where the class of 1955 once polished pennies.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

More photographs by Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell Car Crashes

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

At the 126th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Pat permalink
    July 19, 2011

    I was very interested to see the lovely pictures. My Dad went to Sir John Cass School but many years before Colin, Dad was born in 1905. He always said what a good school it was when he was th ere. I would be interested to find out more about it and if there is still a record of Dad’s attendence.

  2. john page permalink
    July 20, 2011

    I was born in Corporation bldgs.farringdon road(have you any photos?) It was an annual event to have all the family around and as we lived on the second landing we had agreat view.
    Fantastic photos must go and see it again. your recent picture of the Rio cinema brought back chilhood memories.

  3. Ree permalink*
    September 3, 2011

    To have grown up in London would have been so exciting and fun…Lucky Colin…

  4. pen ort permalink
    July 2, 2012

    Pat, my Dad went to Sir John Cass too. He lived in Widegate street and told me how he would roller skate to school across Mitre Square.

    Dad was born in 1917, so would have left Cass’ in abt 1930.
    I too wondered if there were any records, or photos available.


  5. Gary Burwood permalink
    September 7, 2012

    Hi Colin, I went to Cass from 1956 till we moved to new school in Stepney in about 1966, great phots I remember Mr Hunt my brother was there from about 1950.

  6. Jay Venn permalink
    January 29, 2013

    Colin, I’ve just come across your wonderful photos here. I’m part of a small team working with the Cass primary school to create a website about the school from its founding to the present day.May we use one or two of your photos on the website? And please, can you tell me what colours the uniforms were? We’ve got details about the older versions, but very little post WW2

    Many thanks

  7. Ian Silverton permalink
    April 26, 2013

    Thanks,for the pictures you put up Colin,left Sir John Cass in 1959,remember some of your mates names,the old playground with our names on it,and the marks made by the coin polishing. Went to Mr Hunt funeral some years ago,met up with some old pupils then.Great School,thanks Sir John. Ian Silverton

  8. Carole Greaves (nee Shuttlewood) permalink
    July 10, 2013

    I went to Sir John Cass school in 1962 I lived in Casson Street, very near to Brick Lane. My family moved to Suffolk in 1963 but I have very good memories of my year there. In my time the girls and boys were segregated at play times and it was the girls that played on the roof. It was a very strict school and full uniform had to be worn at all times – Children seen without any part of their uniform (including ties, caps and berets) would be sent to the headmaster / headmistress for the cane (boys and girls) We had a lovely Welsh teacher (Mr Owen) that taught (of all things) Scottish dancing and the school had won a number of awards including the Rosamund Cup. Mr Owen was a brilliant teacher and taught dancing even though he walked with a stick. The plans for the new Sir John Cass and Red Coat school were on display on the walls when I left so I never got to see it. We had to travel all over in my time for cooker lessons, art lessons and PE as there were no facilities in the school for any of these activities. Oh happy days.

  9. Atnene Camilleri permalink
    July 7, 2014

    I was a Cassian and very proud of it too. I attended the primary school from 1962 ( age 8 ) and went on to the new school in Stepney Green in 1965. Finally leaving in 1972.
    Mr Barrel was the head in those days Mrs Driscoll was deputy head. Mr Spanswick was my primary school teacher for two years. He had a special cupboard in the class full of canes for hitting pupils with and he gave the canes names. I remember that Will Wombat was his favourite cane and he would often carry it about the class flexing it in front of us.
    I moved upstairs to the secondary school for one year before being transferred to the new building in Stepney Green. I loved the old school best and I got to play on the roof top playground where we could look down onto the office workers of the City. I had old Mr Owens for my form teacher in my first year at secondary school and although he was old and had some physical disabilities he was a sure shot with the board rubber when anyone got out of line in class!!!
    I have so many lovely stories of my time at the school…..I loved it. In my teen years I was a bit of a rebel and took the school on strike over the sacking of a much respected teacher Christopher Searl.
    I could rattle off teachers names and stories about them for ages but my most favoured teacher and the one that inspired me the most was Mr Casey. Terrance Casey. He was so strict but very fare and made you recognise your potential.
    Oh well I could talk for ages about my memories of the school and I know my brothers and sisters ( there were 9 of us ) all have there stories too. But I’ll save them for another time.
    Best wishes to all those who have read this.
    Athene Manuella Camilleri

  10. Sue cannon ( nee Susan bull) permalink
    January 11, 2015

    Mr Casey most amazing and inspiring teacher for a rebellious 14 year old who used to wear make up and tights under her socks and dyed my hair …. He told me I was not a rebel , just someone who knew the path I wanted to take and encouraged me to take it….. Introduced me to Animal Farm and Invictus…. The poem he taught me …last lines are…. I am the Captain of my fate and the master of my soul……I can still recite it and I am 65 now ! The only teacher to inspire a Generation of John Cass pupils…..and bless him Mr Owens ..much loved …I was part of his Scottish dance team, and miss duedney who always caught us smoking in the basement toilets but never reported us…..

  11. Linda Pownall permalink
    February 9, 2015

    Lovely memories, I went to the old school and the new, leaving in 1969. Lovely reading and remembering the names of the teachers. Happy days.

  12. Pat Hobbs nee Tarling permalink
    August 7, 2015

    we were the class of 1954 we have been meeting in London for several years and we love it. Loved looking at your photo’s Pat

  13. Mike Allen permalink
    December 19, 2015

    Ah halcyon days. Sue Cannon reminds me of my days in Mr Casey’s class. A really inspirational teacher. By the way Sue, I still have a scar on my finger where you dug your nail into me once. It seemed to be a favourite pastime of yours! Mr Owens was such a polite ex Indian Army officer who had a fund of stories of his time in world war one. Mr Spanswick ( a Dunkirk veteran I seem to remember) was another hard but fair man in my experience, if a little free with the blackboard rubber and his famous canes. What happened to other pupils such as Warren Bentley, James Simes, John Locken, Smithy, Ian(?) Greenlandand Eddie Grainger and all the rest I wonder. I only am in touch with Peter Milton occassionally in Melbourne but I have seen that Linda Dove and Sigrid Morgan-Neil are in the US. Anyway great times. All the best to you all.

  14. David Harvey permalink
    August 30, 2019

    I left the school in July 1962, went to work for Montague Burtons the tailors. There shop was on Gracechurch Street.
    After several Jobs, I ended up as a bus conductor on London Transport.
    I met a girl from Bromley in Kent, we married in 1969 and moved to Burton-on-Trent Staffordshire. I passed my PSV driving test and be came a coach driver.
    This opened up many opportunities for me. Such as driving the Derby Dunkirk Veterans on their annual trip to Dunkirk for their reunion.
    I am now Retired and living in Tamworth.

    I am glad I found a link to my past, and look forward to reading about the old days.

  15. Chris sullivan (stroud) permalink
    December 27, 2019

    Reading lovely stories about Mr Cassey remembering the respect
    We all had for this very strick but fair man..
    I see Susan Bull and Mike Allen has mention him and names of puples
    I was at school with. Sigid Morgan-Neil was great friend of mine. Along with carol Watman. Its my 70th birthday in a few dsys ti.e and suppose its that nostalgic time of your life. Where has the time gone. What a wonderful time ive had.

  16. Christopher Matheson permalink
    July 14, 2020

    I noticed this article quite recently and was then surprised to see a comment from Mike Allen who I recall from my two years at Cass’s, 1961-1963. I also recall Warren Bentley, James Symes, Ian Greenland, Eddie Grainger and Peter Milton who Mike mentioned. Sadly I also remember Terrence Casey who is remembered fondly not only by Mike but also by Sue Cannon (Bull) [who I may recall], Chris Sullivan (Stroud) and Atnene Camilleri.

    However my memories of Casey are far from fond. When I arrived at Cass’s in September 1961 I recall being to told to ‘Watch out for Casey’ but he wasn’t an issue for me for I had no dealings with him in my first year. At the end of 1A I was relegated to 2B but after the Christmas exams I returned to 2A where Casey was the form teacher. Very soon after my arrival in 2A it became apparent that I was the target of Casey’s continuing verbal and physical abuse which I had to endure from January until July 1963. By then my mother had me removed, not so much from Cass’s, but from Casey and his hateful behaviour. So, a new school no more Casey and the nightmare was over.

    In 1990 I had a brief to write a paper on ‘Fear’ and my memory rushed back the 26 years to Casey. Here’s part of what I wrote in 1990.

    ‘Upon my arrival in 2A I was allocated a seat in the front row just to Casey’s left and a little out of his arm’s reach. Sadly I was not beyond the reach of his vicious tongue, which was a weapon he was adept at using on defenceles children. Casey was my teacher for English, History, Maths and Sports, which led to my spending a lot of time in his orbit. My performance at his beloved sports was as miserable as my academic studies so I quickly found myself on the receiving end of not only his tongue but also his right arm. One of his delights was to ridicule my work in front of the class and another was to ask me questions he knew I could not answer and then to pull my ear. On one occasion we joined him in the classroom where he was seated at his desk reading. I could see he was reading a report booklet and wondered why he had one at that time of the year. Once we were settled down he told us to listen carefully to what he was going to read. He then proceeded to read out my first year report. I sat there dreading what he had planned for his encore.

    When he had finished reading he announced that it was the report of one of the class members and jokingly asked for volunteers to claim it as theirs. When he had no takers he continued in a joking manner soliciting people by name and at this stage they got into the swing of it and started to volunteer themselves. When he got tired of this he quieted them down and looked at me and told me to stand up. He then announced that it was my report and read it out once more. Following another bour of abuse I was told to sit down.’

    I wrote nearly four pages but the above are the salient paragraphs. I will add that I am certain that I sat next to Lorraine Overbury for those six months and have no memory of ever speaking to her. But surely that can’t be true.

  17. Andrew Chapman permalink
    December 31, 2020

    I attended Cass 1957 to 1970. I vividly recall Owens, Spanswick and Casey (the latter two being form masters of mine).

    Sadly the only pupils I recall from those of you who have chosen to write on this site are Gary Burwood and Linda Powell.

  18. Tanzim Talukdhar permalink
    May 9, 2022

    I attend stepney green school but i dont attend stepney all saints but the stories feel nostalgic even though im only year 8 moving onto year 9 late september

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