Wearside Echoes: Centenary memories of old Ryhope school

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THIS year marks what would have been the 100th anniversary of a Wearside school - had it not already been confined to the history books.

Robert Richardson Grammar School at Ryhope educated thousands of youngsters over seven decades before its closure in 1988.

“Although the school no longer exists, I feel it is important to mark the centenary. It needs to be remembered,” said Colin Orr, a former pupil and governor of RGS.

“If you were prepared to put your shoulder to the wheel and work hard, it opened so many doors. It gave generations of working class boys and girls a wonderful opportunity.”

Politicians, surgeons. journalists, diplomats, scientists, engineers, architects, actors and TV producers were among those to benefit from an RGS education.

Other brave pupils gave their lives fighting for Britain in the First and Second World Wars, while still more carved careers in banking, sport, education and industry.

“RGS played a part in the shaping the future of industry, education and commerce, both in this country and abroad with the education it offered,” said Colin, a retired teacher.

It was in 1909 when Durham County Council announced plans to open several Grammar Schools across the region, in an effort to educate the region’s most “gifted children.”

Ryhope, however, was not included in the proposals - until local councillor Robert Richardson launched a “strong campaign” on behalf of the community.

“It may seem odd that any agitation was necessary,” recalled RGS headmaster Stanley Graham in a 1961 brochure marking the 50th anniversary of the school.

“But Robert Richardson is on record as having said that he had been laughed at for wanting a school at such as place as Ryhope.”

The councillor’s campaign proved a success. On September 16, 1911, he opened the new school - which was named Robert Richardson Grammar in his honour.

Former Ryhope Public Elementary School pupil Ralph Williams took on the post of headmaster, welcoming a first intake of 74 boys and 81 girls.

“Thus in 1911 began the great task of building up a school that soon became known far beyond the boundaries of County Durham,” wrote Mr Graham in 1961.

Built on a four-acre site on the outskirts of Ryhope, the new school offered “every convenience, an excellent playing field and electricity throughout.”

Those youngsters who managed to pass the tough entrance exam were charged £1 10 shillings per term to cover tuition costs, use of apparatus, books and paper.

But, according to the prospectus, the benefits they could expect included “entrance into commercial life, higher branches of industry, teaching and other professions.”

Ryhope Grammar School was to prove an immediate success. Within a year it had been given a glowing report from education inspectors and was over-subscribed.

“The school is well-disciplined and efficiently organised. Pupils are of good behaviour and staff are well chosen and highly capable,” the inspection report revealed.

Indeed, such was the success of the school that 11 pupil teachers passed their preliminary exams within a year of starting their studies at RGS – an amazing achievement at the time.

The outbreak of the First World War saw several Old Ryhopeans sign up to fight for King and Country, while those still at school raised money for charity.

“Many former pupils covered themselves in glory during the war including Norman Pigg, the school’s first sports champion,” Stanley Graham later recalled.

“He served with particular distinction, gaining the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross with two bars and three mentions in Dispatches. He fortunately survived the war, but 14 Old Boys did not.”

Norman went on to spearhead a fund-raising campaign to commemorate the fallen after the war, with an organ and plaque being erected in the school hall in 1924.

And the post-war years also saw RGS become one of the first schools in the country to offer Advanced Courses – opening doors to higher education.

“The headmaster, Mr Williams, was reputed to have a dislike of games. The real emphasis was on the hard academic grind,” his successor Mr Graham later revealed.

“He was a stern taskmaster, but innately just. The pupils feared him, but he won their loyalty.”

A landmark in the development of the school came in the early 1930s, when Seaham Harbour Grammar School for Girls opened and Ryhope ceased to be co-educational.

One master was overheard to loudly lament the change, maintaining “the girls worked harder than the boys, and their Oxford results were better.”

Much-need extra laboratories, a new library, art room and dining hall built were also built in this decade but, when war was declared in 1939, RGS shut its doors.

“It closed for some weeks, then re-opened on a part-time basis with 21-minute lessons. It was a year before sufficient shelters were available,” said Mr Graham.

Just a year later, Mr Williams stepped down and Mr Graham took over – leaving his role as science master at Durham Johnston Grammar to accept the post.

“Arriving early in the afternoon, I found the school deserted, barrage balloons flying high, fighter aircraft overhead and boys in the shelters,” he recalled.

Hundreds of Old Ryhopeans signed up to fight in World War Two, and the school became one of the first in the country for form an Air Training Corps unit.

The bravery of past pupils took its toll, however, with 34 paying the ultimate price for their country. A further 15, however, were highly decorated.

The years following World War Two saw O and A Level exams introduced and pupil numbers increase dramatically – from 432 in 1947 to 586 by 1959.

Lighting was improved, an electric bell system introduced and a field obtained for a rugby pitch. The prefect system was also overhauled, as was the house system.

The biggest changes, however, were to come in the 1960s. In 1962 the school once again opened its doors to girls and, in 1969, RGS amalgamated with Ryhope Modern to become a comprehensive.

But new head Richard Copeland sparked controversy before he even started at Ryhope – by demanding the appointment of a careers teacher. A ban on corporal punishment soon followed.

His decision to throw away the cane sparked a top-level investigation into the running of the school, as well as its discipline, by then education secretary Sir Keith Joseph.

Mr Copeland, however, remained unrepentant. “No-one will learn satisfactorily if they are fearful or afraid. They have got to feel secure and there has to be mutual respect,” he told the Echo.

A fresh new approach to education was ushered in by Mr Copeland too, with the introduction of subjects such as motor vehicle studies and rural science, as well as large-scale productions of rock operas Tommy and Stardust.

Indeed, the drama teacher who guided the national head-line grabbing shows, Malcolm Gerrie, went on to produce music show The Tube – alongside RGS past pupil Chris Cowey.

The end finally came for RGS, by now known as Ryhope School, in July 1988. Today modern apartments and houses stand on the site, and only the old sports field remains.

“I still get a lump in my throat when I think about the school. I managed to save a little bit of marble from one of the corridors, but there is nothing on site to show what once stood there,” said Colin.

“I truly cherish the years I spent there. The school gave so many boys and girls new vistas, new horizons, to aim for.”