A Secondary School for Uckfield – 1952-1960 by Howard Gilbert, from Hindsight 15

A Secondary School for Uckfield – 1952-1960

An “Official Guide” for Uckfield, published in about 1951 or 1952 has the following entry.(1)

“Parents of young children will be interested to learn that there are several good schools in Uckfield and the vicinity. A Preparatory School for Boys, Temple Grove, at Heron’s Ghyll, claims to be one of the oldest Preparatory Schools in the country. Two miles away at Buxted, is St. Margaret’s School, at which girls are accepted from 5 to 18 years, and boys up to 8 years of age, also Buckswood Grange, a girls Preparatory School for ages 4 to 12, and at New Court, New Town, a P.N.E.U. School. Other excellent schools are within easy reach – there are, of course, a number of schools in Lewes. The Uckfield Parochial Church School has 350 places, while a new co-educational school with 450 places – the Uckfield County Secondary Modern – has just been completed.”


The Guide contains a town map that was drawn in the 1920s or earlier. This shows Uckfield House and, below its lower boundary, a field crossed by a footpath, that is the site on which the County Secondary School was built. The carriageway from Hempstead Road (Lime Tree Avenue) leads up to a boundary and past a building that may have been a lodge at the entry to Uckfield House. This is a different lodge from the estate worker’s cottage at the entrance to the Avenue in the 1950s – not shown on this map.

The Guide contains a town map that was drawn in the 1920s or earlier. This shows Uckfield House and, below its lower boundary, a field crossed by a footpath, that is the site on which the County Secondary School was built. The carriageway from Hempstead Road (Lime Tree Avenue) leads up to a boundary and past a building that may have been a lodge at the entry to Uckfield House. This is a different lodge from the estate worker’s cottage at the entrance to the Avenue in the 1950s – not shown on this map.

In the Uckfield & District Preservation Society’s (UDPS) Newsletter for October 2008 Cathy Watson wrote about Lime Tree Avenue, and the great efforts being made for its restoration. It was, as she reports, the entrance way to Uckfield County Secondary School opened in 1952, and in that role, at the end of its life as an entrance into Uckfield House grounds. In earlier days (2) it had been the main way, off the Hempstead Road, into Uckfield House. In the late 1940s the road provided a convenient entry point already in situ when East Sussex County Council approved the construction of the new school on land previously bought, or leased from Lord Rupert Nevill the then owner of Uckfield House.

The public footpath branched at the point of entering the school grounds; the right hand arm followed on across the playing fields to join the Hempstead Road again above Hempstead Mill.
She records that Royalty often stayed at the House. This was certainly evidenced when, in 1954, it was the venue for the fateful meeting and decision time for Princess Margaret in her intention to marry Group Captain Peter Townshend. At the time the Avenue swarmed with reporters and during morning Assembly the Head Teacher, Harold Pearmain, cautioned children not to become involved or to respond to questions from unusual visitors.

A Community School ideal

The School, and its drawing board ‘sibling’, Heathfield County Secondary School, were the first secondary modern schools to be purpose built by the Authority under the terms and regulations provided by the Education Act 1944. Each embodied features of contemporary education thinking and idealism. Much in the minds of the planners and the architects were the village college concepts adopted in Cambridgeshire during the pre-war decade. These were, fundamentally, that the school should be a place for ‘all the people’ (3) where children received their secondary education, where young people could engage in after school leisure and recreative activities, and adults could also enjoy educational opportunities suited to their interests. It must be probable that the County Education Officer, Bernard S. Braithwaite, shared this view, as – then – he was also a prominent member of the National Institute of Adult Education’s Executive Committee, (today NIACE), a role and interest continued by his successor in office, the late J. Rendel Jones, who became the Institute’s voluntary Treasurer. (4)
In the Education Act of 1944 it was provided that a Minister of State, with Cabinet rank be appointed. This was the first time ever that such a high ranking ministerial post had been created for Education although Government became involved with its regulation in 1833. The concept of community use of schools was also implicit in the phraseology of the Act. These are the words that direct the Minister’s responsibility and focus:
“…. the Minister, whose duty it shall be to promote the education of the people of England and Wales and the progressive development of institutions devoted to that purpose, and to secure the effective execution…” (5)
The first years at Uckfield saw the development of the concept. After-school clubs were formed – chess, gym, football and cricket coaching among others were started. An Evening Institute was begun for adults and young people over the age of 14. The public library was opened on the first floor. A unit with livestock was situated between the school and the estate worker’s cottage at the entrance to what is now Lime Tree Avenue. These were heady days.

The first pupils
They came to Uckfield by service buses from Buxted, East Hoathly Fairwarp, Framfield, (some from Blackboys), from Hadlow Down, Little Horsted, Maresfield, Nutley; from Newick and Fletching (later), and also from the town’s Parochial School by Holy Cross Church. The village schools from which most pupils transferred were those to which a child entered the infant stage at 5 years, moved up a class at 7, and another (or possibly two) at 11 into the top class where he or she remained until school leaving day arrived. A small number, from each school, passed the 11 plus examination and went on to the nearest grammar school. The rest remained on until reaching the official leaving age, raised from 14 to 15 in 1949. The creation of Uckfield County Secondary School resulted in the removal of the 11-15 age group from the district’s all age primary schools. Children whose older siblings had spent school life in one location found their own post-11 school education taking place in an entirely new world. It was a new, and variously exhilarating, interesting, challenging, and sometimes an uncomfortable experience.
They wore a brown uniform and one local resident described the place as the “Brown University”. In many respects, the school was an exciting place and prospect offering new experiences and learning possibilities for the children and for the surrounding local and rural community. Building slowly, by 1960 the school roll had edged towards maximum capacity of 450 places; eligible numbers were expected to rise higher than the number of leavers.

Staff and Curriculum Subjects
The Head Master was Harold Pearmain, (“Jumbo”); formerly from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham. He was caring, thoughtful, appeared not always to be fully in command, but had a clear idea of how he wished the school to develop. He was generous of spirit and related well to the children in his charge. Day-to-day secretarial service was managed by Carmen Grandis. At the top of the school management were Brian Edwards, the Senior Master, and from 1955, Tania Modrak, Senior Mistress. Brian was a Mathematician by training, an experienced teacher, calm and steady in moments of crisis, – and there were some. In so many ways he was what a traditional Senior Master is thought to be: well organised, able to receive confidences and to be a confidant, and a strong support to raw, young teachers. Tania Modrak was more volatile, had special responsibility for the girls, and contributed to the drama programme of the school.
The staff comprised a rich mix of experienced teachers transferred from the primary schools, seasoned teachers from elsewhere – some graduates, but all containing within them many talents. The curriculum covered the traditional subjects (English, Mathematic, History, Geography,) taught in the all range schools, but added dimensions to each. Science and Rural Science were largely new to the children, as were Metalwork, Music, Art and Pottery as specialist subjects.
Rural Science taught by Richard Welch, (“Dickie”) enthused youngsters for whom farm life was a real life course. He was also a keen amateur coastal navigator. He retired after 31 years in 1983. Art and Pottery subjects were introduced by John Gunn, (“Ben”). Later in life he taught at the distinguished Edward James Arts Foundation, West Dean College near Chichester. Derek Moss, (‘Stirling’) Head of Department, provided English Language and Literature courses that led to the first 5th Form and GCE ‘O’ level Certificates being taken.
Practical subjects formed part of the early curriculum. These were not novel to all the older transferred children. Some had attended specialist practical Craft Centres established by the East Sussex Education Committee for secondary age children. Three of the teachers from these Centres also joined the staff: Miss Brown, (Cookery), Dorothy Gladwin, (Dressmaking and Needlecraft) and Mr. Long.(Carpentry and Woodwork). Other staff joined the school between 1958 and 1961; they included Geoff Storey,(English and Drama), Alan Bates (Physical Education), and Tim Pember, who had particular skills with less able children.

Quality Street, a 1957 production.

Drama – play production
Drama was encouraged by an integral stage in the assembly hall that was deeper, wider and better equipped than many village and small town halls. There were two dressing rooms at the rear. It was part of the village college concept: to provide a facility that could be used by school and community alike. An Education Officer at County Hall is credited with influencing the architects to design appropriate drama facilities. Lionel Green was a strong supporter and active member of the Lewes Theatre Club, an amateur organisation with its own small theatre. The Club had over one thousand members including one hundred amateur actors, and offered a programme of six full-length plays a year. Amateur drama was at a high point, with much positive collaboration in youth drama between East and West Sussex Education Authorities
During the first years Derek Moss produced a number of plays, including Walter de la Mare’s Crossings, an ambitious play The Snow Queen by Suria Magito and Rudolf Weil, and the popular fable The Tinder Box. This last made full use of the lighting, and sound options, and the trap door to the under stage. Derek eventually retired as Head of a large Hampshire Comprehensive School and Community College.
An offshoot of the drama programmes was the creation of an old scholars’ youth group – the Wayfarers. They played in the annual Sussex County Youth Drama Festival, and in their second year, achieved a place in the annual Youth Finals held at Glyndebourne Opera House. In 1959 they entered the Three-Act Drama Festival.

Developing the Curriculum
Much else was achieved during those early years. A certain idyllic quality pervaded, or so it seems in retrospect, when set against the modern circumstances in which the secondary schools of 2009 are almost shrouded. Alan Fenton, Metalwork and Engineering, introduced the boys to motor vehicle technology and maintenance. Alan left after the second year, and was succeeded by Anthony (“Dick”) Barton who also introduced creative metalwork and elementary sculpture forms.
Mrs. Kershaw succeeded Miss Brown; she enlarged the Cookery schemes into Domestic Science, and also created the way for courses to ‘O’ level. Winifred Innes, who had been a stage costumier, taught Needlework and applied those skills to the practical needs of school plays. Jim Harrett, (“Jimboy”), Science teacher, was also an accomplished cricketer; he stimulated rural children with a love of Science and led the annual Staff v School cricket match. He was instrumental in securing periodic visits from Sussex cricketers to take occasional coaching sessions for boys interested in developing their skills. Ronald Welfare was music teacher and a Gilbert & Sullivan devotee. Illness intervened to defer a project he had in mind. Given the drama background that some of the children had, an attempt was to be made to produce ‘The Mikado’. The idea was not lost; a tradition became established later for annual productions, the last of which was “Patience” in 1972. Jack Gravestock and Barbara Taylor were physical education and games specialists; they brought a new world of physical activity that was both stimulating and occasionally daunting to children accustomed to the restraints of small village schools.
History was in Howard Gilbert’s (“Sullivan”) hands; it was taught with two other colleagues, following much the conventional mode from early days to the (then) present, with an emphasis upon social history. Because of the research he had been enabled to do (6), elements of local history were included in the Third Year Scheme. At that time (1952-60) little was known of the rich heritage that Uckfield possessed. The founding of UDPS, the research studies of Simon Wright of Temple Grove School in particular and Hindsight, were several years away. Howard entered further education, ultimately to head up an adult college in Greater London.
School journeys were well supported. Two parties went to the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition. Arranged by the School Travel Service, another went to Nordwyck in Holland with visits to The Hague and Amsterdam; a third group travelled to Paris. Arriving there during the week of a strike on the Metro they, nevertheless, went to the Louvre, ate sandwiches in the Tuileries Gardens, a few ventured up the Eiffel Tower, and all went to Notre Dame and Les Invalides.

Involving the Community
The public library was part of the community concept. Located on the first floor, and equipped with the contemporary facilities needed, it opened during the afternoons, five days a week and some evenings. Part of the planner’s intention was also to enable older scholars to use the library resources during the later stages of their learning. Memory says that this was not achieved to any great extent, although junior membership was practical and possible for children, with their parents’ consent.
The Evening Institute flourished. Headed by John Gunn, the school’s Art Master, it offered a programme on three evenings from 7 to 9 pm. Painting, pottery and cane work were among the artistic subjects. Short courses were introduced in, English Language, Literature and French, in popular science, gardening and flower arrangement. For those anxious to improve in professional skills, shorthand and typewriting courses were provided; visiting lecturers included some from the Agricultural College at Plumpton. There were short courses for amateur actors, and some called “Singing for Pleasure”. For students who travelled into Uckfield from a distance, travel expenses were reimbursed at the end of each term. It was all part of the Education Authority’s policy to create an education centre for all the community, and one that had national approval.

The first Governors were representative of local people. Some village schools had local support committees. The Church of England Schools had similar arrangements, and the Vicar or Rector was a regular visitor. The new secondary school had a Board of Governors. Uckfield’s Chairman was a former schools inspector, locally resident. Lord Rupert Nevill and the Uckfield Rector, Reverend Philip Haylar, were among the members. W.A. Clark of the local firm of estate agents, St. John-Smith & Sons, (7) was an early member and also became Chairman of the local Further Education Committee. He later succeeded as Chairman of the School Governors. All were strong supporters of the purposes of the school that, throughout the first years, was also the place where visitors and officials came to see and learn lessons for application to other secondary schools being built elsewhere in the County.

Yesterday and today
The vision – if vision it was – of the County Chief Education Officer, Bernard Braithwaite, to establish East Sussex secondary schools after the pattern of Cambridgeshire village colleges catering for the whole community, was never wholly achieved. The provision for young people, post-school, that was part of the contemporary thinking at the time, largely failed in the school context. In Uckfield and elsewhere in the County separate arrangements were put in place. A youth centre under the guidance of ‘Pop’ Taylor was set up in the town centre. (8)
The school was a community venue, in holiday times only, for amateur drama performances by the Uckfield Dramatic Society – a strong local group and other “lettings” too; but the building was not wholly suited to wider public use other than for evening classes. Support staff was one caretaker, Sid Edwards, resident on site. Only part-time cleaners assisted him in what was a considerable and sometimes onerous job. Over time, the use of the library was less than anticipated. In the days before popular car ownership (parking facilities also limited) the library was some considerable distance from anywhere but the upper parts of the town.
Contemporary practice during the last two decades has tended to outmode the village and community college concept. Developed before the war in Cambridgeshire as one of several strategies to limit population drift from the land to the towns, and to vitalised rural life, it has declined as the school element has become more demanding of time, space and resources. The nature of society has changed also. In 1952, when the Uckfield School opened, the town’s population was around 4,000 – the size of a large, urbanised village. The village college thinking was probably right at the time. In 2001 population numbers were approaching 16,000; there was much new housing. A substantial industrial estate had been built on Uckfield’s Western side. In 2008 there is talk of re-opening the rail link to Lewes, presaging further growth. The town and district are different places.
Responding to today’s needs the County Secondary School has metamorphosed twice – first to Comprehensive School status, and then to its present condition, style and title: Uckfield Community Technology College. The embryo UCSS of 1952 has grown to a very large establishment. Visitors to the College arriving by car may no longer drive the Lime Tree Avenue way, entering instead from the north via Downsview Crescent. The effort to restore the Avenue will also renew some of the perspective and feel, – evident in the map of the 1920s, – of what the school was like in those early days. The modern title embracing Technology retains the word Community which must mean that the some essence of the original vision remains. Now, at 57 years on, such retention bodes well for its future retaining the school as a place in which the community has a stake, within a changed context and philosophy.


  1. The title “Official” is a probable misnomer. The Guide was published by the County Associations Ltd. The Map appears to show only a single track railway with one platform suggesting that its origin is before the doubling of the line in c1868, necessitating two platforms at Uckfield.
  2. The way leading from Hempstead Mill up to the crossroads – the intersection with the High Street – is thought to have been part of a continuous way from Kent to Winchester. This way follows an almost continuous ridge of relatively high level ground and was one of several trackways used in ancient times. The most well-known are those of the North and South Downs, and the great Ridgeway from Grimes Graves, Norfolk, ending at Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Today, much of its route follows that of the A272.
  3. K.T. Elsdon, author of An education for the people? A history of HMI and Lifelong Learning, was a member of the Inspectorate for almost 40 years. His involvement in Other Further Education gave him, and his contributing colleagues, a particular insight into the function and purposes of adult education and the youth services, as these developed following the Education Act of 1944.
  4. Howard Gilbert researched the first 80 years of the National Institute of Adult Education; (NIACE). The work was published in A Passion for Learning (NIACE 2001). In the course he identified the roles of B.S. Braithwaite and J. Rendel Jones in national lifelong learning.
  5. Education Act 1944 has this definition of the (new) Ministerial duty.
  6. Some of Howard Gilbert’s Uckfield research is outlined in Hindsight, Volume 11, Unfinished Business.
  7. W.A. Clark was the senior partner at St. John Smith & Sons, estate agents. A description of some of his involvement with the firm occurs in Hindsight Volume 5, pp 38-39, by his son, Jeremy. He is mentioned also in Volume 6, p.59.
  8. UDPS Newsletters Volume 15, Issue 1, and Volume 17, Issue 1, report respectively upon Lime Tree Avenue, and the Youth Centre. The latter was, until recently the Adult Learning Centre. It has now been purchased by Uckfield Town Council and rechristened ‘The Hub’ and is once again mainly used for youth activities.