George Cunningham: Career Prospects

School Pressure

Researched by Gemma Clarke

Illustration of Hodgson Street and Young Street taken from "By George! My childhood in Sheffield." Page 15. 1987
Photo: Paul Hibbert-Greaves

Mr Beresford

At the mature age of twelve, one morning at school just as I was leaving to go home for dinner, Mr Beresford called me back to his desk. I returned in some trepidation. What had I done wrong?’

An Opportunity

However, he gave me a friendly smile, displaying white teeth seldom seen in Headford Street, and said, ‘There are some places available at the Technical College in Bow Street, Cunningham.’ He paused. I wondered what he was on about, thinking I would be late for my dinner, until he continued. ‘It’s a very good place to learn a trade. Every pupil is given a thorough training in engineering, both theoretical and practical, until sixteen years of age, with every prospect of getting a decent job.’ Again he said nothing for a few seconds, eyeing me quizzically. ‘I’ve put your name down on the list of entrants for the entrance examination in June and I’m sure that with some extra effort you should stand a fair chance of passing.’


Thoughts of what was for dinner vanished from my mind as I tried to digest what Mr Beresford was informing me. ‘It will be a great honour for the school as there are only five vacant places at the College and it should be the start of a career in engineering for you.’ I gulped nervously, not knowing what to say, although it didn’t seem to matter what I thought. Mr Beresford, evidently under the impression that I was too overcome with joy to speak, stood up and told me to go home and tell my parents, adding, ‘I’m sure they will be delighted as you are by this good news.’ I wasn’t all that chuffed as I walked home along Moore Street that momentous dinnertime. Dad and Mam, too, although they made remarks such as ‘You could do a lot worse’, didn’t appear to be overjoyed, especially Mam, who said, ‘You’ll have to look after that chest of yours if you go to work in a factory.’

The Exam

All the remaining months of the year, I wrestled with the complexities of arithmetic – most of which was incomprehensible to me – technical drawing, which I rather enjoyed, and grammar, which made me wonder what it had to do with engineering. The fatal day of destiny dawned and I joined a crowd of building engineers entering the College premises. The old stone building, with the words ‘Central Schools’ carved over the doorway, seemed vastly superior to my present seat of learning, St Silas, for which already I felt a pang of yearning. For two days I wrestled with the paperwork in the large well-lit examination room, returning home in the late afternoon with the feeling of being released from boarding school because there hadn’t been time to come home for dinner.’

The Machine Shop

On the third day, we were taken into the machine shop where some of the older pupils were working on machines. As soon as I entered, the sickly smell of soluble oil assailed my nostrils, increasing the fear I always had of anything mechanical. The longer I was in contact with them, the worse I got. The sight of lathes spinning so quickly, spewing out glistening turnings, surface grinders sparking away and milling machines grouting away, all accompanied by whirling pulleys and slapping belts, must have made an impression on my features because the instructor, quite kindly, inquired if I felt alright. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, but stood at the back of the others as far away from the machinery as I could. The older pupils, who looked to me like men, although they were only fifteen or sixteen, clad in blue overalls, with steel rules in the leg pocket, appeared to be enjoying themselves, pressing buttons, turning handles and pulling levers with an air of nonchalance, which I envied.’

A Challenge

At the back of the shop, a lathe had been set aside for a demonstration and also the opportunity for engineering tyros to try their hand, under the watchful eye of an instructor. Although I had kept at the back, my turn came all too soon and I found myself standing on the duckboard with the dreaded machine before me. Even though it was motionless, I broke into a sweat, and the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet tingled with fear as the instructor said, ‘Right, Cunningham – that’s your name, isn’t it? – pull this handle which will engage the belt.’ This I hesitatingly did, and miraculously the machine sprang into life, startling me so that I stepped back off the duckboard.’


The instructor, mistaking my fear for inexperience, said ‘Steady lad, take your time. I’ll show you how to put a cut on.’ He expertly twirled two handles, the cutting tool moved quickly to the bar of steel held in the chuck, and, hey presto! a shining silver of steel curved away. He wound the handles back, stood to one side and told me to do what he had done. The confidence that the starting procedure had given me evaporated quickly as I grasped the handles. Just as the tool was about to contact the steel, a wave of fear came over me and I closed my eyes. There was a grinding sort of thud and a severe jar that shook my arms. I opened my eyes to see the belt coming down off the pulley and the machine stopped dead. The silence that followed was broken by the instructor saying wearily, ‘When I said put a cut on, I meant on to the steel. You rammed the tool into the chuck!’


Luckily, no damage was done, although my arms tingled a bit and my fear of machines and their duplicity had increased. The days turned into weeks and still no results had come through, increasing my belief that either I hadn’t been accepted or the Technical College wished to forget about me after my performance on the lathe. It was not to be. Mr Beresford’s and Mr Barwell’s jubilant faces greeted me at school and I was informed that I had passed the entrance examination and could enrol at the Technical College at the beginning of term.’


Dad, when he came in from his van, opened the envelope and carefully read the enclosed forms. His expression, which had started off cheerful enough at the news of my acceptance, gradually clouded over with gloom as he finished reading. He looked at Mam and said, ‘By gum, they certainly need some stuff to learn engineering. Running shoes, shorts, a uniform, drawing instruments, books and things. I suppose we’ll have to manage somehow.’ She too looked worried. Although the visits to the pop shop had finished, the pickle business was only just managing to keep going, some weeks better than others, but never with a steady income.’

A Decision

I pushed my half-finished dinner aside and said, tremulously, ‘I, I don’t want to go, Dad.’ Although he tried to conceal his relief, in spite of his assertions that he would find the money somehow, it was obvious that my decision was a weight off his mind. That afternoon, when I told Mr Beresford, he looked at me in sheer disbelief. ‘Are you sure that you mean it? Think it over for a few days. You are giving up a chance of a lifetime,’ were but a few of the attempts to persuade me to change my mind. All to no avail, I stood my ground, the fear of machinery over-riding all Mr Beresford’s cajoling and the promise of a brilliant career.’

More Interesting!

Later that year a form was pinned to the notice board inviting applications for the entrance examination at the Sheffield School of Art in Arundel Street. It stated that tuition would be given in drawing, painting, sculpture and modelling. I hastened to hand in my name to Mr Beresford, confident that he would accept it as I usually did pretty well in the half-hour allocated to artistic pursuits.’


He looked steadfastly at me for a few seconds, then leant back in his chair and put the fingers of his hands together, as he often did when about to make an important statement. ‘You always do well in the art lesson, Cunningham,’ he began. ‘If you hadn’t let down the school, myself and Mr Barwell, I would have been only too pleased to have forwarded your application, but in view of your rejection of the Technical College, I cannot recommend you for a place at the School of Art, that is all.’ I stumbled back to my desk, blinking back the salty chagrin tears.’

PP. 36-38, Chapter 7, More George! (courtesy of The Hallamshire Press Limited).

Time to be Britched!

I was thirteen and rapidly growing taller, but not much heavier. Teddy Crabtree, the school wit, greeted me one morning by shouting, ‘Nah den, Pirate!’ On me enquiring the reason for this new nickname, he laughingly answered, ‘Becus tha’s gorrer sunken chest!’ Mrs Garlick, our next-door-but-one neighbour, eyeing my knobbly knees and the long gap between the bottom of my trouser legs and the top of my stockings, remarked to Mam, ‘It’s about time ‘e were britched.’

A Trip to Binns’

Up The Moor we went to Binns’, where a very pleasant gentle-man in a black jacket and pinstripe trousers took one look at me, stroked his chin, pursed his lips, then went over to a rack and selected a pair of thick, navy blue melton cloth long trousers. ‘Try these on in the fitting room,’ he said. I pulled the curtain to behind me, slipped out of my short trousers and pulled on my first pair of ‘long uns’. Turning round to admire myself in the mirror, posing manfully with hands in pockets, I felt a coin in one. It was a bright new penny! Buttoning up the flies, I emerged and said to Mam, ‘These are alright.’ ‘Are you sure?’ she said anxiously. ‘Yes, course they are,’ I replied, the penny already beginning to burn a hole in my pocket.’

Showing Off!

‘Next day I swaggered along Michael Road, well aware of my mature status and was pleased to bump into Norman Blackwell and let him into the secret of my newly-found wealth. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that bloke at Binns’ allus does that, ‘e puts a penny into pockets o’ trousers thi’ve ‘ad for a long time, ‘e knows some mug’ll fall for it sooner or later. Ar Albert towd me that years since.’ When he was britched a couple of weeks later, though, he admitted to me that he’d tried on a dozen pairs of trousers with no luck, because he’d been served by a less enterprising salesman.’

Last Day at School

The day came when my nine years of education at St Silas School ended. I and half a dozen scholars were the sole complement of Standard 8. After all those years of schooling, I could write reasonably well, recite the arithmetic tables up to twelve times, read and understand quite a few books and had a fair idea where the principal countries in the world were situated. On the debit side, I could never grasp even the most elementary principles of algebra, and as for reading music, I might as well have been looking at a page of inkblots. Foreign languages weren’t in the curriculum, and anyway I couldn’t even speak or write English properly; the half-hour’s grammar lesson was all Greek to me.’

Farewell George!

Mr Barwell, the headmaster, shook each of us by the hand, adding a few words of encouragement which appeared genuine enough. When he came to me, he looked steadfastly into my eyes and said, ‘Well Cunningham, I hope you do well, though I think that you will always regret not going to the Technical College. You would have made a much better living in engineering than if you had gone to the College of Art and become an artist.’

PP. 39-41, Chapter 8, More George! (courtesy of The Hallamshire Press Limited).


George’s Working Life ~ Part 1

The Man and His Art ~ Introduction

This page was added by Gemma Clarke on 26/03/2015.

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