That's not what Bob Birrell told us

BBC: Carbon dioxide continues its rise

…And helium continues its sink, presumably.

Note: In case you were wondering, Bob Birrell was my chemistry teacher. He was also North of England Champion 120-yards hurdler (1960—62, 64, 66—69), and reached the quarter finals of the 110 metres hurdles in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, which he ran in 14.82s.

Filed under: Nonsense

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.


  1. It seems he also won the NoE 220yd hurdles in 1961 too. What a guy.

  2. He never taught me, but he was a very modest man and it was some years after I started at BS that I even found out he'd been in the Olympics. I was just "googling" him when I found your comment.

    Pete Scurfield was the big star, North of England RU scrum half - "Sir" was on telly!!!

    (Yes I know headmaster Gwilliam was Welsh RU captain, but he was so universally detested nobody cared about the sanctimonious p****)

    1. Got that wrong, he did teach me, and he was good. I didn't know until about 2022 he also taught chemistry

  3. Just found by accident (how else?) this comment relating to Birkenhead School. I suffered 1966-73. I have some reminiscences regarding Pete Scurfield, Jock Austin, Pig Homan, Fat George Gilliland et al. I'll happily send them for your possible amusement.

    Beati mundo corde

    1. Scurfield was before my time, but I remember all the others—although we referred to ‘Fat George Gilliland’ as ‘Big G’.

  4. Likewise I was BS. KDR left and then we suffered Gwilliam. Despite him being a sanctimonious insufferable, he did lead Wales to a famous win over the All Blacks and two Grand Slams. He has recently been added to the Wales Hall of Fame. I expect he was influential in appointing Pete Scurfield, who was best mates with the great Gerald Davies. They played together at Loughborough.

  5. 65-72
    Bob Birrel was a really nice guy and was really good when we had to stay on for the first two terms of the third year sixth before going off to uni (chemistry was my thing back then) - he made two terms of post A-level interesting and was always very kind to me.
    Didn't know that about Pete Scurfield, playing at that level of rugby - I've probably forgotten. But wasn't too unhappy when he left.
    Yep, "Pig" Homan (and the chaplain at that).
    We just called him "Belly" - guess who - got slippered by him for talking in class.
    Jock Austin - decent chap but not very inspiring.
    Fran Ellis was a bit odd but certainly had a sense of humour.
    And Clive Hunt managed to keep his hair longish despite what Gwilliam demanded of us - no doubt some of you know what we called Gwilliam - the worst of the nicknames by far, though Clive's rhyming slang nickname was pretty bad - but he was a good guy and I wrote to him a decade or so ago and received a nice letter back.
    Arthur Green - "four legs good, two legs bad" in chalk at the top of his blackboard, referring to us not swinging back on our chairs.
    Rankin made most of us terrified of science periods in the junior school - not a nice guy.
    Rigby (maths - can't remember his first name) was just out of uni but inspiring and a nice chap too.
    Eddie O'Hara - nice guy who left and became an MP.
    "Squish" (can't remember his real name)
    Dave Haig (Belly's sidekick) - my Dad taught him German at Liverpool Collegiate School - so I guess that's why he took it out on me when I was caught taking a short cut on a cross country run in the middle of winter! Had to write an essay on "Honesty", which he just threw in the bin when I handed it to him.
    And the rest of them - Freddy Wakelin, The Rev Smailes, Tom Jackson, Mike Harrison, etc - what a mixture - and often stressful.

    1. A few named there I don’t remember, and quite a few I’d forgotten. ‘Squish’ was McCready, if memory serves. My favourite Arthur Green memory was his response to some implausible excuse from a boy who hadn’t done his ‘prep’: “Bollocks, lad!” He also used to re-enact shooting machine guns at Germans during the war.

  6. While pulling together my memories of school years before I get too old to remember, I came across this while googling George Gilliland in reference to his piano playing expertise. Yep, some of the teachers were really good, some very tough, but then again, we were not angels.....

    Our form was probably the least “mature” and put a concerted effort into having a laugh at every possible opportunity. During 6th form, Saturday mornings were 100% Biology or Chemistry double practical periods. Although it was a school day, there was still an air of weekend to it and it wasn’t unusual for people to get a tad casual. One Saturday, we were doing some organic chemistry experiments. Simon Jackson, who happened to be a son of one of the teachers, decided that he would heat up some Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup for a mid-morning snack. The Chemistry teacher, Clive Hunt, noticed it and was intrigued, because he hadn’t seen that colour before and asked what chemicals Simon had used. When he fessed up, Simon got a right bollocking for it & Mr Hunt didn’t see the funny side. At all!
    We had a main library next to the old Big School Assembly Hall. It was full of very high shelves. One of my favourite pastimes was to go in during lunch and move books around to fill up some of the shelves above head level to the point where they were over-full. To do this, you had to pull the books out in an arch shape with the books in the middle closer to the edge of the shelf than those at the ends then inject a few more books into the gaps near the middle. Then, you compressed the arch backwards so the books were all in a straight line. The beauty of this was in its simplicity. When a boy wanted to remove a book, it was now under considerable pressure. He would pull hard until the whole compressed row would suddenly fly towards him and if done right, would land on him and the floor, scaring the crap out of him and landing him in trouble with whoever was on duty in the library.
    The ideal prank would be to do something near a teacher but without being spotted. We used to nick syringes from the Chemistry lab and use them to shoot water across the room at each other when the teacher was writing on the blackboard. Of course, it started with little ones and then got an arms race ensued.
    In 1979, for some reason that I do not remember, one of my class, a boy whose name is lost to me, apart from being known as Bonehead, or Bone, for short, brought his absailing gear into school and absailed down the stairwell in the Science Block. My journal mentions me climbing up, but can’t think what that meant apart from maybe climbing the stairs on the outside of the bannisters. Some of the most memorable pranks were pulled-off by boarders, perhaps because they had less to entertain themselves. One year, on the first day of term, a bra was spotted hanging from the clock tower. I don’t think the culprit was ever found, but it was clearly an “inside job”. Near School House, where the borders lived, we had three or four Fives courts. Fives is a bit like a highly unsafe version of squash, played with a rock hard ball, a gloved hand and in a courts with steps and obstructions. The courts were all behind a low wall, maybe 4 ½ to 5 feet high, with a narrow gap of about 3 feet to get into the courts. One day, Mr D. Reynolds (aka Debbie), parked his orange mini just next to the fives courts for an hour while he did something in School House. When he came back out, his mini was inside the Fives Courts. Boarders had surrounded and picked it up, shuffled through the gap and put it back down inside. Mr Reynolds was a pretty nice guy, but not right then!
    I think that each morning before the start of classes, there was an assembly. The chapel wasn’t big enough for all, so you would alternate between there & the Big School assembly. One of the boys would play the organ in chapel and after the service, he would play some background music as everyone filed out. By this point, teachers had mostly gone and he would weave in some popular music of the day and see what he could do without being found-out.
    In the Big School assembly, there was a grand piano near the front, used for accompanying the singing throngs. Even the most enthusiastic teachers (Harold McCreedy (aka Chick) & George Gilliland (aka Belly) were used to a pretty intense level of apathy towards the singing of hymns, but one day, for reasons that they couldn’t figure-out, it all changed they had picked “Jerusalem” that morning. Now, a few of us, me included, were massive Emerson, Lake & Palmer fans and therefore loved Jerusalem, but that doesn’t explain the rest. When Belly fired up the opening of the hymn, they were overcome with what sounded like singing at a football match. Same volume, same tunefulness. Chick was absolutely ecstatic and asked us to sing it a second time, he was so overwhelmed. George Gilliland, accompanying on piano, was no small man and had great difficulty hitting only one key with each of his fingers, but that just added to the whole last-night-of-the-proms effect.

    1. Debbie Reynold’s mini in the Fives court was still being talked about in my time. On my last day at school, some fellow leavers decided to move another teacher’s mini. The passenger door came off in the process. I can’t remember which teacher it was, but he took it very well, as the car was already a bit of a wreck.

  7. Belly Gilliland taught maths, and his green convertible VW Beetle's registration number was LCM 1 (lowest common multiple = 1, geddit?) Gilliland really inspired me, and entertained me, and - although he clearly got huge pleasure from inflicting pain on young boys, and would certainly not be allowed to teach today, I learned a lot from him. 'PD' Haig was, as said above, his sidekick, and although he tried to imitate Belly's unique speech, he was never in the same league. Lightweight. 'Pig' Homan was the worst possible demonstration of a Christian minister for young boys - unless (and perhaps that was the point of this fee-paying school) the purpose of his being there was to teach domination, class separation and cruelty. Gwilliam cannot be forgiven for having been a rugger-bugger: he might have been head teacher, but he was no teacher at all. If he had to step down to a classroom to fill-in for an absentee teacher, he would just tell the class to learn a passage from the bible by heart. What a horrible, horrible, uninspiring man. Clearly at some stage the governors thought a diciplinarian rugger-bugger would be better as Head than a teacher. I feel bitter that my hard-working father can have spent so much in getting me educated by this bunch of clowns. Luckily the state funding of universities helped me out in due course, and I became a professor of architecture. No thanks at all to Birkenhead School.

  8. Bob Birrell! One of the genuinely nice (and good) teachers there. Big G was a very strange man, I always wondered how he got the job or kept it. I kept out of his way as much as possible; luckily he never taught me except for filling in. He actually died the year after I left. An abiding memory of him is asking boys to fasten his shoelaces for him. I was there a few years after you Richard but still recognise a lot of the names on this page. Dr Hunt was an exceptionally nice man and intensely intelligent (although he certainly didn't suffer fools), I still see him walking down Borough Rd sometimes as I drive past. I liked Jeff Millington, Alan Hanson, Dusty, Cat, Rock, Spiny, Chick, Squirrel, God, Debbie Reynolds was usually good fun. I found Squish a bit odd, similarly Beaky and Joe90 (btw I'm using nicknames because I'm paranoid, 🙂 ) Syph was a very odd character too, physically intimidating and seemed to bask in the culture of fear that surrounded him. There were some proper bloody psychos though, some of them probably needed a shrink frankly, so many incidents of violence dished out by men clearly unsuited to be in charge of kids. I won't name people obviously but one in particular used to have a hair-trigger rage that could lead to outbursts violence for seemingly little reason. He 'left' eventually. I went to the Prep school too and honestly the level of violence there from - admittedly only a handful of teachers - was worse. It beggars belief they were allowed to do it, but I suppose it was different times. I remember telling my father about one incident and the reply was along the lines that things were worse at his school. Personally I can't really imagine paying money knowing my child may be shitscared and beaten, but again, different times.

  9. Lots of interesting recollections on here.
    Birkenhead School had a few inspirational teachers but my overriding recollection is that it employed many social misfits (and low level paedophiles) who either disliked young boys or had an unhealthy interest in them….
    Pig Holman was quite possibly the most irreligious and emotionally repressed example of humanity.
    Gwilliam could have been an inspiration but instead chose to stamp out any sign of non conformity or individualism.
    School life should be about the joy of learning whereas BS was about fear of failure.
    I came first in form in the prep six times in a row and when I went up to collect my badge , my overwhelming thought was ‘I can’t keep this up’ hi

  10. More old Birkenhead School teachers that have somewhow escaped mention:
    "Twilight" Stephens
    Larry Leather
    "TAP" Pringle
    Tom Hockton
    "The Bat"

  11. Now I am a teacher I can look back and assess some of those who taught me through the prism of doing their job now. I was there, 1980 to 87; I agree with lots of the comments above; some teachers were good, something different and some plain awful.
    I teach classics now and teachers such as Mike Hudson, Martin Davies and Leslie Leather (in his final year when I started) were inspiring. I was in a particularly naughty and high spirited 4 Lang top set and back in 83-84 we were chafing under the yoke of the authoritarian and out of touch Gwilliam.

  12. wow a blast from the past - the Fives courts and " Debbie Reynolds" mini oh. those were the days , well not . the tyrannical headmaster made life misery for us all. By the way " Bonehead" was Emyln Jenkins from memory

  13. I was at BS from 53 to 58 with some of the teachers mentioned above whom I remember fondly, esp Arthur Greene, Tom Hockton, and the austere Edward Woof who taught German and French - what became of Woof, I wonder? Also memorable are Rankin's threats and tantrums in the 1st and 2nd grades; frequent before-class beatings in the 3rd form to get me to behave during the Latin class to follow; and my retaliatory use of alarm clocks to go off in the middle of class. To some teachers, I was a "scruffy" working-class boy from Rock Ferry into whom proper speech and manners had to be inculcated. But fellow pupils and a few teachers helped me survive. When I tell my family of how it was at BS back then, some think the school had a slight edge of sadism.

  14. I was at School between 1969 and 1976. I owe Arthur Green (ANG) and Keith Stevens (Twy) an enormous debt of gratitude for getting me to a wonderful university and teaching how to think logically and write good essays (“underline the key words and answer the question lad”) which have stood me in good stead. R.L. Stevens (Squish) was an inspiring teacher, especially in 7th term Oxbridge classes. He introduced me to “Democracy in America” by de Tocqueville and a vast number of other seminal historical texts.

    Was whacked by by Gilliand (who we called “Fat Harry”) in the 5th Form. He wouldn’t be allowed to teach today on account of his sadism. Not many of us progressed from his form, 5G, into the 6th Form.

    Very fond memories of Bob Birrell, Dusty Rhodes, Jeff Millington, Clive Hunt, Spiny, John Campbell, (Ronnie) Biggs, Freddy Wakelin, Larry Leather, (BAT) Weatherhead, DW Griffiths (Plug) and Alan Hanson, all of whom were decent Masters,,good teachers and real characters. Gwilliam was a marmite character. I had no problem with him despite his religious based discipline - I can still recite the Sermon on the Mount word for word and, on the whole, I can thank him for guidance, especially in the Upper Sixth. Others had a very different view. He is still revered in Wales as the Captain of the last Welsh rugby team to beat the All Blacks. I still remember him turning out in his red No. 8 shirt to train us! Quite a sight! Enough of these memories.

    On the whole I can’t complain. Birkenhead School did me well!

  15. I was there until 1974. Took a levels 1973 then had to stay 2 terms so school could get grant. Like many schools then there were some great teachers and some borderline abusers. And some useless idiots. Scurfield was a violent scumbag - he didn’t touch me but I saw him assault kids and lose his temper. Belly was a sadist and quite frankly he and Homan would probably be under investigation if they behaved that way today. Arthur Green was fecking useless. Teaching skills of a carrot. Told me I’d be lucky to get 12% in economics a level. I got an A and an upper second at Liverpool and offered post grad opportunities. No thanks to him. I remember my Dad hated him after parent teacher evenings and he wasn’t shy of telling me if I was wrong.Gwilliam actually told me I could get my A levels if I put my mind to it but he was tbh a pretty evil piece of work who’d have been at home in a concentration camp to be honest. But to be fair I managed to avoid him most of the time. Given the state of the schools in my area I’ll always be grateful to my parents for forgoing their own luxuries to give me a good education, and the sacrifices they made. I know it was worth it, it gave me a big advantage in life despite the fact that there were some teachers who clearly were unfit for purpose.

  16. I went to Prep from 1965-1970, generally good memories although very high expectations made of us. Phyllis Richmond-Coggin was Head and smoked like a chimney, strict but kind. Taught English by “Pop” Bowyer, remember the line game spelling bee where if you got to head off the line, teacher’s chair you got a sweet. Morton taught Maths and football. Lots of music and singing by Mrs. Locke, class teacher Joan Lockhart, history teacher Mrs. Hartley. Interesting progression of names. Assembly we sat on hard wooden benches, Mark Order, when everyone’s names in your form were read out in academic placement order starting at the bottom working up to top. Occasionally people got demerits and given detention, sometimes merits given where you got afternoon off. Lunch at Big School where Morton would serve food on plates which were passed down the large tables. When we had sausages we got 2 but he gave himself at least 6! Custard always had thick skin on it. Music played a big part of my life, in Big School I was in chapel choir spent many happy hours with Tim “Looney” Lawford. Pig Homan created such misery for me in 1 Trojans that Daddy Rankin put me in 2Trojans with Dave Haigh. That transformed my outlook on life. What a very sad legacy for Pig. In 1 Trojans he would take 4 out of class and drive us in his dark green Rover 2000 to North Wales to go hiking for the day. When I went, it was fun at the time but looking back wasn’t that rather strange? Don’t think that would be allowed today. Nothing “happened” but Pig also had his favorite boys which was also weird, especially those who played cricket.
    I learned a lot of life lessons there and had happy times but glad to move south where my next school was far more “normal” without the archaic legacies from the Victorian era.

  17. A shocking photo of Big G, who definitely got off on whacking young boys on the backside. As many have said, he would have been locked these days. I can't say much positive about him, as I had to endure him as a form master and teacher in 3 Ling. He had a cruel side to him. But there were inspiring teachers, like Allan Hanson. Not Freddie Wakelin, who was possibly the worst teacher of all and was prone to violent outbursts.

  18. Bob Birrel sadly passed away on the 21st March 2024. His service will be held at Birkenhead School Chapel - no date yet but likely in April some time.

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