The other school in Free School Lane

Of all the shameful pieces of demolition in Rochester, one particularly rankles: the old Math School in the High Street.

Of course, I would say that because I was taught there, in the final cohort before the school quit the city centre for newer pastures.

What was the advantage of tearing it down? What replaced it? Well, a car park, mainly. And next to the Math (and haunt of certain masters at lunchtime) was the Blue Boar Inn, mentioned by Dickens in Pickwick Papers. That also fell to the demolition man about a year later and is now the east part of that car park next to the casino.

A victim with the Math building in 1968 was what we called N Block. It was the citadel of the sixth form, so I never set foot inside it. Why N block? After A, B and C Block, N Block seemed an illogical alphabetical jump. The N in fact  was for Nicholas; for this attractive stone building was originally St Nicholas’s School and taken over by the Math only a decade or so earlier. It was built in 1857, apparently using stone from the medieval Rochester Bridge, which had just been demolished.

St Nicholas School viewed from Corporation Street

The first view is taken from Corporation Street (the nameplate is on the house on the right, if you look hard enough); that house was demolished a lot earlier; its grounds would have made up part of the Math’s lower yard — our rather grown-up name for playground.

The wicket fence in the foreground separates Corporation Street from The Common, where animals were kept before sale at the market or slaughter.

The superb drum tower in the centre is still there. This is the northeast bastion of the city wall. The rest of the wall, which you can see today, was hidden under the old Math and exposed on demolition. This tower was generally, but not particularly strictly, out of bounds when I was at the Math, although we were once sent up there in an art lesson to sketch the view. It was a deep drop inside, but that didn’t prevent certain hearty types from suspending one unpopular pupil by his heels inside.

St Nicholas girls queue in Free School Lane

Overpaid, over here … and giving us sweets

Mrs Doreen Ford has happy memories of her time at St Nicholas’s School.

Mrs Ford (née Medhurst), now of Cypress Road, Frindsbury, went there in the 1940s. She lived in Eastgate Terrace, opposite the former museum, now the Dickens Centre, in the High Street, which meant she could go home for lunch every day. “I can remember the school as clear as yesterday. We had such happy days there, even if it was war-time,” she said. A particular highlight was the visit of American soldiers. “They brought us all sweets — real candies. It was such a treat!”

The headmistress was a Miss Ring, who was part of the Ring of Rochester removals firm family. Mrs Ford transferred to Troy Town for a while before returning to St Nicholas, where she stayed until she was 15. She then worked for Stanhope printers at the end of Love Lane, which became Staples.

Mrs Marie Turner (née Hallen) also loved her time at St Nicholas. She writes from Upper Luton Road, Chatham: “I was so surprised to see your feature on St Nicholas. I went there from 1948-51 and loved every minute of it! The headmistress was Miss Ring and I think there were only two teachers — Miss Dendy, who was very strict, and Miss Huffam who later married and became Mrs Horsham.

“I remember the winding, creaking wooden staircase and the roaring open fires in the winter, even in the hall. It’s such a shame that it was pulled down as it was a lovely building, looked after by the caretaker, Mr Hazel. Thank you for bringing back lovely memories for me and lots of old pupils.” My pleasure, ladies.

Two aunts among the class of 1929

At this point, I discovered a family connection. My father mentioned that his cousins Joan Andrews (née Pitcher) and Gladys Butler (née Gull) had attended St Nicholas. And then Joan’s sister Betty Baker supplied this wonderful picture from the class of 1929-30.

The class of 1929

And it is superb. Look at the clothing. Look at the surroundings. I knew which pupils were my Auntie Joan (whom I never knew) and Auntie Gladys (whom I knew well — I still have her birthday cards).

But who were the others? An appeal in the Medway News soon paid dividends, with the help of Mrs Enid Bradley (née Arnott) and Mrs Irene Barnard, of Catherine Street, Rochester.

“I was a pupil there until 1936,” Mrs Barnard writes. “I was Irene Archer in those days and I remember a lot of the girls who were there. That picture took be right back through the years. Thank you.”

Here are the names, so far: 1 Queenie Boast; 2 Doris Diprose; 3 Miss Hilda Ring; 4 Lily Boys; 5 Diana Penstone; 6 Gladys Gull; 7 Sheila Everett; 8 Doris Hysted; 9 Lily West; 10 Joan Pitcher; 11 Ethel Scott; 12 Enid Arnott; 13 Florrie Mott; 14 Mollie Coleman 15 Florrie La Marr.

Any more? Please let me know.

Rochester & Strood
Medway villages
Medway at war
Crimes that Shocked the Medway Towns

11 thoughts on “The other school in Free School Lane”

  1. We both went to St Nicholas School. It was a happy time. It was so distressing when this lovely building was demolished.

    I (Valerie) was younger than my sister and was then sent to Warren Wood Secondary School. This was a horrid place (now demolished). Oh that I could have stayed at St Nicholas!

    Thank you for the memories. Does anyone have any photos after the one on this page? Would love to see them!

    1. Hello Valerie i was your friend at St Nicholas we lived in Theobalds Square before coming to Australia it was lovely to see your name after all these years.I hope you are well and thanks for lovely memories of Miss Ring and Miss Dendy who was my teacher.

  2. I have mixed memories of “N” block having had to survive the arctic winter of ’63 shivering in coats and scarves as a result of its limited pot-bellied stove heating. There didn’t seem to be any question of closing schools because of bad weather in the early 60s.

    Another memory was gathering together a large group of the like-minded to physically lift the Mini of a less than popular (despised is probably nearer the mark) French master over the low railings on the corner of Free School Lane and Corporation Street. And yet another is placing a borrowed blackboard bearing, in large letters, the words “Car Park” by the gates to the lower yard on market day and watching it fill up with cars. The head master at the time, Leslie Waddams – universally known as Oscar – was less than amused, I recall.

    On another note, if Mrs Ford (nee Medhurst), who contributed to your article, had a dad called Arthur and an uncle named Brian, there’s a chance we may be cousins.

    1. In answer to Peter Hall’s question re: if your related as cousins to Mrs D. Ford nee (Medhurst). Reading today, ‘no’, the Christian names of Medhurst not related. However, Albert Edward was her father. We wish u good luck finding your family connection.

    2. Peter, we may have been fellow sufferers in the 6th form. I too recall the transportation of Nerg Green’s car and the Free Parking sign that was put out on the evening before a market day. The lower playground was full even before school started.

      As far as freezing N Block was concerned, I made a valiant effort in the January of 1963 on one particularly cold morning when Wilf, the caretaker, had neglected to light that wretchedly inadequate stove. Having found a broken desk in the lower yard, I broke it still further to provide fuel for the stove.

      The postscript to this incident was imposition of a Saturday morning detention as a reward for my selfless act!

      1. Also a fellow sufferer. One winter morning in 1963-1965, N block was still firmly locked up as we arrived. Arctic cold, so we walked up Free School Lane, entered the main building via the door adjacent to the gym and then made for the main lobby. A bit of raucous yelling followed, for which we were all put in Friday detention and made to write an essay on “Mob Rule”.

    3. I remember the coke stoves in ‘N’ block. One particular sport was to fill a Wagon Wheel wrapper (bag) with water, remove the lid of a stove, drop the bag in, jump back and watch the huge flame shoot up towards the ceiling. I think I’m right in saying that one of “Oscar’s” two daughters had been a pupil at St. Nicholas School before the building was taken over by SJWMS.

  3. I remember being on the top floor of N block in the winter if 1963. I was sitting exams (mocks I guess) and I had commanded the desk immediately in front of the infamous coal-fired boiler. It was alight and VERY hot. I rested the rubber wellies I was wearing on the boiler (it was thick snow outside) and during the exam they MELTED and produced an horrendous smell of burning rubber.

  4. Fascinating … Sorry I did not stumble across your site site earlier.
    I know Peter Hill is a common name but I was surprised to see another on your site.
    My connection with Free School Lane is, perhaps, more oblique than most.
    You see, I was born there! That is what my birth certificate says and there cannot be many of us around now.
    I went to the Math in 1938. At that time Number 2 Free School Lane was boarded up waiting demolition. Fortunately, perhaps, I did not then know that I was born there in such a modest (read derelict) dwelling. I think it was a temporary abode for my parents moving from the Midlands.
    A memory of the tower which is mention was of a fellow pupil who shall be nameless who was at the time in the Home Guard. He arrived one evening when we were doing fire-watch – the war you know – complete with rifle and ammunition and we all went into the tower where he loosed off a few round into the ground at the base. (He would surely be jailed these days).
    Another later memory is that of visiting Rochester – from which I had long departed – in about 1998? with my wife and parking in the aforementioned car park where I was trying to explain to my wife where the Math had been and pointed out the plaque high up on the wall. A passer-by was puzzled by our upward stares and looked up too. “Goodness,” she exclaimed, “I have lived I Rochester now for 10 years and I have never seen that!” Time moves on.

  5. My name is Anne Holloway my sister Magdalen and i went to St Nicholas School when Miss Ring was the Headmistress and Miss Dendy was my teacher.I loved that school more than any school i went to here in Australia.I was taught to knit.Read and write in pen and ink lovely running writing in italics which was a wonderful start to my life.I thank those teachers and love the photos of my wonderful school.Thank you for the memories.To my old friend Valerie Sharp.

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