‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all manner of magic!

Periodic TableWhilst lying awake last night I was thinking about High School and what was particularly different to Primary School, and a number of things swirled through my mind. The first big difference was that for most lessons we had to move to different classrooms, labs or workshops, whereas at Harehills County Primary we basically had one teacher, one room and only moved for assemblies, sport, physical education, swimming lessons and for school dinners. At Roundhay it was a constant movement of large numbers of students between lessons and as a result, a lot of time was wasted. At first, it took some getting used to. It was easy to get lost and arriving late was often subject of the scorn or sarcasm of the teachers. One often used, ‘put down’, was when a boy asked ‘Can I go to the toilet?’ A teacher would often use this to humiliate the unsuspecting boy, by saying, ‘Of course you can go to the toilet, but you may not!’ The difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’ was lost on most, but some, particularly the teacher, thought this was a merry wheeze.

Bunsen burnerNot originally being a school, Roundhay had an interesting campus, with a converted mansion, stables and other buildings adding to the main purpose-built school. One example of this was the biology lab. This was in a long old building along the ginnel boundary and it was everything a boy, newly moved from primary school, could wish for. It smelt of strange chemicals and along its walls were shelves full of strange preserved samples in glass jars. There were calf foetuses, newts, frogs and a myriad of other exotic creatures, much like one read about in tales of magic, or nowadays Harry Potter stories. There was also a collection of stuffed animals, cow skulls and assorted bones.

In one of our early lessons we dissected grasshoppers that were reared for such purposes. There was a human skeleton hanging in the corner and, as another staff wheeze, and probably as a lesson for impressionable boys, soon to be teenagers, a stick of white chalk was to be found clasped in its teeth, or held smoker style between its finger bones. The first lessons in most subjects included how to set up your page, how to write an experiment and general housekeeping, but they did hold the promise of more exciting experiences. For some reason, Biology was seen as mainly a female activity. Real men did Chemistry and Physics and, as a result, Biology was the initial, unique example by having a female teacher. ‘Sweaty Betty’ was only to be found in her lab. I am not sure if she ever ventured to any of the staff rooms. Clad in a white coat and much to our disappointment, she was quite old, at least thirty, and not in the least a sex goddess, but rather a serious scientist who saw it as her purpose to make at least some men value Biology. I looked forward to the lessons and still have an interest in the subject.

Ring and BallPhysics and Chemistry were held in the real labs of the main building rather than hidden as an afterthought. The Lower School labs were old, sparse, and had rows of big, heavy science benches, with gas taps and sinks. The walls, for the most part, were unadorned and away from the window side there were evacuation cupboards to vent noxious gas experiments and jars with assorted chemicals inside, with labels of exciting names and even jars of various acids. Heaven! Gas taps, acids! Now we were talking. Science, real science must take place here. Lesson one saw the boys gather around the front demonstration desk. The teacher presented a Bunsen burner, connected the rubber pipe to the gas tap, showed us how the ring collar could turn opening and closing the vent. He turned on the gas and with a lit taper lit the Bunsen burner. A flickering yellow flame rose up from the end of the burner and he showed how the flame was quite cold and he passed his hand through the flame quickly. I was impressed. A scientist would have hands of steel that were impervious to flame, but then he turned the collar on the burner and the flame changed. It became an angry, fierce blue flame, shorter and noisier, and with a cone of unlit gas at the top of the burner pipe. The teacher didn’t demonstrate his powers by putting his hand in the flame, this time, but slid a tripod and gauze over the flame. Within seconds the metal gauze glowed red and then white hot and we were left in no doubt which of the two flames was the hottest. Demonstration over we returned to our places, perched on hard wooden stools, were told to take out our books and copy what the teacher put on the boards. A diagram of a Bunsen burner, parts and instructions how to use it were written and we dutifully copied it down. It was a little disappointing, but on a promise that we would have a go at setting up the burners, tripods next lesson, we left with some anticipation. The fact that I can remember this is some testimony of the efficaciousness of the teaching.

Tripod and BunsenPhysics was also interesting. The lab was similar to the Chemistry lab, but this had one added feature of a large Periodic Table chart hanging on the wall, and the blackboard was a more modern, moveable board, with a surface that could be rolled up or down. The purpose of this was to allow more notes to be written up and the board just raised to allow the teacher to add more to the bottom. You were in trouble if you didn’t keep up as the notes would disappear over the top and you were then in a mess. As in Chemistry, we were gather together to watch ‘Sir’ in action. He had the obligatory Bunsen burner and he pulled out, from the voluminous depths of his black gown, like some conjurer, a strange item. It had a wooden handle a thin rod and then a ring like a big washer at the top. A metal ball connected to the rod by a metal chain. He held this up in front of our eyes as if he was to cast a magic spell. He demonstrated how the metal ball would just fit through the ring. We watched, anticipation on our innocent faces. He then lit the Bunsen and dangled the metal ball in to the blue flame. He didn’t hold it in the flame long, but then manoeuvred the ball onto the ring and behold, the ball would not pass through. Much like the camel and the eye of the needle, or was it the rich man? Anyway there was a muted response from the boys, but they would rather have seen a bang or two, or clouds of smoke but, never matter, those things could be later. This demonstration was followed by a brief explanation to the fact that metal expands when heated. Eventually the ball cooled and it dropped back through the ring, but by this point we were busy copying down the expansive notes and diagrams that were being scribbled onto the board, trying to keep up with the teacher’s prodigious speed.bimetallic_strip

The next lesson I remember was the bi-metallic strip experiment, which demonstrated that not all metals expand equally and the resulting bend in the strip had some practical uses. I can’t say that Science was taught with passion, but to be honest, few teachers saw it as their role to inspire in the school in the 1960s, but some did and they tended to have lasting impressions. I didn’t do the sciences in the sixth form, so I can’t really comment on the end result of science beyond O-Level, but I think I could have been more successful and interested with the right pedagogy. Times were very different then and I hope that Science is now more relevant and that lessons don’t seem so isolated and disconnected. Health and safety was indeed very different, but I will touch on that another time.

2 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all manner of magic!”

  1. David,

    Reading the Labs Description I could almost taste and smell the Chemistry lab, on the first floor in my time!

    And I could hear DH saying “are you with me boys?”

    Best wishes


    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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