David Innes-Wilkin (From 1957)

Alumnus, David Innes-Wilkin

Chartered Architect and Qualified Planner at INNES WILKIN Architecture.

In 1957 I entered the School from St Margarets Junior after passing the eleven-plus exam, which was scrapped in later years. It was not that hard if your parents bought the right books for home study at the weekend. How many parents do that at age 10? For me it unlocked the key to the education, and my father used to say, “You can thank the Butler Education Act”.

I remember the school speech day, given by Chairman Parrett. He was head of Unilever UK, and I had met him when I was awarded a Bird’s Eye industrial school scholarship. It was in the Odeon Cinema, a large enough venue for the school which then was about 900 strong. Perhaps this was supposed to be a motivational pep talk? Oxbridge staffroom culture meets the world of business? On Friday the local paper printed the public row they had on stage in front of us all – “Headmaster slams remarks by speech day guest”… The guest had told us, “What I look for is fire in the belly – never mind the exams!” The head discarded his own speech and came out fighting from his corner with a strong denial, saying that exams were more important.

In my second year I was nabbed in the school playground by the PE teacher, and he confiscated my “prospectus”. I was doing a deal to sign up another boy to my “Middle School Insurance Society.” For a premium of a few pence a week I would pay out money for a detention, for lines, and for a whacking. Yes, the school whacked boys on the bum with a cane! Between that morning and a few weeks later, the story got out to the national press, TV cameras blocked the entrance, and the headlines went round the world. One man sent the school funds (£10 in today’s money), “in appreciation of a good laugh”. The chair of the education committee, Mr Slatcher, was filmed on the steps of County Hall, saying “we do not have a severe corporal punishment policy in this school”.

Later I had booked a rock band to play for the first time in the school – for until that night the only similar events had been country dances. Music such as “The Gay Gordons” was until then played on a portable gramophone, by the physics teacher, Mr Rhymer. None of the teachers had heard a rock band before, and they did not like the new Rock ‘n Roll which had arrived… after all, Lowestoft had the Rolling Stones at the Royal Hotel one night. So I was carpeted for organising the horrible noise, turning the lights down low, and allowing pupils to go outside. “There will never be another school dance while you are still in the school”, said the beak.

Often, the craft room would be open late. I was able to build model aircraft, yachts and turn bowls. If there was no club, a volunteer teacher could be found to nominally head it, such as Mr Gibbs the English teacher, who fronted my model aircraft club. I was able to start school societies for my hobbies thanks to this kind of arrangement – and thanks to my father Charles Wilkin being the craft teacher. His successor was Mr Reddish who even built a dinghy in the craft room and began to take students sailing.

Lowestoft has a maritime history and I would bring stuff from the fisheries exhibitions into English classes. I was away sailing a lot down the coast and on the North Sea to Holland, Belgium and France, because I had been a Sea Scout and became a yacht crew. At other times in my school days I had a Saturday job selling suits in John Colliers on the high street. Taking O Level art a year early I disappointed my art teacher by opting to do another O Level in the final year. Sorry “Minnie”, but art was more interesting at the Art College on Saturdays, where I continued. The extra O Level was again thanks to my father, who taught Technical Drawing. By teaching that subject, he got a lot of young people into industry who were not going to university.

Another teacher who gave his extra time to us was Mr Lamb, the Latin master. As I was no good and had to take it twice, he marked and tutored till I passed this at the second attempt. It was at that time essential for some universities to have two foreign language O Levels. I found Latin mind-numbingly boring, but he did tell us interesting stories about the ruthless organisation of Rome. We studied Virgil’s The Fall of Troy when the Trojan Horse was left outside, which I found to be an exciting story. I don’t think we were told the hidden perspectives, that this was a legend that was re-written in order to suit a Roman propaganda agenda.

A teacher took us to Norwich, for a day of maths lectures by a celebrity mathematician, and this exposed us to the world of pure maths. For example, by explaining how the number system would work if we had used 12 as a number base instead of 10. I liked maths but fell behind when, being a bit deaf, I could not follow it in some classes. Had to take a correspondence course to try to catch up. There was a pile of magazines in the corner of the central old hall where we had to do private study time. Amongst them was the Scientific American. I could read about black holes in space, or about Boolean and binary algebra, or about the growth of cities. I also liked reading James Bond novels, learning about the world unknown to me of upper class habits, and of clothes! Ah that navy knitted tie – I had to get one. Though later I became a Mod, yes with the Ben Sherman button down shirt and the Lambretta motor scooter. I love all things Italian as I think they are the greatest designers.

At school we read 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell – a wonderful writer, and of course with a political agenda. Some books stay with me, and Conrad’s Youth is one that I have re-read because it is about tenacity. Others, with a similar theme, that I still re-read, are Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and C.H. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. I like books which have a hidden meaning, as does some of my architecture: for example anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marques such as One hundred Years of Solitude, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (I always give a copy of that one to my students).

On the practical side my father organised trips to large industrial sites. For example we went to Corby to see the largest cranes in the country at work in the open cast mines. The teacher of English, Mr Baker, and of Art, Mr Davies, were those who collaborated and put time into doing the annual school play. The hall was quite new then and the electrical lighting with a stage which had curtains, was a new opportunity. I worked behind the scenes. One night the new lights and switch board on the backstage caught fire, but the show went on – we put the flames out. I sat at a desk which was the same as my mother’s generation had used with inkwells and dip pens and blotting paper. The school had just got 10 acres of playing field added when I arrived. We used to go over it during some lessons in order to continue the stone picking, so I expect it became a good sports field. I wished I had done more sports, but sailing, art college and shop jobs took up my Saturdays.

Morning assembly every day was a time when the gym teacher, Maddox, would walk behind the rows of boys. If the hair was too long, he would give a sharp tug. There were hymns each day and a prayer and a bible reading. My father tested his theory that nobody listened one morning, by slipping in the words, “and Jesus said, wheelbarrow wheel on…” He was right, nobody said anything.

In order to swim we went to Oulton Broad swimming pool in our own time and my father devoted his efforts to a fundraising scheme which put a swimming pool into the school, after I had left.

I saw sunrises at Lowestoft, magical sheets of silver over the flat sea, and I had also sailed into some of them. The last one for me was on the morning I left for Liverpool University School of Architecture to do six years full-time study. The staff there were inspiring, and the work ethic was such that 30 or 60 hours at a stretch without bed was common. I was busy sometimes organising political and big, rock events, and managed also to be awarded quite a lot of year prizes. After getting a first class honours I did a Masters degree in Town Planning. This meant studying for two degrees at once – erm, no summer holiday that year. I had my first job on site during final exams and was late for one of them. I started my practice immediately, and later won many awards for community architecture schemes, including three from HRH Prince Charles. For this, I am in Debrett’s Distinguished People of Today.

After designing several urban masterplans I gained membership of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and also became qualified as a Conservation Architect. In the past I liked teaching young people as a visiting studio instructor. Nowadays, I give talks to adults about the Renaissance or about sailing round the Mediterranean classical sites. (I went to night school for two years and qualified as a yachtmaster). My five children are also sailors. I am near 70 and I love being an architect, still working over 50 hours a week – I am very lucky that I found something which is so much fun, when I was not very good at school. Some teachers gave me bad reports, and I became rather unsuccessful, but knew that I wanted to do something big. Some young people do not get taught the skills which I picked up, so the foundations must have been good at the school, allied to my insatiable curiosity. If I could add anything it would be to learn speed reading, and touch typing. Both of these I had to pay for later. So I like to say, take all the skills on offer, they are there for life.

See also

INNES WILKIN Architecture

February 2014

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