Stevenage New Town at 75: first Barclay pupils reflect

Pupils at Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage in the early 1950s

Pupils at Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage in the early 1950s - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

When the first pupils of the brand new Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage turned up for lessons in 1949, the school wasn't even finished.

Barclay was the first purpose-built secondary school created in the UK after the Second World War, after Stevenage was designated a new town in 1946 to help alleviate congested urban areas - especially in London - and provide homes for people displaced due to the war.

The intended population of Stevenage New Town was initially 60,000. The existing old town only had about 6,400 residents at the time, so this significant swell in population meant the need for a new secondary school.

Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage under construction

The school under construction - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

Barclay - now Barclay Academy - opened on Stevenage's Walkern Road in 1949, while the new town was under construction.

Pam Sayers (née Toll), now 87, was one of Barclay's first pupils. She said: "The school was nowhere near full at that time and it wasn't completely finished. We couldn't use the school hall for our first assembly.

"I don't think I learned much in the time I was at Barclay because I was a prefect and a games captain and would get called out of class to show VIPs around because it was such a new school.

"It was really something special to have that big school built. The likes of us in Stevenage had never seen anything like it."

Pupils at Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage skipping in the early 1950s

Pupils skipping in the early 1950s - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

Most Read

The Henry Moore Family Group large-scale bronze sculpture - currently in Barclay's foyer and insured for £20 million - was situated outside when Pam was a pupil. She explained: "We didn't appreciate the value of it at the time."

Pam left school aged 15, so only attended Barclay for the final few months of her education. She said: "I enjoyed school so much that, on the last day of term, we sat on the school hall floor and cried. I didn't want to go home because my mother would have said 'what on earth are you making such a fuss about?'

"We certainly didn't have the pressure on us that children do these days. I never sat a school exam. I never had homework. I think the stress on schoolchildren these days is colossal."

A classroom at Barclay Secondary Modern School in Stevenage in the early 1950s

A classroom in the early 1950s - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

Christine Thomas moved from Mansfield to Stevenage with her family on her 10th birthday in 1957, starting at Barclay in 1958, as construction of Stevenage town centre and five new neighbourhoods - Bedwell, Chells, Pin Green, Shephall and Broadwater - continued. 

Christine said: "We moved because my dad didn't want my brother down the mines. He wanted a better life for us all. We lived in Bedwell. I remember peeking out of the removal van and thinking I was never going to find my way around this place. It was so different to Mansfield. Everything was new and clean.

"I had a lovely time at Barclay and made lifelong friends there. Mrs Carr was the headteacher then and we all had respect for her. Mrs Asher was a very strict maths teacher. She threw a chalkboard rubber at me once. Can you imagine a teacher doing that now?"

A punishment book used at Barclay school Stevenage in 1949

A 1949 punishment book used at Barclay - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

In the 1960s, an ambitious project of building a swimming pool in the school's grounds was undertaken. Christine said: "I was there when the swimming pool was being built. They asked us all to give a regular donation, which we did. It was great - such an unusual thing for a school to have. They were ahead of their time with that.

The swimming pool at Barclay school in Stevenage under construction

Barclay swimming pool under construction - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

"I look back at my school days with fond memories. The son of jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine was a Barclay pupil and used to chase me around the playground, trying to get a kiss!"

Andrew Robson was born in 1950 and lived in Stevenage until 1963, attending Barclay from 1961-63. He explained: "I didn’t pass the 11+, so I was assigned to Barclay Secondary Modern.

"One of our class teachers was Mr Allcock, and for a time our classroom was in the school library.

"I seem to recall that the school had excellent technical facilities, with a decent physics lab, a vegetable garden, and we were involved in lessons such as metal casting with sand moulds, and also pottery.

Boys at Barclay school in Stevenage in a science lesson

Boys engaged in a science lesson at Barclay - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

"During my last year at the school in 1963, it embarked on the project of building a swimming pool and the pupils were involved in that.

"Other than Mr Allcock, among the teachers I can recall from Barclay are Mr Coutts - French, Mr Sambrook - maths, and Mr Alexander - history. The rest have faded with the passage of time."

Stevenage Barclay school football team in 1961-62

Barclay's football team in 1961-62 - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Wallace

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter