Historian launches hunt for ex-pupils of demolished Doncaster school to tell its story

A historian has launched a search for ex-pupils and staff of his demolished former Doncaster school – to help keep its memory alive.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 8:49 pm
A project has been set up to preserve the history of Balby's Oswin Avenue School, later known as Balby High School.

Tony Armstrong is researching the history of Balby’s Oswin Avenue School, which welcomed pupils for more than eight decades before its demolition 25 years ago.

He was spurred into creating the Ossie Through The Ages project after discovering there was a dearth of information about his old school online.

He is also determined to discover the stories of ex-pupils before it is too late.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Said Mr Armstrong: “As e very week passes, the number of older former pupils and teachers dwindle and their stories are lost to time.

“I truly believe that there will be many hundreds of former Ossie lads and lasses who would be able to contribute to this unique project.”

He is currently in the process of setting up a number of home visits to interview and video record some of the older participants after coming up with the project earlier this year during lockdown.

He said: “It is a story of a school that refuses to be lost to history.

“The story starts with a recently retired social worker (myself) surfing the internet during the lockdown period.

"A sense of nostalgia, perhaps born of an increasing awareness of our fragile mortality, led me to join a Facebook group dedicated to my old school, Oswin Avenue (Balby High as it was in my era).

"The group provides a vehicle for former Oswin Avenue School pupils and staff members to recapture friendships, post photographs and share their memories of the school. Whilst many of comments are short, often recounting influence of a particular teacher, or their prowess with the slipper, there are a number of poignant comments.

“One evening, whilst perusing the group’s archived photographs, I chanced across the faded photocopied picture of the school crest.

"The comments which accompanied the image read, ‘It’s ……… the only known image to survive’.

"Initially I was dismissive of the statement and began what I thought would be a quick search to retrieve a clearer image. I had assumed that from a school that stood for over eight decades, until its demolition in 1996, there had to be a clearer image of the crest within easy access.

"A few hours of searching the archives of Facebook heritage groups proved fruitless. From that moment I was determined that I would not let the memory of the school die and thus the ‘Ossie Through The Ages’ Project was born.”

So Mr Armstrong has set about speaking to pupils and teachers from the school.

He said: “It is difficult to do justice in just a few words to the story which captures elements human interest, local heritage, tragedy, humour and pathos.

“It is the story of how former pupils and staff members from around the globe have been drawn together in an effort to prevent the history of the Oswin Avenue School from being lost.

“It is a story that traces the lives of those who once new Oswin School as a place of learning or of work.”

Ex pupils include legendary Doncaster boxer Bruce Woodcock while Doncaster author and raconteur Gervase Phinn taught at the school. Mr Armstrong has contacted both the fighter’s family and Mr Phinn for the project.

He added: “It is a story that brought me to a café to rendezvous with my former history teacher to discuss the school’s past, half a century after we had last met.

“It is a story of a photograph of a young lad sat amongst his classmates in 1916, having been evicted from his class at Oswin to make way for the Troops to barrack. It is about following that lad’s life’s journey through conversation with his daughter and granddaughter and discovering that he later drove the legendary Mallard train.

“It is about a young lad who lived only 20 yards from the school gates. During WW2 he had to walk around the air raid shelters in Oswin Avenue on his short journey to school. One night a knock at the door revealed a Land Army girl, anxious to face the short journey to the barracks down the dark lane.

"That lad and his mother escorted the girl and were invited into the barracks to meet the other girls. From that moment on, the barracks were a regular haunt as he was taught to dance by the girls of the land army. After the war, those barracks were to become part of the school campus for generations to follow.

“The stories go on and on. In the 1950’s we meet the pupil who was thrilled to attend the Festival of Britain and a girl who was devastated to miss out due to poverty.

“In the 1960’s we meet the girl who failed the 11 plus as a consequence of her fascination with the invigilator’s mini skirt.

“We meet the pupil who was caught up in the bombing of a pub during the Ireland troubles and we sail on the Ark Royal’s final voyage with another.

“I have trawled the various Facebook local heritage group pages looking to find former pupils and staff members to share their stories. It has proven particularly difficult to find the older generation. We have several 80 plus year olds and quite a few 70 plus participating, however there must be so many out there who do not use the internet and to date have eluded my reach.”

Anyone who would like to help contribute to the project can contact Mr Armstrong on 07458307961 or via email on [email protected]