The following interview with Richard Cox and George Taylor was recorded in 2018. Thanks to both them for sharing their memories of the early days of Thomas Tallis School. You can listen to the recording or read the transcript below.
My name is Richard Cox. I went to Thomas Tallis. My first day was the sixth of September 1971, the day that it opened. So I was one of 120 original boys, no girls then, that went to Thomas Tallis. It was at a time when there was a shortage of secondary source spaces and there was a plan to open up Thomas Tallis, further down the line, in Kidbrooke to cope with the the demand of the new people coming onto the Ferrier Estate. But, in September '71, the school hadn't been built and we had to spend two years at Briset Road. So, that was my introduction to Thomas Tallis.
I've never been a student at Thomas Tallis but my son is a friend of Richard's and he started on the same day in '71. Because my son was coming to the school, I took an interest in what was happening. And I was a parent governor for a number of years. I stayed a parent governor for about three or four years and then my daughter came to the school.
In the early days, there were only four teachers. There was Mr. Turpie who everyone will know and love. We've lost him recently, which is a big shame. But we also had Mr. Richter and Mr. Evans and Mr. Martindale. So they were our four teachers. Mr. Evans specialised in general science, Mr. Richter was English and Mr. Martindale taught maths. Mr. Turpie was geography. And we had a temporary Head for one term, Mr. Davis. And there was a Mr. Edwards who was the deputy head at the time and he taught history. So we didn't have a broad curriculum. In those days, we didn't have any sports facilities like you've got now. Fantastic sports facilities. The students here are very lucky in that respect. But we just had to get on with it. So it was very a big learning curve for everybody. In those early days we had a fantastic basketball team. The first intake got to the last eight of the national competition. And we played against a school from Hampstead down here in the old building. The gallery was packed with teachers and students watching us. It was a really close game. We lost it, but the sporting achievements were fantastic. And of course, in those early days, the school produced Pat Van Den Hauwe, do you remember him? He went on to play for Tottenham and Everton. He was in the year below me. Yeah, that's right. He had a brother called Rudy but I don't think he was that great. But yeah, what Tallis gave me was the friendships, the social interactions, because all of the people that I grew up with are still my friends. I mean, we've been friends for 47 years. So it's a, it's a big deal for me. I left school with virtually no qualifications. But we all make our way in life and some of us went on to great things. I've just retired. I'm not complaining. I've had a good life. Thomas Tallis set me on my way. There was a big reunion about 15 years ago. The teachers were there and it was as if we were really good friends. I mean, we used to call them by their first names. I'm not sure you get that anymore. I went on to form friendships with some of the teachers outside of school with rugby. So a lot of the teachers here came to play for Charlton Park and that's the rugby club that I was taken to by one of the teachers who played there, so that set me up for life. They treated you like adults, and they encouraged you. And they let you get on with things. They let you learn. They let you use blow torches and things like that in the metalwork classes. You didn't have to worry about health and safety. Everything was common sense. And they kept you on the straight and narrow. It was like a family atmosphere.
Well I'm afraid I'm going to pour some cold water on it because I haven't got very many positives. Some of the experiences Richard is telling you about were anathema to a parent of my age. First name terms with teachers and so on and so forth. My son, like Richard, what was it...? O Levels...?
We were so far behind. For the first two years, we did virtually nothing. Because we didn't have the building. We were in Briset Road, a very confined space. We just did the basics so when we came to Kidbrooke Park Road, it was catch up. And they tried to bring people in, they tried to cram but it didn't work. There were only a handful of people that went on to do O Levels. Most people did CSEs. So the academic achievement was non-existent. Of course, you didn't have league tables, you didn't have the pressure of trying to achieve in 1976. You could walk out the front door, and you could get a job. You didn't have to worry about qualifications. You could write to a bank and say, "I'd like to come and work at the bank" and you'd get a response or a nice letter back saying "Come and have an interview". And they'd give you a job and there were jobs aplenty. From a personal perspective, I didn't feel cheated. It's only later in life, that you feel cheated when you realise that you haven't had the education that you deserve, when the promotions are not there at work. So that's interesting.
I can really reiterate a lot of what Richard said in relation to my son who suffered at some stages from word blindness and something else. Turns out, far too late, he was discovered to be dyslexic. But like Richard, this particular group, and the group that he's talking about, all went on to degrees of some kind or other, mainly by their own efforts after they left school. My son struggled for some time. He did get a good job at the local town hall. But he came home one day and said, "Will you sign these papers?" He went to work on a kibbutz for six months, and then it turned out to be a year. And then he walked across the bottom of Africa. "Is he going to settle down?" He did. And would you believe he got a flat with another school friend on the Ferrier Estate. I helped decorate it. But the positives are not very great. I mean, looking at it now, it's marvellous. I do remember when the governors interviewed Mr. Lark. And I was greatly tempted to ask him if he could do a Byrd song at the interview when he had his bag with all his music in it. I wished I'd asked him "What do you intend to do to tie in the school to Thomas Tallis the organist?" Taking up what Richard said about the family atmosphere, having left school with very few qualifications as they did, my son or my daughter, both have had success. My son is now retired, in fact. He was a police inspector when he retired. My daughter had, and we've still got it, a coat that she made here. It was in a glass case in in the foyer of the school. And she now has a beauty business. Very successful. I have nieces, not nephews, actually, who passed through the school and all of whom took degrees at various universities. I have great nieces who came to the school and both of those went on to a degree education. So whatever it was, was planted in those early days. Whilst it might not have benefited the originals, it's benefited a lot of other people since.
Well, I feel I've been cheated in terms of facilities you've got now because we never had those opportunities. In Briset Road we had a very tiny gymnasium. There was also a big sports hall but it had a concrete floor and was very cold. Looking around at the facilities here, the basketball arena, the dojo, the studios, the gymnastics hall. These students are so lucky to have those facilities. And there isn't anything that can stop them from going on to achieve. They can, if they want, be the best. They've got an opportunity to be the best.
Through my own son. I know the affection that he had for the school because he won't have anything set against it. He held the long jump record at the school for a long time. It probably still stands. But that brings up another point. When the Inner London Education Authority went against all competitive sports, and you've got children who are good at competitive sport, but a little bit weak on the academic side, they've got something to wave their banner about. As Richard said about basketball, my son played basketball with Mr. Turpie. But again, we missed out as parents where our children didn't get what we thought they should have got.
I've got no regrets about coming here like Russell (George's son), I wouldn't say anything against it. It was a great, great school.
George kindly donated some photos of the school being built from 1971:
Thomas Tallis kept much of his life to himself which was probably wise in a bloodthirsty century when serving a monarch could be good news one day and fatal the next. The first post we know he had was as organist at Dover Priory, where he was described as joculator organorum, player of the organs. Joculator means ‘player’ and is also where we get ‘juggler’ and the French ‘jongleur’. It sounds a jolly sort of job.
Tallis the professional musician spent most of his life as a court musician, serving the kings and queens at their Greenwich palace. The latest biography says that in his lifetime he saw "a massive influx of new musical practices from outside England. He saw the birth of the music publishing industry in London. He saw the creation of new genres and the transformation of old genres beyond all recognition."
How did he know what to do? How did he measure the risks and opportunities? What made him decide, in the courts of mercurial, violent and unpredictable monarchs, what was worth risking his neck for?
I think there’s a clue hidden in his epitaph:
As he had lived, so also did he die
In patient quiet sort (O happy man);
To God full oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lives, let death do what he can.
Tallis had a long view. He was a Roman Catholic Christian, which he had to hide for a huge chunk of his life. He would have been ready to die. He would have kept his soul in order. He would have hoped patiently for the best, cultivating optimism about what he could build and what he could leave behind. He would have hoped that the world would change for the better.
And he wanted to know that world. He was inquisitive. Tallis learned from anyone who passed through the court, questioning the great musicians of Spain and the new, plainer singing from Germany. He worked with it all to develop a unique music that’s still in daily use five hundred years later.
Tallis can’t be pigeonholed as just a survivor, though that was itself a remarkable achievement. He was an artist, a thinker, dedicated to a creativity that flooded his days.
What a gift that example is to our school, to be named, at four hundred years’ distance for a man who was "at ease with a broad range of styles and could move freely among them while keeping a distinctive voice of his own [...] He did not merely survive constant change; it made him even more resilient and more capable.’"
Fifty years of school history seems like a long time to us, earthbound and rational as we are. But Tallis’s optimism and inquisitiveness made his name live forever. The songs of his past echo round the world and as long as singers sing he’ll be known and loved. Though he died in 1585 he’ll live as long as history because he loved the thought of the future, of wondering, questioning, exploring and investigating and challenging assumptions that terrified lesser people. You’ve got to love the man’s optimism.
I remember feeling a mixture of relief and fear.
Relief because I had a school to go to at all. According to my primary school I had got the highest mark of any child in Greenwich Borough in the year 6 tests, but I had been turned down for places at all the schools on my list, including Tallis. A week before school started I did not have a school place. No grammar schools had been included on my list on principle, but Charlton Boys, Woolwich Poly, Crown Woods, Abbey Wood, Tallis, all had sent letters saying thanks but no thanks.
Being a sensitive soul I was gutted, nobody wanted me. On appeal I got an interview with the Head of Tallis back then, Mrs Husein . I had to visit her on my own in her office at Tallis, and she grilled me about my character. Different times... But I was in!
I remember the gates opening on the first day. At the old site there was a long walkway that dropped down to the concourse, with the two arms of the building on either side. It felt like entering into an alien spaceship, or the mouth of a massive, terrifying animal, hundreds of little ants tumbling in with no idea of what went on inside the belly of the beast. Aargh!!!
But out we came at the end of the day, a tiny bit less scared, and even starting to feel just a little excited about the years ahead.
In November 2018 we received sad news that the founding Headteacher of Thomas Tallis, Beryl Husain, had died. Her successor Colin Yardley wrote this piece which, with thanks to him, we reproduce here:
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which replaced the LCC, was building a new secondary school to serve the massive Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, then under construction by the Greater London Council. The First Oil Crisis hit the economy and all public spending. Even while it was being built, the school suffered cuts, narrowing the corridors, losing a couple of staircases and lopping some classrooms and the assembly hall. Of course, the building was not completed in time for its planned opening. It was due to be a mixed comprehensive school, but had to start life in a nearby secondary modern boys’ school, Briset Road School. After a couple of years there was eventually the move to the new building, which was still not finished.
Not only was a large part of the building still in the hands of contractors, but incessant cuts left it shoddily constructed, with the flat roof leaking from day one. All of this amounted to an inauspicious beginning for Thomas Tallis School, named after the Tudor-period composer who had local connections. Fortunately for all concerned, especially the children, Beryl had been appointed Headteacher. She immediately proved her mettle by refusing to have the school officially opened because the building was, in her view, far from finished. In fact, that first building was never officially opened. She insisted on compensation in the form of an on-site playing field for the school, pointing out that all the ILEA had to do was buy an adjacent private sports ground and give it to her. She won that battle.
Beryl knew that, in order to survive, let alone thrive, Tallis had to compete with the surrounding well established schools and win. She appointed a young staff, most of them in their first job and over half of them women. It was to be mixed ability teaching in all subjects and at all levels. Homework was obligatory for all. All assemblies, notwithstanding the law, were non-religious.
A predominantly young staff could be moulded in her own image. Beryl considered herself a trainer, as well as the leader. One of her catch-phrases was: “Look after the nitty-gritty.” In other words, get the detail consistently right and the rest will follow. During the 1980s the school became fully subscribed and the hottest ticket in town. In 1990, it was at the centre of the Greenwich Judgement saga. Greenwich had just become an education authority on Thatcher’s break-up of the ILEA. The Council declared a new policy that only children resident within the borough could be admitted to the borough’s schools. This brought an end to the free movement across borders under the all-embracing ILEA. A group of parents just across the border in Lewisham kicked up a mighty storm. They resented the prospect of being unable to send their children to the school they considered their best choice ─ Tallis. The case had to reach the House of Lords before it was determined that free movement had to be maintained.
By the time Beryl retired in 1986, the windows still rattled and the roof still leaked, but she had built a dedicated and outstanding staff and her school had the best results of the Greenwich county schools and was heavily over-subscribed. A measure of its success was the fact that the staff sent enough of their own children to the school to muster two football teams. Beryl was a bundle of energy and enthused all around her. She is remembered with admiration and affection.