Short Stories: Schooldays in British Guiana (now Guyana) – By Geoff Burrowes

– By Geoff Burrowes

I’ve heard people say “My schooldays were the best days of my life.” Not so for me. I so loved growing up in my neighbourhood with family and friends that when my parents said “It’s time for school.” I wasn’t ready for it.

However they went ahead and enrolled me in St Rose’s Junior School, rightly believing that I would get a good grounding in the three ‘R’s Reading , wRiting and aRithmetic. It was a long time ago and I have a spotty memory of my introduction to schooling!

I remember bawling loudly and to no effect when being loaded on to Mr. Horsham’s carriage. Yes – carriage! It was a hansom carriage, I suspect from Bastiani’s stable on Anira St in Queenstown. The driver was Mr. Horsham, a tall dignified black gentleman in a top hat and carrying a long whip. My fellow passengers were Dr. Jardim’s daughters and Marguerite Glasford who were a lot more dignified than I was.       

I don’t remember arriving in school but I do recollect some of the teachers. There was Mother De Sales, a serious nun, who carried  around, heavy, polished wooden ruler. I can’t remember what the offences were but I do remember that it rapped painfully on the knuckles when she was annoyed. There was a Mrs. Correia, and a Mrs. Lopes and my favourite Miss Nasciemento who lived in a large three storied house on the street just East of Camp St. She was young, dark haired and to my childish eyes, pretty. She was also gentle and kind.

St Rose’s was a Roman Catholic school and although I wasn’t Catholic myself I remember the experience walking through a covered walkway to a chapel. I remember too chatting with a pretty girl with long black hair called then Mary Ann D’Andrade and who many years later married Dicky De Goes.

There were vendors, on the grounds of St Rose’s who sold gennips, sideums and purple jamoons. In those days I didn’t normally have any money but somehow one day I was given 5 cents and decided to buy some jamoons which I was smart enough to put in the front pocket of my white short-sleeved shirt. This resulted in a large red stain which for some reason upset my teachers who disgraced me by standing me under the steps of the staircase to the second floor where I had to endure the titters of the girls going up to gym for an assembly. At least they didn’t dress me in the dreaded, gaily coloured housecoat, which told every other kid that the unfortunate child had peed himself or herself!

I never bought fruit again from the vendors again!

I learnt many lessons at St Rose and made some friends.

Most of these have disappeared into the mists of antiquity but I do remember a boy from one of the sugar Estates named Desmond Stonehouse.

Maybe it’s because the school after Nursery grades was all-girl but I was always slow with girls and I think that my early schooling must have messed with my psyche!

My next school was Wray High School, a gracious wooden three storied building at the corner of Croal Street and Brummel Place. It was presided over by the principal, Reverend Pollard. He was a tall, lean distinguished gentleman who wore white suits and when he went out in the sun, a white bug house. He had two sons, John, who was older than I was and Paul who was my age. I was friends with Paul and often played with him in their quarters on the third floor, over the school so when my parents told me I was going to school there I had no objection. I knew from experience that objecting would have no effect, anyway! As I have mentioned, the Pollards lived on the top floor. The teacher’s staff room and Reverend Pollard’s office were on the second floor and the ground Floor was sub-divided into classrooms for the important work of the school, teaching us! The teachers I can remember were Mr. Green, a tall slim gentleman with silver-rimmed glasses, Mr. Waldron and Miss Smith, a pretty young lady, who you will see I have a good reason to remember.

Mr. Waldron had a unique teaching style He would give us an assignment for study that night. Next morning he would line us up and with his wild cane cocked and our hands out, as in supplication, he would ask the first boy or girl in line a question about the study subject. If we answered it correctly he would say “Well done” and pass on to the next person in line. If however we didn’t know the answer his wild cane would swiftly and effectively slash across our waiting palm. For anybody who has never experienced this I can tell you it stings sharply and for a long time and may even leave a mark on your palm. His study method however worked! At the age of 80 I still remember that Castries is the capital of St. Lucia!  I believe a number of primary schools used the carrot and stick method of teaching – the stick being a wild cane!

Miss Brown was young and taught by painting verbal pictures. Her imagination made it easy to follow what she was teaching. In my class, was my old friend Peter Willems and a large, somewhat brutal boy named Brown. Brown was very gifted at telling stories. He was very popular among the children and his stories were liberally salted with words I had never before heard before. One of them started with “f”and liking the sound of it I tried it on my tongue. Miss Brown, who had been out of the class room, came back in and Brown inexplicably said “Miss Brown, Burrowes said “f***”, and she said “Burrowes did you say that?”   I said “Yes, but I don’t know what it means!” Miss Brown replied ” Reverend Pollard will know what to do about this!”, grabbed my ear and dragged me through the school in disgrace and upstairs into the august office of the principal, who heard Miss Brown’s complaint, was not interested in listening to my explanation and gave me “six of the best” with his wild cane. I was so angry at the unjustness of the whole affair that the minute he released his grasp I ran out of the office, down the stairs, and through the schoolyard. Reverend Pollard cried “Stop that boy!” and a tall, badly coordinated, teacher called Mr. Alleyne burst out of the classroom and stood with his arms outstretched to stop me. I put the sweetest jink on him and left him with his mouth open and his long arms grasping air and bolted through a hole in the galvanized fence. My mother was not impressed by the school’s idea of justice and I endured a second visit to Reverend Pollard’s office during which she told him that I would not be returning to his school.

My next school was St. Stanislaus College at the corner of Brickdam and High Streets and my dad who had been to Queen’s College himself considered my time at St. Stanislaus as preparation for the QC entrance exam.

The school was a tall three storied building between Brickdam and Hadfield Street with a large playground east of the school with some leafy samaan trees bounding the hedge on the Hadfield St. side. Between the trees was a pit, which was used for “bumping” new boys! (A rite of passage). The playground was used for football and cricket and a game called “labass”, which was not an official school sport but which was played enthusiastically at every school break. The object seemed to be to get hold of the ball and get rid of it immediately as the holder of the ball was kicked hard by anyone within reach. One unfortunate boy ended up in the Brickdam gutter with a broken arm.  I believe that the game continued unabated after he was retrieved from the gutter!

The school was run by Jesuit priests who knew everything there was to be known on any subject under the sun and were very good at imparting their knowledge to their students. Father Scannel was the principal, a kind and gentle man and I can still remember some of the staff.

We were in a bottom floor classroom at the Hadfield Street end of the school. There was a picture of King George the sixth at the back of the Prep Form Room. He was really spooky as his eyes followed you all around the room. Our Form Mistress was Mrs. Cora Lopes and Mr. Singh (who rejoiced in the nickname Long & Fine) taught us Arithmetic and Father Scannel taught us Religious Knowledge and one of my class mates, Raymond Appin, taught me that I could draw, for which I have always been grateful. Raymond was an able artist himself! I don’t know if he continued after school but I hope he did!

The form of punishment practiced, regretfully by Father Bowes, and more enthusiastically by some other priests was the ferulla, a piece of leather like a shoe sole, that I’m told by my friend Ed Driver, stung fiercely when applied vigorously. I only was sent up to the office once for the ferulla and since it was applied by Father Bowes I guess it didn’t count! St Stanislaus did me good and I took the QC entrance exam in the old building by the D’Urban race course and passed. The following September I rode my temporary Canadian, big wheeled coaster bike up to the new QC building at the junction of Camp Street and Thomas Rd. and began my career as a QC boy.

Queen’s College

Like all the new boys I wore a black cap with gold stripes, a D’Urban house tie, complete with the brown D’Urban house stripes, white short-sleeved shirt, khaki shorts and white socks and black shoes. The school believed that a uniform helped discipline and made it easier for parents and having had children of my own in schools without uniforms I can agree!

Queen’s College was a British Colonial School which was modelled in the late 19th century after the best of English public schools. The House system, which Alfred Granger has written about, placed all of us in ‘houses’. I was placed in D (D’urban) house . We all wore ties with gold backgrounds with coloured strips representing our houses. D house’s stripe was brown. The house master was E.R. Burrowes, the distinguished artist and Mr. Rock, originally from Barbados, was his assistant.

My class, Prep Form, was in the middle Floor of the new school and on the Western wing, looking across the quadrangle to the staff houses, which were in a row along the Southern end of the property. They were all painted in the same colour as the new school building, a neutral cream, which didn’t offend the eye, but which didn’t take into account the Guianese fondness for bright colours! Before going to school at Kew See (QC) I received some good advice from my father. He said “There will be boys who take advantage of weaker boys. Don’t be one. If you are bullied by one of these, strike first, if possible and strike as hard as you can! The bullies will then look for easier meat!” I found that to be true, both in school and after. I’ve never known a better example of that than my friend, Ed Driver. He didn’t grow as fast as other boys his age and he had a cherubic face. Bigger boys would say to him “You want to fight?  Hit me nuh.” He would oblige, hard and fast, and the fight was often over right then and there, with the bully’s blood on his knuckles!!

Miss Lynette Dolphin was our Prep Form teacher. She was firm but fair and I think most of the boys in her care appreciated her. She was also our music teacher and would have us sit around the upright piano and sing lustily. Some of us sang more lustily than others.

Sports at QC were compulsory and I found this period, at the end of the day, humiliating as I was not a crony of either the cricket or football captains and would often be picked last or not at all! The result was that I avoided sports whenever possible! My skill at both sports improved accordingly!

In later grades we had a variety of teachers – all good at teaching. The principal was Mr Sanger-Davies, a Welchman and one of the few Welchmen I met who immediately took an aversion to me and I to him! He communicated best with the wild cane and my visits to his office were rarely pleasant. There was a boy in my class called Cocky Willock who visited Sanger regularly, for a variety of reasons and I always felt for him! On arrival in Sanger’s office he would open his desk drawer and offer the student a variety of canes, thick ones, thin ones and in between ones and I can tell you from experience they all hurt just as much! Our principal was an expert at inflicting pain! He would administer the first swipe and just when the painful sting was fading the second would land, reigniting the searing pain. If you were getting ‘six of the best’ there would be three red and blue lines on your skin – three not six. I could never understand the accuracy of his strikes – and certainly never appreciated it.

Of all the teachers I had at QC the one who made me most eager to learn was an English teacher called Bobby Moore. When I say English, he taught us English. He was a Guianese who had a thirst for Guianese history. He saw it in terms of how it affected us in the present (early 1960s) and he inspired us to know as much as possible about who we were and what made us who we were. Not always a pleasant picture but necessary if we were to move on with our lives. Mr. Moore’s excellence continued to reveal itself after he left QC as he became an ambassador, representing our beautiful country, Land of Many Waters. El Dorado, Land of six races, and the root I will always carry with me, wherever I live.

In spite of the excellence of QC, I did not make the most of my schooling and ended up with an anemic academic record. My dad is no longer with us but I apologize posthumously to him and to all of my teachers for this squandering of opportunity!

My education, fortunately, did not finish when I left QC but continued both formally and informally as I made my way through life. A rich and varied life and one I thank God for every day!

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  • Frank Ewing-Chow  On 11/28/2021 at 12:12 pm

    Geoff, Thanks for such honest and open musings of schooldays and growing up in British Guiana. It is refreshing to hear such honesty and openness when reflecting on things that have been quite “personal”….Thanks for sharing those reflections…I enjoy your short stories of British Guiana and can feel the innocence with which your thoughts are projected. I am also 80 with my own musings and reflections, Would love to share some thoughts with you..if interested my email:

  • wally n  On 11/28/2021 at 5:28 pm

    Geoff..does the name “pin point ” brings up any memories?? thanks

  • LAM  On 11/30/2021 at 9:31 am

    Wonderful memories! Reminds us of an article by Lear Matthews entitled: “Legacy of the School Vendor: The way we were,” published in GOL.

    Thanks for the memories.

  • Bibi Hashim  On 11/30/2021 at 1:55 pm

    Reminiscences of a different time. I enjoy reading your short stories and your perspectives and experiences. Thanks very much for sharing and keep them coming 🙂
    You are very modest when referring to your lack lustre academic record; you obviously did very well with the training you received if you could pen (or should I say type) such beautiful and engaging recollections.

  • Pat Dial  On 12/05/2021 at 6:51 pm

    Geoff I taught at Queens when you were there. Robert Moore was one of my best friends. Am one of the few surviving QC masters of those days. Best regards.

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