The high life


In the fourth of a series of articles to mark Wanstead High School’s 100th anniversary, former student Paul Donovan (class of 1980) reflects on his memories of the characters he encountered at the school 

The 100th anniversary of Wanstead High School in 2024 is a momentous event. The school became Wanstead High when it turned comprehensive in the early 1970s. Previously a grammar, the school was known as Wanstead County High School. Something some ex-pupils from that era like to emphasise.

I went to Wanstead High from Aldersbrook Primary in the September of 1973. At the time, the school was still split over two sites in Wanstead and Aldersbrook, the school having been created by bringing together Wanstead County High School and Aldersbrook Secondary Modern. The first term, we were at Wanstead, second term at Aldersbrook and in the third term, the whole school came together on the one site on Redbridge Lane West. A whole new building had been created, including science labs, music area and theatre.

The head was Donald Mackay, who had a rather austere persona. I tended to bracket him with Mr Mackay, the prison governor played by the actor Fulton Mackay in the Ronnie Barker comedy Porridge. Mackay was ably supported by deputies Michael Jones and Nick Wheeler-Robinson. The team had a real commitment to the ideal of comprehensive education, giving everyone a chance, regardless of background. The austere image, though, did come crashing down early on when a relationship between Mackay and a former sixth-former was revealed. The national media were out around the gates of the school. We pupils were told not to speak to them. Mackay left the school. He remained with the former sixth-former for some years thereafter. After an interim period when Jones was in charge, Phyllis Taylor took over as head, and she remained so for the rest of my time there.

The school had a number of characters over the years. Head of English, Bernard ‘Bugsy’ Doyle was someone many ex-pupils will remember. A small, at times rather angry, aggressive man. Unsurprisingly, the Bugsy nickname came from his resemblance to a rabbit. Whilst English could be testing with Doyle, he knew his stuff and there were never any disciplinary issues in his classes.

The last big celebration at the school was for the 75th anniversary in 1999. It was fascinating to go back for the day, meeting staff and former pupils. One conversation I remember that day was with Daniel Levy, now chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. Daniel was in my year, a member of House 4. Another who rose to fame from my time at the school was Nick Berry. Nick was a couple of years younger than me but came to play football on the top field during lunch times. Nick, of course, went on to find fame as an actor in EastEnders. 

Wanstead High was a great place to be educated with good, committed teachers. The present custodians appear to be carrying on the school traditions. Long may it last.

For more information on Wanstead High School, visit wansteadhigh.co.uk

Author: Editor