Recently I met up with a group of former classmates from Hookergate Grammar School for a meal. As usual when we meet, we talked about former schoolmates, teachers, scandals, school visits and notable events from our schooldays.
On this occasion Dave Routledge recalled the time in a first-year chemistry class when he and I thought it would be enormous fun to mix random chemicals in a test tube. Whatever it was we mixed reacted somewhat violently, and hot liquid shot out of the top of the test tube. The resulting stain on the lab ceiling was still visible when I visited the school ten years later.
Mr Soulsby, the chemistry teacher, dragged us out to the front of the class, bent us over a bench and walloped us with a broom shank. I’m sure this had the desired deterrent effect, but actually hurt far less than the cane. Of course we deserved it – we could easily have injured ourselves and others.
Mr Soulsby, who’d joined the school at the same time we did, was one of my favourite teachers. He always tried to answer questions no matter how naive or how deep they might be, and he was an excellent teacher. He was, however, somewhat accident-prone, and on two occasions in our second year our lessons didn’t quite go as planned!
The first accident occurred when Mr Soulsby was showing us how to make hydrogen using a Kipp’s Apparatus – a glass assembly consisting of three sections stacked one on top of the other. Mr Soulsby started off the reaction, waited a few minutes and then tried to light the gas coming out of the side tube. It should have produced a harmless, flickering blue/purple flame at the end of the tube, but unfortunately he hadn’t waited long enough for the air to be completely expelled, and the gas/air mixture inside the apparatus blew up.
It really was spectacular as the top two sections of the apparatus shot into the air trailing a jet of flame and looking for all the world like a V2 rocket. And like many of the early V2s, it didn’t get very high before nose-diving to the ground – or rather the other end of the demonstration bench. We all got a shock, to put it mildly, but nobody was hurt at all. It could have been a lot worse.
Having failed miserably to wipe us out with a missile, he switched to chemical warfare. I thought I remembered this incident well, but Vera Grant née Newton, another of our little group, reminded me of some details I’d forgotten. Mr Soulsby was demonstrating the production of carbon monoxide when the apparatus he was using exploded violently. There was glass everywhere, and several pupils, particularly the girls who were all seated closest to the demonstration bench, were sprayed with sulphuric acid. Our first concern, however, was the gas, which Mr Soulsby had just told us was very poisonous. Fearing for our lives, we all dashed for the door – and first out was “Greg” (Ian Gregory) who moved faster that day than he ever had in games or PE.
Nobody was badly hurt; just a few with small cuts to dress, one or two with acid burns to bathe, and a few with acid-stained clothing to replace. Again, it could have been a lot worse. There’s a rather indignant entry in my diary for that day, Friday 8 May 1959: “Explosion in chemistry laboratory. Nobody badly hurt but girls do no lessons in afternoon.” The reason for my annoyance: we boys had normal lessons for the rest of the day!
Mr Soulsby took us for chemistry for three years, but coming into the fourth year in September 1960, I was disappointed to find that we were to have Mr Robson for chemistry that year. Mr Robson, who’d joined the school in July 1960, was a good teacher, and I continued to do well in the subject, but I did regret not being taught by Mr Soulsby. Consequently I was very disappointed (and rather surprised) when we learnt that Mr Soulsby was leaving the school in December to study Divinity at Cambridge. A big loss for the school – a big loss for the teaching profession.
And that was the last I heard of Mr Soulsby until 1980 when I was helping to track down former Hookergate teachers and pupils to invite them to a planned reunion in 1981. I found that Mr Soulsby – or rather Rev Soulsby – was a vicar at Sutton near St Helens, Lancs. I spoke briefly with him on the telephone and invited him to the reunion. He said he wouldn’t be coming, and I got the distinct impression that he hadn’t welcomed being reminded of his time at Hookergate. I’ve often wondered why that was the case but all I could come up with was that maybe the scandal in 1959 involving his married departmental head and a young PE teacher had something to do with it. It may well have been particularly shocking to a religious man like Mr Soulsby.
Just out of interest I set myself a challenge to find as much as I could about Mr Soulsby in an afternoon. It proved very easy thanks to online genealogical material and a 2002/3 edition of Crockford’s Clerical Directory at our local library. This is the result of my research.
Mr Soulsby was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1936; the eldest of two sons of John Howden Wharrier Soulsby and Katherine Mabel Soulsby née Scott. He studied at Durham University and was awarded a BSc degree in 1957. Later that same year he joined the staff of Hookergate Grammar School as a chemistry teacher.
At the end of 1960, after 3 years at Hookergate, Mr Soulsby left to study Divinity at Westcott House, an Anglican theological college associated with the University of Cambridge. He began his studies in 1961, became an Ordained Deacon in 1962 and an Ordained Priest in 1963.
Rev Soulsby’s first clerical position was as a Curate at Selly Oak near Birmingham, and then, from 1966, he was a Curate at nearby Kings Norton. Also in 1966 Rev Soulsby married Miss Janet M Beach. They had their first child, Rachel Emma, in 1972 and their second, Iain Michael, in 1975. Meanwhile, in 1973 and still at Kings Norton, Rev Soulsby had been promoted to Team Vicar.
In 1976 the Soulsbys moved north to Sutton near St Helens in Lancashire where Rev Soulsby had been appointed as Team Rector. This appointment was to last twelve years, and during his last four years at Sutton Rev Soulsby also served as Rural Dean which meant he had oversight responsibilities for all the parishes in the Prescot Deanery.
From 1988 Rev Soulsby was the Priest in Charge at Orton Longueville Parish near Peterborough. Four years later, in 1992, he took on the additional responsibilities of Rural Dean for the Deanery of Yaxley. Two years later Rev Soulsby became an Honorary Canon at Ely Cathedral. He was now Canon Soulsby. Yet more change took place in 1996 when his parish became part of a Team Ministry with Canon Soulsby as Team Rector.
Canon Soulsby retired in 2004 and now lives at Eye near Peterborough. Like many retired clerics, he still helps out when vicars in the area are ill or otherwise indisposed. I wish him well and hope he and his wife have many more happy years together.
Finally, I’m pleased to see that Canon Soulsby hasn’t completely abandoned science: he’s a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, indeed he was secretary for a while.