A few years ago I bumped into a lad I’d known at Highfield School. This brief encounter got me thinking of my time at Highfield. Most of the staff were great and on the whole I’d really enjoyed the few years I spent there, but at the time I really hadn’t liked Harry Swan, the headmaster. He was a man of very small stature but enormous presence. He stood no nonsense and he used the cane for the slightest offense. Unfortunately I was an all too frequent recipient of that cane. Yes, I’d really disliked Harry Swan, but over the years since I left Highfield, especially after I’d entered the teaching profession myself, I began to understand what a tough job he’d had and how well he’d tackled it. Gradually I came to respect, even admire Mr Swan. Once my attitude to Mr Swan had mellowed, I was able to understand just how much I owed him. I’m now certain that my life-long love of maths stemmed directly from a time when he stood in for our class teacher and gave us a fascinating introduction to algebra.
But what had become of Harry Swan? Obviously he’d be dead, but I’d never heard of his passing. Rowlands Gill was a fairly small place and news spread fast. I’d heard of the deaths of many, probably most, of my former teachers at Highfield, but nothing of Mr Swan. I hate mysteries, and I’m a keen local historian, so I decided there and then to try to find what I could about the life and death of my former headmaster. It’s taken me a while, but with the very recent release of some new records I was able to break through a final brick wall and complete this very brief biography of Henry Swan.
Life of Henry Swan
Henry Swan was born in Dipton on 24th September 1902, the son of Colliery Checkweighman, John Edmund Swan, and his wife Alice. The family lived at 13 Swinburne Terrace, Dipton – which is still stands on the main road through the village – and Henry grew up there with his parents and his half-sister, Ettie Wilkinson, who was nine years his senior. In 1910, when Henry was seven, his parents had another son who was christened Rowland Cornford Swan.
Henry’s father had been active in local politics for some time, but in 1918, when Henry was 16, John Edmund Swan was elected Labour MP for Barnard Castle. Unfortunately his parliamentary career was to be rather short-lived; he lost his seat to a Tory at the next General Election in 1922. John Edmund didn’t stand for Parliament again, but he rose to great heights in local politics: he served as an Agent of the Durham Miners’ Association and served as its General Secretary from 1935 to 1945, succeeding the legendary Peter Lee.
While his father was serving as an MP, Henry trained at Bede Training College in Durham and he obtained his Board of Education Certificate. He took up his first teaching appointment as an Assistant Master at Rowlands Gill Council School in 1923. This was to be a very long and successful appointment: he taught at that same school until 1948. Not content with his basic teaching qualification, Mr Swan increased his versatility by studying for City and Guilds qualifications in Handicrafts, and for the Royal Horticultural Society Certificate in School and Cottage Gardening.
In 1927 Henry married a Tow Law-born lass called Iverene Phillipson. Henry had been living in Delight Row, Dipton for several years, but immediately after his marriage he and his wife moved into the house which was to be their home for nearly 50 years: “Neathsdale” on Dene Avenue, Rowlands Gill. This would be much more convenient for Henry travelling to and from work. In 1931 their first and, as it turned out, only child Joan was born.
Once established in Rowlands Gill, Henry involved himself in local politics and was soon elected to represent Rowlands Gill and Lockhaugh Ward on Blaydon Urban District Council. His political career reached its pinnacle in 1944 when Councillor Henry Swan was picked by his fellow councillors to serve as Chairman of Blaydon UDC, the equivalent of Mayor today.
When war broke in 1939, Henry Swan was given two important part-time jobs. He was to serve on Blaydon’s Food Control Committee, and he was appointed Head Air Raid Warden for Rowlands Gill and Lockhaugh in charge of the 35 or so full and part-time Wardens in the village. Many people questioned Henry’s suitability for this second role, claiming it was just a political appointment, but when he was tested he was to prove his detractors wrong.
In the early hours of May 1st 1942 Lockhaugh was heavily bombed and strafed with machine-gun fire. Many of the houses on the main road and Thornley Lane lost their roofs, and there was a lot of damage to windows, walls and ceilings. When the police arrived on the scene they were surprised to find that the Wardens led by Henry Swan had already searched all the damaged houses and they’d accounted for all the residents too. Afterwards the village policeman, Bill Meehan, praised Henry Swan and said he’d displayed outstanding leadership and organisational skills that night.
On 31st August 1947 the long-serving headmaster at Highfield Mixed School, Mr J.W. Mason, retired, and Henry Swan was appointed to be his successor. He took up his appointment on 1st June 1948. Highfield Mixed School had pupils aged 8 to 15 years and at the time of his appointment it had 212 pupils on its books. Because of the post-war baby boom and the building of Highfield Council Estate, the numbers on the books rose quickly over the next eight years to a maximum of 440 in September 1956 then tailed off to around 300 by 1963. Dividing the pupils into classes, and arranging classrooms and staffing for such wildly varying numbers was a major and continuing headache throughout Mr Swan’s time at Highfield. All this on top of the usual day to day responsibilities of any headmaster made this a particularly challenging job.
It was to get worse. Every year the school had lost some pupils to Hookergate Grammar School or High Spen Secondary Modern at the age of 11 or 12, but many pupils stayed on at Highfield until they left school at 15. When High Spen Secondary Modern was replaced by the much bigger Rowlands Gill Secondary Modern in September 1964, all 11+ pupils in the area who didn’t go to Hookergate would now automatically go the new Secondary Modern. Highfield Mixed was now Highfield Junior School taking only pupils up to the age of 11. There were now only 175 pupils on Highfield’s books with 6 staff. Losing all his senior pupils must have been really awful for Mr Swan who had excelled at careers advice and guidance for his school leavers. Perhaps he was glad that retirement was only three years away.
Henry Swan retired on 31st August 1967, just before his 65th birthday. He now had more time to devote to his main hobby – breeding birds – and to his work as a Justice of the Peace. He remained in the village until 1975 and then he and his wife emigrated to the USA to live with their daughter Joan and son-in-law Eric. Henry Swan died at the age of 81 in February 1984 in the City of Alexander, a small settlement on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. His widow, Iverene, died 11 years later on 4th November 1995.
Footnote 1. Henry Swan’s Siblings.
Henry’s elder half sister, Ettie Wilkinson, married chauffeur George Richardson and they set up home at Berry Edge near Consett. They had two children: Frederick in 1919 and Alice in 1920. Ettie died in 1957.
Henry’s younger brother, Rowland Cornford Swan, followed his elder brother into teaching. He was working at Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire when he met and married Peggy Fairclough. Rowland and Peggy had one child, Sandra, in 1938. Rowland Cornford Swan died in Leicester in 1975.
Footnote 2. He might have been Henry Spink!
John Edmund Swan, Henry’s father, was born in 1878, the illegitimate son of Isabella Alice Swan. When John Edmund was three, his mother married a coal miner called John Spink. They raised John Edmund as John Edmund Spink and he might well have retained that name had it not been for the fact that his mother and step-father split up when John Edmund was in his late teens. He then reverted to his birth-name, John Edmund Swan. If John Edmund had remained John Edmund Spink and married under that name, our headmaster might well have been Henry Spink.