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Michael H N Astell - Autobiography

I was born in July 1943 in Beulah, a bungalow set in four or five acres of land on Glebe Road in Ramsden Bellhouse, Essex, which was purchased by my paternal grandparents when new in the early 1920s. Unfortunately my grandfather died in 1942 while my father was at war. I was brought up and looked after during the day by my grandmother as my mother had to go to work to teach during the day. This is remembered as a wonderful experience.

Some incidents have emerged from memory. As a baby in a pram, someone (a member of the family) obviously didn't fix the brakes of the pram correctly which rolled under the laburnum bush, totally covered in wonderful yellow blossom. This image has remained all my life. perhaps because of the horror with which I was grabbed before I could devour the laburnum pods.

I distinctly remember one evening running from our air raid shelter much to my mother's horror to see the pretty lights in the sky. The flashes were German bombs, much reduced as the war was coming to an end, but years later I discovered that this big pretty light was in fact a V2 which landed only two or three miles away.

Another visual incident was that of walking down our road bending over to stroke the pretty creature that had reared its head towards me. Fortunately the builder from along the road happened to be walking by and kicked the viper into the ditch. We had many chickens and a few rabbits and when I was old enough it was my job to assist in feeding the chickens before going off with my mother to school.

One item of interest was that by the front gate grew an extremely large willow tree. It took the bat manufacturing firm much time and negotiation to purchase but they maintained that from that one tree they should be able to produce one absolutely top quality cricket bat and many of lesser quality.

1947 was one of those occasional years where everything was white for months. Once the roads were made somewhat passable the baker was able to bring bread. Virtually every day he arrived at the door in his purpose built cart drawn by his faithful horse. Traffic was an extreme minumum and the horse knew the route so well that he horse took itself round the round.

Two of us attended Sunday School on a regular basis. I was fortunate in that the 'big' girl up the road, who was six, had a toboggan and she collected me every Sunday and took me to Sunday School in style. We were both awarded prizes for perfect attendance.

We were fortunate to have very extensive orchards with over 150 fruit trees of many varieties. Whilst all produce in those days may be termed organic the only method of storing fruit was on sheets of newspaper in the loft.

The gardens obviously were far too much for my mother, who was working full time, and my grandmother. My mother's father spent several months with us each year. My maternal grandparents lived in Goole and visited occasionally. When that grandmother died, my grandfather, William (Bill) King, would spend his time between his two daughters, one in Yorkshire and us. Even so, property became far too onerous to maintain and we moved to Billericay shortly after my grandfather's death when I was 11.

My paternal grandparents were Minnie Florence and Walter Francis Astell, who ran Astell & Co, printers and cartographers, and hydrographers to the Admiralty. They printed hydrographic maps. He fell off a horse and broke his hip, and ultimately died of the experience. Meanwhile his partner disappeared with the assets of the business. I don't know who he was.

I had by this time just passed county scholarship to go to Brentwood School. This four hundred year old minor public school (direct grant) was quite an experience. My father had preceded me at the school, excelling at all subjects and thriving in all sporting activities. I did not follow his example. It cannot be said that life at the school for me was exhilarating. There were of course in a school of distinction many different aspects: an open air swimming pool was filled on the appropriate day of the year, the temperature taken daily and once it reached 57 degrees, swimming commenced.

At the commencement of the fourth form it was compulsory to join the Combined Cadet Force. This seemed unnecessary to most pupils at the time but some of us quickly learned to achieve. There was far more to it than drill.

I played clarinet in the CCF band and while I kept trying to leave the band for the drill squad, they kept putting me back in the band. Thus it was that I had a grandstand position when the Queen and Prince Philip visited the school at its quatercentenary to open the new multimillion pound science block.

It has to be said that there were many aspects of exhilaration during this period of my education: the CCF, playing first clarinet in the school's full symphony orchestra, and absorbing those peculiar traits of character which it said are distinctive of the public school/direct grant education. I succeeded in gaining sufficient qualifications to be offered a place at the City of Leeds Training College which opened a new chapter in my life.

My mother, years before, had also trained at the City of Leeds Training College, where she met my father who was undertaking a PE diploma at Carnegie College. In the May of 1962, my remaining grandmother died, aged 84, which was deeply distressing.

Essex County Council enabled full time teacher training students to be placed on the supply list and thereby to be on call during the few weeks from the college year being completed to the school year being completed. Headteachers were always delighted to welcome students in this situation and of course we got paid.

I completed a week's supply at Buttsbury County Primary School, where I ultimately joined the staff on completion of my qualifications. The second week I was called to a school in Basildon for a week. At break time I was introduced in the staff room to a young lady present at the school on an intending teacher course. This meeting had a profound effect upon me and is very difficult to describe. On seeing her the rest of the world faded away and I spent some minutes talking with her. The world returned to normal on my shoulder being shaken and a jovial Welsh teacher indicated it was time to get back to work.

This proved to be the first day of the rest of my life. Our courtship was mainly conducted at long distance as I returned to college to complete two more years of teacher training. A daily letter routine was soon established.

College life progressed with the usual academics, teaching practices and the like. I was a member of the swimming team for two years, specialising in the plunge. This was great fun as the swimming team was allowed a great deal of extra use of the pool. I also met the principal of Carnegie College who made me welcome, showed me the memorial at Carnegie which included my father's name and explained that he had taken his Carnegie diploma in the same year as my father.

Having qualified from college, it was now time to look seriously at the world of work. I was extremely fortunate to be offered an appointment at Buttsbury County Primary School. The school was expanding, the catchment area excellent, the headteacher and staff most supportive and I enjoyed seven very happy years on that staff. During the period I was promoted twice.

My main interest was in forming, developing and conducting a school choir which gave many concerts and won many awards. I was also able with the help of my father-in-law to obtain six free match-standard table tennis tables and quality coaches to run a table tennis development club. This was held mainly for those at Buttsbury but we also included a small group of children from each of the adjoining schools.

Also at the beginning of this period Pam and I became engaged and worked towards our marriage. The house where my mother and I lived was large and situated on a corner. There was sufficient land fronting the side road to build a pair of semi-detached houses.

We had decided after our honeymoon to move straight into a brand new house, but my mother made it possible for us to have one of these, by her generous donation of the cost of the land as a wedding present. She would sell the original house and take the other.

A tentative date was set for the wedding, but the house was nowhere near ready. Another tentative date was set but this also proved fruitless. The architect was excellent (a friend of a cousin), but the builder who won the contract always had an excuse for not getting on with the work.

Having 'discussed' the delays with the builder, a third and final date was set, the builder promising that the house would be ready. 19th February, 1966 duly arrived and we were married in the local parish church full of family and friends. Outside, the high street was totally blocked by hordes of children from the school.

The house by this time was still far from ready, the roof trusses being propped up against a wall. After a superb wedding reception where the waiter seemed to have been primed by my father-in-law to top up the glass every time I had a sip, and the sherry trifle proved to be well-laced with sherry (Pam hates sherry trifle), we drove off in a hired car to Suffolk for a three day honeymoon (half term was three days).

The coaching inn in which we stayed had an unusual bedroom - two single beds, one with its foot pointing up and one with its head pointing up. We discovered next morning that the floor could be called multi-level. We spent our three days touring round looking at buildings of interest (amongst other things).

On returning home we stayed at my mother's house till our house was eventually ready. Hal arrived in 1971, the year that I was promoted to deputy head of St Thomas of Canterbury C E Junior School, Brentwood. Katherine arrived to complete the family in 1973.

At Brentwood we met many new friends including the vicar, Fr (later Canon) Francis Tester. The headteacher decided to take a sabbatical during 1977/8 and I had the experience of being acting head for that school year.

It was a great delight to be one of the team of staff who developed many extra-curricular activities. Apart from the usual netball and football, there was a thriving BAGA gym club, swimming (having great use of the new pool belonging to the adjoining Roman Catholic junior school), rounders and athletics. Also developed at St Thomas's were educational journeys of around five days each to Belgium and Holland. These were wonderful experiences.

I decided that it would be a good idea to undertake an advanced diploma. It took two years to persuade Essex County Council to give me leave of absence to undertake a diploma at the School of Education (University of Leeds). Hockerill Church of England College had closed a few years previously and its funds were available to the trustees to support individual training. I was extremely fortunate and very grateful to receive a full grant and thus enabled to undertake the diploma in 1981/2.

Christmas 1981 saw us break our ties with St Mary's Church at Billericay. I had been a server there for many years, we were married there and both children were christened there. Unfortunately the theology brought to the church after a long interregnum by the new incumbent was very far from our liking. St Thomas's and Fr Tester made us extremely welcome.

Having completed the diploma, it was only a year before I was appointed as headteacher at Barkisland C E School, taking up duties at the end of August, 1983. During the first week of term I was visited by many senior officers from the authority. There was much to be done. The school did not yet have a computer, though standards in English were excellent.

The local clergy (vicar and chairman of governors, the Revd John Flack, now Bishop of Huntingdon; and curate, Fr Gordon Fisher) were very supportive. Fr Gordon ran a local church youth club with a host of activities and children were being gently encouraged to become servers and members of the choir.


When my dad dictated these snippets of his life to me, he was dying of cancer. He died before he could finish. Also, the distance in time from some of the events and the morphine with which he was being treated probably both contributed to his missing out parts that I know about.

For the record, I know that he was a prizewinning breeder of rabbits. He and another man, who I only knew as Jock, even created their own breed, the Otter Rex. I don't remember much about our house in Billericay, which we left when I was eleven, but I do remember a large pinboard above the telephone in the hallway that was covered in rosettes from their wins.

I also know that he was a decent slot car racer. A local club named Tyringham used to bring one of their tracks to the summer fairs at Quilters Junior and Infant School in Billericay, the school I attended. People would pay a small amount to take part in a race and the racer with the fastest lap of the day would win a prize; the rest of the money would go to the school. One year my father won the prize for the fastest lap; he was also invited to join the club and was a member until we moved north to Yorkshire.

He also took part in various productions put on by the Barkisland Drama Group, one of the many gifts Fr Gordon Fisher gave to Barkisland. The Drama Group specialised in pantomimes, which were put on over four or five nights at the Civic Hall in West Vale. All our family were involved in these, and one especially memorable performance my father gave was as a St Trinian's schoolgirl, alongside a couple of other equally unlikely candidates for the part, including our local publican.

He interest in computers was far from typical for his generation and it certainly had a massive influence on me. He bought an Acorn BBC Model B Micro when they were new, in the very early 1980s. He and I spent many hours typing in program listings from magazines and then altering and improving them into something of our own. When they became available, we advanced to an IBM compatible PC, an Amstrad 1640, which was later passed on to me and became the machine I began to learn my future trade on.

Most of his later years were taken up with freemasonry, into which he had been long invited but resisted for much of his life. Once a mason though, he rose rapidly through the ranks. He quickly became master of the Ryburn Lodge and soon moved up to senior rank in the province and many side degrees. Many of the people who turned up to his funeral were masons and it soon became obvious that everyone who was anyone in masonry in the north of England knew my father and had great respect for him.

These are only snippets that I know about. I'm sure there are many more from the years before I was born that may never now be heard.


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