Goodbye, Mr Chips

Dick Gillingham  at Montgomery High School, Bispham.
Dick Gillingham at Montgomery High School, Bispham.
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Dick Gillingham is more “Goodbye, Mr fish ‘n’ chips” than “Goodbye, Mr Chips – as befits a chap who grew up in Fleetwood and lives there to this day.

But, like the celebrated long serving teacher of fiction and film lore, Dick has clocked up decades of unbroken service at one school – a 41 year record unlikely to be broken by any other fellow staff member at Montgomery High School, at Bispham.

He’s retired, having taught three generations of various families, able to recall the grandparents, let alone parents, of boys and girls at the popular school today.

His own wife, Gill, is head of music there, and his son Mark, a former regenerationist, has shared a classroom (as a teacher) with his dad for the past year, both teaching their beloved geography.

“I’m really proud of him,” Dick admits. “The challenges are far greater today. The pressures can be immense. There were 900 kids here when I started, there are 1,500 now.”

Dick has seen the advent of the computer, the pocket calculator, the rebranding of Monty as a specialist language college, the rise of the national curriculum, and the fall of quirkier elements which enabled teachers of old to shine as individuals and throw far more into the melting pot.

“The system is far more rigid today. People are totally fixated on assessments. Lessons are far more structured. I liked a wider brief,” he said.

Dick went to Fleetwood’s Chaucer Primary, and later the local grammar school. His favourite teacher, Dorothy Bennett, proved a lifelong mentor, later turning up on his local history lecture, to give him tips.

The former boy soprano also became a keen folk singer, and is one of the founding fathers of the Fleetwood 175 Celebrations, taking place this year.

“I became a teacher by default – I wanted to be an architect,” he admits. “But I think it worked out rather well.”

Dick’s one of those inspirational teachers, unafraid to stray from the beaten path, and that will be missed by pupils now facing a future minus one of their three Gillinghams.

To this day, children cherish him, as my own examination class of 1972 did, for his kindness. We pause in what is now son Mark’s classroom, for a picture of father and son, and I compare notes with pupils at the back of the class.

“We like them both,” says one of the girls. “The older Mr Gillingham likes to tell us about the old days, younger Mr Gillingham is more strict. Both are nice. But the old one (he’s in his 60s) is kind.”

Mr G Jnr is clean-shaven. When his dad arrived for the start of term in September 1970 he was the hairiest teacher Montgomery High School had ever seen. He admits the eyes of the school’s namesake, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, seemed to follow him around. Monty’s portrait has only recently been restored to the school’s main entrance hall where he used to glower at every child who filed past.

Mr Gillingham had muttonchop whiskers and a long ginger brown beard. Kids liked him because he was just 22 when he started, liked music, sport, knew how to talk to them and wasn’t afraid to look like a hippy. “When I think how I looked I am amazed the school took me on,” he adds.

Staff, many of whom had been at the school since it opened 12 years earlier, soon found him to be a grafter, who gave up his weekends, for fellwalking, fieldtrips, coaching rugby and cricket, later playing alongside ex pupils at Blackpool RUFC. He taught geography, history, English, art and design, geometrical and engineering drawing, religious education and, for many years, field games. In spite of various departmental headships he spent most of his career teaching in the classroom “which is how I like it.”

Even now he’s not off the hook, but about to become the school’s archivist – when not helping out at Fleetwood Museum, or with the port’s 175th anniversary celebrations.

“It’s only recently I’ve lost some of my energy in school,” he admits. “I realised I could no longer give 100 per cent, even working part-time, so it was time to go.

“I became a grandad last March and Oliver’s great fun to be with.”

He helps manage Lancashire Raptors Ice Hockey Club with his son, a player and coach, and has appeared in 30 stage productions alongside his wife.

“The staffroom won’t the same without him,” Gill admits.