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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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Cumbrian all-action hero at the age of 98

Joe Rawlings flicks through his albums and scrapbooks, containing neatly filed photos, newspaper cuttings and diary entries written in fountain pen.

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Memories: Joe Rawlings at home in Carlisle

After the war Joe returned home and became headmaster at Bowness on Solway School. “The children had been very confined during the war and I wanted to get them out into the big wide world, so I arranged outings to the lakes and to the theatre in London.”

‘March 31, 09:18: a Focke Wulfe 200 was shot down in flames by two fighters in full view of everyone’ reads one.

‘April 1, 19:40: an enemy shadowing plane shot down. One of our pilots crashed into sea – picked up after 20 minutes (cut forehead, black eye and very cold)’ reads another.

The succinct entries reveal a remarkable period from Joe’s long life.

The events were recorded in this handsome album for posterity, but they are still crystal clear in his mind.

The 98-year-old has a sharper memory than many people half his age and dates, names and places trip off his tongue.

Joe served in the Navy during World War Two but is better known across north Cumbria thanks to a teaching career spanning 40 years, and former pupils still phone and visit him at his home in Lowry Hill, Carlisle.

With his wiry physique and energetic nature it’s easy to forget his grand age. He regularly tends to his large, colourful back garden and does five miles on an exercise bike every day. Just a few years ago he was still going to the gym once a week.

“I can’t bear to sit down and do nothing. I am anxious that I don’t get flabby and useless,” he says with a smile.

Joe was born and bred in Aspatria where he enjoyed a happy childhood, cycling and walking around the north lakes and being an active Scout.

One highlight was travelling to Windsor Castle for a parade to celebrate St George’s Day. Joe was chosen to fly the flag for west Cumberland and met King Edward VIII.

Later, he would become County Commissioner for Scouts in both Cumberland and Cumbria.

It’s hard to detect an Aspatria twang in Joe’s voice, and it turns out he had elocution lessons from the local vicar’s wife before he went to study down south, at Southampton University.

It was a general science degree but he always knew he wanted to teach and after getting his qualification in Chester returned to Cumbria.

“I was taken on by the county council and there were no phones in those days so they sent a telegram asking you to report to such and such a school.”

Soon after he was asked to teach at Crofton Hall School near Wigton and became deputy head, and was then offered the headship at Bewcastle Park School.

“Way out in the wilds,” Joe chuckles. “I lived in digs where there were greyhounds and cattle. I went to work by walking along two fields then a track along the fell side.

“Just before Christmas one year I arrived and all the doors were locked. I thought I’d made a mistake with the dates but I turned my head and just caught sight of a boy ducking down inside.

“They were all in there and they had a goose as a Christmas present but I had to catch it first!”

It was 1939 but the only sign of World War Two in Bewcastle was evacuees arriving at the school from Newcastle.

Then everything changed when Joe was enlisted in the Navy.

He trained in north Wales and while on leave back in Cumbria received a telegram asking him to report for duty at Portsmouth.

“Well, you can imagine how long that would take. I had to get the train from Aspatria to Carlisle, Carlisle to Euston and Waterloo to Portsmouth.

“HMS Hood had already sailed out to sea. A senior officer shouted ‘where have you been?! You are late!’ I explained I’d been travelling from Cumberland.”

In fact his lateness very probably saved his life; HMS Hood was hit by the German battleship Bismarck and only three of the 1,400-strong crew survived.

Joe still found himself in perilous situations however, as did all men serving their country during the war.

He trained as an air direction officer and travelled on the Arctic convoys to Russia, heading a team tracking enemy planes and U-boats.

“We used a primitive radar. It would sweep round and a blip would appear, indicating a plane. I would order planes off the aircraft carrier and control them in the sky. They were relying on my directions. Once they had spotted the other aircraft they would say “tally ho” and I would shut up.

“They would call back and say what the plane was and that they had shot it down. We weren’t apprehensive. We took it in our stride, there was a duty to be done.

“At the time you didn’t think about it but after, thinking of parents who had lost their sons – well, how awful. But if we hadn’t done it, that would have been us.”

After a gap year, where Joe travelled by ship to Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, he became headmaster at the new Eden School in Rickerby, serving schools from villages just outside Carlisle.

A secondary modern school, created by the Cumberland Education Authority, the fondly remembered institution initially provided an education for boys and girls who had failed their 11-plus.

“Eden was absolutely delightful. People who hadn’t passed the 11-plus were not failures but needed to boost their self confidence. It was heartening to see how they thrived.

“We had pupils who really made their way in life. One became a barrister, there’s a retired colonel and one or two millionaires.

“But the whole point was they were very good people with an understanding of life. Really first class.”

Joe was at the helm at Eden until he retired in 1976. It was also there that he met his wife Minnie.

He took an instant shine to her when she came to be interviewed for the job as his secretary, and they enjoyed a happy marriage and bringing up children Judith and Christopher.

Minnie now lives in a nursing home and Joe visits her once a week.

“I am on my own here but I’m all right. I look after myself well and I’m organised. I have always enjoyed life.

“As a boy I was quite happy, I was never mollycoddled and quite self-sufficient.”

And his tips for a long, contented life?

“I’ve never smoked. I tried it when I was 17 and thought well, what a waste of time. I drink within reason and always have a glass of red with my lunch.

“Just be satisfied with what you’ve been given when you were born, and don’t pretend to be any different to that. Don’t sit on your bottom and be miserable. Get on and do something.”

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