“KIRKBY was home to many students sent by our government in response to the pressing need to meet the acute shortage of qualified teachers in a rapidly growing Malaya. The idea to set up this teacher training facility, nearly 13,000 kilometres away from home, gave many aspiring educators the golden opportunity to acquire invaluable knowledge and teaching techniques,” my father commented during dinner recently.
This topic surfaced when my mother revealed that a close relative living in Petaling Jaya had invited us to attend her 80th birthday celebrations. Like my parents, she’s a retired school teacher but fortunately for her, she belonged to an earlier batch which was selected to train at Kirkby.
Over the course of the dinner, I listened intently to my parents to get a better insight into this interesting aspect of our nation’s early history.
The story of the Kirkby campus began in the opening stages of World War II when it was completed in 1942. Originally named Kirkby Fields Hostel, it was built with the intention of providing accommodation for workers at the Royal Ordnance Factory at nearby Fazakerley.
However, there was still ample room available after the intended tenants moved in and this allowed Kirkby to open its doors to the homeless. The early community at Kirkby therefore, in a very real sense, represented a wide spectrum of the war-time British working class community.
The people seeking temporary residence there were assured of safety as Kirkby was far enough from the densely populated river to escape the intensive German Luftwaffe bombardment suffered by Liverpool and other Merseyside cities.
Towards the end of the war, the British Board of Education estimated that there was a shortage of 50,000 teachers.
In order to remedy this grave situation, it made the decision to establish 55 Emergency Colleges throughout England so that suitable members of the soon-to-be demobilised Armed Forces could be trained for entry into this profession.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
In 1946, the decision to turn Kirkby Fields College into the 52nd Emergency College immediately transformed the nearly mori¬bund place into a hive of activity.
Soon after the last few remaining residents moved out, teams of contractors began their work. As walls were knocked down to make way for classrooms, units at the ends of several blocks were converted into flats for married tutors.
Finally, on October 1947, members of the tutorial team began arriving. Among them was the vice-principal, Robert Williams, who was later promoted and transferred to become principal of the Kota Baru Teachers’ College in Kelantan.
A month later, the first intake of 300 ex-service men, many of whom had distinguished careers in the Forces, arrived. The men’s above average age compared to typical Training College students was soon overshadowed by their wide and varied experience and enthusiasm.
When the last Emergency courses ended in the summer of 1951, everyone was confident that Kirkby’s days were numbered. Unknown to many, however, Kirkby’s best days were yet to come. It was around this time that the word “Malaya” began to be whispered in Kirkby’s hallowed halls and corridors. Representatives from the Federation of Malaya and the Colonial Office came to have a look at the facilities and negotiations began behind the scenes.
Once everything was settled, well qualified staff, most of whom were university graduates from London, Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen, were appointed while the buildings were given a fresh coat of paint.
Then, late in the afternoon of Jan 2, 1952, the first batch of Malayan students wearily stepped foot in Kirkby. It was only natural for them to feel miserable after leaving their loved ones behind to embark on a long and arduous sea voyage to reach this small Liverpool hamlet. They left Malaya in the second week of December 1951 and spent nearly 21 days on board the ship SS Chusan.
“I heard about their unique experience during my teacher training days. Even though our government had stopped sending students to Kirkby by that time, the experiences of the pioneer group were the stuff of legends. The subsequent batches had it easier — they went by plane,” my mother suddenly chips in.
I listen in awe when told that the notorious English weather had chosen to reveal its ferocity to those young Malayans upon their arrival. They trudged indoors as the cold, cutting Kirkby wind blew in from a north-westerly direction. Soon after, the gale brought down a flurry of sleet and snow.
Despite facing such cold weather for the first time, all 149 students kept their spirits up and continued smiling and laughing. Kirkby was to be their home for the next 20 months and they had to get used to the drab and unpredictable English weather.
By dusk, the storm had died down considerably and the students peered out through the windows. What they saw took their breath away. A strange white carpet, glistening in the pale moonlight, covered the countryside as far as their eyes could see.
Moments later, the usually quiet Kirkby College grounds suddenly came to life with loud shrieks and laughter. Fascinated by their first experience of snow, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Chinese students excitedly dashed out to the courtyard and experienced the joy of throwing snowballs at each other.
As staff members and other people living permanently in and around Kirkby watched the scene, it soon became obvious to them that this momentous event was symbolic of the fruitful years of cooperation and friend¬ship between Malaya and Britain. At the same time, it also perfectly demonstrated the amazing vitality and easy adaptability of their new foreign visitors.
INTEGRATING INTO COMMUNITY LIFE
By the end of 1952, Kirkby was home to about 300 Malayan students. The student population was so numerous that people started calling the place Kampung Kirkby.
Apart from attending to their arduous studies and ordeals of teaching practice, the aspiring educators also played an active part in the district’s community life.
Those who had experience in the scout and guide movements gave talks to local troops about the activities in Malaya. Each year, a selected number of Malayan students were invited to Windsor Castle for the Queen’s Scout Service. There, the fortunate ones got the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and the Chief Scout at that time, Lord Rowallan.
At the same time, the students also became excellent ambassadors of Malaya by sharing their love for sports with the Merseyside citizens.
Mirroring Malaya’s success on the world badminton stage, the badminton club scored numerous successes on the local circuit, winning successive Liverpool Open Singles Championships and Liverpool Amateur Tournaments. One year, they even reached the finals of the North England Championship by beating experienced university teams from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.
The Malayans also took part in other sports like cricket, soccer, rugby and hockey. They participated twice in the Isle of Man Hockey Festival and won the final on their second attempt.
Even when encountering stronger opponents, the students always put up credible performances and won the crowd over with their good sportsmanship and fighting spirit.
The locals also warmed up to the students when they readily took part in various local fundraising events. Over the years, the students sold flags for the Red Cross, helped out at funfairs in aid of the Congo Relief and collected an enormous quantity of clothes and money for flood victims on the East Coast of England.
So great was the impact of Malayans in Kirkby that the Merseyside residents always looked forward to their annual variety show which ran for three consecutive nights. Aptly called Malayan Medley, it featured an interesting mix of colourful performances that drew upon the rich heritage of all cultures and traditions of the East.
Typical of the students’ generosity, the performances during the first night were presented for the benefit of the pensioners and senior citizens living in Kirkby and its surrounding districts.
Spectators were treated to scenes of sumptuously-robed men in their glittering gold and black costumes acting out famous historical events from the time when the Melaka Sultanate was at its zenith.
The Candle Dance was a definite crowd-pleaser. The spectators cheered the loudest when graceful maidens, in their shimmering sky blue baju kurung and sarung, danced in the moonlight with a lighted candle flickering in each hand. The haunting beats of the Malay drums accompanying this act further enhanced its mystical allure.
Back in the classroom, the students continued to excel in their studies. Their course, which followed closely the two-year training college courses in the United Kingdom, contained few minor adjustments to suit their special needs as future Malayan school teachers.
Instances of these modifications were the inclusion of Malay in the curriculum, the provision for a special syllabus in Malayan history and the greater proportion of time devoted to English studies.
Although examination standards set were exactly the same as those demanded by the normal English teachers’ training colleges in the country, failures among the Malayan students were few and far between.
It’s interesting to note that the students were not accorded any special concessions despite their initial unfamiliarity with the English examination system.
The students took their lessons seriously, knowing very well that the knowledge and experiences acquired at Kirkby would stand them in good stead when they returned to teach in Malaya. They were especially proud when the local residents in Kirkby told them that they spoke their mother tongue better than they did!
Halfway through dinner, my father points out that despite Kirkby’s many overwhelming successes, the scheme, which was born out of the insufficient training colleges in Malaya after World War II, presented sceptics with the opportunity to question how students could be effectively trained as teachers under conditions that were so different from the schools back home.
“In response, the Malayan government reminded everyone that the true end of the teacher training programme was not to present the aspiring educators with a tool-case of ready-made, cut-and-dried methods but to provide them with a thorough grasp of education principles and an all-encompassing understanding of the needs of children,” my father adds.
The Kirkby graduates, continues dad, returned with a great sense of adaptability and resourcefulness. That rubbed off on the locally-trained teachers when they introduced these skills at Malayan teacher training colleges.
While a large majority of those who returned served at government schools until retirement, a small portion furthered their studies and ended up as university lecturers, professors, lawyers, bankers and even politicians.
While tucking into my mother’s famous red bean soup dessert, we all acknowledge that the Kirkby project was indeed a resounding success on all counts thanks to the Malayan government’s great foresight and belief.
For over a period of 11 years, from 1952 to 1962, Kirkby produced more than 1,500 teachers and over 400 teacher-trainers who had, over the course of time, contributed enormously towards the building of our nation.
Sunday Vibes takes this opportunity to thank all teachers, present and past, for their diligence and dedication in educating generations of Malayans and Malaysians.