George Lavery and John Hume were among the first to sit the exam when it was introduced 70 years ago this year.
Mr. Lavery, who turns 82 in March, said he only got to sit the first ever 11 Plus exam because he has missed a year of schooling at Rosemount Boys after being struck down with Scarlet Fever as a child.
The Derry native, who now lives in Newcastle, County Down, recalls: “Our teacher was Freddie Campbell and myself, Johnny Hume and Eric Sumners sat the 11 Plus.
“We all passed. We couldn’t have afforded, or even thought of going to a grammar school before that. The only people who went to St. Columb’s College at that time were well off people and people in trades would have sent their sons there.
“There were boarders at that stage and they were very much the majority.”
At the time George said he was less than enthused with the prospect of going to the grammar school, but was later glad that he did.
“I didn’t really want to go. I was made to go. I wanted to go to the Tech and I wanted to play soccer and I knew in the College it was Gaelic.
“School wasn’t too bad. I was lucky I managed to stay below the barricades and I was good enough at keeping out of the way! You started at 9am and every lesson lasted 40 minutes and you mainly had Irish, English, French and History.
“We used to play football in Brooke Park and up the Glen. Johnny [Hume] and I played for Abbeyville United. We founded the team and it was schoolboys of 11/12/13. We used to play in a league on Rock Road and at Nassau Park.
“We lived in Governor Road, Barry Street - that was the end of the town at the time. After that it was all grass fields and bogs.
“There were Americans stationed there. It was still called Shantallow and there was the Racecourse. I remember going to see a Point to Point meeting there.”
George said it was actually an elderly couple, greyhound owners Tom - a former jockey- and his wife Ann Porter - who lived at 9 Governor Road, who taught him to read and write as a child and he took their bets up to the bookmakers.
George said he remembers that the boarders at St. Columb’s College were always eager for food donations if the college president called a half day due to a celebration for sporting success, or if a scholarship was announced. “The boarders would be round you like flies looking for your lunch.”
He also recalled how the boys gave some of the teachers nicknames. “Most of the teachers were alright, The ones that weren’t priests, we preferred having them,” he said, elaborating that some of the priests could be severe, were not trained as teachers, but may have been kept in their posts indefinitely “if they fell foul of the Bishop”.
Speaking about the benefits afforded to generations of young people in Derry due to the 11 Plus - which was scrapped in 2008, although many schools have introduced transfer tests in their place - George went on: “My contention would be that we would not be where we are today had it not been for the 11 Plus.
“I certainly wouldn’t be, and Johnny wouldn’t be. There was very little work for his parents.
“ I was lucky my father was a foreman in Craig’s Engineering. Even when he retired at 65 his salary was never more than £9 a week. My mother worked in a factory.
“I could never understand scrapping the 11 Plus. I had no chance of getting a job. I passed the Senior Certificate, and went straight up the road and signed on the dole. The only job I could get was in the Birmingham Sound Recording (BSR).”
George later saw an advertisement in the ‘Sunday Dispatch’ newspaper looking for clerical officers in the Civil Service in London and got a job there.
“The college helped me secure that, as I had good results in English Language and literature,” he said.
“I would have been working in a factory if I hadn’t been for that.”
George later moved on from the Civil Service into mental health nursing and was a keeper at Purdsyburn Mental Hospital outside Belfast during the early days of the National Health Service.
He later completed his mental health nurse training at Epsom before settling down in Newcastle back in 1982. He opened a nursing home, Woodlodge in Castlewellan, together with his wife Margaret, and the residential home is still being operated by their family today.
And while their careers took very different trajectories over the years since their school days, former SDLP Leader and Nobel Peace Laureate John Hume and George remained in contact, with John Hume coming along to the start of a Malin Head to Mizen Head Walk For Alzheimer’s which George was helping organize several decades ago.
“We kept in touch over the years,” he said.
“He used to come down here for meetings with the SDLP and one of our councillors in town, Eamon O’Neill, was a very good friend.”