Wheeled things were important, too. There were bicycles and tricycles. Tricycles came first. They were easy to ride, and, as one gained in expertise, it was possible to tilt the machine and show off on two wheels.
Tricycles were for children. Bicycles were for grown-ups. There were no children's bicycles. One learned to ride a bike on a grown-up's. I learned on my mother's, assisted by other children. This was the easy way, because a woman's bike had no cross-bar, so one could ride it standing upright on the pedals. Never mind that the point of the saddle was sticking into one's back. Compared to learning on a man's, this was simplicity itself. Learning on a man's bike required that you got your right foot on the right pedal by squeezing your right leg and part of your body through the space in the frame between the chain wheel and the cross bar. In this pretzel-like position, bobbing bizarrely up and down with the turning of the pedals, it required great dexterity to steer, balance and control the speed of the machine. Minor accidents, with accompanying scrapes and bruises, were a normal part of the learning experience, and only grim determination, clearly written on the face of the committed learner, carried one through to success. Bent wheels, twisted mudguards, and twisted pedal cranks frequently required stops for repairs and adjustments, and the occasional intervention of a grown-up. In all of this, bicycles were used by many besides their owners. Bikes were exchanged, or a loan would be obtained through friendship, or a favour of some sort, such as protection or a sweetmeat.
Sometimes we played games that needed no equipment at all. Running, for example, competing over a fixed distance. Or leap-frog. I particularly remember leap-frog, because of an unfortunate incident in which I was involved. A number of us had made a line down the street and were playing. Behind was Billy Moxan, who lived directly across the road from us. It was common practice, when someone was leaping over you, for you to bend the knees a bit, and, as you felt the pressure of the jumper, to straighten the legs to give lift. On this occasion, I gave Billy the lift, but either my timing was off or Billy lost his balance. At any rate, he came down heavily on the side of his face on the rough surface of the road. His face was a mess, and I got into hot water. I felt very guilty for days after that, and steered clear of Mrs. Moxon, who felt, I think, that I was responsible.
Occasionally, youths and young men would play knur and spell, a game which sounds as though it has come down from the Vikings. It is commonly played in the hill and dale country of North Yorkshire, but not much elsewhere in Britain. We called it Piggy or Piggystick, probably from peg, another name for the knur. This was a piece of wood, two or three inches in length and circular in section, and shaped to a point at both ends. The spell was a stout piece of wood about the length of a baseball bat. The aim of the game was to tap one end of the knur, or peg with the spell and cause it to fly up into the air, and then to hit it as far as one could. The hitter then paced out the length of the hit. This was a great game, not only of strength, but of co-ordination of hand and eye.
Another consuming passion, in its season, was marbles. Some gardens were not tended, and were overrun by children, until the surface was hard and bare. These were ideal for marbles. We would dig small holes at intervals to make a circuit, and these we would use for rolling marbles into.
Generally, for this game, we used the cheap clay marbles, which were small and painted bright red, yellow, green and blue. For other games, we used glass alleys. We got plain ones by breaking them out of the necks of pop bottles. Those with the beautiful coloured swirls in them we had to buy from the shop, or win from somebody. Occasionally, somebody would come up with a steel ball bearing, something greatly prized. With these larger marbles, we would play at driving other marbles out of a ring by flicking at high speed from thumb and forefinger. Or we would play along the gutter, often on the way to school, throwing your marble to try to hit your opponent's, and thereby to win it.
While games were going on, children would be joining and leaving, some coming in after a meal or having completed some job, others leaving for a meal, or to run an errand, or do some other job, such as looking after the baby. The calls came from mothers who stood at the front door, and called the name or names. "Har-ree", or "El-see". And then having secured attention, the instruction. "Dinner", or the less welcome, "Come here, I want you", for there was nothing in that message to reveal the intent of the mother calling, and it could mean some domestic chore, and a temporary end to the real business of the day, enjoyable play.
Not that grown-ups interfered much. Mothers seldom; fathers practically never. We were left to get on with our play. We decided which games to play, we interpreted the rules, we settled differences ourselves. Only in the rare instances of conflict, such, for instance, as suspected bullying or too rough play did grown-ups intervene. And then it usually came down to a confrontation between mothers, either defending the actions of their offspring, even in the face of contradictory evidence, or seeking some sort of accommodation.
As we grew older, we pursued other diversions. One was girl-following. Two or three girls might get together of an evening, and stand around, or perhaps stroll slowly around. A group of boys of about the same age would stand at a distance, or walk behind, or sometimes overtake the girls and walk slightly ahead. In this strange ritual, the groups kept always at a respectable distance from each other, close enough to hear and be heard. The boys might show off a bit. Jumping from the footpath over the wall into someone's garden was common. If the groups were compatible, this behaviour would continue; if not, it would just disappear.
Another pleasant way to spend the last part of a warm summer's evening was to join a group of older boys and girls, young adults. We used to sit on the wall in front of the Browns' house for an impromptu concern. The Brown's had the most grown-up children, as I have said, two boys and two girls. They knew the latest songs and dances. Accompanied by a mouth organist, and somebody on paper and comb, and perhaps another on the Jew's harp, we would sing and dance in the magic of the long summer evening.
"When the red, red robin, comes bob-bob-bobbin' along",
"Goodbye, Hawaii", and so on.
We danced the Charleston, or our version of it.
Until gradually, as we were called in for bed, the gathering dispersed and the celebration ended.
All our life was not confined to the village. Far from it. We constantly made forays into the surrounding countryside. In season, we went to harvest dandelions, which were used for making herb beer; gathering blackberries, for making into pies with apples, or for making into blackberry wine or bramble jelly. We gathered elderberries for making wine and elderberry syrup. In the spring, we would walk out to Blyth to the bluebell wood, and gather great armfuls of blooms, which we then trudged home with, to stuff into jam jars. The boys raided orchards in Oldcoates, and turnip fields nearer home. The strategy in stealing turnips was to choose a spot not easily visible to the farmer, crouch in the lee of the hedgerow, and, when we were convinced that the coast was clear, dash out into the field, quickly select a nice-sized turnip, or "tongey", and tug on it until it came free of the ground, and then scamper back with it to the shelter of the hedge. There, we would clean off the soil as much as possible, and then bite off the skin to reach the pale yellow flesh inside. We spent a lot of time running through the woods that lay adjacent to the top of the village. There we looked for birds' nests, always with an ear cocked for the approach of the game-keeper. And there, in season, we looked for primroses, marsh-loving cowslips, and the tiny sweet-smelling violets. We made our bows and arrows from branches and shoots, and became successors to Robin Hood and his merry men.
Sometimes, in summer, when we were a little older, we would spend the day at Roche Abbey. Roche Abbey had been a Cistercian foundation, but, like many other abbeys had suffered the depredations of King Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation, and later destruction by the Puritans during the Civil War and the ensuing period of the Commonwealth. Now there were only ruins on the valley floor through which ran a tributary of the river Ryton. The monks had chosen well. The abbey lay in a broad valley protected on either side by limestone cliffs. There they build a self contained community – a great church surrounded by cloisters, the abbot’s quarters, cells for the monks, a scriptorium, refectory, kitchens and a bakery and accommodation for the lay workers. The river was enclosed, its bottom and sides furnished with great, flat stones and build over so that its running waters not only provided a supply of water, but also, carried away the waste from the kitchens and privies. They had also dammed a stream which would have been stocked with fish to provide meals on meatless Fridays and during the days of Lent.
In its heyday, it must have been a magnificent site. Now only the foundation stones remained, clearly marking out its outlines, and part of the huge gothic church which was its focus. For our part we spent most of the time there paddling up and down the stream, on its flat, smooth expanses of stone, enjoying the delicious cool of the flowing water.
As a change we would sit on the bank, perhaps on a piece of stone carved by some medieval craftsman eight hundred years before. Or, sometimes we would climb up the steep face of the valley. There we would get a view of the whole place, and there, in the springtime, we would find clumps of daffodils.
Mostly, we went during the summer. We always walked, and very rarely with an adult. Usually, four or five children, with an older child in charge. Preparations consisted of putting together our provisions: sandwiches and bottles of home-made pop, which we made ourselves by immersing lemonade or raspberry crystals into a bottle of water. And so, with the usual cautions about behaving ourselves and not doing anything silly, we set out.
We had about four miles to go. Our route took us to the top of Markham Road, and out from there over the fields to old Firbeck. Firbeck was a sleepy little village. The only interest we found in it was a set of stocks in the churchyard, which we always inspected. From Firbeck, we plodded on across the fields until we came to the entrance to the valley in which the abbey was situated. Here the valley was narrow, and in parts, the limestone walls hung over the path. Here, too, in season were white flowers in profusion, which if you ran amongst them, would give off a strong onion smell. "Stinking nannies" we called them. They were, of course, wild garlic. Pushing on we came to the wider valley in which cattle were grazing, and then to the abbey itself. We could scarcely wait to set down our burdens, take off shoes and stockings, hitch up our trousers or tuck skirts into knickers, and join the paddlers in the stream.
After the initial excitement, we would find a suitable quiet spot, gather everybody together and have a picnic. And so the day would pass, until it dawned upon us that time was fleeting, and that a good walk lay before us. And so we would take the road out of the valley, and back to Firbeck and home, not perhaps with the same driving enthusiasm that we had felt in the morning, but happy anyway.
In the autumn, as we grew older, we would walk the three or four miles, usually all boys now to the Blyth-Worksop road, where there were stands of sweet chestnuts, whose fruits we would gather. And, sometimes, again all boys, we would go down to Oldcoates and the grounds of Hermeston Hall, Squire Riddell’s place. There we would try our luck at the walnut trees. In the autumn, the nuts were ripe and good to eat, but we used to visit these trees in early summer when the nuts were hard, green, shiny balls. Then we would open them up and rub our hands with them to stain them brown and make them smell of iodine, and we ate the half-formed kernel.
Autumn was also a time of “conkers”. These were horse chestnuts which had been threaded through a hole in the centre on to a piece of string which was knotted on the bottom.
The game of “conkers” was extremely popular. All the boys played it. It was simple enough. You held your conker out at arm’s length, while your erstwhile opponent challenged by hitting it three times with his. The positions were then reversed, until one of the “conkers” broke. The idea was to have a “conker” that had conquered many others and had still remained intact; so, all sorts of methods were used in order to bring the conker to the ultimate hardness. These were many, and some were strange. Favourite methods included: storing a horse chestnut in a dry place for a long time, hardening it slowly in a cool oven and soaking it in brine. Sometimes, a combination of these methods was used. At all events, for a brief period in the autumn, “conkers” were all the range, and I suspect that as many fibs and exaggerations were told about the career of some “conkers” as are commonly told about the size of fishes caught by anglers.
The first school I attended in Langold was a makeshift affair, the permanent school for the village not yet completed. It was a wood and corrugated iron building at the bottom of Markham Road where it joined Firbeck Crescent. As I recall, there were two classrooms. One was taught by Mr. Phillips who was to become headmaster of the new school; the other by Mrs. Phillips, his wife.
I don’t remember much about what we did in this building, probably because we were not in it for very long. Our family did not arrive in Langold until 1926, and the new school was completed and opened in the same year so my stay probably amounted to only a month or two. I remember the building, standing on a bare piece of ground, looking somewhat dilapidated, as all corrugated iron buildings seem to do. Inside was Spartan, the desks in rows on a bare wooden floor under a high ceiling. And I seem to remember using a
slate to write on.
The new school was entirely different. Built of brick, one storey high, it consisted of three parts – the infants, the juniors and the seniors. The infants were separate from the other two schools, which, while administratively separate, were architecturally one. The infants’ headmistress for many
years was Miss Greatorex, a no-nonsense lady in the long British tradition of confident, competent, efficient, take-charge women headmistresses. She and her team of women assistant teachers took the children into the reception class on their fifth birthday, where they became accustomed to school and the brighter ones learned to read; and, at the end of three years, passed them on to the junior school. Classes were large. For a teacher to have forty-five children was not unusual. Later, a kindergarten was introduced.
The junior and senior classes were housed in the same building, which was designed in the form of a square. The corridors, which gave on to the classrooms, formed the square. Inside the square was the assembly hall and covered pathways, which led to it, and open spaces which formed a garden; so that, walking down any of the four corridors, one would have classrooms on one side and garden on the other. The classrooms themselves had large, high windows, which looked out onto the playgrounds.
The schools were at the top of the village, at the other end from Doncaster Road and the shops. On one side, they faced School Road, and on the other, woodlands. The teachers, none of whom lived in Langold, came by bus. They disembarked at Wembley Road, then walked up Markham Road till it joined School Road; and so to school. Quite a walk, and sometimes an unpleasant one, for, occasionally, a teacher would be intercepted by an angry parent, and sometimes threatened with physical violence. Fortunately, this was not a frequent occurrence, but it must have been unsettling for a teacher who
knew that a parent was on the warpath to know that at the end of the day – it was usually at the end – he or she would have to run the gauntlet.
At first the juniors and seniors were run as one school, I think; and then, as the village was completed, and the number of pupils increased, they were separated for administrative purposes. Mr. Phillips taking the seniors, that is Standards 4, 5, 6 and 7, and Mr. Randall taking Standards 1, 2, and
3. Of course, at each level, there were two classes; a. and b. and occasionally a third c.
I came to know Mr. and Mrs. Randall well later on. He was an imposing, dignified-looking man, strong-looking, and well built. His wife was bright and cheerful. She had a high colour, dark eyes, graying hair, and very red cheeks as if she had been exposed over long periods to sun and wind. They were both essentially country people, he an expert and knowledgeable gardener, she an extremely competent housewife, baking her own bread, and turning the produce of the garden to good use. Both were dedicated teachers.
However, at that time, I knew very little about the junior school, because, when the move was made from the old school to the new, I missed going to 3A where I was supposed to go and ended up in 4A, which was part of Mr. Phillips's domain. So, although we regularly saw the junior school teachers, we had little to do with them.
Mr. Archibald Phillips ruled his school with a rod of iron. I think that at one time, he must have been a soldier, for he had a military bearing, ramrod straight and neat as a pin from head to toe. He was a tall man, or so it seemed to us. His hair was a gingery colour; cut short, his skin fair, and his eyes a piercing blue. He always wore a three-piece suit and a tie, and highly-polished shoes. When standing, his feet stood at ten to two, just like a soldier's.
His office was a small room. It had a desk and, behind it, a chair, a few books and papers, and in winter a cheery fire burning in the grate. This was where he interviewed parents, and other people who might visit the school from time to time; the health nurse who came to give the school a head inspection, or the visiting dentist, or school inspectors. The nurse, known as the “knitting nurse”, would arrange for each class to troop down to a selected room, where she would have each child sit in a chair, while she riffled through the hair looking for head lice. If she found any so-called “wild life”, she would write a note for the parent, together with a
prescription for treatment, and the child would be isolated from the others until after successful treatment.
It was from this office that Mr. Phillips would emerge to observe the entrance of the pupils into the school. He would stand at the corner by the entrance, and should any unfortunate be found skylarking, or running, he would be directed to stand outside the office and wait. At Mr. Phillips’ leisure, the delinquents, often there was more than one, would be taken into the office and “given the stick”. This same punishment was also given to those who were sent to the headmaster’s office for misbehaviour by a teacher. The “stick” was a flexible cane. The offender would hold out his hand, palm uppermost, and the cane brought down with force. The usual punishment was four on each hand.
I suppose that to me, at that age, there was an aura of menace surrounding Mr. Phillips. But it was when he invaded the classroom that he became really terrifying. One of our regular lessons was music. Sometimes this took the form of singing in the school hall, often in the company of another class, or possibly two. One teacher would take the piano, another the role of conductor and master of ceremonies, and, we, armed with our songbooks, would sing traditional songs;
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill,
Oh! No! John, No John, No John, No!,
Men of Harlech,
Where the Bee Sucks,
Do you Ken John Peel,
The Keel Row,
What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor,
and so forth. This was hearty stuff, and enjoyable, and, what is more, easy. After all, the tunes were soon learned, and we had the words on the songbooks in our hands. At other times, however, we stayed in the classroom and practiced a more academic approach to the art. The teacher’s tools for teaching this kind of music were a tuning fork, a chart showing the tonic sol-fa, and a dry little book called “Fifty Steps in Sight Singing”. I hated the whole thing, principally, I suppose because I could see no point in any of it. There were neither words nor tune to give any meaning. Moreover, I was hopeless at jumping up and down the scale, failing almost always to hit the right note and give the note its right duration. Crotchets, quavers, and semibreves were to me meaningless marks on paper.
The lesson began by us all standing up in our seats and raising the lids of our desks. On the underside of the lid was a narrow shelf. On this, we placed our “Fifty Steps”. We then did some breathing exercises, and warmed up first with some humming, and then a few runs up and down the scale. Meantime the teacher had unfurled the tonic sol-fa chart and draped it over the blackboard. We were now ready to start in earnest. The teacher banged the tuning-fork against a desk, caught the note, and passed it to us. We mee-meemed it. The teacher then started us off on an uncertain journey up and down the scale. Not the do-me-soh-doh route, but one totally unpredictable and calculated to throw a duffer like me completely off balance. I don’t think the rest of the class was much better. It was pretty agonizing stuff; but it was only preliminary to worse, for, after a few minutes of this, the teacher called a halt and directed our attention to
the “Fifty Steps.” She would pick a number, and we would turn to that paper. There was an exercise on each page. They all looked pretty well the same to me, black and white notes strung out along a page full of staves. Though discouraged by the lack of words or any discernible tune, I tried my best, but before long I knew that I would never succeed in this endeavour. I hit wrong notes; I lagged behind; I withheld my contribution for increasing lengths of time, letting others carry the burden of the exercise, while praying for the time allotted to come soon to a merciful end. There was nothing malicious in all this. It was just that I was incompetent. I just could not do it.
It was when Mr. Phillips decided to join in that things became really interesting. I don’t recall him coming into our class to help with anything else. Just music. Perhaps it was his Welsh background – Phillips is a common Welsh name – that attracted him to the cacophony emanating from our classroom.
At all events, he did sometimes come, and when he came, he took over from the teacher. The tool used by the teacher to indicate the note on the tonic solfa scale we were to sing was a pointer, a short tapered piece of wood about eighteen inches long. In the hands of Mr. Phillips, the pointer became an instrument of fear. In his efforts to improve our sight-singing, either from the tonic solfa chart or from the “Fifty Steps” he wielded the pointer with ever-greater abandon. He banged it on the chart, he banged it
on the teacher’s desk in order to call a halt to our bedraggled progress and pause to regroup, he banged it with alarming force on the desk of individual pupils. And, occasionally, after walking round the room, pausing here and there to bend over and listen very closely to some unfortunate, and being dissatisfied with what he was hearing, he would give the same unfortunate a thwack across the shoulders by way of encouragement. I was mortified by his presence in the room, and terrified when his course around the room brought him close to me, and I swear that these encounters helped to put me off any interest in music other than songs for years to come.
Mr. Phillips was a great believer in order, as I have said. The school was a model of orderliness, which was established even before the children came into school. There was always a teacher on duty in the playground. If the teacher saw anything amiss, he or she would sound a series of short blasts on the whistle. One long blast meant that everyone stood absolutely still. A second long blast meant that you ran and formed a line, one for each class.Then you stood still. Upon the teacher giving the order, a class would march into school in single file silently, where it would be awaited by its teacher at the classroom door. Any running or messing about was immediately dealt with.
This orderliness must have been a great help for teachers, who did not have to spend a lot of energy maintaining a disciplined atmosphere in their classrooms. They all had canes, and, on occasion, put them to use. But, in the main, they kept good order by the force of their personalities.
During my time at this school, I had three classroom teachers, all different in style and character. The 4A teacher was Miss Goldberg. She reminded me of the sketch of some fish-like character in Alice in Wonderland. Quite tall, she tapered from a large head, its hair closely bobbed, and broad shoulders and a generous bosom, down to slim legs, and feet enclosed in pointed shoes. She oozed self-confidence, and went about her business in that spirit. She expected everybody else in the class to do the same, and mostly she was successful. She was not averse to using the cane as an incentive to effort and good behaviour.
In the main she was successful, but her job was not without its problems, for our class contained some awkward characters. Eric Watts was one such. Raw-boned, fair-haired, and a schoolyard bully, he was not one to be pushed around. Another was Johnny Gaunt, the youngest of a large, tough family of
boys. He was small, and wiry, and quick to defiance. These two, and others, were accustomed to steal sweets and fruit from the shops, and were, generally, of an anti-social bent.
I remember one occasion, when Johnny was called out to the front of the class by Miss Goldberg. He was to be punished, and he was determined not to be. One thing led to another. Miss Goldberg secures him by the collar; he twists to free himself; she hangs on, and starts to bring the cane into
action, whereat he whacks her on the shin with his boot. How it all ended I forget but the incident was a “cause célèbre” so unusual was it.
Our school day started at 9 o’clock when we formed lines in the play ground, and marched into school. We had classes until twelve with a fifteen minute break half-way through the morning. If it were raining, we would stay in the room, and do light exercises under the teacher’s direction to work off some energy. Lunch time was from twelve to one-thirty, and the afternoon session lasted from one-thirty until four o-clock, with a break half way through.
We first reported to the classroom. There the teacher, at the door, inspected our hands, and sometimes our face and neck. If these did not pass muster, one was sent to the cloakroom, to get clean. The teacher then marked the register, and dispatched a monitor with a list of absentees to the headmaster’s office. This information was used by the school bobby. This worthy’s job was to take care of absentees and truants. It was not uncommon for mothers to keep children at home to run errands, or mind babies, or to look after the house if they were feeling off colour. Sometimes children were kept at home because they didn’t have shoes or adequate clothing. There were many homes where, because of poverty or poor housekeeping, children were ill-fed, and poorly clothed. I remember one such family, the Brightmores. Freddy Brightmore was one of this large, poor family. They were reputed to drink out of jam jars because they had no cups. Freddy habitually came to school poorly dressed, his shirt hanging out of his britches backside, and on his feet, soles loosely flapping, an old pair of hand-me-down boots, far too big for him.
The school bobby rode about the village on his bicycle, visiting the homes of absentee children and inquiring in the reasons for their absence. If he found that the child did not have adequate clothing, he was empowered to write a chit for the parent to take to the shoe shop, where she would be entitled to a pair of boots for the child. Should he find, however, that the child was being kept away from school for no good reason, he could threaten the offending person with the weight of the law. Attendance, of course was compulsory by law. For children who were sent on errands when they should have been in school, the school bobby represented a real threat. He was always around, and could seemingly appear from anywhere; and, once spotted, there was no way one could get away from him. A booming voice would bring the offender to a halt, and then would come the inevitable question: “Why aren’t you in school?” followed by others asking for name, address and so on.
The register having being marked, the class would stand, and row by row, file into the corridor, to form a straight line along the wall. At the teacher’s command, the line would proceed along the corridor, and turn on to the covered pathway leading to the hall. In the hall, each line divided into two parts – boys and girls – and, in this manner, the classes formed up facing the front, where, on a raised platform, the headmaster and the teachers took up station. The assembly began with the reading of a short extract of New Testament scripture. This was followed by the singing of a hymn – hymn books had been distributed as we entered the hall – and then the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. To conclude, the headmaster would make announcements or deliver a homily, which might or might not be related to the scripture, but most likely was related in some way to good behaviour and right conduct. Very occasionally, if someone had been guilty of some very bad transgression, he, or they, would be brought to the front, and dressed down before the whole school. In extreme cases, corporal punishment was administered.
The assembly did have its lighter side. Some of us did not know the correct words of the Lord’s Prayer, so, occasionally, one might hear; “Our Father which art in Heaven, Harold be Thy Name”, or some such. Some of the older boys could be quite cruel. I remember Eva Hill. She was a girl of very limited charms, plain to the point of pain, and gormless to boot. And these boys, coming to the end of the prayer; “and delivery us from evil” would be heard to say, “and delivery us from Evar 'ill”.
After assembly, we would return to our classrooms in the same orderly fashion as we had left it, and the day’s work began. We started with arithmetic, first with mental arithmetic. For this, we would each have a long, narrow slip of paper, on which we would make a list of numbers one to twenty. The teacher would then dictate a sum, which could be addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, or a combination of a number of these processes. We would then do the sum in our heads, and write down the answer, carefully screening the answers from the eyes of prying neighbours. After a suitable time had elapsed, the teacher would dictate the next question, and so on, until we had had twenty questions, and in theory, had twenty answers. We each now exchanged papers with our neighbour, the teacher gave the answers, and we marked each answer with a cross or a tick, finally tallying the total, and entering the total at the bottom of the page. The teacher then called out our names in alphabetical order, and we called out our mark, either well satisfied with our effort, or rather ashamed if the mark was low.
All this was but the work of a few minutes, and we now passed on to the main lesson. The teacher might go through a process, give us practice with a few examples, and then set us to work on the exercises in our text. The one I remember best was Nisbet’s Realistic Arithmetic, a small soft-backed book. It was realistic, I suppose, in that it didn’t deal with abstract numbers, but based its examples on real life. For example, “If a handkerchief cost sixpence, how much will one dozen cost?” or “The distance from A to B is 70 miles.” If the train travels at an average speed of 20 miles per hour, how long will it take to complete the journey?”
I enjoyed this stuff, and rattled on pages ahead of most of the rest of the class.^ The teacher encouraged us to go ahead, those of us who found no particular difficulty. There were a few bright sparks in my class. I used to compete, in particular with one girl, Phyllis Barson- Pip we called her. She was my age, her birthday on March 11th, and mine on March 5th. We completed in all subjects right through the school.
English was an important subject. We had regular spelling tests and constantly wrote compositions, which were punctiliously corrected by the teacher, using red ink, and marked out of 10. Corrections were an important part of this work; spelling mistakes were corrected and written out three times; ill-constructed sentences were re-written. Slovenly work such as poor handwriting and a blotted paper incurred the teacher’s wrath, and the work had to be done neatly. We read poetry and learned poems by heart, each to be recited to the teacher until he or she was satisfied that you really did know it by heart. Our teachers read to us from classics of English literature – Dickens, Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, Treasure Island, and so forth. And, once a week, on Friday afternoon usually, a box of library books was brought into the classroom, and we were allowed to choose one, and to read silently.
Other subjects included music, mentioned already, woodwork for the boys and domestic science for the girls, P.T. (physical training) which consisted of physical jerks, outside in the playground in fine weather, and in the classroom should it be wet, and some ball games, nature study, and something called handwork, which involved making things of cardboard, paper, and raffia.
After a year with Miss Goldberg in 4A, we went into 5A with Mr. Avery. I liked Mr. Avery. Like Miss Goldberg, he was unmarried, and I think he remained so until the end of his life. He was tall, lean, and swarthy. His eyes and hair were dark. He ambled in an almost uncoordinated manner. He could be severe when the occasion required it, but in general he was calm and easygoing, and he engaged the affections of the children because he was fair and an understanding person. In this way, he was a successful teacher. His sense of public duty was shown in the fact that for years, in addition to his normal teaching duties, he ran the evening classes at the school.
The last year of school in Langold, was spent in 6A. The teacher was Mr. Arthur Holland. Small, compact, fresh complexioned, and rosy-cheeked. Mr. Holland had been an athlete in his day, I think. I knew nothing of his personal life. He was another excellent teacher, genuinely interested in the children. His colleagues nicknamed him “Dollar Holland” for some reason. He encouraged us to make our best effort to excel by encouraging good work, and giving extra time to coaching laggards. I remember him buying books out of his own pocket and giving them to those who did good work; for example, if you got nine out of ten or ten out of ten for three consecutive weekly compositions, he would buy a classic for you.
These teachers influenced me greatly, all of them, in their different ways. They were examples of what good people could be. Teaching to them was a vocation primarily. It was a job that provided a secure living, but it was not well paid, and advancement did not seem to be their goal. In a real sense, teaching was their life. They were the products of the ^ training system. They had learned well, and their efforts had an important influence for the good on their pupils. Quite a number of the children came from poor homes – poor in the sense that they did not receive a lot of care or affection. They had fathers who drank too much or gambled the housekeeping money on the horses, or in games of pitch and toss, leaving their wives at their wit’s end as to how to feed and clothe the children. Some of the mothers drank too much, too, or indulged themselves in ways that left their children short. Others were just not up to the job of seeing to the needs of a house full of children, and so muddled along, slovenly in appearance and slatternly in their housekeeping. Children from these homes were not only ill-fed and ill-clothed; they were often beaten by frustrated and defeated, and sometimes vicious parents; sometimes, they were terrified spectators of violence between man and wife, she nagging and screaming recriminations, and he lashing out with his fists.
For these children, the teachers presented a different and better view of humanity in general and themselves in particular. They learned that not everybody lived violent, disorganized, ugly lives; that there was kindness, understanding and civility in the world. The school as a whole reinforced these ideas. It was an orderly place; within it you were safe, notwithstanding the presence of the cane, from random violence. In the school everything was clean; it even smelled clean with an antiseptic tang that I can recall even now. It was a place for flowers. Children were encouraged to bring flowers from their gardens; in the season, these would be assembled each morning in the domestic science room, and sorted out into jars by the flower monitors. These vases – jam jars really – would then be placed around the school, on teacher’s desks, and window ledges along the corridors, to perfume the air and bring a splash of nature’s color into the school. Along the corridors and on the walls of the classrooms were hung reproductions of famous paintings. I remember particularly, in one of my classes. “The Boyhood of Raleigh”, and Franz Hals’ “The Laughing Cavalier”, whose eyes followed you wherever you were in the classroom.
All these things showed children that there were better things in life than some were accustomed to. And the respect that they were given by skillful and sympathetic teachers was a help. A word of praise or encouragement, a pat on the back, a smile, a joke – all helped. Teachers rewarded children by asking them to do jobs. Flower monitors I have mentioned. There were also ink monitors, whose job it was to keep the ink-wells filled, monitors to give out books, and monitors to collect them. All kinds of monitors, and each one making a contribution to the work of the class, and learning the meaning of responsibility. We loved it. When the teacher asked for a volunteer, all hands shot up, and muttered cries of “Please, miss!” or “Please, sir”, would emphasize the application.
In short, the school, for many children, perhaps for us all, was a countervailing force to the less admirable aspects of our village life. And while it was not perfect – what human institution is? – with its emphasis on discipline and order, and its lack of success with some children and some parents, it was a civilizing force, and for some, an island of security and calm in a violent and turbulent existence.
When I was ten years old, I sat the examination for a place in grammar school, and later in the year left Langold School.
But my association with it was not finished, as we shall see later on.
A few of us are sitting at desks, concentrating on the exam paper in front of each of us. Mr. Phillips is the invigilator. It is our first formal exam. It is an arithmetic paper, which has ten questions in all, some of which consist of several parts. The first questions are the easiest, calling for skill in adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying numbers. The problems became progressively more difficult, calling for an understanding of money, fractions, rations, and so on, and requiring the ability to interpret a question with understanding. We are given an hour to complete the paper, and then Mr. Phillips collects them. He will send them to Nottingham for marking.
There are other parts to the exam. Dictation, a comprehension test of a piece of prose, and a composition.
We are the first group of children from this school to try for a grammar school scholarship. Not everybody tries. Not all are interested. My parents are very interested. They badly want me to succeed. At the conclusion of each test, they ply me with questions about the exam and what I had done.
In due course, a letter arrived from the authorities announcing that I had passed Part 1 of the exam, and that I was to present myself for Part II at the grammar school in Retford on such-and-such a date. On the appointed day, accompanied by my mother, I presented myself for this part. This was a viva voce examination. I entered a room and found myself in the presence of three examiners. They asked me a number of questions about myself, probably to put me at my ease, and then asked me to read a poem. I recall that it was about a nettle, and about how grasping a nettle tightly was the way to avoid being stung. When I had completed the reading, they asked me questions about the poem; what did this word mean? What was another word for that word? What did it mean, in the poem, when it said this or that? After which, I was excused. A few days later, the result arrived in the mail. I had won a full scholarship to King Edward VI Grammar School, East Retford, to start at the beginning of the school year in September, 1929.
A full scholarship meant that your tuition fees would be paid, and, in addition, your travelling expenses. In my case, these were quite a lot, for in order to get from Langold to Retford, I had to take the bus from Langold to Worksop, a distance of five miles, and the train from Worksop to Retford, a further eight miles. Each term, I received a pass for the bus, and one for the train, which I showed when using these services. Costs of travel must have been substantial. The costs of tuition for a day boy were eight pounds a year. In those days, it was possible to purchase a place in a grammar school. In fact, many of the boys at Retford were fee-payers, sons of merchants or professional people in the town, or of farmers in the surrounding villages.
Beginning in September, 1929, I started a period of seven years of schooling in Retford, leaving in 1936, to continue my education in the University of Sheffield. Life was now more rigorous than I had previously known it. Time was taken up with travel, there was homework, and we had school six days a week. Furthermore, there was much more competition for high marks and top positions in the class.
The routine rarely changed. At 6:30 a.m. I was roused by my mother, washed, dressed, and went down to breakfast. She had a fire going, and breakfast ready, usually bacon and egg. Goodness knows what time she was up all those years. After breakfast, I collected my satchel containing books and the homework done the evening before, put in the sandwiches my mother had made for my lunch, and went out to catch the 7:30 bus to Worksop.
Two bus services shared the Langold to Worksop run – Imperial and the Flower of Blyth. Both had two buses. The imperial buses were blue and were based in Carlton, a village half way between Langold and Worksop. The Flower of Blyth buses were red. Their owners were the Glovers, who lived in the nearby village of Blyth. I travelled with them for seven years, so they knew me and I knew them. Our favourite Imperial driver was Archie. Small, with blonde curly hair, he would urge his bus along at a fair clip, especially down the sand hills part of the journey, much to our delight. The Imperial employed conductresses on their buses, the Flower of Blyth was self-contained in this respect. Percy Glover’s mother and his wife were their conductresses, the mother a thin, tall, serious lady contrasting with her daughter-in-law, a cheerful, country woman, stoutly built and with rosy cheeks, with a word for everyone. I never saw her angry, or put out, or out of sorts, even when she had a busload of boisterous school children to manage, for as time went on, and more scholarship boys and girls came from the village, and as children travelled on the same bus to the Central School in Worksop, things could get crowded and pretty hectic. But she was always the diplomat, always ready to take charge, and smooth things out.
The bus stop was at Doncaster Road and Wembley Road, opposite the Co-op, whence it left at 7:30. Everybody knew who should be on the bus, and if anybody was missing, the bus would wait to see whether the missing person was late. Meantime, information was exchanged, and the reason for the absence might be discovered. At all events, we started off, picking up passengers along the way, whether they were at designated stops or not. I should point out that the passengers were not only school children. There were also people who worked in Worksop. Some of them were not much older that we were when we started. Probably they were shop assistants. Frequently, they used the time to give their neighbour an account of the picture they had seen last night, complete in every detail.
We picked up passengers all along the route – a few at the Working Men’s Club opposite Church Street, more at Costhorpe opposite the entrance to the pit, a group at Carlton Green, then quite a crowd at Chapel Corner a few yards on, a couple at the Carlton War Memorial, one at South Carlton, and then two sisters at the Toll Bar. These latter were the Hollingsworth’s. They had a long walk to get to the main road, and the bus route, and many a morning we waited while these two figures ran along Odie Lane to catch the bus.
We arrived at Worksop station at about eight o-clock, and joined a sizable crowd already there. The platform was divided between boys and girls, all in school uniform. The girls occupied the half near the engine, the boys the other half. There was no intermingling, although there were lots of flirtatious glances. While we waited for the train, we would stand around on the platform, or stroll up and down. In cold weather, a few would crowd into the third-class waiting room where there was a fire. Order was kept by prefects, who clamped down on any unacceptable behaviour.
When the train pulled in, a scramble ensued for seats. The first priority was to find an empty compartment, the second to occupy it with one’s friends. There were a few adults on board, and, in retrospect, I feel sorry for them. Whatever peace they were enjoying, or hoped to enjoy, was shattered by this noisy, chattering mob, oblivious of everything save one another. All safely aboard, the guard would wave his lamp and blow his whistle, and the train would pull out of the station.
The trip of eight miles took about 20 minutes. There was only one stop, save when it was foggy, and that was at Checkerhouse Station, a lonely spot, with nothing in sight but one farm. Here each day, we picked up and dropped off one boy, Willy Howard, who lived at a nearby farm. Activities during the trip were varied in the extreme. Most talked about last night’s visit to the cinema or about the dance band radio music, some read comics (These were the so-called “penny dreadfuls” - “The Wizard”, “The Comet”, and the like, which featured serial stories about heroic figures like The Wolf of Kabul, who constantly prevailed against villainous characters using his faithful clicky-bah (cricket bat) as his weapon, or not-so-heroic figures like Billy Bunter, a fat, bespectacled nitwit of a boy, a boarder at Greyfriars School, totally concerned with “tuck” (food). Despite their name of “penny dreadfuls”, these comics cost twopence. Once read, they were exchanged for others, which one had not yet read. A few boys, who had not done their homework, tried to get it done, preferably by copying the work of someone who had done it. Boys, usually senior ones, who wished to make contact or maintain contact with a pretty face at the other end of the train, would lower the window and lean out in the hope that his inamorata would do likewise. If she did so, they would gaze upon each other, or even wave, but this could lead to misunderstandings, as there might be quite a few couples doing the same thing. Frequently, our swains received no other reward for their troubles than a face full of coal grit from the engine.
Smoking was a fairly common practice. For this you needed a compartment to yourselves – no grown-ups. Pipe-smoking was not uncommon. I had a pipe for some time, half of its stem missing, that was easy to conceal, and in this I would smoke St. Bruno Flake, the brand, not surprisingly, that my father smoked. I don’t recall it as a pleasurable experience, but there was certain cachet to being the possessor of a pipe, and being able to produce large volumes of smoke. For the more athletic, usually the younger ones, there were such diversions as bouncing around on the seats and hanging from the parcel racks, even getting on to a parcel rack. It was said that one boy, a senior, had once left his compartment at the end of a carriage via the window, clawed his way round the end of the carriage and re-entered the compartment through the opposite window. Whether this was done to impress a girl or for sheer devilry, I do not know. I have no proof that it was ever done at all, but, considering some of the characters in our group over the years, it does seem probable.
The train pulled into Retford station, its load of schoolboys and schoolgirls eager to disembark, and we all took the subway, which ran under the main line, and so out on to the street. Very occasionally the train would be delayed by fog, and entering Retford, there would be much stopping and starting, accompanied periodically by the explosion of charges set on the lines to help guide the driver. Great care had to be taken before our train, on its course from west to east, crossed the main London to Edinburgh line, along which thundered the great non-stop express trains such as the Flying Scotsman. Of course, we were delighted by the delay as it provided a change from the usual morning routine, and a few minutes off classes.
We had to walk about three quarters of a mile to school. For the first quarter mile, boys and girls followed the same path, although always on opposite sides of the road, the girls on the left, the boys on the right hand side. When we came to the bridge over the river Idle, the girls went off to the left, and we turned to the right and over the bridge. At this intersection there was a World War 1 tank. I wonder if it is still there today. We now followed the road until it joined the Great North Road, and brought us to our school.
School uniform was important. The girls wore hats, dark blue gym slips and stockings. Our uniform was the school cap and tie, and whatever clothing our parents chose to clothe us in. Everyone carried a satchel for books, pens and pencils, and lunches. Our caps and ties were purchased at a clothing shop called Loseby’s in Carolgate, the main street in the town. The caps were green with two crossover red stripes and a badge on the front bearing our school coat of arms and motto – "ex pulvere palma" (out of the dust, the palm of victory). The tie was striped red and green horizontally. Prefects’ caps were all green, and were tasseled. You always wore your cap and tie, travelling to and from school, and when in town. If you were spotted capless or tieless by a master, you were for it. To neglect or to forget to put on your tie was unthinkable, and the cause of great distress.
I only knew it to happen once. It happened to a boy called Johnny Williams. His family ran a ladies’ clothing store on Bridge Street in Workshop. Johnny was a dreamer, seemingly disconnected from the world around him, a “weed”, who didn’t seem to be much use at anything. Anyway, one day, on the way to school, somebody noticed that he was not wearing a tie. The news spread like wildfire. “Williams has forgotten his tie.” Poor Johnny, alerted to his predicament, elected to carry on to school, where he spent the day trying to hide his deficiency by placing his hand over the vacant spot, and, of course, being found out from time to time. Being compelled to wear your school colors wherever you went was supposed to display a pride in your school, but another effect was to make us easily identifiable should we be up to any mischief.
The Great North Road was the main route from London to north-east England and then to Edinburgh. It ran past our school and into Retford Market Square via Carolgate, a narrow road with barely room for two cars to pass. Carolgate was the main shopping thoroughfare lined with banks, butcher’s, tobacconists, clothiers, bakeries, and sundry other places of business. The town square was, in fact; a large square area, which housed the weekly market. It was bounded by the town hall, municipal offices, a pub or two, Spencer’s valuers, estate agents and auctioneers, some solicitors’ offices, and numberous large shops. Behind the town hall was the Corn Exchange and animal pens where farmers met on market days to buy and sell, exchange gossip, and, not infrequently, to conclude their business by having a few drinks, and going home market merry.
Off to the right as one left Carolgate and entered the square was a road that led to Howard’s Temperance Hotel and Café just a few yards away. I mention this because, on occasion, we would lunch there. Everything was neat and clean, the waitresses dressed in black with white pinafores and small white hats. We often opted for the cheapest offering, a plate of chips, hot and crispy, for threepence. The more affluent could get a full lunch for ninepence, and that included such delights as apple or pineapple fritters. Alas, my visits to Howard’s were few and far between, as I took sandwiches to school.
Leaving the town square were two roads. The one on the left led to West Retford; the one on the right to Cannon Square. Here was the East Retford parish church, where any special celebrations of the school were conducted.
These, then were the parts of Retford that we came to know well; Carolgate, the Town Square, and Cannon Square.
On arriving at school in the morning, usually at about twenty minutes to nine, we stood around in the playground, or read the notices on the boards in the cloisters. There were the House notices. We had four houses; Edward, Overend, Foljambe and Mellish. I was in Overend. The notices usually consisted of lists of teams for inter-house games of football or cricket. There was also a school notice board.
This too bore the names of players chosen for various teams, this time for games or competitions against other schools. These included Newark Grammar school, Lincoln Grammar, Lincoln City, Mansfield Grammar, and Mansfield Brunts School. Besides football and cricket, there was cross-country running versus the students at Kelham Theological College. We invariably lost in this competition. These students were hardy and tough, and much too strong for us. They entertained for this race, and would place their first seven players out of eight before the first of ours. After the race, and a shower we were shown to the refectory for tea. We were seated at long tables, given a pewter plate each, and served with jam and great hunks of bread. Very Spartan, indeed!
At nine o’clock, the duty prefect rang the bell, and we repaired to our classrooms. If we had outerwear, we deposited it in the cloakroom on the way. The teacher took attendance, later to be collected by the duty prefect, and we then trooped down to the gym for assembly.
At this point, the prefects work over, the teachers repairing to the common room.^ Each prefect had charge of a form. His responsibility was to see that everyone was present, and that the form was orderly. As we entered the gym each form made a line across it, the juniors at the front, and the seniors at the back. The prefects stood at the end of the line, checked attendance, and maintained order. If you were messing about, you might get a clip across the ear from the prefect’s notebook, or he might give you fifty lines, to be handed in the following morning. Anything more serious might require you to see him after assembly for a heart-to-heart talk.
All being assembled, a period of quiet expectancy ensued, and in due course the magisterial procession would enter and align itself across the gym and facing the school. First would come the headmaster in academic gown and mortarboard, closely followed by the duty prefect, and then the masters wearing academic gowns.
The proceedings opened with the duty prefect stepping up onto a dais and placing the Bible opened at the reading for the day. He would then begin: “The lesson is from St. Matthew (say), Chapter 6, Verses 1-10, or whatever it happened to be. He then read the lesson, hoping not to stumble. There were passages that struck terror into the heart of some, e.g. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” could easily result in a disastrous transposition of aitches, consequent mortification to the reader, and the delight of some of the assembly.