School Days: Needlework, Harvest Festivals and the 11 Plus

Judith Barrie from SWit’CH writers, based in Swinton at Critchley Community Hub has recalled her memories of infant school… all the way up to the 11 plus. 

I shall have to delve very deep to the back of my memory’s filing cabinet to retrieve this folder: my first days at school.

But what’s this? The first page is missing altogether and a lot of the other pages are ravaged by time. I shall just have to do my best.

I first went to All Saints’ infant’s school in September 1950, a couple of weeks before my fourth birthday. My brother was much older than I was and had been of no use whatsoever as a playmate, and tots of my own age had been in short supply, so I must have been overwhelmed by the great crowd of children assembled in my first classroom. It was probably the biggest room I had ever seen, having to hold almost forty pupils, as they did in those days and it appeared a monstrous size to me.

My first teacher was Mrs Holt, a tall lady, although not tall enough to open the high windows: she needed a long pole with a hook on the end to do that. I was shown something called a ‘cloakroom’ where I was to leave my coat, on a peg which had a picture above it, to make it easier to remember. I was asked if I had brought any ‘lunch’ with me, which I hadn’t; another mysterious concept.

The classroom was a sea of tiny desks and chairs and the rest of the space was taken up by a huge rocking horse, a wendy house and dozens of toys to keep us occupied. It was chaos. At break time we were given bottles of milk to drink, something that I flatly refused to do, and it took a visit from my mother to convince Mrs Holt that I never touched the stuff. I always went home for dinner – the school was scarcely much more than a hundred yards from my house – then in the afternoons we all went into the next room, where camp beds were laid out and we were supposed to have our ‘afternoon nap,’ although I suspect this was done more for the teachers’ benefit than ours. Not many of us ever went to sleep.

It was in this room that we did all our exercise and dance to the accompaniment of music by Mrs Holt at the piano. We also learned simple songs, all long forgotten. In fact, my clearest recollection of being in Mrs Holt’s class was the day that she put me on her knee at her desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a tin. This was opened to reveal a small pair of scissors. ‘If you don’t stop chattering, I will cut your tongue off with these scissors!’ she said. It didn’t work.

In general, though, I liked Mrs Holt very much and enjoyed my days at school, but without a photograph to aid my ‘memory file’ most of the detail has been lost.

I moved ‘up’ to Mrs Lilley’s class after a couple of years and my memory serves me rather better here, much aided by the fact that there are two class photographs. One of these has a placard on the front desk stating that it was ‘Coronation Year – 1953’, with a picture of the Queen, so no doubt about that one.

Mrs Lilley stands proudly in the background, having for once managed to get all thirty-nine of her pupils seated neatly at their desks with a (mostly) beaming smile on their face. We all got some kind of special gift for the Coronation celebrations, but I can only remember a pencil.

Mrs Lilley was a stout lady with the obligatory hair roll in the post war years fashion, severely pinned into place. She was elderly and wore frumpy clothes and clumpy shoes. She was probably about thirty-nine.

She loved to tell us tales of derring-do involving her grandfather, who was captain of the Cutty Sark, the famous tea clipper. And she taught us the miracle of growing cress on wet blotting paper.

There was much ado with wax crayons and crepe paper, especially at Christmas, when we all made cards for our parents and paper chains for the classroom. In the photograph I am poised with a small pair of scissors, cutting pictures from magazine pages. On the walls there are alphabet pictures: ‘g is for Girl who is mopping the floor’ – we were firmly put in our place early on. The ‘b for boy’ is out of the shot. I would love to see it.

In the wintertime we grew bulbs in clear glass bottles to watch the white roots growing longer every day and there are various renditions in pencil of the resulting blooms pinned on the wall at the back. I remember in winter it was unbearably cold sometimes. Even though it was such a short journey to the school doors, I used to cry with frozen fingers and toes. At times like that we all did special exercises to warm us up before lessons started: mostly stamping our feet up and down and shaking our fingers until the tingling stopped.

Looking round the class we were generally a clean, tidy group of good looking kids, although Stewart Taylor was already showing signs of becoming the handsomest. And Georgie Barlow signs of criminal tendencies. I notice I am sitting opposite Joan, my new best friend. My straight blonde hair has been curled at the bottom with curling pins, which I had in every night, and two ribbons tie up bunches.

School was mostly play at that time and I have no recollection whatsoever of learning anything, but I must have done, because by the time I moved up to the junior class, I could read and write, do sums and identify all the pink bits on the world map.

Life was a lot tougher in Mrs McMaster’s class. Even the threat of scissors hadn’t stopped me chattering incessantly, and more than once I was obliged to stand on a chair to have a ruler applied to the back of my legs. (Mrs McMasters was even older than Mrs Lilley and had trouble bending down to near-floor level to administer slaps.) On the class photograph, I am sitting next to Stewart Taylor, my dreamboat. The walls are completely covered in pictures: children playing in the snow, a pirate ship captained by a duck, the Pied Piper and a list of words that rhyme with ‘sail’ – mail, pail, nail etc.

This is where the girls first had needlework lessons. My mother had bought a length of cream cotton cloth covered with rosebuds. It was duly cut out from a pattern to make me an underskirt. I thought it was beautiful, but we only had a couple of lessons a week and by the time it was finished, with the fussy French seams, I had grown so much it didn’t fit me. I don’t know who was more upset, me or my mother.

All Saints’ was closely connected to All Saints’ Church, a few hundred yards down the road on the A6 and it was in Mrs McMaster’s class that we started to attend services there on special occasions like Ash Wednesday and Easter. We were all lined up outside and walked in a long unruly ‘crocodile’ down the road. I, being brought up a heathen, had never been in a church before and was overawed by the splendour of it.

I loved the whole ritual of the service and we sang ‘There is a green hill far away,’ and ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ with great gusto even if we never gave a single thought to the meanings of the words. I remember the Harvest Festival services, when we all had to take a box of fruit and vegetables to donate to the needy and we sang ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ We were given small religious picture cards to keep and bribed to come back every week to collect a set.

Despite pleas to my parents, I only ever went to church with the school, which wasn’t often. Christmastime was best and we practised the carols for weeks before, Mrs McMasters giving a decent performance on the piano in the hall. We even learned to barn-dance.

Mr Lewis’ class was next, and probably the one I have the least recollection of, except that his preferred method of chastisement was to make you ‘stand in the corner.’ There was no dunce’s hat, but it was implied. The comment on my report read: ‘Judith’s failing is that she is such a chatterbox…’ So I was still at it.

As I was still, when I moved up to Mr Howarth’s class, the ‘top class’ – so I must have been about ten by that time. Mr Howarth was the headmaster and his preferred method of chastisement was the cane.

I have a class photograph for this one, and I’m sitting at the front with a new hairstyle. The bunches and ribbons are gone and I have a plain, short bob that looks as if it has been done with a pudding basin. It probably had; I never then, as now, went to a hairdresser. And there she is! Rhona Peverley, the bane of my life for the few months until I left, sitting next to my best friend, Joan. Rhona had recently moved into the area when she joined the school and she immediately took control of our little clique. She insisted that she join Joan and myself in our shed ‘meetings’. She poured scorn on our ‘password’ entry and our attempts to produce our own newspaper, the Bluebird News; she didn’t play with dolls and would arrive with a pocketful of coins, stolen from her mother’s purse. She urged us to do likewise, which we both flatly refused to do, but she did eventually persuade Joan to take her Post Office savings book and withdraw ten shillings. I don’t know what they did with it.

We were gearing up to the eleven plus examinations and one morning Mr Howarth had to attend to something important so he left one of the boys ( Michael Bloore, I’ve never forgiven him) in charge with the instruction: ‘If anyone talks, write their name on the blackboard!’ In the ensuing ten minutes, Michael managed to write about fifteen names on the blackboard, whether a crime had been perpetrated or not – including mine. And, difficult as it may be to believe, I had not uttered a word. Mr Howarth returned, furious, and the accused were ordered to line up to be caned. He disregarded the several pleas of, ‘But it wasn’t me, Sir!’ A line was formed and we were all duly caned. Justice had not been done, but in hindsight, I reckoned that I must have got away with talking out of turn a hundred times without punishment, so I guess it was due.

Although I didn’t cry when he did it, I cried all the way home at dinnertime, I was so ashamed. I told my mother that I had banged my hand on a wall to explain the redness and the tears.

It was probably some time into the New Year of 1958 when Joan’s mother died. Asian flu had swept through the land and, although she was only in her early thirties, she didn’t have the strength to survive it. So dear, sweet, gentle Joan lost her mother and the shock of the news devastated us all.

The eleven plus exams went ahead regardless, and Joan, a bright girl who should have passed, was left with most of the others to go to Birch Road, the local secondary modern. In fact, out of the whole class of thirty-odd, only two of us passed – myself and Stewart Taylor, a shocking result that Mr Howarth should have been ashamed of.

All Saints’ was not a good school, but I was fortunate to move on unscathed and went to the brand new, pretentiously named, Worsley Wardley Grammar School, which was only a couple of hundred yards from my house in the opposite direction. But that’s another story…

This story is taken from the writing group’s most recent anthology Memories Unlocked, which is available from Amazon and good book shops around the world.

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers?

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