History > Reminiscences > #12

 

Reminiscences 

Joseph Arch 

 

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Further Reminiscences of St Peters School Barford in the 1950’s.
By Clive Byerley, now of Melbourne, Australia

Anyone reading this who went to school at St. Peters, Barford for any length of time during the 1940’s, 50’ and probably 60’s will probably have mixed feelings when they look back.

It was the age before political correctness and the threat of litigation; it was the time of the ‘clog shed’ and beating about the legs. No one brought their solicitor to parent interviews, (indeed there were no parent interviews), as now they sometimes do, in my private school in Melbourne. The joy of remembering paints all things with gold.

The air raid shelter was still fairly new, as were the tales about Nazi planes being shot down over Scar Bank at Wasperton, and a German pilot being found hanging from a high tree branch, wrapped in his parachute cords like some huge spider’s snack.

Arthur Spencer Twigger was in his heyday, ruling his little empire with fear, and earning a grudging respect from his pupils – often years afterwards - when they were able to see things as he saw them. I have written about him elsewhere but he was omnipresent during my years at the school, and his presence is sure to creep back into this account of the other teachers who worked under his benevolent dictatorship.

In 1952, along with a seemingly large number of other young kids of the post-war bulge, I joined Infants in the high, hammer-beamed gothic hall that had frosted windows looking out on to Church Street.

Miss Charles and her assistant ran three classes in the one room with a rod of iron. She seemed to have no sense of humour at all, or if she had one it was for adult use only. As a bright young curly-headed boy I managed to avoid most of her terrible storms of irritation; I learned to read effortlessly and well – but oh the fate of those poor few who had some difficulty learning.

“Put your finger on the line!” Miss Charles stubbed the not-very-clean stumpy digit, with finger nails bitten down to the scapular, hard on to the reader where “See John jump!” betrayed the poor girl into yet another error. We were standing in a line in front of Miss Charles’ desk, six or seven of us, as if for an execution. ‘She who must be obeyed’ sat in her curious, green, half-round chair to hear our progress. I ached to help Carol, whose tears joined the contents of her runny nose on to the page, but I dared not. This was an age ago when fear and humiliation awaited the strugglers, whilst a certain guilty thrill warmed the rest of us who had evaded the eagle eyes that missed nothing in their dark horn rimmed glasses. I still feel the pain of that girl. I wonder if she hated all books thereafter.

The desks were institutional green tubing with plywood tops which stacked. Chairs matched, with canvas webbing that left a pattern on the thighs on hot, sticky afternoons. I sat next to Stephen Beardsmore on my first day because we were in alphabetical order. His family later moved out of the village to an isolated house near Norton Lindsey where, later in our teenage years, my friends and I would cycle on mothy summer evenings to play records and jive with his sister, Marion, on their parquet floor.

It is probably true that, for most of us, detailed memories of the days we spent in school have slipped into the oblivion where they belong. Long hours of boredom reciting multiplication tables in the semi-monastic plainsong of rote learning, followed by unending writing lessons in pencil (slates had vanished with the Armistice) leave no traces. Somehow I learned to read without moving my lips, write a poor hand, learn my twelve times table, throw a ball, know a brassica from a legume and survive the usual intimidation and teasing that bedevil the lives of children everywhere – so it cannot have all been Hell. Certain images remain bright, however.

“Clive, Stephen, give out the sticks.” Oh God, not the sticks! Spare us the sticks!

On the windowless wall that separated the school from Mr Twigger’s house ran three long shelves stopping near the piano that crossed the corner. Arrayed along these shelves was a treasure trove of educational riches – but not for us!

There was a yellow box with holes of intriguing shapes and a little drawer for retrieving the posted wooden pieces. This was never taken down during my time. There were sets of graduated, coloured wooden rods that sat in a block and looked a bit like a typewriter keyboard – for learning to count, presumably, or any number of interesting skills - forbidden!

We were even shown once a huge box of ceramic bricks with real cement that could be mortared together to make a house, complete with window frames, doors and all – then this luxury item was whisked away. It had been given by a parent in the naïve hope, presumably, that generations of kids would derive pleasure from constructing and then demolishing their own designs. We never did. Brightly coloured toys and learning aids gathered dust; we had the sticks!

The sticks - a huge box of short sticks, uncoloured, about five inches long. Heaps were placed in front of every child and we were left to be ‘creative’. It is a wonder our artistic creativity was not completely blighted, but our hopes and expectations were worn as flat as the sticks themselves.

At one end of the room there was a huge fire place covered from prying fingers by a vast fire guard. I think Mr Twigger used to come in early in the day during the winter months and light the fires in all three rooms. A great blaze greeted us on the foggy days we trouped in from the playground, having been counted off on the register.

Above the fireplace hung a charming print of The Four Seasons in an Art Nouveau style that intrigued me with its wealth of detail. There were foxes and badgers, toads and dormice, primroses and blackberries – only the latter ever entered our country experience. Barford held few wild places then. I used to long for moor land or forest, fen, bog, swamp or even quicksand to give us places to have adventures in, but Barford had been tamed long ago in the Middle Ages and its swamps, if there had ever been any, were now under the plough and a danger to no man – or boy.

One great pleasure, and the start of a life long interest, was the regular ‘nature walks’ we were taken on. All children in the three rooms were taken out about once a week for a walk around the village. In Miss Charles’ class we had to hold hands until we were in the fields; later we were free to push, shove and poke our way to the front - or back of the curling line of scarves, berets and knitted pixie hats.

Every former student from that time will remember the singsong request, “Please Miss Charles may I eat this?” This chant was compulsory at blackberry time. We were up Saddler’s Fields in the last enclosure before Hareways Lane, here brambles grew aplenty in the hedgerow and in October we would glut ourselves! When every remotely dark berry had been allowed to be eaten we boys would start on the red, bitter pebbles of the unripe ones, suffering the rest of the day with stomach ache. We were lectured on the fruit we could eat and those that would certainly poison us; today I could still tell you which were of the Solanum family - the Deadly Nightshade - and its relatives.

In spring we brought back ‘sticky buds’ from the horse chestnut trees to open their umbrella fingers in the class room. In autumn there were purple and red maples, burnt orange and yellow beech leaves to treat with glycerine; these would provide winter decorations. We glued and we drew, made friezes and dioramas and I started on the lifelong passion of growing things. We put acorns and conkers in to water and saw them sprout. We grew lawns of mustard and cress and then ate it. Later, in Mr. Twigger’s own senior classes, we walked to the school allotment and really sewed, weeded, dug and hoed our own vegetables – but more of that anon.

Miss Charles herself was an enigmatic woman. To a little boy her ferocious glasses and hawk nose commanded respect. Every day she cycled from Wellesbourne in all weathers on a huge, black, sit-up-and-beg bicycle. In the rain she was a caped crusader under a huge rubber garment that covered both her and her bicycle. She wore galoshes, or rubber overshoes. I’d never seen these extraordinary items before and have never seen them since – outside of erotic literature. They were a source fascination to me. Boy she must have been tough - and determined never to use the bus! I remember seeing her cruise by along Wellesbourne Road like Boadicea going to the wars. Later, when I was at secondary school she used to give me a royal wave as she passed my bus stop; I felt singled out for a special honour. I would raise my cap and blush.

Miss Charles had an assistant, Mrs Channing, whose son I later knew at High School. She was the ‘good cop’ to Miss C’s ‘bad cop’. You could cry on her shoulder. In my photograph of the planting of the Coronation memorial oak tree in the playing fields (elsewhere on this web site) you can see a woman with a gory of red/gold hair standing next to Miss Charles – she was the assistant when I joined in 1953 – but, maddeningly, I cannot remember her name. Perhaps readers of this article will let me know who she was?

Christmas in First and Second Class was always special. Weeks were taken up with preparations for the class party. Paper lanterns (no lights) were cut from silver card; miles and miles of crepe paper was cut into strips and then plaited in two contrasting colours ( in a way I can still do now) to make garlands that hung like jungle lianas above the excited throng. Food was brought from home; plates of horrid fish paste sandwiches, Swiss roll, Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, egg and cress rolls – and whatever our mothers could be persuaded to cough up when rationing was still in force for some items. Father Christmas duly showed up – a friend of The Boss – and a good time was had by all. Like most of my friends my family had very little money to spare, so such public festivities meant a great deal to me. I still have the Christmas cards cut and painted in Class Two by my brother, Alan – daubs of pastel crayon suggest a reindeer – but resemble more a Stone Age cave painting!

Music and Movement! Once a week (on a Wednesday I think) the radio was turned on that sat on a cupboard by the curtained door into Mr Twigger’s senior classroom. This door held certain terrors. At times the curtain would twitch from The Boss’s side and those children, eagle-eyed enough, instantly stopped whatever furtive thing they were doing before the dreaded beckoning finger would summon them to a fate worse than death! But I digress.

“Find your own space, boys and girls, and imagine you are a tree blowing in the wind.” This was licence to push, slap and ‘accidentally’ bump everyone in the vicinity as ragged trees of odd sizes, and with rather grubby branches, wafted frantically. There was always a story and a song to follow. I was never sure of the educational value of this welcome break in the routine. I imagine it gave Miss Charles a half hour off, as well as acting as crowd control.

Peeing contests broke the monotony of the long lunch hour. I remained at school while the lucky few went home to their mothers. The evil smelling urinal was just off the tiny square of asphalt we used as a play ground; next to it was the forbidden territory of the girls’ toilets – getting a peek in them was quite a dare. One brave day I remember seeing several different heights of basin! What luxury. I was rarely a winner in the tightly contested competitions to make a wet mark above the line of asphalt that backed the drain in the boys’ lavatory – my legs were not long enough, though if determination had been enough I should have won, having saved it up since breakfast and sat cross-legged all morning through ‘sums’ and spelling.

The allotments. What relief to escape the confines of the classroom and the multiplication tables to be the first into the ‘clog shed’ where rotting old Lancashire clogs told the tale of many former generations’ gardening adventures. Peas, beans and onions were always together; potatoes on their own – duly roatated each season – runner beans (ugh!) broad beans and some soft fruit were neatly set out with labels on either side of the central path. The end products were sold to parents at very reasonable prices. Girls were frightened with the threat of worms down their necks – or knickers; gooseberries were secretly eaten, and a lot of non-gardening activities indulged in. Still the seeds were sown (pun intended) of my life-long passion for growing things. Here, downunder, where I worry that the possums are getting at my cumquats before they are ripe enough for marmalade, or if the cockatoos will eat all of my lemon blossom and ruin my crop, the memory of those gardening afternoons remains evergreen.

Singing round the piano made a welcome change. Mysterious visits from ‘old boys’ in sailor suits intrigued us, but we were too shy to ask if they had been in the North Atlantic convoys. I recall the chipped enamel mugs in the cloakroom and the smell of wet coats on the big, black coat hooks; the nit inspector and the feet inspector, the warm milk in little bottles that were crated in to keep up our calcium – how I hated milk for decades thereafter, having been forced to drink it at break time. The only good thing Mrs Thatcher ever did was to withdraw the free milk.

Mrs Paine, who lived in the Malt House opposite, had a spider monkey as a pet and we were all trooped over to her conservatory one day to admire it. There were peacocks in her back garden in those days and egrets and herons on heir back lawn – such exotica. There was a bank in the village then and I was monitor in charge of savings stamps. I was let out during lesson time to go down to the bank and buy the stamps that Mr Twigger put into our savings books: sixpenny ones had Princess Anne aged about eighteen months on a green background; Prince Charles, at about six years, against blue was on the shilling ones – and the Queen herself on the half crown. I remember floating paper boats down the gutter after rain as I walked with a great sum in cash (so it seemed) to purchase the stamps.

Nothing lasts for ever; I grew, and it was time to move up into the next room – Mrs Calvert’s class – but that is another story.

To be continued....

Clive Byerley

to contact Clive by e-mail.

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