I am fourth from the right in the first row of girls!
The headmaster of Bilson School in Cinderford at the time I was there was Mr Gowman and I remember him as being a small neat man with dark hair well Brylcreemed and wearing a double breasted suit. He was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church and I truly believe he saw us all as God’s children and loved every one of us. That’s not to say that he wasn’t strict though and woe betide any misbehaviour. I think I learned a lot from having him as a teacher and I can always remember him saying “If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well”. He taught us art if my memory serves me correctly and he wouldn’t stand for any sloppy work but each of us was encouraged to do the best we could and praise was given whenever it was warranted.
Most if not every day began with a prayer and a hymn followed by any notices and a little homily from Mr G. I can still see our school motto framed on the wall and to which he frequently referred it said in neat capital letters “I am, I can, I ought, I will”. I loved singing the hymns and my favourites included, Daisies are our silver buttercups our gold, Hills of the North Rejoice, Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways and All things bright and beautiful. We then dispersed to our classrooms where the register was called and on Mondays dinner money collected. Once all this administration was dealt with the business of the day got under way.
We sat in two seater desks which had wooden seats which folded up with a clang when we stood up which we did whenever a teacher or any other adult entered the room! Our classrooms had pointed gothic style windows set high in the wall –looking out of the window and daydreaming were definitely discouraged when the school was built.
Lessons were fairly structured in the 1950s. We did English including dictation - for which a piece of text was written on a small board at the side of the main blackboard every Monday and from this text we had to note and learn all the difficult or new words and on Friday morning it was rubbed off the board and dictated to us and we wrote it down. I don’t know what it says about us that nobody ever thought to write it down beforehand and no cheating ever seemed to take place!
Each week we had to learn by heart a poem having read it first and having had its meaning explained and so on. We learned to recite such poems as “Daffodils” which I can still recite word for word and I know what Wordsworth meant by “they flash upon that inward eye that is the bliss of solitude” for I too have a mental snapshot album full of memories which flash upon my inward eye. I must go down to the sea again by Masefield, The traveller by Walter de la Mere – I can still see him knocking on that moonlit door and some time ago when we lived in Guildford a new hotel was built with this verse painted on the side wall and I never passed it without thinking of schooldays!
We also learned all about punctuation and what a comma was used for or a full stop and did creative writing – such as writing a story as told by a penny telling where it had been and so on or a story about our summer holidays and what we did.
We did arithmetic including lots of chanting of tables including times tables up to 12 (there being 12 pennies in a shilling 12 seemed a suitable number to work up to. We could also recite how many rods there were in a pole (whatever that meant!) and how many inches to a foot and yards to a mile. We must have done Geography and History too though I don’t remember much about those apart from the big maps hung on the walls and we also did music including singing and percussion - I usually had a triangle but what I really wanted was the tambourine! We occasionally took part in a competition amongst the schools in the area for the best choir. This was an exciting day out as it entailed being dressed in our best and cleanest clothes and going by coach to Cheltenham where we would file into a huge hall somewhere or another along with dozens of other school choirs. We would all take our turn on the stage, the adjudicators would then comment on our performance and at the end of the afternoon when our heads were ringing with the words of the songs we would discover which choir was the winner for that year.
The girls did needlework – not sure what the boys did whilst we girls were busy with our needles – I remember making a kettle holder with a felt appliquéd crinoline lady (we seemed to do a lot with crinoline ladies back then I suppose they were an easy shape with not too much detail) and a blanket stitched edge. I found it amongst my mother’s belongings when I cleared her house after her death in 2001. Recently I saw an exhibition of samplers at Montactue House all made several hundred years ago and all done by girls of 8 – 12 years old and the tiny wee stitches and the perfect workmanship made me think of my amateurish kettleholder and even of my patchwork when I belonged to a group in France and Madame le President would stop and look at my work and tut at the size of my stitches!! How did they do it so perfectly I wonder? We also learned to knit and the usual exercise was to make a dishcloth for our mothers.
Gym, as it was called rather than Physical Education back then, was done with our dresses tucked into our knickers – navy blue ones – the knickers I mean not the dresses! – and the boys of course in their normal shorts, boys didn’t wear long trousers in the 1950s until they were 13 or so. We changed our shoes and wore plimsolls which we called daps, black canvas lace up ones. We played rounders in the playground and I think we had big heavy coconut mats for mat work indoors and bean bags which we practised throwing and catching and so on when it was wet.
About once a month there would be great excitement as the film van would arrive and after lunch we would all troupe into the designated classroom which would have had the blackout blinds drawn and once settled the lights would be turned off and we would be carried away to different countries where we would see things we could never have imagined or animals we didn’t know existed for the hour or so that the films lasted. Then the lights would be turned on, the blinds raised and we would sit blinking in the brightness still halfway between the real world and that which we had inhabited for the past 60 minutes or so. Whilst the film was rewound and packed away and the room returned to its normal humdrum state we would tumble out into the playground until the bell recalled us to our labours. Television was not common in those days and the only other chance we had of seeing anything like this was at the cinema on Saturday mornings when there would be a special children’s programme at the local cinema that many of us went to. (There would be a serial and another short film and one time the serial was about a land beneath the sea which sprang a leak in the sky so that the ocean began to come through – I didn’t go till that was finished as I found it too frightening to think of being drowned like that!)
Every morning before playtime we each had a third of a pint bottle of milk with a straw made of waxed paper – we all hated this in the summer months when it was usually warm but the winter when it was cold or even frozen, so that the metallic top sat like a little hat on the iced milk which had risen above the top of the bottle, we didn’t mind. I think the government back in the 1950s was concerned about the health of the coming generation as they also provided delicious orange juice, in a small glass bottle with a blue and white label, for young children and rose hip syrup too as a source of vitamin C. Speaking of rosehip syrup I remember that being a country school we were encouraged to gather rosehips and bring them into school where they would be collected for sending to the factory to be made into the syrup. Maybe the school got paid for these and it helped to swell the coffers a bit.
We also used to pick primroses during the spring and these would be bunched and tied and then packed and posted off to somewhere in London so that the “poor people in London” could have a breath of country air as it were. I think perhaps Mr Gowman had contacts in the church who probably passed the flowers on to the elderly who might appreciate them. The postal service must have been much better than it is now or they would have arrived half dead – or perhaps they did but the “poor people” were too polite to say so! Having said that it was common in those days to post all sorts of things we would never dream of putting in the mail today such as eggs – there were special heavy cardboard boxes with dividers inside for those and I guess this must have come into being during the war when fresh eggs were so scarce.
I can remember my uncle posting us some tomatoes too and they arrived the following day and were not squashed either and people who knew anyone in Scotland with access to salmon fishing occasionally received a fresh salmon in the post carefully wrapped in sacking!
Most children had school dinners and if not they walked home for lunch – I don’t think sandwiches were an option in those days. I was not a fussy eater although I didn’t like meat especially if it had gristle, which it often did, but I enjoyed vegetables so was often able to swap my meat for someone else’s cabbage! We used to have lots of stews and casseroles and in summer salads with cold meat of some sort maybe luncheon meat or more probably the ubiquitous Spam with mashed potatoes served up using an ice cream scoop – how fascinated I was by the neat round balls this implement would make out of the potato although their consistency left a lot to be desired and they frequently had lumps in them! Puddings were perhaps sponge or suet pudding with a jam sauce and one popular pudding was yellow sponge topped with red jam and then sprinkled with dessicated coconut. Then there were macaroni or semolina puddings with perhaps a dollop of jam or stewed fruit – my mother said that when she asked me what I’d had one day I told her that for pudding we had had “pipes and one plum” (macaroni and stewed plums)! This phrase remained in our family vocabulary for years. Often there were other milk puddings and although the rice and macaroni were good nobody liked tapioca or sago which we called frog spawn since the grains which swam in the milk were glutinous and stuck together not unlike frogspawn though without the tadpole in the centre of course! Having polished off our two course cooked lunch we were turned out into the playground for a further half an hour and often spent the time hanging upside down on the ropes and shinning up the climbing frames which were provided or perhaps playing jacks or marbles whilst in autumn the boys enjoyed conkers. In dry weather someone might find a scrap of chalk and we would mark out a hopscotch pitch on the playground and play that or maybe someone would have a skipping rope and we could play various skipping games involving chanting or singing with that.
After lunch was usually story time probably to settle us down for the rest of the afternoon and I vividly remember being read to from a book about the Bronze Age in which a young boy called Bran got up to this and that but his life was very harsh and some dreadful things befell him and I couldn’t bear to listen and had nightmares about it – I was glad when we moved on to a different story!
The day always ended with a prayer and then we were dismissed – looking back our schooldays were much given to the religious although I don’t remember anyone being other than C of E or perhaps Methodists or Baptists. I can’t recall any Roman Catholics and certainly no Jews or Muslims or any other faiths although I dare say we wouldn’t have noticed if there had been.
Every Sunday I went to Sunday School with the children from next door. We went to the Baptist church Sunday school although I was in fact a Methodist. I remember we used to be given a little illustrated text – rather like the sort of thing you see framed in a larger version on walls in the early 1900s – and these we stuck into little books. The idea was to get a full book as that would show you had been a regular attendee and you might be lucky enough to get a book as a prize for good attendance – I have a couple of such books to this day! I remember one of my school friends who also went always wore white nubuck bar shoes (I think they are called Mary Janes now) during summer. These were cleaned using a white liquid and must have been very impractical and since children’s feet grow at such a rate keeping a special pair of shoes just for best doesn’t seem a very good idea but I thought they were lovely and wanted a pair but I had to wear whatever were my current shoes.
Winters were much colder then – or maybe they just seemed so without the benefit of central heating, warm bedrooms, hot baths and so on! Bedroom windows were usually iced over in the mornings, decorated by an incredible artist in the intricate patterns frost makes of leaves, ferns and swirls all delicate and glistening and before you could look out you had to scrape the inside of the panes with your finger nails till a small hole had been cleared and your hands were too cold to make it any bigger! Did it snow more back then or is it just memory which makes it seem so? The cold seemed much more bearable when under bright blue skies we could make our snowmen and slides in the playground (it wasn’t forbidden then in the cause of health and safety as happens nowadays – we must have been a much tougher lot in those days). And of course there were snowballs which would wing their way back and forth during playtimes until the bell called us all back into class for more lessons where we sat gently steaming from the melting snow! The classrooms were heated by means of cast iron “Tortoise” stoves – so called as they had an image of a tortoise cast into the lid on the top – these solid fuel stoves were fed with coke which stood in a hod alongside ready to replenish the fire. Those children sitting near the stove were warm enough but the ones at the back of the classroom were usually cold! We were often told to “Put down your pens” and then we would have to do some exercises alongside our desks to get our blood circulating before “Be seated and carry on quietly” was the command! Feet and hands were so often cold and many children suffered from chilblains.
One of the highlights of the winter term at school was the coming of Christmas when we would set about making calendars for our parents and the talk was all about what we hoped to get in our stockings. The calendars I recall were made by covering a piece of paper with some paste coloured with paint and then using a comb we had made from card which we had cut into teeth we would swirl a pattern into the coloured paste – a lovely messy job which was great fun. When this dried – perhaps by hanging it over the fireguard round the stove - we used the decorated sheet to cover a piece of card, probably a cornflake packet or something similar and learned how to mitre the corners neatly before punching two holes at the top for a ribbon and sticking a picture from last year’s Christmas cards which had been saved for this very purpose and a little calendar onto the front. We were so proud of these gifts which we would take home at the end of term and give to our parents. Then of course there would be a carol service as well and maybe we did some sort of nativity play – I can’t remember but I do remember doing a play during the summer in which I played a tomboy and at some point in the dialogue I had to whip off my skirt to reveal shorts beneath and say, “Then I won’t wear a stupid skirt”! My mother had to slit one of my skirts down the side seam and fasten it just at the waist like a wrap around style for this. I thinkthst in the play I wanted to join the boys in some escapade and they had said I couldn’t because I was a girl and wore a skirt. That’d be right as back then there were certain things girls couldn’t or didn’t do - Women’s Lib hadn’t yet been though of and it was only since the war that women had begun to be independent in any way. How much has changed since those days!
Good days they were but from being big fish in a small pond everything was about to change as we were about to move on to secondary school where we would be little fish in an enormous pond!
There is more so let me know if you want to see any of it!