This month we are delighted to publish Sheila Sanders’ memories of the school and village nearly 50 years ago. She came to the village as a young teacher
PIRTON SCHOOL IN THE 1950’s
Pirton School in the 1950’s. A blissful era when children were never naughty and the life of a village schoolteacher was sheer heaven. It seems like that looking back down fifty years. I think that perhaps it was not the reality.
The first time I saw Pirton was on a July day in 1954. We took a taxi from Hitchin, it was a Sunday and I assume there were no buses on Sundays.
The North Herts Education Office had assigned me to Pirton School for my probationary teaching year. The then head teacher Miss M.B.G. Farris had asked me to go along to the school to meet the chairman of the governors. His name was Mr Trussell and he was at that time the village postmaster. I still have a watercolour he did of the village street early in the century. He was a fascinating man who told us many tales of village life. I had lived for eighteen years in Coalbrookdale an industrial village of little charm. I thought Pirton on that day looked magical. It was ablaze with roses and not a soul to be seen. More importantly not a single car parked outside a house which now, alas, so spoils Pirton’s beauty.
The thing that hit me when we walked inside the school was how dark and dingy it was and how it smelled of unwashed clothes and plasticine. The windows were all high and church-like. No child in this school must ever be distracted from his work by looking at the delights outside the window! There were cases of stuffed birds everywhere. There was a particularly lovely one of a Lady Amherst pheasant. I am sure they have long since disappeared, but they would be worth a fortune now. The pictures were prints pained by Helen Allingham and her contemporaries and they were all in faded sepia. They hung on very long discoloured cords from the picture rails. It was all so unlike the light and airy schools in which I had done my teaching practice in the suburbs of Liverpool and Wigan in fact not unlike the village I myself had attended in the early years of the Second World War. I have to say my heart sank a little. However, at the age of twenty spirits are never down for long; after all I only had to stay for one year. As soon as we had been conducted around the school and rather sternly lectured on the high standards to be achieved, we escaped into the beauties of the village.
The next place of call was to the house in which I was to lodge. This was Royal Oak Lane home of the school cook Miss Ethel Jarvis, or Aunty Ethel as she was affectionately known by several generations of Pirton children. She welcomed us with open arms and gave us the most enormous tea. There began a friendship that was to last over thirty years. I later came to realise that she took one look at me, (I was very thin in those days) and decided that I needed fattening up. I have never looked back since! We parted affectionately and I made plans to take up residence in early September.
I really thought very little of Pirton School in the long summer holiday until a week before I was to take up my position as assistant teacher in charge of the infant class. I did know that I was to be in charge of PE as it was then called throughout the school. Pirton in those days had about sixty pupils, between the ages of five and eleven. There were three full time teachers. The head teacher Miss M.B.G. Farris, Mrs Violet Holiday and myself. Miss Farris taught the top class pupils between the ages of nine and eleven. Miss Holiday the seven, eight and nine year olds and my class contained five six and seven-year-olds. There was a part time teacher who came in on a Friday afternoon. She was Mrs Maud Walker.
The dinner money was collected and counted on Mondays by Mrs Vera Moules. There was a peripatetic handicraft teacher called Mr Wilcox. The children made wickerwork baskets and raffia mats in those lessons. I would guess that there are still some of those lurking around Pirton to this day. Miss Ethel Jarvis was the school cook, assisted by Mrs Eva Males and Mrs Ivy Males – not related as far as I know. Ivy looked after the children in the playground while the teaching staff had their break. The school meals were cooked in the cottage in the school grounds. They were utterly delicious! Ethel used produce from her own and other gardens in the village, which helped to make the meals so fine. Almost everyone had his or her own vegetable garden in those days. I particularly remember Ethel’s upside down jam sponges, her macaroni cheese and the wonderful joints of beef and Yorkshire puddings she produced. There was in those days no choice, but at least the meals were well balanced. The down side for some children was that the head insisted that they ate everything on their plates. The staff sat at the head of the tables which were put out by Ivy and Eva about half an hour before the meal was served. Woe betide any member of staff who was taking a class in the hall that ran over the designated time. Tables were rattled, chairs banged and looks were very black. Those meal times were very special occasions. Staff were able to have conversations with their pupils and help them with their table manners (is there such a thing these days?) it was an amiable and social occasion.
The day of early September of 1954 that I walked up Royal Oak Lane to face my pupils will be forever etched into my memory. I was terrified! I need not have been. They were such happy jolly lovely children. The one think we had been told at college was to get the children busy straight away. I immediately dished out paper and crayons and told them to draw and write about their holidays. Some of them were as new as I was, but the marvellous thing was, as I was soon to learn, there is always an older pupil to come to the aid of a harassed teacher.
The first day (was it only one day?) which seemed like ten years, eventually drew to a close. I delivered the children safely into the hands of their mothers. In those days, only in the most exceptional circumstances did parents enter the school grounds. They were waiting outside the school gates.
I went back to take stock of my classroom. I decided something would have to be done to brighten up that dingy room. The first thing on the agenda was those awful sepia prints. I managed to find some more modern prints of the countryside in autumn and nailed them over the horrors. I am sure looking back, they were so high up the children could not see them anyway. The classroom had no ceiling as such and went up to the rafters. It was at this point at the end of the afternoon that the head teacher introduced me to “Daisy”. Daisy was the school caretaker and cleaner. Daisy was amazing. She was absolutely tiny and very bent. Her hair, which was thick and very grey, was pulled up into a bun Edwardian style to the top of her head. On the top was perched a black felt hat secured by a pin. She was very pale an her eyes were dark sharp and observant. She wore over a very long dark skirt and grey cardigan a fold over pinny. I do not think I ever saw her wearing anything different until she retired. How on earth did she manage to keep the school clean and light and clean out the boilers and attend the school morning and evening. Sadly I am unable to remember when she did retire, but I think ill health eventually forced her to. It was probably when the original extension was built. She was a loyal and faithful servant to the school who was finally unable to cope. She died soon afterwards. The old coke stoves were awful. Clinkers causing the rooms to be freezing frequently blocked them. There were two stoves, one in the hall and one in the head teacher’s room. In the small class room next the head’s room there was an open fire. This was rarely lit but when it was it gave a very homely feel to the room. Daisy filled the coke hods every morning and the “big boys” made up the fires. They replenished the hods from the coke pit near the outside loos at the back of the school.
The direction of the wind made a great difference to the efficiency of the stoves. Some days they roared away and we were “cooked”, other days the smoke blew back and the fire was hardly working and we froze. Poor Daisy had to clean out these stoves night and morning. I remember the smell of the fumes and when the smoke blew back was nauseating.
The head teacher was very keen that the children had plenty of fresh air during their PE lessons I think that every class had a PE lesson every day. So unless it was raining I took PE outside. Once I had found my feel I grew to really enjoy those sessions with the other classes as well as my own, I also taught football and netball and in the summer athletics and rounders. I knew little about football, however, Pirton boys in those days were such good footballers they did not need much teaching. In fact the Castle brothers and the Morgan boys gave me many lessons. At one point we had a very good team. If snow had fallen and PE outside was impossible we went for walks around the village instead. I always got the children to stop at the top of Priors Hill and take deep breaths of fresh air. One year there was a giant icicle dropping from the top of the water tower that stood at the top of the hill. We stared in awe at that.
In a village school one is very much aware of the seasons. In the 1950’s many of the parents worked on the land or were connected to farming in some way. People moved around the country far less and so many of our children were the children of children who had attended the school themselves. In fact Mrs Violet Holiday, the other assistant teacher, had attended the school as a pupil. In the autumn term many of the mothers helped out with the potato picking. I remember so well taking my class out on sparkling autumn days for a nature walk and to watch their mothers picking potatoes. Always on our walks “Prince” the school dog accompanied us. He was black and curly very much like an old English sheep dog. He always turned up when the bell rang at 9am and went home when the children did. He learned to open the ancient doors by jumping up and putting his paws on the latch. I was often in full flow on some interesting piece of knowledge when the door would burst open and in he would stroll. He went around all the tables and greeted all the children before settling down to sleep. I seem to remember he belonged to the Massam family.
The children loved to see their mothers in the potato fields. They waved with great joy when they managed to attract the attention of their respective parents.
We drew, pressed and just simply displayed the many flowers that we collected on our walks. A nature table was a much valued part of the classroom in the 1950’s. In Pirton School in those days it helped to brighten up our surroundings as well as being a valuable teaching aid. Another favourite walk was “Up the Lane”. We walked towards Pegsdon Hills and the Chalk Pit. It was a great delight to stand at the top and look down towards the village and try to pick out the spire on top of the school and the church and even some of the houses of some of the children.
Great events in those days at Pirton School were the Christmas plays. These were always performed just before the school broke up for Christmas holidays. The idea was that the children all took part and the money taken went towards the presents that Father Christmas brought to the party. I remember the head telling me that every child must say at least one line.
I was rather stunned when I realised that I had to produce a play with my infants. College had not prepared me for this! Sewing was not my strong point and the thought of costumes was horrendous. I need not have worried Pirton parents were wonderful. I did on that occasion manage myself. I did want to pass my probationer year.
Rehearsals started almost as soon as we got back from our half term holiday. We began by practising in our own classrooms and as soon as all the children knew their lines we all got together in the school hall to listen to each other’s efforts. I soon realised that every child however shy and retiring must be heard, a lot of cajoling, urging and jumping up and down was needed to achieve this.
There was something very comforting on a lowering autumn afternoon sitting with the whole school together in the hall. The old coke stoves sizzled and spluttered and the infants dozed as their brothers and sisters took their turn to perform.
Excitement was high as the day of the performance drew near. In later years the actual plays were performed in the village hall.
The Christmas party quickly followed on. The staff bought and wrapped presents one for each pupil in our respective classes. The hall was brilliantly decorated and a very large Christmas tree stood in the corner. The tree later went to the church. The staff tied on the present in the lunch hour. I can’t think what happened to the children if it was wet!
On reflection I think the children were sent home to change into party clothes. No mothers went out of the village to work in those days. During the afternoon all the children packed into the head teachers’ room and we watched silent black and white films on a very old projector. The favourite being Laurel and Hardy. Violet Holiday then played carols on the very old piano until the mothers called us to partake of the waiting feast. It was amazing how quickly this was eaten. Children were then told to listen very carefully and before long sleigh bells were heard heralding the approach of of Father Christmas. There was always much guessing by the older children as to the identity of this worthy, but my infants always sat wide eyed and flushed and believed that it really was who it was. All the children were called by name to go up and receive their gifts. An exciting day ended with thanks all round. We staff always received a lovely bunch of chrysanthemums grown next door in Jack Burton’s greenhouse. Mine always lasted well into January. January and February were months for getting down to basics. There was not much to distract us outside. In those days children often suffered from whooping cough, measles, chicken pox, mumps and classes were often depleted.
We sometimes took the children to see the hung meet on Great Green. It was always a source of great excitement to stroke the hounds before the hunt moved off. The village policeman, Worbey, rode with the hounds and this caused the children great fun.
At some time during the late fifties we had the Wright children at school. They lived at Highdown and their Father was the shepherd. The children loved to walk up Wood Lane to watch the lambs leaping and running and feeding. This lasted a short time and soon the fields were filled with cereals and all the animals went.
The summer term in any school is a busy one and Pirton was no exception then as I am sure it is now. It was soon after the term began that I was treated to the delights of a “Hymn Sandwich”. This took place on Ascension Day. The children after much practice trooped over to the church. It had been firmly instilled into me that my class must be silent and still!
The vicar The Rev Ince welcomed us. We then proceeded to sing an Ascension Day hymn and then one of the children read an appropriate passage from the Bible, until four readings and hymns had been achieved. I am quite sure my infants had very little idea what was going on. They did sit very still although I was duly very proud of them and I had found out what a hymn sandwich was.
I think it must have been about this time that the avenue of trees was planted either side of the path leading up to the church. The photograph of this event was featured in the magazine a short while ago. The original picture used to hang in the church vestry. I then had to be introduced to Open Day, which took place toward the end of the Summer Term. This was the only day in the whole school year when parents were invited into the school to look at their children’s work and speak to the teachers about their offspring. The children put on a display outside for their parents. I was heavily involved in this. I did country dancing with my own class and the older ones, an event much hated by the older boys. We also did some formation PE using various pieces of apparatus. The older children did formation marching chiefly to the Dambusters march. Things became very irate when these techniques were being perfected. Mrs Holiday’s class put on a show of maypole dancing I cannot believe the weather was always good nor can I remember what happened if it rained.
I remember we had a piece of flat ground behind the Methodist Church where we used to perform. One very hot afternoon we all went down there to practise. It was so hot that the children stripped off and threw their vests and shirts etc into a heap on the grass. It had been threatening thunder all afternoon and quite dramatically the storm was upon us. Thunder lightening and sheeting rain. We teachers picked up our various children’s clothes called to the children and dashed for the school. My great problem was that no one knew whose vest was who’s. We spent an age trying to sort the whole mess out. The children were getting more and more worried and myself more and more irate. Finally a small boy called Andrew Burton asked if he could go to the toilet. He opened the door of the classroom, which led into the hall to be met by a sheet of water. He rushed over to me and said white-faced Miss the hall is flooded and I can’t swim. While we had been occupied sorting out our clothing, water had rushed down the yard at the back and poured into the hall. I had to carry them all out. I hasten to add none were in danger of drowning. We got the children off home and then started the awful task of sweeping out the water.
Sports Day of course came in the summer term. I seem to remember we had two “Houses” competing for a cup. The houses were Davis and Pollard. Davis was named after a local farming family who earlier in the century lived at Rectory Manor. The Pollards had once lived at Highdown. In those days there were two wonderful elm trees on the field where the sports were held. We often clustered underneath them on some sports days to shelter from the showers. They were usually happy occasions when the children competed fiercely for the cup.
The older children all had their own gardens on a small patch of flat land behind the Methodist Chapel. There was one plot between two. It was quite surprising what the children grew and proudly took home to their Mothers to be cooked. Often on summer afternoons I took my class down with their reading books. They were supposed to be practising their reading but frequently lay chewing grass while watching their older brothers and sisters gardening.
The end of my probationary year came very quickly and luckily all went well and I was told I had passed. I decided to stay at Pirton School for another year. Seventeen years later I was still there enjoying every minute of teaching at the school.
The head teacher told me long after she had retired, an old boy of the school had called to see her at her home in Stevenage. She had been a very strict disciplinarian and this particular boy had been a problem. He was so pleased to see her and she him and asked if she still had the cane she had used to punish him. Alas she did not, but it caused much merriment between them. He and his wife were invited in for tea and they parted very affectionately. He was on holiday from Australia.
In the summer the travellers came to Pirton for the pea picking or peasing as it was known locally. I have in my cottage a peasing stool given to me by Ethel Jarvis. One year one family stayed behind in Pirton when the others went. There was Gran Queenie and Charlie. Charlie was of school age so he came into my class bringing with him a delightful smell of wood smoke. The family lived down Hambridge Way. One autumn day Gran invited me to take my class down to see them I remember sitting on the steps of their caravan while Charlies proudly showed his classmates around. I was a delightful episode and one I shall never forget. We took them to our hearts. Mums and children helping them out with various items that they lacked.
One very cold winter I think it was actually in the 1960s, Pirton was cut off from the outside world for a short time. The head with whom I by then travelled from Stevenage by car had made a vow to the governors that whatever the weather she would be at school. I think that they had tried to get her to live n Pirton when she was appointed. She preferred to live in Stevenage with her parents. On this particular snowy morning she rang to say we would catch the train to Hitchin and then walk to Pirton. It was a very long walk in very deep snow. As we neared the village the men were just digging a way out. We weren’t capable of doing much teaching that day. We stayed in the village for several nights. I was with Ethel the school cook and the Head with Maud and Arthur Walker at Hill Farm.
During the early years of my being at Pirton we ran the County Library. The books were kept in a cupboard in the hall. On the designated day after school the people arrived to change their books. It was a good way for me to get to know people who were not parents.
In the spring term the 11+ examination was taken. There were several papers and the results determined the school to which the pupils went when they moved into Hitchin. There was a general knowledge paper as well as arithmetic and English. The children taking the exam were closeted into the head’s room to sit in complete silence for the morning. Woe betide anyone who made a sound or went near the room. The status of the school was much enhanced by the number of pupils who passed. There was much competition for places. Pirton School always did very well.
It was with great sadness that I left Pirton School in 1972. I thought I should never find another school so delightful. I did of course, in rural Shropshire. Pirton School and all those wonderful children I taught will always have a special place in my heart and memory.