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Monday Memories – Beginnings #5: Learning the Hard Way

Image shows a fairly typical small Victorian school building
Peterchurch Primary School – the original Victorian buuilding. The large schoolroom is on the right, the headmaster’s residence on the left. The grey buildings on the far right are the new village community centre. Image from Geograph

When I started school, in 1947, the statutory school leaving age was 14 and the village school catered for boys and girls from 5 to 14. There were about 60 of us, housed in two rooms. A small room to the rear of the building catered to children up to 8, the large main hall was divided by a heavy blue curtain into classes for 8-11 and 12-14. When the leaving age increased to 15 in 1948, a bright new prefabricatred glass and aluminium building was erected behind the school. This then became the infants (5-7) class and the small room that had been the infants class now became the home of 8-11 year olds. This meant that I and all the children my age remained in the same room for 4 years, although we had a change of teaher half way through the period. Morning assemblies and prayers for everyone took place in the large room.

The building also included the head teacher’s home and a kitchen – we were provided with a hot meal at 1pm every day. All of this meant that the school timetable was the same for everyone: 9am to 3pm with a break of 15 minutes at 11am and an hour for lunch between 1 and 2pm.

Image shows a large Victorian style house with patterned brick frontage to the left and a stone built bow window to the right.
Fairfield House, now Fairfield High School, Peterchurch. Image from Daily Mail

A large house at the edge of the village had been taken over by the government during the war to provide offices for some department or other. Now it was given to the Education Authority in order to create a Secondary Modern school serving the wider area. All children over 11 who had not passed the entrance exam for the High School in Hereford would in future attend this school.

I did pass the entrance exam but travel to Hereford presented a problem and my mother set about investigating alternatives.

Meanwhile life at home continued to be more or less idyllic for my sister and I. There were exceptions. I remember, when I was about 6 and my sister a toddler, how I almost blinded her. Between our coal heap and the hen house there was a clump of nettles. One day I decided that I was going to chop these weeds down. I had seen adults wielding a sickle – an implement called a “bill hook” in that time and place – to undertake such tasks. No such article being available I took what to me was the next best thing which also happened to be nearby – the small tin shovel we used to shovel coal from the pile into a galvanised bucket to take indoors. Swinging the shovel at the nettles with wild abandon I was unaware that my sister’s curiosity had caused her to come close behind me. So it was that the sharp corner of the shovel came into violent contact with the corner of her right eye.

There followed several moments of uproar during which my mother sought both to calm my distraught sister and treat her injury whilst berating me for my stupidity and thoughtlessness.

Image shows a rather ornate white bone china teapot with a large rose pattern on its side.
The teapot I broke might have looked like this one on sale at Amazon

I was guilty of another display of the same stupidity on my mother’s 32 nd birthday, a July day in 1949. Because it was her birthday I thought it would be a good idea to rise early and bring her a cup of tea in bed. And, because it was her birthday, I should make it in her best china teapot. At 7 years old, I knew how to set about making tea – I’d probably done it once or twice before.

A concrete apron at the front of the house was separated from the cobbled yard by a concreted shallow channel that allowed rain water to escape to a drain near the gable end of the house. When making tea it was routine to warm the pot by pouring a small quantity of hot water into it, swirling this around, then throwing the hot water into the channel. Imagine my horror when, whilst performing this operation, my mother’s best china teapot, much heavier than the small brown one I was used to, slipped from my hands and shattered on the concrete.

You must imagine, too, as to my shame I never did until recently, my mother awaking on her 32nd birthday. She has lived in this rural slum of a cottage for more than 7 years now. Her mother has been dead for more than a year. She is alone, her friends and relations all many miles away and mostly unconcerned for her plight, stuck here, miles from any source of solace such as a cinema or a shop where she might purchase something other than the bare essentials for living.

There is only the wireless and her library books for company. She has responsibility for two small children and little money. How has she come to this pass? More to the point, how can she find a way to escape from it? She is 32, half her life is over and there is nothing to look forward to with anything like hopeful anticipation. And then that stupid boy smashes one of her few treasured posessions, a teapot handed down from her grandmother. (Actually, I am being fancifull here – I have no idea of the provenance of the teapot.)

She came for me, still in her nightgown, wielding a stick. I ran. Now imagine my own grief on realising that an attempt to do something good, kind and well meaning had ended in this way. I was destraught.