Primary School Days

Some Memories of Hessle C. of E. Infants School

Jose Barnes

Some time ago there was an article in the Hull Daily Mail about Miss Ada Hartley who had taught at Hessle Church of England Infants School and become the headmistress in 1937. It reminded me of an unusual incident that occurred to me while I was in Mrs Wakefield’s class. One day there was a lot of activity on the far side of the room, things being carried out of the big desk there. An empty drawer from the desk was given to me, I was told to take it into the playground and wash it, then stand it up in the sunshine to dry. I had no idea of what I was doing and probably the drawer was no better for my water-play, but I did enjoy myself. Chiefly I remember thinking how big the playground was with no one else in it. What would the Health and Safety people think about sending a four- or five-year-old alone into an empty playground which was easily accessible from the road? I assume this happened at the end of the summer term when Miss Stead left and Miss Hartley was about to take over.

Other memories come to mind. One day some small coloured cardboard discs appeared on our desks. Later I discovered they were counters and were to be used to help us with sums. Perhaps I had been absent or day-dreaming when this was explained, but at the time I didn’t know what they were for and turned round to ask Geoffrey Dry who sat behind me. A sharp tap on my knuckles with a ruler reminded me turning round was forbidden! Sometimes the girls had knitting to do while the boys did something with raffia. I could just do plain knitting having been shown at home. We went to a large cardboard box and picked up a piece of knitting; I think the wool was brown. We had to leave it half-way through a line, presumably so that the needles did not get lost. On one occasion, I picked up the knitting with the needles the wrong way round, so of course the stitches would not slide off the needle. For a time I struggled but then, greatly daring, crept to the box to change it. I did not like knitting.

I remember having a problem with reading too. Sometimes, perhaps when Miss Stead was checking our progress, we were given some special books in an unpleasant yellowish colour. Each child had to read a word in turn. I leaned forward to count the children in the row before me and then the words to find the one I would have to read. It didn’t work because someone would make a mistake and have to do more. I dreaded getting the word ‘the’ which I could not remember, it seemed so useless and unimportant. At home one day I asked what it was; after my brother’s scornful reply I never forgot it and reading became less of a trial. Why didn’t I ask at school? Throughout the Infants School and most of the Juniors I never thought of asking a question or hearing anyone else do so.

Listening-in to grown-ups talking I heard that Mrs Wakefield had been called Bearpark before her marriage and her family owned the shop on the Weir, selling antiques. Although antiques were old things and Mrs Wakefield seemed old, I never saw her in the shop window. Another puzzle I never asked about.

Before Mrs Wakefield’s class I had been in Miss Sonley’s class. Her room was long and narrow with a huge fireplace across one end. Just as the fire became interesting to watch with the flames dancing and crackling, a man would come in and deaden it with shovels of coal. Most of the heat seemed to get lost behind the enormous fireguard. On wet and snowy days the smell of drying woollen gloves and scarves pervaded the room as Miss Sonley allowed us to put them on the fireguard. No health and safety rules then. Miss Sonley was gentle and kind, very good at telling stories. Every morning we had a Bible story, there was no hall and no school assembly, and every evening before home time she told other stories. I remember Snow White being serialized and feeling impatient for the next instalment. But there were times when Miss Sonley could be firm. Once I had apparently answered a question wrongly and was told to stay in after school until I answered properly. What did stay in mean? I wondered. Suppose I couldn’t answer properly, how long would I stay in, would I miss my tea or stay all night? When the bell rang and everyone else began filing out, in fear and trembling I approached her desk. The question was very easy and I was dismissed before the last child had left the classroom. One day I discovered humming, except that I didn’t know what it was called or that anyone else could hear it. When Miss Sonley ordered whoever was humming to stop, I wondered if I was humming. To find out I did it again – and so learnt a new word.

I learnt several useful lessons in Mrs Bicknell’s class. One was that GOOD MANNERS were very important and consisted of boys raising their caps when meeting an adult they knew and all children giving up their seats on buses to grown-ups. Another lesson was that she did not always mean exactly what she said. Once when no one could give a satisfactory answer, she exclaimed, ‘Put your thinking caps on’. Puzzled, along with others. I mimed putting a hat on ... I did learn to tell the time though. One day, while waiting in a queue at her desk to have a book marked, Mrs Bicknell told me to go to the door into Mrs Wakefield’s room, look through the glass at the clock and tell her the time. Then immediately she added, ‘Oh no, you can’t tell the time’, and she sent someone else. How did SHE know I couldn’t tell the time? For some reason this made me feel very angry and determined to prove her wrong. At dinner time I marched home, planted myself in front of the clock and learnt to tell the time, returning to school triumphantly determined to exhibit my newly found skill. Of course, no such opportunity arose.

Miss Ballard’s class was different; the room seemed lighter and the atmosphere was relaxed. My seat was at the back opposite the door so I had a good view of all that went on in the corridor. Behind me was the door into Miss Briggs’ room and again I had a good view of things that did not concern me; this door was the only way into Miss Briggs’ room and so was often opened. Writing is what I remember; we were shown how to hold a pencil and how to draw each letter so that it was left ready to join on to the next one. Best of all, we were given books with the pages ruled with red and blue lines; the small shapes fitted between the red lines and the sticks and tails had to reach the blue lines above and below. Suddenly writing was easy and enjoyable. It was also interesting to discover that a few children were left-handed and were given extra help. I understood how necessary this was when I tried to write left-handed. Years later, when I had to teach eight- and nine-year-olds how to do ‘joined up’ writing, I thought back to Miss Ballard’s lessons and wished I could thank her.

Miss Briggs had the TOP class and although she was strict she was fair and we were happy. One day we were told that now we had to call her Mrs Wise. It seemed very amusing that a teacher should be called Wise and she was soon proved to be well named. Before leaving in the afternoon it was customary to stand and with ‘hands together, eyes closed’ say a prayer. One day a boy triumphantly told Mrs Wise that a boy on the opposite side of the room had NOT CLOSED HIS EYES during the prayer. As I waited with bated breath for the roof to fall in and a thunderbolt strike the wrongdoer, I was startled to hear Mrs Wise laughing as she pointed out that the tell-tale must have had his eyes open too. Perhaps the laughter of the class cured him of telling tales.

I was punished in a very strange way, once, though for what crime I can’t remember. I was told to ask Miss ? (a student teacher sitting at the back of the room) to cross off two of my stars. A star appeared sometimes on a page of written work, less often on a page of sums, but I had no idea of their significance or that they were recorded, thinking they were just extra big ticks, so I was puzzled but quite unconcerned about losing two. Miss ? was busy with a tray of yellowish jelly on which she carefully placed a sheet of paper, then gently rolled a little rolling-pin over it. When she lifted the sheet up it had a picture on it. Intrigued, I watched for a few moments before my attention wandered to a large mark book. Names were listed down the left-hand side with a line of stars opposite each name. The boys with the longest lists were, I think, Geoffrey Dry and Colin Drust, and slightly longer, were mine and that of my friend Connie Lyon. Losing two did not matter, I decided, as they could soon be replaced. About this time we were told we were going to celebrate Empire Day. We learnt the National Anthem – two verses – and had lessons about the British Isles. Hearing that Scotland had been joined to England many years ago, I wondered how countries could be joined together and giggled as I imagined a huge needle and cotton stitching the lands together. We were to make a tableau – a new word which sounded very grand – in which a boy and girl would represent the king and queen and to accompany our rendering of the National Anthem we would have musical instruments. I have no recollection of the finished production, only of the first practice; some desks were pushed together and two chairs balanced on top for the thrones and the king and queen scrambled up to take their places. My friend Connie was the queen and watching her smiling happily and enjoying her moments of glory, I felt pleased to be the queen’s friend. I did not envy her at all, but I did envy Colin, a ginger-haired freckle-faced boy, because he had been given a drum to play while the rest of us got triangles or tambourines. Examining this unusual object and wondering how to make it produce music, another thought came to me; the choice of king and queen was connected to those stars. And perhaps if I had not lost two, it might have been me, perched precariously on a makeshift throne, wearing a cardboard crown with everyone staring up at me. What an escape! Then, I was very thankful to have been ‘punished’ in that strange way. Now, I wonder, was the loss of the stars another example of Mrs Wise living up to her name?

José Barnes