My first day at school was marred by the fact that it was none too warm and my mother decreed that I should wear an overcoat. My sister and I had matching coats which mother had made for us on her trusty hand operated “Jones” sewing machine. Trouble was I had either grown out of mine, lost buttons or dirtied it. Whatever the reason, mother decreed that I could not wear it but would have to wear my sister’s instead.
Oh, the ignominy of it! Here was I, a five year old setting out in the world being required to wear a GIRL’S coat! Every other five year old within visible range would instantly observe that it BUTTONED ON THE WRONG SIDE and I would be forever condemned as a ‘sissy’. (A very serious matter in Liverpool – akin to a married man pushing a pram!)
Naturally, I fought and resisted all the way to the school and was dragged bodily into the infants Assembly Hall at Northway Primary School, where we sat on tables, (low for adults but a pretty good size for five year olds) to listen to the introductory address from Mr. Gauld the Head master, and to meet our teachers.
Luckily for me my teacher, Miss Walls, thought that my demeanour indicated a reluctance to be parted from my mother and invited me to take off my coat, put it in the cloakroom and join her in the classroom. She may have been perplexed by the speed with which I accepted her offer and shed the hateful coat, parted from my mother (who right at that time was not my flavour of the month) and whizzed into the classroom, where slated, little blackboards and blocks abounded. By the time lunchtime came and mother collected me, I had forgotten the distress of my arrival at school and looked forward to lunch and the joys of learning to write the letter ”A”.
School meals had not yet been introduced, hence the departure at lunch time for home and fodder. I must give my mother full marks here as she desisted from picking me up from school quite early in the piece. There were other small boys and girls from my own and nearby streets with whom I had made friends, and it was much more exciting to go home with them than with a parent.
The area of land on which the school was built had been excised from a park, which boasted a SET OF SWINGS! It should have been known as ‘suicide alley’, as the monkey bars, the chains on the Maypole and a huge bench swing (which could accommodate anything up to ten brats at a time, were all-conducive to sudden death or serious injury. But there again, there is a special God who looks after children (and maybe drunks in later life) and protects them from the idiocy of the adults who devised these murderous swings. At the time however, it was out idea of paradise, as we all tried to outdo each other in crazy risks.
I must also mention ‘School milk’. The Education Department of the Liverpool City Council considered, often quite correctly, that the diet of some pupils lacked calcium and other essentials, so they nobly instituted a system under which every child received a small bottle of milk each morning. The bottle measured a ‘gill’ about 100mls or so.
The janitor delivered the milk to the junior classes, while the older ones had to fetch their own from the delivery point at the front door. (This was also a good method of measuring class size, for a full crate contained 30 bottles. If the class size was over 30 an appropriate extra number of bottles would be placed on top).
Each bottle had a wide necked top with a waxed cardboard lid sealing it. The centre could be punched out to provide access for a straw. Now comes the exciting part. Two children from each class were appointed as ‘Milk monitor’ and ‘Straw monitor’. They handed out the milk and straws to each child. Simple? Not on your life! If the milk monitor didn’t like you he/she would make sure that you got the warmest one and also would shake the bottle (destroying the cream layer). If this wasn’t enough the Straw monitor would select for you the finest straw in the box – Yes, they were natural straws cut into standard 9” (225mms) lengths from the harvested wheat stems – and sucking up milk with a 3mm diameter straw was a near impossibility! Straws of greater diameter allowed for easy drinking, while those of the largest bore could be used later as blowpipes for dried peas, rice or other similarly hard ammunition.
Having mastered the alphabet(?) we graduated to grade one readers – cards with words like bad, cat, sit etc; The centre vowel was on a sliding strip so that other words could be composed with the same consonants. These words we were occasionally required to transpose onto slated with a metal stylus, or to our miniature blackboards with chalk. Why we were not reduced to nervous wrecks by the hideous screeching of those styli I do not know. They were phased out very soon after.
We also recited the mathematical tables and thus obtained our grounding fro the management of business or occupation in the future. Whether or not this is the best form of education I do not know, but as I recall it there were no illiterates among those children.
I won my first (and only) school prize in Grade 3. The teacher Miss Nish offered a prize for the best poem recited before the class. My view then was that there were a number of clever girls in the class who would take some beating so I opted for a four verse poem whose subject has left my mind completely. I was therefore both surprised and gratified to discover that the opposition seemed to comprise largely “There was a young man …..” , although one intriguing entry read: “That that is, is. That that is not, is not”. Pretty profound stuff for seven year olds. However, my effort carried the day and I think that I regarded by education as complete, having won a prize.
It was in this year of 1935 that King George V and Queen Mary celebrated their Silver Jubilee. This notable event was marked at Northway School by a party at which each child was issued with a jelly in a small mould, a cup cake and a jigsaw puzzle of the Silver Jubilee procession.
This presentation was preceded by issue of a medal (stamped aluminium) given to all the school children on both sides of the River Mersey to commemorate the opening of the Mersey tunnel in 1934. The opening was officially carried out by the King, George V, who made a special visit to Liverpool with Queen Mary, for that purpose. Children were mustered in the square at the Liverpool entrance to the tunnel and the adjoining streets through which the Royal entourage passed. Our vantage point was in William Brown Street, more or less behind St. George’s Hall and we did see them in passing. This was apparently quite an event for the older people who still had that admiration and respect for the Royal family peculiar to the British. The Royal Family was not given to making forays into distant parts of the realm, so a Royal visit was deemed to be an event of great importance.
To digress still further, it is said that when the then Prince of Wales visited Newcastle on Tyne, late in the 19th century, possibly to attend the launching of new ship for the Navy, he was fare welled at Newcastle railway station by a large banner which read, “COME AGAIN AND BRING YOUR MOTHER!” Rumour has it that the Queen was not amused.
Our main joy came from a day or half off school.
It also has been said, uncharitably, that the Mersey Tunnel was built by Irish immigrants who took one look at Liverpool and started to dig their way home.
The building of the tunnel under the River Mersey connected Liverpool and Birkenhead and proved a godsend to commercial road transport operators. Prior to the opening of the Tunnel, all cross river traffic was by way of ferries. The Mersey ferries operated from floating pontoons because the river level rose and fell as much as 20 feet (6 metres) each tide. At high tide the roadway connecting the land and the pontoon could be horizontal, while at low it would be quite a steep incline.
The Pier Head in Liverpool where these ferries berthed was one of the most wondrous places for small boys. There was thrill of seeing large passenger liners alongside the stage prior to departure for distant lands, the joy of a ride across the river on a passenger ferry. Family trips to the Wirral peninsula to visit mother’s friends were always exciting as they involved the additional joy of crossing the river as well as the tram journey on the Liverpool side and the bus to Prenton on the Wirral side.
Add the bustle and noise as the vehicular ferries loaded their decks. The horse drawn drays would try to arrive at high tide, as it was hazard enough for the horses to cross onto the ferry on the level roadway, especially if the ferry was bobbing about. Trucks of every shape and size abounded down there – Stanley Steamers, solid tyred Fodiens, motor cars of all shapes and sizes. The ferries did stay in operation for sometime after the tunnel opening to cater for those which were not permitted to use the tunnel – horse drawn and other slow moving types. Strangely enough, cycling through the tunnel was permitted.
Grade 5 was conducted by a Mr. Jones who was easily swayed from the mundane sums, spelling and writing by request to “Tell us about the War sir”, whereupon he would launch into tales of how he had beaten the Germans single handed, despite being shot, gassed and blown up on numerous occasions between 1914 and 1918.
I don’t think he imparted any knowledge to us during that year but it was a most enjoyable period.
Going to school in winter has its pleasant aspects as well as its unpleasant ones.
Probably the worst aspect was that of the wet, frozen hem of a raincoat lashing the backs of the lower legs and knees until they were red raw.
There was no transition to long trousers for boys until 13 or 14 years of age. “Jeans” were strictly “dungarees” and limited to those engaged upon arduous physical outdoor work.
On the plus side was the ability of children to create slides on the roadways leading to school and on the paved area of the schoolyard. This later had a slight slope on it so that the slider could quickly work up great speed on the downhill run. On a typical winter morning in 1934-7, between home and school, one might be passed by two or three motor vehicles, so that the children had ample opportunity to create their slides on the roadways, between vehicles. If the road camber did strange things for the sliders, it was hell for the poor drivers, who would find their vehicles doing all sorts of odd things. The kids would happily pushed them back into main roadway if they slid off to one side or the other.
Another great feature of the year was Empire Day. I think it was celebrated in May, for my recollection of it was always a fine day, culminating in the AFTERNOON OFF! What was it for what did it signify? Probably some form of self-adulation about the extent of the EMPAH. Be that as it may, all the children came to school that day in their various uniforms. In those happy days nearly every child over the age of seven belonged to the Wolf Cubs, Brownies, Boys Brigade, Girls Brigade, or what have you.
The object of the exercise was to celebrate the Day, showing our various allegiances to patriotic organisations.
In really what happened was that the various groups got together and then derided each other to the point where pitched battles and open violence were averted only by the call to the refreshment tables, where ammunition (food) could be obtained for hurling at the opposition. Surely Lord Baden Powell never intended that his organisation would conflict with other British institutions for the betterment of youth. (Sad to think that in the year 2003 these organisations were sadly in serious decline – the activities and training they offered not being to the liking of modern youth).
Sports or even exercise did not figure prominently in the curriculum until the later Grades, but there was an efficient system of medical examination and treatment available under a School Health Program.
Children in Municipal school were examined periodically and if necessary, given or referred for treatment for different disorders.
Mastitis, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever and other diseases designed to afflict children were still about although the bad ones such as small pox and typhoid had been largely eliminated.
Dental health was a primary concern and a dental clinic had been established above the shops on Northway opposite the school.
Having had a medical at school, I was given a referral to dental clinic for some attention to alleged dental problems.
Whether or not my teeth were in need of attention I know not. Mother was always careful to ensure that we cleaned them regularly with Gibbs Dentifrice, which came in a flat tin and resembled a block of jewellers rouge. It probably had the same effect as rouge on the tooth surfaces.
Anyway, after having my teeth examined I was informed that some extractions were necessary. As I still had a full set at the time of writing (my seventy fifth year) the decision must have been to remove a number of my first teeth. Whether this was to give trainee dentists practice or to assist the arrival of my second teeth I cannot say, but it was announced that five should be removed.
The appointed day arrived and I was escorted to the surgery, put to sleep and the offending gnashers were removed, all for a cost of two shillings and sixpence which works out at five cents a tooth! Try telling that to your dentist today! Even the tooth fairy would have difficulty with that!
Anyway it seemed very reasonable to me and I thought that there had to be a reason for the price. The subject came up some time later when mother was entertaining visitors, who received the information that I had five teeth removed under anaesthetic for 25 cents. I felt obliged to qualify the cost by suggesting that being a Government service they, the dentists, had used ‘cheap gas’. It was a longer time still before I realised what had caused the hilarity on the part of the listeners.
Return to school after the summer holidays meant a new class in a higher grade and an exchange of stories of the adventures of summer.
Grade 6 was under the tutelage of a Mr Parsons whose main claim to fame was as a cricket coach. He delighted in bowling spin to terrified youngsters who retreated from the batting crease as fast as he approached the other end.
This was also the year on INK. If you were lucky your desk would have two inkwells and you could have one of blue ink and one of red. Nib holders were gripped tightly and gradually the fingers of the writing hand would become covered in ink. A good nib was something to be treasured as it made for easier and neater writing. Tragedy was represented by a pen falling from the desk onto the floor NIB FIRST! I suppose we should have been grateful that we missed the era of quill pens, although we made a fair hand of blobs and smears with our ink pens. I happened to be left handed and thus had to write in an inverted fashion to avoid smudging my work. A piece of blotting paper could become a treasured possession.
That year also marked my entry into school sports. I was at least game to try my hand at soccer – literally. I spent a good deal of time as goal keeper. Playing soccer necessitated the purchase of a pair of football boots. They were a monstrous affair of hard leather uppers, studded soles and reinforced toe caps. They gave ball a satisfactory whack and could have proved lethal in any contact with an opponent’s head or torso. They had to be regularly larded with “Dubbin” to soften them up but I always finished every game with great blisters around the ankle where the top of the boots had chafed. My other memory of soccer is playing with a partially deflated ball because nobody had a bicycle pump. Catching a spongy ball and clearing it away from the goal mouth was not always an easy task. Getting to and from games was at the individuals personal discretion and there was always the chance that someone had lost his way to an ‘away’ venue. Only when mustered on the field for the start could one be sure that there was a full team. After all, in those days it was only a game!
Another of the joys of Grade 6 was swimming lessons, conducted at the Picton Road Baths. This was a dreadful building constructed in the early part of the 19th century. It housed a single 25 metre pool, with changing cubicles around the sides. Mixed bathing was not permitted in the 1930’s. so classes for boys and girls were conducted on separate days. If one forgot one’s bathing costume or did not possess one, it was possible to hire what was known as a ‘slip’ and a towel for a penny. The slip consisted of a starched linen thing shaped like a baby’s nappy, tied at the side with strings. The towel was of a similar fabric, more like a lined tea towel than anything else. It was just as well that mixed bathing was not permitted as those ‘slips’ often finished up on the bottom of the pool, as small boys raced to dry themselves at the end of the session.
Grade 7 was scholarship year and spent under the guidance of Mr Barber. There was great emphasis on the content of the subjects in which we would be tested in the forthcoming scholarship examinations. We children were required to complete forms for the scholarship examiners, including our preferences for High School. I think my mother thought that I would opt for the Holt High School as being the nearest to home, but that was third on my list after the Liverpool Institute and the Collegiate. I can still recollect the day of the Scholarship examination quite clearly. It was in the summer of 1939 and held at the Holt High School on Queens Drive. One arrived with pen, spare nib, pencil, ruler and India rubber (eraser was not an English word!) and followed the signs to the examination room.
After the examination, we attended a school camp at Colwyn Bay, North Wales where
Mr Barber gently teased from us an idea of how we had fared in the exam. He was interested to know whether his approach to preparing us for that great event had been successful.
The camp also elicited other things. The majority of us boys had camped before and were armed with sleeping bags and so forth. One poor wretch had been sent off with an inflatable mattress, pillow and blankets and took up about half the available tent space. Fortunately, he spent the first night crying for his mother and departed the next day, so the remainder could spread out.
We were camped in a meadow above the town of Colwyn Bay and could see over the rooftops to the waters of Liverpool Bay, part of the Irish Sea. At the bottom of the meadow was a ramshackle building where two hardened gentlemen prepared tripe from the raw material. The cow’s innards were delivered to them in the morning and they spent the day cleaning them from a dreadful greenish colour to a pristine whiteness. Having witnessed that process I have never been able to face tripe as comestible. Our days were spent on the beach or in the sea, with occasional forays to the nearby shops for extra delights. I remember choosing a Lyons Cherry pie and mentally drooling in anticipation of the joys of consuming it back at camp. Unfortunately, I dropped it climbing over the style to gain access to our meadow and never got the chance again to taste one.
My last few weeks at primary school were spent largely in doing errands for Mr Barber who rostered all his class for ‘outings’ of this sort. It was great fun to be out and about during school hours.
A sign of things to come appeared during this year (1938/39) when materials for a class project dried up! Little did we realise just what items would be in short supply or unobtainable in the ensuing years of the Second World War.
Before the end of that school year too, gas masks and Anderson air raid shelters made their appearance.
(The issue of Anderson Air Raid Shelters revealed something of the Englishman’s best kept secret – his income. Steel fabricated Anderson shelters were issued free to any family whose income was less than five pounds sterling per week. Five pounds a week was pretty good in 1939, but it was amazing just how many people claimed that they had bought their shelter, as their income was above the five pound bench mark).
My dear father’s income as a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy, was set at £21 per month and thus we did not qualify for an Anderson Shelter. Mother had to shop around for a bargain in air raid shelters and finished up with a concrete structure which of itself was probably far more dangerous than the bombing it was to protect us from.
Thus in the summer of July 1939 my primary education at Northway School ended and I learned that my first choice of High School had been successful. I was to attend the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys from the start of the 1939/40 school year.