My Memories of Meldreth Primary School in the 1940s
As I was born on November 2nd 1938, I suppose I must have started going to school in 1943*. My first recollection of school was the day that I accompanied my mother to visit this large building and converse with the head teacher who I understand, may have been a Miss Butler. I imagine that I was being ‘booked in’ and details were being finalised for my first day. As I stood nervously in the room, it was the chairs placed on top of the tables which caught my gaze. Being only a small child, I considered this to be a very odd thing to do, and wondered why?
There was no school uniform in those days, you came to school in whatever came to hand. You had to make your clothes last as long as possible, as material was scarce during the war years. Your mother had to darn, patch, and mend, as much as she could.
My first few years were in the class run by Miss Pearce, an older lady who lived in a detached house in Whaddon. Placed against one wall of the classroom, we had a cupboard which was divided into compartments known as ‘pigeon-holes’. Each child was allocated a ‘pigeon-hole’ into which they would place their books and pencils at the end of the day.
I do recall that early on we used a chalk and slate to write on, but that was only for a short period. Our usual implements were pencils, and nibbed pens with an ink pot fitted into a hole at the front of the table, commonly known as an inkwell. We were also issued with blotting paper to soak up excess ink from the sheet of paper after we had finished writing. Needless to say, we often managed to spill some down our shirts or blouses.
The blackboard was a heavy piece of wood, about four feet by four feet, and supported on an easel by two wooded pegs. It was painted, as the name suggests, in a matt black paint. The blackboard was used quite a lot by the teacher to provide a visual aid when giving instruction. She would often become covered in a cloud of chalk dust when briskly cleaning it with the ‘duster’ provided.
In the corner of each classroom was an open fire, which would throw out a considerable amount of heat when stoked up with the appropriate amount of coke.
Being quite large rooms, heat distribution was not on a linear scale and dropped off sharply towards the back of the room, consequently children at the back were lukewarm whilst those at the front were positively cooking.
I remember that a high point in my early school days, was that of being able to spell my first long word. Looking back, ‘Mississippi’, which only has four different letters in it, could not be described as difficult by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless a very proud moment for me.
The Playground and School Grounds
The playground at the back of the school, was partitioned with a three foot iron fence, which was necessary to keep the ‘tots’ from the more boisterous older children.
Across the playground were the toilets, which, during the summer months were visited more often, as an excuse to escape from the classroom to stretch one’s legs. In the winter months, visits to these very draughty and cold cubicles was left until the very last minute, when the crisis point had been reached.
Beyond the playgrounds was an area of ground which had been divided into plots of land of about five or six square feet. Each child from the upper class, was designated one of the said plots, which were then used in a vain attempt to introduce these older children to the noble art of gardening. No doubt during the summer months, parents were proudly presented at intermittent intervals, with a variety of oddly shaped vegetables, which would no doubt have been a valued addition to the families’ diets.
In one corner of the older children’s playground there was a heap of coke. To collect your ball from the top of this heap required you to climb up this loosely stacked and dusty material. This being the case, it requires little imagination to realise that after the said ball had been retrieved you would now be guaranteed a severe reprimand by your mother for the filthy condition of your feet and socks.
Playground Games and Sport
Recollections of Physical Education being part of the curriculum are scant, but we were required, on occasions, to do some jumping up and down and waving one’s arms in the air, running about, and stretching up against a wall. Nothing very exciting.
In the summer months, a few of the boys played cricket in the field which was adjacent to the school. Obtaining access to this field was gained by climbing over the five foot iron fence. This in itself was no mean achievement. One had to use the angled iron support to stand on before you could reach the top of the fence. Having done so, you then had to place both of your feet between the looped top vertical rails. Having gained your balance, it was important that you quickly jumped into the field and lifted both feet clear of the fence otherwise a painful injury was imminent. There was the odd occasion when some unfortunate’s shoes were a tight fit between the rails, and the aforementioned injury did occur, but you quickly learnt from these mishaps. The cricket team selection process was what you would call, ‘The Pecking Order’ process. Those who thought that they were perched at the top did the team selection. The usual participants were as follows: Alan Chamberlain, Stan Pateman, Peter Oakman, Robert Webb, Michael Hunt, Orton Radford, Bryn Jones, John Salmon, and myself. There may have been one or two others, but I’m uncertain. With teams restricted to only four or so players, the following scenario becomes rather farcical. One team would consist of a bowler, a wicket keeper, and just two fielders. I think that we only played in one direction. The other team would have two batting, and I imagine that the other two team members just stood around waiting for one of their colleagues to succumb. When given out, he would then revert to the standing around position. I would think that these games would have been continued over several break periods, but as to any record being kept as to who was ‘out’ or ‘in’, or what the score was, I leave to speculation. I also believe that there was another version played whereby we all took turns at batting and bowling, and the one with the highest score became top dog. Of course the usual pecking order system would decide as to who batted or bowled first.
We did play other games such as Mr Wolf. One child stood facing the wall whilst other children crept up behind and asked, “What’s the time Mr Wolf”. Mr Wolf would answer, “Ten o-clock”. After repeating this a few times, Mr Wolf would suddenly announce it was, “Dinner Time”, and proceed to catch one of the children for dinner. Another game which was a particular favourite was “British Bulldog”. This would start with all the children on one side of the playground, and one solitary child in the middle. As the children ran across, the lone child would endeavour to catch one and lift them up and shout, ”British Bulldog”. This would be repeated until all of the children, except one, was in the middle. Needless to say, he or she was soon caught. It was a game with lots of noise and energy, but huge amounts of fun.
We boys did, on occasions, join in with the girls to indulge in a spot of skipping. We didn’t reach a very high standard, so were therefore considered by the girls as more of a nuisance than participants.
The School Day
It seems strange, but I cannot remember much about the lessons which were given at school, but I know that we were given lessons in the three ‘R’s’. One lesson given by a trainee student teacher, did, to some extent, stay within the confines of my brain. He gave us an interesting lecture on nature, and did a very detailed drawing on the blackboard of a fly, which impressed me no end.
I cannot remember us having an assembly on a regular basis. I can recall standing in rows and singing a hymn such as ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’, accompanied by one of our teachers on the piano, and afterwards reciting the Lords Prayer, but that’s about it I’m afraid.
Being a small child did have a number of drawbacks, and being unable to tell the time, was one of them. Time was judged on when certain things happened, and when these arrangements were changed, you were in trouble. On one occasion early on, I decided to surprise my mother by arriving home at a somewhat odd hour of the day. She was hanging out some washing, in the middle of the morning, when I appeared expecting to have some dinner. After some investigation, it appeared that the milk had been delivered an hour or so ahead of schedule, and the milk delivery was when I judged it time to pop home for some dinner. Needless to say, I was unceremoniously dragged back to school, and a suitable explanation given by my mother regarding my sudden disappearance.
Another memory is that of our musical interludes, usually after an afternoon break. It was quickly learnt that if one behaved oneself one stood a good chance of being able to select the drums, as one’s chosen instrument. I believe that we had two small drums, a few tambourines, some small bells mounted on a piece of wood, (the sort that Morris Dancers use) one or two pairs of hand cymbals, and a few triangles. The music, I think, was draped over a blackboard at the front of the class, and was colour coded. Each musical instrument was given a particular colour so that each section could make an appropriate noise at the right time. Bearing in mind that each of these instruments could only produce one note, the only indication that we were actually playing a tune was from the piano-forte operated by the teacher. To be honest, being kids, I think we all just enjoyed making a lot of noise. I suppose there was a small chance that one or two of us could have evolved as a percussionist.
Punishment was not a regular occurrence, but when appropriate, was usually administered by the application of a ruler being brought sharply down onto a trembling outstretched hand. This caused considerable pain but left no evidence that the said hand had been violated. In an attempt to frustrate this practice, a number of the said rulers were removed from circulation by some of the older boys and hidden in a drainpipe in the ditch which ran along the side of the school. It hadn’t occurred to them that the supply outstripped the losses by a comfortable margin.
There was a moment in time of which I’m not very proud of. It was the day that I was rude to my teacher Miss Pearce. Why I did it I have no idea, but perhaps it was because it made me feel big in some way, spotting the giggling that was going on around me. After I had calmed down, Miss Pearce called me out to the front of the class and sat me on her knee. She spoke to me in a gentle manner and pointed out that what I had just done wasn’t at all funny. I promised not to do it again, and said I was sorry. Although she was a strict teacher, she often used diplomacy rather that the dreaded ruler.
Whilst I’m on the subject of milk, I remember that it was not always brought inside when delivered, but left in the hot sun for some time before it was given to us. I’m not wishing to overstate the situation which greeted us on these occasions, but the milk was definitely ‘off’, to say the least. Of course the reverse was the case in winter. After you had prized off the cardboard lid with your fingers, you were presented with very cold milk and slivers of ice floating inside.I believe it was at this time, after the war, that the new government introduced school dinners. Lacking cooking facilities at most village schools, suitable arrangements were made at Melbourn School for meals to be cooked in bulk ready for transportation to several schools in the area. It was at this point – if my memory serves me correctly – that Archie Hales’ small grey van was pressed into service. It was soon realised that by the time this slow moving vehicle had meandered around numerous miles of countryside, and the doors opened frequently for unloading at several village schools, the remaining trays of food for Meldreth were in urgent need of a hot oven. To overcome this dilemma, a small kitchen was hastily build onto the rear of the school building, and I think projected out into the playground adjacent to the cycle shed.
Another facility which the new Labour Government introduced, was a mobile dentist. The vehicle would be parked in the playground for a couple of days or so, in order that parents could make full use of this free service for their children.
Another activity which we engaged in, and probably would be categorised as ‘musical movement’, was that of Maypole Dancing. This odd looking contraption would be dragged out from the corner of the activity room (this was the rear classroom on the left) and placed in the centre. The ribbons were unfurled and each child would hold one delicately in their hand. After some instruction was given by the teacher as to which children would go in what direction, and what path they were to take, the teacher took up her position at the piano. On the nod of her head she would strike up a suitable jaunty refrain to which the children would hop and skip in a zig-zag pattern, in opposite directions, and in ever decreasing circles until they ran out of ribbon. At this point they would stand for a few moments to admire their achievement before they performed the whole performance over again, but this time in reverse. Enjoyable and very creative.
There was a period of time when a very friendly elderly man, would often greet us children at the school gates, and proceed to distribute a large bag of sweets amongst us. We all called him Uncle Joe. His full name was Joe Cox, and he lived in a timber framed house on the opposite side of the road to the school, on the Ellis estate, about 30 yards, or so towards the station. You would probably get arrested if you did that today!
When I was around eight or nine years old, I was elevated into the seniors. The teacher was Miss Broughton, and her task was to prepare us for our final move to the Secondary Modern School at Melbourn, at the tender age of eleven. (1949)
I cannot remember us going out to visit museums or such like, but I do recall paying a visit to Meldreth Church on one occasion, for a lesson on history. I think that the outing was arranged by one of the trainee teachers.
We didn’t perform in any sort of dramatic offerings on stage. Our parents were deprived of that experience. However, I did have a flourishing acting and singing career, performing to packed audiences at the old village hall, on several occasions during my youth; but that’s another story.
The Highlight of My Years at Meldreth School?
Well, so much for my memories of my school days at Meldreth School. At that time in my life, like many others, I wasn’t considered to be much of an academic, and as such didn’t obtain any certificates to justify my years there. My talents, if that is what they are, were to surface much later in my life. But looking through some old books recently, I came across one which must have been a highlight of my years at Meldreth.
The book was a entitled, “A Romany on the Trail” written by ‘The Romany of the B.B.C.G. Bramwell Evens’. It had been purchased at Messrs Warren Bros. & Cooke Ltd of High Street Royston.
On the first page a decorative label had been stuck, with the following inscription:
Awarded to Brian Pepper
I think that this was my one and only prize received whilst at Meldreth School.
One day I might get around to actually reading it.
*Brian attended the school from 6 January 1944 to 29 July 1949, when he left to attend Melbourn School.