When my Mother was young, far less emphasis was placed on education, especially for girls. Men went out to work and with few exceptions; women stayed at home and became wives and mothers, after a few years toiling in Domestic Service, or working in a shop or office. It was an era, when if a girl wanted a career, such as nurse, teacher, or secretary, she had to remain single or give up her job as soon as she married.
My Mother started school at the age of five, taken there on her first day by a neighbour's slightly older daughter. In those days, parents rarely accompanied their children to school. She remembered apprehensively clutching the older girl's hand during the short walk to school.
My Mother was able to go home for her lunch each day, but some of the children had to walk five miles to get to school and another five miles home. They brought packed lunches, which they ate in the school laundry under the supervision of Mr Gee, the caretaker. During winter, they were allowed to leave early to walk home before darkness fell.
Boys and Girls were strictly segregated and entered through separate gates. Once inside, all the classrooms and the playground were separate.
My Mother was lucky to have a pleasant infants' teacher, as some children were entrusted to the dubious care of a terrifying woman, who kept them in a state of abject terror. She even refused to let five year olds be excused, to use the bathroom, and then punished the luckless victims, by caning their hands, if they had accidents as result.
Two sisters taught at the school, Miss Evelyn and Miss Jenny Birtwistle. My Mother was in Miss Evelyn’s Class for a year and remembers leaning back on the hard wooden bench, propping herself against the desk behind, and daydreaming
Miss Evelyn had a curious robotic way of speaking and jolted my Mother out of her reverie by asking ," Marie- Stubbs, do –you- want -a -cushion?"
Miss Jenny taught singing. The class learned folksongs such as "There was a Lover and his Lass". . She was especially fond of a song which began "There was a tailor and his mouse, hi diddle dumdum feedle. They lived together in one house, hi diddle dumdum feedle."
My Mother thought the song complete nonsense, but together with her classmates gained much amusement from it, as Miss Jenny would stand on a bench, conducting with grandiose gestures more suited to a symphony orchestra. It also amused my Mother, that despite Miss Evelyn and Miss Jenny being prim spinsters, they always wore very low necklines, which revealed a considerable amount of cleavage every time they bent forward!
When my Mother was ten, she'd already reached the top class, which was under the charge of the aptly named Miss Caress, whom she adored. She remembered those years as amongst the happiest of her life and many years later, contacted Miss Caress again, who by now was in her nineties. When she died, she left my Mother a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, which her class had presented to her, which is now a treasured possession of my own.
Miss Caress loved Shakespeare and delighted in teaching her pupils his plays. My Mother played Maria in a classroom production of "Twelfth Night" and could remember her lines for the rest of her life. They also studied, "A Midsummer Night’s Dream “The Merchant of Venice”,” As you Like It” and “Henry V”.
Mum was always quoting such Shakespearian expressions as “Ill met by Moonlight, proud Titania. What, Jealous Oberon. Fairies skip hence!” “ The quality of Mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle dew from Heaven.” “ Sit Jessica; see how the heavens are overlain in patens of bright gold.” “ If Music were the food of love, play on.””What a caterwauling does you keep here?” and” Today is called the feast of Crispian.”
She would then ask me if I knew what came next. I’m sure this helped influence me to study English at college. Despite eventually obtaining a degree, I could never quote as much Shakespeare as my Mother could!
My Mother was proud to win several school prizes, which were always rather dull and worthy books. One was for writing an essay about where bananas came from. She was thrilled to win, as the essay competition was open to all the national schools.
She enjoyed Geography and used to tell me an incident when the school Inspector visited her class, a much-dreaded event. He pointed at a map of the world hanging on the wall, using a long stick, and asked if anyone could identify the country he pointed to .
One girl raised her hand.“ North America, sir,” she said.
“ North Fiddlesticks!” Bellowed the Inspector” Who can tell me the correct answer?”
Another hand was raised.
“Yes?” The Inspector asked impatiently.
“It’s North Fiddlesticks, sir, “said the hapless girl. The class tried to stifle their giggles.
Miss Agnes Perry joined the school to teach French and Drill, which was what Physical Education was called in those days. Drill consisted of the girls standing in rows doing various exercises with their arms. She also tried to create a school hockey team, which was expected to practise after school. Hockey terrified my Mother, who always fled with the excuse that her Mother wanted her run errands after school. French lessons were little more successful, as my Mother could only remember how to count up to ten in the language. Years later, Miss Agnes caused rather a scandal as she left to get married, gave birth to a daughter, and then abandoned her husband to go and live in Spain.
The infants classroom adjoined my Mother’s and she used to hear them chanting "Te huh eh, the ", over and over again. She wondered why “heather” was so important until she realised it was a phonetic way of spelling “ the.”
My Mother always regretted never winning a prize for perfect attendance, as she sometimes had to miss school due to bilious attacks, which were probably an early manifestation of the migraine, which was to plague her for much of her life.
Far worse happened to some of her fellow pupils. One girl developed ringworm in her head. In those days, the only treatment was to shave off all the victims’ hair and treat them with an ultra violet lamp. The girl had to wear a muslin cap for school for many months. The story had a happy ending, though, as when her hair grew back, it was a thick mop of curls, which made her look so pretty, she was chosen as the local May Queen.
One of my Mother’s friends, Ivy Rainer, had the misfortune to trap her finger in a heavy glass door, which severed the tip. She was rushed off to the nearby hospital.
Shortly afterwards, my Mother saw the severed fingertip on the ground. Thinking, it might be needed to cure Ivy, she took it straight to Miss Caress and said ,“Please, Miss here’s Ivy Rainer’s finger.”
Poor Miss Caress nearly fainted.
My Mother would have liked to take a scholarship for the Grammar School, which would have entailed a train journey each day, but her Mother was unhappy about the idea, so she reluctantly had to leave school aged fourteen. She did eventually attend classes at a local college, but that’s another story.