The late Bob Clarke who was born & bred in Stoke Goldington wrote a series of articles on life in the village in the period between the two World Wars. The second of these essays tells of his childhood. Other stories in this series:
It used to be a well-known saying that school days were the happiest days of your life. I can well imagine that a hardworking farm or manual labourer would believe this in my boyhood. Personally, whilst at school I didn't subscribe to that view.
One of my earliest memories when starting school at the age of four concerned the then headmaster of the village school known as "Jimmy" Stevenson. This particular incident occurred when the infant class teacher was away for some reason. All the class was transferred out of the back room where we normally resided, into the main room along with the senior class that Stevenson taught. During the afternoon a knock on the double doors at the end of the room caused all heads to turn as the Headmaster stalked to the doors. When he opened the door and before he started talking to the visitor he turned to the combined class, probably fifty children, and bellowed "eyes front". Naturally we all obeyed.
He finished his conversation, closed the door and walked straight up to me and boxed my ears! This was in the era when, to prevent the child from swinging his head away from a right-handed blow the left hand was clamped on the other side of the head. The force of the blow brought tears to my eyes and I sat there silently sobbing at the brutality of the blow and the injustice of it.
The old villagers used to say that Mr Stevenson was a good schoolmaster. I didn't know the words at that tender age to describe him as a vindictive tyrant and a sadistic bully! Soon after this I caught scarlet fever and during my year's absence he retired. He died not long afterwards and all the children from Stoke School attended his funeral at Newport. I still remember the occasion. We all filed past the grave and saw the coffin with the brass plate on. I hope I may be forgiven for thinking with all the resentment of a traumatised child "good riddance".
I do not remember going back to school after my illness. In fact I have only hazy recollections of life at Stoke School at all. I know I tried to avoid going to school on every conceivable occasion. One of my regular ruses was, instead of getting out of bed in the morning I used to lie with my hands clamped to my forehead under the sheets. When mum called up to tell me to get up I'd say I had a headache and didn't feel well! She would come up, and keeping my hot hands on my forehead until she arrived at the bedroom door and then presenting a woebegone expression for her inspection. She invariably felt your forehead if you complained of a headache and as mine was hot and sticky when felt she agreed and let me stay in bed. Of course like all good tricks it got rumbled eventually. Neither my mother nor I had the slightest idea that I was traumatised by the vicious Mr Steventon, against school, by his unprovoked assault. It never occurred to me until recently, that this was the explanation.
The next Headmistress was a stocky Mancunian with steel rimmed glasses and a beaky nose named Rachel Hurst. To my mind she was not much of an improvement on "Jimmy" Steventon. Her main assault weapon was not the cane but the strap!
She did bring one or two other innovations including the school concert. The most outstanding act I remember from this was a boy singing:
Halfway up the stairs Is the stair where I sit There isn't any other stair Quite like it.
It's not at the bottom And it's not at the top So this is the stair Where I always stop!
I wonder if Eddie still remembers it! Naturally enough I do remember some of the teachings at the time and they were the things that the whole class intoned together. There were of course the multiplication tables which we all learnt by heart. Then those little aids to remembering such as: Never put E before I, N, G or I before E except after C.
As the school was a Church of England School the village rector played a considerable part in its proceedings! The parson who was the incumbent at the time was a kindly old Christian gentleman, Harry Leachman. I do just remember the Reverend Wanstall who was something of a preacher. During one Christmas period before I was promoted to the choir we were sitting in the congregation, with my parents, alongside my Aunt Ivy. I had no idea what the sermon was about but suddenly the words "you might as well boil a man in his own plum pudding" rang out from the pulpit. At this my Aunt burst into loud
laughter thus ignoring protocol and outraging the sensibilities of the older members of the congregation. It didn't seem to upset the Parson, who paused to enjoy this unexpected tribute from his flock on his ability to entertain. He stood in the pulpit beaming at my Aunt! I believe when she apologised for her unseemly behaviour the next day, he assured her that it pleased him no end.
The Reverend Leachman was a less volatile man than his predecessor. He was such a kind man and impressed me with is generosity by giving me a half-crown on my birthday! He always came to the school at least once a week to conduct morning prayers and hold a short religious ceremony.
School, of course didn't finish on Friday afternoon until Monday morning. On every Sunday we went to Sunday School. In those days we had the village hut. It was situated off Dog Lane on the way to Church!
We began Sunday School at 9.30 a.m. and ceased about 10.45 a.m. This gave us time to walk up to the Church for the 11.00 a.m. start to the morning service. Although we reluctantly walked up the lane to Church we could always judge the time of arrival by the bells ringing. At about five minutes to eleven the full peal was stopped and the last bell started ringing down. This was the signal for us to rush into the Church, don the surplice and cassock and stand waiting for the organ to play us from the vestry to the bell tower end. We then commenced the service, singing the processional hymn up the aisle to the choir stalls. As choirboys sat both sides of the aisle we got up to all sorts of dumb, harmless activities during the sermon. However one Sunday morning one of our number had a bag of sweets to suck and he was persuaded by silent entreaties from his mates opposite to toss a couple of sweets across! The eagleeyed numbers of the congregation complained to the Rector and forever after at morning and evensong we had to file out into the two front seats in front of the pulpit under the eye of the Priest for the duration of the sermon!!
After Sunday dinner it was Sunday School from 2.30 to 4.00 p.m.! After tea, off to evensong between 6.00 and 7.00 p.m., especially if you were in the choir! No doubt all this religion was conceived by busy mothers with half-a-dozen children to keep quiet on the man of the house's day of rest!
Now and then on Sunday mornings, some of us used to play hooky and instead of singing in the choir we sloped off up to Stoke Wood, usually when the wild strawberries or hazel nuts were there for the picking. Unfortunately we were regularly "snitched" on by a maiden aunt who faithfully reported back to our mother that one or two of her tribe was not at church that morning. I rather think mum didn't relish the "snitching" any more than we, because although she let us know that we had been reported we were never punished for the absence from church as far as I remember.
One day my brother Walt and I were late for school. It happened in about 1930. As we were on our way to school we saw a great big airship slowly flying over the village heading towards Olney. It was the R101 apparently returning to its base at Cardington. We immediately set off across fields with several others attempting to keep it in sight. As it appeared to be making such slow progress we thought we could keep up with it! When it slowly disappeared from our view we suddenly realised that we should have been in school and came hotfoot back I have no recollection of being reprimanded for being late. The big airship didn't last much longer as it crashed in France with the loss of all on board a few months later.
Strangely enough I was on a school holiday with my Wolverton School in 1936 and we spent the day at Portsmouth Dockyard. During the morning we looked up and there appeared another great airship, the German Hindenburg. It apparently caused an international incident as the British accused the Germans of taking aerial photos of the Dockyard! Whatever, the same fate awaiting this leviathan of the air. It too, caught fire and was destroyed in America after completing its journey across the Atlantic Ocean quite safely.
After that international digression I return to life in the village and incidents remembered.
On a fine summers' day Walt and I went for a walk down the long meadow. Coming back we arrived at the fence behind the old brickyard and the water filled pit. Walter decided to climb a tree overlooking the pit. I don't think we had been told not to climb willow trees at that stage and this tree was a willow. He was shinning up a stout enough looking branch when there was a sharp crack and Walt and the branch made a rapid descent to the ground. I was still behind the fence and as my brother laid there obviously unconscious with his head about a foot from the water, I became more than a little apprehensive. I climbed the fence and there was no doubt he was out cold. I soaked my handkerchief in the pit water and began bathing his forehead. Eventually he came round but he was so dazed I more or less had to lead him home. As the brickyard and the pit was out of bounds we daren't tell our mum what had happened. Walt was do doubt concussed. He said he had a bad headache so he went upstairs to lie down. He was not right for several days.
On another walk with brother Jack we decided to go up Westside Lane. Unfortunately there was an old cow in there with a young calf. She looked very aggressive and I, being the timid one, hung back near the fence. Jack went on confidently across the field. Suddenly the cow charged at him and he turned tail and started to run back the way he had come. Conveniently the cow kept its head down and its horns were curved backwards. As it caught up with Jack, the horns fitted nicely round his rear end. I can still see Jack, his legs going nineteen to the dozen, half sitting on the old cow's horns lashing at its head with a stick he had in his hand, as hard as he could manage in that uncomfortable position! Fortunately after removing Jack from the vicinity of the calf, the animal called off the attack with Jack still on his feet - honours even! Much against my better judgment we still walked back across the field to Birds Lane. The old cow viewed us with grave suspicion, but having made her point she allowed us through without another "charge".
I never normally went out with my brother Trev, he was far too advanced for my company! However his normal partner in crime, Walt, was unavailable for some reason so he invited me to go scrumping. This escapade was to be a little more eventful than expected.
Scrumping was a time-honoured routine for mischievous country boys for as long as apple and fruit trees have been cultivated. Nobody's apples were safe while they were still on the tree if one could gain access to the orchard or garden unobserved by the owner. Daylight activities were more adventurous than those in the dark as the risks of being spotted in the daylight were far greater. It wasn't necessary to take more than you could eat in fact you daren't take any home in case you were punished for stealing. Apart from the fruit the most prized produce was the walnut. There were several trees around the village which were all fair game for the scrumper. There were two or three trees at Church Farm, one behind Timmy Nicholls Farm and a huge tree in the Parsons Field. The latter was never guarded and we were never chased off from there, consequently the nuts as they fell were soon picked up by those nearest to it. This meant that we had to look elsewhere for the walnuts. Naturally the challenge of being detected and chased off by the irate owners added spice to the adventure. I think scrumping for boys was akin to poaching for the adults! The booty was of secondary importance to the thrill of being detected and chased by the property owner!
The danger with scrumping walnuts was evident to the cognoscente. Freshly fallen nuts had a thick green outer case and when stripping the nuts an almost irremovable brown stain appeared on the hands. A dead giveaway to parents. The event I could have dispensed with occurred near the end of our morning raids. Trev spotted some nice looking apples overhanging Birds Land. He obtained half a brick to throw up at the tree to dislodge the apples. For some inexplicable reason I started to walk behind him at the very instant he heaved the brick. The brick caught me a glancing blow on its upward journey, still in his hand and cut open my forehead. We arrived home with my bloody forehead and an improbable excuse as to the cause of the damage. Mum did her usual competent patching-up job on the wound whilst probably not believing a word of our tale. In those days there were no such things as plasters or band-aids so I walked about with a bandage around my head for days acting the wounded hero.
There were of course no youth clubs, radio, TV or cinemas to entertain the children and teenagers, as we had to make our own fun. Most of the leisure activities for children centred around Sunday School, Church and the recreation ground where the British Legion ran the Annual Sports Day, usually on a Bank Holiday. Quite a lot of thought and ingenuity went into Sports Day and races or competitions were held not often seen today. The normal "sprint" races were held, 50 yards for the younger children and 100 yards for the older children. Separate races were held for boys and girls. The entertainment was in the fun races. There was the three-legged race, the sack race, the egg and spoon race and the obstacle race. Obstacle races were not the same every year. One had to jump over things, crawl under tarpaulins, take bites out of apples, swimming in a both of water or alternatively take bites out of apples hanging on strings about the course. Naturally your hands must be kept behind your back when attempting to bite the apple.
Other obstacles included old car tyres suspended by ropes from a pole mounted over-head across the track, a ladder laid horizontal which children could crawl through between rungs and others that I have forgotten. When the races were concluded by about 4.30 p.m. we all sat down to tea, naturally. Trestle tables were borrowed and set up, they were covered with long paper tablecloths and of course forms or chairs were provided so that we could all sit down. Plenty of sandwiches, cakes and jelly with cups of tea were available in abundance so we could all gorge ourselves. Strangely enough it never seemed to rain in those far off summer days and I cannot ever remember a Sports Day being rained off!
The more I think about my early boyhood, the more events of an entertaining nature occur to me. Jack was not such a dull boy as may be imagined. During the Winter months regular whist drives and dances were held in the school and there were the usual cricket and football matches in their season. There were of course three pubs, The White Hart, The White Lion and The Lamb plus an off license.
The grandest event in the village in those days was the Church Fete held in the (old) Rectory grounds. The competitions included bowling for a pig, which was the prize for winning the big ground skittle competition. Table skittles was obviously keenly contested on the table brought from The White Hart. Scores as high as twenty-five were required to win. Two "f'loorers" plus seven with the last cheese did the trick! There were darts, hoop-la and other ball competitions which I cannot remember. In addition the Newport Pagnell "Prize silver Band" was in attendance. Raffles, lucky dips and such-like all provided funds for the Church.
Inevitably the largest tent was the tea tent where everyone could buy tea or lemonade, cakes and sandwiches. There were cake making, homemade jam and preserve competitions for the ladies. The Newport Pagnell troop of boy scouts used to appear to do a show. I also remember a novelty competition which featured Gordon Warren for several years. The lawn tennis court was surrounded by a high wire netting fence. Inside one end a badminton type net was strung halfway across. Tarpaulins were hung on the fence and also below the badminton net to protect Gordon from the tennis balls thrown as he paced gently behind the net with a top hat on. The idea was to knock the top hat off Gordon's head and win a prize. If the thrower got too accurate Gordon would suddenly stop or take a pace backwards. Not many throwers succeeded in removing the hat! He always stood still for the children to have a shot. Everyone was intent on having some fun or win a prize for something. One year a more sophisticated exhibit was enclosed in a small tent with a sign which declared "Genuine Water Otter" price to view threepence. Of course country people are all interested in more unusual animals and they all paid up to view a kettle stood on a primus stove! Most people took it as a good joke to raise funds for the Church. One older lady however who was known as a moaning old busy-body declared it was a fraud and demanded her money back.
The fete went on well into the evening and as the bowling for a pig and the table skittles was hotly contested there was always a play off between several players who had made the highest score and noted in the attendants book. The ground skittles was usually a play-off between those who had knocked down nine "pins". The table skittles being played every day in the pubs was naturally won by one of several good "throwers".
The Sunday School outing was the Summer highlight for most of the children. The places we were taken to by Wesley's bus were either Hunstanton, Skegness or presumably when funds were low we went to Wickstead Park. As choirboys we were of course not paid anything so we sometimes got a special outing on our own. During the Reverend
Leachman's tenure the choirboys were invited one evening per week to the Rectory. During the Summer we were taught to play tennis and croquet; in Winter we played indoor games including billiards on his half sized table.
In those days one of our Sunday evening entertainments after church was a singsong around the piano. This was after brother Walter had reluctantly agreed to learn to play! Our songbooks were mainly the Daily Express Community Song Book, the First World War songs and the book of sacred songs and hymns!
School holidays were no so long in those days. We had just the month for our Summer holidays. A week at Easter and Christmas plus a few bank holidays. Half-term was a two-day duration. On reflection it is no wonder we were taught more thoroughly in those days. We not only spent a good many more days at school than the modern child does per year but the school day was longer. Even the "infants" were kept at school until 4 p.m. I suppose the raising of school leaving age from 14 to 16 after the War enabled the daily school hours to be reduced.
One of our pleasures as children in school holidays was bathing in the "Little River". It was a good mile and a half to this small side-stream of the main river Ouse and was down-stream of the old Ravenstone Mill. As it was probably not more than three feet deep our mothers were reasonably happy to see us go off in a group of children all intent on cooling off in the river. Of course we were just as hot by the time we walked back to the village! Now-a-days river bathing is either frowned upon or banned.
River bathing was still permitted at Newport where I went to school at the age of eleven. The old Willen Road Bathing Pool was just a stretch of the river Lovat. Mr Higgins who was the Headmaster was a great enthusiast on swimming. I well remember when I swam the twenty yards across the first time. When he presented me with sixpence he said that with my success 92% of the boys in his school could now swim! He used to say that Newport was on the confluence of the Lovat and the Ouse and with so much water about his aim was to have everybody in the school swimming.
On looking back he was a real dedicated schoolteacher and a kindly compassionate man. He kindled my latent interest in learning and I well remember his treatment the day I appeared at Newport School with my brother Walter in the Headmaster's Study as a small shy timid boy. He questioned me on my knowledge and understanding of things and was somewhat taken aback by my hesitant answers. So he asked Walt a number of questions, who replied briskly and correctly to all the questions. Tracy or "Tracker" as he was nicknamed explained that was how he hoped I would answer when I had been there a few months!
Mr Tracy Higgins was a Scientist as his BSc indicated and his enthusiasm in teaching the subject was obvious. I always described one science lesson which he gave each year on the subject of Atmospheric Pressure as the day I really wanted to be a Scientist or Engineer. After relating all the salient features on the fact that air pressure at sea level was 14.7 pounds per square inch, he carried out a simple experiment in front of the class. Before the lesson he obtained an old cocoa tin, drilled a hole in the lid and soldered the lid back on. He then soldered a copper tube into the lid. Pouring some water into the tin he heated it up on a Bunsen burner until all the water had boiled away. At that moment he inserted a small rubber cork into the copper tube thus sealing up the tin. He carried on with the lesson. As the partial vacuum in the sealed tin cooled down and contracted the tin started to crumble and crackle. Some of the boys pointed out to "Tracker" what was occurring and he feigned total astonishment when he looked at the crumpled tin. This experiment demonstrated much more vividly than any words on the force of the air pressure around us. I wonder how many modern science teachers carry out such experiments for the benefit of their students.
He had no Science Laboratory to carry out his experiments and he used to hold his class in the Woodwork Shop. This was where I first was taught all the basic joints used in cabinet making and I still derive a great deal of pleasure in making things with wood.
On of the simple pleasures we enjoyed, as children was Annie Wesley's Sweet Shop. Money of course was always tight and children didn't get paid pocket money for doing jobs around the home, you did as you were told, no nonsense. We did however have a penny on Fridays and this was spent at Annie Wesley's. In those days one could buy two ounces of sweets, out of the jar for a penny. Alternatively for a halfpenny you could obtain a triangular shaped bag of sherbet with a length of hollow liquorices and a sweet on a stick. By biting the closed end of the liquorices tube one could suck the sherbet into the mouth, delicious! For the other halfpenny one could buy humbugs, aniseed balls etc. Giant "gobstoppers" could be bought for a farthing each. We were all brought up to be honest and our conscience was always monitored by our knowledge of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not steal", etc!
It occurs to me that if Annie Wesley were operating at her usual pace in her shop now a days the shop would be half empted by the modern youthful shoplifters before she even got to the counter. Such is progress!