The Old School Memories Of Bygone Days
THE FIRST SCHOOL DENTAL CLINIC
By Jack Point
From the Blackburn Times of April 24 1937.
Passing the old school the other day, after many years, I was tempted to look in just to refresh memories of bygone days. I went through the yard, but what a shock was mine! Surely this pettifogging space was never the scene of so many strenuous football matches, of so many happy hours at cricket, at “trust” and “cap-on-back,” and all the boyish pastimes that made the playtime pass all too quickly. If memory served me aright, it was at least ten times the size. Why, it seemed to take us an age then to run from one side to the other. How it had shrunk with the years. Yet it was the same old playground, for there was the house where the caretaker—old Forrest—lived. Old Forrest, who was a second edition of President Lincoln in appearance, having a black goatee under his chin, was the one man whom we feared as much as we feared the head master himself, for he stood no nonsense. His wife was cast in gentler mould, and on a hot day we would sneak to the back door of the house, and beg drinks of water until her husband appeared, when, our terror swallowing up our thirst we vanished instantly.
COCKPIT OF THE SCHOOL
There again just beyond the north wall of the playground, was “t’ back,” as we called it, where most of our boyish quarrels were settled. It was the cockpit of the school, and the fights, which took place there were very serious businesses indeed. At any rate, the preliminaries were serious. No Italian duello needed so much ceremony, and modern heavyweight championships have been carried through with no more arrangements.
An intermediary was always employed. If there was bad blood between Jones and Smith the intermediary would approach Smith and inform him that Jones had been saying he could “lick” him. If Smith told the intermediary that Jones couldn’t “lick” him, progress was being made. The next step was for Jones to catch Smith’s eye when the teacher wasn’t looking. Then Jones would give a most fearful scowl with his lower teeth showing over his upper lip and shake his fist. If Smith did likewise, the preliminaries were completed, and word went round the class like wildfire that there was a sanguinary combat in “t’ back” after school.
There was never much blood shed in these encounters, however, for the first good stout blow generally ended the contest and the victor usually strutted off, surrounded by a host of admiring friends, while the defeated one was left alone, deserted by his former supporters. This, however, was always the way of the world.
I peeped into the classroom itself. That had been considerably altered. Now it consists of a number of classrooms, but in my time there were two large rooms divided by a sliding partition. The partition itself consisted of two parts, which slid towards or away from one another along an iron rail. They were pushed apart at the opening and closing of school so that the two rooms became one, and pushed together again when lessons began. The pushing was done by a couple of lads who each grabbed an iron handle and pushed for all they were worth. If they achieved a tremendous bang when the partitions met, or reached the end of their rail the lads were highly delighted.
LEGEND OF THE HORSE HAIR
In addition to morning and evening prayer, we had grace before and after meat, and, strange as it may seem, though we all sang most lustily, it was mostly gibberish, as scarcely any of us knew the words, and it was a great surprise to me when I learned what the words really were. I am quite certain that if we had been asked to write the words the staff would have received a shock.
The teachers in the old school were very great on discipline, and corporal punishment was their way of obtaining it. Canes were generally used, and these varied from long to short, and from thick to thin. One of my teachers used to prefer long thin ones, and was in the habit of sending me to purchase them. My orders were always to purchase a sappy one, as the dry ones were apt to split up the middle very soon.
I can’t say I was particularly fond of this job, as I was sent back if the cane was unsatisfactory, while, if the teacher was pleased with it, I was none to popular with the rest of the class. This belief in sappy canes, however, was so widespread that in after years I met a head master who confessed that he kept his canes in water in a long, narrow-minded tin (as Teddy Whittle would have called it), so that they should always be nice and moist. Some of the teachers burned the ends of their canes, as it was thought that this prevented them from splitting. Some of the scholars burned the ends of the canes too, but this was because they found father’s twist rather to strong!
There was a legend at this time that if you put a horse-hair across your hand when you were being caned the cane would split, but so far as I was concerned it remained a legend, and fit company for the Indian rope trick for I never saw it proved.
Old Towler was the wisest of the teachers as regarded corporal punishment. He didn’t trouble about a cane—he used instead the top half of a substantial-looking walking stick. Having a knob on one end, it resembled a shillelagh as much as anything. There was no fear of that splitting. Even a horsehair wouldn’t do it. Canes might come and canes might go, but that went on forever, and if old Towler is doing any whacking now it’s odds he has his old shillelagh with him.
Comparisons are often made by old-stagers between the old education and the new, which are considerably to the disadvantage of the latter, but everything in the garden wasn’t lovely in those days, as a little reminiscence will show. In many schools then were very young pupil-teachers, whose duty as a rule it was to take the “exceptions” as they were called. These “exceptions,” being considered exceptionally dull of intellect, were generally pushed away in some obscure corner, where they were taught the alphabet and given some very simple exercises in numbers.
One pupil-teacher who was in charge of a class of this kind, and out of sight of everyone, found his job very irksome. He conceived the strange idea of extracting the pupils’ teeth for a change. Any lad who consented to have a tooth drawn was allowed to go home half-an-hour earlier. The idea caught on marvellously. I don’t know what time wickets were pitched, but “stumps” were drawn at all hours! Some of the mothers, however evidently considering this drawing of “stumps” was not quite “cricket,” intervened, and thus the first school dental clinic came to an untimely end.
Though his implements were of the rudest—merely a nail and a piece of string—who shall blame the youthful operator when learned professors tell us that the real meaning of “to educate” is “to draw out”?
THE TUCK SHOP
No account of the old school would be complete without an allusion to the “tuck shop,” as I suppose it would be called now. It was a two-windowed shop at the corner, but only one of the windows interested us—the one facing the school, which contained sweets. Chocolate was not so much to the fore then. The most popular sweets were liquorice, horse or aniseed balls, “hot toffees,” one percent sugar and ninety-nine per cent cayenne, and acid drops. In some cases the sweets were not weighed, but were counted, and we knew exactly how many we ought to receive.
At one period the spirit of speculation was in the air, for “lucky balls” and “lucky turnovers” were introduced, and great was the excitement thereat among the scholars. In a few of these sweetmeats—a very few—a coin was hidden. It might be a halfpenny, it might even be a three-penny bit, so lucky sweetmeats were the order of the day until the authorities intervened.
One lad won quite a reputation as a “spotter.” He claimed to be able to tell the ones which contained the coins. He became the consulting expert. Sometimes he was sent in to make the purchase himself, sometimes he stood outside the shop window with the “capitalist” and indicated the one which was to be purchased. His fee—for every consulting expert must have his fee—was the toffee; his financial backer took the coin. If there were no coin, he received a small portion of the toffee.
At times we became vegetarians and devoured liquorice root, sweet locust, and “monkey-nuts” as we called them. Peanuts I suppose they would be called now. The liquorice in this case was the natural product. It was brown in colour, and consisted of long, tapering strands. The sweet locust was in appearance like pieces of dried black leather. It was easily chewed, however, and was rather pleasant to the palate.
There was much discussion amongst the lads as to whether it was the food of John the Baptist in the wilderness or not. But the question was never finally settled so far as I know. As regards the peanuts, one pioneer conceived the brilliant idea of eating the shells as well, and we all followed his example, and pretended to enjoy them, too, though I imagine that chewing a straw shopping basket would be just as toothsome. Which only goes to show that lads can persuade themselves into anything.
FORTUNES LOST IN MARBLES
We had many games such as are played to-day, but there were others. In the marbles we had a game called “Chuck-at-hoyle,” or “Odd and E’en.” We made a small hole close up to the schoolyard wall. Each player staked so many marble or “stooanies,” as we called them. One of the players threw the marbles against the wall just above the hole. Some marbles simply rebounded, others rolled into the hole, if the number of marbles in the hole were odd the thrower won, if even, he lost. Thus many a fortune (in marbles) changed hands in the old schoolyard, and no keener gamesters were ever found, no, not even in Monti Carlo.
Tops, too, in their season, were very popular, but we went beyond the common or garden order of top-spinning, and indulged in “top fights.” We whipped our tops up against each other so that they collided and one was knocked out. This, however, led to a certain amount of sharp practice, for some of the lads’ brought tops of such enormous size that the smaller tops had no chance against them. Others went further still and brought tops made entirely of steel, which were called “boilers” and when one of the wooden walls of old England came up against one of these steel-clad monsters it was a case of shiver my timbers and no mistake.
Of course, in all our yard games it was a case of “minding our step,” for old caretaker Forrest was a regular martinet, and a believer in corporal punishment, too. Though he did not, like the teachers, use a cane or a stick, he carried in his hip pocket a good stout two-foot rule, which, when occasion arose, he used just as effectively.
And now we must leave the old school. What was its name, you ask? Perhaps it was Narkover, perhaps it wasn’t. All I can say is that we hadn’t an old school tie, we hadn’t even a badge on our caps, but most of those who attended that school think that it’s the best school that ever was or ever will be. And who’s going to undeceive them? Well, I’m not, at any rate.
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