What it was about this particular school which gave me pleasure? I have disjointed impressions. At previous schools the only formal classroom situation I can recall is that of the Nun and her ladder to heaven. There was one instance of instruction during the short time attendance at a school on Shooter’s Hill which vividly stuck itself in my memory. It was not a formal lesson. It was the only gardening lesson I ever received. The class was asked to plant lettuces. ‘Always break off the end of the tap root’, was the teacher’s statement, ‘It stops the root growing down which would make the grown lettuce difficult to pull up’. Is there some innate love of Nature in me which made me remember?
A very much earlier memory was a nightmare at perhaps the age of five. The detached head of the schoolmarm was below my bedclothes and glaring up at me. I woke screaming ‘Say good-bye nicely and tell them to go’. It stills rings in my head.
All other impressions of pre-War schooling relate to the St Thomas More Roman Catholic School, which is very near Henwick Road.
All these could be called ‘social awareness’. All relate to the poverty of the time, just a short while after the economic collapse of the great depression, which caused the bankruptcy of my father and our own family poverty.
1. The day black boots were brought in on a tray for distribution to certain pupils. I wondered why I did not get a pair. It is just possible that some pupils had no shoes at all!
2. When the daily provision of a third of a pint of milk was warmed on the school room radiator and it tasted foul. Winters always seemed to be cold and the milk sometimes froze in the bottle and the ice pushed up the cap.
3. The appalling condition of the school garden. I remember this area covered in weeds. There were two ornamental pathways with some bird bath at the intersection. Even I, at the age five was dispirited by the condition.
The head teacher was Mr. Mahony. My mother was very friendly with him and his wife. I guess there was some intellectual relationship. We visited their house opposite the church on Well Hall road from time to time.
Henwick school left nothing but cheering memories.
HenwickSchool stands in a Council Housing estate on the edge of a large grass oval, Winchcombe Gardens, The large three storey block (I believe three?) of classrooms faces south and large glazed doors opened from each classroom onto a narrow balcony. The rooms were bright. The playground on the south was originally designed in two parts, for boys to play to the east and girls to the west. But the girls playground was largely occupied with the vehicles of the Auxiliary Fire Service, for very active use in the bombing raids. These vehicles were green. Still today similar vehicles known as Green Goddesses have a similar role. The supply of head-teachers must have been a problem. I knew of three during the two years I was there. The middle one was called Holditch. His stay was short. I remember so well! His departure was prompted by a ‘student riot’, if one could call a load of running nine to ten year olds a riot! I cannot remember why the whole school – perhaps two hundred pupils or perhaps less – was gathered into the main hall. But it was eventually time to go home. Holditch would not shut up. I was restless and some more aggressive boys even more so. Some near the door got up and belted for it. All the rest stampeded and we all left, leaving the Holditch mouthing in despair. That man was soon replaced by Miss MacDonald. She was a small and fairly dumpling shaped women but so very loving.
Two other teachers are memorable and I can recall some instances of their teaching. Mr. Young looked young but probably was not, otherwise he would have been in military service. On one occasion he launched into ‘How Horatius won the Bridge’.
“Lars Porsena of Clusium – By the nine Gods he swore – That the great House of Tarquin – would suffer wrong no more –“
Mr Youngs voice rolled out the verse and I sat in awe. He had drawn a picture of Horatius, in Roman dress, on the blackboard.
The content of a teacher’s knowledge is far less important than the cherishing love of the teacher and the perception of a teacher for the needs of the child. The teacher should encourage the direction of the child’s learning through gaining his/her respect.
Mrs Plummer was another kind teacher. I recall her long legged pink underpants peeping below her skirt. I haven’t a clue whether she taught me anything. I remember a particular moment when she and other teachers were discussing a mathematical question from an old paper from the Junior County scholarship exam. She asked me if I could solve it. I remember I could not and neither could the teachers! At about the same period some friend of my mothers had given me some simple (I imagine it was simple!) arithmetic book. I couldn’t understand it and I took it to school. I got no help. The teachers apparently did not understand it either! There was in it some topic on Compound Interest. It took me years to understand it, but the equation is one of some use to me today! P2=P1(1+r/100)y
Mrs Plummer frequently urged us on to higher goals. ‘My son is at Eltham College’, she told us and showed the class his prefect’s school cap with a bright yellow tassel!
In memory, the moments when the eyes of my brain opened seemed few. Some companion brought in some caterpillars. ‘Where did you find these?’ “On the way to school”. He took me after school and on a privet bush were dozens of them . The Privet Hawk Moth. We kept some in a glass jar on a shelf in the classroom and I suspect that they eventually died.
I recall only one moment of embarrassment in her class. For some unremembered reason, she was talking about the Pope and the Vatican. I was the only Roman Catholic in the class. She asked me some question about the Vatican. I was not even aware of either Pope or Vatican!
I was not an honest pupil. I think I must have lied. A teacher on the echoing concrete staircase, took me aside and said ‘Brian, honesty is the best policy.’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. The words sounded clever. It was some time before I knew what she meant.
Henwick was one of the very few schools open in 1940. All families, poor or well–off sent their children there. All were white and English through and through. There were the very poor, like the boy ‘Grange’, whose clothes were dirty and even I noticed he was unclean. At the other end was Robin Angel, the son, I believe of doctors or some professional people. He was a great friend and certainly a very able boy. I admired him greatly. But there again I felt uneasy with him. At some Christmas he asked if I would visit him at his house. That house was on Shooter’s Hill and it was a fine middle class home. He had on his bed his presents, numerous presents. One was a copy of Dicken’s Christmas Carol. I remember my sense of deprivation in not having such gifts. I also knew only too well that my parents could not afford such gifts. How I admired his pale blue zipped jumper.
When we both left Henwick Road I seem to recall that he went to a minor ‘public’ school. I believe Whitgift School. [For non-British readers – a ‘public’ school is oddly enough a long established private school, usually of ancient foundation. Well-off parents send their children to such schools. In the post war years, a large number of minor ‘public’ schools accepted pupils from poorer families on a scholarship which was supplied by some local government. This system was discontinued by a future Socialist Government. Such political action stemmed from jealousy and it was retrograde and exceedingly stupid.]
The memories of HenwickSchool are crowded. I list a few.
1. Empire Day.. When children paraded carrying each a flag of some British Dependency in the World. It was May 25th I recall. We were made to feel proud of being British and extolled to feel responsible for our care of the British Empire. This is an example of the brain-washing attitude of some educationalists. True education is the encouragement of children to think for themselves
2. The bread delivery, when a bread man sold freshly baked rolls to the children at the school gate. This was not a proper thing for him to do! He was soon stopped. But I remember well the taste of that fresh bread.
3. ‘Your writing is like a spider’ said Mrs. Plummer. ‘Why do you write so badly when your mother keeps you so neatly’. How little she knew. I did not wear underpants, because we were so poor and could not afford them. There was a day when I sat in a tin of boot polish, which was on a chair at home. I could not go to school because I had no other trousers to wear.
4. The lavatories were in a distant part of the playground. Metal grilled doors separated it from the playground. Some girl came to look through the grill at the boys. Later some boys teased me about it but I never did understand why.
5. Some seafarer, captain(?) Gave us a talk – on what I do not know – but he left a wall hanging with a landscape design in silk which was then hung on the wall of the hall. I admired it.
6. Miss MacDonald gave me a lift in her car half way towards home one day. I was so disappointed that we did not go all the way home. She dropped me at the roundabout near the Odeon cinema. I wanted to get out of the car at home! I was so short that I could hardly see through the front windscreen.
7. The heavy smell of cooking potatoes and cabbage in the hall on the ground floor where we had our midday meal still is with me. That hall was dark and always seemed oppressive.
8. I made some pretend swords out of twigs of lime trees, by shaving them with a penknife, and we boys played with these on the green outside the school.
I remember almost no lessons as such.