Schoolboy tales

Brian Shorrock
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

This is a recollection of events which took place at Hellifield Church of England School in the period 1940 to 1950 when I was a pupil there. Some stories are slightly exaggerated but there are events which I remember vividly. Whilst they were hardly the happiest days of my life, overall I recall them fondly. Starting school at five years old in 1940 I remember nothing of the early years apart from having to walk the mile or so from home to begin my so-called education. The school held about a hundred boys and girls from 5 to 15 years old. As a former pupil often quoted, a home for forward girls and backward boys.

Most mornings we would assemble outside in the playground before moving into the hall where a hymn would be sung, then a teacher would give some kind of patriotic address to us. We would move to our respective classrooms to be taught one of the following subjects - Maths, English, Geography and History, with nothing so sophisticated as Languages or Science. I suppose the teachers deemed it far too dangerous for pupils and teachers alike to have any kind of hands-on lesson such as woodwork or metalwork. I cannot recollect having to do any homework in the 10 years I was a pupil.

One morning whilst gathering in the playground all in lines, one youth did something wrong like laughing or shuffling his feet. The headmaster struck the boy on the side of the head with his enormous hand causing the whole line to collapse like a line of dominoes. The headmaster was a man to be feared, nicknamed the Gaffer; he was around 6 foot tall and well-built. He was not a handsome man. With huge hands like buckets he terrified pupils and staff alike. The cane he used was not unlike a miniature caber and after a blow on the hand by this instrument of pain the hand went numb before a period of agony set in.

Punishment was the norm, carried out on a daily basis mainly by the Gaffer who probably enjoyed it, always caning on one or both hands; no feminine softness here as both girls and boys were caned every week. On one occasion the whole school was lined up in the corridor and caned because no one would admit to carrying out some heinous crime like breaking a window. Woe betide the boy or girl who withdrew their hand at the last moment, causing the teacher to miss, and occasionally hitting his own leg. Two more strokes would be promptly given. Whether these punishments caused any long-term effects is doubtful. No good complaining to your parents - they would give you a slap or tell you not to be so soft.

Another male teacher known as Nippy was small and balding with badly swollen arthritic wrists, which must have caused him a lot of pain at times. Not for nothing was he called Nippy. He was more respected than feared as he would join in the football in the playground at the lunch hour, usually with a tennis ball or something similar. In spite of strenuous efforts by the boys to remove his legs from the rest of his body he was far too quick - apparently in his earlier years he was a talented footballer. Nippy would occasionally lose his temper whilst teaching, probably due to pain in his wrists and unruly pupils. He had a cane which had split into a dozen or so strips, not unlike a cat o’nine tails. He would run up and down the rows of desks lashing out at everybody. We would cower down and bury our heads in our hands hoping for the best and not to lose one or both ears.

There were two female teachers, both unmarried. One had spent many years in South Africa and we soon latched on in a boring lesson to ask her what it was like in that country. She would launch into an enthusiastic tale about a country we hardly knew existed, which was better than the English or Maths she was supposed to be teaching.

The other female teacher had an artificial leg, which unfortunately squeaked as she walked, and was usually dressed in black with a skirt down to her ankles. She looked for all the world like I imagined a Pendle Witch with an acid tongue and a quick temper. Her form of punishment was to hit you over the knuckles with the sharp edge of a foot ruler - very painful. Another tactic was to hurl the wooden blackboard rubber at you - not liked, but a cause of much merriment. With a squeaking artificial leg, on later reflection she probably suffered not only embarrassment but pain as well. The only form of mutiny I ever witnessed was a rather tall lad pushing away the lady witch when she tried to punish him. It was the talk of the school for many days. The boy was of course punished by the headmaster.

Gardening was the obsession of a later headmaster. Many days were spent digging and weeding a rough field, changing it into a presentable fruit and vegetable plot. The man in charge had of course an army of reluctant slaves to do this work and eventually it became a presentable garden. There were setbacks, for example when part of the garden was awash with flowers - tulips, daffodils etc. An unfortunate youth was selected to mow the lawn with the recently acquired motor mower. The boy ever keen to get the job done quickly revved up the machine, but sadly it left his grasp and sped across the lawn into a flower bed, felling flowers right, left and centre before coming to a juddering halt against a tree. Oh dear! the red-faced lad now sheepishly walked to the headmaster in his study (who had witnessed all from his window) to receive the usual stroke of the cane on both hands. Strict supervision had to be imposed whilst we weeded the fruit section in case we attempted to eat the strawberries, peas and beans etc., but we usually managed to eat a few.

We used a pen and had ink wells in each desk plus a sheet of blotting paper. One trick was to get a small piece of blotting paper, roll it into a ball and place it into the inkwell, so any pupil dipping in his pen nib would eventually pierce the blotting paper, and if not taking too much notice, would attempt to write and deposit a large blob of ink on his day’s work, which meant of course more punishment.

The toilets were outside on the edge of the playground. These were in a stone structure with the urinals exposed to the elements apart from the surrounding wall - which was just as well with the appalling stench emitting from them. The toilets themselves were totally enclosed, three or four cubicles in all, supposedly with wooden seats. These had long disappeared - ripped off to keep the home fires burning during the war years. So in winter, sitting on cold porcelain was, to say the least, uncomfortable. No heat of any kind of course. The door locks had long disappeared so the trick was if possible to sit down and to try to block the door from opening with an outstretched foot and carry out the function as quickly as possible. One youth avoided this experience by going home since he only lived a few yards away from the school. Not surprisingly he was much teased about it. Anyone that did not behave like a sheep was quickly picked on but obviously he was a boy with more common sense than the rest of us put together.

During the war years in case of a gas attack we would all gather in the school corridor, sit on the floor and don a rather ill-fitting uncomfortable gas mask. Thankfully no such attack materialised and I doubt if many would have survived gas or any other form of missile.

Towards the end of my school days I realised my eyesight was poor. I could hardly see the information chalked up on the blackboard, which again led to me being classed as a stupid boy.

One lad acquired a water pistol which in his wisdom he decided to fill with ink from the desks. Whilst demonstrating to a rapt audience how good it was he accidentally discharged its contents over his own face. He tried hard to laugh it off, but this ink took some removing and a few days would pass before his face was back to normal.

We were separated from the so-called weaker sex during playground activities but not in the classrooms. I recall that after a 6 inch snowfall - not an uncommon event in those days - most of the boys collected a large cache of hard snowballs. When the girls emerged into their section of playground we suddenly bombarded the unsuspecting innocents with these missiles. They fled indoors with much screaming and probably cursing. Sadly one girl was hit in the eye: retribution in the form of a master arriving on the scene soon after left many boy pupils wishing they had not participated.

Not unsurprisingly in view of our education and facilities, or lack of them, to my knowledge not many pupils became Prime Ministers, doctors etc. A few boys went to Ermysted’s Grammar School in Skipton after taking an examination at age 11. The vast majority of the boys went to work on the railway which in those days employed a lot of people. With my poor eyesight work on the railway would be limited with no hope of being a signal man or train driver so I left school in 1950 joining the North Western Electricity Company as an apprentice electrician. But that’s another story.

Hellifield School

Hellifield School