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15 October 2014
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Memories of School during the 1940s

by British Schools Museum

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Contributed by 
British Schools Museum
People in story: 
Angela Hillyard nee Monk
Location of story: 
Hitchin, Hertfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 September 2005

The following story has been submitted by The British Schools Museum, Hitchin, on behalf of Mrs Hillyard and with her permission.

I was a scholar at the British Schools in Hitchin from 1941 to 1943 although in those years it was called, according to my school reports, Queen Street School. Memories they say are ‘rose tinted’, meaning that we retrieve only the happy images from our filing cabinet, the brain. However, when I pull out my Queen Street folder, grey and black tones emerge and all but swamp the pleasant pink.

Much of this darkness has nothing to do with the school, neither buildings nor personalities surrounding me during those two years. It was quite simply, as Churchill said ‘our darkest hour’ and even for us children the war hung over all our activities like a great suffocating cloud.

What would children and young people of today make of it? For me it seems like an existence in another world. It wasn’t all gloom; we had our lighter moments. I joined the junior department and was placed in Miss Yorke’s class, 3A, on the first floor.

Classes were large, with about 40 children in each, and often augmented by evacuees, resources were minimal, and most of the younger teachers were drafted into the armed forces. There was not one man on the staff of Queen Street School in those days except Mr Valentine the caretaker who lived in the School House.

I do not recall ever using paint, glue, coloured card or crayons but I do remember singing lessons. For this we all - three classes - went below to the ground floor into Mrs Dawson’s classroom where there was a piano. Here we sang folk songs from around the British Isles such as Loch Lomond, Kelvin Grove, The Ash Grove, Danny Boy and The Lass from Richmond Hill. There were no instruments for us but our voices. I enjoyed the singing lessons though nothing on the scheduled curriculum ever matched the spontaneous performance of a little girl in 3B who sang “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”, Vera Lynn’s morale boosting song. We all sat quite still enthralled by her knowledge of all the words and being able to sing throughout in tune.

Thus is it probably the extra-curricular activities which remain with us more than those in the timetable. One of these was gas mask drill, an exercise I hated. Each day we took our gas masks to school packed in a small cardboard box, inside a cloth cover, with a strap to hang it from our shoulders. In those early war years the threat of gas bombing was real and so we had our practices in the playground lined up as for P.T. The drill was - No 1: Gas mask out of box; No 2: Put over face; No 3: Make sure it fits firmly with no apertures to allow in air; No 4: Breathe normally. But I stood in the back row and pretended. Goodness knows what would have happened to me had the horror arrived, for even now I can tolerate nothing over my face.

In spite of all this care with gas masks I do not remember fire drill or air raid warnings, although they must have taken place. Our memories are very selective and there are probably pupils who recall such activities vividly although for them gas mask drill is forgotten.

Morning playtimes were milk times and we had a third of a pint daily, thirty little bottles to a crate. We had no lines drawn on the playground or any climbing apparatus but we took balls and ropes — until an accident happened and they were confiscated. Anyway, we had plenty of war games to act out — like being aircraft and dropping bombs, or shooting with a machine gun da-da-da-da, or more constructively playing at nurses and doctors and operating on the wounded.

Another extra-curricular experience was dinner hour (actually and hour and a half). Those of us who stayed to school dinners made up a crocodile who were daily chaperoned by our teachers to St Mary’s School just opposite the parish church. The Queen Street infant children joined us. Thus we walked daily along Queen Street and through the market square. I seem to remember the lovely odour issuing from Warwick’s fish and chip shop, but was that just a dream?

We should not have expected much, for our dinners cost our parents two shillings a week, or in modern coinage, 10p. Imagine a first course and a sweet for 4d, about 2p! It was wartime, rationing was in full force, essentials hard to come by, and luxuries such as ice cream something from another life. But I wondered, as we ate our pease pudding, cabbage and stew, followed by tapioca pudding (or as we called it — frogspawn), why couldn’t we have fish and chips just sometimes?

The cooks were no doubt hard pressed to find enough plain food for all the St Mary’s pupils (and they stayed on to 14 there) as well as all of us from Queen Street. After our sitting we played in St Mary’s playground until everyone was finished and then we made our journey back two by two. To relieve the boredom we made up games, for example, jumping over the cracks in the paving slabs. That in itself was a feat as they all seemed to be shattered and uneven. It was easier to play at putting your feet on the cracks. Of course there were other variations like leaping over two slabs or walking in the gutter but naturally this was dangerous and a punishable offence, but you could do it if enough people were coming in the opposite direction.

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