Another gem from the ‘memoirs’ folder found recently in a box of the late Norman Chisman’s papers.
I first went to Benfleet School in 1913. It was, as schools go, a picturesque little building, built round about the 1850s. Benfleet School was situated in a pretty lane, lined on the far side with elm trees and looking on to a pleasant meadow. At the bottom of School Lane, the road passed the small Post Office, and the Anchor Public House. The war memorial had not yet been erected.
The school itself had three entrances: nearest the road was the boys’ entrance, with a short flight of stone stairs leading to the classrooms. The girls’ entrance was really the main one to the school, with double doors and a cloakroom. The infants’ entrance was a little further up the lane, or they could come through the girls’ entrance, with again, a short flight of stairs.
The infants and Standard One had a large classroom with a circular coke stove, surrounded by a guard close to the wall. The playground for girls and infants was partly turfed, partly asphalt. The lavatories were at the bottom of the playground, and were of the ‘bucket’ variety, as were most houses. A horse-drawn cart came round at night to clean them and was known, with typical country humour, as the ‘Bombay Express’.
From the boys’ entrance, one went into the smallest classroom, with places for not more than 26 children, usually the age of 13+. Next was a much larger room, and the third was smaller again. There were two folding partitions which could be pushed back, turning the three rooms into, virtually, a hall.
Rules and regulations were not so strict at that time. For instance, if a telegram came for someone in the village or nearby, the Post Mistress would blow her whistle outside the Post Office, and the Head would choose a suitable boy to deliver the telegram and return to school.
One good summer, the farmer asked if the children might be allowed some time off one afternoon to go into the meadow and toss the good crop of hay around, to help dry it out. In winter, children living too far from school to go home for lunch, brought potatoes, which were placed under the grate of the open fires to cook. Whichever teacher was on duty would rake them out at dinner time, and also make hot cocoa for the children who stayed.
During the 1914-1918 war, the children were allowed to pick blackberries for jam-making for the soldiers – usually on a Friday. The berries were weighed and the children were paid 6d (2 and a half p) per pound.
At one period, there was little chalk left in the school, and several boys collected odd pieces on the Downs. .
There were one or two air raids and the local photographer took a picture of one bomb – or what remained of it – held up by his daughter, one of the school girls. The burnt-out shell reminded me of a miner’s lantern.
In those days, most young people who wished to become teachers in Council Schools, at the age of fourteen became apprenticed to the Education Authority for four years, after which they took an examination known (if I remember rightly) as the Oxford or Cambridge locals.