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U3A Writing: Caldicot School

...Break was a rough and tumble in the playground and there was a very strict calendar observed for the playing of games. I can't remember in which order but once a year we played, amongst others, whip and top, hoops, skipping, hop-scotch and marbles...

Doreen Bryant recalls her days at a village school in the 1930s.

I attended Caldicot Church of England Non-Provided Elementary School from 1931 to 1940 except for a period of nearly a year, from early 1939.

I recall. my first day in school as if it was yesterday - walking along Church Road with its allotments on the right and a high stone wall with 'conker' trees on the left - having called into Dally's sweet shop on the way with a ha'penny to spend.

The bigger boys frightened me on arrival as they were rough and noisy, running and scraping their boots over the flag-stoned floor of the porch, causing showers of sparks. The bell was clanging and soon it was time to go into the classroom. All. new entries went into Miss Saunders' class, where we sat in desks in rows. I expect there were about thirty of us. We immediately started work - learning to read and write the alphabet. I knew how to do it so had time to look around and take stock. I remember being unsure whether or not I would like this new environment and thought perhaps I wouldn't bother to come back the next day, besides I didn't think I could take the high-pitched squeak of pencil on slate a moment longer.

A notable memory from this time is being taken with the whole class on to the school field to watch the bigger boys playing in a football match. It was a bitterly cold day and a most unpleasant experience and I have hated the game to this day. I was the only girl in the class wearing boots.

There were three classes in the infants' department, those of Miss Saunders, Miss Johnson and Mrs Floyd. I don't know why but I never went into Mrs Floyd's class, although I got to know her quite well over the years as I was a great admirer of her artist husband, Donald, RA Mr Floyd was frequently seen around and about Caldicot with his palette and easel and once paid my father 10/- to pose for one of his pictures to give the scene perspective. I have a print of one of his many pictures of the Neddern fields - a lovely scene now gone for ever due to the recent development.

From the infants we moved into Standard One. Mrs Jones' class where the first thing we did was to sit in our allocated desks and were given a pen-holder, nib and full inkwell, and were told that every day we would write the date, month and year in our exercise books. The first date I ever wrote was in September 1933. Here we learned to improve the formation of our letters, to learn simple arithmetic and our "times" tables which I still remember. My brother and I had walked all the way to school from Dewstow - over the fields and down Sandy Lane if it was dry underfoot or down the Dewstow Road and through the village if it was muddy. In consequence, by mid-morning we were ravenously hungry and thirsty but in those very early days there was no mid-morning refreshment, just water from the tap. It was not long though before third-of-a-pint bottles of milk were available (for those who could afford them) and kind Mrs Jones started making Horlicks - I loathe it still!

Break was a rough and tumble in the playground and there was a very strict calendar observed for the playing of games. I can't remember in which order but once a year we played, amongst others, whip and top, hoops, skipping, hop-scotch and marbles. In the future was to be an incident when I was taken to the Headmaster for punching a boy in the face and making his nose bleed. I don't believe there were any real bullies in the school but some of the bigger boys rather took advantage of their size (and there was one girl of whom I was terrified) and I happened to be playing marbles with one of these boys when I had had a very successful time and won all but his favourite 'dribbler'. He accused me of cheating (how I can't imagine) which was really too much, so I stood on tip-toe, up with my fist, and gave him a punch on the nose. It seemed to open like a flower and there was blood everywhere. I just couldn't believe it and how I got to the Headmaster's room I don't know It was the one and only time in my school life I got the cane! The really sad thing is I can't remember which one of two boys I so injured and as they have both now passed away, I can never apologise.

Now on to Standard Two, Mr Pritchard's class. Here we learned proper joined-up writing and I remember doing lines and lines of letters - even so I've never mastered 'Zs' This was a big classroom half of which was shared by the scholarship group of those pupils being prepared by Mr Parry for entrance to Larkfield School, Chepstow. I was not considered clever enough to be awarded one of the two scholarship and attendance without was out of the question. However, I did have quite an enquiring mind and I longed to know what was in the little silver bottle I had seen in the cupboard in Mr Pritchard's room. My inquisitiveness overcame me when, one lunch time, finding myself alone in the school, I took this little bottle from the cupboard and it was so heavy (something I just couldn't understand), it slipped from my fingers spreading its contents - a little silver stream -over the wooden floor. I tried to gather it up but as the liquid was touched it split into more silver blobs and soon I was surrounded by lots of little beads of glistening silver, like those used for decorating cakes. I was terrified - what had I done? The outcome must have been so awful that it has been blotted from my mind. It was some time before I learned that the liquid was mercury and perhaps had I had the courage to ask Mr Pritchard what it was, I might have started the teaching of Science in Caldicot School!

Miss Blomley was next to have us and I enjoyed her class. We were introduced to the wonderful Uncle Remus stories arid I remember Charles Kingsley's 'The Water Babies'. She encouraged us to write 'compositions' and I still remember the shame when, in one lesson, like all the other pupils, except one, I did not know the plural of Ox. We had quite a lot of Religious Education or 'Scripture' as it was called then, and I have written elsewhere of our knowledge of the Scriptures and our ability to repeat the entire Catechism. Fr Younghughes regularly came to instruct us and on St David's Day the whole school went to church where the class registers were marked. We did not have any other visiting tutors but I do recall on one occasion the whole school being assembled to hear about the evils of alcohol! We observed two minutes silence at 11 o'clock on Armistice Day and stood to attention on the morning of Empire Day. Each Friday afternoon Miss Blomley took the girls for Folk Dancing I don't know what the boys did during this lesson, probably caring for their gardens.

Then on to the dreaded Miss Tonkin's class, what a martinet she was. Most pupils spent over two years in her class., We now started singing lessons, (the naughty boys substituting their own words for 'Pull out the plug and wet him all over' in a verse of 'What shall we do with a Drunken Sailor), sewing and drawing. We had sessions of reading round the class 'The Old Curiosity Shop' and 'David Copperfield'. Those who couldn't read were passed over (and there were several) - those who hadn't picked it up along the way, left school illiterate. Sewing consisted (for me anyway) of stitching buttonholes - six slits cut into a piece of material and when these were finished, six more were cut in another piece of cloth. During this session the boys did drawing, copying pictures on card which had been passed around. There was no encouragement, or indeed opportunity, to he creative.

All through our school lives there were visits from the Doctor and the nurse to examine our heads. There were outbreaks of lice infestation but I don't think as many as I hear of today. An unwelcome visitor was the dentist's van - dark green in colour with its distinctive smell. My dread of dentists exists from my early school days and the drill operated by foot pedal, is still a vivid memory.

I went away from Caldicot School in early 1939 to live with an aunt in Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire and was there on 3rd September, the day war broke out. In the Spring of 1940 I returned home and rejoined Miss Tonkin's class and found them singing the Marseilles in FRENCH. I envied them - I had been attending a small two-class village school for nearly a year where all we seemed to do was Nature Study and read the daily Minimum and Maximum temperatures.

The most exciting day of the school calendar was Sports Day - and it never once rained. The girls showed off their folk dancing prowess and no doubt the boys their gardens. Later in the afternoon came the sports. I had a deadly rival for the skipping race (she and I laugh about it still) but I know I came first in 1937 and 1938 as I still have the inscribed prizes to prove it!

I've often wondered why we never had any lessons about our locality appreciating how steeped in history Caldicot and its environs are. We never walked the walls at Caerwent learning about the Roman occupation or visited Caerleon to see its wonders. The glories of Chepstow and Caldicot Castles were closed to us and the geological interest of the cliffs at Blackrock with their coloured strata, remain a mystery. In the seven classroom school there was only one picture - William Holman Hunt's 'The Light of the World' - its great beauty was never drawn to our attention. I was delighted to see the original (if it was - he painted two versions) in Keeble College, Oxford, not so many years' ago. The other is in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Current events passed us by. Stupendous things were unfolding in Europe and the Spanish Civil War I never heard mentioned. I remember, though, being frightened by the bombing of Barcelona. Our preparation for war included receiving our gas masks and to run like mad down Church Road to Dr Jones' stable (or garage) which was to be our shelter should there be an air-raid.

We left school without ceremony - one day we were there, the next we weren't. The majority of us could read and write and cope with simple arithmetic. However, we came out into a world of full employment and having learned, I believe, two of life's most important lessons - to have the greatest respect for other people's property and to know the difference between right and wrong.

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