Chapter 5

School Days

My earliest memories of school, after the evacuation from Portsmouth, are hazy. I know our numbers certainly did not overload the capacity of the village school for very long. After the first week there were less than thirty of the original fifty evacuees remaining, many children having returned almost immediately, or certainly soon after the first tearful letters arrived back home - to be read by equally tearful mothers.

There followed a constant trickle, then a deluge you might say, of children going home during that first term at the new school. News that some of the returning children were unable to attend school for weeks on end, and of others only spending a few days or half days each week at school, prompted many others to write tearful letters home also. There was not much point in my sister or me writing such letters to mother because we knew what the answer would be. I hadn't even learnt to write anyway, so my only contribution to any letter we jointly wrote was rows and rows of kisses and a very indistinct, "Love from Dodo", signed after Brenda's name. I hated the nickname Dodo, (pronounced like the extinct bird), but it was her name for me when she was small, because she found "Georgie" difficult to say. The simplicity of it suited me when signing letters to mother, needing perhaps three attempts at "Georgie", with attending rubbings out, when one simple "Dodo" would do the job quite satisfactorily.


The obvious mass desertion of evacuees after the Christmas break meant that ninety per cent of our children had drifted home in the first three months; this was about the national average as it turned out. Returning also were the teachers brought with us, who had to go back to re-open the classrooms so hastily abandoned such a short time ago. It was unfortunate that in the meantime the authorities had decided to take over many of these empty school buildings, for welfare services and the like. The return of so many evacuees was unexpected and caused all manner of problems for the continuity of education.

When the bombing and Blitz of Portsmouth began a year later, in December 1940, continuing on and off for almost five months - and again in 1944 when the pilot-less Vls and even more dreadful V2s came - there were further evacuations, but these were voluntary. At Wootton we saw only two or three new children, and they were billeted with relations or friends. There were therefore no further disruptions to my schooling during the war years, Brenda, of course, spending only two years at the village school before her untimely death in December 1941.

The village school was officially called the "Isle of Wight County Education Committee, Wootton Council Mixed School", or any variation of this title to suit the whim of the officiating headmaster. My first year was spent in the infants' section, with a teacher called Miss Draper; a plumpish, strict school ma'am, who seemed to dislike the disruption caused by the influx of so many townie evacuees, (soon to be known as "vacees"), Who had habits and manners hitherto unknown in this quiet village. A hair examination, following the discovery of lice in some children's hair, did nothing to enhance our popularity, though I strongly suspect that some of the poorer homes in the village had contributed to this infestation as well. Only evacuee children were ever shorn of their hair I remember, village kids being cleared by manual means of this scourge by their parents, to prove their innocence. Many of our evacuee children came from the smart houses in the Milton and Eastney areas of Portsmouth, which were probably much cleaner than some of the houses to which we had been fostered. Even the poorer council estate children evacuated, which included my sister and me, were used to bathrooms in their homes, and I had never ,known of "nits" being a problem at our old school.

Wootton infant and junior schoolWootton infant and junior school (old school) - rear view from Red Road, as it was in the 1940s

I remember that I was moved around a bit in the infant classroom. I sat with Trevor Cooper for a long time, and assume it was my constant chatter that forced Miss Draper to move me alongside Collie Gray - a very quiet lad. Also I can recollect being made to sit with a boy I will call Jamie, which must have been a punishment, because nobody sat next to him by choice. Children in the classroom avoided Jamie if they possibly could; they said nothing, but little noses crinkled when he stood near them. A permanent rich odour hung over him at all times, increasing as the room warmed up, or even hovering around him if he stood still too long in the school playground on a windless day. As I sat next to him, I edged further and further away, until I was sitting almost in the gang-way between rows of desks. Finally I turned ninety degrees so my feet were resting in the gang-way, almost begging the teacher to notice me, which she eventually did.

"Georgie - sit properly, what IS the matter with you?"
"He stinks Miss."
"What do you mean; stinks."
"He smells like lard Miss."
"Well Jamie - that isn't a very nice thing to have said about you is it? Move over to the next desk Georgie."

This small episode could have been the first round ever won by us, in the vacees versus villagers hygiene argument, but it did not improve my relationship with Jamie.

The infants' class had bare wooden floors, a large fireplace and wooden double desks. Boys never sat with girls, unless as a punishment, the only other punishment (apart from Jamie) being to write on slate boards, instead of paper, if your work was untidy. There were even the remnants of a past era left lying around; shallow trays of sand in which infants of the twenties had written numbers and letters with a small stick, shaking the tray until the sand was smooth again if a mistake was made. But these were only left there to show us how lucky we were compared with past generations. Personally, I preferred sand to either paper or slate, in fact I think we all did.

After one year I was moved from the infants to the main school, which was still in the same building. There were seven "standards" in the school, which in theory took pupils through seven years of schooling to the leaving age of fourteen. If any children were successful in the Secondary School Examination, taken at the age of eleven, then they left the village school to continue at a Grammar School on the Island. There were very few who made this grade, but some did and it was a great honour for the village school to produce children of such a high calibre. The remainder expected to stay at the school until leaving age - but some were allowed to leave at thirteen if they had a good reason.

There were only three classrooms for these seven "standards". Standards one and two occupied one room, standards three and four another room, and standards five, six and seven the remaining room. It was amazing how one teacher could manage to teach two or even three groups of children at the same time, and even more amazing how these pupils could be grouped together in one test, at the end of term. But this is what happened at Wootton school.

On my move from the infants to standard one, I was taught by a Miss Pilchard, an extremely attractive lady, with long fair hair and a peaches and cream complexion. She was quite small and petite, but controlled the whole class by her strict discipline, backed up by the thickest cane in the school. She seldom used it, but it was always there, on full view. I received a few strokes from it, usually for talking, and although it hurt a little bit, the embarrassment of punishment in front of the whole class was far worse than the physical pain of receiving it. Each teacher used the cane differently, but Miss Pilchard's infrequent use made it feared much more than when the cane was used often, as indeed it was, by other teachers in the school.

In Miss Pilchard's class I began to make my first friends, and by the time I had reached her standard two, was settling into a routine of working hard at school. I loved to please Miss Pilchard whom I admired and respected, and she in return encouraged me, and indeed any pupil who wanted to learn. I nearly always sat with a bright boy called Brian Matthews, and although I was continually being separated from him for talking too much, was usually soon back with him again. Miss Pilchard knew that we stimulated each other, trying to out-do one another all the time. We shared knowledge (cribbed), learned and joked together, developing a weird sense of humour along the way. She knew just how far to let us go before banging her cane on the desk to halt our juvenile rantings. We also developed some rude ways of course, as small boys do, the most disgusting being to see who could pee highest in the school urinals. The record was eventually held by Brian, who managed, after a strict training schedule, to actually circumflow over the urinal wall and deposit a puddle on Red Road - outside the school. Unspeakable adulteration of a lemonade bottle was another trick once tried, but had disastrous results.

Miss Scott's Class of 1945Miss Scott's Class of 1945. Girls ages blanked for modesty

Miss Pilchard became Mrs Blake on marriage and as was expected in those days had to resign. It was not long however before she returned to teaching at Wootton school, the war allowing married women to work now, due to the shortage of teachers and indeed almost every profession and trade because men had been called up for the armed services. We were all glad to see her back, cane and all.

At the age of nine I was moved to Miss Scott's class, who taught standards three and four. She was much older than my other teachers and must have been approaching retirement. Her Victorian values and principles were constantly thrust down our throats, enhanced by the fact that her father had been Estate Manager at Osborne House, which was a Royal Palace when Queen Victoria resided on the Isle of Wight. She said also that her mother had been a playmate of the Royal children, which if we had bothered to work it out meant they were romping around with Miss Scott's mother when they were in their thirties. The only saving grace of Miss Scott's snobbish attitude to her Royal connections was to get her to talk about them, or preferably act them out, when we had unpopular lessons such as arithmetic, "penmanship", and the like. Walking backwards in the presence of the Queen, bowing, curtseying, forelock tugging and her many experiences at Court, meant that unpopular school lessons need hardly be done at all.

Teachers in those days covered all subjects, even physical education (PT) and sports. Poor old Miss Scott had to jump around, showing us what to do, shouting out the musical commands, "Forwards - backwards - circle -circle" for exercises of the arms, and similar repetitive jingles for legs and body. With whistle round her neck she would also referee football, netball and rounders matches, making up the rules as she went. The boys' eagerness in what can only be described as a massacre, saw Miss Scott blowing her whistle constantly, which was totally ignored until we decided we would hear it, more boys being "sent off" than left playing at the end of the match. Consequently we often ended up playing netball or rounders, which allowed the girls to join in, but you would still have thought that every game played was a cup final.

She had no control over her class at all. Her cane seldom left her hand, in fact she had first and second reserve canes to replace those being constantly hidden or removed by the more disruptive boys in the class. She would bang the blackboard, her desk and eventually the offending boy with her cane to drum in the principles of the three "Rs". Girls were never caned, there seemed to be some unwritten law about it, but they did in extreme cases receive a smack on the hand. Once she gave a girl a full smack across the face, which was promptly returned by the girl, and the following day by the girl's mother; but that's another story.

Classroom 'love letters'Classroom "love letters".
Pam/Ray/Buckett, as confiscated by teacher and found in an old school register. Buckett wins again

Saliva or ink soaked balls of blotting paper would splat against the blackboard, with such regularity that eventually she would write around the offending blob. Paper aeroplanes would float around her head and she was constantly confiscating notes of a dubious or "love letter" nature which were passed between pupils. Girls with long hair, unfortunate enough to sit in front of unruly boys, could find the ends of their hair dipped in inkwells. The mischief was continuous, and Miss Scott's ultimate punishment of, "sending to the Headmaster", was seldom used - because it might appear she couldn't control her class. Thus they ended up being sent from the classroom, which is what they wanted anyway.

The new headmaster's letterThe new headmaster's letter

The classroom had a large fireplace across one corner; its yawning cavern covered for most of the year by a firescreen and sometimes a large bunch of seasonal flowers. In the winter a coal fire was lighted and fed from a coal scuttle at frequent intervals. Sometimes the fire would be a roaring furnace, giving those nearest to it rosy complexions, or at its hottest a mild roasting. Now and then a resounding crack would dislodge one of the burning coals, making it fall into the hearth. Miss Scott would lay down her cane and rush over to replace the offending coal - muttering about the quality of the coal and the stones in it causing such explosions. Boys had been known to add small pebbles to the coal scuttle, waiting patiently for the "crack" and the resulting disruption of the lesson. Once a blank bullet was placed amongst the coal, or it may have been put directly into the fire. Some said it was a small cartridge, but the eventual explosion showered coals completely over the hearth, extending for several feet into the classroom. Miss Scott, in a panic, replaced as much as she could and boys dashed hither and thither with tongs and fireplace implements to contain the free fireworks display. Fire buckets of water and sand were rushed to the scene, the mess was awful.

When things were back to normal, Ralph Langridge - one of the senior Mafioso of the class - said in his casual way, "Must have been a large stone Miss". But we all knew different. Meeker members of the class sat quietly during these episodes of disorder and disturbance, and were never rude to Miss Scott. I was never intentionally rude to her because I genuinely felt sorry for her, but I did join in with some of the "group" harassment of her and so ended up with my share of being painlessly caned.

As the worst offenders moved out of her class and I moved to her standard four, things settled down a bit. In addition she took over temporary headship of the school due to the prolonged absence of the headmaster Mr. Read, known affectionately as "Hairball Read", who was ill for a long time with what was probably mental stress, but called something else to fool us. To replace Miss Scott in our class, we had a temporary teacher, Mrs. Wadham. She was a close relative of Aunty Annie, so it was necessary for me to behave at all times because I saw her outside of school also - she being on Annie's list of visits for her "News of the World" reporting, which I mentioned earlier.

I was never actually moved to the senior class of the school, which was taught by the headmaster and contained standards five, six and seven. I was long overdue for moving to the seniors, being now twelve years of age, but was expecting any day to return home to Portsmouth. Mother had no excuse at all for my still being "evacuated", the war having finished over one year previously - in May 1945. Not that I was particularly looking forward to entering the senior class. I had a phobia which bordered on the unreasonable, about going into that group. A rigid discipline was imposed on the boys in the headmaster's class which frightened me, and I knew that physical punishment, or the threat of it, ruled every boy's mind. The age group of the boys, many of them big and competitively strong, caused an element of bullying to younger children and fighting amongst themselves to creep in. The headmaster knew this, and laid down the rules of good conduct, and the punishments if these were not observed. I remember him listing these punishments in front of the whole school assembly, counting off the digits of each hand (until he ran out of fingers) to give strokes of the cane to be awarded for each offence. A "stroke" comprised of one stroke on each hand - so it was really two whacks per stroke, not one. His list ranged from one stroke for a relatively minor offence, such as throwing stones, up to four for a major offence, such as bullying or (strangely) rudeness to girls; I may have been too young to realize what this rudeness comprised of, but the big boys seemed to know. The cane was given on each hand alternately, with a pause between each stroke to maximise the pain. It was usually done in private and seldom did a boy not cry if there were more than two strokes. It was rare to hear of four strokes and if so the boy was made to soak his hands in cold water and was excused from writing for the rest of the day. I never heard of a boy receiving the headmaster's maximum caning twice.

I witnessed this punishment once, inadvertently, when collecting my coat from the cloakroom next to the headmaster's room. I vowed never to be caned in this way ever, and I expect most of the boys felt the same. We had very few major offences at the school, or indeed outside of school, because the rules applied to conduct at all times. Parents supported this discipline, so it was pointless complaining to them to intervene.

It may be wrong to compare reminiscences about the past with the present day, but one wonders what effect the old-fashioned methods of discipline would have on the conduct of children in this day and age. Certainly the corporal punishment by school teachers, the slap on the head by the local policeman (and in our case by the local vicar also), did no harm. I never heard of a complaint being made against any of them and crime was almost unheard of amongst children in those far off, bad old days. Although in our case, a measure of control was also exercised by the village "Mafioso", a name derived from the Mafia group of criminals originating in Sicily, and learned about from numerous gangster films, and later from soldiers returning from the Italian front.

The Mafioso, which I have mentioned in passing, consisted of a gang of bigger boys whom one did not meddle with. The leader was Buckett, a blonde-haired giant who was athletically superior to everyone in the school at almost every sport. His henchmen consisted of Langridge, a swimming and diving freak, Whitfield, the brains of the outfit and Mills a generally detestable dogsbody who was probably only tolerated because he owned a boat. Buckett could do no wrong; one laughed loudly at his jokes, gave him the benefit of the doubt in any football tackle, and never criticised him, even when he started romancing the girls.

Strangely, they brought a discipline to the village boys which was in the true spirit of the Brotherhood. A lecture from Buckett for some misdeed was very effective. I was once told by him to restrict my activities in the collecting of birds' eggs. He held my hair tightly as he lectured me, tapping my face with his hand as a warning and saying he would have to think of a punishment if I did not mend my ways; it was very effective. The only person Buckett feared was the headmaster, who was probably controlling the whole organisation. The Godfather, so to speak.

On the other hand, I particularly remember one occasion when I was fishing for tadpoles from a pond in the field below Church Road. I had done it the year before and Brenda had been with me then. My jar was nearly full and I was thrilled to know a crested newt had also been netted. Then I heard the whoops and yells of five or six boys running towards me, shouting, "Throw him in," or something similar. It made my hair literally stand on end and I knew it was pointless running away. They surrounded me and grabbed me, with shouts about no tadpoles from this pond this year. They would have thrown me in, having already upturned my precious jar. Then from behind strode Buckett, pushing two boys aside he said.

"It's Georgie Osborn, leave him alone, don't you know his sister's just died," and the boys stood back obediently as lie ordered, "now fill his jar again," and they did.

Although Buckett was to be feared at all times, I always respected him after that.

A new headmaster, Mr Blundell, joined the school in 1944, and being younger than Old Hairball brought about a lot of changes. Firstly, he demolished the wooden fence between the boys' and girls' playgrounds, and that was good; at least we could now mix openly with the opposite, sex and have a decent game of football in the increased area. He also did all manner of weird things, such as suggesting boys came to school without shirts during the warmer months and wear no socks, just sandals. Then parents were asked to provide a change of clothes for PT and sports, hinting that the odour from a classfull of sweating bodies was unpleasant to say the least. He encouraged sports, arranging real football and cricket matches and introduced training programmes for the athletes in the school, to the extent of producing some runners and swimmers who were the best on the island. He brought "wireless lessons" to the school, and even introduced a basic uniform and school badge. Mr Blundell changed nearly everything.

He retained strict discipline and introduced another punishment which was to give a hard kick on the backside. In one extreme case of this he booted a boy completely around the morning assembly, finally kicking him out of the door to land amongst the rubbish bins. He may have lost his temper on that occasion. What the boy had done must have been awful. My strategy was to get on the right side of such a headmaster, so apart from befriending his son (who happened to be in my class), I applied myself diligently to any school activity that Mr. Blundell originated, and even thought up some of my own. For instance, I negotiated a deal to rent Aunty Annie's garden for school gardening lessons after they lost the use of their old one. I collected more books than anybody else in a waste paper drive - collecting so many that I needed a handcart to transport them to school. Then I suggested and' directed a school play on Empire Day, using the play we had so recently performed at Sunday school. It was easy because most of the original cast from Sunday school were pupils at the village school anyway. For my efforts, I was awarded a prize on school prize-giving day, for "Keenness", a word which I did not fully understand, and nobody I asked could explain what it meant either.

But I knew my days at Wootton were numbered. The war had finished over a year ago and there was no longer any excuse to be an "evacuee". I was placed in a special category of my own, attending the village school but being accountable to Portsmouth Education Committee. I had already sat the Portsmouth Secondary school examination instead of the Isle of Wight exams, the papers being specially sent to Wootton for me. I had failed miserably to achieve any pass mark sufficient to whisk me back to Portsmouth in triumph. Teachers said I should have passed because my school report for the year leading up to the exams showed me to be, "An excellent scholar in every respect". I still have this report which I have used often to illustrate to my children and their children how extremely clever I was at their age.

Certain excuses, which were only just short of absolute lies, were made to Mother for failing this all important examination, saying I didn't try to pass, because I wanted to stay at Wootton for the rest of my life and be a farm labourer. Mother ranted and raved at this, even believing it, and as soon as she could get me into a school at Portsmouth that had the saving grace of being special she did so. The dubious honour of my presence was given to St. Luke's Church school at Southsea, and with reluctance I said goodbye to Wootton school at the end of May 1946.

And do you know, sometimes I wish that I could have stayed at Wootton County Council school for the rest of my school days, and even spent the rest of my life in that idyllic village on the Isle of Wight. As a farm labourer, of course.

Wootton Council Mixed SchoolWootton Council Mixed School