The start of my formal education - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The start of my formal education

During the war there were no pre-schools or nursery schools, presumably because there were no teachers or volunteers to run them, so my schooling began on 12 August 1941, just one month before my sixth birthday. That exact date has always been imprinted in my memory for three reasons: it was my first day at school; it was Grandad Winter's birthday; and it was the start of the grouse shooting season, even though as a city child I had no idea what grouse were, nor why they had to be shot on that particular day. At Christ Church Infants' School on Thornes Lane I was just about the eldest child in the class due to the fact that the age for school entry was 5 years based on the child's age on 1st August.

Even as I was reviewing this chapter in March 2015, the subject of when children are deemed old enough to start school is raging once again in the media, as though no-one had ever thought of it before. All I can say is that I am sure I benefitted from being the oldest, or almost the oldest, at the start of every term throughout my education. What I will, of course, never know is how I would have fared had I been amongst the youngest. Sometimes you win: sometimes you lose.

Christ Church School, usually known as the Little School, was not the nearest infants' school to our house but perhaps my parents chose it because it was a Church of England school with its own rather splendid church right next door. Curious really: there was I, the son of a Methodist mother and a lapsed Roman Catholic father, now starting his education in a C of E school.

This is Mark Street, off Thornes Lane, in 2008. The quiet, tree-lined street of the 1940s is no more. Christ Church Church of England School was in the right foreground behind the modern metal fence and the church was immediately beyond at the top end of Mark Street. The vicarage was on the left hand side of Mark Street but there is now no trace of it.

I can clearly remember arriving with Mum on that very first morning with my gas mask in its small cardboard box slung across my shoulders. It was just a few minutes' walk from home along Tew Street, past Mrs Dargan's fish and chip shop, down to the end of Avondale Street and underneath the twin LMS railway bridges. After passing the Big School, St James' on the right, which I would attend when I was older, we turned left onto Thornes Lane and under Bridge 58 of the 99 Arches. There we crossed over the road, leaving our Co-op on the right hand side, and the school was just a few yards further on.

I was crying when Mum left me outside the school at 9am on that first morning and I seem to remember Mum was also in tears. It was the first time in my life that I had been separated from both Mum and Dad at the same time. I also remember how reluctant I was to leave when Mum came back to take me home for dinner three hours later. By then, I'd had a thoroughly enjoyable time and had made some new friends. That afternoon and every day thereafter, I made my way to and from school unescorted, as most of the other children did, whatever the weather, however dark the winter mornings and evenings, or the summer mornings in Double British Summer Time when local time was GMT +2 hours.

There were two classes. The first year children were in Class 1 and used the main hall for all activities; Class 2 pupils used a much smaller room at the back of the building. Every child sat at a desk for 'proper' lessons but those in Class 1 often pushed all the desks to one side for recreational activities such as indoor games and model-making with brightly coloured sticks of Plasticine. The Plasticine sticks had been used and re-used so often, probably since before the outbreak of war, that most of the stuff was in the form of irregular, multi-coloured lumps rather than single-coloured strips. However, that didn't spoil the fun and, very occasionally, one of the teachers arrived with a pack of half a dozen sticks of new Plasticine. Looking back, I think some children must have remained in Class 1 for the whole time they were at the Little School; certainly there were always fewer children in Class 2 than in Class 1. They were, I suppose, what today would be called the low-achievers.

It quickly became obvious to me that the LMS railway, under which I passed every day, marked a kind of territorial boundary. None of the boys or girls in my class lived on my side of the railway, and I had certainly never met any of them before. There was no way through for vehicles under the bridges at the end of Avondale Street; the narrow path was rough and unpaved with tall trees at each end standing like guardians. Little has changed in 2015: the path beneath the bridges is still unpaved and the same trees are still there at each end preventing anything larger than a bicycle from passing through.

These are the twin bridges, the 'territorial boundary' referred to above, over the railway as they were in March 2008 - little changed from the 1940s. That is Avondale Street in the background.

One day I couldn’t remember the way home after visiting a school friend’s house for the first time. After wandering aimlessly for a while in gathering darkness through a maze of tightly packed, back-to-back, grotty terraces along both sides of Thornes Lane and with panic beginning to set in, I stopped an elderly passer-by and asked him how to get to Cotton Street. He puffed thoughtfully on his pipe for a few seconds before replying in a broad Yorkshire accent: "Ee lad, that's a mite compillicated. I wun't start from 'ere if I wa' thee" - and he walked on, leaving me no wiser! That was, doubtless, his way of telling me that he'd never even heard of Cotton Street. I can't now remember how I found my way home.

From the end of 1941, every morning at break time, 1015-1030 prompt, we were each given a free bottle of milk, a gift from the Government to supplement our meagre rations. Oddly, the mid-morning break was always referred to as lunch time. The one-third of a pint (190cc) bottles had a cardboard top, in the centre of which was a small perforated hole just large enough for infant fingers to push a straw through. Inevitably there were the occasional little accidents when someone (yes, me on one occasion.) pushed too hard and instead of the inner circle of cardboard popping free as intended, the entire top suddenly shot down into the bottle causing a great spurt of milk to jet out and cover the boy or girl with milk. Naturally, such accidents always generated lots of giggles. When this happened the teachers chastised us about the wastage of the milk rather than worrying about the milk splashes over the pupil's clothes and face.

Many of the children stayed at midday for dinner in school. In the main these were children whose fathers were working down the coal mines or away fighting in the war and whose mothers were out working. I remember the dinners used to cost 1s 8d a week (about 8p in today's decimal currency). The money for the week was collected first thing on Monday mornings but the poorest children, the majority sadly, used to get theirs free. The school dinners consisted of a single course, delivered mid-morning in large cylindrical containers and dished out at midday by the teachers. The food, almost invariably thick vegetable soup containing lots of potatoes and suet dumplings, smelled very appetising when first dished up but left a lingering unpleasant smell throughout the school for the rest of the day until the waste and the empties were collected. I never stayed at school for dinner because I could walk home and Mum was always there with something hot prepared.

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