Times tables and singing lessons - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Times tables and singing lessons

It wasn't all religion at the Little School. We had the first few 'times tables' drummed into us: one two is two; two twos are four, three twos are six, etc and we were gradually introduced to simple 'sums' involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. We also had our first longhand writing lessons. We copied out the letters of the alphabet onto quadruple-lined paper: the body of the letters filled the space between the middle two lines; the upper and lower lines were where any ascenders and descenders terminated. Initially the teachers had prepared the paper with the four lines in advance especially for each lesson but after a few lessons we were required to rule the four parallel lines ourselves: you can probably imagine how long that took.

On one occasion, we were told to write some prayers of our own invention. The scans above and below show a couple of mine that have survived the last 75 years - although the originals are now very flimsy.

I remember one day in my second year when we were asked to make up some sentences and then write them down neatly. I wanted to use the simple word 'nice' but for some odd reason I couldn't remember how to spell it. Each time I wrote it down, it looked wrong. Eventually, after several crossings-out, I asked the teacher. She said, "Look it up in the dictionary", pointing to the large colourful children's dictionary standing on her table.

I replied, "How can I look it up if I don't know how to spell it, Miss?" I think, in fact I'm sure, I exasperated the teachers from time to time. (I had a similar problem many years later when trying to get to grips with Cyrillic dictionaries.)

One of the singing-games we used to play in the small outdoor area was "Here we go round the mulberry bush”. Dad often me that the mulberry bush in the song was actually inside Wakefield Prison in one of the exercise yards. The first verse went like this:
Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush,
Here we go round the mulberry bush, on a cold and frosty morning.

As we sang, we would run around in a circle, rubbing our hands and arms in an attempt to keep warm. There were, as I recall, several more verses, all similar apart from the first lines:
This is the way we wash our clothes…
This is the way we dry our clothes…
This is the way we iron our clothes…
This is the way we mend our clothes…

…and quite a few more that I can’t now remember. We used to act out the dancing, ironing, washing, etc as a way of keeping warm on icy-cold winter mornings during the War. The only heating within the school was a single coal fire in the main classroom.

A former governor of Wakefield Prison, R S Duncan, wrote a book called Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush about the history of Wakefield Prison and published it privately in 1994. In it he suggests that the song derives from female prisoners at HMP Wakefield. He records that a cutting was taken from Hatfield Hall in Stanley on the outskirts of Wakefield, which grew into a fully mature mulberry tree around which prisoners would exercise. Probably the cells inside the prison were as cold as our classrooms were in winter. According to the Wakefield Prison website: 'The mulberry bush still thrives in one of the yards at Wakefield prison today and is thought to be over 250 years old.'

Added on 19 September 2016. I have just learned from the Look North part of BBC Breakfast that the Mulberry Bush inside Wakefield Prison has been nominated for the Tree of the Year Award.

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